On The Imitation Game and Alan Turing

“Are you paying attention?”

I knew of Alan Turing prior to this movie due to a tumblr post floating around, of the legendary poisoned apple with which he allegedly committed suicide. It’s always an apple: the apple that inspired Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation, the apple farm that inspired the Apple logo, the apple from the tree of knowledge. Lord Byron’s Manfred laments:

But grief should be the instructor of the wise;
Sorrow is Knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.

A friend and I caught this movie after our exams, during which the projector died, followed by an agonizing twenty minute wait for it to be revived. The Imitation Game was a brilliantly cast movie with the ever enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch, Bomberding Cabbagepatch, Beaverwing Cloverpatch, as Alan Turing, Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, the bright cryptoanalyst hemmed in by society and countless other stellar British actors whose faces are familiar (was that guy on Downton Abbey?). This is not a happy story; you who are aware of Turing’s sad demise should know that already. Lives are saved, the war is won, people get married but happiness lasts only for normal people. The film is framed curiously with Turing relating his (off the record) past to a detective while facing criminal charges for his homosexuality. The core of the tale is about Turing’s participation in the war effort. The British government gathers a motley crew of mathematicians and cryptoanalysts to decipher the German ENIGMA code, vital to winning the war and thus the most important battle is fought in a dusty office and a large barn. The closest we get to the actual war is black and white film of explosions and missiles being fired from submarines. Those expecting more action will be disappointed. World War Two is the mere background against which Alan Turing’s life plays out. His mother called him an odd duck: a homosexual genius plagued with what we would today call Asperger Syndrome, unable to decipher social cues and conversation, he spends much of his childhood being bullied. His only friend, the first person to break through the impenetrable fog, is Christopher, whom he will eventually fall in love with and name his codebreaking machine after. After Christopher dies, Alan goes on to make a name for himself as an arrogant mathematician obsessed with solving crossword puzzles, finally finding employment with the Government’s secret ENGIMA unit. He chances upon Joan, a prodigy whose skills may even surpass his and marries her to allow her to work on ENIGMA with the team.

We’ll have each other’s minds. Sounds like a better marriage than most. Because I care for you. And you care for me. And we understand one another more than anyone else ever has.

But the true love story in this is between Alan and his beloved universal machine. In a world where he’s almost incapable of deciphering human behaviour and emotions, he speaks the language of mathematics to his machine with unparalleled ease. Perhaps obsessed with the idea of bringing his machine to life, he sets out to design an electrical brain for it.

Of course machines can’t think as people do. A machine is different from a person. Hence, they think differently. The interesting question is, just because something, uh… thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking? Well, we allow for humans to have such divergences from one another. You like strawberries, I hate ice-skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen. What is the point of… different tastes, different… preferences, if not, to say that our brains work differently, that we think differently? And if we can say that about one another, then why can’t we say the same thing for brains… built of copper and wire, steel?

A lifetime of being different and being persecuted leads to his final question for the world, the famous Turing test:

Now, Detective, you get to judge. That’s how the game works. I answered your questions. You know my story. That’s the point of the game. We are all pretending to be something. Imitating something. Someone. And we are no more, and no less, than what we can convince other people that we are. So tell me: What am I? Am I a person? Am I a machine? Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?

From there, the film is devastating . Under the weight of public persecution, chemical castration and possibly cyanide poisoning, Alan cracks. He gets a visit from his old friend, Joan, perhaps the one person whose ever comes close to understanding him. Alan sits in his armchair in his old robe, in shambles, decrying his fate and pleading for the world not to take his beloved machine away from him. (there was a lot of sniffling around us, props to Cumberbatch for that). 

No one normal could have done that. Do you know, this morning… I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up on my work… a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now, if you wish you could have been normal… I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.

The film’s handling of homosexuality was done with considerable sensitivity. Mr Turing received a pardon for his (a very late one, petitions for which had failed in 2012). It is a welcome champion of gay rights. I can praise The Imitation Game for many things: great acting, gay rights, feminism, embracing the weird and delving into thorny issues such as the complexities of war and power. At its heart, it is a beacon for all the strange ones out there, telling them to accept themselves and to screw normal, a very familiar refrain we have heard over the years. The film is far from perfect; there are a few loose strands such as Alan being blackmailed into communicating with the Russian government, the clumsy framing methods, one of the ENIGMA team conveniently having a brother on board the ship they have to sacrifice (that deserved so many eyerolls), the admittedly at-times clumsy dialogue. It is, however, a timely, luminous adaption of Turing’s story which will resonate with many. The film is likely to leave a legacy of its own in furthering the civil movement for gay rights, and I’ll end with its screenwriter Graham Moore’s message of hope at the Academy Awards: “Stay weird, stay different.” Hopefully we will see more film adaptations for women scientists. Black women scientists! Pauli Murray! Ida B. Wells!

