Back in June, ArsTechnica hosted the online debut of a short film called Sunspring. Directed by Oscar Sharp and featuring the actors Elizabeth Gray, Humphrey Ker, and Thomas Middleitch, the film was made for the Sci-Fi London film festival according to guidelines for the 48-Hour Film Challenge, and it placed in the top ten out of hundreds of entries. What is most distinctive about Sunspring, though, is its screenwriter Benjamin. No last name. At least not one he’s told anyone yet. You see, Benjamin is an AI.
Writer Analee Newitz describes Sunspring as the product of Sharp’s own fascination with artificial intelligence, which led to his friendship and collaboration at NYU with researcher Ross Goodwin. Listed in the film’s credits as Writer of Writer, Goodwin is the chief architect of the AI—an LSTM recurrent neural network—that would eventually name itself Benjamin. “To train Benjamin, Goodwin fed the AI with a corpus of dozens of sci-fi screenplays he found online—mostly movies from the 1980s and 90s. Benjamin dissected them down to the letter, learning to predict which letters tended to follow each other and from there which words and phrases tended to occur together,” writes Newitz. The whole process itself is very interesting, and I recommend reading her article to learn more.
The finished film is definitely engaging, though I would not personally subscribe to the descriptions hilarious and intense as stated in Newitz’s headline. But to each his own, and headlines are headlines. What Sunspring emphasizes for me, of course, is not a contemplation of machine intelligence but the significance of human interpretation. Benjamin’s absurdist script is a list of non-sequiturs, both in dialogue and stage direction, making the film project an experiment that almost asks the question, “Can we make a watchable movie based on the screenplay of a madman?” The answer is of course you can. Because cinema is very much an interpretive medium—both for makers and viewers. We can’t help but interpret; it’s what humans do.
The distinction between Sunspring and the oeuvre of human-crafted, experimental, non-narrative cinema—sometimes comprising stream-of-consciousness writing akin to Benjamin’s composition of algorithmic probability—is subtle to the point of nitpicky. Sunspring is odd, yes, but barely so if one is familiar with a film like Daisies or Hallelujah the Hills or the works of David Lynch. The difference, of course, is that Sunspring’s absurdity—at least at the script stage—is accidental while these other works are not. Having said that, though, artists do make instinctive choices all the time that defy literal analysis, and audiences make poignant meaning from of these expressions that were never intended or even considered by their authors.
Sunspring’s script is humorously absurdist, though presumably not in a manner of which its author could possibly be aware. The experience of watching the finished product shares strands of comedic DNA with the same mechanism that makes the Bad Lip Reading series work—because it’s funny when a real person or a character says something absurd in an earnest manner. When BLR has Mitt Romney on the 2012 campaign trail say to a supporter “Thank you for the bench,” the same comedy chromosomes are at work as when Sunspring’s Humphrey Ker says, “We’re going to see the money.” Benjamin has no idea why these things are funny, but they are funny in a non-literal way that is indisputably human.
Sunspring may represent a baby step toward the expectation that an AI will inevitably write a traditional, narrative screenplay for a major motion picture. As I wrote in a very early post, a comparison between human-only, formulaic script development and machine-made or assisted, formulaic script development may prove to be indistinguishable. Instead of leading down that path, however, Sunspring reminds us that cinema is often most compelling when convention and formula are broken. And giving the responsibility to an AI of writing the blueprint for a film is certainly one way to achieve broken conventions—not unlike the artist who might experiment with narcotics to break down barriers to his or her subconscious. Naturally, the more an AI resembles or reflects us, the more we assume its destiny is to replace us. This is always the two-part conversation, right? There’s the gadget question that asks what an AI can accomplish, but there’s also the existential question that asks at what point we can say the AI has an identity, which is really a reflexive inquiry about our own existence.
So, here’s a hall-of-mirrors thought exercise: might a more advanced AI than Benjamin have written a very different screenplay for the film The Enigma Code about the life and work of Alan Turing? Personally, I like certain things about that film but was ultimately disappointed because I felt the work neglected an opportunity to explore the narrative in which the father of AI—the inventor of the Turing Test to determine the “identity” of the machine—was a man who literally had to pretend to be someone he was not.
So, if Benjamin’s great-grandson were the co-writer of a biopic about Alan Turing, might “he” bring a unique empathy for Turing’s duality given the AI’s own centaur-like existence? And if so, wouldn’t we have to call that writing? I think we would. On the other hand, absent the capacity for empathy or the existential question, the script is just barely structured words on a page that, as in Sunspring, only humans can interpret has having any meaning at all.