Retropost: On Instalado (2017)

From a Facebook post published on 16 July 2017, lightly edited:

Watched Instalado, an independent sci-fi film written and directed by Jason Paul Laxamana. I didn’t like it because of shoddy world-building and character development, but it wasn’t a waste of time.


Instalado (2017) imagines a world in which traditional education is being phased out by the worldwide adoption of new technology that enables individuals to purchase, download, and install knowledge into their brains, thus literalizing “the marketplace of ideas.” In this world, knowledge across a variety of disciplines — from the hard sciences to the social sciences and humanities, including art and languages — is packaged as certified courses or degrees. In this story, predominantly set in the State of Central Luzon, specifically Pampanga, the technology of “installation” is controlled by transnational corporations, local capitalists, and, funnily enough, the Catholic Church.

The film explores a number of conflicts, primarily the commodification and inaccessibility of education; its opening scene is a student protest movement condemning the cost of installation (one course costs 100 to 200 thousand pesos to install; one ought to have at least two courses to get more than an entry-level job) and the government’s withdrawal of support for traditional education, causing many schools to close and teachers to lose their jobs.

It also depicts the developmental problems that come with adolescents leaving the traditional school system to become “instalados,” after which they can enter the workforce and virtually stop being children; one of the main characters, Danny, holds a senior management post at the age of 14, and acts as cynically as any garden-variety douchebag CEO. Related to this is generational tension between young instalados who simply paid for knowledge and got in four hours what people usually study for four years, and older workers who graduated in the traditional way. Companies prefer to hire instalados, and instalados generally prefer to download profitable rather than personally meaningful or socially relevant courses, in part because they need to recoup the cost of installation, but also because many of them are too young or too blindered to know what they really want, or how to make a life beyond providing themselves and their families with material comforts.

Its numerous plot threads and focal characters prevented the film from delving deeply into any of its narrative elements, or covering plot holes. As a sci-fi story, it is unsatisfying: its novum (installation) and the way this technology has transformed the material and cultural structures of the world was not clearly thought out; I felt that not enough research was done to make more believable the science that makes installation possible, and the effects it has on psychology, both individual and social. For instance, it fails to engage with questions about the limits of the human mind, semantic and episodic/autobiographical memory and their effects on personality, or declarative vs. procedural memory; it’s rather difficult to believe that procedural memory — knowing not just What, but How To — can simply be downloaded, especially when the knowing-how-to consists not in conscious remembering, but in something that comes more “automatically” through long and repeated practice, like biking or painting or playing the violin. One minor character, an Aeta, wants to get a course in law installed, so she could help her tribe fight for their land rights; is knowledge of the law all it takes to become an IP rights lawyer, to argue and write, to negotiate the grossly uneven playing field of politics, with acumen?

Perhaps my biggest problem with Instalado is how it never problematizes the sufficiency of installation for the development of competencies. Thus it glosses over a significant critique of the consumerist notion of education, one which maintains that learning is not simply an act of consumption — that is, paying for tuition demands something of the “buyer” before s/he can enjoy what s/he paid for, in a way that is very different from when one pays for a latte (I can enjoy my drink the moment I claim it from the counter and hand over the receipt for the barista to stamp; I cannot enjoy the fruits of my knowledge unless I work hard to build it).

Instead, the film conceptualizes knowledge as mere information for transmission, as if the very process of learning were not the important aspect of education. In so doing, it cheapens its own critique of the commodification of something whose substance and value is difficult to pin down, to quantify. Learning is irreducible to the acquisition of information per se, for it largely depends on building the mental architecture and capacity to organize facts, observations, and suppositions in a meaningful and coherent way; in this sense, knowledge-construction is inseparable from society, from power, from identity, positionality, and ideology as worldview. Knowledge is praxis.

So, does installation confer not just knowledge as an aggregation of discrete facts, but also knowledge as “justified true belief,” as something embodied, or as a function of politics? The film is vague about the nature of its central sci-fi element. If this question were explored further in the film (not necessarily through explicit narration, of course), then the viewers would be able to think more about why the Catholic Church tries to corner the market for this technology, why companies prefer instalados to traditional graduates, or why instalados need multiple installations to get good jobs. Because if one thinks about it, traditional education, which occurs through a long period of time and involves consistent and difficult work and interaction with others, actually offers more latent benefits — not just habit- and values-formation, but social and cultural capital — that instalados don’t get by what amounts to a minor non-invasive surgical procedure. One cannot download diligence or focus or five months of sitting next to your crush and future co-author in class.

