Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)

A70-9170Last week I was invited to introduce a screening of Contact – a film I had seen twice in twenty years and then saw twice in the same week – as part of this series at Bristol Cathedral. (The last film I saw there was The Medusa Touch (1978), which was partly filmed in the cathedral. They sat us in rows where, in the film, the ceiling collapses on people sat in rows.)  This did not seem quite the right place to detail the film’s profound intellectual dishonesty, so this, more or less, is what I said:

When we think of science fiction, if we strip away all the space battles, alien monsters and big explosions, it might seem that we would be left with a genre that is profoundly secular and materialist, free from any concern with the supernatural or the spiritual. But sf is also part of our wider culture; it plays off it and builds on it in all kinds of ways.

Indeed, Adam Roberts, in his The History of Science Fiction (2006) argues that one of the sources – or perhaps an early manifesation – of sf is a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological debate, primarily Catholic but also taken up by Protestants, on the plurality of worlds. Could there be other worlds inhabited by other beings like us? Were they fallen races? Did Christ have to die again for each of them?

As Roberts writes, ‘unsupported by scriptural authority, the very notion of other inhabited worlds flirts with heresy, which lends the topic a dangerous flavour for more than 100 years’ (50). Both Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac wrote fiction in which the Moon is inhabited – but chose not to have these tales publish while they were still alive. Palingenius – real name Pietro Angelo Manzoli – was less careful. As Roberts states, in his ‘speculative cosmology … Zodiacus Vitae (‘Living Zodiac’), originally published in Italy in 1537’, Palingenius pointed out that some people considered every bright star to be a world, and supposes that their inhabitants count our dark planet as the least among all the heavenly bodies. Despite his circumspection in attributing such ideas to others, he was ‘classified as a heretic of the highest class in the Papal Index’ (50).

Leap forward into 20th century sf, and the same sort of questions are explored in CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelendra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), books I find hateful – the more mean-spirited they become, the worse the quality of the writing (and thinking). American writers also explore such questions, as in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958), Harry Harrison’s ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (1962) and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998).

In a rather different vein – weirder and more horrific – HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories of the 1920s and 1930s create a thoroughly non-supernatural universe the age and immensity of which renders alien species as kinds of mad, diseased gods.

Perhaps more interesting as a backdrop for Carl Sagan’s work is a tradition of atheist but nonetheless religious sf. Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937) is overwhelmed with awe at the unbelievably vast magnitudes – both space and time – of the universe, itself just one cosmos among many, that in the end novel it copes with the sublime by imagining a kind of prime creative energy or force. Stapledon’s his successor in this tradition is of course Arthur C Clarke, especially in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), both of which are set in quite rigorously material universes, but in which the possibility of transcendence remains – albeit as an evolutionary experience cast in in quasi-spiritual terms. (Clarke’s 2001 provides Sagan with the notion of hyperspace or wormhole travel as a kind of massive interstellar railway system; in the later stages of the film, John Hurt’s character increasingly resembles Clarke.) Stanley Kubrick’s film version of 2001 (1968) is much more oblique and ambiguous, skipping exposition in favour of a kind of overwhelming sensory experience – which Robert Zemickis’s Contact (1997) also attempts – as did films such as The Black Hole (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) before it. But all of them lack Kubrick’s cool, misanthropic tone – unsurprising with Zemeckis, who is kind of a Spielberg discovery.

Sagan’s own position seems to lie somewhere between Kubrick’s film and Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of his novel. In 1995, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan said that

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

He would describe himself not as an atheist but as an agnostic. In a 1981 interview collected in Conversations with Carl Sagan (2006), he said that

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

In his novel Contact (1985), protagonist Ellie Arroway makes the same point when questioned about her religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

In one of my favourite passages, as she is driving through the early morning desert, her headlights sweeping ahead of her, she notices rabbits gathering on either side of the road. As each one in turn is hit by the beam of light, it stands up on its hind legs and watches until the light has past. This has obvious resonances with her team of radio astronomers – and by extension, the whole human race – picking up the alien transmission. But but she also explicitly wonders if, in that moment, each rabbit is having a religious experience.

It is one of many moments in the novel where religion, spirituality and awe are probed from various directions.

And it is worth recalling that the novel itself expresses grave concern – omitted from the film – with the growing power of varieties of dispensationalist, prosperity-gospel Protestant fundamentalism, whose influence of American public life – and the practice of science – has only increased since then.

A few words about the film Contact.

In 1979, the production company Casablanca Pictures commissioned Sagan, who had recently won a non-fiction Pulitzer for The Dragons of Eden (1977) to develop a story for them to film. He was the most famous astronomer, possibly the most famous scientist, in America at that time, even though he had yet to make the PBS series Cosmos (1980). By the end of 1980, he and his co-author Anne Druyan had completed a 100 page story treatment. (Druyan was an author, who had also headed part of the NASA project about the golden discs of sound recordings that were attached to Voyager 1 and 2, in which Sagan was also involved, having previously designed the plaque for Pioneer. They married in 1981, his third and final wife, and she co-authored his later non-fiction books. She appears very briefly in the film on an episode of Crossfire debating Rob Lowe, who seems to be in the film for no reason other than to be pretty. Which is kind of his career.)

