I finally watched Arrival. I’d been looking forward to seeing it, because I love the short story it’s based on (“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) and the soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson, so my expectations were high. And they were largely met. I thought it was a remarkably tender, meditative movie whose message that communication and understanding between countries can prevent violence is especially relevant today. Plus how often do you see an SF movie with a female lead, and a linguist to boot?
But there was a key difference between the story and the movie that at first seemed random and then increasingly bothered me. (SPOILER ALERT) In the short story, Louise’s daughter dies in a climbing accident. In the movie, she dies from a rare unstoppable disease. As Louise learns the heptapods’ language and rewires her brain to see time as they do, she realizes that her daughter is going to die. In the story, she can save her with a simple warning, but doesn’t. The movie, on the other hand, makes the girl’s death inevitable, which misses the central point of the story, I think.
Humans see time as a sequence of cause and effect, and our language is a reflection of this. The heptapods, however, see time as a single entity — they see the beginning and end points of each action, but they do not have the power to change anything. The movie acknowledges this when the heptapods explain they came to Earth because in 3,000 years they’ll need humanity’s help, but rather than following through on this idea of time being a fixed entity, the movie in its final minutes turns into a fairly typical time travel story that doesn’t address the central conceit it started out with: namely, if Louise can prevent her daughter’s death, why doesn’t she?
In the story, Louise simply can’t prevent it. She knows it’s coming, but cannot deviate from the path that leads to this outcome, which makes her story profoundly tragic. In the movie, by choosing to have a daughter she knows will die, Louise becomes a martyr (or a narcissist — her husband leaves her when he finds out she knew all along that their daughter would die; in the story, he leaves her for other reasons, simply because some marriages fall apart). This outcome is still tragic in its own right — Louise chooses heartbreak simply to give her daughter the chance to live — but it’s not in line with the whole setup of the movie.
Why did the screenwriters do this? Was it an oversight? Did they not “get” the source material? Did they “dumb down” the movie to fit a particular mold?
Still, I loved the movie, but for different reasons than the story. The story is profound and poignant. The movie is too, but within the limits that Hollywood has put on it.
I watched Michael Mann’s movie ALI the other night, starring Will Smith. Knowing only the basics about Muhammad Ali, I found the movie strangely disjointed and lifeless. The movie assumes its viewers have a familiarity with Ali, his contemporaries, and the major events of the 1960s that clearly surpasses mine. For instance, I had no idea who the Nation of Islam was, or that Malcolm X was a member until he had a falling out with their leader (I haven’t researched this since then either, so this summary may be wrong, but it’s what I was able to gather from the movie), or that they were the ones who killed him (the reason still isn’t clear to me). Also, the movie only focuses on a short period of Ali’s life, during which his triumphs were either before or behind him (this also isn’t clear), because the only two fights that are shown in the movie aren’t particularly remarkable. I just watched all six ROCKY movies plus CREED, so it may be that Michael Mann doesn’t know how to stage a fight the way the Rocky series does, or maybe Will Smith just isn’t a very good pretend-boxer, but Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston looked clumsy and slow. And without Ali’s legendary boxing prowess on display, he falters as a characters. The movie portrayed him as cocky, stubborn, and enormously unpleasant. Geniuses in Hollywood movies often are, but they’re redeemed by their special abilities, which this movie didn’t show, so there was nothing to redeem Ali. I was left feeling disappointed — at the movie or the boxer I wasn’t sure. You want legends to be people you can look up to, but this Ali (or ALI) I was glad to part with.
Watched THE END OF THE TOUR last night. Enjoyed it. The fact that it started and ended with the news of DFW’s suicide felt a bit sensationalist but it gave the movie a nice emotional arc. The performances were great: you’re pretty much watching two hours of two guys discussing life and writing, and it’s thrilling the whole way.
I especially liked the growing tension between DFW and Lipsky. Lipsky wanted to be DFW so badly and ultimately became famous (sort of) for a book about DFW rather than for his own work. I wondered how that felt. Would he have preferred to have been known for his own work, or was he happy to be known for a book about a writer he admired?
But did he admire DFW? I got the sense that Lipsky was trying to bring him down a notch. He didn’t want to read INFINITE JEST at first. Then he read the rave reviews and picked up the book and his girlfriend started reading it too, so he wanted to meet the guy and prove to himself that DFW was just a guy, not a genius. And when DFW confirmed this notion, Lipsky got mad – at who exactly? DFW or himself?
It was an interesting balance: DFW who had fame but didn’t want it, and Lipsky who wanted fame for the wrong reasons. What wasn’t mentioned in the movie as much as in DFW’s biography, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY, is that DFW did want the fame. (It’s briefly mentioned in the movie when DFW says/jokes that he hopes to get laid on his book tour.) DFW craved attention. He could be very narcissistic. So in a way he was just playing the role of the tortured artist, and yet he also wasn’t.
Was it jealousy, then, that led to the argument between DFW and Lipsky toward the end of the movie? Lipsky wanted DFW to be a regular guy and DFW wanted to be a regular guy too, but he wasn’t. To me, that was where a lot of the tension and the sadness came from. Like when Lipsky made a comment to the girls they were riding in the car with and they said it sounded like something DFW might have said and DFW agreed. That was creepy but also sad – sad because Lipsky was so clueless and because it made DFW into some role model he didn’t want to be. Or did DFW simply not want to be compared to Lipsky? Was this his narcissism coming out?
The strange thing about DFW is that it’s almost impossible for me to read him and not read about him – meaning, to not look for traces of his tragic end but to come to his work completely unspoiled. What was it like to read INFINITE JEST when it first came out, like Lipsky and his girlfriend did? I’ve only read THE PALE KING, the biography, and parts of the audio transcript that this movie is based on, and they are all in a way mementos to DFW. The people closest to him didn’t want this movie to be made, but it turned out to be a respectful picture that says some profound things about life and writing, even if it’s tinged with sadness. “This is nice,” DFW says about being on tour. “It isn’t real.”