Conceiving Ada

             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.

                                             Rating:        B
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.