It's a frontier town, this, a good place for pausing now and then to wonder where we've come from and where we're going. To the movies? Collectively, the four shows at YBCA's series Local Boy Makes Good: New Bay Area Film take stock of our cultural evolution.
A talking-heady exercise in puzzling out semantic distinctions between intelligence and consciousness, and between humanity and technology, Doug Wolens' fascinating and unnerving documentary The Singularity (Sept. 12) contemplates the impending historical milestone after which machine learning will have exceeded human learning. Wolens gathers many smart people to talk smartly about this. And if Ray Kurzweil's (see page 29 for info on his S.F. talk) merry pronouncement that "we will ultimately become predominantly nonbiological" doesn't help you sleep at night, at least there's also famed UC Berkeley philosophy prof Alison Gopnik pointing out that even pre-lingual human babies still are better learners than the most advanced machines, and that Socrates once thought mass literacy would destroy human culture. It didn't! Then again, Socrates' main concern — that unlimited, unexamined information is no substitute for knowledge — seems all the more pressing on the eve of the Singularity.
"What are we drinking to?" asks the priest. "The apocalypse," the intruder replies. "To your health," says the priest. So goes a characteristically sardonic exchange in Gibbs Chapman's experimental feature mother mortar, father pestle (Sept. 19), in which "some sort of atmospheric problem" casts San Francisco, and by extension the world, in perpetual twilight. Annotated by inter-titles in the form of partly redacted State Department missives, Chapman's archetypal yet marvelously idiosyncratic characters gamely carry on along their crossing paths, with shadows ever darkening. Not since our days of vintage film noir has this city seemed so palpably sooty.
The noir era, by the way, was about when local photographer Fred Lyon began making his moodiest and most enduring pictures of the city. Michael House's documentary Fred Lyon: Living Through the Lens (Sept. 29) spends a casual hour with the eponymous septuagenarian shutterbug — for money, a shooter of live jazz, interior design, food and wine; for love, a rapt observer of cityscapes, guided by the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, and Atget. Lyons' snaps of midcentury San Francisco seem like place-portraits for the ages — yet more helpful reminders that there's beauty even in the gloom.
Other such reminders twinkle within the dense fabric of way (Sept. 26), Konrad Steiner's cinematic riff on the late East Bay poet Leslie Scalapino's experimental verse epic of the same name. Here, early-aughts video gathered during the first dot-com boom plays under audio of the poet reading her work. Among other things, it's a testament to the city's class-disparity cycle: One sequence records a riot of downtown traffic and LED tickers, ostensibly ascribing "an attitude that they should have a job whether they've means or not" to some yahoo in a tacky wood-paneled Jeep shouting dumbly at the camera as he drives by. Well, maybe things really will be better when the machines finally take over.
"Local Boy Makes Good: New Bay Area Film" runs Sept. 12-29 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. 978-2787 or ybca.org.