Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Interstellar Revisited

Rev 11.29.18

(N.B. This film came out in the fall of 2014 so I offer these belated and decidedly mixed observations for what they are worth. That semester I was teaching my freshman seminar in SF to a very brainy and willing bunch of students at Harvard. Thanks to the university’s generosity I was able to take us on a field trip to see the film at the Boston Commons theater. This entailed a 20-minute ride on the T or Boston subway from Harvard Square to Park Street. One concerned student asked if it was safe, which prompted some gentle ridicule. It’s not a wormhole, dude. I’ve seen “Interstellar” three times now in its considerable entirety. It improves on each viewing, even as the things that first bugged me persist. Especially the Matt Damon bits. And please filmmakers dealing with dire emotional predicaments, could you refrain from using Dylan Thomas as shorthand for your character’s inner states? I’m looking at you, Soderbergh’s “Solaris.” But then, as he notes with disdain in “Contagion,” “blogging is not writing. It's graffiti with punctuation”).

INTERSTELLAR might just as easily been named “The Melancholy of Extinction.” For every scene is haunted, whether by a diegetic ghost, in the figure of Matthew McConaughey’s intrepid astronaut, Cooper, or by the ghostly prospect of a future earth depopulated of humans.

Like Nolan’s baffling and preposterous Inception, which my students who never read Freud loved, this film about redeeming lost love is also about making films – in particular, about creating scenes of visionary intensity that only films can give us. Christopher Nolan is a big believer in the Gesammtkunstwerk, or Total Work of Art, an all-enveloping spectacle that transcends its vulgar circus underpinnings to deliver the viewer to an experience of the cinematic sublime. The problem is that his ambition is not always equal to his skill.

Film scholar Steve Dillon calls this self-reflective turn of films “the Solaris effect,” (which he analyzes at valuable length in his book of the same name). Dillon argues, rightly I think, that since Godard, films have and must signal their mediumicity, their status as films. He examines the work of Spielberg, Soderbergh, and others, using Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (“one of the most profound cinematic dreams ever conceived”) as a kind of baseline. As he notes, “Classical Hollywood cinema is typically characterized by “invisibility” and “transparency,” by a continual refusal to acknowledge that the film is actually a film.”

Self-reflexive filmmakers like Nolan and Soderbergh, taking their cue from Resnais and Roeg, foreground the element of time with elaborate editing schemes so that past and present are intermingled and confused. “The Limey,” which Soderbergh jokingly but accurately called a blend of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “Get Carter” offers a particularly striking example of this method. In other words, contra Bazin, every moment of a film is a special effect, whether it uses a long, unbroken take with a stationary camera or the seamless eyeline matching of continuity editing.

Just as “Inception” ostensibly probed the microcosmic level of the unconscious, in which memories are nested like so many Russian dolls, (it’s memories all the way own, dearie) in search of some abiding emotional center, so “Interstellar” explores the macrocosmic labyrinth of the black hole. Ever since these hyperobjects, as my old prof Tim Morton dubs them, were discovered, black holes have exercised a fearsome grip on the imagination. They mark the limits of presence itself, since beyond the event horizon all matter ceases to exist. Their size, their power, their mystery, place them not so much on an astronomical scale, as on a quasi-theological one. A black hole is nearer to Meister Eckhart’s Godhead than anything in the measurable universe.

With “Interstellar,” Nolan has remade “Inception,” or revisited the same obsessions. Both films stage the rescue of an impossible lost love (whether wife or daughter); both are dependent for their resolution on a dazzling swirl of montage, a conjoining of unreachable, irreconcilable ends in the name of love, which exceeds its mortal boundaries to achieve a Dantean scale, a truly cosmic force. As Anne Hathaway’s passionate Dr. Brand puts it, “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Hathaway delivers her lines with great conviction and a rhetorical flourish that lends the scene a pseudo-scientific proof. Are we capable, in fact, of perceiving love as transcendent? Or is it just wishful thinking?

