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Peter T. Chattaway


Artificial Life

Human beings, as C. S. Lewis once put it, are amphibious creatures. We are both creations and creators; we follow instincts and hungers we cannot control, one of which is the impulse to make things in our image just as God made us in his. And so we feel a kinship with nature, as well as a pride of sorts in the things we create, yet they fill us with anxiety too.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, in a small but impressive body of work, has spent the past two decades exploring these issues, and his latest film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, is perhaps his most intricate and stimulating yet. In the film, Morris considers the worlds of animals and robots and asks how different we are from either of them. Are we, as computer scientist Marvin Minsky has said, simply machines made of meat?

This theme can be traced through Morris's films back to his earliest works. In his first documentary, Gates of Heaven (1978)—dubbed by Roger Ebert one of the ten best films of all time—an offbeat look at the pet cemetery business becomes a melancholy study of, among other things, the relationship between humans and animals and the loss of one's dreams. Scottie Harbert, co-owner of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in California, gives the film its title when she declares that an all-compassionate God would never deny dogs and cats access to the heavenly rewards of their masters. Vernon, Florida (1981) ventures into even more explicitly, if increasingly eccentric, theological territory. One elderly man looks forward to the day when Christ will return to end the world-the world of politicians, that is, who ought to be tarred and feathered and run out of town!

The Thin Blue Line (1988), arguably Morris's masterpiece, is perhaps his least typical work inasmuch as it follows an unusually strong narrative with nary a trace of religious or metaphysical content. Nevertheless, The Thin Blue Line is ultimately of a piece with Morris's other epistemological inquiries-indeed, ...

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