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Arrival Is a Movie About Movies (Not Language)

I have a dwindling reserve of patience for movies that treat death as a handy time-saving hack that can be deployed against characters (to push them around as the plot requires) or audience (to elicit sympathy without the hassle of creating characters strong enough to bear empathy). I gave up on X-Men: Apocalypse right when it cynically introduced a wife and daughter for Magneto solely so that they could be promptly murdered in order that he would lurch back to the dark side. So the first five minutes of Arrival — in which Amy Adams’s character, Louise, has daughter, loses daughter, is sad — did not endear the movie to me. No, we have not given you any reason to be emotionally invested in this character, I heard Denis Villeneuve sneering in my ear, but you must feel sorry for her all the same, and here are the tremulous strings of an emotive Max Richter track just to make doubly sure you do.

So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Arrival was actually doing something quite different (confident that its acting and atmosphere would be strong enough to retain the attention of more sceptical audience members). Eventually we learn that this sequence — and the other, briefer glimpses we see of Louise and her daughter later on in the movie — are not flashbacks, but flashforwards; not memories, but premonitions. Louise’s ability to understand the written language of the extraterrestrial heptapods has granted her the power of foresight and we don’t have to feel sad for her after all because none of this tragedy has actually befallen her yet.

The relationship between Louise and Ian, played by Jeremy Renner, also comes across like a cliché at first. Of course they’re going to fall for each other — even though she’s the wordy one and he’s the sciencey one! They’re so different! — because they’re the protagonists of a blockbuster movie, and that’s what the protagonists of blockbuster movies do (and because, as we know — or thought we knew — Louise is a divorcée who has lost a child and thus especially in need of the restorative succor of True Love). But again, something different is happening: yes, Louise is falling for Ian, but she does so with (in spite/because of) the knowledge that they will ultimately fall apart in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. This is not the typical emotional timbre of a relationship that springs from a meet-cute.

But these subversions of cinematic tropes assume a certain degree of familiarity with movies and the way they work. The relationship between Louise and Ian is formed from lightly sketched cinematic signs (the camera lingering just slightly too long on the reaction shot) that we recognize from the hundreds or thousands of onscreen romances we have witnessed before. And we assume that the emotionally ambiguous expression on Amy Adams’s face is sadness because we expect characters to respond to sad flashbacks with sadness. Eventually she vocalizes her feelings, stating that she doesn’t recognize the girl we have been seeing with her onscreen — and in that stunning moment we realize that the emotion she has been experiencing is, in fact, confusion, and that the scenes we thought were flashbacks are not flashbacks at all.

These twists are dealt with quite differently in “The Story of Your Life,” the Ted Chiang short story from which Arrival was adapted. The will-they-won’t-they is resolved earlier on (they will), and the true chronological sequence of events is never concealed: from the very beginning, the life (and death) of their daughter is described in the future tense, while the interactions with the heptapods are in the past. The surprise lies not in the sequencing of events, but at which precise point Louise, the narrator, is positioned on that timeline. We assume at first that she is using a kind of “historical future” tense: looking back from a time after she has met some aliens, had a child, lost her child, and her entire career has unfolded:
I remember one afternoon when you are five years old, after you have come home from kindergarten. You’ll be coloring with your crayons while I grade papers.
Gradually, however, this insistent use of the future tense, preceded by the jarring simple present “I remember,” becomes more conspicuous. We realize that this is actually just regular, vanilla future tense, describing things that have not happened yet, with the certainty granted by her newly acquired powers of clairvoyance. She is telling her story from a particular moment (as the present tense sections that bookend the story make clear) that is post-aliens but pre-daughter, and she is remembering forwards, not backwards.

The fact that this reveal depends on grammar is entirely appropriate for a story so preoccupied with language. “The Story of Your Life” is unafraid of spending time exploring such nuances as the distinction between glottographic and semasiographic writing. The discoveries about how the heptapods’ language works (and Louise’s consequent transition from a “sequential mode of awareness” to a “simultaneous mode of awareness”) unfold naturally from the linguistics. In Arrival, however, the process that forms the crux of Ted Chiang’s story is mainly connoted through visual shorthand — the elaborately annotated whiteboards that films use to indicate unfathomable genius, and the furrowing of Amy Adams’s brow — and that most cinematic of conceits: the montage (with a Jeremy Renner voice-over).

