Wednesday, March 14, 2018

how long did you think you were in there?

After talking about names, we need to move on to something more about identity in Annihilation. HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Annihilation, which structurally echoes films like Event Horizon or The Arrival, or an under appreciated tv show from a few years ago called The River, or most any explorer adventure story. It harkens back even to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, except Kurtz and Marlow are on the same trip into the jungle. Or there have been many Kurtzes, including Kane (Oscar Isaac). This is a trip into the unknown taken by characters who are all dealing with loss, with grief, with the universe turned against them. And, in response, they explore because what else is there? They could wait to figure out who they are, or they could act, and hope that in action, the become someone recognizable in the mirror. The film relies on an understanding of the psychological underpinnings of depression but doesn't make much effort to explore them explicitly. Emily Yoshida at Vulture calls it an "unforgiving depiction of the relentless weight of depression". We are witness to these self-destructive characters on this suicidal mission. We are rarely invited into their heads... Except inasmuch as the film offers clues, which I will come to below.

First, though, there is an inherent political bent to all of this, though none of it is overt. Elizabeth Bruenig at the Washington Post suggests that the Shimmer offers a metaphor for our modern world. Note: within the Shimmer, the five women lose track of days and cannot remember eating; Bruenig implies that they are not eating within the Shimmer, but they must be because they figure backward how long they've been inside the Shimmer by how much food is gone. But, to be fair, we never see them eating. (The opening line of the film, by the way, is "What did you eat?") Taking the notion that "the Shimmer itself sustains life by its very nature" Bruenig argues:

Bounty an abundance are everywhere around us [in our current moment], and are usually adduced as positive indicators for society. Look at all the things we have, and all the new things being produced and circulated every day--more than we could ever use, more than we could ever want. Media showcases the kind of excess the United States is world-famous for, from the gold-plated interiors of Trump properties to the breezy white opulence of the Kardashians’ West Coast digs. Between the cheap and ever-changing commodities lining store shelves and landfills and the less attainable but still enviable products displayed among the likes of the Rich Kids of Instagram, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our world is overflowing with plenty. 

Yet not all plenitude fosters a sense of peaceful ease. There’s a point at which overproduction and the constant generation of novel things begins to induce a feeling of deep disorder, chaos and unease. Flourishing is a good thing — human flourishing, that is — but disease, too, can flourish. The profuse growth of something can come at the expense of humankind.

There at the end, you get a central conceit of this film's plot--that these humans are becoming less... human, less themselves, the more they venture into the Shimmer. At one point, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) says that she is hurrying toward the lighthouse at the center of the Shimmer so that the person who started this trip can be the one who finishes it. Ventress, of course, as I mentioned yesterday, is dying of cancer. And, cancer is also vital to the science fiction here. Lena (Natalie Portman) is ex-military, but she is a biologist who we see lecturing students about cancer cells early in the film. She also tells Kane in one flashback that aging is a fault in our genes. And, Cancer is basically natural cell regeneration gone wrong. Part of Ventress is already becoming something other than her... Or maybe just a new version of her. We also see Lena sitting down reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in one flashback. Rebecca Skloot's book connects not only all of the research that has been attached to the immortalized cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951--generally called HeLa cells--but also Henrietta's life to the lives of her children. Henrietta's immortal cells parallel the legacy of her descendants. Cancer is connected to life. Similarly, Ventress' cancer drives her. Drives her to her own demise, yes, but the demise takes her out of an office where she is doing nothing but watching the Shimmer from afar and choosing other people to venture inside. Ventress' cancer basically gives her life a more immediate purpose. (And, drives her to eventually become a faceless version of herself, but I will get to that below.)

Yoshida says that the book Annihilation--which I have not had the chance to read--"comes off as more of a portrait of an ecology in psychedelic decline, Garland's film is about a personality undergoing the same kind of breakdown." I would contend, it is not just one personality that is undergoing that breakdown. It is five women. It is Kane. It is military and scientific readiness. It is humanity. And, this brings me again to the politics. And back again to a lack of answers. To interpretation and subjectivity.

Christopher Orr at the Atlantic complains:

"I don't know."

