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Jean Cocteau in 1963: “I Hope You Have Not Become Robots”

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

In August 1963, just a few months before his death, Jean Cocteau recorded a message for the year 2000.

As Josh Jones perceptively writes in Open Culture, “Jean Cocteau was a great many things to a great many people—writer, filmmaker, painter, friend, and lover. In the latter two categories he could count among his acquaintances such modernist giants as Pablo Picasso, Kenneth Anger, Erik Satie, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Jean Marais, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and a number of other famous names . . .

As you’ll see in the short film above, Cocteau Addresses the Year 2000, the great 20th century artist considered the many awards bestowed upon him naught but ‘transcendent punishment.’ What Cocteau cared for most was poetry; for him it was the ‘basis of all art, a religion without hope.’

Cocteau began his career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Aladdin’s Lamp, at the age of 19. By 1963, at the age of 73, he had lived one of the richest artistic lives imaginable [though he was materially poor, and relied upon the generosity of others for his daily needs], transforming every genre he touched.

Deciding to leave one last artifact to posterity, Cocteau sat down and recorded the film above, a message to the year 2000, intending it as a time capsule only to be opened in that year (though it was discovered, and viewed a few years earlier). Biographer James S. Williams describes the documentary testament as ‘Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings.’

He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising…

Portraying himself as ‘a living anachronism’ in a ‘phantom-like state,’ Cocteau, seated before his own artwork, quotes St. Augustine, makes parables of events in his life, and addresses, primarily, the youth of the future.

The uses and misuses of technology comprise a central theme of his discourse: ‘I certainly hope that you have not become robots,’ Cocteau says, ‘but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.’ The people of his time, he claims, ‘remain apprentice robots.’

Among Cocteau’s concerns is the dominance of an ‘architectural Esperanto, which remains our time’s great mistake.’ By this phrase he means that ‘the same house is being built everywhere and no attention is paid to climate, atmospherical conditions or landscape.’

Whether we take this as a literal statement or a metaphor for social engineering, or both, Cocteau sees the condition as one in which these monotonous repeating houses are ‘prisons which lock you up or barracks which fence you in.’ The modern condition, as he frames it, is one ’straddling contradictions’ between humanity and machinery. Nonetheless, he is impressed with scientific advancement, a realm of ‘men who do extraordinary things.’

And yet, ‘the real man of genius,’ for Cocteau, is the poet, and he hopes for us that the genius of poetry ‘hasn’t become something like a shameful and contagious sickness against which you wish to be immunized.’ He has very much more of interest to communicate, about his own time, and his hopes for ours.

Cocteau recorded this transmission from the past in August of 1963. On October 11 of that same year, he died of a heart attack, supposedly shocked to death by news of his friend Edith Piaf’s death that same day in the same manner.

His final film, and final communication to a public yet to be born, accords with one of the great themes of his life’s work—’the tug of war between the old and the new and the paradoxical disparities that surface because of that tension.’

Should we attend to his messages to our time, we may find that he anticipated many of our 21st century dilemmas between technology and humanity, and between history and myth. It’s interesting to imagine how we might describe our own age to a later generation, and, like Cocteau, what we might hope for them.”

It’s also remarkable that even in his last months, Cocteau remained dedicated to the future of humanity, and the humanities, and the need for poetry in the modern world, and that he created this last film entirely extemporaneously, speaking from the heart without notes or preparation, with a desperate urgency to communicate one last time with the youth of the future – albeit from beyond the grave. On his tomb, it says simply “I stay with you,” and so he does, more important now than ever, as one of the foremost humanists of the modern era.

This is an invaluable document; a real call for humanity to a future that desperately needs it.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Black Mirror is one of the most original and disturbing visions of Dystopia ever produced for television.

Juts like The Twilight Zone in the 1960s, Charlie Brooker’s British television series Black Mirror, of which there are now six episodes plus one 90 minute multi-part special, White Christmas, starring Jon Hamm of Mad Men, is disturbing and thought provoking television. Designed, like The Twilight Zone, so that every episode has a new premise, a new cast, and a new plot, but consistently offering visions of a totally wired-up future in which there is no freedom or hope, Black Mirror is available on Netflix streaming in the US – or, as I did, you can buy the Region 2 British DVDs of all six episodes. Regarding the structure of the series, Brooker has commented that “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Which, I’m afraid, we are.

The series kicked off in early December 2011 with the truly horrific episode The National Anthem, in which the Prime Minister of Britain is forced by terrorists to disgrace himself on worldwide live television to save the life of a kidnapped member of the Royal Family; followed by 15 Million Merits roughly a week later, in which the future is seen as a world of endless drudgery and nonstop video commercials which are forced upon workers who must ceaselessly toil at meaningless jobs simply to survive. The Entire History of You deals with the endless recording of human existence on cellphones, Twitter and other media, which has reached the point of total immersion, so that everyone knows everything about everyone else – there’s nowhere to hide.

