So unreal Amanda Kramer on the effect of AI on hyper-real cinema

Cover Image - So unreal
Images courtesy of Amanda Kramer
WordsAnna Bogutskaya

In just five years, visionary filmmaker Amanda Kramer has released an astonishing four films, each with their own apocalyptic flair. Her latest is her first documentary “So Unreal”, narrated by Debbie Harry, comprised entirely of film footage. It explores movies from the 80s and 90s that feature technology to question what and who is real. Writer Anna Bogutskaya speaks to Kramer about the legendary ‘hacker’ figure in films, the concept of unreal cinema, and what happens when technology becomes sentient.

Amanda Kramer does not have a Wikipedia page. The artist-filmmaker-musician multi-hyphenate talent creates asphyxiating, flaming images that do not quite belong in the real world, but they make all the sense in Amanda Kramer’s world. Her first feature, “Ladyworld (2018), portrayed the psychic disintegration of eight girls trapped together in a house after an earthquake. In 2022 alone, she released two more films: “Please Baby Please, starring Andrea Riseborough and Harry Melling as two newlyweds who become the fixation of a dangerous biker gang and “Give Me Pity!”, a faux television special presented by star Sissy St. Claire that quickly curdles into a horrorshow. 

Her fiction work is often apocalyptic in spirit, existing in a liminal space between logic and madness. In her first documentary, “So Unreal”, she looks back at an extinct genre of films from the 80s and 90s that explore technology. They are everything from teen comedies and mainstream thrillers and dramas to hardcore sci-fi and horror, but all of them conjure up a techno-vintage aesthetic and a series of philosophical questions about what—and who—is real. Narrated by Blondie’s Debbie Harry, “So Unreal” is made up entirely out of pieces of other movies and questions. I spoke to Kramer about this venture in documentary-making and her love of this bygone genre.

Anna Bogutskaya: How did you feel making a film that’s looking at a more innocent but quite apocalyptic moment in time in terms of how we see technology, its possibilities and its dangers, versus making it in a moment where that‘s all real and so every day, we don’t even consider it. Do you think these films have informed or affected the way that we think about technology in our everyday lives?  

Amanda Kramer: Hollywood is always looking for a new monster. This is the engine of what we do. You have to turn fear into drama, turn drama into stakes, and you have to turn stakes into money. This is how filmmaking works, especially within the industry, outsider art notwithstanding. If you want Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington in your movie, you need almost everyone to be afraid for their life.

When the internet and virtual reality showed up, it was this gift that never stops giving, because it’s a new technological fear. No one knew what to fear because the everyday human didn’t have a relationship with these extreme technological advances. The average human in 1995 doesn’t know what a hacker is, and doesn’t have a VR headset. We’re so used to these other monsters and Hollywood could pull and pull at the thread of this new monster. But at the same time, because nobody had access to it, it still felt like something supernatural.

I’m interested and intrigued in that because I think imagination about it back then and creativity about that back then was ever blooming. Now, we use this every day and we’re trying to monetize it. Afraid of virtual reality, AI? No way! I wanna make money off it! People now are excited, so I don’t know how much longer ideas like this can create fear. It’s not the monster anymore. We can talk about losing jobs and very practical things that we’re afraid of. Actors, musicians, artists have a lot to fear when it comes to AI. This was not a time when we were thinking about that, everybody had jobs. So the films that came out of that time had a totally different sensation, and I think it’s a subgenre that’s probably over. 

AB: How do you think those movies made us see the figure of the hacker?

AK: The hacker is a legendary figure. The hacker is a cowboy. You can see the hacker as a loner, a basement dweller, or someone sexy, like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix” (1999). You can see the hacker as a very chic entity, like what they’re trying to do in the film “Hackers” (1995) with Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller. The hacker is all kinds of things. Now, they have a totally different vibe. Hackers are kind of anonymous shit-stirrers now. 

AB: At the start of our chat, you mentioned that you don’t deal with the truth or reality in your films. In the process of making this one, looking at all these movies and with the benefit of hindsight, do you get the sense that they showed you some window into the people of the time and what they were afraid of?

AK: Of course. This was embedded in every kind of genre: people made teen comedies, sex farces, thrillers, horrors, sci-fi. This was a time where we could sense something coming that would change our entire universe, our brains, our families, our homes, our careers, everything but we didn’t know what the material of it was. We didn’t understand it. I do feel like it’s a lens into humanity. Just like how noir films feel like a lens into humanity post-WWII, and pre-9/11 feels like a lens into humanity. I think it’s important to look at those films as a mirror of a time. They’re not all great filmmaking, but I don’t think that matters. Their context matters. We needed to imbue technology with a soul back then in order to understand. Now, I don’t think we care. 

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AB: I’m really interested in the creation of new monsters, and it feels like for the first time in a while, we are feeling that way about AI. What do you think are the possibilities of AI and its implications for movies and artists?

