Tag Archives: art

The arrival of Arrival

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching a newly-released film with a dear friend – something I’d been immensely looking forward to, and not just because this week got very I’ve-fallen-into-a-parallel-universe-and-I-can’t-get-up with the election of a sexist, racist demagogue as President of the United States of America. Being able to distract ourselves with a big cinematic experience was thoroughly lovely, and while we were surprised at first by a rather large local street festival that neither of us realised was going to be on right outside the cinema doors, even that in itself was a lovely way to pass the time, wandering up and down past stalls, avoiding the heat and humidity while we could, staying out of rain, smelling and eating street food (we both got gözleme, a Turkish fried bready dish that I love but can’t often get here in Australia), and having a relatively quiet (and cold; it was stinking humid, and a storm broke later that afternoon) drink in a café we both like. So all in all, it was a wonderful afternoon’s diversion.

It was also a particularly nice experience in that I don’t go out to the cinema very often anyway, which is due to two major contributing factors. One of those is the fact that it requires some planning and psychological strength for me to do something off routine these days, and so I often find myself “postponing” going out to the cinema to take in a film until I end up missing the entirety of the film’s run. The other is the fact that Hollywood is simply not producing that many movies that appeal to me these days, and of late the cinematic industry seems to be relying for most of its punter bucks to be coming from superhero movies, reboots and sequels, and vehicles for whoever the latest Flavour of the Month is: Anna Kendrick, Bonemarrow Crunchybits, Chris Pratt, Melissa McCarthy. Not that I mind individual instances of these – I’m super keen to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it comes out next week, for example – but on the whole, it seems that variety is rather lacking. Do we really need three separate Wolverine movies, you cats, in addition to the six X-Men films we already have? Did Jurassic World really add anything substantive to the ideas that Jurassic Park already explored? (And quite beautifully, I might add: not only was the film itself just incredible – beautifully shot, well-acted, and majestically scored – but for a film released in 1993, the special effects in Jurassic Park are mindblowing and stand up extraordinarily well even by today’s standards. What’s more, it was a rare gold star for Hollywood in the gender stakes. There were only two major female characters, but both were awesome: Lex Murphy ran firmly counter to stereotype as a teen girl computer whiz who hacked the park’s security system, and Dr. Ellie Sattler is serious life goals for me, a strong and intelligent woman with a doctorate who can be feminine, kick arse without having to wear heels to do so, and explicitly lampshade a few sexist attitudes into the bargain. While I have to confess I haven’t seen Jurassic World, a deliberate choice given that it was both Chris Pratt and a sequel that didn’t need to be done, I’ve heard that if anything the attitude towards women has moved distinctly backwards. Yet another reason not to see it.)

Anyway. I’m digressing again. Yesterday’s film was none of these: neither a superhero movie, nor a reboot, nor a sequel (nor an exhibit of Chris Pratt or Anna Kendrick). It was the science-fiction film Arrival, an adaptation of the Nebula Award-winning novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I hadn’t read any of his work previously – apart from the general difficulty I have with getting into new fiction these days, Chiang is remarkably selective about his sci-fi publication, having published only 15 stories in his career (even as they’ve achieved mindblowing success, garnering among others four Nebulas, four Hugos, and three Locus Awards to date). Indeed, he apparently once even turned down a Hugo nomination because he felt editorial urging had pressed him into producing a rushed and (to him) unsatisfactory story. It seems that Story of Your Life had long been considered unfilmable, but in all honesty, I’m glad that the screenwriters persisted, because in Arrival, they’ve produced something incredible.

Alert for major spoilers from here on out, by the way.

On its face, Arrival is an alien first contact movie, and probably the most accurate portrayal of a potential first-contact scenario in cinema history, with the potential exception of Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel. Arrival takes the problem of interspecies communication that most other cinematic science fiction simply handwaves away if it acknowledges it at all (with telepathy in Independence Day, with the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with universal translator devices of a thousand different incarnations in a thousand other sci-fi outings), and moves it squarely into the foreground, building the film’s major quest line out of the struggle to communicate with the squidlike heptapods and discover their purpose for visiting Earth in the first place. The military is involved, as they so often are, but the protagonist of the film – and indeed, the only one we really find ourselves empathising with throughout – is an academic linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, whose performance is complex, deep, and really touching), who’s called upon by the Army to attempt to speak with the alien visitors but frequently forgets military protocols and security (in that strangely childlike manner that we academics often seem to be able to muster) in pursuit of the loftier goal of communication, often with the assistance of theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

