Life Must Annihilate Itself

A mysterious meteor has landed in a national park, and a bizarre translucent barrier has expanded outward, slowly, from the point of impact. It’s called The Shimmer, and all efforts to discover what’s causing it, or what’s going on inside, have failed. Any expedition that goes in doesn’t come back.

Enter Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier, now a cellular biology professor, who ventures into The Shimmer looking for answers about what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac.) Lena and a team of women (all the previous expeditions were made up of men) are trying to get to the lighthouse where the meteor landed, and must contend with the strange wildlife and warped perceptions that exist inside The Shimmer.

It’s a fairly straightforward story, reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in many ways–one character even seems to ascend to a higher plane of existence at the end. Because it’s straightforward, it seems to invite people looking at it in abstract and unusual ways.

I saw Annihilation at a screening and discussion organized by Matt Zoller Seitz, for which, thanks. Everyone at the screening seemed to have a different interpretation of the film, and I don’t want to say anyone was wrong, but one angle was certainly louder to me than anything else.

The Shimmer itself is an elaborate metaphor for cancer–it’s a tumor that’s growing very slowly, and while it hasn’t spread to any major organs cities yet, it will unless a cure is found.

Lena describes cancer to her students at the beginning of the film–cells dividing continuously, without going through the aging process that’s programmed into their DNA. She tells Kane that aging and death are just a flaw in our genes–if we could turn it off, we could become immortal.

So many stories tell us that life is precious and beautiful, and I loved how Annihilation takes this to its logical extreme visually. The environment inside The Shimmer is gorgeous, but also scary–lush green grass and leaves, colorful flowers that pop off the screen, it’s the prettiest swamp I’ve ever seen. Even a strange fungus, growing on a mutilated corpse, is beautiful and horrific at the same time. This is life that has grown completely out of control.[1]

But the most interesting twist comes when one of Lena’s comrades tells her that people have an urge to self-destruct: they take drugs, they self-mutilate, they cheat on their romantic partners, they volunteer for suicide missions into cancer metaphors. Indeed, each member of the team has their own tragic backstory that has brought them to make the same foolhardy decision.

By the end of the film, I wouldn’t call cell death a flaw in our DNA–without it, we’d turn into the monsters we saw living in The Shimmer. But is self-destructive behavior necessary in the same way? Everyone has their poison– some things will make you feel the excitement you thought you’d lost; others will make you forget the painful things you’d rather not think about. Without these distractions, would we just be bored and miserable?

Even if it’s destructive for the characters, the mission itself is vital to humanity. Curing the cancer of The Shimmer will save the rest of us. We’ve all benefited from others who have sought out new life, new civilizations, and new understanding, often at great personal risk. This is the heroic sacrifice we celebrate in our superhero blockbusters–while it’s great for humanity as a whole, it’s often terrible for the people trying to stop the inter-dimensional army from invading Earth.

It seems then, that death offers two options: the chaotic, out of control from cancer, or the orderly, programmed aging from our DNA. I don’t know if I can choose… I’m sorry, Dr. Freud, did you want to say something?

If life has this self-destructive drive, the film wisely extends it to all life–including The Shimmer. Even life out of control would want a way out of its unending existence. We never get to hear The Shimmer speak for itself, but when given the opportunity, even its Avatar seems to assist its own destruction.

Thanks again to Matt Seitz for organizing this event–I hope we can do it again sometime.

I’ve also been thinking about David Bordwell’s new book Reinventing Hollywood, which I finished not long after I saw Annihilation. The film’s narrative structure– using flashbacks, chapter-like structuring, and playing with point-of-view all connect nicely with the book, but I’ll have to save those thoughts for another time.

  1. [1] Also I have to mention the frakking mutant zombie bear, which spends a good two minutes sniffing around the room where our heroines are tied up in chairs, completely helpless–THAT is a magnificent suspense sequence.
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Andrew’s 2018 Oscar Guesses

Update: 15/24! Not bad for a year when things were supposed to be unpredictable. *are correct answers. Also, apparently I didn’t make a guess for Best Director. Let’s just say I picked GDT and got that one too…

Best Picture:By all accounts, this is a complete toss-up. If I had to guess, I’d say The Shape of Water.*

Best Actress: Again, by almost all accounts, the acting categories are pretty much locked up. Who am I to argue? Frances McDormand.*

Best Actor: Sir Winston Churchill, for his brilliant performance as Gary Oldman, for which he wore a ton of prosthetics and lost a ton of weight.*

Best Supporting Actress: Alison Janney*

Best Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell*

Best Original Screenplay: Get Out*

Best Adapted Screenplay: I’d heard a lot of buzz around Call Me By Your Name, but this is the only category where it doesn’t look like it has strong competition.*

Best Animated Feature: Oh look. Pixar made another jaw-dropping masterpiece. Here, have another Oscar for Coco.*

Best Foreign Language Film: I saw someone make an unenthusiastic defense of The Square on Twitter, so let’s go with that.

