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Narrative limitations of film limit stories told? 
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Post Narrative limitations of film limit stories told?
Hey all,

Occasionally I muse about why there aren't certain films that portray progressive technologies in a better light. It seems that most films that feature pharmacological enhancement, reproductive design, and memory erasure prominently in their plots (as novel technologies, not sci-fi films that take their influence in society for granted) portray them negatively--as temptations that are eventually shown to be best avoided.

As someone who thinks that some of these things could have a positive effect on humanity if used carefully and without coercion, it's disappointing to me. For instance, when I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind, I was hoping for something examining the philosophical implications of intentional memory erasure. Instead, the film used it as an antagonistic vehicle for separating two lovers. I don't really like the movie much, though it does seem to have technical merit.

The thing I realized eventually was, it's difficult to have techs like these as forces for good in movies, because if it portrays the technology as good, then it's hard to have conflict in the movie. It's like, if it were good, then of course it'd be good and what could be set against it? I mean I guess Luddites could try to prevent their usage but it seems like it'd be too implausible.

I was wondering if you folks had issues you found like these. Are there points you want seen made in movies or things that you'd like portrayed positively that you think are unlikely to because of the limitations of narrative in film? If so, how?


Thu Mar 03, 2011 1:53 am
Post Re: Narrative limitations of film limit stories told?
transsapien wrote:
Hey all,

Occasionally I muse about why there aren't certain films that portray progressive technologies in a better light. It seems that most films that feature pharmacological enhancement, reproductive design, and memory erasure prominently in their plots (as novel technologies, not sci-fi films that take their influence in society for granted) portray them negatively--as temptations that are eventually shown to be best avoided.

As someone who thinks that some of these things could have a positive effect on humanity if used carefully and without coercion, it's disappointing to me. For instance, when I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind, I was hoping for something examining the philosophical implications of intentional memory erasure. Instead, the film used it as an antagonistic vehicle for separating two lovers. I don't really like the movie much, though it does seem to have technical merit.

The thing I realized eventually was, it's difficult to have techs like these as forces for good in movies, because if it portrays the technology as good, then it's hard to have conflict in the movie. It's like, if it were good, then of course it'd be good and what could be set against it? I mean I guess Luddites could try to prevent their usage but it seems like it'd be too implausible.

I was wondering if you folks had issues you found like these. Are there points you want seen made in movies or things that you'd like portrayed positively that you think are unlikely to because of the limitations of narrative in film? If so, how?


Surrogates comes to mind as a movie that overstated the evils of technology w/out portraying the upsides. The technology, as displayed in the movie, would have tremendous use for emergency situations, but the creators of the story appear to think that it would replace all people, not just soldiers, firefighters, and S.W.A.T teams.

Granted, some of the parrallels to facebook use gave me some food for thought, but personally I think the evils of Facebook are drastically overstated. On one hand, I get nervous about people who use it as a replacement for meaningful social interaction, but I have to admit that when used as an enhancement, it can make for a rather useful tool.

Also, fear of new technologies is not a recent historical development. The greatest philosopher (in my mind) Socrates, never wrote any of his ideas down because he thought that the newfangled invention of writing would bring upon the apocalypse if anyone ever used it for anything other than making up a grocery list. From the 1950's onwards, there have been writers who voiced their opinion that TV would kill imagination in kids and limit scientific development. Now we have television personalities showing us how the internet can be used by sexual predators to meet underage girls for sex. Notice a pattern here?

So, do people fear new technologies more than they should? Yes. Are those fears justified? Sometimes, depending. I don't want to pretend that all new technologies are innocent and could never be used for evil, it's more often a matter of how these technologies and by whom, than the technology itself.

Personally though, I thought Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was more an imaginative rom-com than something that was trying to make any sort of statement about technology good or bad. However, what use would memory erasing technology serve? Bad experiences are how we grow and dealing with painful memories can bring maturity and wisdom. Erasing a painful relationship would serve what purpose? I can imagine in extreme cases (the sort of things that can cause post-traumatic stress like rape or witnessing someone being killed up close) there may be some uses, but they would be extremely limited.
-Jeremy


Fri Mar 04, 2011 12:32 pm
Post Re: Narrative limitations of film limit stories told?
transsapien wrote:
Hey all,

Occasionally I muse about why there aren't certain films that portray progressive technologies in a better light. It seems that most films that feature pharmacological enhancement, reproductive design, and memory erasure prominently in their plots (as novel technologies, not sci-fi films that take their influence in society for granted) portray them negatively--as temptations that are eventually shown to be best avoided.

As someone who thinks that some of these things could have a positive effect on humanity if used carefully and without coercion, it's disappointing to me. For instance, when I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind, I was hoping for something examining the philosophical implications of intentional memory erasure. Instead, the film used it as an antagonistic vehicle for separating two lovers. I don't really like the movie much, though it does seem to have technical merit.

The thing I realized eventually was, it's difficult to have techs like these as forces for good in movies, because if it portrays the technology as good, then it's hard to have conflict in the movie. It's like, if it were good, then of course it'd be good and what could be set against it? I mean I guess Luddites could try to prevent their usage but it seems like it'd be too implausible.

I was wondering if you folks had issues you found like these. Are there points you want seen made in movies or things that you'd like portrayed positively that you think are unlikely to because of the limitations of narrative in film? If so, how?


