Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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