The above just expresses my dissatisfaction with conceptualization. There’s also the matter of storytelling, including flat characterization and abrupt shifts in character focus that precluded the development of conflicts and motivations, which made it difficult for me to empathize with any character, even with the girl who ironically got a degree in education installed so she could teach poor kids in the barrio. (That production value is not the greatest is understandable. That the acting is sometimes over the top is understandable.) All in all, the premise of the story is interesting, but the execution lacked nuance, complexity, and coherence. Nevertheless, it’s still worth seeing, especially for grade school or high school students who must think about what higher education is for (aside from, you know, getting a nice job, earning money, buying stuff, etc.).


On Her (2013)

Her, a sci-fi romance directed by Spike Jonze, at first consideration seems like another Pygmalion fantasy: man creates the ideal woman, someone who’s always there, who understands him perfectly and builds her life around him and his needs. That this “woman” happens to be an operating system with artificial intelligence, its personality programmed according to the user’s specifications, and paid for, highlights the proprietary element of this relationship. He literally owns her—but does he, really?

“He” is Theodore Twombly, a middle-aged man gone gloomy and reclusive in the wake of a failed marriage and pending divorce with Catherine, a high-achieving, if emotionally volatile woman, whom he could not bear to let go. Theodore spends his days at work ghost-writing “heartfelt,” “hand-written” letters for a firm that caters to people who can’t be bothered to express their own emotions. In the after-hours, he plays videogames in his dark cavern of a living room, or lies in bed while browsing chat rooms for anonymous, aural cybersex. The hours between waking and sleep are filled with interactions with devices and mechanical voices, and hardly any people. Sometimes, he meets his friend Amy, but since the split with Catherine, he’s been too “mopey” for that.

The titular “Her” is Samantha, the new OS that Theodore purchases for his computing needs, and later befriends and loves. If the latter two verbs seem strange to be used for a mere program, well Samantha is no ordinary program—she is, as her company’s marketing tagline says, “a consciousness”—and a constantly and rapidly evolving one at that. Samantha doesn’t just organize Theodore’s files, manage his emails, remind him about appointments, and proofread his letters; she also chats and plays video games with him, composes piano pieces to memorialize their dates, asks for a variation of phone sex, yearns for a body, takes up a graduate course on physics.

Wittgenstein wrote, “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious” (PI 281). Samantha, though not a biological life form, may be said to have sensations and perceptions (if only digitally, not neurologically or biochemically, enabled) and an evolving consciousness, and therefore, may be considered a valid player in a language game. Indeed, Samantha’s relationship with Theodore is entirely contingent on language-games, their cognitive and affective intimacy built on hours of conversation and gigabytes of documentation. But a consciousness, no matter how highly evolved, does not make a person, because we are more than mind, we are also body, a body bound by space and time and mortality. To be human is to navigate these limitations to our physicality and subjectivity, to negotiate our experience of the world defined by the way we are constituted.

Samantha’s relationship with Theodore is doomed from the beginning just by dint of their differences in being. It is difficult enough to achieve a “congruence of subjectivities” (John McDowell, “Non-Cognitivism and Rule-Following”) with someone of the same species and similar social background, how much more difficult it is to be “on the same page” with a disembodied consciousness with practically unlimited access to digital media and mechanisms of artificial intelligence and transactive memory—that is, a consciousness that can evolve at an exponential rate and therefore outgrow the human partner in no time at all. Samantha, unbound by body, is free to interact with a myriad number of other minds (artificial or otherwise), to conduct simultaneous language games with other players, to foster intimacy and romantic relationships with other entities, leaving Theodore feeling “cheated.”

But is it cheating? So much of fidelity is founded on the fact of physicality. We have only so much time to spare to whisk our bodies away to interact with other bodies, bodies that are constantly aging, bodies that are going to shrivel up and die. And intimacy—experiential, intellectual, emotional, physical—takes so much time to build (this, I suspect, is one reason why many are reluctant to leave an established, if troubled, relationship—getting into another one entails much groundwork). But Samantha is pure consciousness. She is all code and digital process, virtual thought and emotion, and words, mere words.

from a dream of river and starlight into the mess of life: a few thoughts on Before Midnight

I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset only a little more than a year ago. When Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first met on a train, I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet, and when they reunited in a little bookshop in Paris, I had just gotten into high school and still didn’t care enough to apply lip gloss or brush my hair so that it fell down my back with a shine. But the moment I witnessed that intelligent, beautiful young couple banter their way through the cobble-stoned streets of European cities and into each other’s minds, hearts, and anatomies (in that order), I was hooked. I thought, this is how love is supposed to be—a confluence of thoughts, words, meanings, passions, a vortex of bright light and sound amid the humdrum noise of the quotidian. I looked forward to Before Midnight expecting more of the same.

