Making Sense of Imperfection
By Magda Pescariu
Days ago I read an article online which I dismissed at first, with the usual amused annoyance I feel every time when artificial intelligence is predicted to replace us within an increasingly tighter timeframe. The author, a big shot tech and digital media expert, was talking about the jobs robots were to take last, following the idea that only the unpredictable and different tasks (as in creative and nonrepetitive) are less likely, at least for a longer while, to be automated and performed by technologies better than humans. He went on to admitting that there was something common to those jobs that made them exceptionally difficult for AI to take over, which was that they all required unique combinations of intuition, reasoning, emotion and empathy. I couldn’t agree more.
Being a pre-school or elementary teacher, a professional athlete, a judge, a mental health professional, or a politician, certainly commends vast knowledge, nurture and understanding of the human condition in all its complexity. I smiled at the idea of a robot encoded to become the pitch-perfect lying, scheming, deceiving, manipulating, backstabbing, and callous politician of our times. The last jobs that robots would take listed in the article shared the pattern of humanity, of our imperfect and vulnerable humanity. Then how come artists were missing from the list? Dancers, writers, painters, musicians, singers, actors, fashion designers, they were all anywhere near safe from technologies taking over, at least in the author’s vision.
The idea infuriated me, my mind running a mile a minute with arguments against it. Examples and instances were bubbling up from all lines of work which thrive on creativity and emotion, from those jobs, let’s call them like that, which challenge us not only with the way they inform or educate us, but also with the way they engage us in sharing our deepest emotions, values and beliefs, in transcending our innate flaws and fallings. I didn’t have to look back in time further than just a few months, really. And of course, the strongest arguments sprung from my passion and my cup of tea – the work of actors and costume designers, who rarely if ever repeat themselves in portraying and influencing our vulnerable humanity.
Think of Arthur, the android in Passengers, witty and up-for-it, and even cute, I’ll give him that. Could’ve passed as the perfect bartender, at ease in dealing with human nature day in, day out for the next 120 years or so. This until the lights went out, everything came apart at the metallic seams, and he was put out to pasture. It took a human touch to bring him back to function (I almost wrote back to life), the touch of someone who paid close attention and cared, forgiving his treacherous trespassing. The guy couldn’t keep a secret, man, but human fads are hardly programmable, aren’t they? How can you standardize falling in love, facing hurt, forgiving the unpardonable? And let’s not forget that the android may be considered the only bright spot in a movie that didn’t add up to anything much otherwise, but only because he’s so (in)credibly played by Michael Sheen.
Or think of the memorable way costume designer Arianne Phillips chose to depict the moment when the main character in Nocturnal Animals, a woman so repressed that her composed, high-end and mono-colored streamlined persona feels and behaves like a robot, decides to revisit the choices that shaped and defined her, and gets ready to meet with her very passionately alive ex-husband at a posh restaurant. A sea of raw feelings enlivens the character’s settled unhappiness, buried guilt and haunting numbness as she slips into a silky green dress, with show-and-tell key-hole décolletage. We get to see her entire hurtful life story just in the glint of a sinful color and the defenselessness of a feeble neckline.
There is no way a sophisticated algorithm or any specially-built computer platform would ever be able to create in flesh, blood and spirit the magical opening scene of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. It took a visionary composer (Justin Hurwitz), two inspired lyricists (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), choreographer Mandy Moore, costume designer Mary Zophres, dozens of performers, and several other less visible artists to produce such breathtaking mixture of joy and melancholy that the La La Land’s first six minutes establish. That frenzy of foolish dreamers with unfulfilled dreams, shaking off the entrapment in their own solitude and frustration, and enjoying ‘Another Day of Sun’ at 110 degrees while dancing their hearts out in the hottest weekend of a hot fall – is one hell of a proof that exuberance and sweet sadness can neither be mimicked or forged, nor can they ever be ciphered.