From a purely linguistic point of view, I don’t think the process of monolingual fieldwork with a previously unknown language has ever been so accurately depicted upon film; the hesitating first steps, the breakthroughs that form a foundation upon which the rest of the language can be constructed in the mind of the learner, the rapid acceleration of mutual comprehension thereafter. The film also explores a particularly strong version of what linguists call linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that one’s language influences or may even define the ways in which we see the world, and the whole film’s premise turns out to be that the purpose for the alien visitors coming to Earth is to impart their language to humanity. The heptapods’ form of visual communication is a semasiographic system in which a single complex symbol forms an entire sentence or utterance, and the form of every subpart of that symbol is morphologically influenced by every other part. In other words, in order to start talking in this form of communication, you already have to know exactly how the utterance will end – to predict its future, in a sense. So the story assumes from this a particularly strong version of Sapir-Whorf, stating that in essence, being able to use the heptapods’ visual language can impart the ability to “remember” both the past and the future: to perceive time not as a linear progression from cause to effect, but as a single flow of temporality.

But despite realising Ted Chiang’s heptapod aliens in arresting visual form, and hinting at a much greater alien universe in which they (and we) are situated, Arrival – like the novella on which it was based – rises into a higher class of sci-fi in that it never gets lost in exposition of extraterrestrial creatures at the expense of exploring the human condition, telling us first and foremost something about ourselves, about humanity. Even though the film’s focus would superficially appear to be upon the arrival of the heptapods and the process of establishing meaningful contact, and indeed that’s the bulk of what you see on screen, it isn’t so much that as it is the story of Louise Banks herself, and by proxy, her future husband Ian Donnelly (the selfsame physicist with whom she deciphered the heptapods’ language, who she will eventually marry) and her daughter (and the fact that the primary character’s a woman is also eminently pleasing in a genre so often dominated by male characters). It’s the story of how Louise’s acquisition from the heptapods of this ability to perceive all of her life at once affects the way her life subsequently unfolds, and how it impacts upon the decisions she has to make in the rest of her life (including whether or not she should have her daughter at all, knowing as she does that her  child’s life will be cruelly cut short by a devastating genetic illness, and that she and Ian will divorce because he finds out she knew it would happen and couldn’t handle it). This underlying story, as much alluded to as depicted outright, is what raises Arrival from an already pretty gripping and beautifully realised alien arrival tale into the top echelons of philosophical science fiction, up with Interstellar and Blade Runner as some of the best deep-thinking sci-fi ever put to screen. Those looking for a standard humans-versus-aliens Explosionfest are going to walk away sorely disappointed from Arrival, but so they should. There’s plenty of room in the vast and unchartable multiverse of sci-fi for first contact films that are basically cheesy disaster-movie-style crash-and-bang cinema (which are nonetheless awesome; Independence Day is still an old favourite of mine) as well as for highly cerebral, richly emotional examinations of the human condition through the lens of a science-fiction scenario.

So I’m very grateful for being able to get out and experience one such film, and particularly with such lovely company.

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Travel, expectations and reality

Today’s been a dreary day, and I eventually summoned myself out of my bed at about a quarter past two in the afternoon after some eleven hours of sleep and a period of just lying in bed, phases of sheer motionlessness. I did manage to rouse myself, though, and brought myself to send out some emails and messages and so forth, but on the whole this weekend has been a quiet one indeed. For this I’m mildly grateful in one way, as today marks the end of a complicated fortnight: seven doctor’s appointments, two rounds of blood tests, a hospitalisation, an alternatingly ecstatic then painful rollercoaster of romantic emotions, helping two friends through breakdowns, another two through breakups, and the disintegration of plans to do a test-run of moving out of home… not a torturous fourteen days, to be sure, but certainly one that’s taken a physical and emotional toll. This weekend has become a time of rest, then, and yesterday I was moved to spend some of that time in writing. What excited me to this feeling has been a reflection my dear friend recently wrote about her perspectives on visiting and travelling in England, a reflection that transported me back to some of my own travels – never as far west in Europe as England (more’s the pity, though I hope to reach western Europe one day soon), but the feelings she describes as having been stirred in her reminded me of my own emotional responses to some of the cities I’ve visited. What surprised me, I suppose, is that my friend found herself sensing genuine distaste for London, a distaste she described in no uncertain terms and in a manner that’s utterly foreign to my experience of international travel. Of the eighty-odd cities I’ve visited in eight countries, never has my feeling been one of dislike or discomfort; although there are places I’ve liked moreso than others, of course, none has been an experience that I could ever use the words regret or hate to describe. Even when there have been particular events that haven’t been so pleasant (losing my camera on the last day of my visit to Tbilisi, for instance – I had to purchase a new one in Athens – or being screwed out of thirty lira by a street shoe-shine hustler in İstanbul), I’ve come away from every place that I’ve visited with a sense of enjoyment, and satisfaction that I did.

