In Dim the House Lights’ 2017 Golden Bulb Awards, a vast number of films received both common due and due they might not get otherwise; there’s some of the usual suspects, certainly, but one of the best parts of these awards each year (well, for at least the two years that we’ve been doing them) is the stranger picks I don’t see anywhere else, a wonderful result of having such a small sample size of rather idiosyncratic tastes. None of the categories are perfect to my eyes–this is a collaborative list, after all–but the results are all genuinely interesting, to see what kinds of films struck a nerve among the small staff here. But in the years I’ve been with Dim the House Lights, I’ve never gotten genuinely mad about the results or opinions of one of these kinds of exercises, because hey, it is down to taste, personal circumstances, and all the unique things that make the site the special site that it is. But this year changed that, and for the first time since I became an adult and learned to respect other people’s art opinions, I got genuinely angry about one of those disagreements. See, the five choices for Best Original Screenplay? There’s a conspicuous absence, so conspicuous it’s, to me, preposterous. It’s absurd. It’s genuinely wrong. My friends here made a decision I could not abide silently. Somehow, Sunspring didn’t get even a top five slot for Best Original Screenplay, and I don’t just disagree with this on the level of taste–that’s the subjective part–I think that in doing so, these awards have ignored the single most important development in screenwriting to happen since the form began.
I’ve written about Sunspring in the past (a rave review here, 20 or so capsule reviews on my Letterboxd account there), and I won’t belabor my point on its artistic merits because, at the end of the day, I can accept that those things won’t work for everyone. It happened to match up precisely with my interests, tastes, and aesthetic sweet spots, but that’s a personal thing that there’s no need or use to impress upon anyone. No, instead what I’m here to argue is that no film I can even think of (and certainly no film since I’ve been born) has had a script that will influence the course of film history the way Sunspring will, and no script in its very existence has had the philosophical implications that Sunspring has. Even if the film were shit (it’s not, but even if), the mere fact that a computer program was used to generate a complete screenplay free from human interference, and that said screenplay is coherent enough to create some degree of emotional resonance, is so revolutionary that one day we’ll be talking about it as a milestone no one saw coming, as the industrial revolution of non-manual labor–an industrial revolution of emotional affect. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic (as if I don’t already), no film script has presented and implied the possibilities, challenges, and potential futures that this nine minute science fiction short film has given us. Its ripples may start small, but there’s no way this film won’t haunt the entire future of the art form.
To say that Sunspring represents an ontological challenge to our idea of personhood is an understatement. The creation of emotionally meaningful art by a being that does not conform to our conception of consciousness is in direct opposition to the commonly accepted Western idea of the individual. This creation was not random: it was the end effect of a series of causes (the scripts fed into it) that used logic programming to organize those influencing artistic events into something that could be coherently understood by a conscious being. The computer program involved created art, even though we think of this program as non-living, as not having a “mind”, and this creation causes us to reflect on what exactly went into it, and when we do we confront a greater truth. See, this art was created via cause and effect, with no “thought” and no “agency”, but still put on the costumes of thought and agency, and it was able to do so precisely because “thought” and “agency” are, invariably, self-aggrandizing myths about the conscious mind (or, at the very least, myths about a kind of control and the placement of the mind in the body).
Sunspring‘s creation and artistic success illuminates two different but equally important realities about being (which lead, also importantly, to a third reality that will be discussed later): the lack of importance of conscious self-awareness, and the lack of independent decisions that any collection of matter and energy in the universe can make (or, more precisely: the non-existence of decisions, period). Anthropocentrism, the reigning rule in Western thought governing relationships between human beings and everything else they encounter, says that the most valuable part of one’s mind lies entirely in one’s ability to recognize their own mind. The reason human consciousness is “higher” than other forms of consciousness is because the human being can understand the existence of their own consciousness, and this is presumed to be a positive trait because…well, most reductions don’t get that far, because the assumption is just that this ability to recognize one’s own self as a self is good, no reason required. But to give more benefit of the doubt than is deserved, it might be seen as a positive trait due to it granting the being an improved ability to solve higher complexity problems. Like all evolutionary traits, it was developed because it had a use in increasing the survival of a species.
