Conceiving Ada – film review

Conceiving Ada
Actors: Tilda Swinton, John Perry Barlow, Bruce Sterling, 
Timothy Leary
Director: Lynn Hershman Leeson
Studio: Microcinema
DVD release: 28 September 2010
Runtime: 85 minutes (1 disc)
Format: Color, DVD-Video, NTSC, Widescreen
DVD Features: Q&A with Swinton and Leeson about “Technolust”

conceiving adaA terrible thing happened on the way to the paperless office: a certain cadre of computer geeks got stars stuck in their eyes, blinding them to things like plot, dialogue and acting and causing them to crash face first into a big pile of chips.

That’s the sort of neo-romantic blindness we’ve come to expect from Bruce Sterling and the late Timothy Leary but Tilda Swinton? Sad, but true: Swinton seems to have this thing for Lynn Hershman Leeson that keeps her from recognizing just how idiotic Leeson’s ideas for movies are.

Of course, to say Swinton is actually in this movie is a little deceiving. She does get a bit of face time, if ghostly and barely visible (because she’s translucent) count. Swinton plays Ada Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron the poet and the inventor, more or less, of computer programming. Ada worked with Charles Babbage on his analytical engine in the mid-nineteenth century, developing an algorithm that is generally recognized as the world’s first computer program.

Which is a cool story all by itself, one which science fiction writers William Gibson and aforementioned Bruce Sterling put to great use in their 1990 novel, The Difference Engine. By 1997, when Leeson’s film was released, Ada had become an object of worship, especially among feminists.

The problems with Leeson’s film are legion, and they stem from the worship of Ada as well as the romantic idea that somehow the computer was here, like a god or alien, to save us from ourselves. Thus, in Conceiving Ada, we get Emmy, a latter-day computer geek who, somehow, uses her own DNA as a computer program that allows her to travel back in time to get to know Ada.

Sheeze. Add to that Emmy doing things like asking Timothy Leary for advice. Leary, the late great lecherous old bastard, was certainly capable of giving advice to women, but it tended to be rather monocular, as in, “Sit on my lap, baby, that’s what you need to do.” (At least that’s the advice my ex-girlfriend got from him one day when she ran into him in a Haight Street bookstore.)

The science is certainly wack enough to make this movie flop quicker than a dead man’s dick, but add to that the feminist gambit and this film is, to use a Timothy “Speed” Levitch phrase, the anti-cruise. We just don’t care about Emmy and her jerky boyfriend because we’re robbed of any possible emotional connection due to the filmmaker’s insistence on ramming female enterprise and braininess down our gobs.

The film is not so much a story as a wish list of cameos and camera tricks tossed together like a poorly thought out salad. John Perry Barlow, one-time lyricist for the Grateful Dead and long-time electronic activist, makes a cameo, as does Bruce Sterling as himself as played on TV – and all this sends the movie down a rabbit hole of post-modernist pretension, self-referentiality and artsy-fartsyness that ends with this recommendation: watch something else.

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