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Man Versus Manlike Machine

A LACMA series examines the role of artificial humans in film, from the 1910s to today.

May 14, 2000|BILL DESOWITZ | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

From "The Golem" to "The Matrix," the movies have given us all manner of horrific artificial intelligence. We've witnessed androids, robots, dolls, cyborgs and virtual realities run amok--usually because the temptation to play God and improve on humanity became too great for somebody to resist.

In a way, that sort of temptation is what cinema is all about as an art form. The greater the creation, the more uncontrollable it becomes as it takes on a life of its own.

Thanks to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, we can view a genre that not only stands the test of time but also becomes more meaningful with each technological breakthrough. "Artificial Humans in the Cinema" (derived from a major millennial retrospective earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, and a theme firmly implanted in the German ethos) screens Friday through June 10.

Fittingly, the series begins with "The Golem" (the 1920 version with Paul Wegener in a restored print courtesy of the Munich Film Museum) and the legendary "Frankenstein." It is very clear that the German silent (derived from the famous Jewish folk tale about a mystical rabbi who creates a servant out of clay to free his exiled community from Christian persecution) served as the prototype for the lyrical 1931 James Whale classic. "The Golem" emphasizes the danger of playing God and the melancholy fate of a creature trapped somewhere between humanity and machinery.

Wegener's look and stride anticipate Boris Karloff's childlike performance.

Likewise, the expressionistic 16th century ghetto anticipates Whale's vision of a claustrophobic European village. Both creatures are redeemed by the affections of a little girl. Love is simply unattainable in a world of prejudice and paranoia.

Paul Verhoeven's 1987 "Robocop" (June 10) redefines the "Frankenstein" motif in a uniquely satiric way. As the dedicated officer who loses his life and is reborn as an invincible warrior, Peter Weller, like his predecessors, portrays a true innocent. But things go awry for his corporate creators when he retains his memory and rededicates himself to finding his family, which destroys all hope of building the perfect machine.

There's also a touch of the sociological as well in its depiction of violence and anarchy, which links the Verhoeven film to Fritz Lang's masterful "Metropolis," screening Saturday along with the original 1982 theatrical version of "Blade Runner."

And speaking of "Blade Runner," there's very little difference between man and machine in this futuristic Los Angeles that's dark and dank. Rutger Hauer and company are far more fragile than hardened bounty hunter Harrison Ford, who painfully recovers his emotional core in a quest to destroy these fugitive replicants. Another in a long line of "Frankenstein" films, "Blade Runner" is at its best in exploring what it's like to be "more human than human."

When Hauer finally meets his maker, he is saddened to learn that he is not omnipotent. And when Ford finally meets his match in Hauer, he is redeemed by his antagonist. However, the film succeeds more figuratively than literally, despite director Ridley Scott's cryptic allusions to the possibility Ford may also be a replicant (unlike Don Siegel's 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," screening June 3, which works on both levels because it's so well crafted).

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (June 9) seemingly morphs an entire genre, with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a savior instead of an assassin. In James Cameron's blockbuster 1991 sequel to his "The Terminator," the android is dispatched from the future to save humanity by guarding the life of a pivotal boy. His antagonist is far more powerful, but Schwarzenegger more than makes up for it with cunning and kindness--which makes his sacrifice all the more memorable.

Mankind has to fend for itself in 1973's "Westworld" (June 10), writer-director Michael Crichton's futuristic theme park in which machines take revenge on unsuspecting patrons. Yul Brynner plays the cunning and resourceful android gunslinger who stalks Richard Benjamin like a man possessed. But when it comes to survival of the fittest, Benjamin has an advantage in reaching back into the primordial past for existential passion and purpose.

For an insidious historical context, there's the brilliant new documentary "Homo Sapiens 1900" (screening Thursday as an adjunct to the series). Written and directed by Peter Cohen, the acclaimed Swedish filmmaker, "Homo Sapiens" explores the controversial eugenics movement and its entire ideological fervor in the pursuit of selective breeding. Although stemming from the German notion of "race hygiene," eugenics was not confined to one culture. It was embraced by race biologists and among nudists in Europe and elsewhere. Cohen naturally focuses on the Nazi movement, but shockingly uncovers more than 20 compulsory sterilization laws throughout the United States in 1907. The documentary lends this film series a whole new perspective.

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