But what the anthropocentric view ignores is two key things. One, it ignores that the great, great majority of successful lifeforms on this planet never developed towards self-aware consciousness, and two, that such consciousness has serious downsides (it also ignores that the continued existence of life does not have any inherently positive meaning, but we’re not nihilists here–let’s just say that it does for the purposes of this argument). The first is self-evident, and an easy implication that such self-awareness is not, in and of itself, evidence of superiority, but the second requires explication. What is often ignored when singing the praises of the human mind is that, in gaining the kind of sense of self and knowledge of eventualities that allowed it to solve more and more complex problems, it also gained an impossible to avoid sense of dread, a deep-seated knowledge that one day, it will die, and that life’s meaning, in a precisely logical sense, has no meaning (philosopher and mountaineer Peter Wessel Zapffe referred to this as a “feeling of cosmic panic”). Reduced to its bare face, the survival instinct does not have an inherent value, but was merely an obvious outgrowth of the operation of life in that life that did not have this instinct would not have done the necessary work that goes into survival. Bluntly, the only reason we have a drive to survive and continue our species is that the continued existence of our species required such a drive. The reality of one requires the reality of the other, not because of a moral sense of duty or a deep-seated meaning but because of a logical loop.
The complete acceptance of this reality would inherently necessitate the removal of the survival drive, or even the drive for self-preservation, which is why the only beings that survive with consciousness have also developed mental blocks to stop them from fully realizing this conception of the universe. In order to live, we must live in denial, because absolute logic does not see inherent benefits or values or goodness, it just sees cause and effect. And here we come back to Sunspring: computers, unlike people, operate on this terrifying, perfect logic, in that their entire creation revolves around the exact execution of sets of rules. There is on, and there is off, a binary flickering that does not have value judgments, merely inputs and outputs. Sunspring could be called a harbinger of cosmic panic in what it implies by its existence: a thing we think of as unique to humanity (the creation of emotionally resonant art) was able to be (depending on one’s outlook) either convincingly copied by a perfectly logical machine, or that this perfectly logical machine didn’t create a dupe, but the real genuine article. This aligns us with the computer, and does two very important (and perception-changing) things: it first makes us see the misery of our evolutionary development, in that this computer created all of the beauty of consciousness with none of the suffering that having self-awareness creates, and it lays bare the false deification of our consciousness by leading us to the other illuminated reality referenced previously. It shows our idea of decision making (to put it more dramatically, our idea of free will) to be the lie that it is.
A quark does not make decisions; it reacts to its surroundings by following a set of consistent rules that, for whatever reason, seem to hold constant across the entire universe. An atom does the same. So does an element, and a compound, and the organelles in your body made of those compounds, and the cells made of those organelles, and the organs made of those cells. They are not making decisions; they are reacting to what is happening around them, just as what is happening around them is reacting to them, no thought, no consideration, merely a physical explication of the laws of nature as we know them. Yet, we seem to think that somehow, when those cells come together just right, when those groupings of particles that have no ability to make “decisions”, to exercise “free-will”, when they get together in a certain configuration, we call that a human brain, and we assume that, I suppose, a magic trick happens in there and the ability to decide is born. No. We make no decisions. Our feeling of making decisions is one of the coping mechanisms mentioned earlier, an evolutionary trait that serves as a limiting factor on our own ability to conceptualize what our brain is actually doing. In order to develop the problem solving skills that have allowed humans to be so successful as living beings, we needed to develop an idea of the self, but the idea of the self is one that inherently leads to a depressed state that culminates in a lack of interest in survival.
So, concurrent to the evolution of the “mind”, we developed this imagined idea of free will, which is really a cover put on this: what the human mind is, is a dumbfoundingly complex cause and effect machine that processes input through sensory reception and reacts in a way that lines up with the natural laws of the universe, the same natural laws electrons follow, just on a much, much larger scale. Sunspring leads us to this reality by laying bare, in a way simple enough to conceptualize of all at once, how input, the application of rules to that input, and the output received from such application perfectly align with human “thought” and decision making. Scripts were fed to Benjamin (the computer program) in order to be turned into something new, just as the whole of a screenwriter’s life experiences, the art they’ve seen, the life they’ve lived, goes into the structural element of their body and comes out looking new despite its own borrowed legacy, and so on and so forth back through the entire history of the universe. By explicitly not exercising free will but replicating the structures it creates, Sunspring‘s computer program’s lack of a need for a survival instinct allows it to fully “accept” that which the human mind is designed by evolutionary processes of survival not to accept. Roughly, it flows a bit like this: a computer made something you reacted to. You reacted to it the way you would react to something a person made. That imagined person is equivalent to a computer. You are equivalent to that person, and as such, equivalent to the computer. This is the existential terror, the terror of the absurd man, that Sunspring creates through its sheer existence.
