What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

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Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

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A Film about Everything

img_0812Terrence Malick’s latest, “Voyage of Time,” appears to be as ambitious as it sounds, a visual journey from the beginning of time to the end of it, and it could be incredible.  Richard Brody describes Malick’s work most effectively, using satisfying scientific parlance–the interstitial scenes of a broken relationship, occupying a rarefied plane of thought–and he seems to value his work in a way few do.

I agree with Brody in that Malick often gets a prompt dismissal from the viewing public because his work operates outside the day-to-day actions of normal life, or framed stage life; it also dwells in the small moments that Hollywood skips over, the moments that people (who think they know what constitutes art or experience) think don’t make good cinema, and he shoots the overwhelmingly beautiful scenery and sounds around us, be it city or desert, or in the living room or in a raging party.  These invariably inarticulate dismissals of Malick’s films, or other serious works, are particularly tiresome to me, but it’s Friday and I’m in a forgiving mood.

Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of Voyage of Time click here

We can now add to Malick’s scope the space between the microcosm and macrocosm, or at least the pleasant struggle to find the difference.  Voyage of Time seems to nurture that small place of comfort that some of us find in the knowledge that the universe operates completely independent of us– the observers– yet our ability to observe, to recognize beauty, to understand natural processes through curiosity and empirical evidence, is really what defines us and what defines happiness.  The preface of the film seems to try to get at truth (see below). And any film that tries to demonstrate the beauty and significance of a cosmos that is indifferent to us, thorough images that do not exist to be seen by us, is unlikely to engender despair. Rather, (I hope) it reminds us of the deep satisfaction in our desire to contemplate and to understand, to make connections and describe what is beautiful.  This is what I understand to be science, philosophy and art, all in one.

 

A Death in Venice

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A film brimming with sentimentality, gorgeous long shots of an iconic city now lost, and a protagonist who has lost his dignity and health, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice also incorporates powerful music from Gustav Mahler, which is wholly moving and at times devastating.  The movie is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel of the same name. Visconti changed the main character, Gustav, is minor ways that seem to benefit the story-telling of the media of film.  There have been mixed reviews of Visconti’s interpretation, but the film is powerful on its own, and will likely inspire a reading of the novel.

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Death in Venice, novel by German writer Thomas Mann (1921).

Filmed in foggy frames that effectively typify a hot, humid and cholera-ridden Venice, shots are sometimes jaw-dropping; scenes of strolling aristocratic women in flowing white beachwear and holding small umbrellas are reminiscent of a Sorolla painting. The juxtaposition of water and stone, the mackerel sky sunsets, the ornate Grand Hôtel des Bains, Venice once had the power of romantic overload, but a kind of Dionysian overload, connected to the passions and excess of man of which some of us welcome at times, in direct opposition to the structured restraint of  Nietzsche’s Apollo.  Fitting into this ideal at first, Gustav doesn’t seem to notice any beauty at all except for one young man, with whom he steadily becomes obsessed, and we watch his slow, inward disintegration, his panic about aging, and his idealizing erotic beauty at the expense of dignity and intellectual contemplation — Dionysis pursuing Gustav to the end.

The subplot of a cholera epidemic, hidden from public view (it seems even then Venice was concerned about the necessary evil of tourists), brilliantly works into the story of Gustav’s demise.

Grab a bottle of wine and contemplate the Platonic ideal of beauty amongst pragmatism.  For further poignant contrast, compare the cruise ship Venice of today to that of Gustav’s time.

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Hitchcock and Truffaut Talk Shop

imageAlfred Hitchcock was a living example of what the Cahiers du Cinema thought a director and visionary should be.  I’ve always been surprised by who Godard and Truffaut respected, especially in their early days as burgeoning Nouvelle Vague artists (Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich…etc.), but they always stressed the importance of the director in the highly collaborative art of cinema.  The documentary Hitchcock Truffaut is probably a lot of what you’ve seen before if you’re a fan of Hitchcock, but watchable nonetheless, and something that can be learned from with each viewing.  There is a reason why Wes Anderson’s copy of Truffaut’s Hitchcock Truffaut is now an overused pile of papers.

Many clips of the documentary are available on YouTube, but the insight of the other directors is worth watching the real documentary. More importantly, though, I believe one should monetarily support works like this.

The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller has written a piece on the book that brought about the documentary (click the first link below).  And Richard Brody wrote a review on the documentary itself (click second link).  Both are excellent, and a fair tributes to the brilliance and dedication of Hitchcock and the humility of Truffaut.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-book-that-gets-inside-alfred-hitchcocks-mind?mbid=social_facebook

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-book-that-reinvented-hitchcock

Two Favorites from Werner Herzog

Two of my favorite films, both work of Werner Herzog, that remind me of true story telling and human struggle through eccentric characters.

Fitzcarraldo, a film in which the crew actually hauled a ship up a mountain and back down the other side.  An incredible story, accentuated by the always insane Klaus Kinski.

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Aguirre, Wrath of God.   A fictionalized depiction of the Spanish search for El Dorado, and the frenzied megalomania and insanity that may have resulted. Herzog has some raw scenes in this one that will remind you what cinema should be.  Incredible movie from start to finish.

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A Hijacking, and the real way to tell a story

63221_349270388512704_674928958_n  A Hijacking, written and directed by Dane Tobias Lindholm, is engaging and memorable because it pays attention to actual people in an extraordinary situation; a cargo ship, preparing to arrive at harbor in the Indian Ocean, is held captive by Somali pirates wielding machine guns and lots of frightening screaming. The characters don’t meander or whore themselves to whatever Hollywood happens to think its (perceived mindless) audience expects in a movie; they don’t just skim the top of the endless well of human diversity. And they don’t suddenly bloom in the face of crisis like quasi-superheroes before our eyes, dazzling an audience only to be later deflated with a vague sense of hollow betrayal.  The film’s story drives a true tension and a building sympathy, as well as frustration and a kind of hatred, all the while in a setting showing the banality and grit of everyday life on a cargo ship at sea.

Lindholm doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the pirates either; he refrains from showing that they are also human beings after all, and thereby soliciting sympathy for their desperation and plight.  Told from the points of view of the likeable cook aboard the ship and the embattled CEO of the shipping company, the gun-toting pirates come of as a confusing force of meanness, and the reasons for their violence are almost rendered irrelevant. They chatter in an unintelligible local tongue, and along with the cook and his fellow workers held at gunpoint, we are lost and desperate to understand what is happening, or at least to make the terror end.