Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tilda Swinton, Francesca Faridany, Timothy Leary, Karen Black, John O'Keefe, John Perry Barlow, J.D. Wolfe, Owen Murphy, David Brooks, Esther Mulligan, Ellen Sebastian, Mark Capri, Joe Wemple, Chris von Sneidern, David Eppel
Written by: Eileen Jones, Lynn Hershman-Leeson
Directed by: Lynn Hershman-Leeson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 85
Date: 09/10/1997

Conceiving Ada (1997)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Computer Love

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lynn Hershman-Leeson's Conceiving Ada is often accused of pretentiousness, though I seriously doubt that any movie with Karen Black and Timothy Leary, plus a lot of sex, can be taken entirely seriously. Rather, it strikes me as a would-be cult movie without a cult, alternately clever and harebrained. I like it for many reasons, but I especially like it for the way it deliberately avoids a traditional costume biopic about Ada Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), who apparently invented the first computer language.

Tilda Swinton stars as Ada, but she does not appear for a little while. Instead the film opens on a modern-day computer programmer, Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany), who is working on a method to tap into old memories and old information, which apparently, still exist, just floating around. Her program consists of an old picture of Ada, and a little golden bird. If Emmy can just get the bird to take flight, she will be able to actually watch movies of Ada in action, which is precisely what happens. We witness Ada doing brilliant things, having lots of flirtations and love affairs, and fighting as men try to take credit for her work. Meanwhile, Emmy has her own problems in real life. And as the two women grow more attached, their connection results in a strange crossover between virtual reality and actual reality. San Francisco singer Lavay Smith appears briefly in a club scene.

Swinton is marvelous here, and she's the real draw. She looks great in her period costumes, and she's uniquely sexy. Her sequences also seem somehow more confident than the modern-day wraparounds, which often come across as awkward and half-baked. Some of the computer-art imagery is dated, but has a real beauty because of it, especially a "computerized dog" program that occasionally speaks in a creepy voice. The Residents provide the appropriately weird score. The entire package has a loony, uncommonly intelligent combination that could be appealing for adventurous viewers. Hershman-Leeson's next film, Teknolust, is even stranger and more interesting.

Microcinema has released both Hershman-Leeson films on new DVDs. The transfer on Conceiving Ada is tragic, and looks for all the world like it was mastered from an old VHS tape rather than any original source material. It's too bad, because this film could have had a second life, given Swinton's newfound celebrity status. Extras include a new interview with Hershman-Leeson and Swinton.

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