On Reading American Psycho

This book was an experience. Bret Easton Ellis, for all his twitter mishaps, is a master at satire. It was bloody, hilarious, dark, helpless, disquieting. The copious amounts of blood spatter and gore and body parts aren’t easy to stomach. And yet I cannot imagine the book without it. The rampant materialism, the detachedness, the superficiality of the 80s yuppies culture is made fun of so much in this book. I alternated between giggling and shocked horror in reading this violent, mad work.

Patrick Bateman is both a likeable and horrifying character, he undergoes an existential crisis (Is evil something you are? Or is it what you do?), he is awkward at times, painfully sharp at others, cutting through the absolute bullshit some of the other characters spout. He is both human and inhuman. I don’t know if he really killed all those people, or whether they were wild imaginings of his very sick mind. He is without doubt, a psychopath, but a fully functioning one. One that is able to navigate Wall Street, give fashion advice, who goes for facial treatments and shiatsu massages. It is both chilling and comedic, wrapped up in the psychedelic descriptions of the 80s clubbing scene, of snorting cocaine and moo shu custard.

The first part of the book was dazzling but Patrick’s true nature is still obscured to us. The second half becomes progressively weirder, bloodier, as we see Patrick lose his grasp of reality, as he loses the last strands of control over his inhuman desires and motivations. Even he knows and starts to panic, quietly. The rest is a haze of drugged violence, decimating his final vestiges of morality. Inside what the world knows as Pat Bateman, is nothing.

…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel my flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable,  I simply am not there.

It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference towards it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed.

Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behaviour must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this- and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed- and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding that can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing

But I am not convinced. Deep down, there is a shrivelled up, weak and bleeding part of Patrick that can feel something apart from self-professed greed and an urge to kill. The fact that he can assert that he feels nothing, this self-awareness, indicates that he does feel. There are moments of sparkling clarity in the book that serve to show the humanity in Patrick. His insecurity about his hair, his nervousness when meeting up with Bethany, his jealousy, his imitation of the trends of the 80s, his spouting of meaningless music reviews, these are all reflections of any of us. Trapped in the nightmarish, superficial world as he is, Patrick wants people to see him. Remember his conversation with Bethany, perhaps the only girl who ever saw and heard Patrick, the real Patrick, not the facade he puts up. He even confesses to her: “I…want…to…fit…in.”, admitting the “pleasures of conformity”.

I mean, does anyone really see anyone? Does anyone really see anyone else? Did you ever see meSee? What does that mean?

And when the people around him don’t see him, he pushes the boundaries. How far can he go until people see the “real” him? That deep dark nothing inside of him. He can’t believe it himself how easy it is to get away, as shown clearly in his killing of the child at the zoo. He experiments with cannibalism, all in an attempt to see how far he can push the boundaries of morality and still keep up the facade of being a human.

Jean and Bethany are possibly the only ones to get close to getting him feel something. And they are not part of the world he lives in everyday either. Jean and Bethany (and to me, the whole host of beggars he meets, the prostitutes he kills) are the genuine characters, and he simultaneously craves and is afraid of their ability to see him. The entire conversation he has with Jean at the end provokes some of his clearest and most intriguing thoughts. Jean, who is in love with him, is probably the only genuine girl in his life, and is the only one he considers being happy with:

I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.

There are more things I can talk about. Patrick’s reaction to Luis Carruthers, how disarming it is to be the object of homosexual love. Patrick’s insecurity about his hair. He talks about this “nameless terror”, worrying about the Fisher account, his obsession with fashion and securing reservations. His blatant confessions (real or imaginary?) of insanity to the bland characters around him, and the pervasive subculture of self-absorbedness, superficiality, materialism and suppressed violence. The mindless world he cannot escape, and we ask ourselves, in a world such as that, how could one not go insane? The only thing more terrifying that Patrick is the world and culture that made him.

Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

This book is a must-read. I have to go return some videotapes now, so I end with the words from the beginning and the end of the book:

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

P.S. More gems from the book:

I stare into a thin, web-like crack above the urinal’s handle and think to myself that if I were to disappear into that crack, say somehow miniaturize and slip into it, the odds are good that no one would notice I was gone. No… one… would… care. In fact some, if they noticed my absence, might feel an odd, indefinable sense of relief. This is true: the world is better off with some people gone. Our lives are not all interconnected. That theory is crock. Some people truly do not need to be here.

