Saturday, July 15, 2017

Contact

Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.
--V.I. Lenin, Summary of Dialectics (1914)

Without intending to, I have come full circle in this series on movies and television shows. That happened by way of my finding by chance a DVD of the movie Contact (1997)--that was on Saturday--and watching it with the idea that it would lead me somewhere I was looking to go--that was on Sunday.

The epigraph above refers to straight lines, circles, and spirals. I have been writing about these things for the last few weeks. I have included Lenin's words here less for their subject matter than for their author--I'll have more to say about him and his beliefs in the next couple of entries--but these words are fitting for the moment. The second half of the quote from Lenin is less to the point, but here it is anyway:
Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes).
Talk about mixing your metaphors. Anyway, I have written before about the idea that, in the Christian version, God's intervention in history in sending His son to earth turned history from an endless series of cycles (or circles) into an arrow flying through time. Before Christ, empires rose and fell, kings and warriors lived and died, and things were forever the same. With the advent of Christianity, however, the cycles of unchanging history were broken so that there was now a forward and a backward: the idea of progress came into the world. That idea of progress has given us much, but it has also resulted in utopian theorizing on human nature, society, and history. Utopian theories, once put into practice, have too often resulted in mass murder. We can thank Marx, moreover his little attack dog Lenin, for a good deal of that.

So Matthew McConaughey is in a film in which his character spouts his philosophical beliefs and always carries around a notebook with a strap on it. In this film, there is a skeptic and a believer. In the end, the skeptic--an orphan bereft of love and family--undergoes an extraordinary experience, in the process becoming something of a believer. No, I'm not talking about True Detective. I'm talking about the aforementioned Contact, starring Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, a scientist and a skeptic, and Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, a halfway man of the cloth and a believer.

As in True Detective, the names mean something or might mean something. The first name (I hesitate to call it a Christian name) of the female lead is Ellie, or, if you like,

Lₑ

like a term missing from the Drake Equation. (She alludes to the Drake Equation in the movie.) Her surname, Arroway, defies Lenin's quote as well as the pre-Christian cyclic nature of history, for the way of the arrow is straight, and the arrow flies in only one direction. (Except that if you imagine an arrow flying through the universe, you will see that, just like every other thing in a relativistic universe, it doesn't follow a straight path but one curved by the effects of gravity on the space-time continuum. That's beside the point, though, no pun intended.)

The name of the male lead, or at least the semi-romantic interest, is less clearly symbolic. His first name, Palmer, can be taken negatively, as like a conman who palms a coin, a bill, or a pea in a shell game, but I like better the idea that it refers to Raymond A. Palmer, the man who invented flying saucers. The character's last name, Joss, sounds like josh, as in kid or joke, or dross, something worthless, or maybe it's a combination of those two words.

As in True Detective, there is a good deal of imagery of circles, spheres, rings, domes, bowls, and saucers. Look for the shape of the desk lamp in one scene or of the U.S. capitol in another--they look like flying saucers. Also as in True Detective, the visions experienced by the skeptic are of a spiral followed by a reunion with a departed loved one. Needless to say, these visions change her life and perhaps even her beliefs, though I wouldn't bet on the latter.

Like Rustin Cohle in True Detective, Ellie Arroway is an orphan and a materialist or atheist, possibly the latter because she is the former. And like Cohle, she sees in those who believe in something an opposition, if not an enemy. We see this in the real world, too: a sense of arrogance and superiority on the part of the atheist or materialist, a sense that these people who believe in these things are hopelessly blind, stupid, and ignorant. If only they would open their eyes, they would see that the world means nothing--that our lives mean nothing and that love is simply the firing of electro-chemical signals in our very material brains.

