I Origins

Pyrrhic Evolution

originsFor once in a film, it would be nice if the cynical pragmatist turned out to be correct.  But a facsimile of real life does not fantastical escapism make, so the resolution of Mike Cahill’s I Origins is about as close as we’re going to get.  Cahill is the director of Another Earth, one of 2011’s best films, and his mission to be “stricter” with himself leads to a film that satisfies three conditions for a spiritual sequel: another collaboration with writer/actress Brit Marling, another film with huge ideas about science and spirituality, and another story that is more about honestly exploring the self than finding answers that make everyone happy.

Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a frumpy grad student researching the evolution of the human eye.  His surface goal is to discredit creationists who believe that the eye is so complex that it must have been intelligently designed, but his obsession goes much deeper than that (plus the creationists’ argument is not really an argument – it’s conjecture based upon personal limitation, which makes it a bit sad that Gray takes it so seriously).  Part of his fascination with the eye involves photographing the irises of strangers, which no one seems to have a problem with, least of all Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mystery woman he meets at a Halloween party.  She’s dressed in a black mask that makes her unrecognizable, but there’s an unmistakable connection between her and Gray, who spends some time tracking her down, which involves breaking his cardinal rule of not believing in “signs.”  The number eleven keeps popping up after he buys a lottery ticket (the New York Lotto slogan, “Hey, you never know,” is deliberately framed center-screen as Gray ponders the coincidence), and his trail ends at a billboard hawking cosmetics.  This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that the eye-model on the billboard is Sofi, gazing out over the city like TJ Eckleburg.

The film is split into two very distinct halves with a seven-year gap.  The first half involves Gray’s blooming romance with Sofi, whom he finally encounters again on a bus, and despite her better judgement, begins a relationship with him.  On the other hand, Gray is forced to “babysit” a first-year student named Karen (Brit Marling), who immediately combats Gray’s unfounded passive-aggression by showcasing her scientific prowess: the key to what Gray is looking for, she says, is to find a sightless animal that has the DNA required to actually develop an eye.  She narrows it down to about 400,000 animals, and goes to work with nary a qualm.  Kenny (Steven Yeun), Gray’s other lab partner, is developing a database that will allow everyone to be identified by their unique iris patterns.  As breakthroughs are made, Gray and Sofi prepare to marry.  Here’s the problem: Gray and Sofi are fundamental opposites.  Gray is a rigid scientist, and Sofi is a spiritualist who believes in miracles and keeps assorted gewgaws around her apartment.  In nearly every scene, they argue.  This clash of science and faith comes to a head when Karen finally discovers a species of blind worm with the DNA they’ve been looking for, and Sofi visits Gray’s lab for the first time.  Sofi dismisses Gray’s research as “torturing worms” and says he’s playing god.  She asserts that if blind worms go about their lives without the knowledge that sight exists, yet humans know sight is real, then it’s perfectly possible that there’s another level of existence that humans are completely unaware of (again, this is presented as a real argument, but it’s conjecture – there’s proof of one of those things, Sofi!  Your argument isn’t actually based on anything!).  This presents the question of why these two would continue a serious relationship.  Is it the stubborn thought (on both of their parts) that one of them will eventually “win”?  As Gray realizes in retrospect, this was never meant to be – y’know, not that he believes in that.

The film’s most central conflict, or leastways Gray’s most central personal crisis, grows out of something that every trailer spoils because no one knows how to market a slow-burn drama about characters: Sofi’s death, which happens about halfway through.  A devastated Gray briefly loses focus, but the unfortunate truth (not spoken in the film, but sadly obvious) is that Sofi’s absence is convenient: no one to berate him for being pragmatic, no one to take up space in the lab, and most importantly, no one to get in the way of the will they/won’t they between Gray and Karen any longer.

But there’s a reason for how long this takes.  If the film had begun with Sofi’s death, she and Gray having been in a relationship established before the narrative entry point, the rest of the story would not be as effective.  Because of the pacing, Gray is sympathetic even when his decisions are rash.  We liked Sofi.  We want to know that this was all worth it.  Seven years later, Gray and Karen are married with a toddler, Gray has published a controversial book on his research, and Sofi exists only in the digital folders of his laptop.  Kenny’s iris database has become a universally accepted system.  But when the couple visits Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who wants to test the baby for autism, they quickly realize that this test is for something else.  Come to find out, the iris database read their son’s irises as matching those of a recently deceased man, which should be statistically impossible, considering that every person is supposed to have unique iris patterns.  Finally, an even more profound discovery is made: a young girl at an orphanage in Delhi, born shortly after Sofi’s death, has Sofi’s eyes.  Karen, ever the calm and sensible one, encourages Gray to go to India and figure this out, as it could be important to the scientific community, along with helping Gray move on.  With the help of Priya Varma (Archie Panjabi) and a very expensive billboard, he finds the little girl, Salomina (Kashish, a real-life Delhi orphan and the most wonderfully natural child actress I’ve seen in years) gazing up at Sofi’s eyes, her own eyes, just as Gray did at the beginning of all this.