Because despite name-dropping Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and hiring an actual consultant linguist, Arrival’s interest in language is essentially superficial. The plot requires Louise to gain the ability to see the future, but what if Louise was an engineer instead of a translator, or a specialist in toxins? What if the MacGuffin was not the heptapod language itself, but a piece of machinery or alien milkshake? Arrival would certainly be a lesser movie — lacking the thematic resonance with the breakdown in communication between different nations around the world — but it would still work.

Yet this doesn’t mean Arrival is an unfaithful adaptation. The act of translation is not just a case of switching words from one language to another: it requires countless extralinguistic tweaks and alterations to account for differences in the target culture. And there is more to the adaptation of a short story to film than simply producing a visual rendition of what is written on the page (so it’s no wonder that the movie’s screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, felt “an emotional connection” to translator Louise). The change in medium itself necessitates additional changes. Some of these are purely practical: the lifespan of the daughter is shortened in the movie, for example. In “The Story of Your Life” she lives to the age of 25 and dies in a climbing accident. If she had lived that long in the movie then Amy Adams’s face would have had to be digitally wizened in the flashforwards, and the twist would be no twist (for either us, or her). Thus, in Arrival the daughter must die young, from cancer — the default trauma of cinema, with the most easily recognizable visual code (the bald head of chemotherapy, the blue palette of the hospital lighting).

But some of the other tweaks are self-conscious acknowledgements of a more profound shift in focus. As Jordan Brower has noted in the LA Review of Books, the two heptapods, named Raspberry and Flapper in the original, become Abbot and Costello in the movie — Hollywood allusion. And the sad Max Richter theme that plays such a key part in setting the mood at the beginning and ending of the film — “On the Nature of Daylight,” from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks — is tantamount to a cinematic citation, having previously been featured in several other movies (notably Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island in 2010 — another adaptation of a story that plays tricks with memory). Because the plot of Ted Chiang’s story is so intricately meshed with its medium — the very words that comprise a short story, and the way that we process a linear narrative as we read it off the page — it would be impossible to make a film that engages with language in the same way. The continuous interior monologue of “The Story of Your Life” is the exact opposite of the discrete visual slices that make up a movie. So Arrival doesn’t bother trying: what it does instead is mirror its reflexivity. Where “The Story of Your Life” is about language, Arrival is about movies.

Nowhere is this more true than in the finale (which is a completely new addition to the story, extrapolated from a brief governmental intrusion into “The Story of Your Life”). In the same way that Arrival toyed with the trope of the tragic backstory (not unlike the recent HBO show Westworld, which also played with our assumptions of linearity) and the inevitable romance of the two romantic leads, it subverts our expectation of a climax that imperils the very existence of the Earth, which our protagonists will then defuse through their heroic behaviour. How does Louise save the day in Arrival? By literally seeing the future. We, the passive audience, watch along with her as she observes herself, in the future, having the conversation that will provide her with the information she needs to avert catastrophe. To save the day, she must become as us: a watcher of movies.

And so we should not be surprised that Arrival has received a clutch of Oscar nominations. La La Land should watch out: as The Artist, Argo, and Birdman have made very clear, these days the academy loves movies about movies

All the Years Ahead: On Committing Literary Suicide

When Evelyn Waugh was in his early 20s, he was plagued by writerly despair. After sending a few chapters of his first novel to the writer Harold Acton and receiving a less-than-praising response, Waugh burned up the entire draft. He’d just quit a miserable job only to have a more promising one fall through. His friends all seemed to be launching into successful lives, while he was not. Recalling a line from Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris, “The sea washes away all human ills,” he copied out the quotation in Greek, carefully checking to ensure every accent was correct, and left it on the beach one moonlit night, beside all his clothes, while he swam out to sea to end it all.

But in a perfectly Waughian moment, as he swam he felt a sting in his shoulder. Then another. And another. The water was full of jellyfish. Their attack was so painful, he turned and swam to shore, donned his clothes, tore up the note, and went back to being alive. It’s a wry story as Waugh recounts it in A Little Learning, the autobiography of his early life, but also a surprisingly poignant one, underscoring how easy it could have been for a temporary despondence to result in something as permanent as death.

Perhaps Waugh told the story of his thwarted suicide so wittily to distance himself from the awful feelings he’d experienced those decades earlier. We who work with words know facetiousness can mask a host of harder emotions. When I began my first novel in my mid-30s, I tried to make light of the feelings I found myself struggling with by flippantly asking my then-colleague, the novelist Pete Rock, whether writing fiction caused manic-depression or merely mimicked the symptoms of manic-depression. He answered, “Yes,” a cleverly enigmatic but also oddly confirming response. What I was feeling, he seemed to say, was common among writers.

