One of my favorite lines in Lyne Hershman-Leeson’s TEKNOLUST concerns the side effects of knowledge. They’re dangerous because they’re unpredictable. Once you learn something, paradigms shift, assumptions evaporate, and you’re forced to look at the world in a whole new way and maybe even re-think your whole life. Scary stuff.
The film ponders the nature of reality with its heroine, Dr. Rosetta Stone (Tilda Swinton), a mousy cybergenius whose latest project has gotten out of hand. Actually, it’s gotten out of her computer. That would be Ruby (who favors all-read ensembles), one of the three cyber clones Stone has secretly made of herself, half-human and half software, using a recipe she claims is as easy as making brownies. While the other two, Marinne (all-blue couture) and Olive (devoted to green duds), stay home in their virtual world, ordering tchatckes online, Ruby prowls San Francisco, using dialogue from old movies to seduce men for the sperm that the clones need to thrive. Unfortunately, the encounters result in a computer virus that Ruby unwittingly carries making the leap to humans, leaving the men dazed and impotent, which brings in the law, a woman hunt, and the next leap in human evolution.
Hershman-Leeson, as with her last work, CONCEIVING ADA, makes the screen crackle with intellectual pyrotechnics. Situations, relationships, even lines of dialogue have as many different meanings as there are ways of looking at the world. Ruby’s romance with Sandy (Jeremy Davies in another quirky turn as an adorable man-boy in search of adulthood) is a case in point. She’s a clone, he’s a copy technician and neither of them has had what can be called a genuine romance. They are, despite Ruby’s semi-software status, more alike than different. They begin their courtship after a chance encounter during which Ruby trades condoms for donuts, or, as she terms them, succulent protein, both because it’s all she has on her for barter and because they’re both the same general shape. He’s intrigued by a woman carrying a handbag full of prophylactics, who wouldn’t be? Shes intrigued by his not wanting to have sex with her right away. It’s just one of many correlations that not only pique the intellect, but also set off cascading trains of thought that shed new light on concepts that run the gamut from the battle of the sexes, to issues of human identity, to the legal status of DNA in all its constituent parts and manifestations.
Swinton, who can do no wrong on film, once again startles with the powerful intelligence she brings to her work. Though Stone is a girlish genius, all badly fitting clothes and wild mop of curls, stumbling over words and her own feet, she is as fully realized as the clones, who are self-assured, but blank slates emotionally, as naïve to the subtleties of human interaction as their creator. You look at her on screen with awe and wonder.
TEKNOLUST, while undoubtedly playful, even irreverent in its approach, is not afraid to pose questions for which there are no answers, at least none outside the more esoteric realms of metaphysics where answers are not always the point. I have a phrase for works such as this: not for the intellectually timid. Nor, I might add, for the intellectually lazy, itself an odd juxtaposition for a film that ultimately champions emotional connection over the sterility of cold intellect as the philosophers stone for a fulfilled existence.