I Origins could have gone on for another hour, considering its scope and its natural pacing.  But it’s a story about a character, about discovery, and about abandoning rigidity in favor of open-mindedness (as Gray puts it, science is always evolving, while religious beliefs are unbending, and we get the feeling that Gray forgets this before his trip to India).  Criticism will come from the fact that the film doesn’t present a “correct” or definitive answer as to the nature of the duplicate eyes, but let’s not forget that the film never promises to, nor is it about that (just as Another Earth was not about where Earth 2 came from or what would eventually be found there).  The protagonist’s name, for crying out loud, says it all: Gray area.  Nothing absolute.  Species evolve.  Theories change.  People and ideas can grow.  The door Gray walks through in Cahill’s masterful-as-usual final shot, while reflecting Sofi’s earlier allegory about not being afraid to enter the “other side,” does not mean he’s accepted anything spiritual, nor does it constitute proof of intelligent design – it illustrates the change that Gray himself has always argued for.  Something in the natural world has changed, or is preparing to.

The film isn’t without its characterization flaws.  Gray sometimes speaks the movie’s themes, which we can chalk up to the fact that he’s mostly drunk or worked up when he does, but it still stands out and serves a deliberate purpose.  Sofi’s death – she is implicitly disemboweled by an unseen sharp object when Gray attempts to pull her out of a teetering elevator – is bizarre, unscientific, and awkwardly shot.  If Cahill needed her to die instantly in an elevator accident, the threatening-to-fall elevator could have just fallen, couldn’t it?

The two main women in the film, Karen and Sofi, are such polar opposites (Karen = science, pragmatism, practicality, all the way down to the way she dresses; Sofi = leather jackets, whimsicality, Manic-Pixie-ism) that they almost feel ripped from a Christopher Nolan film, and instead of allowing them to be real people on their own merits, their personalities function to “teach” the male protagonist things that will help him in the story.  It’s a real issue in media, defining women by men, and perhaps Cahill’s somewhat ironic claim that he wanted to be more rigid in making this film resulted in the adoption of such conventions.  On top of that, Karen, the smartest and most driven character in the piece, is relegated to stay-at-home-mom status even after Gray publishes a book and appears on TV talking about ideas that were mostly rooted in Karen’s research.  Given her character, it’s almost insulting that Karen does not call attention to any of this, but maybe it’s Brit Marling’s performance that makes a character seem like she has more layers than are really written beneath (a big problem when a film wants to have powerful women in supporting roles, yet the plot relies on what the man does – not impossible to reconcile in the hands of a competent writer).

At one point, Gray runs into a traveling preacher (William Mapother in a cameo), who becomes a plot device that catalyzes the ending.  Gray and Karen run tests on Salomina to see if she is Sofi, but no, that would be ridiculous.  Gray moves to return Salomina to Priya, who will soon pull up in a taxi, and decides to take the elevator, which he avoided earlier after seeing the obnoxious preacher waiting for it, in favor of taking the stairs.  When the elevator opens, Salomina freaks out at the sight of it.  The brilliant part of this revelation (whether Cahill himself or commentators realize it) is that this goes two ways: our instinct is to believe that Sofi would be afraid of elevators were she reincarnated.  But a young, homeless orphan like Salomina has probably never seen an elevator, and it’s perfectly understandable that she’d be afraid of such a machine.  The idea, most likely, is that eyes are connected to neural receptors, which means that if you have someone’s eyes, you have some of their personality as well.  In the world of I Origins, whether this is an amazing scientific discovery or Sofi’s version of the spiritual “other side” may be something you’ll have to let your own biases decide.  One important bit to consider, however: when Gray is looking into Salomina’s face at the end, does he remember that conversation seven years earlier, wherein Sofi made clear that she never wants to be reincarnated?

Regardless, nothing excuses making a film with the intention of “sparking a conversation” if the filmmaker doesn’t know exactly what that conversation is.  And your crazy neighbor who thinks her deceased husband was reincarnated as her cat still isn’t on to something.

I Origins (2014); written and directed by Mike Cahill; starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, and Archie Panjabi. 

Sound of My Voice

Why do I like being lame?

Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice wastes no time in presenting a concept, three potentially combustible personalities, and a dozen questions, the most important of which is this: is Maggie telling the truth?  It’s the most important question because if she’s not, the lion’s share of this film’s narrative is for nothing.  This is a problem that generates a compelling motivation, or “viewing style” if you will, for an audience: we’re rooting for the character presented at the outset as a charlatan.  Why?  Partly because she radiates honesty, partly because we don’t really care about the dual protagonists’ motivations, and thirdly because we don’t want any of the characters, even the ones we don’t like, to have wasted their time.