But that commonness isn’t always comforting. The association between writers and despair looms so large that the artist Aaron Krach once spent a week checking books out of the New York Public Library, stamping the title page of each with the phrase “The author of this book committed suicide,” then displaying the results at an art gallery before returning the items to the library, where they presumably continue to circulate. Looking over the names of the 50 or so authors he included, my first response was to wonder how many others he’d missed.

Killing one’s self is a hell of an occupational hazard. But I’ve come to believe that writing can also be a way to resist suicide. I discovered this strategy through a sort of terrible, wonderful accident (much like swimming into a sea of jellyfish), while working on a novel about a woman whose newborn daughter dies, and who is then given another infant to nurture in the most physically and emotionally intimate way possible: by breastfeeding her. What, I wondered, would her relationship with this child be like? That was the story I meant to explore.

But this character wasn’t entirely my invention. I found her in Romeo and Juliet: early in the first act, William Shakespeare has Juliet’s nurse briefly relate the backstory of her own child’s death, a seeming digression that serves as a subtle augury of Juliet’s fatal romance with Romeo. Rereading the play decades after initially encountering it in high school, I was surprised and fascinated by the nurse’s emotional depth, and by the glimpse Shakespeare gives us into her personal history. In this scene and throughout the play, Shakespeare makes the nurse comic and tragic, bawdy and big-mouthed (she has more speeches than any of the other characters except the eponymous young lovers). I wanted to think and write about the world from her perspective. So I set out to imagine the 14 years that came before the five days in the play, as she might have told them.

I began writing fiction as a means to address social issues. My first novel is based on the life of an inspirational but mostly forgotten historical figure, a former slave who became a spy during the Civil War. I wanted to make her heroism better known, and to help readers understand how blacks and whites worked together in the anti-slavery moment. When I started drafting Juliet’s Nurse, I wondered whether it would do something as meaningful as that first book. I worried that this compelling character, and the initial pleasure of riffing on Shakespeare, might be keeping me from telling a more important story. But as I immersed myself in the project, I confronted the fact that Romeo and Juliet, the most famous play in the English language, is also our most famous literary work about suicide. Whatever I wrote would inevitably draw me there.

Euphoria is probably the best word to describe how an author feels when the writing goes well. Most of the time, however, the writing is hard, sometimes impossible. The terrifying sense that the creative process is always out of your control — or perhaps that it actually isn’t, in which case the hard-to-impossible stretches are a reflection of your immense shortcomings as a writer — takes a psychological toll. But I think there’s another reason authors suffer so much emotional turmoil. To make what we write any good at all, we must put ourselves fully into our characters. We have to feel what they would feel, so we can distill those imagined emotions into words on the page, words we hone over and over to evoke an empathic echo in our readers. For Juliet’s Nurse, I needed to delve into dark terrain.

Authors call up inspiration from incredibly varied sources, including ones we don’t know we’ve been keeping in reserve. Years ago, I spoke on the phone with a relative with whom I hadn’t had any contact in over a decade; during the call, she told me that her partner had recently committed suicide. She described the strange wave of emotions common to survivors of suicide. I might have expected grief, even guilt, but she talked also about anger and resentment — feelings she’d been told about in support groups yet still felt surprised to find herself experiencing, given how much she loved and missed the person she’d lost. There is a long passage at the end of Juliet’s Nurse, after (spoiler alert!) Juliet has killed herself, that transposes those emotions to 14th-century Verona, where my novel and Shakespeare’s play are set. Looking back at that passage now, I realize it’s structured like a play’s soliloquy, a speech that allows the audience to discover a character’s emotions, at the very moment the character is discovering them. It was the moment I discovered them, too. The novel I find I’ve written is a sort of anti-suicide note, because my protagonist has her own relationship to suicide. As this passionate woman recounts “bit by terrible bit, every awful thing that ever happened” to her, her life is revealed to be a choice, or a series of choices, not to kill herself.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare kills every character the nurse loves. In a single speech, she refers first to her own daughter, then to her husband, who are both dead. During the course of the play, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, whom the nurse describes as “the best friend I had,” is slain. And in the final scene Shakespeare gives us, Juliet commits suicide. Imagining what it would be like to experience those losses, I couldn’t help but wonder why the nurse didn’t just give up. Why not succumb to grief and despondence, and end her own life?