Best Documentary Feature: I really liked Icarus, which starts out as a story about sports and doping, and then turns into a full-fledged political thriller. Check it out on Netflix.*

Best Documentary Short: This is one of those categories where I choose the most intriguing title: Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405.*

Best Live Action Short: *Pulls name out of hat.* DeKalb Elementary.

Best Animated Short: Another intriguing title: Negative Space.

Best Original Score: The Shape of Water*

Best Original Song: Again, I heard some news about “Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name, so let’s go with that.

Best Sound Editing: These technical categories are the ones that always mess me up. More so than the others, I mean. Let’s say Baby Driver.

Best Sound Mixing: Dunkirk. A little more high-brow than Star Wars, but still with lots of opportunities for crashing, shooting, and exploding. I hope it’s not Blade Runner 2049. That was mixed so loud I thought it was going to break the theater.*

Best Production Design: Hmmm. Period sets in Beauty and the Beast? Or Futuristic sets in Blade Runner 2049Blade Runner 2049.

Best Cinematography: The Shape of Water. Sorry, Roger Deakins. It’s still not your year. (Update: I am really glad to get this one wrong. Congratulations, Roger Deakins!)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Darkest Hour. Why do you think Gary Oldman won his Oscar?*

Best Costume Design: The Shape of Water. Yes, that fish man was just a costume.

Best Film Editing: Dunkirk. Normally, I’ve found the editing in action scenes from Christopher Nolan’s movies to be choppy and illegible. But it seems like telling such a stripped down story has focused his team– Dunkirk is my favorite movie he’s directed, and I think it’s the best edited.*

Best Visual Effects: There was a lot of cool stuff in Blade Runner 2049. But War for the Planet of the Apes seems to have made lots of advances in their motion capture gear. Hmm. Blade Runner 2049.*

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Babylon Berlin

“Dad says the anticipation of having something is often more fun than actually having it. I think he’s crazy. I hate waiting for things. I like to have everything immediately. I can’t think of anything I’d rather anticipate than have right away. Can you?”

“Death comes to mind.”

“I don’t know why I bother trying to have a little conversation with you when you’re always so morbid.”

–Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

 

I’m a sucker for political thrillers– Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; L’Affaire Farewell; Zthe collected works of Alfred Hitchcock. Movies like this work by building a sense of… anticipation. The most important tool these stories have is to tell the audience something bad is going to happen… and then make them wait for it.

Babylon Berlin, now streaming on Netflix, twists its cranks and turns its gears in heart-pounding set pieces that find our heroes breaking into a vicious gangster’s safe, hanging out of a malfunctioning airplane, and racing to return home before a bomb blows up.

But beyond the machinations of the plot, the show’s premise is about suspense. We are in Weimar Germany, in the year 1929. In four years, Germany will be in the grip of an authoritarian dictatorship. In ten years, it will be at war again. Like the ancient capital of Babylon, Berlin is on borrowed time.

We all know what happens next. The interesting thing is how we get there. We will wait through most of the series before we see a single Nazi uniform (trust me, it’s worth the wait.) Until then, life goes on.

Berlin is a boiling stew of civil unrest. Political groups of all stripes vie for influence, and the metropolitan police must maintain order– often with violent tactics, and a couple cover-ups as necessary to make sure the gruesome stuff doesn’t hit the papers. Communists stage a demonstration on the First of May, and are met with batons and machine guns.

World War I looms over everything that happens in this show. Only a decade out from the largest armed conflict in human history[1], almost every male character is a veteran of some kind. Several bear physical injuries that are unremarked upon. Doctors struggle to treat others battling “shell shock,” or PTSD.

A group of veterans drink a toast to the friends they lost in their unit, solemnly claiming that the German army was never defeated on the field. They want another chance to prove themselves– and they’ll get one, very soon.

The show is based on a series of crime novels by Volker Kutscher. Tom Tykwer, Achim von

Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries)

Borries, and Henk Handloegten  shared writing and directing duties. Tykwer is the best known in the U.S., having worked on  Sense8, and directed films such as Cloud Atlas, and Run Lola Run, another thriller built on a tightly suspenseful premise.[2]

In a sprawling cast, our two main characters are Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a vice cop from Cologne in Berlin on a special assignment, and Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a typist at the police station who lives in a squalid apartment and dreams of bigger things.

Their investigation finds them chasing down mob bosses in the city underworld, and searching a train smuggling gold and weapons-grade poison gas from the Soviet Union.

