Saturday, August 14, 2010

Imitation of Life, Truth and the Turing Test

Douglas Sirk's 1959 film opens when two young widows, one white one black, meet with their daughters. Lora prefers her career as an actress to her daughter Suzie or her lover. Her profession is an imitation. Her new best friend Annie is an Aunt Jemima who sacrifices her own welfare become Lora's housekeeper and to raise Lora's daughter. Her own daughter Sarah-Jane longs to be white, passes as white. Love interest Steve is a photographer whose images are just images (in the opening scene he appears to be trying to forge Weegee's famous 1937 shot of crowds on the beach at Coney Island). He is the object of a teenage crush from Lora's daughter. The whole thing is recounted in startling Technicolor, then as now a byword for gaudy and fraudulent colour.

John Gavin, who plays Steve the love interest, was half Mexican but passes here as authentically American, all-American. He would in later life be appointed ambassador to Mexico by another actor, Ronald Reagan, of whose presidency Gil Scott Heron would sing "This ain't really a life, ain't nothing but a movie". The real-life daughter of Lana Turner, who plays Lora, killed Turner's lover, though the inquest found she acted in self-defense, to the incredulity of Hollywood insiders and conspiracy nuts ever since. Turner herself had been, only a few years earlier, the target of a vitriolic attack by DH Lawrence on the faux sexuality of the 'sweater-girl'. All characters in the film are played by people who are not the people we see on the screen. Sirk's Brechtian heritage (as Detlef Sierck he was involved in the political theatre of Weimar) is all over their stilted performances, and the distances between them, filled with the things which fill up the spaces in which the characters' lives are not lived.

The problems only begin here. The soi-disant "truth" is that Sarah-Jane "is" black; and that Lora should have married Steve, so preventing the ghastly crush her daughter has on him. That is, the only available truth which they imitate is that of race and the Oedipal family. (That Annie and Lora are both widows suggests the Oedipal role of the dead father; and the suspicion that the same man might have fathered both daughters . . . ). But the finale at Annie funeral reveals that the only Truth is Death, and that truth is fatal. Except that we survive, weeping in the audience: we for whom the entire charade has been played out experience an imitation of emotion. And of course there is no Death, only a staged funeral with no body in the coffin. And we know it (je sais mais quand même): the only available truth is a disavowal, merely a Romantic willing suspension of disbelief, a conspiracy to act as if there were a truth, veiled underneath the appearances, underneath the ideologies. Truth is a projection, one we project as much as the cinematic apparatus does.

Nine years before Sirk's film's release, Alan Turing set out the terms of the Turing test. An interrogator in a room separated from a machine and a person asks questions, the answers to which are to prove which of the two unseen competitors is human and which a machine. In the cinema there is nothing behind the screen, only a loudspeaker. Not even a voice. Not even a recording of a voice, which is on the optical soundtrack up in the projection booth over our heads and behind our backs. The richness of this hall of mirrors and the cynical reading of the melodrama of manners that it reflects persuades us that an (authorial) intelligence inhabits it. Sadly it is also a remake - of a 1934 film by John Stahl.

In Imitation of Life, all the humans alive and dead, onscreen and in the auditorium, fail the Turing test, and only the filmic machine passes.

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