Thoughts on Ruby Sparks …

With the Dryden closed on Mondays, I have been making a habit of going to the Little for their $5 Monday movies — often to see two films. Tonight I went to see Ruby Sparks. I had seen the trailer and had written it off, but I read an interview with writer-and-star Zoe Kazan which sold the movie on me (but be warned it's full of spoilers.) In short, consider what happens if a woman writes a role for herself as if she were a male writer creating a manic pixie dream girl (MPDG)? It all seems a little more self-aware to me, and I'm interested to see if all that works out. Alternatively, what if a movie centered on a MPDG were able to pass the Bechdel/Wallace test?

The introductory first act introduces us to Calvin, a young writer who met with massive success in his first novel. He lives alone in a fancy house and is trying to follow up with a second work. But it's not going so well. His only company is a scruffy dog who (as he reveals to his therapist) he got as a way to try and meet women, but it's not working. So his therapist suggests he try writing a few paragraphs about meeting a woman who adores his dog. And later while dreaming, he finds such a woman, albeit imaginary.

Enamored by his fantasy, he sets to frantically writing. He confides in his therapist that he's worried that he's falling in love with the character. And then all hell breaks loose when he thinks she's living in his house. She believes fully that the history defined by his writing is her actual life. And then worse: everyone else thinks she's there too, presumably because, well, she is.

But rather than turn into a rehash of Mannequin or Weird Science (yikes: dating myself seriously!) it steers more toward what it's like to be a being who has no idea she was just a fictional construct, centering on the differences with a real person.

And this is what the trailer completely misses: it's sort of a multi-layered writer's movie. I mean, all the characters are fictional constructs, but one is also a fiction-in-a-fiction. And then, while Calvin and Ruby are the most fully-realized characters, how can they coexist with others who are absurdly broad? For instance, when I saw Antonio Banderas as Calvin's stepdad Mort playing the stereotypically over-the-top artist, I thought, "oh my god, it's like he's made of ham." It's interesting to consider how all the characters exist and why they're there, and how fully formed the would believe they are.

The film gets me thinking, what if it were possible to buy, say, a robot girlfriend? What if I could make someone who is exactly what I think I want? Would I even come close to anything desirable? And then I also know it's necessarily a paradox to have free will (a.k.a. intelligence, artificial-or-not) and be manipulable or programmable.

Writing offers an outlet for those dreams of Pygmalion — a way to literally (and literarily) make friends. And Ruby Sparks touches on all the ramifications of that.

So I guess I'd recommend it if you're wanting for that kind of film. I find expectations to be extremely important when it comes to viewing a film, and the trailer does such a poor job of setting those expectations in the "right" direction that I don't recommend the trailer or any single-paragraph summary. And it certainly helps if you also like looking at Zoe Kazan.

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Seeing a Performance of Rossum's Universal Robots at the MuCCC

I went to see Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.) at The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) with a group from The Rochester Speculative Literature Association (R-SPEC). When I was in high school, I read the play in English class. It seemed okay back then and I did remember it, but it was amused for my feelings for it all those years ago to bubble back up.

The play starts off with Helena, the daughter of the president, visits the robot factory with the intention to liberate the robots as if they were human. In this, we are dumped into the misogynistic world of 1920 Czechoslovakia de Karel Capek (despite it being set in some undefined future). It was intolerable. The Helena character is borderline mentally disabled, a staple of female characters written by men who never listened to a woman. (I even recall hating Helena in my high school reading as well.) The robot factory is on an island, and (naturally) exclusively operated by men. Even the robots were almost exclusively men [which you may have noticed didn't change in storytelling until writers realized that robots were not superior to humans, at which they started being female] except for one: a replica of Helena who was "useless as a worker" because of her whimsical ways.

But okay, I grit my teeth and did my best to not be overwhelmed by that central theme.

The story trundles along, revealing the robots to be organic things akin to super-smart, human-looking, genetically modified animals. It's clear that Capek is making a statement about the ideal worker in either a communist or capitalist world: one that works tirelessly, has no internal drive, and that requires virtually nothing in the form of pay. The robots (naturally) revolt and (despite their intelligence and realization of a finite lifespan) kill off all the humans. Except for those in the factory, at least for a while. They enslave the factory operators in an attempt to extract the formula to make more robots. But all is not lost for humanity and its attempt to be a god, for Helena R. (the robot) apparently has a function after all — at least in not-so-subtle implication.

Aside from introducing the word "robot" into the lexicon, I have to say this play offers really nothing else. It combines man's desire to be a god, the oppressed rising up against their oppressors, and an overwhelming dose of "women are only good for housekeeping and making babies." I want to say that an adaptation would be improved by eliminating the misogynistic overtones, but it so central to the plot that it seems an insurmountable task. At least the actors did their best with it and did a fine job with the script-in-hand reading.

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