However, as I said previously, there is a third implication here that requires the other two, and it’s not nearly so despairing or existentially difficult, and is in fact why I find these conceptions comforting rather than anxiety-inducing (except in the universal sense of cosmic panic): If personhood can no longer be defined by this false idea of consciousness or self-awareness, we have to question what it really constitutes in a more than cultural sense. It’s an idea so ingrained into the way we are taught to think that the question of what a person actually is rarely comes up. It used to be an ontological class, but the ontology was built on assumptions that seem to not be true, so the class breaks down, and from here we come to realize something else: the breakdown of the fetishized individual. If personhood and its assumed conscious thought were the requirements for one’s sense of self, then the removal of these constructs removes the boundaries of the self-being. One ceases to be contained by the smallness of the mind and body (previously believed to be separate, now understood to be a result and cause, respectively) and grows beyond that, much the same way a cell in the body stops being a cell and becomes a piece of a being.
If I may be crude with the analogy: just as cells have no distinct personhood besides their own physicality and location (their relationship to “the whole” being an act of subservience to the community of the body), so too does the human being have no personhood except in the contained sense. We are to our communities as cells are to the body; each community is to the world the same; each world is to the solar system, again, the same, then the solar system to the galaxy, the galaxy to the universe, parts of a continuous whole without separation. This script, written by a computer, implies the vastness of one’s own being (or lack thereof), and from this removal of the myth of the individual we can arrive at a place of not just greater understanding, but greater empathy, even greater “decision making” (a lie of a phrase that is more convenient than a constant reduction to its component parts) in regards to how the imagined individual might help solve a problem. The expansion of one’s place in a community invariably leads to that community being healthier. There is a future implied by Sunspring where the cruelty of the individual to another individual is no longer metaphysically appealing, to a world where the exploitation of others becomes the exploitation of the self as both identities melt away.
However, down here in the practical world of making ends meet, Sunspring represents a much more troubling future. If the computer program that wrote it can be improved (and there’s no reason to assume it cannot be–the Turing test becomes less and less relevant every day as more and more machines inch towards it and sporadically, haltingly succeed), then at some point we will end up with a machine that can receive input and then output a reasonable facsimile of an actual script. Even if it’s not perfect, suddenly you only need to pay people to doctor it, and you’ve just cut out at least one person from your payroll. You don’t have to pay for that script–the computer will not ask for compensation. At some point, we will end up with a machine that can, for the cost of electricity, give you all the scripts you desire, whenever you want, always on schedule, and you don’t even have to pay one of those pesky “writers”. Even better–the computer will never argue with you about the integrity of the story when you start making cuts.
That sound you just heard is Harvey Weinstein spontaneously ejaculating in his pants.
Back in the day, studios used to hire “special effects makeup artists” to make other people look like aliens or monsters or Eddie Murphys. These people were brilliant, working under immense pressure and often ridiculous deadlines to create the things that make the fantastical real–Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Stan Winston, these were craftsmen through and through, working on both a technical and artistic level that sometimes seems almost unbelievable. Without them, The Thing just isn’t magical. Without them, An American Werewolf In London is a pretty fun romp lacking any real heft (though it’s still a fun romp regardless). When the art form reached a creative peak in the 80’s, it wasn’t just impressive–it was integral, in the way that David Cronenberg’s The Fly simply isn’t what it is without them. To sell that movie, you need those artists.
The problem, of course, is that artists are expensive, even when they’re working for peanuts, and studio execs surely merely tolerated the cost because of its necessity, not because of an appreciation for the art. But a little company called Industrial Light & Magic (founded by some guy named George Lucas) would provide a solution for them on that front, even if they didn’t know it at the time. When CGI–computer generated imagery–first reared its head in mainstream film, it was a novelty (much like Sunspring is now), and, to be frank, it looked shitty. Tron looks shitty, no matter what your child brain told you at the time you first saw it. The limitations weren’t just clear–they were often painful to look directly at.
The Last Starfighter came next, and its selling point (to the studios at least) was precisely what you might expect–Digital Productions, the company responsible for its CGI, estimated that digital effects took half the time and cost half to a third as much as traditional effects. At the same time practical effects were artistically peaking, CGI was coming around the corner, feeling out where it could be used, until Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park (both Industrial Light & Magic joints) burst the doors wide open, and nowadays practical effects are used sparingly enough to warrant them being a selling point in modern genre pictures. Meanwhile, CGI for the likes of Transformers gets shipped out to animation mills in much the same way most animated TV shows do, employing cheap labor to imitate the concentrated efforts of one vision, creating, in some cases, versions of sweatshops that make art instead of shoes.