New York is such a place (and I mention this primarily because I can’t speak to the experience of London, but I have visited New York, twice). Like my friend’s dissatisfaction with her London experience, my two brothers have been to New York and both found it overwhelming, noisy, crowded, oppressive; as one of them puts it, it was too much of the big smoke and too little of the open sky. I can counter none of these assessments, primarily subjective as they are, but when they told me about their trip and noted that they wouldn’t go back if given the option, I was – there’s no other word that’s as apt – gobsmacked. For me, New York was a unique and brilliant experience. It was a world apart, every bit as different and exotic and alien as if I’d been whisked off the surface of the Earth and teleported Star Trek-fashion into the centre of some Asimovian metropolis on the other side of the galaxy. The explorer in me was enthralled by the microcosm that the city represented, the stupendous diversity of humanity crammed into this one urban concentration. Some linguists believe that native speakers of as many as 800 languages may reside in the city, perhaps the most concentrated hotbed of linguistic diversity anywhere on the planet, and each gives their own unique spin to what it means to be American; that diversity is bleeding out of the Five Boroughs’ every pore. Every day I went walking I felt like I was entering a new town of sorts, a new locale, able to experience something starkly different from whatever it was I’d done the previous day. Strangely, I never felt crowded by people; even in Times Square it was easy to navigate around clots of tourists, and the area of Upper Manhattan I stayed in the first time it was positively peaceful much of the time. Meandering along the streets I’d read signs advertising all sorts of goods and services – Jewish delicatessens, Russian bakeries, Korean laundries. I heard more different languages spoken in one day in New York than on any other day before or since. Look here; see vaulting skyscrapers sparkling with thousands of mirror facets, white-gloved security staff calmly alert under canvas awnings that arch over brass-fitted foyers. Now look over there; see low two-storey red brick buildings, a graffiti-covered roll-a-door protecting a family-run convenience store with “Se Habla Español” on a handwritten sign in the window. On one day, I might see the frescoes of a reconstructed Pompeiian villa, the world’s largest collection of shrunken heads, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s planetarium, and come out of one of the city’s best pizzerias to see a two-time Academy Award nominee leaving the theatre opposite. (Jude Law, for the record.) On the next day, I might eat a pretzel and tandoori chicken with rice and salad from street vendors, then spend three hours discovering bronze statues, bench dedications, and wildlife in the surprisingly peaceful vastness of Central Park. Even the hostel I stayed at the first time – in the bottom levels of a brownstone in the middle of Harlem, a dodgy little place with rips in the vinyl of the couches, vegetation overgrown in what passed for its backyard, and a spanner kept in the shower so that you could actually turn the water on (the faucet head had long since been stolen) – was an experience that, while I maybe mightn’t stay there again, I enjoyed greatly nevertheless. My stay there gave me both richly memorable experiences and deeply treasured friends; two aspiring career musicians I met there, Grace and Kenny, I still keep in touch with. They brought me to a fun Mexican eatery not far from the Museum of Modern Art that I made it a point to go back to on my second visit; another night, we bought fountain sodas in a fast food place and spiked them with vodka while we wandered the streets of Harlem. The mixture of brazen wide-eyed camera-wielding tourism during the day and relaxed enjoyment with knowledgeable locals during the evening was the perfect way to experience the city, and I suppose that these reasons are what influence me to find it striking that one might visit New York and come out of it disappointed.

