Yesterday, I saw two movies as well as attending Jill Lepore’s J.F. Priestley lecture on “Numbers.” The first was Annihilation starring Natalie Portman and directed by Alex Garland (who previously directed Ex Machina) that I saw with my youngest son at a movie theatre (it has to be seen on a full wide or even IMAX screen to be really appreciated) before I went to the lecture. The second was the Winston Churchill movie, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour with Gary Oldham offering a simply outstanding portrayal of Winston Churchill. I saw that movie in the evening on TV. Since I slept in until 6:00 a.m. this morning, I might not finish this blog today. For I need to take a driver’s test given that I have turned 80. And I want to hear Jill Lepore’s third lecture on data which I am going to hear this afternoon with one of my grandsons.
My son loved Annihilation. I hated it. There is no question that it was an extraordinary visual experience; the imagery throughout blows your mind. But it is also a horror film in which at every turn there is another horrible creature or spectacle about to attack the five brave women who have entered the “Shimmer” to find out why no one comes out who has gone in to the spreading alien presence on earth. One explanation for our radically different reactions to the film is that he loves horror movies and I cannot abide them.
But that is an insufficient explanation. For I could have enjoyed the visual and visionary spectacle and tried to ignore the cliché of the five-person team of individuals with different characters and motives going on such a suicidal mission, with one important and significant exception – the team in the current era of #Me Too was all female. The plot, instead of lauding the women for their courage, played up the “fact” that each was driven by a different self-destructive motive. Except Natalie Portman as Lena, who was the only one of the five that survived and returned to tell the tale.
The film in both its aesthetic and plot line is based on the scientific phenomenon of refraction with which all film directors, cinematographers and photographers are familiar and which either plagues them or delight them as they use the phenomena to evince an alien presence. However, in this film, refraction becomes a more elementary principle, not simply of bending light, but of interacting with our DNA and mixing it up to form new hybrids. As the suicide-prone physicist in the movie, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) discovers, radio signals cannot escape the Shimmer, not because they are blocked, but because they are refracted like light in a prism to prevent them from escaping. The extraordinary visuals of the film, however, not only come from the beauty of light being refracted, but from the horror of DNA being refracted to form mutants that not only cross the species divide, but ignore the radical division between animal and plant life. The visual story line is one of the juxtaposition of terribly ugly (and dangerous) forms of life with extraordinary beauty.
My scientific critique has nothing to do with mutation, including mutations through refracted light, but with such an extraordinary and unbelievable recombination that, in my understanding of science, would make it impossible for any living being to emerge. And when something does not make sense, I turn off. The clichés of horror movies, including the initial appearance of Kane (Oscar Isaac) as a dead-eyed zombie returning from the dead at the beginning of the film just before he turns into a blood-vomiting dying man whose organs are all collapsing, were not the only elements that repelled me. I could not buy into the science and, if I watch a sci-fi movie, I want to see an extension of science and not the abuse and mutation of it.
I admit that the biological aberrations were brilliantly constructed and offered haunting images that were discomfiting, disorienting and genuinely frightening, all enhanced by the sound track, but when I wanted to go sleep to escape the misuse of science and the horror film assaults on both my sensibility and my intellectual critique, the noise – and, for me, it was just noise – kept me awake. Instead of loving the way Garland used plot and flashbacks to tantalize and tease by allowing us to both fall behind and sometimes even get ahead, I simply felt manipulated. And to what end? After all, the vaginal hole in the bottom of the lighthouse that had been the destiny of the five women may have been a visual wonder, but for me was a Freudian bore.
However, there was also something deeper going on to propel such a strong negative reaction in me and such a powerful positive response in my son. One reader of my blog just sent me a reference to another blog: (https://medium.com/personal-growth/seeing-vs-reading-29365d4540e2). That blog argued that seeing versus reading, intuition versus rational logic, looking at patterns versus parsing into elements, watching the interplay of solids, light and shadows rather than simply applying a taxonomy of categories using language, explained the difference between aesthetic appreciation and analytic skills, between creativity and, presumably, non-creativity.
Though I think the general argument is bogus, there is a difference between those who love pattern recognition, love the interplay of images and those who do not primarily see through such eyes. But for me, it is worse. For in medical school, I could never recognize anything through a microscope and had to use reductionist reasoning to determine what I was looking at. I have serious problems with face recognition. So, at root, whatever the large areas of overlapping interests between myself and my youngest son, in the end we see the world somewhat differently, especially when it comes to aesthetics and, in particular, certain kinds of film.
Obviously, this difference has grave consequences with respect to dealing with facts, numbers and data, which my son has no difficulty handling even though his prime interest is elsewhere.
