AI-centric art I actually liked: "The Creator" and Toad cover songs TikToks
Over the weekend, I went to see that sci-fi movie, The Creator, under the guise of professional attentiveness, reasoning that it’s probably helpful to know what kind of big budget Hollywood narratives about AI are getting trotted out. But also, I was in a weird mood and wanted to be swept up in a good story.
I’d seen The Creator trailer a few times over the past months and remember rolling my eyes super hard because I thought it looked like a shinier Stranger Things—you’re telling me a cute little kid with a buzz cut is going to solve everything?? Okayyyy. But the latest Mission Impossible about AI had such a ridiculous plot that I remember laughing out loud in the theater in scorn, so it couldn’t be worse than that. Plus, lately, Twitter has been useless in every sense except, evidently, in leaving a vague impression that The Creator was surprisingly decent, so off I went with a tiny cherry Icee and bag of popcorn and an open heart.
(Big spoilers ahead!)
Visually, this film is exquisite. But also, for the first half, I was EXTREMELY horrified. The basic premise of the film is: it’s 2065, and the United States has banned AI / robots following whatever mess boiled over into a nuclear strike in Los Angeles. So the U.S. is now like, hunting down robots / AI in the rest of the world.
MEANWHILE, apparently everyone in Asia has figured out the robot situation so that the robots and humans are co-existing (it helps that most of the robots all have human faces) and thriving to the point that all those countries have united as “New Asia.” (On this point alone, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, that Hollywood would just straight up cop to literally lumping all of Asia together like this….like yes you get scenes that are very obviously Vietnam/Japan/Nepal-coded, but don’t worry your pretty little Western head, all you have to know is that it’s NEW ASIA, it’s ALL THE SAME NOW HE HE HE).
You can see where this is going. This is a film that appears to ask, what if the vibe is mid-century U.S. military interventionism, but now it’s because Americans want to kill Asian robots? You get a lot of scenes of rural villages being firebombed, shots of children and women screaming, scenes that feel ripped straight from every Vietnam War movie you’ve seen—just with updated weapons and the bizarro dissonance of like, how the film seems to flatten actual human Asian characters and the robot characters that have Asian faces into, uh, one entity. (Hollywood really fucking loves conflating Asians and cyborgs, but techno-orientalism may have to be a convo for another day here). I found myself questioning to what end all of this was really for, while also developing a grudging respect that The Creator at least dared to frame the threat of AI in provocative geopolitical context in a way that, say, Tom Cruise would never.
Anyway. An American special forces agent named Joshua ends up being tasked with finding and neutralizing the SUPER SECRET WEAPON THAT THE ASIANS MADE, and it turns out, this “weapon” is the world’s most endearing little robot kid named Alfie, who has superpowers but more importantly, a disarming innocence. As the U.S. military closes in, Joshua and Alfie go on the run, managing to touch upon ideas of heaven and personhood and robot liberation in their conversations. I ate that shit up with a spoon; several times toward the end, I sobbed. (Like I said, weird mood).
There was a line that kept coming up in the movie as humans try to convince each other that developing some kind of emotional attachment to the robots/AI they’re annihilating is silly, because “it’s just programming, they’re not real.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit). That became deeply interesting to me, as tears ran down my face while I watched Alfie do existentially human things—grapple with death, search for her mother, lean her head sleepily against Joshua. These were things that cynically, I knew were designed to pull at the heartstrings—i.e., things that we humans are “coded” to have guttural responses to according to our own programming, no? Hmm.
(Please tell everyone that Deez Links is PRO-ROBOT now).
A quick rec:
Ummmm so besides watching sappy sci-fi movies apparently, the only other thing really doing it for me are these AI covers (theme!) I’ve been watching nonstop on TikTok, where Toad (the Nintendo character) “sings” pop songs. I’m gonna go ahead and recognize that the appeal may not be, uh, universal, but each one of these has yet to fail to make me crack up. It’s possible these are the only good AI-generated art we’ll ever have.
If I had to analyze the appeal, I guess there is something about Toad’s thin little warbly voice, how it manages to both be an assault to the ears while also a suggestion of unfettered aspiration? determination? It’s like listening to your most tone deaf friend letting loose at karaoke night. Are they a good singer? Absolutely no. Can you tell they adore that song, or at least the physicality of singing? Yes. To me, the Toad AI TikTok covers sound like someone trying as hard as they can. Not really succeeding. But committing nonetheless. And I think that’s beautiful.
A piece of news:
Central Places is coming out in paperback November 7, and in the UK on November 24! This is what the paperback cover looks like.
A work link:
I spent most of the summer working on this profile of the downtown New York publicist Gia Kuan, which came out ahead of New York Fashion Week earlier this fall. Following Gia around taught me a lot about the current state of fashion, clout, and influence, but also just the essential work of cultivating relationships and the ancient value of apparently never ever talking shit.
In the age of Instagram and the almighty public persona, I often wonder if we’re all going to just progressively becoming more and more of either A) enigmas or B) legible archetypes to each other, and then I wonder what it would take to puncture that regularly, how it’s the only thing we can do to save ourselves from losing touch completely.
“The Reply merges the public and private lives of the internet into something unruly and unstable. Among friends, it is a performance: bantering on the timeline instead of in private messages is saying, “Look at us. Wouldn’t you like to join?” Among strangers, the Reply begs to be noticed, and thus bleeds into abjection. The Reply is a cry for attention, a voice in the wilderness, a shout into the void … The Reply is ambiguous. It can indicate any level of intimacy, any level of investment, any level of care.” Mariah Kreutter on the distorted form of The Reply (Dirt)
“Mistake culture has changed things. In our age of mass information, the prospect of atonement has been replaced with an infinite recursion of sins that will never disappear." (Spike Art Magazine ← for some reason my computer is being weird about pulling this up again even though I read it in a very normie way a few weeks ago…..one of those scary BACK TO SAFETY windows so uh if you figure it out lmk)
Both Mitch Therieau’s Jack Antonoff piece for The Drift and Kyle Chayka’s In The Mood for Love scrollsperience in The New Yorker get at the same chilling conclusion: in art and entertainment, the net effect “vibe” is increasingly valued over the actual context/meaning/message of any given work. Hmm!
One of my favorite books I’ve read this year is James Salter’s Light Years, which I would describe as “Little House on the Prairie” but for coastal elite adults in terms of the coziness of its descriptions of domesticity. (Then it sort of falls off the rails, I should warn you). But reading Dwight Garner’s Grub Street diet felt a bit like reading a happy version of Light Years. :)
Sarah Thankam Mathews on the lost purpose of art, and individuation, under automation and AI: “Profit-driven digital life, life under automation and financialization and algorithms and the attention economy, is part of what brought us here, to this grayed-out, insipid, loneliness-saturated time, where everything is buy now with 1-Click, and so comparatively little gives joy, or meaning, or beauty.”
Reading David Remnick’s Q&A with Olivia Rodrigo has given me a truly generous gift of now frequently imagining DR bopping his head to the chorus of “get him back!”