Film Scouts Reviews

"Conceiving Ada"

by Karen Jaehne

The most intriguing news from cyberville is the premise of this not-quite-intriguing movie. To wit, the original language for computer programming (lingua cyberica?) was developed by a woman - by a certain Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the legitimate daughter of Byron and the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. We are introduced to Ada through the research of a woman named Emmy, who is obsessed with computer work and determined to discover where the past and the present intersect in cyberspace. Francesca Faridany plays Emmy with a lot of convincingly modern neurotic mannerisms, which contrast quite conveniently with the portrayal of Ada by Tilda Swinton, who seems to have stepped directly out of her role in "Orlando" into an eccentric femme fatale battling Victorian propriety.

"Conceiving Ada" hinges on an old sci-fi fantasy of somehow meeting long-dead historical figures and communicating across the patchy paths of history through some kind of time travel. Emmy is tangled up in her research about artificial life, when her womb is suddenly lit up with an all-too-real spark that is, at best, confusing and, at least, unwelcome. We share some of her soul-searching over pregnancy, when voila! - a useful and self-serving purpose is found for this quite literal conception within her. Tinkering with her own DNA, she finds the key to unlock and revive the past. Collapsing time lets her share cyberspace/wombspace with Ada. (The child is fairly predictable as the receptor.)

Meanwhile, Emmy's husband Nick (J.D. Wolfe as a credible modern male) messes with the computer: although he violates her project, out of their unified action, a woman out of the past is conceived. A fully grown, well-dressed Ada materializes on their monitor, and we are treated to her account of a rather messy life. Here the film takes on a life of its own, after a rather forced opening that leaves us with a muddled impression of Emmy's abilities and credentials and...well, logic.

Once Ada claims the movie for herself, we get a look at her sexual appetites and complicated relationships with her mentors. These are not models of didactic detachment. Ada collaborates with Charles Babbage, but her love affair with him puts her contribution into question. Likewise, her affairs with John Cross, the encryption expert, all contribute to her downfall, and we see Ada as some kind of slave of love. It is only through the transmission of her intellect and genius to Emmy's fetus that her genius will be salvaged.

The structure of the film follows the double helix structure of DNA strands, so, for example, each scene was blocked out and shot using a DNA image as the model for the actors' and camera's movement. It is an inventive and ingenious film, but its concept outstrips the realisation by a country mile. The film rests on the firm foundation that Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, wrote the first computer language and speculated on its use in areas that are only now being pioneered. Yet, it leaves us asking, really? We should be saying, "Wow, this is amazing" - not "Is this true?" The film leaves room for doubt, and I don't know if it's because the production values are those of an experimental film rather than a documentary - which means we are at fault for depending on a certain set of conventions for truth - or if we simply don't have enough confidence in Emmy's p.o.v.

Perhaps it's simply the outlandish life led by a lady with the all-too-Harlequin-romance title, "Countless of Lovelace." It's a helluvalotta fun, once you drop your guard and insistence on separating the science from the fiction. Because Ada's story is stranger than fiction, this film has done the groundwork for a remake with all the smoke and mirrors, bells and whistles of Hollywood. Sadly, Lynn Hershman Leeson's research has successfully brought to light prime material for a bodice-ripping bio-pic. Stand by.

I regret that she didn't seize that opportunity herself, because her creativity and resistance to mainstream cliches would lend flare to an easily cliche-ridden story. On the other hand, the film could gain from some mainstream casting, which would liberate us from the twitches of a Karen Black in a dual role, as the wacky mothers of Ada and Emmy. (I know some feminists who would be offended at this portrayal of Mary Wollstonecroft, who was denied her proper place in philosophy by a curmudgeonly establishment.)

And I make myself feel curmudgeonly when I get irritated at Timothy Leary, who plays Emmy's mentor, proselytizing for cyberspace. We all like Leary; he's just a bad actor, which must also be said of John Perry Barlow, who can usually be found stumping for independence in cyberspace since the Grateful Dead no longer need lyrics.

In its self-consciousness about its own existence, the film shares many of the self-reflexive traits of video work produced within the safety net of academia, where the casting choice rather than the acting gets us critics worked up. And where the video look has a kind of hand-made virtue. And where auteurism helps the talented and experienced Lynn Hershman Leeson get the kind of critical attention she deserves.

Hershman Leeson has a nose for good material and the intelligence to shape it; she just needs honest feedback instead of the cult support that accrues to someone who can be described as exploring "the politics of identity, surveillance and alienation, issues peculiar to our electronic age." With her Ada, she proves these issues are not peculiar to us - they're just peculiar.

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