The second season – starting in February of 2013 – picks up on this theme with Be Right Back, in which a young widow finds comfort in an artificially created “web” version of her late husband, which “comes back to life” through the aid of every video, Tweet, e-mail and photo scan, and later a synthetic body, but still brings her no real solace. White Bear, easily the most brutal episode of the entire series, came next, with its tale of a young woman who awakes in strange house, unable to remember her identity. Wandering outside, she discovers that no one will talk to her; rather, they incessantly record her every move with their cellphones. The last regular episode to date, The Waldo Moment, chronicles what happens when a CGI cartoon character is suddenly thrust into a race for a seat in Parliament.

The episodes vary in length, from 44 to 62 minutes, and they’re broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK, which has a history of innovative programming going back to the early 1980s. In this country, you’ll have to watch them online, on buy the DVDs, and there is, of course, an American version of the show in the works, for which I hold out little hope – some things just don’t travel well. London at the moment is a fearfully expensive, fairly Dystopian location itself, and the series makes full use of all the technology that comes with a society under constant surveillance – which is life in the UK today. Black Mirror is a paranoid vision of the near future which comes all too close to probability – if we let tech get out of hand (and I would argue we already have), this is just a sample of the world we can expect to live in.

That said, I don’t think the episodes from season two are as strong as those in season one. With completely uncharted territory to mine, and no real risk of failure – if the series clicked, fine, but if not, it would have been a noble experiment – Brooker and his associates could afford to take nearly any risk to create something really off the charts. Season two is slightly more formulaic, though I enjoyed Be Right Back the best of the lot, having just the right mixture of menace and melancholy in its construction. Still, the entire series is literally light years ahead of anything on American television, with the partial exception of PBS, and I suggest you check it out for yourself- whatever you might think of it, it’s an authentic and original vision of society in collapse, and all of us are the victims. It’s a mixture of satire, prognostication and social criticism that really hits home. But beware – it’s not for the faint of heart. Not at all.

You can get more information on Black Mirror by clicking here, or on the image above.

What Does Eric Schmidt Mean When He Says “The Internet Will Disappear?”

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Google CEO Eric Schmidt thinks the internet, as we now know it, will vanish.

As Luke Dormehl reports in Fast Company, “Google may have played a significant role in establishing the Internet as we know it, but according to its executive chairman Eric Schmidt, the future of the world’s most advanced information network is for it to disappear. Responding to a question about the future of the web during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Schmidt said, ‘I will answer very simply that the Internet will disappear.’ Schmidt wasn’t referring to the actual disappearance of the World Wide Web, but rather our sense of it as its own technology, separate from everything else. ‘There will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it,’ he said, adding that the Internet ‘will be part of your presence all the time.’

As one example, Schmidt described the sensor-equipped room of the future. ‘Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic,” he said. ‘And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.’ Schmidt concluded by saying that, were such technologies to take hold, ‘A highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world emerges.’ He additionally touched on the subject of techno-replacement, and the idea that we may all lose our current jobs to machines as computers continue to improve. Schmidt dismissed the concept, and said that instead technology will create new job categories—with 7 out of every 8 being non-technology roles, which will nonetheless be benefited by technology.”

Somehow, I don’t find this all that reassuring – rather than disappearing, the internet will become so much a fabric of our lives that in Schmidt’s world, we’ll be on the grid whether we like it or not. I for, one, don’t really want to live in such a totally immersive, and necessarily intrusive environment- and despite Schmidt’s insistence that no jobs will be lost, it seems obvious that unless you’re a programmer, installing this technology, or else maintaining it, or selling it, or in some other way involved with it, that your horizons have definitely narrowed.

Rather than having my house become part of my consciousness through electronic means, I would much prefer to have an off the grid experience there, using technology only when I wish to, and tuning it out when I don’t. It’s like the old saying – “be here now.” Well, if “here” is so wired up that it in essence becomes a part of your being, then you’re not really any one place at all, but rather scattered throughout what should be a place of refuge, thoughtfulness, and contemplation. I’d rather not live in a “dynamic” house, but rather a restful one, in which I can unplug and find some respite from the digital world.

As for wearable technology, we’ve already seen the collapse of consumer demand for Google glass – for almost precisely the reasons I’ve outlined here – and while some may welcome a world of complete internet integration, I think it will create a world in which we are inextricably intertwined, 24/7, and who knows where all the data collected will wind up? There’s enough of that already – I think we may want to keep this kind of complete immersion in the box, but then again, it may already be too late – or right on time, depending on your point of view.

Really, what he’s saying is this – “the internet will become omnipresent.” And he may very well be right.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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