“The Palindrome of Cinema”
In his book, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood taught us to stop worrying and love the fifties, Peter Biskind presents a four-pronged system for understanding the politics of post-war American cinema. Contrary to the conflict between the Right and the Left in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s, the Cold War consensus resulted in a center of corporate liberals and conservatives working to preserve American values against assaults from the radical Right and Left.
Biskind sees these four positions in many American film genres. In the corporate liberal film, Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957), Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) draws a microcosm of eleven other Americans into a consensus decision to acquit a Hispanic kid of a murder he clearly did not commit. The corporate liberal hero, a middle-class white man in a suit, uses reason to overcome all irrationality, including the abject racism of Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb).
In corporate liberal and conservative films, the nature of the hero changes (intellectuals in the former, policemen and the military in the latter), but in both cases, the center holds as a space of rationality. In the radical films, the center does not hold: the righteous characters are alienated from the center, unable to convince the consensus of its inadequacies.
For example, in the Left film, All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955), the environmentalist Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) gives up his life as a stock broker to follow a reading of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), leading him to grow silver-tip spruce trees and live in a converted mill out into the wilderness. When middle-class widow Cary (Jane Wyman) follows him into the woods, her Puritanical New England town crucifies her, gossiping viciously about her purportedly poor morals.
The genre in which Biskind’s model proves most illuminating is science-fiction. Biskind reads The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, 1951) as a conservative film because it reveals the military’s paranoia over alien invasion to be completely justified. The correctness of the gung-ho military comes at the expense of the idealistic scientist, Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), a fool who is attacked while trying to reason with the murderous alien creature. In the middle of the film, as the celebrated Howard Hawks group of military men desperately strategize to survive the alien attack, Dr. Carrington commits treason against the United States, secretly growing alien spores in his laboratory to attempt to understand the newly discovered life form, a quest the film sees as suicidal stupidity.
The Left film, The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) engages the exact same plot. However, this time, the treasonous scientist is correct; the shoot first, ask questions later military are the ones threatening the future of the planet. Because of the human development of nuclear weapons, aliens have appointed Klaatu (Michael Rennie) to come to Earth to deliver an ultimatum: cease militarism or suffer global annihilation by the aliens, who cannot allow a primitive species to threaten the general well-being of the galaxy. Finding nothing but aggressive parochialism in the military and political leaders of the United States, Klaatu instead visits the office of Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a clear stand-in for the real-life Albert Einstein. Like Carrington in The Thing, Barnhardt commits treason against the United States, sharing Klaatu’s advanced technologies with his scientific colleagues in the Soviet Union, in the hopes of encouraging the global unification of the planet, a world in which the United Nations would trump the individual sovereignty of individual countries. The scientist as expert is the hero of The Day the Earth Stood Still, showing the military the folly of their ways, and thus saving the planet from destruction at the hands of the otherwise peace-loving aliens.
Figure 5: Klaatu corrects the equations on Professor Barhardt’s chalkboard as a gesture of good will in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Biskind’s book was written in the 1983, a generational attempt to come to terms with the 1950s. Denis Villeneuve’s new science-fiction film, Arrival provides the opportunity to revisit Biskind’s political grid now that another three decades have passed. Arrival is a film of the Left, in Biskind’s terms. An alien species arrives placing twelve granite-looking spacecraft in various locations around the globe. A U.S. Army Colonel, G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) brings two experts to the alien craft hovering off the ground in Montana. One is a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), while the other is a linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams). The experts work desperately to communicate with the aliens, while the paranoid military warns them not to give away any information about humanity that the aliens could use against them.
Other countries, led by China, tire of the scientists’ attempts to communicate with the aliens. After cooperating for months, the Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) breaks off communication with his international rivals and prepares to attack the aliens. Just in time, Louise and Ian discover that the aliens, heptapods because they have seven limbs, whose palindromic, non-linear language allows them to see beyond the confines of time, have come to the Earth to unify it in order that humanity might help them 3,000 years in the future. Louise, now fluent in the heptapod language, uses her knowledge of the future to call Shang on his private cell phone, telling him in Mandarin his wife’s dying words to him. Louise makes this phone call of international cooperation against the direct orders of Colonel Weber and the CIA agent in charge, David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). That is, in Biskind’s formulation, Louise rejects the political and military American center to foster internationalism, directly replicating the Left ending of The Day the Earth Stood Still, excusing treasonous behavior for the greater good of the Universe.