I rather like to think that my brothers’ dissatisfaction was at least in part caused by a combination of the time of year (they visited during the unseasonably cold snap of early 2014, and so the city was largely snowbound – by contrast, my visits were made during the late summer and early autumn, a time that’s warm but not intolerably so, when Central Park’s rich verdure is in full flush and the city’s denizens are more outgoing) and the fact that neither of them are particular fans of museums. Much of my New York state of mind came from the rich range of world-class museums they have: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Johannes Vermeer first captivated me with Det Melkmeisje that was on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the American Museum of Natural History, because I’m a nerdy freak for all things natural history and particularly palæontology, and the AMNH has a wondrous collection of mounted dinosaur fossils; the Museum of Modern Art, where Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was on display, far more spectacular in person than in a print of any fidelity; and even the Ripley’s Odditorium on Times Square, basically a fuck-off enormous Victorian curio cupboard with probably about as much authenticity about it but still some fascinating exhibits. One of my brothers tells me, too, that he rather fancies a little of the type of culture shock the Japanese call パリ症候群 Pari shōkōgun (in English, Paris syndrome) might also be to blame. This manifests when visitors to Paris (for some reason particularly Japanese tourists) suffer a psychological shock from realising that the reality of the city differs sharply from the received and preconceived ideal version of Paris: the Eiffel-Tower-in-spring, croissantsaveccafé, skinny-Chanel-model-in-marinière-and-beret Paris they’ve been delivered in Western movies and glossy magazine liftouts (and honestly, sometimes the stereotypes  write themselves). Certainly New York is a city that’s similarly widely represented in mass media, and so people’s perceptions of it would, one presumes, be subject to this same kind of unpleasant dissonance – a Stadtschmerz, if you like. This makes a lot of sense to me, particularly as my mental illness brings me to feel a good deal of Schmerz about the Welt in general, and I can objectively wrap my head around the idea that a specific place might trigger such a feeling too. I’d also never even flown in a commercial plane until I was 23, and never overseas until 26, so I suspect that for me the novelty of overseas travel of any sort is still in play. Even now there’s little that makes me feel more like a young kid opening her presents on Christmas morning than the intensifying roar of jet engines outside the heavily-insulated window that seems to dampen the sound not at all, and the heady feeling of being shoved backwards into my chair by g-forces as the pilot puts the hammer down to take off.

And of course, none of this is to say that anyone is at all wrong in assessing their visit to any city as being disappointing, unpleasant or distasteful. Travel isn’t about the objective beauty or charm of a place, and nor should it be; it’s about the way in which a person and a place interact, a tourist’s experiencing of a place within the context of their own past experiences and education and perceptions, both of that place and of all the others they’ve visited previously. From my friend’s description of her stay in London (and Hackney, she goes on to note), I can absolutely understand how the places she stayed would have struck her as being a letdown, an unsettlingly and maybe stereotypically twee self-caricature of a sort she wasn’t expecting. I guess I just fervently hope to continue avoiding such disappointments on my own travels, and I’ve been immensely fortunate that I haven’t been disappointed yet.

22 Days of Musing: 20

20. Counselling my future self.

Last night I got into a little of a rambling reminiscence about the first painting I did as self-treatment for a fairly black phase of depression, and I shared the painting itself, which I’m now realising that I probably should have done tonight so that while I talk about it, it’d be here in front of you. But never mind – I may as well share it again here, and since it’s my blawg, what I say goes. This isn’t any kind of a democracy, after all.

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Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

The depiction is of the elven queen Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings (portrayed in the films by Cate Blanchett) farewelling the Fellowship of the Nine as they leave the forests of Lothlórien. While the theme is admittedly maudlin, it’s also deliberately rich in symbolism. It draws upon Galadriel’s own fate, and that of all her kind: destined to fade into the West as the world passes from the Elves’ dominion, she passes the responsibility for the destiny of Middle-earth into the hands of those she farewells, and to Frodo she gives a gift of light even as she herself recognises that she will soon diminish and go into the West. That’s what the Quenya inscription says (and devising a Quenya translation and tengwar transcription of the phrase, which is spoken in the film only in English and never shown in writing of any stripe, was intended also to give me something to occupy and interest my brain).

Lyen antanyë i silme Eärendilwa, ammelda elenelma.
Nai cálë lyen nauva mornë nómessen,
írë ilyë exë calmar isintanier.
[I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star.
May it be a light for you in dark places,
when all other lights go out.]

Because of this desire to develop a symbolic structure for this work, not only the topic of the painting, but many of its details, were also specifically selected to bear meaning of their own. The deep blue tone of the background symbolises the sensation of depression that was crushing me at the time under its enormity; the expression on Galadriel’s face, a calm and yet slightly sad acceptance of the inevitability of her fate, was intended to suggest my feelings of becoming resigned to – though still not at all pleased with – enduring the long dark. The broad, empty space between her and the light she gives freely to the one she farewells represents the distance I sensed between myself and normality, the pure but faint and solitary luminosity of the star Eärendil likewise representing the ethereal and perhaps almost illusory possibility of a brightness coming to render the dark powerless. All were intentional symbolic choices on my part. Even the golden hue of the inscription recalls the beginning of one of Galadriel’s verses of lamenting the autumn of her era:

Ai! laurie lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

[Ah, like gold fall the leaves in the wind;
long years numberless as the wings of trees!]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, Namarië (Farewell)

