Mark Decena, Dopamine, 2003.


Ways to enjoy:  For this film, Id see it after reading the brief essay that follows. It should suggest some ideas you can take to the movie itself.


    This is a small movie that didn't receive much media play or wide distribution, but with my interest in neuroscience, how could I pass up a film with that title? It was nominated, though, for the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival in 2003, and it won the festival's Sloan prize ($20,000) for the best film on a scientific theme. It is a small film, as I say, no car chases or giant monsters. It could almost be a European film, it is so character-oriented, were it not for our American habit of over-stating things.

    On the DVD, the director, Mark Decena, tells us right out what he intended as the concept of the movie: "In a world that's over-analyzed and over-informed, that there's still room for belief." He gets at the issue by posing an overly-cerebral computer animator against a troubled artist and teacher: Can they fall in love? For, he points out, this is a movie, not about love as such, but about falling in love, about the way intellect and emotiona sometimes struggle against each other as we humans try to be human with one another. Rand, the hero of the film, a computer animator, tries to reach love by "figuring things out," and that, of course, doesn't work. "Anima" means soul, and his "computer animation" stunts the word's rich significance.

    In San Francisco, three computer geeks re working for a big Japanese company to develop Koy Koy--a computerized "coy" birdie-creature with whom children can interact by voice and keyboard. The three animators are: Winston (Bruno Campos), a compulsive smoker and womanizer, the one on the left in the still from the movie; Johnson (Rueben Grundy), a stolid, steady Afro-American who does Tai Chi, but mostly we see him eating); and our central character, Rand (John Livingston) whose scientistic father encourages him to believe in a totally mechanical world where love is just chemicals. We first saw Rand when he bicycled to his father's house on his way to work and grieved at the sight of his mother, turned into a vegetable by Alzheimer's, the destroyer of the kind of intellect these three programmers thrive on.

    The three animators work in a grim loft at a triangle of desks with multiple computers, and often we see them frantically programming in fast-motion. Total intensity. An executive arrives to tell them the company wants to test the program with children. Rand objects (five-year-olds passing a verdict on my life's work!), but what can they do? Winston pushes the three into line.

    At a local bar, Winston and Rand meet Sarah, a painter (Sabrina Lloyd). As she says later, she came to the bar to get laid. She takes a shine to Rand. He is shy, though, and she hops into bed with "smooth" Winston instead. But after her orgasm she jumps up and runs out— to his fury.

    The animators test Koy Koy with children in a class that Sarah teaches. (And she parries nicely when Winston hints in his public presentation at their sexual fiasco.) The children like Koy Koy, but the program locks up. More frantic programming. And Rand decides to create a female for Koy Koy.

    Rand and Sarah begin a relationship. He tells her about his mother, and they discuss whether love is just chemicals or something more. Rand takes Sarah to a science exhibit (with an embarrassing sex panel). Sarah takes Rand to an art show--it exhibits paintings by an artist stricken with Alzheimer's. There, Rand panics, and he and Sarah go off to a family cabin in the woods. That is the point at which, they should love and consummate their love. Instead he natters on, intellectualizing their relationship in terms of hormones and glands. She takes umbrage at his failing to express his feelings, to say, simply, that he loves her. And they break up.

    This is a movie, isn't it? So we know that Rand and Sarah will end up together. I won't spoil it for you by telling you how they finally work it out, except to say I found it profoundly pleasing (and that's why I've included this movie among many far greater films--it's charming).

    On the DVD, the director and his co-writer, Timothy Breitbach, talk about this film as posing a materialist view of the world against something more human, more emotional. Rand's father represents the materialist view. He has lost his deeply loved wife to Alzheimer's. He has dealt with the loss by convincing himself, and by programming his son to believe, that there is nothing to human emotions but hormones, neurons' electrical signals, and neurochemicals (hence the film's title). Rand follows suit by analyzing lovers in the park in terms of norepinephrine or dopamine or serotonin, throwing in a bit of evolutionary psychology for good measure. Typically for him, for his first real date with Sarah, he takes her to a science exhibit. (She, by contrast, takes him to an art show.)

    The film re-creates Rand's state of mind by flashing animations of neurons or molecules when Rand meets Sara or when they touch or, most poignantly--and comically--when this repressed man smells the nape of her neck and her hair. But when Rand spouts his materialism to his friends or to Sarah, he turns them off. Most crucially, in a romantic night scene by firelight, when Rand is kissing Sarah and it seems as though they finally will connect, she asks him what he is feeling. He goes on about his hypothalamus, testosterone, and dopamine. "Is that love?" He identifies love or what makes us different from animals with intelligence. At that, she angrily breaks off, saying (Freudianly?), "I've got some holes to fill. I'm not sure intelligence is the answer."

