Tiffany Shlain’s new film is “Connected,” a personal memoir and broader exploration of the ways we connect and misconnect through technology. The film is opening in select theaters across the country: It opened in LA at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood on September 30, and opens in Seattle on October 7 and in NYC at The Angelika Film Center on October 14. For more information, follow Connected on Facebook and on Twitter @tiffanyshlain.
I hope that Connected will help create a global conversation about what it means to be connected in the 21st century. I believe that by engaging people to talk about connectedness in their own lives and in the world, the ripple effect of these conversations will have far reaching impact. Appreciating that this is a huge subject, I employ many tactics (humor, animation, archival, and my own personal story) to attempt to untangle what interdependence and connectedness mean in terms of the history of the human species and moving forward. Through this journey, I wield a large magnifying glass to look at some of the absurd and beautiful behaviors of our species and our world. While the core components of humans desire to be “connected” have not changed since we first appeared on this planet, I believe a new zeitgeist is emerging through all these new technologies that are making our world smaller and more intertwined, and that that zeitgeist can make the world a better place.
Shlain, whose film about Barbie and the woman who created her explored Jewish identity, answered my questions about the way technology aids and thwarts communication.
When was the first time you went online and what was it like?
1995. I was working on a CD-ROM on the musician Sting. (remember the CD-ROM days;) someone said to me, “you have to see this thing called the web, and he showed me this website where people from all over the world were talking about how they loved Sting. I was blown away. I knew it was going to change the world.
What keeps us feeling optimistic that despite the odds that our next email is spam or some dumb joke that’s been circulating since DARPA-NET we keep checking because it might be something great?
We are linking up everyone on the planet and creating a central nervous system. The fact that we are going to such a diversity of ideas all circulating is going to help us tackle some of our biggest problems. We are just at the beginning of seeing what collaborative tools online can do. That gets me excited. Also, I think we are opening up new channels for empathy….people are sharing more. These are all very good things. The internet is just an extension of us…all that goes with that. With “Connected,” we hope to trigger a conversation about the good, the bad, the hope. We think now is the perfect time to talk about what all this connectedness means in our lives personally and globally.
I believe in humans and humanity and in our innate ability to change for the better. Look at the end of slavery and apartheid, the women’s rights and civil rights movements, and other political and social transformative movements in the last few hundred years, and you can see how we are indeed evolving. There are two things that make me optimistic. We as humans are curious and we have a deep desire to connect. These two things will make us move us forward to a better place.
How did you look for the archival footage you used and how does it help tell the story of technology that is less than a decade old?
Ever since I was young, I had always loved film and technology. When was at UC Berkeley, I took “history of film,” as an elective with an incredible teacher, Marilyn Fabe. She had an infectious enthusiasm about how each technological advancement in film radically changed how ideas could be conveyed and activate the viewers to think in a new way. I was hooked. This was the way I wanted to convey ideas. However, there were no film production facilities, so mostly I edited together archival images I found from old movies or sound slug on a 16 mm editing table I discovered in the back of the architecture department. Recontextualizing images from many different eras to get at some larger ideas was very exciting to me. That archival aesthetic still informs my style today. Around 70% of our film “Connected,” is comprised of archival images from every era imaginable sewn together with original animations by the very talented Stefan Nadelman, in my attempt to put my arms around our world, where we came from, and where we’re headed.
What is the source of the little hits of pleasure we get from feeling connected through technology?
I found clues when reading about the hormone oxytocin, which the brain releases when humans connect with each other. Oxytocin decreases fear and anxiety, creates empathy, trust, and cooperation, and reinforces our urge to connect. The human brain is also designed to seek pleasure because of a hormone called dopamine. Researchers now know that the brain releases dopamine when new information is received. So every click, search, tweet, or text has the potential to stimulate the same hormonal rush as sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. But an interesting thing happens with dopamine—you never feel fully satiated. It’s called an “infinite dopamine loop,” leaving you constantly wanting more. The combined release of oxytocin and dopamine when plugged into cyberspace helps explain humans’ insatiable hunger for knowledge, approval, and being constantly connected.
Does use of social media strengthen or weaken our ability to create in-person intimacy?
I think it does both.
Do you ever take a break from technology? Do you have any technology-free spaces in your home or day?
My father loved quoting Sophocles, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” So, from the beginning of time, every new technology and advancement brought with them a complex mix of positive and negative repercussions as well as unintended consequences. “Connected” addresses the potential of these new 21st century technologies, the importance of harnessing their powers, but also covers the ramifications when these new technologies take over and even overwhelm our personal lives.
