Here's Why One Day You Will Probably Fall In Love With a Robot

Vincent Desailly for SoftBank
Vincent Desailly for SoftBank Aldebaran's NAO robots. The company describes its "companion" robot this way: "NAO is a 58-cm tall humanoid robot. He is small, cute and round. You can't help but love him! NAO is intended to be a friendly companion around the house. He moves, recognises you, hears you and even talks to you!" I n the mid-1960s, a computer scientist named Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a program called ELIZA , which was meant to simulate a kind of psychotherapist that essentially repeats back everything the patient says. (The patient says, "I'm feeling depressed," and the therapist responds, "You're feeling depressed? Tell me more.") To his surprise, despite the simplicity of the program, people who interacted with it ended up telling it all kinds of secrets and couldn't tear themselves away; they were so eager to be listened to that they were happy to open their hearts to a computer. The more modern versions of ELIZA (whom you can talk to here if you like) are chatbots, one of...

A Hard Days Night and Beatlemania: The West's Last Outbreak of Optimism Disease

How much the Beatles helped create the '60s and how much the '60s helped create the Beatles is one of the great chicken-and-egg questions.

Janus Films/Criterion Collection
Janus Films/Criterion Collection A still from the 1964 Beatles film, A Hard Days Night , reissued July 2014 in a digitally remastered form. H ow did an opportunistic flick featuring Britain's fad-of-the-moment band turn into the best pop movie anyone had seen up to then? Let alone "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals," in critic Andrew Sarris's—and no pushover, he—oft-quoted rave at the time? It helped that the fad was Beatlemania, the director was 32-year-old Richard Lester, and the movie was A Hard Day's Night. Coinciding with the July 4 release of a digitally remastered Hard Days in U.S. theaters, the Criterion Collection has just put out a lavish 50th-anniversary joint Blu-Ray/DVD edition of the film with a whole second disc's worth of extras—multiple docs and interviews, plus Lester's Oscar-nominated 1960 short The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film— and wow, does it ever suck. Nah, kidding. While the carousing imagination and headlong fervor of both entities involved...

New Film About Liberal Gadfly Gore Vidal Totally Misses the Point

Gore Vidal rejoiced in making his readers' lives more complicated by baring the power drives underneath our political pieties. The United States of Amnesia does him, and its audience, no justice.

I t's a good rule to be wary of intellectuals who simplify your life, and Noam Chomsky is the left's current star example. His fault-finding take on whatever has just hit the fan is as predictable as a Honeymooners rerun, providing his admirers—of which I'm not one, just in case you're wondering—with a default reaction to pretty much everything they might more usefully think for themselves about. By contrast, the late Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, rejoiced at his provocative peak in making his readers' lives more complicated by baring the power drives underneath our political pieties, the opportunistically avid circuitry underneath our sexual and familial ones—and, unlike Chomsky, the genuine if snobbishly customized devotion to a Platonic ideal of America underneath his own captiousness. That's why it's dismaying that the people behind the new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, which opened in New York last week, don't and/or can't distinguish between the valuable...

Is 'The Fault In Our Stars' Author John Green His Generation's Pop Philosopher?

Screen shot from John Green's Indianapolis TEDx talk, November 27, 2012
TEDx Indianapolis video still John Green delivers a TEDx talk in Indianapolis on November 27, 2012. T he young-adult novelist John Green rose to fame in 2012, following the publication of his breakout hit The Fault in Our Stars , but for years he has channeled an outsider’s empathizing ethos to fans called “Nerdfighters.” YouTube hosts Vlogbrothers , the popular video diary Green keeps with his younger brother Hank, and Green’s personal website hums with reader feedback. The arrival of The Fault in Our Stars, now a movie starring Shailene Woodley as Hazel, a sardonic teenager with terminal cancer, has only served to energize Green’s wholesome it-gets-better brand. In anticipation of TFIOS–mania (the clunky acronym and hashtag fans are using), Prospect writing fellow Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Prospect contributor Clare Malone decided to explore the Nerdfighters’ universe and compare notes. The following is an edited version of their conversation. Clare Malone: I was skeptical of a...

Hipster Vampires in the Ruins of Motor City

Sony Classic Pictures
J im Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is an awfully seductive movie if you don't make the mistake of thinking you're just waiting for the languid set-up scenes to be over and done with. If you're wondering when something will, y'know, happen, not a lot does, and you've been warned. But it's bound to resonate most among people attuned to—well, familiar with, anyhow—the director's very generationally specific, bohemian-artsy subcultural cosmos, a group that happens to include me. Either directly invoked or imaginatively distorted, our old badges of cool and secret-sharer identifiers are on display like dusty ornaments on an unlit Christmas tree. Knowing the whole dingus will end up curbside come New Year's, the way Christmas trees always do, is very much on the now 61-year-old-Jarmusch's mind. In Only Lovers , he's confronting—and mourning—the fact that all this wonderful music, style and attitude that meant so much to him and his chic-hunting peers will soon end up in history's...