I think it's mostly because advancement of technology is shown as a sign of progress in society at large. It's generally accepted as a sign of advancement. Films and books serve as cautionary tales. Hold on a second, and really think about what this could lead to. It's a common use for any sort of art, really.

I don't know if I'd call this a limitation of film necessarily. I see it more as the nature of art. Any artist is trying to give insight into something about humans or the human condition. This is a rather worn, but effective, way of doing that. I'm not sure showing them positively would have much of an effect. Showing some kind of progressive technology being used correctly is more for scientists than artists. There's no real point to be made in that regard that hasn't been theorized or proven by scientific experiments.


Fri Mar 04, 2011 4:32 pm
Post Re: Narrative limitations of film limit stories told?
"...not sci-fi films that take their influence in society for granted..."

But, isn't that the most positive portrayal one can have? Where we see the new technology already in use and accepted as mainstream? 2001: A Space Odyssey had this in spades. Sure, HAL goes a bit crazy, but considering all the other triumphs of science and human innovations that pervade the film, I would argue the net assessment to be positive.

Positive portrayals don't need to be the raison d'ĂȘtre of a particular film to be effective. I've read a few articles applauding the depiction of the gay character in Scott Pilgrim vs the World precisely because nothing is made of that aspect of the character. It's just a fact, like his hair being brown, that no one made a fuss about.

As far as Eternal Sunshine (or Total Recall, for that matter), the concept of memory manipulation isn't really central to the theme, it's more of a plot contrivance. So, the director probably didn't feel any responsibility to the portrayal of the technology per se.


Sun Mar 06, 2011 12:19 am
Post Re: Narrative limitations of film limit stories told?
My, my, this is an excellent question and a great first post. I see no reason why it's in the Open Forum though. It would fit nicely in the General Movie Discussion forum and would undoubtedly generate more discussion there.

As for your question, I think filmmakers feel (rightly or wrongly) that showing the positive effect of technology doesn't make for a particularly interesting film. There are, in fact, many films that show advanced technology in a positive light, but it's glossed over in the plot. The negative effects of advanced technology, on the other hand, often drive a plot.

SoundSanity has already mentioned a film like 2001 which shows lots of advanced technology (HAL notwithstanding) but I'm sure we could come up with many others. The Matrix may at first glance appear to be anti-technology but who hasn't seen the first Matrix and wished for a device that can be used to master any skill quickly by having it uploaded directly into the brain ("I know Kung-Fu")?


Tue Mar 08, 2011 7:20 pm
Post Re: Narrative limitations of film limit stories told?
ed_metal_head wrote:
As for your question, I think filmmakers feel (rightly or wrongly) that showing the positive effect of technology doesn't make for a particularly interesting film. There are, in fact, many films that show advanced technology in a positive light, but it's glossed over in the plot. The negative effects of advanced technology, on the other hand, often drive a plot.


This is exactly what I was trying to get at, but couldn't seem to nail down like Ed did. Technology gets shown in films all the time, even when the filmmakers aren't making some kind of comment on technology. A film may not be about the positive effects of technology, but the technology being used in normal, everyday life can be seen as a way of showing technology in a positive, if understated, light.


Wed Mar 09, 2011 9:53 am
Post Re: Narrative limitations of film limit stories told?
Hey all,

Thanks for the replies--lot of food for thought. Sorry for not replying sooner. I guess you have a good point about how a lot of movies take, at least, a non-negative viewpoint of technologies by just portraying them matter-of-factly. And I guess I hadn't thought about the purpose of art in general as cautioning against the implications of technology.

I just suppose that I wish there were more movies showing the dangers (or at least problems) with a lot of the so-called "common sense" objections to things like genetic engineering and psychopharmacological enhancement. I don't want to go too much further into detail right at the start, but I just feel like a lot of worries about the technologies being forced on people are overblown. I guess caution about technologies that are still emerging is ok insofar as it wards people off from using tech before they really understand it, but I also think it can lead to overblown government regulations whose justifications are kind of hysterical. For example, in many countries in Europe, it is illegal to buy eggs for starting a pregnancy. I guess the fear is people trying to influence the traits of their offspring, but don't people influence those traits substantially in the selection of a mate? Besides, if a recessive trait runs in my family that I don't want expressed in a child of mine because I think it would cause them a lot of suffering, how is making it difficult for me to do so a humane, decent thing to do?

This fear of ... I dunno, genetic determinism I guess, is also poised to see the passage of legislation involving the regulation of patients' genetic information. Some people think that people will go bonkers if they have unfettered access to info about their own genomes, and would like for you to only to learn stuff from your genes via the instruction of a doctor.

Maybe the idea is that it's easier to lift restrictions on a technology than undue its harms after its been used freely, but I think it could seriously slow the progress of society for some pretty poorly thought out concerns.

As for uses of memory erasing tech, yeah, PTSD memories come to mind, but also perhaps more mundane memories in people with anxiety problems. In general, bad memories often do convey a lesson, but I think people can also get kind of bent out of shape about bad social interactions they've had with people, and while putting it in perspective works, sometimes I kind of wish you could just yank the memory right out if it's not really useful (e.g. let's say you tried to strike up a conversion with someone politely and they were a jerk to you).

Btw, I thought I posted this in the movie forum originally, and think that it might have been moved. It makes sense, I guess, since I didn't seat the issue that firmly in specific films, and I guess now the thread can be free to wander a little more. :)


Sat Mar 26, 2011 8:49 pm
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