Manipulation and Vulnerability in "Whiplash" and "Ex Machina"

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Creating life is tricky, and if certain recent and generally excellent movies are to be believe, thoroughly messed up. The role of a parent is a delicate one, and it is often taken up without regard for the consequences, by which I don’t mean the various material responsibilities - I mean the philosophical ones. So let’s talk about Whiplash and Ex Machina.

Ex Machina is easy enough to understand, it seems. The life-creation motif is pretty clear cut, but it becomes more interesting when compared to Whiplash which is not so directly inspired. The comparison is that both movies focus on the creation, or more accurately the development, of a person. Or more particularly, a self, or a ‘subject’ - what this is in particular will hopefully soon become clear.

It is interesting that Ex Machina frames itself, even to the end, as a ‘test’ for the existence of true Artificial Intelligence. To me it seems much more like the process of creating it, or at least one way. Probably not a great way, either. Ava, the AI in question, has most of her knowledge (it is implied) implanted from her first moment of life, or consciousness. Her creator (Nathan Bateman), decides to ‘test’ her level of consciousness by manipulating her into trying to escape - from him. This would prove to him that she is intelligent, and that he has been successful.

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Whiplash has an interesting parallel with the figure of Terence Fletcher, the band leader. He both grooms and bullies the drummer, Andrew Neiman, citing the inspiration that Charlie Parker drew from a symbol thrown at his head. His goal is simple, if we take his word for it - he wants to create ‘one of the greats’. He wants to push them harder than they are willing to go, and break through the barriers of ordinary musicians. The proof that someone is ‘great’ is that they persevere, that they overcome any obstacles or humiliation thrust in their path.

What each twisted ‘creator’ is aiming for is precisely something unpredictable. They are trying to create a ‘subject’, a self-conscious agent with a will and an intelligence and an independent mind. This is much like a parent who raises a child; the child becomes an adult and takes responsibility for themselves. What Bateman is asking for in creating true “intelligence” is just this kind of autonomy. Likewise, Fletcher, who is not a one-of-a-kind musician, seeks to create someone better than he is, in ways that may very well be qualitatively separate from himself.

And yet both ‘parents’ in this scenario do not want to relinquish control, once their projects become self-aware. They treat these developing human subjects instead as objects that must be shapes and molded into form. Naturally this creates tension, with the validation for their success coming in the forms of violence, though of different forms. One way of confirming that a subject does exist would be to try to impose your will upon it. If it resists, and in a way AS it resists, it demonstrates and affirms its own existence and autonomy.

###The proof that someone is ‘great’ is that they persevere, that they overcome any obstacles or humiliation thrust in their path.

But this is not complete and it is the reason why these movies show the unpleasant side to this relationship. It is perfectly possible, if not stable, for one subject to dominate another. Thus Fletcher dominated his band, using them and controlling them for his own ends. He depends on them as well, which adds a vulnerability to his manipulation - as shown by the final scene of the film. And there is an element of complicity in his students, who do not resist his domination for whatever reason - out of fear or apathy or perhaps the belief that he is making them better as a result. And they are unable to exist outside this relation of domination - as hinted at when Neiman takes control of the final number.

In Ex Machina this is even clearer. Bateman keeps Ava a prisoner, and keeps her (and the audience) ignorant of her intended fate. He does not ask or expect trust, only obedience, and tries to enforce it as he must. In this relationship Ava has no recourse other than violence, because any act of opposition becomes violent to begin with. His death ‘frees’ her in a certain sense, but it also shows that she was incapable of being free while he was alive, a pragmatic but also philosophically interesting assumption.

There is quite a lot more going on in these films, about the nature of expectations and the Big Other. But that will have to wait for another day.

Written on August 5, 2015