AK: I’m just going to be as honest as possible because why not? It’s such a villainous thing to say but fuck AI. As an artist, fuck AI. The actress Justine Bateman posted something on Instagram which was an incredibly brilliant kind of screed about what will happen to actors if they don’t fight this very, very intense challenge of AI. What she’s talking about is the exact plot of the film “Looker” (1981), which I discussed in So Unreal, which is that actors will have their images and their voices scanned and sell these digital facsimiles of themselves. Their physical bodies will no longer do the work. There’s a conversation there. I love what Bateman was saying and I completely agree, but the crux of it is money. Where is the conversation about the end of the physical body? Right now we are too mired in what we could possibly lose financially, we don’t have the lounging attitude where we can sit back and pontificate about what this could mean for souls, meaning what makes us human. Who cares that a human made a Superman movie? The internet can make a movie just as good. Well, sure. That’s so measly though. That’s just one aspect of making.

That’s why these movies are so fascinating. They’re about computers and have computer graphics, but they feel very touched by hands. Now, these Pixar movies, they don’t feel touched by hands. I get the sense of AI, even the stories I think feel like AI. To me it’s worth thinking about that now as conversation is headed towards AI completely obliterating everything that we know to be reality.

AB: Some of the films that you cover in “So Unreal”, like “The Matrix” (1999), “War Games” (1983) or “Terminator” (1984), are about what AI means on a larger scale and not just individual practicalities. What happens with leadership, politics, society, war, if this one computer becomes sentient (another word we don’t use much anymore). That is terrifying, the loss of control over the tech we create.

AK: The point of what we create is that it will outlast us. It’s a conundrum and a hypocrisy and an oxymoron. It’s all the things like we’re sending ourselves into the thing that we’re acting like we’re afraid of that we’re also having making happen. We can’t stop what’s coming, but we’re also putting all of our energy into making it come. There’s no way to separate advancement in technology and fear from advancement in technology and hope. We do it now because it must be done, but the pondering of what it might feel like is old. What we ponder now is how it will hurt us financially. We’ll move past this us and go into a new us. The people born today will think it’s goofy that we even had a conversation about what AI could be. That is a testament to how fast technology and especially modes of the internet and modes of virtual reality work. It comes faster than we can philosophize about it. 

AB: Even the word ‘cyberspace’ feels of a bygone era, goofy almost. 

AK: People don’t even say cyber! 

AB: Maybe that’s why there’s a fascination with this era, their aesthetic. It’s impossible to replicate the feeling of fear. It looks goofy, it cannot possibly be scary. 

AK: It’s like the new “Blade Runner”. It’s like you only do that to be aesthetic, to be chic. The sadness of whether or not you’re real, it’s not as momentous anymore. These are things that we attribute I think to another century, to a century where that feels devastating. Now? Some people are going to be clones. Some things are going to be robots. We’re just ready.

AB: What do you think of when you think of unreal cinema? 

AK: There’s two types of movies, right? There’s the movie where everyone says, ‘Okay, here’s you, Anna. Here’s me, Amanda. Let’s put on our contraption. Let’s boot up. And let’s go in the non-real.’ There’s you and me and there’s this other place we can access. Then there are movies where you’re just looking at the universe only to realize it’s not your own. It’s not real and you’re in a fabrication. Now, I think, there’s none of the former. I think with this idea of what’s real and what’s not real, we’re gonna get to the point where we don’t care, where we’re unconcerned and the unreal will be its own kind of real. I would love to be very, very, very dead when that happens, but I don’t think I will be because of how fast it’s all going.

AB: A chilling thought. I’m cautiously curious. 

AK: I’m not curious! 

AB: What do you think is the most important text to explore this idea? 

AK: The movie posits it’s The Matrix, and I’m incredibly indebted to it. I’m in awe of that film. I find The Wachowskis to be from the future. I have a really, really close personal relationship to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), which I think is a complete masterpiece and unfailing in any way. There isn’t even a second that isn’t working for me. We can all, as filmmakers and artists, learn so much about making art from “T2”. But that movie is really about the intersection between humanity and what humanity creates to look like humanity. Can we love them and can they love? Should they love and should we love them? It’s also an important film about sacrificing these cyborgs, robots, clones, etcetera because they’re not us and differentiating between us and them. I don’t think that differentiation is going to really exist very much in the future. So this movie to me is representative of such an epic kind of attitude toward just the endlessness of tech. One dies and another will spring up and it can’t be killed. Think about Robert Patrick’s T-1000 as the internet – it can never be ended. 

AB: Did your approach to filmmaking change after making So Unreal? 

AK: I hope I can make more movies like this. Actors and writing are so important to me and I will always make narrative films, but archival films and collage art, which I think is the last great 20th century art, these movies bring together others’ images and create new stories from them. We’re living in a post-Adam Curtis world. A lot of people watch his films who don’t have his intellect, breadth and depth, and they glean so much from his work. That’s incredible, because he’s just showing a news clip. I would like to make more work like that. It’s a different itch to scratch as an artist.

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