It’s a wonderful movie moment; it sweeps us up in her intensity. But it raises the eyebrows of every skeptic in the audience. What is love, one might say, but an ideology grafted onto a mammalian impulse? And how can it transcend space and time except through the perishable artifacts of art and memory? Nothing lasts. That might be the Nietzschean motto of art, could it speak for itself.

Before he heads out for the Great Unknown, Coop remarks that “Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future.” It’s an improbably grim, self-aware and melancholy observation to make, but no less true for that. This moment gains incredible poignancy once he’s gone through the wormhole to a distant a galaxy and falls afoul of relativity on Miller’s planet, where due to time dilation minutes equal years. The three astronauts (only two survive) get back to their orbiting ship to find that Donne’s exquisite line about “gold to airy thinness beat” might be a only a metaphor after all. Coop accesses his stored messages: all 23 years worth. Every single one of them is from his son (a minor, underdeveloped character). At the very last, a grown Murph comes on. She radiates a fierce recrimination that is an integral sign of her love for her father and her rage at his absence and betrayal. Coop’s emotional response is devastating. And this really is the heart of the film. The father’s grief and remorse visibly signifying the ineluctable alienation that time subducts us all into.

And yet, it all feels a bit of a cheat. Nolan creates the entire film as a way to take the hero (and us) into the impossible heart of the black hole. The ultimate unfilmmable event: like depicting infinity or the land of the dead. The whole point of the film is to demonstrate its own enormous cinematic ambition, to bring us into the tessellated layers of a montage-vertigo, just as “Inception” did. It’s all about the medium; about what film can accomplish; about representing the unrepresentable.

On the other hand, “Interstellar” is a meditation on how film can defeat time to achieve the triumph or reconciliation of love. Montage conquers time itself by splicing together disparate moments into coherent units of narrative. It’s an allegory about what art can do, about why we have art at all. That it’s awkward at points and sentimental; sometimes poorly plotted (the sequence with Matt Damon as the stranded astronaut could have been cut with no loss to story and a considerable gain in thematic unity) does little to detract from the force of its emotional thrust.

“Interstellar” is masterful, rather than a masterpiece. But its scenes of grandeur are so palpably rendered that we are carried along by their feckless surge. Part of Nolan’s aim, of course, is to out-Kubrick Kubrick: a hopeless task, but he gives it a good try. The movie’s most sublime scenes only call to mind “2001;” they don’t come close to surpassing it. Yet the same kind of imaginative daring is evident and that is thrilling in an era when clodhopper films like “Avatar” bludgeon us with “message.” The most intelligent SF has gone small – it’s all chamber drama: “Ex Machina,” “Her,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Arrival,” (which mixes cosmic awe with some truly uncanny aliens into its bittersweet time-loop redemption).

Nolan’s desire to reaffirm humanism, defined here by the persistence of human presence in an indifferent universe, is heroic, if naïve. His concept of mortality and love carry an earnest weight of melancholy. Yet the film wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In Nolan’s black hole mysticism, loss never really need be confronted because time always loops back around and our loved ones are never really lost. The sequence in which Coop enters the black hole tesseract to find himself in a bewildering Borgesian library of fractal infinity is beautiful, yet absurd. The scene is gorgeous but strains credulity. “I was your ghost,” Cooper tells Murph later. Nothing is ever really gone. If only.

Cross-cutting across the effects of time dilation Nolan conjures an impossible continuity between memory and desire, then and now, the living and the dead. This is the real meaning of the title, “Interstellar,” which seems to have baffled Vivian Sobchack’s otherwise penetrating essay in Film Comment. To be “interstellar” is to submit to time dilation. This may be the only film that’s ever dealt with, however mawkishly and unevenly, the ways in which Einstein undoes Proust. Immensity destroys intimacy (a theme tackled with great ingenuity and yes, humanistic affirmation, in Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”). Nolan probes the borders of these stakes, only to shy away from such an inhuman revelation. The film’s touching resolution is movingly affirmative. Coop bids farewell to an elderly Murph, then flies off to rejoin Brand. Love will keep us together. Ansible me, maybe.