The incredible vitality of the scene has a key little fashion secret to it. Knowing the limited time they had to shoot the scene and the blasting heat announced for that weekend, Mary Zophres shopped for multiple costumes, keeping together just the general idea of performers’ young silhouette and the shape of a short swing dress. The 150 dancers, sweating and dancing under the cameras gliding over the cars, had to change their outfits a few times with no access whatsoever to the base camp. They’d get in the cars, change into something that was only vaguely similar to what they wore before, and then up again on the hoods to finish the twirls. To the viewing eye in the movie theater, the visually luxuriant opening scene feels like navigating a wonderful ocean of anticipation and hopes, with hundreds of sparkles coming together as one.
At the other end of the world, the same human hopefulness in desperate search for light is dressed with frail modesty, in powdery colors of poverty, by Lion’s courageous costume designer Cappi Ireland, in an effort to recreate a true story without shortcoming any of its crucial details. Loss and love intertwine in crowd scenes of unimaginable beauty, wherefrom the modern world has been completely erased to make room for a timeless humanity in body rags and soul riches.
No software package would ever be able to come up with the creativity costume designer Madeline Fontaine had to employ to make the iconic pink suit for Natalie Portman in Jackie. As the original one, worn by Jackie Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, considered a symbol of power as much as of a historically shattered dream, is sealed and stored out of public view in the National Archives, and it will remain so until the 100-year deed of the surviving heir expires, the suit had to be recreated from scratch as a copy. Five different suits were made, in five shades of the famous strawberry pink, just to have the right color in the continuity of the footage, according to the choices of different cameras, different lights and different moments of the day decided for filming. All that – just for wining our hearts in the movie theater, tearfully sucked back in by history’s dramas and by the fearlessly portrayed paradigm of our human vulnerability.
Can you really imagine a technology skilled enough to design dresses to cover devastated feelings of grandeur and giftedness, bizarre creations for an embarrassment-free performer of Florence Foster Jenkins’s stature? In a tour de force, costume designer Consolata Boyle found the spot-on way to do it when she understood the character’s eccentricities, naïveté and coterie as the expression of a love story consumed in a sealed-off world, yet a love story nonetheless, powered by the transformative force of music.
Or an algorithm apt to give birth on screen to the self-confident fashion style flashed with 1960s modesty by the women of Hidden Figures? How do you make a costume spell defiance and freedom, attitude and poise? Designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus took the conservative and form-fitting professional look of the segregated South of the early ’60s and turned it upside-down into a sexy and powerful style, only by playing with rich colors and textures, a matching lipstick shade here and a bit of skin showing there.
What else to say? Show me the robot able to wear a Roman toga and have a field day in it, the way George Clooney did in Hail, Caesar!, while coquettishly playing his skirt’s movement and showing his gorgeous spray-tanned legs to paparazzi’s’ ultimate joy. Really, science people, you are selling us too short.
It’ll be hard for a very long time for a machine to understand the magic of perception and the endless possibilities of human performance. In living lives of desolation or platitude, in speaking wordlessly of our impossible dreams and of blames that have no one and nothing to chalk them up to, it’s only within our power to make our imperfection visible in a luminous way.
Designer Colleen Atwood gave a master class in cinematic costume design with her work on Manchester by the Sea. Unforgivably damaged yet impossible to resent characters are defined by their clothes, both in a colorful past when everything was still possible and in a color-blocked zipped-up present when holding the turmoil inside is the only survival. “I still love you” says a character to her deeply flawed ex-husband, who set in motion the tragedy that ripped apart their hearts and lives forever, incapable of keeping forgiveness at bay. And we recognize immediately the messy way in which our imperfect humanity knows to love, to hurt, to forgive and to survive.
As so memorably concluded the guy from Some Likes It Hot, undeterred from his love when being informed that the object of his affection was, in fact, a man in woman’s clothes: “well, nobody is perfect”. The human condition is not perfect. We are not perfect, any of us. But each of us is imperfect in a different and unpredictable way, which is, more often than technology would like to own up, the very source of our creativity. And it’s exactly this endearing imperfection that makes us irreplaceable after all.