Tag Archive: OCD

The Imitation Game

Here just some random thoughts I can’t keep to myself about this movie. Contains spoilers.

Just a quick statement: Though I am not a mathematician, I’ve had this odd fascination with Turing and ciphers. E.g. I adore the ‘Cryptonomicon’ by Neal Stephenson, but for the most part I feel about the technicalities like William Gibson once said about computers in an interview: „My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.“* So I won’t go into criticizing the romantic depiction of ‘this is how science works’, others have done that.

I wasn’t expecting a scientifically or historically accurate movie at all. While there are tons of things you could say about inaccuracies, I don’t think it matters much because it’s not supposed to be an accurate documentary. It’s a story based on and inspired by Turing’s life which was truly remarkable. But the movie doesn’t really work so well as a story. I want to focus on two things that piqued me in particular: what I will call nerd tropes and the sexuality issue.**

Franchise audience pleasing

Let’s put Tywin Lannister and Sherlock Holmes in a room and see what happens. And yes, that scene is funny, but what does it achieve? Bringing together two actors who are so clearly known for previous roles. There doesn’t have to be a nod in their direction all the time, and in my opinion it damages the integrity for the performance of the characters at hand.

It could have helped if Turing wouldn’t have been portrayed as painfully shy and narcissistic at once – just pick one. I wouldn’t say that Cumberbatch can’t play a different character than Sherlock. He’s clearly too good an actor for that and his interpretation of Turing living somewhere on the scale of autism is at times convincing. But that interference breaks the integrity of the character in several scenes, not just the one with Charles Dance.

Nerd tropes

But why does the script not stick to that particular interpretation, but throws in all other types of ‘this is what we expect someone intelligent to do’-tropes in there? OCD („carrots and peas mustn’t touch“), arrogance („I’m a genius and I know it“), stuttering, isolation, mobbing victim, not eating („I don’t like sandwiches“… hello Sherlock), trying to tell a joke but failing („I don’t get why people never say what they really mean“… hello Sheldon). Another really good example for this is another Cumberbatch performance in ‘The last enemy’: Also a mathematical genius, also highly intelligent, also has quirks. In one of the opening scenes of the series the character, Stephen Ezzard, is seen frantically washing his hands on an airplane. The purpose of the scene is to establish his status as ‘that quirky guy’. OCD is never relevant to the plot, it can be turned off and on again at will (that would be so convenient in real life). It’s a best of nerd tropes without thinking about that many of these traits cancel each other out. It becomes annoying, and it makes all these characters kind of look the same. So, dear script writers, make a choice which quirks your genius has and stick with it, don’t just pile them all on. Next:

The gay thing

How does the movie deal with that? Some reviewers said could imagine two approaches:

There are two ways, I think, that one could go about making a story of Alan Turing and his key role in inventing the computer as a means of cracking a Nazi code during the Second World War. One way would be to go all-in on the psychological aspect, and take it for granted that Turing’s closeted homosexuality was haunting him and driving him in his quest to uncover the secrets of his nation’s enemies, thus making his eventual punishment by the British government for his “gross indecency” even more ironically cruel. The other would be to discard personal matters altogether, and make a purely process-driven story, in which Turing and his colleagues are nothing but the human vessels for acts of research and insight, and the act of breaking the code is itself the protagonist, with all the people reduced to the status of window dressing.

The actual Turing biopic that exists in the world, The Imitation Game, tries to combine these methods in a hybrid that does not work much at all. (http://antagonie.blogspot.de/2014/12/ever-read-cryptonomicon-you-should.html)

Combining these two approaches would have been possible, but I agree that they do not work together very well in this movie. Making the movie without adressing the ‘problem’** would not have been right because they’d get all kinds of shitstorms about that, and rightly so. It wouldn’t have been ok, it would have seemed like they tried to cover it up. Some people say you shouldn’t focus on Turings sexuality because his work was more important. In 2015 that might be a valid opinion, but mid-last-century that was not a option. Though the investigation of his suicide remains shrouded in myth, it was a horrible time to openly be anything but heteronormative and people fucked up his life badly. So it definitely needs to be dealt with in a biography.

But is it just me, or is the movie avoiding this? The flashbacks to the boy love are a bit like bad fan fiction: „Yes, I loved only once and then he died.“ And the romantic Christopher/Bombe naming thing never happened. Bit much, isn’t it? My point is: The movie puts the issue of portrayal of same-sex affection conveniently in the past and the ‘future’. When the issue comes up in the present storyline, it’s focused on marrying Joan and the „hmm I’m afraid I can’t deliver“-speech or on blackmailing (for dramatization and liberties taken with that Cairncross story-line see here). While everyone at Bletchley probably worked a lot and there was no time for office romances, it’s weird that neither of the timelines ever shows anything sexual. In 1951 (it was actually 1952) there is a shot of his unnamed lover sitting in the police station, and we hear the word penis spoken out loud, and that’s it.

Is it just a really clever statement of the implications of being gay in a time where you had to stay in the closet or be prosecuted that you never see anything physical? Or is it so as not to offend any homophobics in the cinema, because noone can be suffered to see men having sex on screen? It’s not supposed to be ‘Brokeback Mountain’, but still, it felt off to me.