The story places us in the presence of Lorna (Nicole Vicius) and her boyfriend, Peter (Christopher Denham), late-twenties layabouts seeking to make a living in L.A. by doing what everyone who goes to L.A. hopes to make a living doing: making films.  Their film is a documentary about cults, and they’ve somehow come across a group led by a mysterious, white-veiled basement dweller named Maggie (Brit Marling), who claims to have traveled back in time from 2054, where a civil war is tearing the world apart, and she has returned in order to “save” the people she loves.  How will she accomplish this?  We don’t know.  What does her plan have to do with this group of strangers who worship her?  She doesn’t say.  All we know is that Peter and Lorna think of the whole thing as a joke, and are willing to play along with Maggie’s rituals until they can find a way to expose her on film.  They infiltrate the group, pretending to be members, not knowing what they’re getting themselves into.

Of course, as Peter and Lorna attend several months’ worth of group rituals, the things Maggie says begin to make more sense, even to the arrogant and skeptical Peter, who is emotionally gutted by Maggie in one of the film’s most effective dramatic scenes.  “She knew things about you,” Lorna says to him over a meal the next day.  Peter stone-facedly denies this and says he was just making things up, but we know he wasn’t, which presents two solid conflicts: Lorna, after a three-year relationship with Peter, doesn’t know much about him and is jealous that the beautiful and enigmatic Maggie has this effect on him; and Peter, who may have developed a fixation on Maggie similar to that of the other followers (of whom he made a terrible mockery before), hasn’t bothered with his documentary work in weeks.

During the day, Peter teaches at an all-girls elementary school, which he considers sedentary and a waste of his twenties.  The film lends particular focus to a certain student, Abigail (Avery Pohl), an eight year-old who shows symptoms of Asperger’s (indicated by her insistence on never removing her red hat and the fact that she spends the entirety of her free time building with black Lego pieces).  We know she has some connection to Maggie before it’s even revealed, but the trouble that brews is well worth the wait: Maggie, still claiming to be from the future, believes Abigail to be her mother, and “needs” to meet with her.  The guy who can make this happen?  Peter, the one teacher Abigail tolerates.  Peter’s decision whether to do this pops the bubble that has expanded between Lorna and himself throughout the story, and the payoff delivered when Maggie and Abigail finally meet rivals most films from this year – but what do you expect?  Sound of My Voice was co-scripted by Brit Marling, who is absolutely convincing as Maggie, and who wrote the best screenplay of 2011, Another Earth.  Her next film, also in tandem with Batmanglij, is The East, starring Brit alongside Ellen Page.

For better or worse, the film deprives us of the denouement that most films would drag us through.  This works if you don’t mind not having every single question answered – what will the nature of Lorna and Peter’s relationship be in the future?  What do the feds looking for Maggie think she wants the child for?  Can they legally convict her of anything?  The film makes no absolute statements about any of it (exemplified by Peter’s final line: “I don’t know”), but I think we know in our hearts, just as we do when watching election coverage, who’s telling the truth and who is perpetually full of it.

Sound of My Voice (2012); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, and Nicole Vicius.

Another Earth

Forgive

Sometimes you have to wait to read a book or see a movie, because you need to be in a “certain place” first.  I’m still not sure what place I had to be in to go see Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, but having been interested in this fascinating piece of art since its announcement, I waited a good amount of time to get there.  So long, in fact, that I caught the final showing in the entire district, at Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatre, about five minutes from where I was born.

The story begins with Rhoda Williams (writer and actress Brit Marling), an MIT-bound high school graduate.  At a party, she has too many drinks, and drives home to the sounds of a local hip-hop radio station.  The DJ mentions in passing that a new planet has been discovered, and according to scientists, it’s capable of supporting life.  Tonight, it will appear as a blue spot somewhere close to the moon.  Peering out her window and spotting the blue spot in the sky, Rhoda speeds through an intersection and smashes into an SUV, killing the wife and young child of John Burroughs (William Mapother), whom we later learn is a respected composer and college professor.  He is rendered comatose in the accident.

Four years later, John comes out of his coma and Rhoda is released from prison.  Her family (parents and obnoxious younger brother) pick her up as casually as if they were picking her up from school.  We are spared any of Rhoda’s prison experiences, and no specifics are hinted at, but it’s clear that her drunken accident and jail time have thoroughly recolored her personality.  Once an ambitious, talkative, social young woman, Rhoda now sleeps in the attic, owns nothing, hardly bathes, and doesn’t talk.  The very act of existing seems an unfair burden.  Interactions with her family are awkward.  She sees a job counselor, and after the latter comments on her impressive intellectual aptitude, refuses to do a job that requires thinking or talking to people.  She settles for a maintenance job at a local high school, where she works alongside elderly janitor Purdeep (Kumar Pallana) and barely looks a year older than the students who graffiti the bathrooms.