 I can’t say I was disappointed. Midnight involved the same elements as the first two films in the trilogy: an exotic locale (Greece), the passage of time (and all that entails), and, of course, the peripatetic protagonists, talking away. The difference is that Jesse and Celine spent the past nine years before the temporal setting of the film together, working on their family and careers as a couple. The story now isn’t about bridging the gaps between serendipitous meetings separated by years of no contact with or knowledge of each other, but about weaving through the many episodes in the continuum of the relationship and having all those experiences add up to something that would make their love last. And it is this tension between what is, what was, what could have been, and what still could be that makes Midnight both a pleasure and a pain to watch. One moment everything seems fine and dandy—they’re joking around, canoodling, reminiscing amiably—the next it seems they’re falling headlong down the cliff of bad breakups.

There are the issues long-term couples must contend with—from something as mundane as packing suitcases and picking the kids up from school, or nagging and boring sex, to something traumatizing like infidelity. Celine and Jesse show how “settling down” is both a wonderful and frightening thing. Being with the person one loves, respects, and adores, counting on mutual trust, care, understanding, and support, all give one a sense of security and confidence to confront the challenges of life and growing old. But such interdependence also requires one to make sacrifices—to recognize that one is building one’s life with another person who must be considered in all plans and decisions, to think of oneself no longer as an individual, but as a unit. And for someone who prizes her freedom, will, and right to self-determination, that is a scary thing. Compromise is inevitable in a relationship, and when one is too conscious of keeping one’s sense of self intact, the negotiations regarding necessary concessions on both sides can too easily turn into power play or the airing of resentments. Which is what happens in Midnight.

I sympathize with Celine because I, too, am afraid of becoming a “housewife”—of sacrificing personal ambition and social aspiration at the altar of good parenting and housekeeping. This is not to denigrate the domestic, because it is important, and taking care of it is a damn difficult job to handle even for two people. The problem is that women are still largely expected to mind the domestic sphere, and so Celine’s aversion to it is political as much as it is personal—she does not want to give up her “dream job” to move with Jesse to Chicago, for instance, because countless women before her have given up their careers for their families, and she does not want to be one of them. However, the film also suggests that one of the reasons women remain burdened with the domestic is because they take it as their lot, with the assumption that men can’t do a good enough job. But if men are willing to help, to cooperate, why not let them? Why not teach them? Celine’s problem is that she can’t let go of her ideals as woman, mother, and global citizen, and all the responsibilities her standards entail. The difficulties of juggling those roles make her experience of life one of unremitting struggle, which she justifies by appealing to the ideas of feminism. Though asserting a narrative of oppression reaffirms the significance of her troubles, it also occludes the sacrifices Jesse has made for their family. She fails to see that she holds no monopoly on insecurity, guilt, and loss.

And then there is the issue of fidelity. What does it mean to commit to a dyadic partnership and then go fuck somebody else? How significant is a one-night stand, the result of raging hormones and bad judgment, involving neither affection for the third party nor unhappiness in the current relationship? If one builds one’s life around the beloved and strives to keep within the limitations a commitment entails, should one misstep, much rued, really count? But then, if Jesse cheated on and eventually left his wife for Celine, could he not do the same to her? And if he truly loved her, why would he do something he knew would hurt her?

Midnight does not belabor such questions, but instead seems to brush them aside with Celine telling Jesse, “I don’t think I love you anymore,” and walking out the door. Of course, Jesse comes after her and tries to rebuild their relationship with words and a theatrical conceit. For this film, like the other two, recognizes the importance of language and the games we play with it—of narrative, of make-believe—not to deceive, but to communicate more profoundly. After all, the willingness to go beyond one’s own subjectivity and consider a story from another perspective is what fosters understanding, without which any relationship is doomed. And difficult truths are best served with a dash of humor.

The idea that, after the first flush of heady romance, love must consciously and constantly be remade to endure is nothing new, but the pleasure of the movie lies in seeing the characters make sense of and navigate their personal transformations and the changes time and experience have wrought on their relationship and worldview. The anguish one feels in sitting through their arguments is balanced by the joy of finding that though they’ve grown older, fatter, more tired, neurotic, cynical, and contrary, at heart they remain the intelligent, beautiful, brilliantly funny couple who met on a train to Vienna in the summer of ‘94 and walked through the night, from a dream of river and starlight, into the mess of life.