Connected: Whole-brained logic / Half-baked construct

(originally published @ Tekhne.com)

a movie review by JAMES DAVID PATRICK

Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth walk into a bar.

After La Jetée explains that he’s an experimental short film told through still images and narration, they decide to collaborate on a movie about everything from the Big Bang to Twitter and beyond. A modern movie. A cautionary tale about where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we’re headed. Hours pass. Enthusiasm tempers. Champagne becomes Wild Turkey. How could they thread together a movie about their lives, their fears, the world, globalization in under 90 minutes? They ring Terry Gilliam. Gilliam says, predictably, “With cartoons!” Clearly! They sketch their scattered ideas and doodles on post it notes that wallpaper the bar top. Still the connectivity of it all escapes them. (An important concept in a movie called Connected.) “Excuse me,” a voice says. It’s Michael Bay’s Collective Filmography. “I couldn’t help but overhear how you’re unsure how to bring the audience along on this wild ride of barely related consequences.” La Jetée and An Inconvenient Truth agree that despite the cartoons and charts and flowcharts something is still missing. Bay’s filmography continues. “Easy. Explosions. And the suspension of disbelief.” They rejoice.

Real people mingling with abstract concepts, movies, “walk into a bar” gags, an entire spectrum of reality. We might understand what it means when an experimental film collaborates with an Al Gore Powerpoint presentation and the Michael Bay oeuvre but that doesn’t mean, when broken apart, that it makes any sense at all. So it goes with Tiffany Shlain’s Connected, an “autoblogography” that attempts to marry the personal and interpersonal with the global, the past with the present, in order to make sense of how online communications might shape our futures, reconfigure our brains and prevent certain doom … in under 82 minutes. If that sounds impossible, it very well might be.

Shlain’s three-prong documentary about the importance of interconnectivity mirrors the distracted way in which our technological lives are shaped by the ever-availability of too much information and the rapidity at which this information spreads. As La Jetée used lyrical still imagery to construct a story about time-travel in a post-nuclear society, Shlain wields her imagery and short videos like a toddler mallet to force square pegs into round holes, to express emotion and whimsy. After she learns of her father’s cancer diagnosis, the film bombards us with overt symbolism. Mushroom clouds and surfers crushed beneath oceanic swells. Silent comedian Harold Lloyd appears in clips from his early silent films. (For the whimsy.) Quotes from Einstein, Marshall McLuhan and others bombard us with Twitterized, condensed meanings. We leap from one morsel to the next, the hyperactivity preventing reflection.

The film slows during the most earnest and moving thread as she shares the biography of her father, Dr. Leonard Shlain, general surgeon, Renaissance Man and author of books detailing left-brain/right-brain thinking in Western Culture. This serves as her emotional center. She expounds upon his work to suggest, ultimately, how global media might save our doomed world. This love-letter to her father, created as he struggled with brain cancer and she endured a fearful and tenuous pregnancy, grounds the film in the local – her connectivity with her father, her family and her friends. The film struggles, however, to provide seamless transitions between the local and the global implications of her ideal version of interconnectivity. People become collectives. Thoughts become revelations. She relies on her father’s paraphrased work for transition. She expects that her soundbites, factoids and pithy cartoons will provide breadcrumbs through her stream of consciousness construct.

Examples of selective left-brain logic provide cautionary tales about the perils of small-minded thinking in an interconnected world. Shlain stumbles when it comes to explaining how the obvious advantages of this interconnectivity bolstered by the “new new media” (a phrase coined for our modern computer-based forms of communication by Paul Levinson) will provide the gateway to salvation rather than an infinite loop in the blogosphere.

Her path to achievement recalls the underpants gnomes from South Park.

Phase 1: Steal underpants.

Phase 2: ???

Phase 3: Profit.

Her faith in humanity’s shift to right-brained thinking, creative and collective, appears founded by the notion that the Internet remains an infant, that progress can and will happen once we figure the darned thing out. Connectivity begat the Occupy Wall St. movement, which began humbly before spreading and evolving into a misshapen protest without any real goal or demand. Also, Flash Mobs. The hope that interconnectivity will shape a global reform comes off as ethnocentric and perhaps a little naïve despite addressing the technological shortcomings outside the Western World.

These lingering doubts about the potential of our growing global connectivity undermine the sum total of Shlain’s intricate multi-pronged construct. Sort through the chaff and we’re left with the same philosophy left to us by the French satirist Voltaire, who surmised in his 1759 novella Candide that “we must cultivate our garden.” The connections that matter most – the connections with family and friends – might be the only seeds that we can ultimately count on to cultivate our garden, and thereby, through interconnectivity, the world. That is, of course, unless someone figures out Step 2 and finally suspends our disbelief.

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