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Crunching the Numbers of "Sunspring" (2016)

Updated on January 21, 2019
EC Wells profile image

I took a a computer class back in junior high. Oh, and I have published computer-generated and shaped text in various journals.

Simple Ways of Assessing What's Important

Keep in mind that at the time Benjamin wrote "Sunspring," Benjamin was a LSTM recurrent neural network. Most how have review the film have admitted that as a film it is a difficult text. Amanda Koosner reviewing the film in 2016 for c|net said it "is exactly as weird as you would expect."

But as a text what might this screenplay say about humanity? And specifically what might it say about humanity through the lens of the texts Benjamin "read" in preparation to write "Sunspring?"

Therefore Films
Therefore Films | Source

The Proof of the Product

The wonderful and disastrous thing about these neural network writers is that what goes in comes out, sometimes in unmediated ways.

Consider the case of Microsoft's Tay, a chatbot that quickly became racist and was taken offline.

The Basics

While Tay went badly, what that demonstrates is that when unmediated these neural networks can reflect the human input they are exposed to, not unlike human children.

It is important to keep in mind that Benjamin was not subject to public conversation. Instead Benjamin was feed sci-fi screenplays. This is a specific lens on humanity and that narrow view did impact what Benjamin returned. But the returns are somewhat interesting and reflective, arguably of the broader human condition.

So, who appears in a scene?

Within "Sunspring" there are three characters. Not surprisingly the three characters can be read as being involved in a love triangle. Considering the scripts that Benjamin read came from the 1980s and 1990s, you can probably guess that this particular triangle is a hetero-normative one with two males and a female.

So far, Benjamin seems to be reproducing the status quo surprisingly well for a neural netowrk.

Technical note: For those who appreciate the in-depth. Consider that this screenplay is a collaboration between Benjamin and Ross Goodwin. Goodwin had changed the character names to single letters in the screenplay, in part because the LSTM recurrent neural network doesn't handle proper names very well according to Ken Miyamoto in an article for Screencraft.

Therefore Films
Therefore Films | Source

The Product as Our Proof

We know the characters.

But what do they have to say? What could Benjamin possibly put in the mouths of actors?

Once Within a, Twice Within a, Thrice Within a

In the style of Benjamin, I have decided to look at the dialogue of "Sunspring" using statistical analysis. Statistical analysis is also the base of a lot of natural language analysis and obviously fuels a lot of the machine learning in the natural language field.

Some notable results emerge in the "Sunspring" screenplay at the level of simple counting. Here again, we have to keep in mind the parameters of the texts Benjamin read, sci-fi. Science is focused on knowledge and knowledge plays a large role in sci-fi as well.

It is never surprising to find a lot of article and pronoun clutter at the top of language counts, so those have been scrubbed. The number of order is preserved in the table of the top ten words below.

"I" is the most common word in "Sunspring." That seems significant. While there feels like there is a lot of relationship dynamic watching the film, ultimately it seems to be a film about the isolation of the self. And elements from the existence of a non-poly triangle to the presence of monologues in the film, reinforce this isolation reading.

Word 10, "know,' in the table opens up another significant expression within the film. While we might connect this to the sci-fi genre, it is part of the more prominent phrases within "Sunspring," some expressing complete grammatical sentences.

The top phrase containing 3 words is "I don't know." And the top phrase containing 7 words is "I don't know what you're talking about." This resonates at so many levels for this film. Consider the actors attempting to perform words generated by a neural network. Consider a neural network reading texts generated by humans in order to generate a text for humans. Consider yourself, a human, attempting to understand a film performed by actors from a text generated by Benjamin after reading texts generated by humans. But perhaps most interestingly consider ourselves, all human, attempting to understand the other people in our lives: our boss, our lover, our friend.

Benjamin could have written any number of things. But the text continually echoes with the solitary self expressing their awareness of their inability to access the meaning and expression of others.

At nine minutes, "Sunspring" is a fascinating first piece from years ago.

Technical note: Lack of understanding is the pivot-point of many assessments of machine learning in regard to natural language. This does not begin to address what understanding is and if it is possible. The inability to know what language users are referring to is the thesis of W.V. Quine's Indeterminacy of Translation, which can be argued to hold true for same-language users.

Statistical Analysis of Words in "Sunspring"


Statistical Analysis of 3 Word Phrases in "Sunspring"

I don't know
to be a

Statistical Analysis of 7 Word Phrases in "Sunspring"

I don't know what you're talking about
Therefore Films
Therefore Films | Source

General Likability

Google Users
2.85 / 5 (calculated from 5.7 / 10)
86% like

© 2019 EC Wells

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