Thoughts on Arrival

Warning 1: Whatever my opinion of this movie, I warn you to not read this post before seeing it. I’m warning you. There are major spoilers, and these are the types of spoilers that don’t merely reveal some plot twist. These reveals will irrevocably altar the way you experience the movie to an extent where you will be robbed of being able to form an your own opinion.

WARNING 2: I’ve warned you. Do not let your eyes drift down this page if you haven’t seen this movie.

For those of you who are still reading for some reason, despite not having seen the movie, I’ll start with a few non-spoiler things I didn’t like to give you a chance to click that x in the upper right corner of the screen while you have the chance. Do it!

First off, the movie was terribly derivative. It’s hard to think of single thing in the whole film that isn’t just a copy of something already done in some other “first contact” story. I know that “everything’s been done” (supposedly). But if you’re going to pick a story that’s really been done a hundred times, please, please, have something truly new and interesting. More on this later when I’m allowed to start spoiling.

The characters and their motivations seemed really weak. After some thought, I identified the problem. Theme must emerge from story and characterization. Arrival put theme before characters. So when humans freaked out that the aliens arrived and started trying to wage war and division everywhere, it didn’t seem all that motivated.

People planted bombs and cut off communication in order to show that humans are these terrible war-driven species. In other words, the writer(s) knew they wanted to get this across and so showed it. Instead, they should have had a story with a strong flow and sense of character in which that theme emerged. Also, they hired this linguist to do her job and then opposed her ideas every step of the way. This was unmotivated, artificial resistance to create conflict: a terrible narrative device.

Okay. Now on to some of the things that really bothered me. How the hell did they crack the written language? The entire premise of the movie hinges on them being able to read the words with high accuracy and specificity (remember that scene where they translated “weapon” and everyone freaked out?).

Seriously. I wrote a novel with an unknown written language, so I spent a huge amount of time thinking about this. Despite spending a thousand years and having a whole library of this language with books with pictures, I came to the conclusion that the researchers would get essentially nowhere.

So how the hell did these few people, in a matter of weeks, figure out pretty much everything (including highly abstract words like “time”)? The language doesn’t even have an order or grammar to it. They never left the spaceship. That means they were never pointing to a tree and writing “tree.”

I know this seems like some trivial thing: suspend your disbelief, etc. But I can’t. If this was 90% of the movie, it would have been the coolest first contact movie ever. That’s how interesting and difficult and original the idea would have been. Instead, they skip over the only interesting thing and pretend like it was so trivial that it wasn’t worth mentioning. It’s impossible they figured this out and renders the whole rest of the movie worthless.

Let’s return for a moment to the lack of characterization. Are we really supposed to believe that the two main characters fell in love? They never once flirt. They never even crack a smile at each other for all I remember. They never hold hands. Chemistry never develops between them.

Now, this would have been fine if one of the last lines wasn’t: “Do you want to have my baby?” Um. What? The most obvious reply should have been, “You creep. Who asks that? Get away from me.”

Since we see lots of events after the alien part of the movie, they could have flashed forward to a place where he says this, and then we would fill in all the lovey-dovey stuff in our minds. It would have been way less creepy. Or, they could have done a better job at developing the romance.

I get that she can see the future, and he has just learned that, so he knows that she already knows if they have a baby. That makes it ever so slightly less creepy. But not really. Why would that be the first thing you ask? Why not just ask her on a date or something?

Now that we’ve broached the topic of the twist of the movie, let’s dig into that. It doesn’t so much bother me that the premise of the movie rests on a sketchy theory, namely that language affects how you perceive the world. Plenty of great SF take cool theories to their extremes (including ones I’ve written).

What does trouble me is that every interpretation of the form of time travel the main character gains leads to major problems. The least plausible interpretation is that she can actually travel to and live in future and past places of her life.

This is problematic because it basically implies immortality. Are you about to die? Then just go live an earlier part of your life out. Plus, there’s all the time travel paradoxes that would arise. If you actually relive it, then presumably you can change things. That’s a problem for obvious reasons.