This statement, or variations on it, is uttered repeatedly throughout the film Annihilation, generally by characters who have returned from "the Shimmer," a deeply weird sci-if zone in which the customary laws of physics, biology, time, and memory no longer prevail--

And, I must interrupt because, well, sometimes, that is what I do. Because, for example, Orr mentions "characters"--a vague plural--who have returned from the Shimmer, but there have literally been only two of those characters: Kane and Lena. Kane's return, and his inability to recall (or rather, his inability to know) details of what happened inside the Shimmer drives the plot. That Lena, clearly in a flash forward, returned from the Shimmer, also cannot readily describe details from her venture within the Shimmer drives the mystery of it. To complain that a mysterious plot is driven by two characters not knowing what is going on is patently silly. Entire genres of fiction are built around such lacks of knowledge. Additionally, there is no suggestion anywhere within the film that the laws of physics do not work just as they always have, nor that time works differently. Biology working differently is quite broadly the plot of the story, and memory problems suggest two possibilities, both directly related to that malfunction of biology: 1) the Shimmer has immediately begun its transformation of these five women and the physical structures of their brains could be being altered in the process; they might literally be unable to remember anything for much time at all because their brains just don't work that way anymore. They lose four days or so of time upon entering the Shimmer--at least as we see it presented chronologically within the film, but the rest of their venture to the lighthouse takes less than three days. They spend that night at the abandoned Fort Amaya and the next night in an evacuated town. Their trip, what we see of it, is actually quite short. And, maybe it is only what we see, which leads me to 2) the Shimmer, in the momentary cinematic gap, has already completely replaced these five women, duplicated them. But, these five women, not knowing that they are not who they were outside the Shimmer, continue their venture inward just like they did the first time. Maybe it's the Groundhog Day enthusiast in me, but I like the idea that the Shimmer has duplicated these women several times, and they keep venturing toward the lighthouse. (Like Punxsutawney was just caught in a Shimmer of its own all those years ago.) This one time, they happen to survive the crocodile and the bear and (somewhat) each other, or maybe--BIG SPOILERS AHEAD--Ventress and Lena always make it to the lighthouse, but it was just this time that Lena reacted to Ventress' destruction by shooting her replacement, by running out, by exploding that phosphorous grenade. On this particular resumption, they manage better than before and bring the Shimmer's self-destruction.

But, Orr continues:

["I don't know"] is also a statement that many viewers may be inclined to utter when asked precisely what it was they just watched.

Ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing in a motion picture. But Annihilation... Is so resolutely vague, so eager to confound, that is ambiguity becomes itself ambiguous.

That last line is nice. But it sounds more meaningful than it actually is, and ultimately rings like some high school-level attempt to define ambiguity. Orr asks, "Does it intend to let viewers balance competing interpretations? Or does it simply not know what it is trying to say?" Garland has always been "an idea guy", and I have liked his films, his writing and his direction, so I think it is safe to say that this film knows what it is trying to say. Which is where this loops back into the politics.

Because our current moment is all about different political sides ignoring each other, offering put downs and simplistic evaluations of opposing opinions rather than ever making any attempt to understand one another. We are all more Anya than Ventress or Lena, and we are so very far from being Josie. (If you're reading this and have not seen the film, Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is the one who turns on everyone else after things go south, because she would rather demand the answers she wants than wait for correct ones. Ventress wants to face the Shimmer because it is essentially a metaphor for her own cancer. Lena wants to fight it, to solve it and bring back her husband. Josie (Tessa Thompson) learns and understands and accepts and disappears into the Shimmer's creations.) We are Anya. Things don't go how we want them to go and we lash out. With unkind words, a scathing tweet or with violence, or something in between. Today was #NationalWalkoutDay, students all over the country walked out of class to protest, ostensibly with an urge toward gun control, but even in that, like Occupy Wall Street a decade ago, the urge is not specific, not singular; there were more signs than I could count at the school where I'm teaching this semester, but they were not all about guns, they were also about equality, about racism, about sexism. Sides are muddled, not just in one another's eyes, but in their own.

And, I still didn't get to Ventress without a face or Crosby Stills & Nash.

Tomorrow, I suppose.

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