The film took criticism from some quarters when it was released for what was perceived as climate change fatalism. Why make a film advocating the abandonment of the Earth in favor of some jazzy f/x? But these critics missed the point. What “Interstellar” offers is a rich, romantic vision of our longing for continuity and connection. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, it dares to uphold the idea that the flesh and the bonds which link us surpass the indifferent forces of the larger world we live in. If it fails, it’s because it can’t quite imagine how real loss compels us to build a future after trauma. It never shows us the enormous price paid for the Great Leap Forward. Instead, it posits that hoariest of Hollywood tropes: the happy reunion. The earth may shrivel into a dried out husk and brave men and women launch into the abyss on a quixotic quest to save it, but only by the magic of editing, not logic, do they overcome the odds in the end.

Nolan is a visually audacious filmmaker gifted with an overabundance of talent. He’s a classic case: someone whose vocabulary is in search of a sentiment. Even “Dunkirk” demonstrates this – a fabulous armature of equipment for expression but absolutely nothing to say beyond cliche – and Sobchack brilliantly gets to the heart of Nolan’s fixation with time, evident since his debut in “Memento,” when she writes that:

“Fully aware that cinema is, itself, a time machine, he has expanded—and compounded—the relativity of space-time and its effects by layering them in the multiple dimensions not only of Interstellar’s narrative but also of the film’s overall structure and its immersive mise en scène. Simultaneously, all three play out the tension between “intimate” and “exterior” space-time and, in the film’s moving final third, resolve—by unifying—their different immensities and seemingly incompatible values.”

And yet – relativity. Human value, human love, the entire scale of human social structure. None of it can survive relativistic effects. Another way of stating this, I suppose, is to simply say, that if you introduce relativity into your story, there can be no happy endings. One can only ponder how Kip Thorne’s input was considered then discarded in this regard. But while science has its own iron laws, a story must abide by a different set of formulae. “Interstellar” provides us with the essence of SF: it imparts a genuine sense of wonder. The images the film gives us are transfixing. They are not the story, but they do a kind of work that the story can’t.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

THE EXPANSE, or “Remember the Cant” (as in the nefariously destroyed ice hauler space ship, The Canterbury)

Finally catching up with the SyFy channel’s THE EXPANSE, which first aired in 2015, and is now available on Amazon Prime. I’m currently consuming about two a day, trying to pace myself – about halfway through at S2:E4. It’s easily the best serial SF drama since "Battlestar Galactica".

Unlike BSG, though, it’s committed to a hard SF realism. No FTL or jump drives. No vagaries about galactic coordinates. It all takes place in-system, on an interplanetary scale (distances which we still cannot begin to comprehend) between the Inner Planets and the Outer. And aside from a realistic storyline about space-faring Mormons, there’s no religious mumbo-jumbo, no poorly conceived red herrings about polytheism.

(I am reminded, however, of one of the Appendices to DUNE, where Frank Herbert, writing a future history, meditates on how actual interstellar travel would disrupt and remake religious belief. “The first space experiences, poorly communicated, and subject to extreme distortion, were a wild inducement to mystical speculation.”) For that matter Norman Mailer gets down to it in Of a Fire on the Moon. “It was conceivable that man was no longer ready to share the dread of the Lord.” Nevertheless, it’s good to recall that what made BSG great was the way it tackled terrorism, intolerance, class, genocide, and you know, the nature of humanity and all that shit.

"The Expanse" obviously borrows a great deal from Alfred Bester’s groundbreaking 1957 novel, "The Stars My Destination," which as all SF readers know, pointed the way for the New Wave and cyberpunk. Bester imagined a future world ruled by transnational and transplanetary corporations and indeed, the bad guys in The Expanse are a corporation called Protogen, a deliberate echo of the villainous power in Destination, the Presteign Corp. The elite badasses of the Martian Marines in the show are straight out of Bester’s Martian commandoes. Earth vs. Mars, vs. the Belt and the Outer Planets, ditto. There are other allusions and debts as well, ranging from PKD’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (the basis of both Total Recall movies, with their savage depictions of deep space miners as exploited proles), Heinlein’s "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (Luna to Terra: fuck off) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian Mars trilogy. There are even a few nods to Alastair Reynolds (for Fred Johnson, “Butcher of Anderson Station,” read Nevil Clavain, “Butcher of Tharsis” -- that’s on Mars, for you landlubbers).