A more charitable understanding is that she can merely access “memories” of future events. The movie makes it seem like they must be her own memories, but that seems to cause problems for the aliens who seem to know events 3000 years in the future. But whatever, let’s say the aliens are more advanced, so they have memories of future events regardless of point of view.

This still leaves some problems, like in the future, when meeting the Chinese general, she doesn’t remember calling him, despite it necessarily having happened already. This makes it seem like it isn’t a mere memory of the future but an actual living out of that moment (and we’ve already said this is a problem). So let’s assume it’s a mere memory of the future and not a living out, despite the problems that causes with the movie.

What does it mean to access a memory of a future event that doesn’t happen? It’s a paradox. If she has the choice to not have her baby, then she could choose not to have it based on knowing her daughter will die early. But then not having the baby would erase the memory of her daughter dying young, and so she wouldn’t have a reason not to have it. This means she would choose to have it. Woops. It’s an endless cycle that creates a paradox.

Okay. So let’s say she can’t choose. The future is set. That undermines the entire message of the movie, which is that she chooses life in the face of struggle. Plus, this choice aspect of the movie is voiced by several characters (it’s the reason Ian leaves). There is no way the writers want you to interpret the movie as some argument against free will.

As you see, the movie does the opposite of good SF. Good SF, like Primer, makes you super confused, but as you think deeply about it, you gain clarity. You realize it really does make sense. Arrival does the opposite. It seems deep and interesting at first, but the deeper you think about it, the more it unravels as nonsense.

I know a lot, and I mean a lot, of people really, really loved this movie. So my question is: why? It’s paradoxical. It’s derivative. The characterization is shallow. The plot has major holes. It’s hard for me to think of a single thing someone would have liked about it.

Is it just that people haven’t seen really interesting SF, like Primer, for example, so they don’t see this for what it is? They’re blown away by the twist ending, so they don’t think any deeper and just believe it to be as deep as their initial intuition leads them to believe?

This actually troubled me enough that I had a hard time sleeping after watching it. It’s sort of my job to understand what people like in stories, so to not be able to think of anything that makes this movie worth watching (other than the brilliant cinematography, seriously, that DP deserves a bonus) while millions loved it is very troubling to me.


Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

I’ll warn you up front that this is going to make extensive reference to the movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much a spoiler warning, because this isn’t the type of movie that can be spoiled. It’s more to warn you that you will have no idea what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. This is one of the best movies ever made, so go watch it if you haven’t. I’ve tried to watch it at least once a year since it came out.

Background material: The movie follows Caden Cotard, a middle-aged director of plays who wins a MacArthur grant. He decides to put on a gigantic semi-improvisational play about death. This ends up getting super meta, because he hires actors to play people in his life, including himself. Then there has to be actors to play those actors, etc.

Early on, Caden’s wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter along. Ellen is introduced as Adele’s cleaning lady late in the movie.

Caden is also a hypochondriac. He believes he has a million things wrong with him throughout the movie and that he is about ready to die at any moment. This amount of background should suffice. The key is to know the names Caden, Adele, and Ellen.

This is going to be a complicated argument that involves seemingly unrelated concepts. So I’ll start with the conclusion so you know where I’m headed.

Conclusion: Ellen is Caden’s true self.

Concept 1: Caden only experiences his true self while cleaning.

Because of all his anxieties about art, being remembered, dying from a random disease or freak accident, and so on, he can’t ever clear his head enough to find himself. One way the film shows this is through the TV. Caden often appears on the TV screen in cartoons or commercials, and these give voice to the anxieties in his head at the time.

There are several scenes where Caden obsessively cleans things. As soon as this happens, the TV fogs over, and the anxious thoughts disappear. He becomes so consumed in the mindless activity that he can exist as his true self, sort of like meditation.

Concept 2: People see Ellen inside Caden when he is his true self.

There are quite a few moments where Caden gets called Ellen on accident early on in the movie. I interpret this as a Freudian slip. Everyone knows this person is beneath the layers of anxiety, but they don’t consciously know; it merely slips out on occasion.