Yes– this show features, in its opening scenes, a steam locomotive and tanker cars being hijacked by Trotskyist expats. The train is nothing: there are period costumes on hundreds of extras, packed into rowdy night clubs and dozens of sets. After all that, period-appropriate planes, trains, and automobiles are the icing on the cake.

The world looks gorgeous– the cinematography is reminiscent of crime films from the 1940s, like The Third Man, which also loved giant silhouettes on brick wall. It also comes from M, a film made in Germany in 1931, and which proved highly influential to the genre we’d call film noir during and after the war.

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) Gentlemen, it’s not all about the hat.

We get a taste of the lively cultural center that was 1920s Berlin as well– characters go to the movies, and visit nightclubs to hear jazz music (Cabaret fans, eat your heart out). Sex and drugs are treated liberally– the government has to keep track of syphilis cases, Charlotte works as a prostitute in one club to help make ends meet, and Gereon breaks open vials of morphine to cope with losing his brother during The Great War.

Speaking of Gereon– gentlemen, do you see that hat he’s wearing? That is a fedora. You see how gritty and cool and damaged he looks? It’s not because of the hat. The hat only works because of everything else he’s wearing. So unless you want to wear a three-piece wool suit and a trench coat in June, don’t wear that hat.

Did I mention it’s the most expensive TV show ever produced in Europe? I feel like Babylon Berlin uses its budget more effectively than something like Game of Thrones, which seems to save its budget for a few key episodes, mostly involving dragons. It doesn’t cost much to create a suspenseful scene– it could be as simple as Rath crossing a narrow plank between two rooftops, or a housemaid sneaking her boyfriend into her employer’s study. The expense goes into the world building, which is pervasive and enveloping.

And in order for the suspense to work, the world building must be pervasive and enveloping. If it isn’t, your concentration is removed from the story, and you start asking questions. Annoying questions. Questions the filmmakers would rather you didn’t ask. Like, “Why doesn’t she just tell him, already?” or “How did he get in there without anyone noticing?”

The evening’s entertainment at a Berlin nightclub.

The neat thing is that even if you know the story, even if you know our heroes aren’t going to get caught, you’ll still feel that twinge of anxiety when they’re in danger. It’ll work on the second, or twenty-second viewing. And I think Babylon Berlin will stand up to multiple binge watches.

The specter of death hangs over everything from this time. The deaths that came with The War to End All Wars, and the deaths that will come in the next one. I suppose experiencing a suspenseful story is about confronting death itself– the effect works best when the characters are in mortal danger.

Will Charlotte and Gereon survive the coming war? I don’t know. First they have to survive the next ten years of political upheaval.

  1. [1] Just you wait, just you wait…
  2. [2] Lola must save her boyfriend, Manni, by somehow pulling together 100,000 Deutsche Marks in 20 minutes.
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BLAME at Tribeca 2017– Nadia Alexander Wins Best Actress!

This is a long overdue update, but BLAME has had its World Premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival! The whole event was a blast, and it was real treat to finally see the finished movie on the big screen.

The biggest surprise, though, came at the end of the Festival, when one of our stars, Nadia Alexander, won Best Actress for her brilliant performance as Melissa. I knew awards were always a possibility for a movie like this, but I try not to get my hopes up. Congratulations, Nadia, and the rest of the cast and crew on a job well done!

For more information, and to see some of the response to BLAME, click here.

Further updates to come…

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What Happens If You Don’t Take Out a Splinter?

Turns out, splinters can do more than just get under your skin.

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BLAME at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

BLAME, the indie feature I worked on a couple summers ago, is having its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival! Congratulations to the cast and crew, especially writer-director Quinn Shephard! I saw an early cut a while ago which was really good– I can’t wait to see it now that it’s finished.

Tickets are going on sale today, so if you’re interested in any of the screenings (April 22, 23, 24, and 29), click here to get yours before they sell out.

Per the festival:

When precocious and emotionally unstable Abigail (writer-director Quinn Shephard) is cast as the lead in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible over mean girl Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander), Melissa and her friends only amplify their abuse. Substitute drama teacher Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) isn’t completely oblivious. He intervenes and sees talent in Abigail’s total commitment to her new part. When Jeremy’s intentions become cloudy, Melissa spots an opportunity for more potent machinations.

 

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Flashbulb Memories!

Think about the most vivid memory you have. It’s probably about an emotionally charged event– your first kiss, or the death of a beloved pet. It feels really fresh, like it happened yesterday. Since it’s so vivid, it’s gotta be accurate, right?

Well…

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The 5 Second Rule

Should you eat that snack you dropped on the floor? Before you do, check out this episode of SciShow I wrote:

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Andrew’s Oscar Predictions 2017!

Update: 9/24! I think that’s worse than usual!