On a practical level, the answer is that my novel is first-person narration. She can’t die because she’s telling the story. But to make that story emotionally true, I needed to make living despite all that loss her decision. Perhaps it’s because my own foulest moods have taught me how quickly a wave of despondence can come, how easily it overwhelms all other emotions, that I needed the nurse’s story to posit survival as less a matter of dumb luck than it is in Waugh’s memoir. His jellyfish serve as a deus ex machina, an exterior force randomly averting his death. This connotation is writ large in the recent appropriation of Waugh’s story in the film Birdman, in which Riggan Thomson, the main character, tells his ex-wife he tried — and failed — to kill himself in precisely this way decades earlier, at the height of his Hollywood career. Suicide in Waugh is literary — laced with irony, framed by dramatic and poetic allusions (to Euripides and to A.E. Housman), and told by a retrospective narrator whose anecdote self-consciously turns on the literal merging with the metaphorical as he departs the beach and “climbed the sharp hill that led to all the years ahead,” the words that end his autobiography. Birdman makes suicide into what a film does best: something visually spectacular, from the images of jellyfish that appear in the opening titles and in a later dream-like sequence to the multiple times during the film when (spoiler alert), Riggan appears to commit suicide, only to be saved. These are the most stunning and heart-stopping sequences in Birdman, yet they imply that when we are most at risk, special effects are what will somehow save us.

That is both an alluring and a dangerous message. Each year, 40,000 Americans die through suicide — but 25 times as many attempt to kill themselves. Among teens and young adults, the rate of suicide attempts is even more staggering, 100 attempts to every death. Significantly, nearly all of those who try but fail to kill themselves do not end up dying later of suicide. These data points indicate that the moment of despondence doesn’t last, that many who survive the attempt also survive the impulse that led to the attempt, discovering that they very much want to live. In the face of such statistics, it might seem like we should all hope for jellyfish — some external force to avert death and restore the desire for life. But I think we need to work, and write, ourselves to something less contrived than a deus ex machina.

On the most basic level, we tell stories to construct meaning. Even in genres like historical fiction or science fiction, we are articulating a way to understand the world and our experiences in it. So what happens when the stories surrounding us conflict with our deepest emotions? In our pleasure-driven culture, we are bombarded by promises that happiness is always attainable, that painful feelings are avoidable — through drugs or therapy or rampant consumerism (I used to pass a billboard every day on which a famous actress was shown driving a luxury convertible under the tagline “Fire your therapist!”). Yet the rate of deaths from suicide is rising. Perhaps these constant suggestions that we can and should always be happy make any episode of unhappiness feel all the more overwhelming. But those feelings don’t have to be so devastating, if we can find stories that help us understand them differently.

As I imagined myself in the nurse’s place, I concluded the novel by having her ponder why she never made the devastating, deadly choice that Juliet did. Or rather, by having her consider why Juliet’s actions seem so alien to her. Telling this story as though I were a woman living in 14th-century Italy, I confronted the fact that, for most of human history, life has been difficult and loss has been prevalent, yet people survived. I don’t mean to suggest we should idealize that past, or shun those tools and treatments to cope emotionally that we now have that they didn’t. Nor can I say that with this literary act I shielded myself from any further bouts of my own despondence. It still comes, swift and terrible, but I feel less helpless in it. By writing this character’s story, I discovered that when suffering is an expected experience, it can be less devastating, because suffering and survival don’t have to be thought of as things that are in opposition. Rather than relying on jellyfish, I found in the novel a means to remind myself, and I hope my readers, that suffering and loss are always inevitable parts of life. We can endure the stings, and make it back to shore.

Image Credit: Flickr/Sam Howzit.

The Book Report: Episode 11: Marry, Blog, Kill

Welcome to The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week we decided to play Marry, Blog, Kill, the literary party game sweeping the nation.

Discussed in this week’s episode: social media, Judy Blume, John Green, J.K. Rowling, marriage, shit getting real, Harry Potter, Gryffindor, Jon Ronson, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, murder, Jennifer Weiner, George R.R. Martin, Brookline Booksmith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Duff McKagan, Guns N’ Roses, Axl Rose’s Valentine’s Day tweet, nerd scarves.

Discussed in this episode but cut for time: Janet’s review of Birdman.

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