I’ve started practicing what I call “technology Shabbats” with my family. Every Friday at sundown, our whole family disconnects until Saturday night. No cell phones, no internet, no television, no Ipads. No multi-tasking. We disconnect completely. Or maybe I should say we connect completely – with ourselves and each other.
I am learning that turning off technology is just as powerful as turning it on and that our society needs both. Technology can be so enticing and overwhelming, but we also need to remember how important it is to be fully present with the people you love and also be alone and quiet. The potential of technology globally and personally is exponential, but we need to know where the off switch is and when to shut it down.
Do you see social media or multi-player games replacing the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater?
No. these are all new experiences but nothing will replace being in a darkened theater experiencing something together with a group. Laughing, crying, thinking together. We are social creatures. We will always go to the movies.
What has surprised you in the audience reaction to the movie?
At the end of the screenings, after sharing something so personal everyone in the theater feels very connected to me and to each other, which I didn’t expect. Normally, after you feel connected with someone, you are compelled to share some part of yourself with them..but with “Connected,” here I was experiencing the reverse. In the film, I share and then people feel connected. It has been exciting to then see the audience in turn feel connected to not only me, but to the bigger ideas in the film.
And lastly, everyone is ready to have this conversation about “what does it mean to be connected in the 21st century?” It feels like everyone has been waiting to have it. No one wants to leave the Q & As. Our goal is to trigger a global conversation about “connectedness” and it seems people are ready.
Will Reiser and Seth Rogen were friends who worked together on “Da Ali G Show,” making fun of everything and everyone, especially the powerful. So, when Reiser got cancer, they took it on in the same spirit. Finding their own experience as survivor and friend very different from the transcendent and saintly stories they had seen in movies and thoroughly annoyed by all the people who asked Reiser if he had a “bucket list,” they decided to write their own movie. It is not a factual re-telling of the real-life story but it is an authentic portrayal of the feelings of young men who have not even figured out how to live when they are confronted with thinking about the possibility of death. Can a man who is not very good at taking care of himself take care of his friend?
Resier’s character is called Adam, and he is a producer at NPR. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the role. Rogen’s character is named Kyle and is played by Rogen himself.
Reiser and Rogen sat down with a small group of journalists at the Georgetown Ritz hotel to talk about the movie. As he was “going through the ordeal,” Reiser said, he and Rogen talked about how different the experience was from anything they had seen in a movie. But people’s impression was formed by the movies. They’d ask him about “My Life” or “The Bucket List.” “To punch you in the face is the first thing on it,” said Rogen. They wanted to make a movie where the audience does not cry all the way through and the person doesn’t die at the end. “Tonally,” said Rogen, “not the procedures.” Reiser said that in movies the cancer patient “has this great clarity, understands life and who they are, comes to terms with all these issues with family members and dies the next day. For me, it was dysfunctional and crazy and no one really knew what to say and then I got better and was left with this aftermath of all this.” He felt comfortable writing about personal things because of his close relationship with Rogen and Evan Goldberg, even though it was his first screenplay. “I’m so aware of all the laughs are in the movie,” Rogen said. “I’m so not used to having a movie that bums people out for any length of time. So when I’m watching it, I’m like, we’ve got this thing and this thing and then we get a big laugh and get these people out of this.” They agreed that the biggest laugh is when the immediate reaction from Adam’s mother, played by Anjelica Houston, is “I’m moving in.”
“It’s less that the scenes actually happened to me and more that it draws thematically on what happened with relationships,” Reiser told us. “And also the way in which my friends and I used humor to cope. At that time I was very neurotic and worried about everything. Seth would describe me as annoying.” “Used to be,” Seth broke in. “I didn’t have the ability to express what I was feeling and kept everything bottled up inside. That emotional arc — Adam is very much an extension of me and what I went through. The MRIs, those are my real MRIs. And we worked together and he’s my closest friend and what the doctor said, that all really happened.” “The question we asked ourselves was not ‘did this happen,'” Rogen said, “but ‘is this like something that would have happened?” “Did this feel real?” Reiser said. “Are these conversations we could have had?” “There was a scene in an early draft where the character went to talk to a rabbi,”said Rogen. “We’re like, would you do that?” “I have not been back to synagogue since I was bar mitzvahed,” said Reiser. “But the last scene in the movie, changing the dressing, that really happened. He’s very squeamish. A lot of that scene we figured out as we rehearsed it.”
