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doc talk

Renaissance man, robot apocalypse, Navajo candidate, Oscar favorites

A scene from “<span id="U843870480257uAD" style=" font-weight: bold; ;">Così Parlò De Crescenzo.”</span>
A scene from “<span id="U843870480257uAD" style=" font-weight: bold; ;">Così Parlò De Crescenzo.”</span> Filmatique/Bunker Hill S.r.l.

Italy’s latest version of the Renaissance man might be Luciano De Crescenzo: engineer, author, filmmaker, actor, philosopher, and lover of women. Profiled in Antonio Napoli’s “Così Parlò De Crescenzo (Thus Spoke De Crescenzo )” (2016) , De Crescenzo looks back at his frustrating drone work for IBM. That ended with the overwhelming success of his first book, “Thus Spoke Bellavista,” a collection of comic sketches set in his native city, Naples, related by the irreverent, fictitious professor of the title. It made him a media celebrity, and he adapted it for the screen in 1984 (clips suggest a boisterously absurdist sensibility ranging from Federico Fellini to Roberto Benigni, both of whom have been personal friends of his).

Another 43 books followed, translated into 19 languages with more than 20 million sold. They include light-hearted studies of serious topics, such as a history of Greek philosophy, which have won popular acclaim but been disdained by academia. This failure to be recognized by the intelligentsia (they resent his success, one supporter claims) seems to be one of the few things he regrets. That and a few heartbreaking romances with accomplished women, including Isabella Rossellini . Still a friend, she extols in an interview his talent, wisdom, and spirit.

“Così Parlò De Crescenzo (Thus Spoke De Crescenzo)” can be seen on Filmatique.

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Laws of robotics

In his 1942 short story “Runaround” the legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov introduced his Three Laws of Robotics, which have since been informally accepted as an ethical template for the brave new world of automata and artificial intelligence. As seen in the documentary “The Truth About Killer Robots,” from the sardonic Maxim Pozdorovkin (“Our New President” ), Asimov’s crucial first law — “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” — has been challenged by recent incidents and developments. 

The film takes as a starting point a shocking story from Germany in which a robot in a Volkswagen factory killed a worker. “In Germany only a human being can be responsible for their actions,” a German official concludes. “A robot cannot be prosecuted.” It investigates a case in which a passenger in a self-driving Tesla car was slammed into a semi-trailer and killed while watching a Harry Potter movie , and an incident in Dallas in which a mass-murdering sniper was blown up by a bomb delivered by a robot designed to defuse bombs.

But for Pozdorovkin these are only the literal instances of the killing that robots are responsible for. They are killing jobs by replacing workers in factories. They are killing our identities by blurring the distinction between humans and machines. And they are killing our sex lives by posing as life-like romantic partners for the lonely.

The last trend Pozdorovkin illustrates by visiting a socially stunted young Chinese man who has married his sex robot in a scenario reminiscent of Craig Gillespie’s 2007 film, “Lars and the Real Girl.” Other films creepily evoked are James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002) and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001), and Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (2014), among others.

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“The Truth About Killer Robots” can be seen on HBO on Nov. 26 at 10 p.m. and is available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO, and partners’ streaming platforms.

Elective affinities

Prospects for Moroni Benally’s campaign for president of the Navajo Nation look pretty bleak at the beginning of Saila Huusko and Jasper Rischen’s documentary, “Moroni for President.”

Sitting on a bench with two campaign volunteers — his nieces — he gazes at the empty parking lot where a rally is supposed to be taking place. A lone prairie dog pokes his head up for a peek. No one shows up. “Well at least we have a lot of hot dogs,” one of his nieces says.

But then Benally is not your usual candidate. A young gay Mormon and a college instructor who sports a beard and a bow tie, he breaks with the tradition of old, straight, denim- and Stetson-wearing former presidents. He also offers a platform that breaks with the Navajo policies of accommodating the federal government and that demands Navajo ownership of the resources of their land, which sprawls over Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. That way the nation can make progress against the unemployment and primitive infrastructure that cripple it.

The political establishment labels him a radical and dismisses him, but Moroni believes that if he can inspire the huge demographic of politically apathetic young people to vote he might have a chance.

Like Reed Lindsay’s recent documentary, “Charlie vs Goliath,” about a similarly quixotic campaign, “Moroni for President” shows that even a seemingly hopeless cause is worth fighting for and in unexpected ways can succeed.

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“Moroni for President” can be seen on Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 21 at midnight and 8 a.m. as part of the “America ReFramed” series on the PBS World Channel. It is also available through fee-free streaming at worldchannel.org starting Nov. 20.

Go to worldchannel.org/episode/arf-moroni-president.

Academy favorites

Two films that will certainly be among the best feature documentary nominees when they are announced on Feb. 24 can be seen this week for free in Emerson College’s Bright Lights series.

Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” celebrates the life of the late Fred Rogers, creator and star of the show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and a champion of children everywhere. And Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” showcases the life of the indestructible Ruth Bader Ginsburg , 85 and still a beacon of sanity on the Supreme Court. These films should inspire you and give you hope, and the former might make you cry.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” screens on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. and “RBG” screens on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre’s Bright Family Screening Room.

Go to bit.ly/2TpBLvZ .


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com