Cannes Looks a Lot Like Hollywood: The Power Belongs to Men

AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau From left, actor Forest Whitaker, director Jerome Salle and actor Orlando Bloom arrive for the awards ceremony of the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 26, 2013. When the Cannes International Film Festival opens on May 14, only two of the nineteen directors up for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the festival's highest honor, will be women. But before one starts assailing Cannes for sexism, consider this: The percentage of female directors in contention for the festival’s top prize is nearly twice as high as that of women directors working in Hollywood. Last year, only 6 percent of the directors working on the 250 highest-grossing American films were women, a number that has remained in the single digits since data was first collected in the late 1990s. Only four women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow in 2009, has won. Directing is not the only behind-the-camera role dominated...

In Defense of Star Wars

The new Star Wars movie is in production , and this has occasioned a round of revisionist writing on the film, with lots of people saying, "Wait a minute— Star Wars sucks!" As the resident Gen-Xer here, I feel it is my duty to address this matter, and offer some thoughts about why Star Wars had the cultural power it did, and maintains so much of it to this day. In some ways, it did suck. The dialogue was awful, the acting was mediocre at best (Carrie Fisher's intermittent British accent is just one of the many sins), and there are some glaring plot holes. We can debate whether its ultimate influence was positive or malign, but even with its weaknesses, the film's success, and its persistence, were no accident. It has to be understood in the context of the moment at which it arrived. The first reason Star Wars made such an impact when it was released in 1977 was that it just looked so spectacular. Even though today we might see the special effects as primitive and some of the creatures...

Two Roads Diverged

The fates of the stars of 1964's The World of Henry Orient say much about the decade in which they came of age.

You already know that this a good year for big-league 50th anniversaries, from Beatlemania's advent to the first Civil Rights Act with any balls to speak of. So before April comes, let me draw your attention to a distinctly minor milestone: the premiere of The World of Henry Orient on March 19, 1964. Among my contemporaries who know the movie at all, I've never met one who doesn't cherish it. But considering that the contemporaries I'm on good terms with include a fair number of professional film critics, it's interesting how rarely Henry Orient gets its due as one of our formative moviegoing experiences. This one we keep for ourselves. Plot, courtesy of the novel by veteran screenwriter Nunnally Johnson's daughter Nora: two Manhattan 'tweeners cultivate an obsession with a pretentious and silly musician named Henry Orient (Peter Sellers, then at the peak of his vogue). The rich one—Tippy Walker as Val—is looking for an escape from being caught between her kindly but absentee...

An Iraq War Satire with a French Twist

The French Minister
The French aren't famous for mocking their own vanities, which is why the new movie The French Minister— retitled from Quai D'Orsay, the metonymic equivalent of "Foggy Bottom"—would probably have Charles de Gaulle rolling in his formidable grave. Thierry Lhermitte plays a foppish, dizzyingly self-regarding Foreign Minister named Alexandre Taillard de Vorms—a blatant parody of Jacques Chirac's foppish, dizzyingly self-regarding top diplomat, Dominique de Villepin, best known on this side of the Atlantic for his 2003 U.N. speech denouncing George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Call him the father of "Freedom Fries," since that absurd renaming on Capitol Hill menus was pretty much the major consequence of his stand. Antonin Baudry, author of the graphic novel The French Minister is based on, was Villepin's speechwriter at the time, so we're presumably getting a fair amount of inside dish. Yet the movie's tone isn't acrid or score-settling; it's merry and bemused. The real, bittersweet...

No Fear of Flying

AP Images/Kathy Willens
AP Images/Kathy Willens I was terrified for the first 15 minutes of watching Born to Fly . Okay, maybe for closer to 30 minutes. For much of the documentary film by Emmy-nominated director Catherine Gund, you watch dancers with the STREB dance company fling their bodies across the stage, landing loudly on their backs or stomachs with hard thuds. They leap around giant iron beams and slam against hard plastic screens. Thanks to beautiful cinematography from Albert Mayles, who’s made 36 films and helped create the narrative nonfiction film genre, you feel the height in every jump and the fragility in the bodies moving fast through time and space. There’s little music and instead, it’s the performers’ grunts and thuds that accompany the movement, so even on film , it’s hard not to wince and seriously fear for the safety of those on screen. If you’ve ever struggled to appreciate avant-garde artistry, Born to Fly is the movie to see. The film, which premiered March 8 at the SXSW festival,...

