In Connected, Tiffany Shlain, of Webby Awards fame, engages in the impossible task of making sense of her father’s sudden frailty (brain tumor and nine months to live) and his legacy (brain scientist and an unfinished manuscript about Da Vinci’s brain) by utilizing the entire history of mankind. Through glossy graphics, quick-paced editing, and a rather verbose, autobiographical voiceover, Shlain does her best to animate her father’s essentialist theories of the brain by juxtaposing them with an intimate story about the way in which the prospect of death transforms a superhero paterfamilias into a brittle little thing.
One of the film’s main problems is the fact that Shlain is so invested in connecting her father’s scientific findings, such as the biological sources of patriarchy (it all starts with literacy and how it compartmentalizes gray matter into two neat sides), with an astonishingly linear history of the world that she fails to see the more private connections that flicker in and out of her verbose voiceover. She’s able to somehow map out the entire trajectory of humans on Earth yet incapable of linking her series of miscarriages to her own psychic history. It’s as if enlightening comprehension finds its limits once it meets the actual fleshly body—the non-photographed, actually felt body.
Like a good positivist, Shlain announces the biggest breakthrough of the late 19th century not as the psychoanalytical method of recognition of the structures of desire in the unconscious, but the discovery of uranium. The “civilizatory” cutting up of Africa is also represented by cute little European flags posted on top of the continent with no regard as to the extra-geographical consequences of the process. History here is suspiciously rushed through in a timeline with no room for doubt, nuance, marginalia, or the non-physically observable. The cause of pleasure, for example, among many other tautologies traced, appears univocally as…dopamine! And the insatiable desire to consume is blamed singlehandedly on the development on one side of the brain as opposed to the other. Ideology what?
Connected also suffers from its very pedestrian and redundant voiceover. “What kind of world are we handing to the next generation? We as humans have accumulated so much knowledge, why do we have such a hard time seeing the bigger picture?” makes the Errol Morris-esque score and the slickness of the film’s animation sequences seem like outsourced, gimmicky add-ons. Shlain may have been more successful in bringing in a poetic ethos to this clearly honest homage and cinematic pedagogy if the film had remained a small experimental affair along the lines of a Sadie Benning self-travelling shot. Benning, unimaginable without her ghostly father (much like Shlain), offers us a bewildering sense of what it means to be an affective subject of history, “ours” and her own, in It Wasn’t Love, a film with zero slickness, lots of film grain, and unintended noise. In Connected, I yearned for much less images of “the usual suspects” of history (Hitler, Mao, Einstein), or patronizing intertitles (“be compassionate to others,” “plant gardens,” I swear), or the kind of hygienic cinematics that American films vying for a mainstream audience tend to package themselves with. I wanted shots of her father’s hands, the filmmaker’s pupils. Overlong shots of her daughter singing, dancing, smiling. Not another refined picture of Earth spinning around like a lifeless sphere of well-funded pixels.