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September 07, 2004

How to read too much into movies

A few weeks ago I was at someone's house, and that someone's child was watching 50 First Dates. Normally I would projectile vomit at the thought of watching an Adam Sandler comedy, but found myself irresistably drawn to it, with a sort of morbid interest. Imagine my surprise, then, when I began enjoying it. On the surface it's a mildly amusing romantic comedy, similar (and inferior) to Groundhog Day in many ways, but viewed from a different angle both movies say a great deal about consciousness. No, really.

For those who've not seen either movie, or have a memory as bad as mine, here's a brief plot summary. By definition I have to spoil some of the surprises, so stop now if that's not cool.

50 First Dates: Sandler plays a womanising marine biologist (or something) who meets a a girl (Drew Barrymore) in a restaurant. They have a great chat over breakfast, and both do a happy dance, but the next morning she doesn't remember him. See, she was in a car accident and now her brain cannot move her memories from short-term to long-term: for her it's always that particular Sunday, her dad's birthday, and she can only remember people she met before the accident. Every night her short-term memory is wiped clean. Her dad and brother play along, allowing her to live a life of Sundays (at least, until Sandler appears). Sandler must, every day, introduce himself as a stranger to her, and charm her enough that she decides to spend the day with him. Sandler is convinced the only way she'll escape her predicament is if he can make her remember, and fall in love with, him.

Groundhog Day: Bill Murray plays an arrogant asshole of a weatherman who, every year, is forced to cover the Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsutawney, PA. On this particular day, though, a bad snow storm cuts off their route home and Murray, much to his disgust, is stranded with a cute but (to him) sickeningly virtuous producer (Andie MacDowell) and a geeky videographer. He wakes up the next morning to discover that it isn't the next morning -- it's Groundhog Day all over again. For whatever reason, Murray is condemned to repeat the same day over and over, in his own personal version of hell, and becomes convinced the only way he can escape his predicament is to win the producer's heart.

The similarities between the two are obvious. Both plots are temporal and cyclical in nature, the same day played again and again. But it's the differences that interest me, and most importantly the contrasting assumptions the movies make about human nature, consciousness and the universe itself. In Groundhog Day Murray sets himself the challenge of seducing MacDowell, and goes about it in a very methodical way. In one scene he approaches her at the hotel bar and offers to buy her a drink; he remembers what she chose, and the "next" day orders that drink for himself. Wow, thinks the producer, he likes the same drink as me! Then he proposes a toast to the groundhog. "I always drink to world peace," she says dismissively. Next day he orders the drink and makes a toast to world peace. And on it goes. In 50 First Dates, on the other hand, things are a little different. Every morning, at the restaurant, Barrymore orders waffles and makes a house out of them. The first time they meet Barrymore is having a problem getting the door to stay in place, and Sandler wanders over with a toothpick to use as a hinge. She's charmed by this and invites him to eat with her. The "next" day Sandler tries the same thing -- but Barrymore shoots him down: "Do you live in a country where it's okay to stick your fingers in someone else's breakfast?"

The Groundhog Day universe is very much Newtonian: mechanistic and infinitely predictable. If one knew the current state of every particle in the universe at any given moment, says the Newtonian model, one could predict with total accuracy how things would be in any future moment. Given the same stimuli MacDowell responds in precisely the same way; Murray is able, step by step, to determine exactly the right thing to say at each point in his seduction. But the universe of 50 First Dates obeys the laws of quantum physics: uncertainty rules, and total knowledge impossible. What works for Sandler one day doesn't necessarily work the "next."

From this point of view it's hard to view MacDowell as little more than a robot reacting to stimuli. She's a mathematical function: a specific input will always produce a specific output. She's utterly predictable, and Murray simply learns her math. Barrymore, on the other hand, is far more "human." Despite every day doing exactly the same thing, and being treated exactly the same way by her father and brother, she's inherently unpredictable. If Sandler sticks the toothpick in her waffle house, will she smile or will she complain? He has no way of knowing.

Those who study artificial intelligence have terms for these differing viewpoints on the nature of consciousness. The "weak AI" theory is that a machine can be made to appear intelligent, but can never really be so. It will never be conscious. The "strong AI" theory is that a machine which appears intelligent has a real, conscious mind. These terms don't only apply to machines, but to us too. MacDowell is in the weak camp: she only appears intelligent, only appears to have free will and consciousness. Barrymore is in the strong camp: she's fully conscious and has free will because she's unpredictable.

Perhaps we really are reacting robots, weak-AI Calvinist puppets, as Groundhog Day would have it, destined to float through life being pushed here and there, every reaction, every thought and deed and utterance fully explainable and predictable given enough information into our state of mind. Or maybe we're strong-AI Arminian free-willed individuals, ala 50 First Dates. Maybe not even God knows what I'm going to type next. I'm not sure which I prefer. Robots don't have to explain themselves, of course: predestination absolves me of all responsibility for my actions. But wouldn't that make my life just a show? What kind of God would run things that way?

Maybe I should be less condescending when it comes to Adam Sandler movies. It could be that they're all this deep and it's me who's missing the point. I should watch Eight Crazy Nights and see if I can dredge up any profound truths. I have my doubts, but I'll keep you posted.


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