I've been thinking about communication a lot lately. Especially I've been thinking about the way in which words are misconstrued, misconstructed and reconstructed by the listener long after they've left the speaker's mouth, or hands, or phone, gone like petals in the wind into the ether that is this collective consciousness we call the internet. For that matter, I've been thinking about the internet. Does it bring us closer together, or father apart, a gift or a curse. I don't believe in absolutes, not the way I used to at least, I also don't believe in black and white except for when it comes to the pictures, which is, of course, an elaborate lie. There is no black and white, only infinite shades of grey. I think static on a television is the truest form of expression. The shades of grey, a lie on the screen, another lie, one we tell ourselves in order to make believe that we've arrived at some sort of profound truth, something to anchor our insecurities against, to beat against fruitlessly, raging against a storm, the only real test of our courage is one in which there is no real agency to rage against other than ourselves. The storm doesn't care who beats it. In that way it cannot be beaten, I suppose. I think about what it means to be a being. To be conscious. To be, not alive, but self-alive. Do my thoughts really belong to me? I don't feel like they do. I feel more like an echo chamber, more receptive to certain ideas, less receptive to others, shaped by my experiences in such a way that certain things resonate with me and certain other things bring about a feeling of disgust or fear or anger. And it is this echo chamber analogy that sticks with me right now, at this moment, though I fear it will dissolve by the time I finish writing and once again I'll be at a loss for words. This is how communication works, I think. We are all echo chambers, firing off soundwaves from our innermost selves into the chambers of the hearts of others, hoping to keep the resonance going for long enough for our voices to align in harmony and bring music to the otherwise emptiness that is the mundanity of day to day life. In between moments of waiting in line at the grocery store, to the long empty silences sitting in a classroom or workstation when nobody else has yet arrived, or, worse yet, or perhaps better depending on your particular alignment that day, when everybody is already there before you but no one has stepped up to the front yet, and so you sit down, avoiding eye contact, secure in the knowledge that, like you, nobody else really wants to be there other than by obligation, this communal neglect bringing with it a sense of satisfaction, a sense of belonging, and then slowly, as if by instinct, someone starts to speak and the room lights up if only for an instant and then, a joke, a flutter of laughter, a fleeting moment of eye contact, a whisp of a smile out of the corner of a curved lip, and the world is full again. This is communication, I think, and it is beautiful.
And so I watched Arrival, and I was struck with a dread sense of enlightenment. I saw my whole life. My past, my present, my future, all encompassed in the circular enigma of the alien language invented for Denis Villenueve's film. I am still shaken by it's profoundness. It is not the plot, nor the visuals that strike me, but the core concept, the idea of communicating, the risk it requires, the empathy it demands, the connection between two foreign entities, each willing to engage with the other without any guarantee of safety. That the encounters between the aliens and the humans takes place in a chamber, an echo chamber of sorts where the atmosphere is hostile to human life save for the short window of time during which the communication sessions that make up the plot can take place. A fitting metaphor, as I see it, for how important timing is to relationships. How many friendships have I missed out on because I was five minutes late to arrive? How many loves lost because I left early? Opportunities slip by unnoticed, but the real miracle is the ones we find ourselves in. I met my best friend because I saw her walking on the streets an hour before we met and somehow remembered her face. The windows of honesty are only open in short bursts but what magical opportunities they are! This is not meant to sound sad or whimsical, but I can't help but feel it does anyway.
A lot has been said about Arrival, about how it is a metaphor for immigration, in light of today's politics, or about how it is about fear of the other, also a poignant reminder of the state of affairs today, but these are temporal conveniences, a stroke of luck that comes along at particular times when it seems that art predicts reality, and maybe it does, or maybe reality necessitates art. The language of Arrival is circular, it has no beginning, no end, and I think this is beautiful because it feels kind of like life. Moments come and moments go. There are no happy endings but just the same, there are no sad ones either. When we first meet Louise (Amy Adams) we assume, because of the linear nature of time we are trapped within, that she is greiving the loss of a child. Only later do we realize, and this is due to the stroke of genius on the filmmakers' part, that these are not flashbacks but glimpses of the future that Louise is gifted with. The alien language allows her to perceive time in a non-linear fashion and so she begins to trascend her temporal reality. "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?" she asks. "I'd say what I felt more often," she receives in response. I can't help but echo that sentiment. Somehow pain seems fundamentally linked to time, almost contingent on it. Heartache heals, after all. Does joy as well?
What is it that brings hearts together in perfect synchronization? Think about pink elephants for a minute. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Almost certainly not, my pink elephants are not your pink elephants. Nevertheless...