The more compelling case comes from later in the movie. Caden goes to Adele’s apartment, and the next door neighbor asks if he is Ellen. He says he is, and then goes into the apartment and cleans for the whole night.

The deepest argument for this is that when Adele paints Caden’s portrait, the image is of a woman, Millicent, whose role in this argument is quite important.

Caden’s portrait:


Millicent playing the role of Ellen:


Since the whole movie is constantly about how art shows us things about ourselves we couldn’t see, we should interpret this as the painting showing us the person beneath Caden’s surface.

Concept 3: Millicent is the physical stand-in for Ellen.

Millicent gets hired to play Ellen in Caden’s play. This is already telling, because her lines are, of course, the ones that Caden said already. This is because Caden claimed to be Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, in order to be in her apartment.

Later, Millicent recalls a story from Ellen’s childhood. She cries at the end of it. I interpret this to mean the story is from her own childhood. She even cries out about failing to fulfill her promise to her mother, which would make no sense if the mother in the story weren’t her own:

Concept 4: Caden becomes his true self at the end of the movie, and the false, anxious exterior becomes the hidden self.

This is shown metaphorically in the movie by having Millicent stop playing the role of Ellen and start playing the role of Caden. The voice inside Caden’s head literally becomes the voice of Millicent/Ellen through the use of a earpiece.

But if this doesn’t convince you, the last piece of evidence is the final scene. The woman who played Ellen’s mother in the dream appears. What? This is extremely easy to miss and write off on a first viewing. The movie is over 2 hours long, and she only makes a 30 second appearance in the last 10 minutes in a dream sequence.

There is literally no other character with such a small role. Why would a meticulously crafted movie end with this character other than to stand out as vitally important? This woman holds Caden as if he is her baby. But we only know this character as Ellen’s mother. This makes Caden her child, Ellen.

The voice in Caden’s head even blurts out “You are Ellen” on the walk to this encounter.

On the couch he says, “I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter.” That was what Ellen wanted to do. He has fully become her/his true self at this point. Without this interpretation, that line makes no sense. They converse as if they are mother and daughter here.

In a sense, this means the whole movie is the journey of Caden to find and become his true self.

David Lynch and Partial Fourth Wall Breaking

First, I added two widgets to the side of this page so people can see my progress on the the Goodreads reading challenge (and the books I’ve read for it) and the book(s) I’m currently reading. I know most of you probably use some sort of RSS reader and never see the actual page, but I thought I’d throw that out there.

I rewatched Inland Empire recently and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as confusing as I initially thought. I hadn’t watched it in probably eight years, but I remember my initial reaction: this is nonsense. I loved Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. It seemed that the abstraction jumped up a notch too far to be comprehensible in Inland Empire.

***Spoiler Warning: I give some of my interpretation of the movie. Obviously, no one really knows what it is about, so this shouldn’t be a big deal even if you haven’t seen it.***

This time through I noticed something interesting; the viewer isn’t left to figure it all out on their own. A lot of clues are given in the form of partial fourth wall breaking. If you’ll recall, breaking the fourth wall means talking directly to the audience. Think Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Fight Club. It lets the audience in on something the main character is up to that the other characters don’t know, sometimes to humorous effect, sometimes not.

A lot of people don’t like this technique, because it is so jarring. It pulls you out of the movie. If the information is vital rather than humorous, it can seem like laziness or cheating for the writer to not work at getting the information to you in a more subtle way.

Here’s where Lynch’s technique comes in. I propose that Lynch uses a partial breaking of the fourth wall. He makes his characters speak to the audience directly, but the words are part of a normal(ish) conversation. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll think two or more characters are speaking to each other. Instead, they are speaking to the audience to clue them in to what is happening or about to happen.

