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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Sep. 29, 2011





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CONNECTED

Although her new documentary, Connected has an eye on the future, director Tiffany Shlain also knows there’s still wisdom to be mined from the past. “Nothing vast enters into the life of mortals free from a curse.”  It’s hard to imagine how Sophocles would have reacted to the internet, but the quote from Antigone is effective in describing our species’ ever increasing dependence on technology.  Shlain’s documentary wants to address the big questions, and even offers up some interesting answers; but what really sets the film apart are the conections Shlain makes between her personal struggles and the growing interdependence of human society at large.


The tagline of Connected describes it as “an autobiography about love, death and technology”, and from the outset Shlain’s film is intensely personal.  The director is one of the first people we see onscreen in the film, and she explains that the film began as an exploration of the human relationship with technology, but took a hard left turn when her father, noted surgeon and scholar Leonard Shlain, was diagnosed with brain cancer and given less than a year to live. 


Amdist this universal drama, Connected is distinguished by the fact that Shlain had already written an number of influential books regarding the human brain and technology. When the film began, he was working on what would be his final book, an attempt to explore the remarkable brain of Leonardo Da Vinci.  As the younger Shlain repeats throughout the film, the division of the brain into the left and right hemispheres has a profound impact on the way humans interact with technology in general, and the internet in particular.  Most Males are thought to be more left-brained, specializing in linear thinking, while females tend to use their right brain more, focusing more on creativity.  To apply this to surfing the web, the way we click to gain information comes from the left brain, our obsession with social networking comes from the right.


Leonard Shlain’s theory in his last book is that at some point, every species undergoes a genetic mutation which may offer a possible glimpse into that species’ future evolution.  Shlain theorizes that Da Vinci was the human representation of that gene mutation, which resulted in his remarkable ability to access both halves of his brain with equal skill.  A left-brained Da Vinci may never have painted the Mona Lisa, where a stronger right-brained affinity may have left us without many of Leonardo’s advancements in math and science.


While billions of people plug in and log on to the web every day, it’s fascinating to consider the ways in which our brains impact our decisions as we interact online.  Connected explores the ways in which oxytocin and dopamine, two chemicals produced by the brain, are triggered with every click of the mouse.  On the surface, this doesn’t sound inherently cinematic, but Shlain’s movie is anything but dull. The film has a breezy 80 minute run time, and her scientific facts are all nicely wrapped in an abundant array of entertaining and electic archival footage.  There are even a few celebrities.  Albert Brooks makes a cameo at the dinner where Tiffany Shlain’s husband proposes, and Al Gore is featured in a clip accepting a Webby Award (Shlain herself started the Webbys.) 


While the younger Shlain’s original intent with Connected was to collaborate with her father in making the film, instead he becomes the film’s central subject.  While the film occasionally veers off into maudlin territory as Leonard’s experimental cancer treatments begin to fail, the movie mostly handles a difficult period of its director’s life with a quiet grace.  The news that Shlain is pregnant with her second child during this time after a number of miscarriages adds to the film’s emotional impact.  One thing becomes clear early on: even if the nature of her collaboration with her father on Connected had to change, this movie wouldn’t exist without him.


As for the larger questions, the film doesn’t sugarcoat the ways in which technology has contributed to the problems we face as a species.  Even so, both Shlains are incurable optimists, and the film concludes with the hope that future humans will learn to better integrate their brains and connect with each other not only broadly, but deeply. 


Connected opens Friday, September 30th at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood.

 


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