It’s that time of year again. As usual, I have seen a few of the nominees, but not all, and not nearly enough. So I should be even more qualified than ever!

Best PictureEveryone’s saying La La Land, but I’d kinda like to see Moonlight get it. But I haven’t seen either one.* Editor’s note: I’m going to say I got this because I need the score boost.

Best Actor: Denzel WashingtonFences. Because obviously.

Best Actress: Spins wheel… Natalie PortmanJackie.

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali. <shrug>*

Best Supporting Actress: Viola DavisFences. Because obviously.*

Best Animated Feature: Everyone’s saying Zootopia, but I liked Moana more I think. Look out for dark horse Kubo and the Two Strings.*

Best Cinematography: La La Land. Arrival looked really dark and grimy to me. But that could have been the theater.*

Best Costume Design: A period piece about one of the greatest fashion icons of the 20th Century? Why, it has to be Jackie.

Best Directing: Arrival. Which was good. I’m not sure it was better than the others.

Best Feature Documentary: 13th

Best Short Documentary: Joe’s Violin. I have no idea what any of these are about.

Best Editing: Whiplash got Best Editing when it came out. La La Land has the same  editor. So again, maybe?

Best Foreign Language Film: The cynic in me says The Salesman, because its director, Asghar Farhadi, has said he’ll skip the ceremony because of President Trump’s immigration policy. And that’s one less acceptance speech that makes the broadcast run long.*

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: I’m saying Suicide Squad because that would be really, really funny.*

Best Original Score: La La Land.*

Best Song: “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. Lin-Manuel Miranda, here’s your EGOT and– wait, what’s Trolls doing here?

Best Production Design: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Animated Short: Piper. Because if it wasn’t made by Pixar, you wouldn’t know it was animated.*

Best Live Action Short: La Femme et le TGV. I should really call this “Best Live Action Short Title.”

Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Sound Mixing: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book. Okay, technical categories. Don’t let me down again.*

Best Adapted Screenplay: Arrival

Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea. Because it should win something, right?*

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Hidden Fences

An actor once told me, “There are two kinds of movies out there. The kind that tells people what they want to hear, and the kind that tells them what they need to know.”

Hidden Figures, the story of black women working at NASA at the beginning of the space program, is by all definitions, a crowd pleaser. We have our plucky heroines, who struggle against stiffer odds than they should have to, and succeed nonetheless. Their work sent John Glenn into orbit, and paved the way for the intrepid astronauts flying to the Moon, and then, low Earth orbit, all these years later.

The title, of course, comes from the fact that the work of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson has never been lauded as much as that of their white male colleagues.

But as I walked out of the theater, it seemed like part of the story was missing. Our heroines had proven their worth many times over. They had won the respect of their colleagues. Heck, Kevin Costner even invited Ms. Johnson into Mission Control for John Glenn’s launch.

So why had their contributions not been publicized?

I’m sure there’s more detail about all this in the book, written by Margot Lee Shetterly. Movies often just don’t have time. And besides, what we really want to hear is how these women overcame the odds and helped get America in space.

Historical movies always have to take liberties with the truth to tell their stories. Some more than others. Timelines are compressed, and characters composited. Real life is much more complicated and rarely follows a neat three–act structure.

But Dexter Thomas at VICE criticizes two of the film’s storylines which attempt to tell people what they want to hear.

The first is a subplot about Ms. Johnson having to use a colored women’s bathroom half a mile away from where she works. Later, Kevin Costner’s boss takes a crow bar to the sign above the offending bathroom, and assures the assembled staffers that “We all pee the same color.”

This didn’t actually happen– Ms. Johnson says she whichever bathroom was most convenient, and no one stopped her. This, to me, is forgivable, since it highlights some of the indignities created by Jim Crow laws in the South that might not have been apparent to people who weren’t affected by them.

But I see a missed opportunity at the end of the film, when Costner invites Ms. Johnson into Mission Control. This also didn’t happen, although John Glenn did ask for her to check the IBM’s calculations for his trajectory.

Consider: Katherine Johnson has solved her most difficult problem; cleared the last hurdle. What more potent visual metaphor for what actually happened to these women than for her to be locked out of the room where it happens at the most important moment.

It would suck, for us, the audience, definitely. I was reminded of Contact, when Jodie Foster’s character is told she can’t ride on the alien ship that’s only been built because of her work.[1] And of course, that wasn’t the end of the movie.

It’s a tricky thing, making the audience upset at what happens in the story, and not at the movie itself. Many people wouldn’t like it. I don’t know that we get catharsis from downer endings, as Aristotle insists.

But perhaps by tearing down the myth of history as an unending march of progress, that we’re a little better off at the end than we were at the beginning, we can reveal the barriers that these women

  1. [1] Then again, as she says, “They should have sent a poet.”
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