This technique has been around forever. Robert M. Fowler presents a convincing argument in Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark that the Gospel of Mark uses this technique. We obvious have no idea what Jesus actually said, so the writer of Mark used conversations with Jesus to speak over the heads of the disciples and directly to the reader. For example, when he says, “Take up your cross …” the disciples couldn’t possibly know what that meant, because he hadn’t been crucified yet! These words are meant for the reader who already knows the full story.

Anyway, enough on that digression. The technique has been around forever. Here’s how I think Lynch uses it. One way to tell is when conversations stop making sense and don’t sound like any sort of conversation normal people would have. Ask yourself: if the character is speaking to me about the movie they are in, does that line make sense?

But then I noticed a certain camera technique went hand in hand with these bizarre conversations. Lynch uses an extreme close-up during such moments. The character doesn’t look directly at the camera like in a normal fourth wall breaking moment, but it is darn close. He keeps it so that it looks like they are in conversation, but really the character is probably speaking directly to you.

I’ll explain using an example from the first scene where this happens. One of the first scenes in the movie is of Grace Zabriskie’s character visiting Laura Dern’s character(s). She claims to have moved down the street and is getting to know the neighbors. The conversation starts off with normal camera angles and mundane things (I like to get to know my neighbors, which house are you living in, etc).

At some point things go weird. Arguably, when the new neighbor says, “It’s difficult to see it from the road,” (in reference to her house) she is already speaking to the audience. She is preparing us to interpret these close-ups. We should interpret this sentence as: It is difficult to see what the movie is about from the far shots of the camera, but if you pay attention to the close-ups things will be clearer.

The next part of the conversation pulls in to an extreme close-up of the face of the neighbor (but note that Laura’s stays at a normal head shot). She says things like, “I hear you have a new role to play.” She’s telling the audience that Laura’s character will be playing a role in the movie you are watching (we learn this later by a different means) even though it sounds natural enough that she might be referring to the fact that Laura’s character is an actress.

The weird stuff then starts appearing. “Your husband. He’s involved.” Laura interprets this as a question and says, “No.” Her confusion comes from the fact that those words were not directed at her but to the audience. Her husband is involved in the true plot to the movie. Grace’s character is so close to looking at the camera in these moments that it is hard not to see it as breaking the fourth wall. Both character’s faces turn directly towards the camera, but their eyes stay ever so slightly away.

The neighbor goes on, “Is there a murder in your film?” Laura gets confused again, “No.” The neighbor changes it to a statement. “No? I think you are wrong about that.” We, as the audience, are being told that Inland Empire is about a murder. In fact, we were told the husband is involved and were told a story about infidelity. Putting the pieces together we have been directly told that the key to unlocking the movie: Laura’s character cheats on her husband and is then murdered by him.

If you watch the film with this in mind, everything starts to make more sense. Pay attention to when there are extreme close-ups, so you know that you are being told vital information through a partial fourth wall breaking technique. Good luck.

Preliminary Thoughts on Upstream Color

Last night I watched Upstream Color, the new Shane Carruth movie, for the third time. It is a pretty difficult and abstract film. I’m not sure when I’m next going to watch it. I want to record some half-formed ideas I have about it, so I can refresh my memory in the future if I watch it again.

There is the level of analysis of the film of figuring out what is going on. This in and of itself might take more than once through the movie. I won’t talk about that at all. Then there are some pretty easy themes which are just handed to you once you realize what is going on. For this I’m referring to the fact that Kris starts in a job that requires her to play certain roles and lie to people. She was least happy here. Then she moves to a basic entry level job and becomes a little happier.

But it isn’t until she sheds the societal pretense at the end and works in and with nature and animals that she can truly be herself and be happy. Since this is the primary theme of Thoreau’s Walden, and that book plays such a prominent role in the film, I think this was meant to be an easy theme to pick out But there are lots of details that are totally mysterious if we take this to be the main point, so we’ll move on.

Here’s my theory. This is going to sound tautological in this general form. The movie is about having something happen to you which then ties you to something else without your knowledge of even being tied to this other thing. Then you wake up to the fact that you are tied to it and have to cut your ties to this thing in order to become a happy, healthy, independent person.

