🌌 Olivia Colman Cinematic Universe
Making content about content to train AI models to make further content (about content)
Hello Cyber Pals, happy building-destruction day. Also it looks like we survived the heat wave. This time.
In today’s episode:
Olivia Colman is in everything. EVERYTHING.
What is metamodernism in film?
What does any of this have to do with AI, the internet, and all the other stuff I usually talk about?
Dunno if any of you have seen The Bear — it’s a very good TV show streaming on Disney+ of all places. It’s about a chef who inherits his deceased brother’s restaurant and tries to revitalise it into something new. It’s a show that’s somehow more chaotic than Succession but easier to follow, and the characters are actually likeable. A lot of it is just people yelling at each other in messy gross kitchens interspersed with shots of delicious-looking food. There is one fantastic episode in season 2 where one of the main characters briefly escapes the clanging shouty chaos and enters a room where a chef — the head chef of the best restaurant in the world, actually — is calmly peeling mushrooms. The two of them have a lovely polite conversation for a couple of minutes before the head chef is called away. None of this is interesting, except the head chef was played by Olivia Colman. When I saw her, I started laughing and saying “this makes no sense” out loud to an empty room. It felt like the show creators were making a complete FOOL out of me.
This was probably the cameo to end all cameos. Critics have not stopped writing about how she completely stole the show even though she was on screen for less than five minutes and never seen again. The storyline and various character arcs contained within The Bear suddenly seemed trivial and irrelevant because they had been utterly obliterated by the presence of Olivia Colman. After seeing this episode it became clear that her appearance did make sense, actually, and that she can be cast in anything, anywhere, and for any length of time — because she is Olivia Colman. She is her now her own trope; a magical entity within film and television who transcends genre. A couple of years ago an indie game developer jokingly tweeted that your game would never be considered good unless it contained a fishing mini-game. I think this is true; we seem to be in some kind of fishing mini-game renaissance in gaming right now — and the same thing is happening with Olivia Colman. She is Hollywood’s fishing mini-game.
Right okay, so I’m talking about this now because I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how our approach to making and consuming content has been radically altered by the internet. I’m not just talking about the effects of streaming services and short-form content — it’s also that film & TV nowadays emulates how the internet feels. Many agree that in film, we are now in an era of metamodernism: a mode of filmmaking that goes beyond the challenging, confusing, and often senseless approaches you get with postmodernism. Like postmodernism, metamodernism also plays with the medium and pumps everything full of absurdity or non-linear plot mechanics — but, metamodernism differs in that it’s much more hopeful; metamodern movies don’t collapse into melancholy just because nothing makes any sense. Metamodernism insists that even though our lives feel like untangleable knots of chaos, it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, fall in love, or achieve our life long dreams. And also if we never do those things it really doesn’t matter.
I would say that a key attribute of metamodern movies is to capture the kind of overwhelm we might feel in various ways when confronted with all of the information, experiences, and people we can engage with online at any given moment — and then goes one step further and morphs that overwhelm (which is usually considered a negative feeling) into an intentional lifestyle choice. So, you often get movies that depict alternate realities, multiple realities, or multi-verses, that try to make sense of the chaos. Everything Everywhere All At Once is probably the perfect example of a metamodern movie: it’s a chunky soup of memes and trends knitted together to give you a positronic headache (glad to finally have a headache that wasn’t caused by stress tbh). I think other examples might be the Barbie Movie, those two ‘spider-verse’ movies we have now, and maybe even the TV show called Hollywood, which came out in 2020 and depicts an alternate reality where people of colour sweep the Oscars in the late 1940s.
So hopefully you get the idea. The basic building blocks seem to be: chaotic yet hopeful; alternate worlds or universes; source material that at one time would have been considered ‘low quality’. You know, like a child’s doll. Or Lego. Or a fairground ride. Or an obscure poem. Some of these also go in the other direction, obviously. Movies can become ‘experiences’ of all kinds — just look at how Marvel has ‘Avengers Campuses’ in every Disneyland, where you go in and pretend you’re being trained to become an Avenger. We’re definitely in the thick of an ‘anything can be anything’ era, and those ‘anythings’ are connected with each other in profound ways, thus encouraging fandoms to grow and deepen further.
What this approach to content creation does is sort of ‘force’ you to engage with it more meaningfully. Because of the nature of streaming, there is no need to create ‘monster of the week’ shows anymore, where everything resets back to normal by the end of every episode. Streaming and on-demand services mean that it’s literally impossible to miss an episode; dipping in and out isn’t always a thing anymore — you must watch all episodes of a season to understand what’s going on. And if you want to understand further, you can join the subreddit or watch analysis on Youtube. Basically all Marvel products are made this way. You have to have watched everything they’ve ever released to truly understand the latest thing they put out — apparently even the Avenger Campuses mentioned above are all connected with a common narrative beyond it just being Avenger-themed.
The persistent dynamic that a movie isn’t enough — that it actually has to be a whole universe of content — emulates the feeling of being on the internet very well: everything is connected, bottomless, and also The Most Important. It’s very easy, therefore, to go numb to it all, and struggle to pay attention to anything in any meaningful way. Which feels like a problem, but isn’t; there’s no rule that says you have to pay attention to and care about everything.
As if the never-ending free-flow of online content wasn’t enough, we now have AI tools that can generate content in seconds. This content sits in a weird sub-category in my head: it’s high quality enough — or stupid enough — that I will look at it, but on the whole I do struggle to care about it like with everything else. In image generation, the only things that have really stood out to me are re-imagined film stills of existing popular movies: what would Harry Potter look like if it had been directed by Wes Anderson? Or what if The Matrix had been made in 1985 by Alejandro Jodorowsky? Personally I am genuinely considering buying credits on Stable Diffusion to generate stills of The Olivia Colman Cinematic Universe — it would be pretty easy to do, she’s already been in everything for at least five minutes. Here she is staring pensively at some books now.
Just as with film, generative AI uses source material from absolutely anywhere it can (e.g. the whole internet…). Except the ‘source material’ won’t be a single poem, it will be every single poem that’s ever been put online; entire lifetimes of artistic works; or even just general vibes and aesthetics. What happens when things that are considered finished products — like movie franchises — act as ‘source material’ for a content machine? You get what I’ve been calling ‘meta-content’ (yes, yet another ‘meta’ thing. Get over it, it’s 2023).
There is a fear that AI systems will soon run out of training data, and will have to start using their own outputs to train on, which will make them degrade in quality pretty rapidly. OpenAI’s solution to this is to fund a new journalism initiative, so that their models have fresh high quality content to train on. This is meta-content: content that is created specifically to train AI, in order for that AI to produce further content. The content — in this case ‘good journalism’ — can stand up on its own, but its ultimate function is to contribute to the continuous improvement of AI systems. There is no attempt to even make it look like this funding is actually for journalism, with this article saying that “Quality journalism is vital for training OpenAI’s algorithms, and this initiative reflects OpenAI’s commitment to ensuring a positive role for AI in the news sector.” The perspective is now that ‘quality journalism’ is just an annoying thing that you have to fund in order to make your AI perform better.
This is quite a depressing thought — that good content (high quality journalism) will be created just to help bad content (stuff generated by AI) proliferate. I don’t know how we would do this, but we must protect the Olivia Colman Cinematic Universe from the tragic affliction of generative AI. She’s too valuable — but she’s also everywhere; I’m starting to worry she’s not even real. Maybe we’re too late. Soon she’ll be a playable character in Call of Duty, just like Nicki Minaj and Snoop Dogg. That would be pretty cool, actually…