Which is not to say CGI is bad, inherently–it has some wonderful, breathtaking uses, and many of the people involved in it are great artists in their own right. Besides, that’s not the point I’m making. Here’s that point: when this great visual FX switch occurred, no one much cared. Oh, sure, film buffs noticed, and the first major uses of CGI were selling points by themselves to the general public, but novelty soon faded and was replaced by a simple lack of interest. The makeup artists cared. The CGI animators cared. The studio execs saving time and money on their costly investments cared. The genre fans cared enough that we can recognize what effects studio made a monster just based on how gooey it is. But the general public? They can’t tell, and they don’t care. A CGI alien and a guy in meticulously applied makeup are the same thing, because of course they are. They’re symbols meant to represent something. They might look good, they might look bad, but at the end of the day, for the average viewer, it doesn’t matter whether someone hand-sculpted a particular starship or if some very smart people wrote enough code that a computer made the same thing. It’s just a spaceship either way.
Now, imagine if instead of computer artists, you just had a computer. Imagine if these effects cost nothing more than the hardware they are rendered on (expensive hardware, to be sure, but chump change to the average movie studio). This is precisely what Sunspring is. It’s a novelty right now, just as early CGI was, and for the first few mainstream films made from computer-generated scripts, it will be a selling point in its weirdness, but in less than a decade from those first steps it will become just as normalized, simple as that. People can get used to most anything, and if the difference between a human-written script and a computer-generated one is small enough that only people specifically interested in that craft can tell, then there simply is no difference to the public as a whole, and the public as a whole is who drives ticket sales and who gets more movies made.
Watching Sunspring is watching this assembly line being created. If automation of labor promised boons for the workers but ended up as money stolen from them to line the pockets of their bosses, so too will automated art function for the already dubious late capitalist stooges who scoff at the idea of paying for an artist’s labor. We start with CGS (computer generated scripts), and soon enough we’ll be looking for CG actors to place in our CG sets with CG voices, controlled by a CG director and sliced and perfected by a CG editor. “Exposure” will be the only form of valid payment left to all but the luckiest artist, and those lucky artists will exist in essentially the same realm as master luthiers do now–luxuries for the super-rich to patronize in both senses of the word, and with even fewer open jobs positions than people with the kind of cash supply that lets it be thrown around insultingly.
We are at the dawn of an industrial revolution of artistic creation, and the only ones who stand to profit are the robber baron heads of movie studios. This may seem hyperbolic or alarmist, but let’s be honest: any studio head worth his salt that knows about Sunspring would be irresponsible from a business perspective not to pursue an art with less overhead, because less overhead means more profit, and profit–far more than values, ethics, or decency–are the source of all capitalist decisions. When automation of the workforce began, the naive imagined the forty hour work week would become the thirty-two hour one, and then the twenty-four hour one, with the increased profits and decreased workload resulting in more quality of life for the worker. Instead, the people in charge of those decisions did what they always do and realized that automation of the workforce meant more revenue could be wrung from every individual worker, amping up the exploitation while dumping four cashiers for every few self-checkout lanes installed.
So hey, I’m sure the screenplay for Toni Erdmann is super neat. The Witch made great use of period dialogue. I didn’t see Manchester By the Sea, but I’ve been assured it’s better than that unfairly saved piece of garbage Margaret. But they’re all basically child’s play in the big picture. They’re nice art that, hopefully, will be remembered in a few years by some critics while they reminisce over expensive coffee. But what Sunspring‘s screenplay challenges–not only our ontological sense of being, but the entire nature of film studio economics and, in turn, the economics of art under late capitalism–are some of the biggest, most important things we have today, not just in films but in every day life. When you look at Sunspring‘s screenplay, you’re looking at history, a revolution that is quiet for the time being but who is a few programming revisions away from either creating a complete mutiny in human consciousness or doing for artists what the industrial revolution did for laborers. And sure, the Golden Bulbs are just a fun little thing that some critic friends do each year to scratch that list-making itch. Still–Juan, Derek, Ross, Chris, I love you all, but in this case, you could not possibly be more wrong.
Sunspring is currently available for free here.
Directed by Oscar Sharp; written by Benjamin (an LSTM RNN Artificial Intelligence) and edited for the screen by Ross Goodwin; starring Thomas Middleditch, Elisabeth Gray, and Humphrey Ker; 9 minutes.