The Monday Movie – Electric Dreams


Here’s your latest new feature from The Cathode Ray Choob.

Every Monday, I’ll be sharing a classic scene or two from a favourite movie. The idea is that the clips will be from the vintage and/or cheesier, but enjoyably so, ends of the market, rather than the latest blockbusters or high-brow award-winners.

You know – the sort of schedule-filling big-screen movies that pop up on network TV in the afternoon or middle of the night or on bank holidays. But we’ll play it by ear see how it goes.

Nowadays, computers in movies are commonplace – but rewind the betamax videotape back to the early 80s and they were new and mysterious.

Sure, sci-fi had been predicting the dawn of the computer age for decades (and early real-world examples of what are recognisable predecessors of modern computers had been around since at least the 1940s). But now, they weren’t just hidden away in massive rooms in super-secret government or military research headquarters (like, for example, on The Time Tunnel), nor were they the stuff of futuristic fiction, found only on spaceships or alien planets (as in the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek or Forbidden Planet).

As the 1980s began, personal computers were starting to appear in the real world, in people’s homes and offices. Not only that, they could also talk to each other on the phone (using an acoustic coupler). There was even an embryonic internet up and running. A global network of computers all talking to each other. Why, the possibilities were endless, so it’s no surprise that film-makers were quick to explore the dramatic possibilities of the new, real-world realisation of a technology that had been largely speculative for so long.

The thing is, computers just aren’t that interesting on-screen. Sure, they have over the years become increasingly important tools (along with other electronic gadgets) for characters to use to clear the hurdles screenwriters put in their way. Indeed, in the age of Google, Wikipedia and the ability to instantly communicate with just about anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world, the challenge now in movies and TV drama is often how to come up with credible reasons why the hero can’t just switch on his laptop, look up the information he needs and then call it in on his mobile phone (or, if he’s really hip, post it on Twitter and ask everyone to retweet until it reaches even the computer-illiterate, cynical, world-weary cop in need of redemption who doesn’t take any crap and is the only person who can save the day).

But contemporary movies in which computers are actually central to the plot, rather than just plot devices, are few and far between, even back in the 80s when they seemed so fresh and exciting. I can only come up with four. And even then, only one of them was remotely grounded in anything approaching reality.

We have the computer that almost destroys the world accidentally (WarGames, possibly the most plausible computer-threat movie). Then there’s the computer (network) that does destroy the world, on purpose (The Terminator). Or how about the computer as a home to a society of digital “people” who carry out the operations that make the machine work and take part in the games it runs (Tron)?

And then we have the film from which this week’s clip comes. Electric Dreams, in which a computer becomes sentient when its owner spills champagne on it. You see? There’s a reason why they warn you not to eat and drink near your PC. I believe that IBM still includes a clause in the small print of their liability waiver, warning customers that they will accept no blame for any losses suffered or relationships sabotaged as a result of spillage-induced sentience in their products. You really should read those things, you know.

But I digress. In the movie, the self-aware computer – which decides to call itself Edgar… yeah, I know what you’re thinking, rubbish name, but processing power wasn’t great in 1982 so it was probably the best it could come up with – falls in love with its owner’s beautiful young cellist neighbour, which is hardly surprising as she is a 23-year-old Virginia Madsen (below). The main plot of the movie deals with the love triangle this creates.

I’m not making this up. A desktop PC called Edgar really does fall in love with a cellist – and she becomes quite fond of Edgar too, thanks to his… er, its ability to enjoy and perform classical music with a digital twist.

The film was directed by Irishman Steve Barron, who was at the time best known for directing music videos (including a-ha’s Take On Me and Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing) and TV adverts (including the famous McEwans Lager Chinheads advert) and who went on to make movies such as the original big-screen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mike Bassett: England Manager.

It’s a real cheesy classic, a movie of its time in so many ways. Therefore, our first classic scene on The Monday Movie is the musical duel (actually more of a duet) between Madsen and Edgar, as he… it hears her practising her cello and joins in a jamming session. The great music comes courtesy of digital music pioneer Giorgio Moroder and is based on Minuet #4 in G (BWV Anh.II.114), from Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, by Christian Petzold.

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