"The Expanse" features any number of first-rate performers, including the wiry, jangly Thomas Jane as a somewhat shopworn noirish cop and the brash, sensual Dominique Tipper as a conflicted Belter named Naomi Nagata. Cas Anvar, who plays Alex Kamal, is terrific as well: a true-born Martian of Middle Eastern descent who talks with a Southern drawl and is not only an ace gunship pilot but knows how to cook too. But it’s Shohreh Aghdashloo, the distinguished Iranian-American actress, who steals the show. There's more than a touch of Orientalism to her costuming. But she's a player whom the other players obviously respect and fear. And she gets shit done. In the role of Chrisjen Avasarala, an ambiguous Realpoiltik U.N. deputy under-secretary, she turns in the most layered and compelling performance of the series, as well as the sexiest. Her every appearance announces itself with a flourish of silent trumpets. She is stateliness itself, reader. Regal, imperious yet human and compassionate. Ruthless and cunning and almost telepathically brilliant in reading motive and trying to stop an interplanetary war. She out-Galadriels Galadriel and I could listen to her read the phone book all night, if they still made them.

"The Expanse" starts out trodding what feels like familiar ground, esp. in its Outer Belt settings. They owe a good deal to Paul Verhoven's set design for Mars in "Total Recall." But they are to a purpose: investing the viewer with care for each new character as they are introrduced as well as mapping the complex and treacherous political terrain of a 23rd Century that is a far cry from the utopian post-scarcity scenarios of "Star Trek" or Iain Banks' Culture novels. Gradually the political intrigue, noirish elements, and thrilling space battles are very quickly turned to fresh account. And as the mystery begins to unravel, we catch alluring glimpses of a very cool and very disturbing Novum: the alien or extra-solar MacGuffin called the protomolecule.

Before he died, Stephen Hawking, whom the world press tends to treat as some kind of cosmic savant, delivered a set of rather standard alarms about possible future hazards for our species that were treated as oracular pronouncements but are commonplaces for SF readers. One of them had to do with the necessity for humanity to extend itself beyond one planet, to colonize other planets and whole systems if it is to survive. But The Expanse, despite individual acts of heroism, shows just how vain and futile such a notion is. Putting Whitey, or anyone else for that matter, on Mars – on Ceres, on Titan, on Europa, on Proxima Centauri -- merely replicates the forces of enslavement and privilege that already dominate human history here on this planet. What good is reaching for the stars if all we do is spread our toxic brew of cruelty and dispossession across the incalculable reaches of deep space? Since SF has such strong roots in Utopian ideology, as Jameson has shown, one hopes that the series finale might offer some kind of transcendent outcome. Season 4 will be here soon. Stay tuned!

Post-script/spoiler alert!: having finally viewed all three seasons I can only reiterate my enthusiasm for "The Expanse." The momentum of the whole first 2 and a half seasons comes to a very satisfying climax in S3: E6, "Immolation." Jules Mao and his evil scientist brought to justice, along with the conniving Errinwright; Avasarala triumphant; and the greater purpose of the protomolecule revealed (or at least strongly hinted at). After that, the series pivots to a much vaster, well, expanse -- a nice nod to "2001" and seemingly galactic in scope. A bit of momentum is lost with a tedious revenge subplot, but no matter.

My pessimism about humanity acting as an interstellar virus is confirmed by James Holden's grim remark played with understated heroics by Steven Strait) that the protomolecule's evolution into a Stargate only invites "another blood stained gold rush." The final episodes give the beleaguered Belters, those gritty working class heroes, their moment in the spotlight. Esp. Cara Gee's slinky, stoic, cynical, but deeply loyal, Drummer, who emerges as one of the standouts in a cast that is remarkable for how many strong female characters it boasts. "Beltalowda!"