At the opening night party for SXSW, I met a woman who works for the Jewish Federation out here in Austin. After insisting that we had met before, we figured out she just had the uncanny ability to locate a fellow landsman in the sea of beards that is this festival.
Anyway, we got to talking about all kinds of Hebrew nonsense when I asked her, “What the hell should I see at this fest?” She told me about a documentary in competition from a nice Jewish boy named Avi Zev Weider called Welcome to the Machine. All that is a long way of saying I went to see a documentary by a Jewish filmmaker.
But how was it?
Welcome to the Machine starts with the director, Avi, and his wife opting for an in vitro fertilization after being unable to conceive. They soon learn they are going to have triplets, which sets something off in Avi. He wants to understand how it is that technology could bring him this bounty of children. If humans can use technology to alter biology, then where is the limit? What can’t technology bring us?
And so the film unravels into a sort of poem about technology and humanity. Weider interviews a number of technology theorists, including Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly. He also seeks out people whose lives have been greatly altered by technology, like a blind man who is testing an experimental implant to help him see again. Weider also speaks with people in the military who pilot unmanned aircraft, which can not only be operated remotely but are capable of autonomous flight.
Controversially, Ted Kaczynski (aka The Unabomber) also plays a central role in the film. His 1995 anti-technology manifesto is referenced often in the film as a sort of prophecy. Letters from the imprisoned terrorist to the filmmaker also give voice to the man even though he does not appear in the film. Perhaps, one interviewee proffers, Kaczynski was right about how our technology will bring about the end of humanity.
Overall, Welcome to the Machine is a mess. The heart and soul of the film is meant to be Avi and his growing family, but the narrative of his burdened family only comes out in drips and drops. It never provides the grounding this film desperately needs. Instead we get little bits of information from outside personalities (like Kurzweil’s belief he will attain immortality through the help of machines) that never cohere into something worth watching for 86 minutes.
Weider refuses to make up his mind about what kind of a film he is making. The film weaves multiple talking-head narratives with the story of the filmmaker’s family, but none rise to the occasion of actually telling a story. The film serves as a decent taste of the teachings of its characters, but nothing more. Kurzweil in particular is clearly trying to sell you one of his books every second he is on screen, and frankly you’d probably learn a lot more if you just went and picked it up.
I kept hoping that there would all be a purpose for this technologial rumination; that the macro would relate to the micro in some way. When Weider tries to bring it back around, it is so disconnected and melodramatic I couldn’t help but laugh.
If questions of humanity and technology are your thing, then you will probably find some great discussion points in Welcome to the Machine. Just don’t expect it to actually tell you anything you couldn’t find somewhere else.