And yet, something has profoundly changed since the 1950s, and more importantly Biskind’s 1980s. Unlike the other science fiction films, and Biskind’s analysis of them, the expert is neither military nor scientist. Louise is a linguist, interested in the humanistic values of communication. She is an expert in the humanities. In this new turn of the political screw, 2016, a world of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the hero of Arrival builds a world of international communication out of a study of the indeterminacy of language. Earlier in the film, Louise tells Colonel Weber the apocryphal story of the white settlers of Australia asking the Aborigines the name of the hopping marsupial. It turns out, Louise explains, that kangaroo is the Aboriginal word for “I don’t understand.” Ian, the scientist asks Louise if the story is true; Louise replies that it is not, but that it makes her point, thus emphasizing the triumph of rhetoric over the deterministic world of science.
Arrival invokes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the social constructionist notion that the language one speaks determines the cultural features of the community which uses it. We know this hypothesis to be invalid, yet like the kangaroo story, its rhetorical function transcends its status within the science of language. When Louise achieves fluency in the heptapod language, she gains the ability to see the future. The film celebrates the openness of the humanities researcher who sees that the initial alien request to “use the weapon” may have more than the obvious meaning that the paranoid military men around the world assume. Louise tells Weber that the heptapod meaning for weapon might just as well mean “tool” instead of merely indicating an implement of warfare.
And, indeed, a player in a film of the political Left, Louise is completely correct. The aliens force international communication by giving the humans a “weapon” in twelve parts. However, this weapon turns out merely to be the gift of their language, whose details transform the nature of humanity’s understanding of the physical nature of the Universe. When Louise masters the heptapod language, written in a circle of floating ink, she fulfills the aliens’ request that she “deploy the weapon.” She speaks to General Shang in Mandarin, and suddenly creates a world in which the United Nations becomes the central political force of humanity, overwhelming the importance of individual nations. Unlike in paranoid films of all three other Biskind political orientations, this serves not as a tragic loss of American exceptionalism, but instead the harbinger of the successful development of humanity.
The heptapods’ ability to see time differently allows Louise to experience the full nature of human emotion. At the beginning of the film, she tends to her daughter, Hannah, deliberately named with a palindrome, as she is dying of cancer as a teenager. What we see as the pain of Louise’s past, the heptapods reveal as a choice that she can make about her future. At the end of the film, Louise decides her path based on her knowledge of the future: when Ian asks her whether they should have a baby, she replies in the affirmative, knowing full well that what the future holds in store for her is seemingly unbearable suffering.
The weapon the heptapods bequeath to Louise is a sense of time that short-circuits humanity’s linear, one-way simplicity. For Louise, with a consciousness transformed by heptapod culture, Hannah’s death is not merely the end of their love for each other, but merely one point on a circle of palindromic experience; her moments of joy with her daughter are only possible with the inevitability of her death, as is the case with all of our love relationships. Crucially, Ian the scientist, without the transformed linguistic skills of the heptapods, cannot emotionally grapple with the suffering Louise tells him is in store for him, and thus he abandons Louise and Hannah.
The cinema, of course, is already the greatest allegory for this palindromic time machine. We watch the films that we love again and again, not in spite of knowing their endings, but precisely because of that knowledge. To watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) every Christmas is to experience the hermeneutic circle. At the beginning of Frank Capra’s masterpiece, George Bailey’s life stretches before him, full of hope for exploration. However, such is not to be; he is stuck in Bedford Falls, forever protecting his beloved small town from the evil Mr. Potter’s rapaciousness.
But we watch the film nonetheless, awaiting George’s redemption; at the moment of his suicide, the townspeople whose lives he has transformed come together to force him to see the profound meaning his life has had. It is a lesson that the character George learns only once, but every Christmas, we the spectators experience it again. After we’ve seen the film once, this knowledge can never confront us for the first time again; instead, we have a more profound, circular encounter, knowing both what lies behind but also what lies ahead, not only for George Bailey, but also for us.
This is the meta-cinematic engagement that is Arrival’s masterstroke. Obviously, Arrival is a political allegory for a world of Brexit and Trump’s rise. Like the 1950s science-fiction films, and Biskind’s 1980s Reaganite explications of their hidden meanings, the cinema of the Left demands that we see the importance of intellectual expertise to fight off the parochialism of human limitation.
But something profoundly transformative has happened to us since the 1980s. A technologist culture that values STEM above all else has revealed its utter bankruptcy. Crucial knowledge about the world—evolution and climate change science—has had nothing but an entrenching impact on the anti-intellectuals who con the world’s population into easy solutions. Instead, it is the humanities which has the power to inoculate us against determinate readings of the world that falsely predict solutions to what ails us. Like the weapon of the heptapods, the power of Arrival is that knowledge is driven by indeterminacy; it is only through the quest for self-understanding that we can communicate with one another. And it is only in that communication, modeled beautifully by exquisitely talented filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve, that we can hope to learn the language of love that will conquer that which divides us.