The Magnificent Anderson

Yes, Wes Anderson’s films are hyper-stylized, but they’re rich in meaning too. None more so than The Grand Budapest Hotel

AP Images/Martin Scali
AP Images/Martin Scali W ho could’ve predicted, when Wes Anderson first surfaced in 1996 with the caper comedy Bottle Rocket , that he would become the most polarizing director of his generation? The movie seemed, on paper at least, an artifact of the post-Tarantino indie boom in smirking gunplay and logorrheic dudes. In fact it was the vessel for a new sensibility, dry yet earnest, ironic without being cynical (well, someone grasped its magnitude: Martin Scorsese put it on his decade’s-best list). Rushmore followed, then The Royal Tenenbaums , and suddenly the sensibility swallowed the culture. Its ubiquity enlarged an impassioned cult—and inspired a no less heated backlash. “It has become a popular critics’ drinking game to think of creative new ways to slag Wes Anderson,” wrote the critic Saul Austerlitz in Another Fine Mess , his 2010 history of American film comedy. What irks the detractors? Many things, really, but most can be grouped under a category called “The Wes Anderson...

Sit and Wait for the Sadness

The Ozarks—land of hillbillies and a few vast modern fortunes—are the setting for recent literary thrillers.

Flickr/Cindy Darling
Clickr/Cindy Darling T he Ozarks, a plateau carved by rivers and streams into what are generously called mountains, have always felt like their own American planet, jutting up from what should be uninterrupted plains. They cover the isolated southern half of Missouri and the northern half of Arkansas, an area that’s been largely left out of the national consciousness until now. It’s easy to date recent interest in the Ozarks to the 2010 movie Winter’s Bone , based on a novel by the same name, which received four Oscar nominations and launched Jennifer Lawrence’s film career. A meth-fueled mystery that followed Lawrence’s character as she tried to find her drug-dealer father and save her mother’s family’s land, the movie was treated by reviewers as more documentary than fiction, a portrayal of desperate poverty in a foreign patch of America. The Ozarks bear some resemblance to their cultural cousin southern Appalachia and to any other spot where poor white Americans live on soil too...

When Hollywood Went to War

In Five Came Back, Mark Harris takes a look at the directors who turned propaganda into high art.

Public Domain A still from Frank Capa's Why We Fight series (1945) E ven though George W. Bush relished comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler, the mind boggles at imagining Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino all donning uniform for the duration to make films championing the Iraq war's righteousness. That their very approximate 1940s equivalents did just that—generally for a fraction of their peacetime pay—is a trenchant reminder that World War II was different. How Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston's lives and careers were altered as a result is the subject of Mark Harris's first-rate Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin, $29.95). Harris's first book, 2008's Pictures at A Revolution, used the Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 1967 to capture a Hollywood on the uneasy verge of changing times, with Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate representing the new generation's...

As Good As It Gets for Oscar

AP Images/Jordan Strauss
AP Images/Jordan Strauss B y now everyone knows that—as my colleague Tom Carson pointed out last week—Oscar history is strewn with verdicts so absurd as to legitimately raise the question of why anyone cares, unless you find the Academy Awards irresistible for the way they’ve become part of Hollywood lore. You don’t have to go back as far as the notorious examples that Tom cited of Oliver or Around the World in Eighty Days upending the not-even-nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Searchers in 1968 and 1956 respectively; there are examples more recent—2012, for instance. That was the year when sense gave way to vigilante justice and the actors’ bloc of the Oscar electorate, a Mercedes McCambridge glint in its eye, led the Academy in stringing up any nominee they could find who wasn’t Ben Affleck, rewarding Argo for Affleck’s omission from the Best Director cut in what turned out to be the snub of his dreams. Unhip as it is to point out, the Oscars were getting sharper and more...

Noah Goes Hollywood

Noah is obviously ready to bust some heads.
You may have seen previews for the upcoming big studio Hollywood production of Noah , which stars Russell Crowe as the famous biblical shipwright. As we learn from The Wire , Paramount Pictures, at the urging of the National Religious Broadcasters, has acted decisively to make sure that people don't get the misapprehension that the film is a literal retelling of the biblical story of Noah. For instance, in the biblical story, God has not only all the best lines, he has all the lines. Noah never says a thing, nor does anyone else, but as you can see from the trailer , this film is full of people talking. Discrepancies like that could cause mass panic, so the studio will be adding this statement to all the film's promotional materials: "The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of...