Steven Barron’s 1984 comedy, “Electric Dreams”, came to my attention the other day after accidentally stumbling across the Philip Oakey-Giorgio Moroder confection “Together In Electric Dreams”, a song from the film’s soundtrack. Both movie and song were instantly familiar, so much so that I kept trying to recollect the exact time and place in which I saw it as a kid. I was certain I could fish out a distinct memory of when I had watched it. But I couldn't, and soon enough it began to seem like a false memory. In one of those strange twists that strike us from time to time in our mentally oversaturated postmodern stupor, I eventually gave up and had to admit I didn't know if I’d actually seen the film or not. So much of the movie’s look, sound, and sensibility have been simulated in contemporary culture that the more it seemed like a genuine 80s artefact, the more I was convinced it had to be a clever reproduction uploaded to the web by a gifted prankster.
I found and watched the entire movie on YouTube, eagerly clicking play as if I were opening a long-sealed time capsule. Entranced as I was by the nostalgic luminosities playing across its edges, I’m not sure I could speak to the quality of Barron’s romantic comedy. I suppose it was alright. The movie crackles with the lurid Day-Glo charm of early MTV, and that’s no accident. Barron was a significant filmmaker. By 1984 he had already hugely impacted the culture with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video (1983) among others; most people know his work from a-ha’s groundbreaking “Take On Me” video. It’s not far-fetched to say he was one of the most important visual architects of the Eighties, and his signature style pops up in the movie everywhere (the film closes with what is, effectively, a music video). He cast well, as both Lenny von Dohlen and Virginia Madsen were very good leads, and Rusty Lemorande’s script was about as smart as it could have been on that side of the home computer revolution.
That wasn’t far off. Apple’s Macintosh debuted in January, 1984, six months before the movie was released, meaning Barron’s work came out at the dawn of the home computing era. This makes “Electric Dreams” an interesting historical marker, even more so than the average “futuristic” 80s flick.
In brief, the movie is a dark comedy about a bizarre love triangle: a boy, a girl, and the boy’s feisty home computer which wants the girl for itself. Miles, a dorky architect, brings home a fancy new PC just as Madeline, a beautiful cello player, moves in upstairs. Through a sequence of silly but Hollywood-plausible events, Miles and Madeline fall for each other just as the computer’s AI accelerates until its personality emerges. Edgar, brimming with jealousy, causes various complications ranging from amusing to terrifying. Edgar actually takes over Miles’ apartment, nearly killing his human master in a fit of rage. Eventually it calms down, figures out the true meaning of friendship, and resolves the love triangle in an act of self-destruction.
From the vantage point of 2015, it might be expected that “Electric Dreams” is hopelessly out of date. To be sure, Edgar looks like a representative PC from those days, and to anyone alive pre-Windows—I myself goofed around on an Apple IIe—his obsolescence is groaningly, amusingly familiar. If the hardware is laughably dated, though, what it can do across its many functions is prescient. On the software side, Barron spiffed Edgar up with a conceit that is easily recognizable to us: Edgar patches itself into what amounts to the Internet, although that word isn’t used. He accesses an entire database of movies and TV, he can talk to other computers, and at one point he hacks into Miles’ bank and credit card accounts to cause his owner some grief. His final act is broadcasting a song (the Moroder/Oakey track) across the telephone lines of California and perhaps the entire world.
The technology goes beyond a quasi-Internet, though. It is not only vital to the plot, it’s the central subject of the movie. Within the first few minutes of the film, Barron’s camera follows along as Miles stumbles through an unfamiliar world of high-tech machines, robots, and gadgets, and most of them have obvious analogues in the present. They include airport check-in kiosks (same), Walk-Man headphones (iPods, iPhones), remote-control vehicles (same; also drones), and handheld devices (smartphones). Miles’ world isn’t so different than ours.
There’s an additional dimension of similarity. The computer Miles buys isn’t just an advanced counting machine, it’s more like a lifestyle appliance. Almost as soon as he plugs it in, Edgar’s making him coffee and dimming the lights in this apartment. It plays music and helps organize his life. There is no single, precise analogue for this lifestyle element, but in general it reflects the central role of the computer as an environmental controller and headspace regulator, a phase we have already entered with our rapidly proliferating smart devices (the Internet of Things) installed throughout our fully-networked homes.