Where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s own taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliche, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire- meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why – I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I laugh maniacally, then take a deep breath and touch my chest- expecting a heart to be thumping quickly, impatiently, but there’s nothing there, not even a beat.

P.P.S Here are some brilliant reviews that helped me understand this book further: here, here, herehere. Also, a vlog.

I am aware of DFW’s criticisms of it as expounded in the second last link: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I can’t help but question DFW’s definition of “good art”, though he is, after all, entitled to his own opinion. Does good art have to be a beacon in the dark for us? Is there no value to nihilistic art? What is “good” art? This is intensely subjective. Isn’t Bret pointing out the flaws of society, reminding us that materialism, superficiality, the surface can lead to nowhere good, isn’t that a valuable lesson to learn?

we’re all in our private traps

This week, I’ve been catching several wonderful films. I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave.

Psycho really delivers in terms of directing style (it is my first Hitchcock film, I am ashamed to say) which is dramatic, a little crazy and in your face. Is it strange that I found Norman Bates handsome? The Bates House was also fantastically creepy, silhouetted against the night sky. Interestingly, the Bates House was inspired by a 1925 Edward Hopper painting, House by the Railroad, below. I do love Edward Hopper’s paintings which are so depressing but unforgettable.

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You can clearly see the shadow of this building in the Bates House. It’s such a haunting structure. Granted, the killing scenes in Psycho were pretty hilarious, but Norman Bates’ final, manic grin, when the last vestiges of sanity left him…classic. Another Hopper painting I love is Nighthawks:

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Painted in 1942, it’s like these people in the diner are frozen in time, like spiders encased in amber. And you wonder, what was life like for them? Was the red headed woman a demure wife? Was she a spitfire? What were her hopes, her dreams. What is that lone man thinking of? Is it midnight, or is it late evening? I can look at it forever.

My favourite conversation from that film, apart from the one where Marion is being interrogated by that freaky, Stephen King worthy policeman (Tak from Desperation, anyone?) was this:

Norman Bates: What are you running away from?

Marion Crane: Why do you ask that?

Norman Bates: No reason. No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison. You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.

Marion Crane: Sometimes… we deliberately step into those traps.

Norman Bates: I was born into mine. I don’t mind it anymore.

Marion Crane: Oh, but you should. You should mind it.

Norman Bates: Oh, I do…

[laughs]

Norman Bates: But I say I don’t.

Gravity was a real spectacle, an exhilarating immersion in space.  It was pretty realistic except for the sounds of debris hitting the satellite…there is no medium for sound to travel in space, which means we shouldn’t be hearing anything.  My big issue with the film, visually spectacular as it was, was its characters. Character, specifically. Question. Aren’t astronauts supposed to be the cream of the crop, rigorously trained, shouldn’t they be able to keep relatively calm and think? Ryan Stone must be the most useless astronaut in film history. I could forgive her the first part where she floats away and is too panicked to answer George Clooney (I’ve forgotten his character’s name; give me a break, it’s George Clooney, I was too busy listening to his honey smooth voice and admiring his perfect hair). But god. How helpless and panicky can she get? I was actually rooting for her to die, so we could get on with watching George Clooney spacewalk till he asphyxiated.

I wish they hadn’t killed off George’s character, who was the star of the show to me. He is the epitome of a astronaut you see? Calm, collected, experienced. His character was a little one-dimensional, no one can keep his head that well under such pressure, especially when floating away into the vastness of space. I don’t blame Sandra Bullock, she did a great job bringing out the anxiety and fear of being helpless in space. But I do blame the director and the writers. Tension is good in a film. It’s what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, what drives plot. However, to create tension by making your character slip up so many times, by making her a helpless, clueless individual who clearly would never have gotten the OK for going into space is a cheap and lazy move. My wonderment at the visuals was almost overshadowed by my distaste and frustration with Ryan.

The star of the 3 films was undoubtedly 12 Years a Slave. It is entirely deserving of its awards. Many people have gushed over it and offered great reviews, so I shall not speak further except  to declare my unending love for it. It was superbly acted, the victims, heroes, villians were well fleshed out, the filming was impeccable. The hanging scene where Solomon desperately holds onto life is one that shall remain with me for a long time. I loved how drawn out it was. Brutal, revealing, unflinching, beautiful, gorgeous film. Steve McQueen, kudos to you. I have always wanted to visit the South, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, with dark, lush willow trees, haunted forever by the spectre of cruelty, blood and America’s original sin.

(this gif just gives me chills)