In conclusion

Great theme and lots of capable actors not put to very good use.

On the plus side: It was a nice idea to make the main theme the Turing test. While all this constructed heroism around Turing is sort of over the top, it’s good to get a perspective at how crappy people who achieved tons when it mattered can be treated and cast off. Pardons issued decades later can’t make up for past injustice, but it’s a step in the right direction.


* „On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory: I’m interested in the hows and whys of memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to revision. When I was writing Neuromancer, it was wonderful to be able to tie a lot of these interests into the computer metaphor. It wasn’t until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there’s a drive mechanism inside — this little thing that spins around. I’d been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player. That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.“

(Interview with Larry McCaffery in Storming the Reality Studio : A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, Duke University Press (December 1991) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_Gibson)

** Disclaimer: I use the words ‘problem’ and ‘issue’ not because I think homosexuality is a problem, but it is problematic insofar as some people unfortunately still think it is and the movie industry still has its own problems in dealing with their audience’s problems. Wow, I really used the word problem a lot in that sentence. Anyway, go LGBTOW.

Update: Congratulations to Graham Moore! Stay weird, stay different.

The ‘New’ Nerdism?

I get the feeling that mainstream culture has become more friendly towards nerds lately. What is a nerd? Since when does nerdism make for a ‘good story’? What are the character constellations? And why do you still love them?

What is a nerd?

Wikipedia sez:

Nerd (adjective: nerdy) is a descriptive term, often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or socially impaired. They may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, obscure, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities.“

Urban dictionary sez:

„An ‘individual’, i.e. a person who does not conform to society’s beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do. Often highly intelligent but socially rejected because of their obesssion with a given subject, usually computers. Unfortunately, nerds seem to have problems breeding, to the detriment of mankind as a whole.“

I guess the term has been thrown around a lot, but whatever the specifics, the common nerdy traits are a) intelligence and/or extraordinary skill/knowledge in one or a few areas and b) social ineptitude.

Previously on … Nerds

In antiquity, in the late Middle ages and early renaissance there are various comedies which explore the world of academia. Of course, at this time, the word nerd didn’t exist, but you see, the topic is not new. I guess the german term I know (Gelehrtenkomödie) translates to „scholar comedy“. One example I read by accident, called „Melancholicus“ by Christian Bachmann.

The main character displays, among others, bad traits such as avarice, jealousy, vanity, (generally not great features to have), paranoia, hypochondria and social phobia. He has poor understanding of the world in general but great knowledge in specific areas (in this case, astronomy). He is contrasted by other, ‘normal’ figures, e.g. his wife. The comedies of this time want to display a bunch of bad character traits and ridicule them. There is a didactic effect: „Listen here, folks, this is how you don’t do it!“

The Shel-lock Syndrome

Zapping to modern times. Some factors have stayed the same. Famous nerds on TV right now are e.g. Sheldon Cooper from the sitcom „The Big Bang Theory“ or Sherlock Holmes („Sherlock“).

by Chelsi Wagner (devianart)

In their respective series, it’s a constant struggle between social norms and science. Again, both characters have poor understanding of the world or society in general but great knowledge in specific areas (physics, detective skills). They too are contrasted by other figures that the audience can identify with. They have no exceptional skills (Penny, John Watson) but are accepted members of society and know how to navigate social norms. This makes for countless situations of comic relief. Nerds have different goals in life: they want to solve problems, they want to be scientifically successful. ‘Normal’ peoples’ goals usually prioritize „having a good time“, which includes being a recognized part of society, being loved by others or one significant other. Thinks the nerd: This is not my priority so I won’t skill it (maybe displaying a bit of nerdism here myself). Although they want acceptance, too, but on a different, not-everyday level; they want their work to be recognized and be admired by the people who can actually understand and value what they are doing. Vanity: check.

The lovable sociopath

What is the difference between a sociopath that you can still deem adorable and laugh about and a sociopath that you hate? The nerd who is only interested in his or her thing doesn’t care about peoples’ feeling because they are irrelevant. But they don’t disregard or hurt people because they want to, but because they simply don’t know how ‘normal’ people deal with other ‘normal’ people. So each time a boundary is overstepped, someone is insulted or someone gets hurt by their inobservance of social conventions, the audience sort of understands. You might say „god, what an utter arsehole“, but what you mean „this person behaves like an arsehole“. You wouldn’t hold it against them because you still think they might learn how to deal with the situation in question appropriately. You respect them for their skills, which might mean nothing to you personally, but dedication and intelligence are generally positive attributes, and you adore them for trying to navigate uncharted territory when they try to ‘fit in’. In short, you forgive them their mistakes because you believe they can do better. It’s a variation on the „Only I can fix him“ trope.

Worth a tale

The pattern is: friends and family try to integrate the nerd into society as they think would be right, but expectations differ, often hilariously. This display does not serve a didactic purpose, but it still sets the dynamics for a story between characters of different worlds, so to speak, and makes for good entertainment. It seems to be extremely popular at the moment. Maybe I’ll write about tv displays of OCD next, because that’s going through the roof, too.

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