The title I gave to the painting, Ú-chebin galad anim, similarly constructs an allusion to another Tolkienian reference. The phrase is in Tolkien’s other major Elvish language, Sindarin, and means “I have kept no light for myself”; it parallels a similarly-phrased line from the linnod or verse aphorism spoken by Aragorn’s mother Gilraen as she gave her son over to the Elves for protection:

Ónen i-Estel Edain; ú-chebin estel anim.
[I gave hope to the Dúnedain; I have kept no hope for myself.]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Appendix A

What I sought to do with this painting, I suppose, was to imbue it with all of the feelings of chagrin and emptiness and pain and hopelessness and fatalism that I was experiencing at the time, to memorialise and immortalise those feelings in pigment on canvas. The conceptual framework of The Lord of the Rings and its story and mythology was merely a convenient, though rich and familiar, symbolic language in which I could cast those thoughts visually. But my aim in doing that was actually not to wallow in the blackness: far from it, in fact. Instead, my thought was that by exploring all of these sensations as I painted, I would seek almost to entrap or imprison the dark, agonising feelings within that moment of time, and thereby allow me to project and communicate hope, and cheer, and well wishes for my future self – the one that would later see and experience the completed depiction and all its rich symbolism – even as I couldn’t see hope for myself in that moment. And in some ways it seems, strangely, to have succeeded; whenever I raise my eyes to the painting as I walk down the hall towards my room, I see Galadriel looking straight back at me, raising her hand in empathy and peace and love, and symbolically passing to me a little of the light, and the hope, that when I first put brush to canvas I’d been unable to find – or keep – for myself.

22 Days of Musing: 19

19. Paint yourself out of a corner.

Actually, because I mentioned it in last night’s reflection as well as the nominee I chose – a friend who happens to be a spectacular artist herself – I find myself thinking more about painting, a pastime that I mentioned I’d engaged in on occasion. This might seem to be well and truly off point, but I promise that I have a reason for talking about this. I’ve never considered myself particularly artistic; although music’s always had a role in my life (or at least, it did up until depression set in in earnest) and I enjoyed playing and listening to music of a wide range of types, I’ve always thought of myself as having little to no skill at all in the visual arts. Many years ago (and we’re talking many years, as in, back when I was in high school) I did ponder taking up the art of cartooning and took a workshop to that end, and in all fairness it’s true that I do appreciate the beauty of a unique piece of visual artwork. There was great wonder and excitement in visiting the art and archaeology museums I’ve experienced around the world – the National Gallery in Melbourne, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Getty in Los Angeles – that contain spectacular examples of art both ancient and modern. At the Met, I fell in love with the work of Johannes Vermeer; at Olympia, the Hermes and the Infant Dionysos of Praxiteles. But largely, my experience of these artworks has been with the understanding that I could neither imagine nor execute works of such beauty and vividness, and with this knowledge I was, and remain, largely content. But in late 2012, about eighteen months after starting on my first antidepressant medication, I experienced another period of darkness mainly focused upon the time around Christmas (a holiday that in recent years has come to give me less and less joy, to the point where I no longer look forward to it at all; but that’s a story for another time, I think). Each time I’ve fallen deeply into the pit of depression, I’ve noticed something that has deserted me; in this instance, it was my ability to maintain focus for any length of time. Even when I wished to write an email to a friend, I’d write perhaps one sentence, then have my focus begin inexorably drifting in a manner that I found I was unable to control – such that it would take me weeks to write and send an email to someone I wanted to stay in touch with. And so it was in early January of 2013 that I found myself scrabbling for ways to claw back some of the focus that had by that point entirely deserted me. What I decided at that time was that I needed to find something that I had a solid theoretical knowledge about, but that I was entirely unskilled at: something that wasn’t time-sensitive but demanded periods of specific focus, something that, because I wasn’t naturally skilled at it, would occupy many parts of my mind all at once in order to execute successfully. And what I decided upon was painting. At the time I’d only recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a story and fictional universe I’ve always taken much enjoyment from, and so it was from here that I drew inspiration. And I was successful, in the main; after three weeks of this self-administered focus treatment, this was the result, which now hangs above my door in a place where it looks over me every time I go into my room. (Forgive the curvature at the top and bottom; to get a sufficiently detailed shot, I had to take the photo from close enough to cause this distortion as well.)

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Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

Unlike some of my subsequent paintings, which have been done largely just to keep my hands and my mind busy, with virtually every aspect of this painting I spent much time developing the theme and filling the piece with rich symbolism; it quickly moved past being simply a picture to paint, and has come to take on a more deeply therapeutic role. The role of this specific piece of work in my self-treatment for depression has been significant, and I think I’ll explain exactly how in tomorrow’s reflection, as it’s a little convoluted.