The one role where they insisted on an audition for was Rachael, the girl Adam is dating, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Help”). Adam’s illness puts a serious strain on the relationship. “We knew it would be tricky to be able to play that character and not have her be a bitch. You see that bitchy girlfriend character in so many movies,” said Reiser. “Or a cartoon,” added Rogen. “Not necessarily that you would sympathize with her, but intellectually you would understand what she is going through.” Canadian actor Serge Houde plays Adam’s father, who is struggling with dementia. Joseph Gordon-Levitt came in at the last minute, arrived at 11, stayed up all night talking about the part, and was rehearsing and getting fitted for the costume and wig two days later. “We don’t want a guy doing a Will impression,” said Rogen, “but people say he’s exactly what Will was like at that age. He never asked him behavioral things, but he did ask him about emotional things.”
Rogen and Reiser have different approaches to writing. Reiser begins with the characters. “I really agonize and spend a lot of time my characters and doing a lot of research. If I find myself forcing it, it’s because I don’t know the characters.” But Rogen begins with a scene ideas and things he wants to put in the movie. “We make a lot of lists. Right now we’re working on an apocalypse story, so we made a list: sinkholes, demons, exorcism. And then funny ideas come out of it. Sometimes the characters are the last thing that’s developed.” They said the therapy scenes were among the hardest to write, especially the last one, where we see the growth of the young therapist played by Anna Kendrick and her ability to call Adam out on his behavior and see his situation more clearly. Rogen kept sending it back for rewrites. Reiser said the line in the movie he is proudest of is when she says to Will, “Your mother has a husband she can’t talk to and a son who won’t talk to her.” Rogen laughed. “A lot of moms got a lot of calls after that one.”
They are working together with the “50/50” director, Jonathan Levine, on another movie based on Will’s life, “Jamaica,” about a vacation he took with his grandmother.
Even the delectable Anna Faris cannot get us to root for the character she plays in this charmless, distasteful dud. The first scene is weirdly identical to the opening of “Bridesmaids,” and one of the movie’s scarce pleasures is the opportunity to consider how the same introduction to both characters can make us see Kristin Wiig as needy but sympathetic and Faris as insincere and manipulative. And it’s downhill fast from there.
Ally (Faris) has lost her job but what really worries her is an article in a woman’s magazine about what your “number” says about you. That would be the number of men she has slept with, and hers is 20 after series of terrible choices, most recently a drunken encounter with the boss who told her she was being laid off (Joel McHale of “Community”). Believing she can never get married if her number goes any higher (because of some vague “study”), she decides to go through her reject pile to see if anyone from her past might be her Mr. Right. She enlists the aid of the hunky guy across the hall (Chris Evans of “Captain America” and “Puncture”) to help her track them down. Meanwhile, her sister (Ari Graynor of “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) is getting married and her mother is putting a lot of pressure on her.
So, the ingredients for a sparkly rom-com are in place: plucky heroine in need of a self-esteem boost after some romantic stumbles meets Prince Charming who uniquely appreciates the real her. And there’s even a chance to give bit parts to an array of handsome and talented actors as the exes.
The problem is that the gaping disconnect between the movie’s view of Ally as an adorable heroine and Faris’ game attempt to play her that way quickly collide with the inescapable unpleasantness of the characters and their actions. Ally swears she will not have sex with anyone else and then gets drunk, gives her engaged sister a mean-spirited and crude toast, and sleeps with her finger-smelling ex-boss (don’t ask). As a teen, when her boyfriend was away, Ally promised to wait until he returned so they could be each other’s first time. Then for no reason she impetuously has sex with a random dweeb just so we can see Andy Samberg with braces on his teeth and a puppet on his hand, making weird sounds while she looks bored. This might be an interesting movie if Ally was an unashamed advocate of sex for pleasure or if she acknowledged that her past behavior was trashy and self-destructive. Instead it seems a sad relic of the discredited “every player gets a trophy” school of self-esteem. Evans tries to make up for his character’s complete absence of any personality beyond running out on his one-night stands and taking off his clothes but there’s only so much anyone can do with this material.
The set-ups are weak: Anthony Mackie plays an ex who is a closeted gay man. Martin Freeman (“Love Actually”) is an ex whose English accent inspired Ally to lie about who she was and pretend to be English, too. Faris’ real-life husband Chris Pratt (“Moneyball”) is engaged to someone else and thinks their accidental encounters mean she is stalking him. The resolutions of all of these encounters are even weaker.
Ally is self-absorbed without having any self-respect, and the same can be said of the film. It is depressingly unaware of its own failure to give us one reason to care about a girl who does not seem to care about anyone but herself. It is sad to think that this miserable mess was inflicted on Faris — and us — by a female novelist and two female screenwriters. Anna Faris is beautiful, smart, funny, and fearless. Is it that hard to write her a comedy that lets her show it?