Let’s use religion and politics as examples even though I don’t think there is enough concrete evidence in the movie to pin it down to one of these two. When you’re young something usually happens to you that determines your religion or politics. It could be your parents, or some other family, or certain groups you fall in with. While these beliefs are being formed you are totally unaware of the process going on.

This is like the guy who drugs Kris. He forces something on her without her knowing about it at all. Just like not being able to tell when or how you formed certain religious or political beliefs, Kris doesn’t know what happened to her. When the worm is removed it permanently ties her to the pig and as a consequence The Sampler.

This detail confused me the first two times through the movie. How do you explain the fact that the person that drugged her is not the one that ultimately gains influence over her? The lack of motivation was weird. But under this analogy it makes sense. After the initial indoctrination of certain ideas, you get turned over to other sources which then are able to exploit their influence over you. In the case of religion, your parents turn you over to clergy or in politics it’s biased magazines, talk radio, pundits, etc. The Sampler is a symbol for any of these.

Something that supports this idea is the fact that it is a drug that initiates all this, and of course we have the famous Marx quote, “Religion is the opium of the people.” There is also the phrase “drinking the kool aid.” This means that you buy into a certain set of ideas which outsiders find strange. But at the beginning we literally have kids drinking the kool aid, and we can watch how the drink causes them to become connected.

We also see how this connection isn’t always bad. It provides support and comfort in times of trouble. I think this is the point of the scene where we see the wife taken to the hospital. The Sampler is interfering here to help the guy in this time of trouble. He has influence and maybe the ability to change the memory of how the previous scene played out to bring the guy comfort.

On the other hand, it seems the influence causes a lot of grief, suffering, and meaningless tedium. Jeff keeps making chains of straw wrappers. There is the painful loss of the piglets. Kris and Jeff experience great pain through this, and they don’t even know why. Of course, the initial transformation was horrifying causing a complete loss of individual identity and being forced into reinventing their selves without their knowledge.

The next step is the awakening. Kris is awakened to the fact that The Sampler has this influence through two means. The first is the pivotal scene in the pool. She has Walden memorized, but the key feature seems to be that she transitions from merely repeating the words to actually thinking about them and understanding them.

Here I think that Walden is just merely a stand-in for any great art, literature, or philosophy. The way we awaken ourselves to the fact that these biased sources are just feeding us lies for their own agenda is through knowledge. We can’t just mindlessly read books and expect to awaken to the truth they contain. We have to contemplate them and think about them seriously as works of art.

This is further supported by the fact that The Sampler’s music is the other piece that causes the awakening. It is again art that allows Kris to see through what is going on. Although, this time it is produced by the person who has the influence over her. So maybe this means that by examining critically what is put out by the sources we were mindlessly following we can break free (e.g. whatever holy book or political propaganda is being used).

Lastly is actually breaking free. Kris kills the sampler. Of course, I think this is a metaphor, and you don’t need to literally kill the people exerting the influence. On the other hand, the extremeness seems warranted because it really takes something that essentially amounts to a death (of the ego, of the community you belong to, etc) to fully break free of the grasp and escape the cycle.

The fact that there is this perpetual cycle: person who draws you in, person who takes over once you’re in, using you once you’re in to continue the cycle, and so on and then the cycle gets broken once the people awaken to the fact that it exists fits perfectly with this interpretation. The parent who has broken free from the cycle of religion will not continue it with their child.

I think another important thing to note is that even though it is a cycle which essentially traps people (i.e. the cycle itself has negative consequences), it seems that none of the members of the cycle even realize they are a part of perpetuating it. They are just doing what they do, which may or may not be good or bad on its own, but if the point is to break free of a damaging cycle, then at least they are not guilty of intentionally perpetuating this.

Film Analysis

Today I saw a great film, yesterday I saw a horrible film. The great film was The Hawk is Dying (THID) and the horrible film was Ellie Parker (EP). It is rare that I see such a contrast so close together, so I’ve decided to analyze it. I haven’t analyzed any films yet on here (in my memory). Here is an interesting tidbit about why I’ve chosen these; both are independent. This means that to the average box office movie-goer, both of these films would probably be written off as “unbearable,” “plotless,” or “arty.” To the average independent film-goer, both of these would be considered huge successes. This gives me great opportunity to explore at a deeper level than just genre basing my opinions.