Casablanca took the project to Warner Bros, where it go stuck in development hell. So Sagan and Druyan wrote the novel (the extent of her involvement remains unclear; he alone is credited as the author). It attracted a $2 million dollar advance from Simon & Schuster, and became a best seller, selling 1.7 million copies in its first two years. This led to renewed interest in the film. Roland Joffe, fresh from Best Director Oscar nominations for The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), was initially attached to direct. When he dropped out and it was offered to Robert Zemeckis, who turned it down, then to George Miller, who had just made Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Miller was fired because he was taking so long, and it was offered to Zemeckis again, who this time accepted, having recently wrapped up the Back to the Future trilogy (1989, 1990) and Forrest Gump (1994), for which he’d won best director Oscar. Gump seems to have inspired the use of digitally altered footage of Bill Clinton (after Sidney Poitier turned down the role President) – footage which includes his serendipitous August 7 1996 press conference about the announcement that an Antarctic meteorite – almost certainly from Mars – seemed to contain microfossils of bacteria

Sagan died in December 1996, while Contact was still in production. Released the following June, it is dedicated to him.

Before we start, just a few words of warning. If there are any Matthew McConaughey fans here tonight, be aware you have to wait a full and seventeen and a half minutes for him to get his shirt off.

If it is any consolation, the first several of those endless, utterly unconscionable minutes contain what was in 1997 the longest continuous CGI sequence in film – a record it held for seven years.

It is, I know, no consolation (sotto voce: But such is the nature of the universe.)

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Le temps du loup aka Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke France/Austria/Germany 2003)

18363600[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 94 (2005): 134-137]

Although it has always produced outstanding sf and fantasy—from Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel to Andrei Tarkovsky and Jan Švankmajer—there was a time, back before I was born, when European arthouse cinema was synonymous with both cinematic and science-fictional excellence, when the nouvelle vague gave us Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (1959), Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1967). This period is best captured not by Bernardo Bertolucci’s joyless The Dreamers (2003) but, for all its gaucheness, Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001), in which a young American filmmaker in Paris, desperate to be Godard, ends up completing a pop-camp sf movie even more heavily indebted to Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik (1968) than to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), in which a sexy space-age spy must infiltrate the lunar base of Billy Zane’s Che-like rebel leader.

Over the last couple of years, European arthouse directors have again been drawn to the fantastic and science-fictional. Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love (2003), Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover (2002) and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (2004) attempt, with mixed success, to populate their Dickian/cyberpunk-flavoured tales with characters who at least vaguely resemble human beings. Vinterberg manages to produce several genuinely strange and estranging moments, but is undercut by a star-based narrative logic which forestalls complex intersubjectivity and opens the door to the worst kind of greetings card sentimentality; Assayas generates some sense of the perpetual displacement of the subject jetting through the spaces of global capital, but his film is no Pattern Recognition; and Winterbottom’s impressive vision of the future which looks just like the contemporary Third World succumbs to the picturesque (and a really problematic rape scene in which Maria (Samantha Morton) literally asks for it). In Fear X (2002), Nicolas Winding Refn transforms a Wisconsin which already looked pretty alien—positively Canadian—into somewhere distinctly Lynchian, while Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika (2003) occasionally rises above the ordinariness required of a Halle Berry vehicle. Although all of these films contain things to recommend them—some more than others—none of them measure up to those of forty years ago or, indeed, to Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup.

An immaculate MPV glides along a forest road. In it are Georges (Daniel Duval) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) Laurent, their mid-teens daughter, Eva (Anaïs Demoustier), and her younger brother Ben (Lucas Biscome). Fleeing the city and some never-specified catastrophe, they have calmly made their way to their weekend house in the country; but a family of strangers have already moved in. When the agonisingly reasonable Georges offers them welcome and a share of their supplies, he is killed and Anne and the children are turned away. Despite knowing the Laurents, local villagers refuse them aid or shelter, and so they begin to wander the countryside, first joining up with an unnamed boy (Hakim Taleb) and then with a proto-community dominated by the petty tyranny of property-ownership and commerce—a set-up which does not survive the arrival of a larger group of refugees. Together, these displaced people await the arrival of a train which might take them to somewhere better.