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the theory that the language you speak determines your reality. I think that might be a direct quote from the film, but I'm not sure, it doesn't really matter. When I see snow, I only see snow. When the Inuits see snow, they see an entire world. When an artist looks at a painting, she sees intention and feeling and pain and sorrow and tears and joy, all swirling together in vivid color. When I hear music I hear voices. I don't pretend to understand exactly how this works, I don't know how to explain how I understand it so clearly, but perhaps the movie does. I think it does. Reality is determined by context and context is everything. There's an old man sitting across from me as I type this doing a crossword. His focus is intense. I wonder what he is thinking. How different a world he must live in than the one I perceive. Undoubtably he could teach me more things than I could ever forget in a lifetime, though we are entire worlds apart. How can I ever enter into his reality? He would alter my world forever. If aliens did land on Earth tomorrow, I think the first question on everyone's lips would be, do I still have to go to work today? This is not a fault of humanity, rather an inevitable consequence of it. I tried to tell my mother she looked nice, but she didn't seem to notice. Maybe she didn't hear me, maybe she didn't believe it. I don't really believe it when people tell me I look nice, but I do when I look in the mirror. Is that my reality or just a reflection of my insecurities? I am full of paradoxes like this, I think most everyone is, and it is in between these paradoxes, in the cracks of our realities that we reach out to each other. There is a screen that separates the aliens from Louise, it looks like glass, if anything can really look like a transparent substance, but when they put their hands together it is clear they are touching each other. I like that moment. I think it captures a lot. It takes an awful amount of bravery to reach out to someone, quite literally in Louise's case as she puts herself in risk of fatal contamination in order to approach these alien figures. I like that moment too.
Language is really more of a dance if anything, which, of course, is the kind of analogy only language can make possible. Isn't dance just as much of a form of language as any spoken or written one? Look at me, listen to me, see me, hear me. Feel me. I am here. Self-consciousness makes us alone with our thoughts but at one time people did not have a concept of aloneness. Self-consciousness, like everything else, had to evolve progressively with understanding, and understanding only grows with language. In that way, language is as fundamental to humanity as biology. Perhaps it even is biology in a sense, just life communicating with itself to produce more life. What is the aliens' purpose in Arrival? To help humanity. Why? Because in 3000 years, we need humanity's help. Life creating more life, through language. Louise stops the rest of the world from declaring war on the aliens by speaking words she hasn't heard yet but will hear in the future, because with the alien language she can perceive time in a circle. Essentially, she experiences the future and the present at once, impacting the present with her knowledge of the future, which simultaneously makes possible the future itself. Or at least, that is the linear way of understanding it. This is not a plot hole, there is nothing to dissect here. This is simply her reality. Language unlocks time, doesn't it? We tell stories, we share our experiences, our desires, ourselves, all outside of time. If the past can be recounted, then can the future be told as well? Is language not an act of eternalizing ourselves in some way? Not in the linear sense where eternity equates with never-ending, but rather where eternity is simply existing non-continuously, in a suspended state of everything passing through you all at once, past, present, future, all converging into a moment of being that stretches beyond the horizon of the universe.
Maybe I'm getting carried away. The old man is long gone now. I don't mean he's dead, I just mean he left the store.
There is nothing more universal than the human experience. There is nothing more alienating than it either. How strange it is to be alive, what a feeling to be in the present. It is exhilerating and incomprehensible. We never really experience the present though, do we? We only ever get a glimpse of it as it passes, our existence just a milisecond offset from reality as it occurs. Our consciousness, as efficient as it is, can never really be spontaneous in accord with reality, but should that matter? I think we discount the human experience too often. Maybe we don't have free will, should that matter? With regards to ethics, of course it should, and it is important to realize that, because, after all, part of the human experience means living in a temporal reality in which there are direct consequences to our actions. Existentially though, whether we have free will or not is almost immaterial. We believe we have free will, and we act accordingly, and that too, is part of the human experience. I do wonder however, how that would be affected if we, like Louise, could see outside of time. Would we change things? Would it be beautiful to accept life's moments, full of pain and joy, beauty and sadness, profound meaning and absolute emptiness, encompassed by the spectacular abyss of the universe, beheld at the splendor of life and all its colors splashing around in the darkness, illuminated for a brief moment of eternity by the light of our very souls burning, burning, burning, with all the resplendant hope that only a child's laughter can bring us?
And so I think about what the movies mean to me and this is what I'm left with. Cinema is a language, one that touches souls, and changes lives. Arrival changed mine. Now I sit here, my imagination is fading, the moment is gone, having purged myself of these pent up emotions that I could not bring myself to express until now, at this place in this particular moment. I am arriving at this moment as it arrives at me. I think that is quite enough to ask for. Now I'm going to miss my bus.