My typical analysis of whether a film is bad, OK, good, or great goes through many layers. So let’s lay out a bunch of parts of a film first. There is: acting, script, editing, directing, and cinematography as major categories (of course there are others, but these catch my attention first). To pass the first level, a film has to show proficiency in each of these areas. THID definitely passes round one in each of these categories. EP had some slight issues with acting. It was superficial at times. I’ll get to directing later, but this was definitely very immature directing, as well. Overall, both pass round one, but EP shows some weaknesses that could pose problems in later rounds.

Round two: originality vs predictability. In my mind, you either follow the formula or you break out of it. Now these are both independent films, so by their very nature they don’t follow the formula or else they would have funding from a major studio. Here is the interesting thing, though. THID decided to take a rather mundane idea (taming a hawk) and pull out a very original and intense film. EP decided to take the originality route from the ground up. This is sort cliche in my opinion. It is much more impressive to take something that is common place and make it original than to just toss together all sorts of randomness to make it original. Whatever the case may be, both pass round two.

Round three: balancing the creative and technical. This is the eternal struggle in creating art. You must know and be able to follow the rules in order to break them. A musician must have incredible technical proficiency that comes from training scales, arpeggios, and etudes with the relentless click of a metronome before they can play expressively, bending the tempo and tone to fit the mood. A film can easily fall prey to being too technical and dry or too artistic and without any technique. The two go hand-in-hand. THID blends this beautifully. The technique is often awe inspiring. Angles, lighting, and acting are pitch perfect to fit the scene. Every shot is thought about. EP goes over-the-top. It is what I often call “young director’s syndrome.” A director that is overflowing with ideas often lets too many of them spill over into the film. EP is filled with rapid editing showing a tour de force in both camera work and editing. It serves no purpose, though. It is a mindless show of flash. It lacks the artistic side. This can be explained perfectly, though. This was Scott Coffey’s first directing experience. He had been an actor in several Lynch films. For an aspiring director, it is clear that he was trying to imitate Lynch. The thing he didn’t realize is that Lynch does things with a great vision and masterful artistry. The technical display by Lynch is vacuous like what Coffey did. THID is clearly superior in this round.

Finally, I fall to overall purpose. Now I am a big supporter of art for art’s sake (meaning a work of art doesn’t need a purpose), but that is part of the process. I determine if there was a purpose or not. If not, did it accomplish that? If so, how well and accessible was it? THID also masterfully pulled this off. Nothing was handed to the watcher. This is important to me. If the purpose is handed to me, then I feel like the director and writer didn’t trust me (a common problem with major pictures). I like that I had to work and figure things out. Overall, nothing was beyond the watcher’s capabilities, though. EP on the other hand had another young director’s faux pas. It confused its purpose. It posed as a truly pure art film without a purpose, while at the same time it had one. This is a common mistake. Young directors want arty directors to respect them, so they think if their film has purpose then they will be written off as not serious or commercial or something. What they don’t realize is that trying to come across as something your not ruins the film.

Overall, THID was excellent. It had great technical proficiency balanced with the perfect amount of artistry to keep the watcher interested. It took the common place and made it original. EP tried to be too much. It was like freshmen writing class. You have an overambitious student take a grand topic and write a short essay on it. They try to cover everything. The true art of writing comes when you can take a very small idea and develop it in a long work. The artist that tries too much ends up digging their own grave. Yes, I was taught this by my freshmen writing professor when she took me aside and harshly told me that I was trying to write a lifetime’s work into a 10 page essay. Narrow the focus. Use the tools that suit the purpose. Be ambitious, but don’t let every idea that pops into your head appear in your work. This is the difference between an experienced director and a new one.

Hope you now have a better idea of how I critique films 🙂