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CONCEIVING ADA(director/writer: Lynn Hershman Leeson; screenwriters: Eileen Jones/based on the book “Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers, a Selection From the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer,” by Betty A. Toole; cinematographers: Hiro Narita/Bill Zarchy (virtual sets); cast: Tilda Swinton (Ada Byron King), Timothy Leary (Sims), Karen Black (Lady Byron/Mother Coer), Francesca Faridany (Emmy Coer), J.D. Wolfe (Nicholas), John O’Keefe (Charles Babbage), John Perry Barlow (John Crosse), Ellen Sebastian (Emmy’s doctor); Runtime: 85; Fox Lorber; 1997)
For those on the lookout for a brainy non-Hollywood film, this one should prove to be more than satisfactory.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lynn Hershman Leeson is the director/writer of this intriguing cyber-fantasy film. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense namedthe Ada programming language in honor of Lord Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, the mathematician Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace (1815-1852). She is credited as the “first computer programmer” because of her plan for calculating Bernoulli numbers.

This is an indie film that is strong on ideas about artificial life, memory, and immortality; and, it does a marvelous job in making use of some innovative technology such as, digital software photoshop programs. The film was structured around the idea of a double helix to be visualized in every scene and shot by using a DNA image as a model for the actors’ placement and camera movement. The actors appeared before nothing but a bluescreen and were photographed with a Digital Betacam and this was then transferred to computer images depicting the same Victorian bed-and-breakfast rooms where Ada Byron King actually resided, the actors and the authentic rooms were then seen together in the live video.

The film is much weaker on its drama and on feminism issues than on its technology, as its characters seem to pale a bit besides the computerized images of artificial life. Nevertheless, for computer geeks, this is a definite must see; for others, it should be of considerable interest to the more intellectual-minded who like to see something different in a film and also like the challenge the film offers about the usual concepts of what reality is thought to be.

Conceiving Ada tracksthe somewhat analogous contemporary life that the American neurotic computer programer, Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany), has with the 19th century creator of the first computer language program, Ada Byron King (Tilda Swinton). Emmy dedicates her life to making contact with that problematic genius and rebel against Victorian behavior. She becomes what is called an “agent” through the use of a computer program she has created in her position as a genetic memory expert. An “agent” is supposed to be anyone or thing who can retrieve information and can talk directly with someone from the past. The common threads in their lives is their obsessive genius, their curiosity, and an indifference to bringing children into the world and then raising them. Also, part of Emmy’s attraction to Ada is that both of their mothers wanted to stifle their intellectual development. Karen Black plays the dual role of mother to both of them.

The fascination with Ada by Emmy goes beyond her respect for her work and her stance as a feminist fighting for respect in a male dominated field. They share a common feeling about art and memory, and conduct their lives in a similarly free-spirited manner. And, both have lovers who interfere with their obsessive plans. Ada has several lovers, as well as a spouse and several children. Ada uses all her lovers for her sexual advantage and to tap into their intellectual knowledge. Ada collaborates with Charles Babbage (J.D. Wolfe), who is the inventor of an engine called the “Theory of Miracles.” His invention aims at trying to predict the infinite number of possibilities there are in life, such as what are the practical uses derived from conscious dreams. As envisioned by Ada, this information can lead to composing music and creating a poetic language.

In a fit of jealousy over Ada’s superior intelligence and promiscuous behavior, Babbage changed Ada’s notes and the purpose of the engine they were collaborating on. As a result Babbage received all the credit for the invention and she was later on reduced to living out a painful existence where Ada got hooked on opium, which a doctor prescribed as treatment for her pain. One of Ada’s other lovers is the tutor of Byron’s children, but she develops a more intense and deeper sexual relationship with the devious but likable John Crosse (Barlow). Crosse’s an expert in encryption. Emmy is also exuberant about sex and obsessed about her work. She is living with a boyfriend, Nicholas (J.D. Wolfe), who pressures her to have his baby and stop being obsessed with the Ada project and start taking care of her health by eating right. Nicholas interferes with Emmy’s work by going into her computer program to try and stop her project.

As an added bonus to the movie a very tired looking and ashen Timothy Leary (he died in 1996) plays Emmy’s guru, Sims, and the surprise about this brilliant and controversial advocate of hallucinogenics and well-known space explorer is that he appears to be sober and rational in his thoughts. Leary dispenses his wisdom to his young woman acolyte. One of his pearls of wisdom goes something like this, “Information is like a mist that you have to breathe in.”

By touching up her own DNA, the pregnant Emmy finds out that she can travel to the past and share her space (cyber-and-womb) with Ada. Ada is a broken and disappointed 37-year-old at this time, who is about to die from cancer, feeling that she has lost everything in life and is wondering why she never was what she should have been. Emmy offers to try and save her work and give her the historical recognition she deserves, as she tries to get Ada to divulge the secrets of her work. But Ada doesn’t want all her secrets told, saying that every generation has to re-create the world in their own image.

The concept offered of the possibility to retreat to the past for communication with historical figures and to gather information from stored memory, is an alluring idea and is certainly one that gives this intelligently made film a highbrow premise worth savoring. What weakness there is, comes about from its complications in its storytelling and the didactic way it explains so much of its mathematical theory to an audience that needs this vital information made clear in order to help them make sense out of what is taking place–but this ruins the entertainment value of the film and curtails its natural flow. As a result that very riveting performance by the illuminated Tilda Swinton (Orlando) is overshadowed by the film’s inability to be more engaging, though some effort was made to bring more life and passion into the story by showing both Emmy’s and Ada’s sexual passions unfold.

If the film remained more focused on Ada’s story and we understood her work a little bit more and if we saw more clearly why Babbage got credit for the invention not her, it would have been in all probability an even better film. Swinton is that good of a performer to have carried this film further if given more camera time. Yet … for those on the lookout for a brainy non-Hollywood film, this one should prove to be more than satisfactory.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”