In contrast, both my son and I loved Darkest Hour. If Annihilation used light to brilliant effect, darkness pervades the Winston Churchill film from an opening scene in which a secretary walks into a dark room and Churchill is nowhere to be seen until he lights his phallic cigar and adumbrates that he will be the guiding light for a nation under siege. The interplay of light and shadow operate in radically different ways than in Annihilation. The film takes us through the claustrophobic underground corridors of Whitehall and Westminster and even has Churchill riding for the first time on the underground (Did that really happen?). Further, we are into a realm of courage of a radically different and higher order. Churchill wavers between the pressure to sue for peace and the need to resist a tyrant to the death.
Citing Cliff Orwin, in yesterday’s blog I wrote that, “Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.” All these themes are in the film. Is Churchill after glory or is he the embodiment of courage resisting the retreat into the argument for safety at the cost of selling one’s soul, the position of Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). In this film, Churchill is not so much driven by imperial ambitions as by a need to protect Great Britain, but without allowing the concern with safety to sacrifice the principle of self-determination. And into that balancing act, a normally forthright Churchill of candor retreats into equivocation to hide from the British people what a desperate position they are in before he returns to trusting them and once again demonstrating a reverence for truth and candor.
It is not as though Churchill does not feel. Instead of being portrayed as simply a brilliant orator with his finest speech at the climax of the film – “We shall fight them on….” He does not sell out his head, but knows what he must do. He does not act on impulse or simply based on his feelings and the need for safety most of all, but, instead, musters all that he knows and understands and the courage to do so against all odds and the sceptics that surround him. Instead of sentiment, he feels genuine compassion for the 4,000 troops at Calais but nevertheless decides to sacrifice them in a stalling maneuver to buy time for the rescue of 300,000 British troops from the shores of Dunkirk by an armada of small fishing boats and yachts under the serendipitous clouds that provide the needed air cover. To succeed, compassion and justice need to be supported by a willingness to face and share facts, with truth, and the quest for a real peace rather than to an ersatz peace of a nation that has surrendered to the rule of a tyrant, the core danger of populism.
Unlike Annihilation, this is a real thriller even though you know the outcome in advance, for both films are about the process of reaching the end, not the end itself. At least in Darkest Hour, as we move between eloquence and meditative and even mumbling silences, we have the reference of a real linear timeline, the 26 days of May and June 1940 when Britain must face the results of the Nazi conquest and victory in Europe. In Darkest Hour, words are key, not visuals. They are enhanced by a lyrical score rather than what I heard as jarring noise in Annihilation.
Of course, the response to the film reflects a deep need for real leadership when one’s values and way of life are under siege. Look at today. Russia kills those who flee abroad with nerve and atomic chemicals with virtual imPUTINy on British soil and the British government simply expels a 23 Russian “diplomats.” It is akin to responding to murder with a pinprick.
It is not as if we are absent of any examples of courage to speak out at the present time to confront both tyranny and the pusillanimous response of populists and sentimentalists. Though far from the grand scale of Churchill’s achievements, when Jeff Sessions totally misrepresented the position of California and the record of alleged felons that had “escaped” because California did not support the roundup of illegal immigrants, James Schwab, a spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Agency (IEA) – clearly no softie – was asked to deflect journalists’ questions about the basis for the “numbers” of alleged “criminal aliens” and 800 wanted criminals cited by the Justice Department as having “escaped” because of the Californian government intervention. Schwab resigned rather than lie about the facts and the numbers and echo the claims that, because of Californian federal government action, “864 criminal aliens and public safety threats remain at large” because of warnings provided by the mayor. The lie concerned the number of people planned to be picked up – far fewer than the 800 or so – or the numbers of criminals among them.
Of course, Donald Trump’s lies are much worse, come far more frequently and have greater consequences. Every Canadian knows how interdependent the Canadian economy is with the American one. Every Canadian knows how important NAFTA is for Canadian prosperity. But Trump lied, lied right to Justin Trudeau, and said that America has a trade deficit with Canada when the reverse is true, a truth even in an economic report issued by the White House and signed off by Trump. “You’re wrong Justin,” Trump said in response to Justin’s claims that Canada had a trade deficit with the U.S. When Trump was forced to admit that, “we have no trade deficit,” he added. “Well, in that case I feel (my italics) differently, but I don’t believe it.” In fact, (we are delaying dealing with facts and numbers until tomorrow) the U.S. enjoys a $US12.5 billion surplus with Canada.
With the help of Alex Zisman
Tomorrow: Facts and Numbers with Jill Lepore.