    In effect, these two people are trying (sort of) to fall in love, but they live in two different worlds. Rand offers the children in the pre-school a computerized animal. Sarah wants them to have a real rabbit (and I remember that the "rabbit test" was an old-timey pregnancy test, as in a famous episode of M*A*S*H). Sarah re-creates her lost baby in her paintings. Rand creates a loving, responsive creature to replace a mother who can no longer be loving or responsive. Both create pictures (Sarah's on paper, Rand's in a computer), and they go out to look at pictures at the science exhibit and the art show. At the same time, Rand simply is Koy Koy. He is locked into the artificial environment of his office as Koy Koy is locked into the artificial environment created in the computer. As critic Dave Kehr notes in the New York Times, Koy Koy is "Rand himself: shy, wary, unable to trust in the permanence of love."

    In their commentary on the DVD, Decena and Breitbach often refer to a sub-plot they dropped from the final picture. It involved involving addiction and Winston's efforts to give up smoking (note his name!). Traces remain. Winston talks about giving up, and in the first episode of office work, Rand goes out to buy speed from a local drug dealer (double the dose! --the first words of the movie). Had this plot fully materialized, I think it would have added another dimension to the idea of these characters' worlds. That is, each of us, by the way we cope with inner and outer reality, create a world, and, because we cope the same way, year after year, we, in effect, become addicted to those strategies of coping. And just as one can get addicted to cigarettes, just as Winston can be "Winston," one can get addicted to computers or to impulsive sex (as Sarah is: "I've got some holes to fill"). These ways of coping, these created worlds, are, in a not entirely healthy way, addictions. They are permanent.

    The characters want the things they love not to go away (as surely we all do). They should be permanent like the ancient trees that are the first thing we see in the film. Contrasted to that kind of image or the waters of San Francisco Bay is the rapid-fire of neurons' spritzing one another or the animators' programming. One of the attractions of a computer-creature or of Sarah's pictures is that they are permanent. They last. As Rand says, "I'm trying to build this whole fucking thing inside a computer so that the light switch [in the brain] will never go off." But, unfortunately, at the end of the picture the backers of the project "pull the plug" (in an often-repeated idiom), and we have already seen Koy Koy "freeze." Anyway, by the end, Rand has become indifferent to the project and coolly terminates Koy Koy's artitificial life (although the movers emptying the office are, appropriately, moved).

Sarah and Rand, I think, are trying to understand what's going on inside them by creating thngs outside themselves: Rand programs the world of Koy Koy, and Sarah paints the baby she gave up for adoption. Both are creative, but in a special way. Some psychologists have a theory about artistic creation, that the artist is trying to "re-constitute a lost object." That is, the artist has lost something or, more likely, someone and, through making a physical art object, the artist tries to bring that person or thing back. As Sarah says, "I've got some holes to fill." Here, Rand is trying to deal with the loss of his mother to Alzheimer's. Sarah is trying to deal with the loss of her baby.

    The film sets out to connect their two worlds. It begins with a limited palette of colors, high contrast images, and limited camera motions inside the animators' loft or the bar where Winston picks up Sarah or Winston's apartment. Gradually, the tone changes, starting with the scenes in the pre-school, toward more natural color and open movement and a hand-held camera, reflecting the gradual connecting of Rand and Sarah.

    The film gives us images of doubles in connection, like bicycles with their twin wheels, but notably the Golden Gate bridge with its twin towers. (We get gorgeous shots of the bridge swimming in fog, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Humphreys.) Normal people in this film connect through eating or, in a charming scene, perfume. (Rand had claimed love was smelling pheromones.) Rand and Sarah make connection more complicated. For them, their first real talk comes via a webcam and an internet connection. Charmingly, the last shot of the movie shows telephone or power lines while Rand sings Bob Dylan's "Sarah" to his love (as a pre-schooler had asked Koy Koy to "sing me a song).

    What is a central idea shaping this film? Certainly the writers' theme of intellect-vs.-belief will do it. But we can think of other ideas as well: intellect as opposed to emotion; the quest for permanence; creation as repair; character as addiction; science vs. art--many, many themes. This is a film that offers us a lot of possibilities. And perhaps that is a way of bringing it all together. going from the closed world of our biology or "artificial life" to the infinitely open world of our intelligence and our feelings.

Ways to enjoy: You can certainly enjoy the fine acting of John Livingston and Sabrina Lloyd. There is little acting with the whole body in this film. They do marvelously nuanced things just with their facial expressions, and it is a treat to watch them. But this is a film in which you can let your mind wander through a lot of intellectual possibilities. You can let yourself find all kinds of interesting ideas (some suggested in the preceding paragraph) in it, and you should.

The End

N. N. H.