Artist and videographer Lynn Hershman Leeson has posited some
intriguing questions in her debut feature, the experimental Conceiving Ada.
The plot hinges on a computer genius who is examining the question
of whether or not memory and therefore history, could be retrieved
somehow by using combinations of technology. The protagonist is
Emmy Coer (played by Francesca Faraday), who is obsessed with
accessing information on Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (Tilda
Swinton) using artificial life. In the present day, Emmy has a lover whose
support waivers and a highly-critical mother (Karen Black). Both are
concerned over Emmy's health and her pregnancy and the effects her
experiments might have on her unborn child. Yet, Emmy is driven. Under
the tutelage of the mysterious Sims (Timothy Leary), she manages
to touch her dream and watches as aspects of Ada's life are played out
for her on her computer screen. She even manages to contact Ada across
the centuries and attempts to devise a means of "saving" the work and
knowledge of this pioneering woman.
If you don't know who Ada Byron King was, you are probably not
alone. She was the daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron, the noted
Romantic poet, and his wife Annabella. Raised by her mother who feared
the daughter might emulate the father, Ada was encouraged to study
mathematics and she proved a natural. In her teens, she met Charles
Babbage and worked with him on the creation of an "analytical machine"
which is generally accepted as a prototype for the modern computer. In
fact, she published an interpretation of this invention in 1843 which
has come to be viewed as the first computer program/language. Ada
was enough of a forward-thinker that she saw how this machine
could be applied to artistic pursuits as well as scientific ones. Add in her
own complicated romantic life (she was the married mother of three who
reportedly engaged in several affairs), her health battles (it is now thought
that she was suffering with porphyria) and her intellect and one can
imagine a fine period biopic.
It is to Leeson's credit that she opted to approach the material in an
unconventional and ground-breaking way. As a first time feature director,
she was only able to raise a certain amount of money. In order not
to skimp on the visuals, Leeson employed the technique of creating a
virtual period environment using computer-altered photographs of
Victorian-style rooms. It is perhaps slightly ironic that the director
employed technology that mirrored the thinking of its subject.
As this was a relatively low-budget project and one that was shot
quickly rather quickly (partly because Swinton was only available for a
handful of days), the film suffers a bit in casting and storytelling. The
contemporary domestic scenes, in particular, feel rushed and a bit shaky.
Leeson employed non-union actors and it shows in some cases (I won't
mention names). Still, the marvel is in the recreated period scenes.
I watched the film twice, once oblivious to the technology and the
second time fully aware, and the painstaking efforts have paid off.
Leeson also used doubling as a motif (based on the double helix of
DNA) which often functions on a subliminal level through camera
movements or in casting (i.e., Karen Black plays the mother of Ada and
the mother of Emmy).
Swinton offers her luminous presence and her history—having
played several heroines for Derek Jarman as well as the gender-bending
Orlando, she is quite at home as a period character. Her Ada possesses
the requisite passions and Swinton capably conveys them, often with
little more than a look. Faridany bears a remarkable resemblance to
Swinton and that, too, is part of the doubling. There is one scene where
Emmy is speaking to Ada; Ada is seen on a computer screen while Emmy
can be viewed in reflection—and it is as if there were a mirror. While
Faridany is not as accomplished an actress as Swinton, she still
manages to capture the frenzy and dedication as well as project
the intelligence of her character. Leeson's use of Leary (the part was
filmed days before his death) is iconic as is her casting of cyber guru
and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow as encryption expert
John Crosse (one of Ada's paramours).
Taken on its merits, Conceiving Ada is a fascinating experiment
and one which opens new possibilities for filmmakers constricted by
finances. Films should take their audiences to new worlds and that is
exactly what Lynn Hershman Leeson has done. Her background as an
artist informs this work, so the design and look of the film are outstanding.
While she has not completely found her voice as a screenwriter and
director, she is clearly on her way. One can only imagine the possibilities
of where she will take the audience next.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.