Content to scrub her days away (a well-achieved analogy for a deeper figurative “cleaning”), Rhoda decides to apologize to John for her mistake.  Discovering him in a house not unlike a pig’s wallow, she loses her nerve and claims she is from a cleaning service.  He “hires” her to fix up his disaster of a home, and through one thing and another, they become friends, with Rhoda never revealing who she is.  According to the rules of narrative (especially in film), she must reveal it eventually, and the scenes leading up to this conversation are unbearably tense.

The new about Earth 2 is always progressing, but wisely kept in the background until it becomes relevant to a choice Rhoda must make.  Astronomers and physicists are brought in to attempt first contact when the planet moves visibly closer to Earth.  After various tries, contact is finally achieved, only to reveal that this planet is an exact mirror of Earth, with all of the same people, who have followed the exact same life paths up to this point.

Here is a film that could have broken the rules of narrative we all accept and expect.  Rhoda’s depressions are spot-on accurate and heartbreaking.  She drags herself through work, punishing herself with a job she’s not suited for.  One night, she wanders out into a field, strips completely naked, and lies down in the snow until she passes out.  She awakens in the hospital with her family, who appear as though they almost prefer she’d died.  The only thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is her predilection for outer space.  She pays close attention to the news stories (the only reason we get to see/hear them), and when a billionaire entrepreneur holds an essay contest (500 words or less) with a grand prize of traveling to Earth 2, Rhoda enters.  Eventually, a theory comes out stating Earth and Earth 2 were identical in every way until the very moment we made contact.  After that exact moment, lives changed, different decisions could have been made, and all bets are off.  What if the version of Rhoda on Earth 2 didn’t kill John’s family?  What if they’re still alive and she’s an MIT student?

Cahill’s cutting, his use of the handheld camera, and his joint decisions with Marling (co-writer of the script) about what is said and what is shown, are astounding for a film of this age.  We understand the connection between Rhoda and Purdeep even when nothing is said.  They’re both lost souls, punishing themselves for past sins.  They understand each other and speak their own language, and we understand it without having it fed to us.  Their final scene together (after Purdeep has blinded and deafened himself because he can no longer “stand to see himself everywhere”) displays a mastery of visual storytelling thus far unmatched this year.  There are also tiny details which could have been ruined with fat blocks of dialogue – on a few occasions, John offers alcoholic drinks to Rhoda.  She apprehensively lets the liquid touch her lips, but never really drinks it.  She never says to John (and by extension, the audience), “I don’t drink because [insert lie for strained tension].”  We know why.  The tension is increased tenfold because she does this without John even noticing.  Despite the temptation to expand the background sci-fi into a full-blown mythology, the film wisely keeps us with the characters, namely Rhoda, and we’re barely allowed to care about anything she doesn’t care about.

On the verge of a romantic relationship with John (likely twice her age), Rhoda wins the essay contest and decides to go to Earth 2.  Yes, she reveals her true identity to John and yes, unfortunately, he reacts how you’d expect him to.  Thankfully, this revelation doesn’t solve anything; quite the contrary.  The conflict we had at the beginning of the story now resurfaces and needs to be resolved, and a certain character’s actions provide a solution so pure, so wholeheartedly selfless, that we’re simultaneously satisfied and pining for a different way.  This action doesn’t go unrewarded, however.  The final scene of the film is something I cannot spoil.  I’m willing to wait until you see the film to talk about it.  Suffice it to say it’s a stinger and a surprise without being a twist or a sequel hook, it’s a massive payoff without being contrived, and it fits the movie’s fictional science without providing a be-all-end-all solution to the complex issues of an entire planet (much less two).  I suspect lesser filmmakers would have gone for something much, much different.

The background story of Another Earth is more the stuff of science than the stuff of fiction.  At least, it’s based on a long-standing (but generally debunked) theory that a mirror Earth exists directly opposite us in orbit, and because it’s an exact mirror, the sun is always blocking us from seeing the other planet.  The way this information is conveyed in the narrative (non-glamorized news and narration by real-life scientist Richard Berendzen) is much stronger than the overwritten mumble-science of a film like Primer.

One of this story’s frequently asked questions is, “What would you say if you could meet yourself?”  John’s answer (“Hey, you up for a video game?”) and Rhoda’s answer (“Better luck next time.”) are so rigidly different and the performances of Marling and Mapother are so honest that after this film, even with such a seemingly preposterous background, I had to think about my answer.  Whatever that “place” was, I was there.  It was a long ride home.

Another Earth (2011); written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling; directed by Mike Cahill; starring Brit Marling and William Mapother.