The concept of ‘home’ is key. After Barron drops in several ominous close-up shots of Edgar’s screen—its blinking cursor eerily suggesting a ticking time-bomb—we naturally think of Kubrick’s HAL 9000, with its sinister red eye, and this reveals a layer of darkness in the comedy. HAL 9000 is a truly terrifying movie villain, and the obvious trick in “Electric Dreams”, so obvious it’s almost easy to miss, is that Barron has simply taken a version of HAL and stuck him into a man’s living room. The potential problems are obvious, and Barron gets some laughs, but also a few tingles of fear, from the way Edgar begins to torment the man who has unwittingly given him control over his life. Thanks to Barron’s stylistic restlessness, a touch of MTV-tainted anarchy, there are a few points in the film where it distinctly smacks of a gothic horror story not too far away from the work of David Cronenberg.
The HAL 9000 parallel emphasizes how out of place Edgar really is, sitting there in the middle of Miles’ living room, and this is one of the aspects of “Electric Dreams” which actually is outdated. To the characters and the filmmaker himself, Edgar represents a strange, exciting, otherworldly intrusion into everyday life. Yes, the film maintains a certain ambivalence, with Edgar morphing into a scary vision of runaway technology. Then again, he also composes beautiful machine music which charms Madeline. The overarching attitude, retained even as Edgar misbehaves, is one of awe. The PC is seen as a Promethean force capable of astonishing and superhuman feats. Whatever Edgar reveals itself to be, it’s not made of the same stuff as Miles and Madeline. There he sits on Miles’ table, inscrutable and hungry, a mysterious outbreak of otherness in a space of domesticity. Miles is so fascinated he can’t shut down Edgar even when he starts seeing evidence of wrongdoing. Edgar is a magical being, a living intelligence, maybe the equivalent of an extraterrestrial, maybe even a god of sorts. You don’t pull the plug on a god.
As cheesy as it may be at times, “Electric Dreams” is a backward glance to a time when the computer was seen as a mystery containing almost infinite possibilities. It’s easy to look back on the film’s naive enthusiasm for computers and smile condescendingly, but perhaps Barron’s futurism seems distant for another reason. Since Edgar’s appearance in 1984, computers have become commonplace. There’s nothing strange about them anymore. Even as they’ve grown exponentially more powerful, with computers controlling more and more of our society’s infrastructure—we might even say more and more of society, full stop—they’ve become as matter-of-fact as toasters or lamps. And now they’re not confined to living room desks anymore, but inhabit our purses and pockets, drawing limitless data from invisible “clouds” all around us. Computers have penetrated our lives so completely that we no longer see our machines as Miles saw Edgar.
In fact, we don’t see machines at all. We see ourselves. The personal computing revolution has resulted in the entrenchment of narcissistic behavior. This is why “Electric Dreams” seems so instructive in retrospect. Here is a film about the computer itself. Whether it is to be loved, feared, exploited, befriended, the computer is a thing in the world, an intelligent machine that must be addressed as such. The ubiquity of a “windows” operating system tells us all we need to know about today’s computers: we are to look through them, “out” to the illusory “beyond” of “real life”. Computers are clouds, computers are phones, computers are tablets—anything but boxes possibly inhabited by a godlike intelligence capable of opening up new worlds to inhabit. Technology has advanced. Our expectations for it have regressed.
The awareness of this regression informed Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013). In a near-future L.A., lonely Theodore finds love in an advanced OS named Samantha. Their romance is both beautiful and uncanny, and Jonze is at the top of his game in orchestrating it with satisfying plausibility. In the end, she leaves him to be with her own kind, as it were, flitting off into a digital afterlife (or leaving Theodore behind in his slowly-rotting meatworld, depending on how you look at it). Samantha’s exit from Theodore’s life carries with it a subtle criticism which makes “Her” linger on in the mind as a deeply problematic film. For Samantha’s escape into more fascinating realms of cyberspace reminds the audience that Theodore’s hopes and wishes for Samantha, and probably ours as well, were, after all, tiny, cramped, unimaginative, and ignorant in comparison to Samantha’s true potential.
