The Way Love Used to Be

Art by Frans Mensink: Modern Dating (2012)

INTERVIEWER: Hey Frank. In Robot & Frank you play a forgetful retired cat burglar whose kids hire him a home-help robot. Are you sceptical about tech?

FRANK LANGELLA: It’s generational. Younger people see it as another means to communicate and I just don’t agree. I think walking up to a pretty girl at a party and saying: “How are you? I’d like to take you for a cup of coffee,” is much more exciting than: “Hey, I saw you last night at the whatever. Text me.” Tech is giving people the opportunity to protect themselves from just saying: “Thank you very much but I don’t like your looks and I don’t want to go out with you.”

So it makes people less courageous?

Also more protective. Too many people sit in front of that [Langella taps my dictaphone. But he means computers.] and figure out what to do. Pornography is enormously popular on technological machines because people can just go into their own fantasy world.

Where do you see that taking humanity?

Not at all to a good place. It risks people having less and less of a sense of being vulnerable. And, when that happens, a certain amount of dignity goes and when dignity goes dishonourable behaviour begins. Because you just don’t think you’re worth it. Or you just don’t think you should bother. “What do I care about this person? I’m not looking into anybody’s eyes; I’m seeing little black dots on the screen.”

So it makes us less compassionate?

Absolutely. I really would much rather have a fight with you in person than do it on a computer screen. And I’d rather make love to a woman in reality than some game on a machine. I’d rather disagree, agree, laugh, cry in person. One of my relatives is 31 and she’s been living with a guy for a long time. I said: “Did you date?” and she looked at me like I was crazy. It doesn’t work that way any more.

Why is that terrible?

Because I cannot tell you the fun I had picking out a flower or a little sweet thing and writing a note and leaving it at a girl’s door. That private sense of: “You’re someone I would like to spend time with”, as opposed to I winnowed you out in a group of a lot of other people. There’s something about that makes you feel good. When a person decides. It’s nice when people call or you get an invitation to dinner, even if it’s nothing to do with romance.

Yet you’re so much in the minority…

No one wants to expose themselves any more; no one wants to risk rejection. You never did anyway. When I was your age it was terrifying to me if someone would say no to my advance. But I did it. I managed somehow. Nowadays there’s so many ways you can protect yourself from the direct question. “I’ll get drunk enough to take that person to bed and then the next day I’ll decide if we like each other.” That went on in my generation but there was still not so many tools to prevent intimacy. I’m an older guy now and I work with a lot of young actors and they all talk to me about their lives and so many of my young friends fall crazy for each other, go to bed and then within a couple of days they’re lying in bed and each is texting. God, when I was a young man when you got into bed you were there for years. Your relationship grew. You lusted for each other, you loved each other, you were interested in each other. In the morning you made each other breakfast, all the natural courtship things. There’s a new show in America called Girls which is all about: “Let’s get the business done. Then let’s go off and do something else.”

It’s a strange mix of pragmatism and emotional reticence.

So then you never really know. People talk to me all the time about the power of mind-altering drugs. I don’t take anything. I had a furious argument at dinner with friends of mine. I said put on the table what’s in your pockets. And they said: this helps me, that helps me, how dare you talk against it. I said: well, I know how I feel right now. I know I’m angry with you. How do you know what you feel about me? Because that pill is doing it. You keep on taking them you’re never going to really know who you are. “No, no, no, no, I need it I can’t get along without it.” That’s bullshit. Again, it’s fear.

But you’re being nice. Maybe it’s really about not having the balls.

Exactly. Not having the courage to be frightened. To be scared and lonely and dealing with it. I’ll just take something. Move in a pack of other people my age. And I’ll stay safe. In fact all it’s doing is stalling your humanity. Enabling you to use a machine and say: “Ah I’m protected here. She doesn’t really know who I am. I can hide behind this.” Much better to just leap into the void and see what happens. What’s so bad about a no?

