Documentary confuses AI manipulation with clever filmmaking

There is an innate miscalculation at the core of Enodocumentary from director Gary Hustwit about the career of avant-garde artist and producer Brian Eno. This has everything to do with the director’s decision to make the “first generative feature film,” incorporating artificial intelligence software developed by the film’s “chief technology officer” Brendan Dawes into the film’s ongoing re-editing process. To ensure a different version of the film is seen each time, Dawes and Hustwit allow the software to draw information from their subject’s vast visual archive, resulting in randomly spliced ​​sequences during each screening. However, this approach fundamentally fails to grasp Eno’s full creative ethos, which relies on technology to elevate, not replace, the uniquely human ability to create art—a quality sorely lacking here.

Considered a pioneering figure in ambient and electronic composition, Eno’s esoteric work encouraged several famous rock groups to seek him out as a producer, including U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, and Devo. The algorithm offers a small window into some specific creative collaborations, though the version of the film I saw turned out to be a little U2-heavy for my taste. (I would have much preferred more Talking Heads or Devo segments.) Rather than being an exhaustive document of Eno’s impressive output, the software seems to flip through eras of the musician’s current career, retrieving edited fragments that correspond to the predetermined, generally linear timeline explored in the film. Sure, Eno It succeeds in depicting his childhood fascination with song, his involvement with Roxy Music, the co-creation of the “Oblique Strategies” card technique, etc., but it lacks a broader connective context for these stages of Eno’s musical métier.

Of course, a great advantage of Eno are the extensive interviews included with the subject. Fully aware of his penchant for oratory, Eno goes into dizzying detail about his fascinations and sound processes, which are intriguing but, once again, rambling. Although the film features two editors (Maya Tippett and Marley McDonald), their input was limited to selecting and cutting countless fragments for the algorithm to choose from. No matter how much flesh-and-blood involvement there was in the creation Eno‘s software will never mimic the distinctively human sense of narrative. Even if the version I saw contained some incredible footage (from an old anecdote about him sneaking a piss on Marcel Duchamp’s famous sculpture to musings about glam rock altering his perception of gender), there should have been more active engagement in exploring some of these juicy tangents rather than allowing them to leak out in one arbitrary clip after another.

Presumably the motivation behind generative cinema here has everything to do with Eno’s own work in the realm of generative music. However, these different mediums, made during very different technological periods, are not actually made in the same vein. The musician would initially work with cassette tape loops, an analogue method that would produce different sounds with each resulting playback through tiny differences accumulated on the physical tape. (This process was used during the making of his 1978 album Music for airports). Later, Eno would also work with CDs and computer algorithms with similar results, but the tangible art behind this method was always equivalent to the technology used to create it. With Hustwit’s film, creative intent is virtually absent from the final product; unlike Eno, the filmmaker does not know the difference between art and artifice.

The most hypocritical aspect of EnoWhat’s really striking, though, is the juxtaposition of AI’s energy-guzzling reality with the musician’s own fervent environmentalism. “Coming from a Western technological culture, which views nature as something to be mastered and exploited, we tend to value all capabilities that have to do with control and command of a situation,” Eno explains. It’s almost as if he’s commenting on the supposed craft of this very documentary, which seeks to present each and every possible iteration of a project rather than implement a singular vision. Why promote an unsustainable technology for the mere purpose of presenting archival clips to a niche fan base that might very well be familiar with the ground covered in this documentary? In a word, it seems wasteful.

While the industry’s experimentation with AI-powered film production is just beginning (though not without significant advances), reaction), Eno Hustwit’s documentary proves that this method doesn’t make for good stories; Hustwit’s documentary even seems to argue against its very existence. “I started to realise that I was doing this on a planet that was suddenly, quite noticeably, getting worse,” Eno says amid the natural abundance surrounding his home in the west of England. “I thought, well, there’s a strange paradox here: here I am celebrating nature and taking inspiration from it, and at the same time I’m watching it disappear. Let’s recognise that without it, none of us would be doing anything. We have to start looking after it.” Unfortunately for the experimental legend, his involvement in this project goes directly against this otherwise well-intentioned viewpoint.

Director: Gary Hustwit
Release date: July 12, 2024 (First movie)

Natalia Keogan is a freelance writer and editor focusing on independent film. Her interviews and reviews have appeared in Filmmakers Magazine, Reverse shot, Backstage MagazineSlashFilm, Blood Knife, and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens, New York, with her big orange cat. Find her on Twitter @natalyakeogan