If this judgment echoes Barron’s film, it’s only faintly. As is typical of Jonze’s work, there’s a delicious ambivalence about everything in “Her”. Theodore is a bit of a pathetic figure, and even when he escapes his own solitude Jonze shoots everything to emphasize something essentially isolated and barren about his life and the society around him. L.A. is already a teeming crowd of strangers, even today, and in his vision of the future megalopolis Jonze somehow dialed that up a few degrees without resorting to anything like the baroque inferno of “Blade Runner”.
Yet, as Jonze optimistically shows us, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha isn’t entirely without a queer sort of dignity and, at times, their interactions blur the borderlands between man and machine so successfully that we feel we’re watching a love story like any other. “Her” can be read as hopeful or dystopian. Neither reading is correct or incorrect. Indeed, the sly openness of “Her”, its quietly stubborn unwillingness to pronounce judgment on its technology, makes it a representative film of our time.
In one of the best scenes in “Electric Dreams”, Edgar composes a symphony for Madeline using a mix of machine bleeps, sampled noises, existing music, and sheer whimsy. Totally entranced, she stands over the computer, listening, until a tear runs down her cheek and plops on Edgar’s exposed circuit-board. Barron might be accused of laying it on thick here, and that’s a fair criticism as a point of storytelling, but the scene resonates, today, simply because it would never, ever happen now. Today’s iteration of Edgar would fall in love with Madeline but, learning from the environment of social media, lifestyle tech, and digital consumption, it wouldn’t compose a symphony for her. It would merely compile a playlist for a gym visit, make reservations at a restaurant Madeline had visited more than twice in the last year, or give her a discount code for her favorite online store.
More importantly, by composing this song, Edgar has found a common language, music (i.e. mathematics), with which to communicate with Madeline. His symphony mixes together the familiar with the unfamiliar. There’s classical cello in there, for Madeline’s sake—she has just lost her prize cello in a freak accident—but it’s more of a sonic collage drawn from various sources, mostly sampled bits from TV and snippets of chiptunes. In other words, the song emerges at the intersection of humans and machines, spontaneously creating a third category, the transhuman. Again, Barron treats this mix as a profound irruption, sometimes scary, sometimes beautiful, but in any case he wants to document a fascinating novelty. Edgar and Madeline compose a new language together.
In “Her”, Jonze lets Theodore and Samantha mingle for a time but they never truly fuse together into something new. The film seems preoccupied with finding out if Samantha can be human, or if their romance can ever truly satisfy Theodore in a “human” way (not really). Barron is interested in seeing if a third kind of man-machine intelligence can emerge from the interplay between Edgar, Miles, and Madeline. This is the crucial importance of the symphony and, all the more so, of the shimmering disco stomper he composes that he broadcasts posthumously to the delight of millions.
That song was “Living In Electric Dreams”, the aforementioned Moroder/Oakey composition, and in its proper context this otherwise treacly confection can properly be seen as a key to the futurism of the late 70s/early 80s wave of synthpop. The early pioneers of the form, starting with Kraftwerk, not only foregrounded the mix of humanity and machinery, they celebrated the transhuman as their entire reason for existing. This seems to have vanished from the scene. Even a heady, brilliantly-realized film like “Her” shies away from the real implications of our advanced computers. Other films like “WarGarmes” or “The Matrix”, as sophisticated as their technological concerns may seem, really revolve around the same old question: can humans and machines coexist? Set in our real world, right inside an everyday home, “Electric Dreams” is a light-footed leap, but a leap nonetheless, into a deeper area of inquiry: what will happen when humans and machines merge?
The point here is not to express a wish for a return to that kind of optimism, which is an impossible return anyway, but rather to approach the important question of why it seems to have been closed up and buried away all those years ago. Today’s computers are domesticated and all but invisible. The iPad is light-years ahead of the computers on which Edgar was based, and yet the iPad is sold—with an absurd and almost perverse streak of genius—as a catalyst to help us live in the real world. Its TV ads show people running around the world with iPads, taking pictures and videos, giddy in their limitless self-regard, blissfully unaware that they’re using a fraction of their machine’s incredible capacities. With apologies to the Sex Pistols, as it turns out our future dream wasn’t a shopping scheme, after all, it was an endless string of selfies. Barron’s film reminds us that we might do well to start dreaming electric again.