It could be a trick of perspective, but the last few years seem to have produced a number of texts which return to the the kind of post-apocalyptic fiction once dismissed as cosy catastrophes (Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1998), Lovegrove’s Untied Kingdom (2003), Roberts’s The Snow (2004), Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2004); the TV series The Last Train (1999); movies such as Reign of Fire (Bowman 2002), Twenty Eight Days Later (Boyle 2002), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich 2004) and Dawn of the Dead (Snyder 2004)), the best of which display at the very least an occasional flash of New Weird vigour, reinflating—with narrative and, occasionally, wit—a subgenre exhausted by the New Wave. What distinguishes Le temps du loup from them is a quite remorseless austerity, first signalled by the opening titles: small white uncluttered text on a black background, without music or sound. There are no CGI dragons. There are no zombies, enRaged or otherwise. There is no Big Weather. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the offscreen murder of Georges with the in-yer-face provocations and hi-jinks of Haneke’s earlier home-invasion movie, Funny Games (1997).

In an accompanying interview, Haneke explains Le temps du loup‘s restraint in terms of not wanting to make a generic disaster movie but a film about personal relationships, of wanting to give the comfortable westerners used to watching the unfolding global catastrophe on TV a taste of what it would be like if it happened to them. In this he succeeds, but not necessarily in the way he intends.

The film relies on ellipses. The nature of the catastrophe is never explained (although livestock burning on a pyre in the background of one shot might provide a clue). We do not see Georges’s death or his family having to bury him; we do not see their expulsion from their home or their theft of a bicycle; we do not see Ben’s discovery of his dead budgerigar or a barn going up in flames; we do not see Anne’s response to the letter Eva writes to her dead father, in which she talks about having to careful around her mother as she is on the verge of cracking up; and so on. Along with these omissions, there are also a number of scenes set in a pitch-black night, illuminated intermittently by the flame of a cigarette lighter or a handful of burning straw, and a number of unexplained events. This eschewal extends even to refusing emotional spectacle: when a sick child dies, there is a 30 second shot of hands fashioning a crude cross and placing it on the grave, followed by a two-and-a-half minute shot of the legs of the people gathered around the grave, the only sound being the mourning cries of the child’s out-of-shot mother—and in the extreme distance, as the mourners move off, the flaming torches of an approaching group of refugees creep into shot, blurs of distant light in the falling dark.

The refusal to show does not extend to the characters; rather, all that the camera does is show us their stunned and stunted responses, and in this Haneke seems to be deliberately pursuing the kind of humanist-realism championed half a century ago by André Bazin. The camera’s cool gaze stays resolutely outside of the characters, but frequent long takes provide the time to watch minute gestures and changes of expression and to ponder motivation and meaning. There is, for example, an aching moment when we can see Eva trying to choose between loyalty to a mother ill-equipped to handle the new situation and the teenage boy who has already learned to strip whatever he needs from corpses (and some time later, we see her growing realisation that the boy is differently, but equally, ill-equipped). In the same sequence, a close-up reveals the sorrowful wisdom of the even younger Ben who, unlike his family, knows there is no point running after a passing train, crying for help. This sense of externality counters Haneke’s desire to focus on relationships, and perhaps only twice produces the kind of the effect on the viewer he seeks. First, and overwhelmingly, is the sense of disconnection: just as the family have no idea what has happened or what will happen next, so the film’s omissions and ellipses makes the experience of the narrative an uncertain one; while it grips, the succession of incidents also produces a sense of being stunned, akin to that experienced by the characters. Second, the conclusion that Ben reaches, the sacrifice he decides to make to save his family, simultaneously comes out of the blue and is inevitable. It is a moment every bit as human and as terrible as the scene in Thomas Disch’s ‘The Asian Shore’ about the young boy struggling to carrry two buckets of water whose shoes come off every time he takes a few steps; and the ground is freezing; and every time he puts his shoes back on he spills more of the water over himself; and he is freezing; and just as Disch’s narrator cannot help because he cannot communicate with the boy, so we cannot save Ben from his decision even though we know it will not work and its cost is unimaginably high.

The low-budget Last Night (McKellar 1998), dubbed ‘the Canadian Armageddon’, stands out among the recent ‘not-so-cosy’ catastrophes, not least because it refuses the apocalypse a post-. Similarly, and like Weekend, to which its long tracking shots might pay homage, Le temps du loup is ultimately not about life after the apocalypse—the survivors are numb, powerless; there is no attempt to rebuild civilisation—but about life during the apocalypse going on around us, mostly unseen. Like Benjamin’s angel of history (and, perhaps, Code 46), Haneke’s film sees not progress but one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. The closing shot, which lasts for over two minutes, is filmed, the soundtrack implies, from aboard a train as it races through a verdant French countryside. We do not see the train. We do not know whether it is the one for which the characters have been waiting or, if so, whether it stopped to pick them up. We do not even know whether it is real, or merely a fantasy like the one spoken of in the preceding scene (‘maybe tomorrow, there’ll be … a big car racing up. … And a guy will get out and say everything’s fine again. And water will flow in our mouths with roast pigeons and maybe the dead will come back to life’). And while the final shot shows that the land, like the people whose story we’ve followed, endures, it is a land, perhaps significantly, deserted of people.