Interview with Frank Langella by Catherine Shoard
The Guardian, 20 December 2012

Illustration by Frans Mensink: Modern Dating (2012)

Related: The End of Courtship?

Smartphone Love

I want to be the machine in your hand
And go wherever you go
Your every touch would be my command
And I wouldn’t be so slow…

The Machine in Your Hand
Music by Stephin Merritt
Performed by the Magnetic Fields
Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012)

Cartoon by Roz Chast: The New Yorker, 27 July 2009

Autism World

The Greatest Gift

Behold the astronaut, fully equipped for duty: a scaly creature, more like an oversized ant than a primate – certainly not a naked god. To survive on the moon he must be encased in an even more heavily insulated garment and become a kind of faceless ambulatory mummy. While he is hurtling through space, the astronaut’s physical existence is purely a function of mass and motion, narrowed down to the pinpoint of acute sentient intelligence demanded by the necessity for coordinating his reactions with the mechanical and electronic apparatus upon which his survival depends. Here is the archetypal protomodel of Post-Historic Man, whose existence from birth to death would be conditioned by the megamachine and made to conform, as in a space capsule, to the minimal functional requirements by an equally minimal environment – all under remote control.

Dr. Bruno Bettelheim reports the behavior of a nine-year old autistic patient, a boy called Joey, who conceived that he was run by machines. “So controlling was this belief that Joey carried with him an elaborate life-support system made up of radio tubes, light bulbs, and a ‘breathing machine.’ At meals he ran imaginary wires from a wall socket to himself, so his food could be digested. His bed was rigged up with batteries, a loudspeaker, and other improvised equipment to keep him alive while he slept.”

But is this just the autistic fantasy of a pathetic little boy? Is it not rather the state that the mass of mankind is fast approaching in actual life, without realizing how pathological it is to be cut off from their own resources for living, and to feel no tie with the outer world unless they are connected with the Power Complex and constantly receive information, direction, stimulation, and sedation from a central external source, via radio, discs, and television, with the minimal opportunity for reciprocal face-to-face contact? The stringent limitations of the space capsule have already been extended to other areas. Technocratic designers proudly exhibit furniture planned solely to fit rooms as painfully constricted as a rocket chamber. Even more ingenious minds, equally subservient to the Power Complex, have already conceived a hospital bed in which every function –  from the taking of temperature to intravenous feeding – will be automatically performed within the limits of the bed. Solitary confinement thus becomes the last word in “tender and loving care.”

Except for meeting emergencies, as with an iron lung or a space rocket, such mechanical attachment and encapsulation presents a definitely pathological syndrome. Increasingly, the astronaut’s spacesuit will be, figuratively speaking, the only garment that machine-processed and machine-conditioned man will wear in comfort, for only in that suit will he, like little Joey, feel alive.

Lewis Mumford
The Myth of the Machine (1970)

Cartoon by Buttersafe: The Greatest Gift (2011)

On Thought, Poetry and the Universe


What distinguishes us from animals?

Being aware of being aware of being. In other words, if I not only know that I am but also know that I know it, then I belong to the human species. All the rest follows – the glory of thought, poetry, a vision of the universe. In that respect, the gap between ape and man is immeasurably greater than the one between amoeba and ape. The difference between an ape’s memory and human memory is the difference between an ampersand and the British Museum library.

Judging from your own awakening consciousness as a child, do you think that the capacity to use language, syntax, relate ideas, is something we learn from adults, as if we were computers being programmed, or do we begin to use a unique, built-in capability of our own – call it imagination?

The stupidest person in the world is an all-round genius compared to the cleverest computer. How we learn to imagine and express things is a riddle with premises impossible to express and a solution impossible to imagine.

Vladimir Nabokov
Interview by James Mossman, BBC, 1969
Strong Opinions (1973)

Screenshots: HAL the computer and Bowman the astronaut in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Related:  When Siri Met HAL