Anyway, characters or players act out their parts. They should do so independently of the desires of their creators, the moviemakers. The plot in a movie should act independently, as well. Too often, though, moviemakers insert themselves into their creations. (Or, like God, they intervene in their creation.) That's my complaint against Jurassic World, and that's my complaint against Contact, for Contact was written by two atheists or materialists, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. (They actually wrote the story, not the screenplay.) To their ends, the villains in the movie are their own personal villains, and those villains exist on a continuum (or vector, or maybe arrow-way?) of villainy. They are the usual suspects in movies now and have been for years. From least bad to most bad, they are:

<---The U.S. Military <---> Conservatives <---> People of Faith <---> Fundamentalist Christians <---> Nazis--->

Palmer Joss is a believer, but he's also a non-conformist (he left his studies in divinity before taking the plunge), plus he's young, tan, and has a great head of 1990s hair, so he's okay. He may not even be anywhere on the arrow-way above, although he's sometimes on Arroway (Ellie that is). I should add that James Woods (in real life a conservative), who plays a government functionary, is also a villain, but he exists on a part of the continuum not necessarily charted here.

The worst villain (other than Hitler) to appear in Contact is the leader of some kind of fundamentalist Christian religion or cult. He's played by Gary Busey's son, but he looks more like the offspring of Edgar Winter. The first thing I thought of when I saw him is that he resembles George Adamski's vision of the so-called Nordic alien. (Nordic as in Aryan or quasi-Nazi.) Significantly, he makes his first appearance at a flying saucer jamboree, like the gatherings at Giant Rock in the 1950s and '60s, which "Professor" Adamski no doubt attended from time to time.

This villain--his name is Joseph, you know, like the patriarch of the Holy Family--is a preposterous character, an incarnation not just of the hatreds and fears of the atheist, but also of something more, and this is where Contact is especially troubling, if only in artistic terms. In his final scene, Joseph kills himself and destroys the alien-designed mechanism (significantly, a series of interlocking rings through which Ellie will drop in her sphere like a plummet, tracing a straight line or arrow-way through space) by detonating a suicide vest. This is partly why I say preposterous, for the suicide vest is a weapon employed almost if not exclusively by Islamist terrorists. Murder and suicide are anathema to Christianity. I don't know of a single case of a supposed Christian using a suicide vest in the real world. But in movies, Christians are terrorists and if Muslims are shown at all, they are mere victims. I suppose to an atheist--who is likely also a moral relativist--Christianity and Islam are the same thing. They're both icky religions after all. And that conflation of two opposing belief system goes on wherever atheists meet and wherever they form sentences. (I use the term relativist here partly to evoke consideration of Einsteinian relativity. The historian Paul Johnson has much to say about the relationship between relativity and moral relativism in his book Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s [1983, 1999]. It's a good book and worth your time, even if it's a little bulky.)

Here is the more troubling part about Contact, I think: If a non-Jewish author or screenwriter--especially an overtly Christian writer--were to deal so coarsely in Jewish stereotypes, he would be labeled a racist, an anti-semite, or even a Nazi, perhaps rightly so. But are we to accept the work of authors who deal in coarse Christian stereotypes? And what if those authors are, like Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Jewish? Is one offense worse than the other? Setting any political issues aside, why should authors--true artists working in earnest rather than just hacks or rank amateurs--deal in stereotypes of any kind? Is not every person complex and three-dimensional and not a stereotype? If so, why should authors reduce any of his or her characters to mere devices for the sake of the plot? Too many authors do that, and that's what Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan did here. I expected more from them and got far less. (I admit here to being an admirer and fan of Carl Sagan.) Their fears and hatreds, made manifest in the film, practically ruin it. The weak ending, with its equivocations and its attempts to satisfy both believers and atheists--a case, I guess, of Solomon's proposed splitting of the baby--hardly helps. Despite the praise heaped on it by movie critics, Contact very nearly fails as a work of art.

One last thing. In going back to the idea that what were once stories about men are becoming or will become stories about women: In Contact, a woman took the place of Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, and other real-life and fictional men (including those in "The Listeners" by James Gunn, from 1968), but this was still 1997, so she wasn't quite there yet. She was still subordinate in many ways to men, and she lost her heart to men, first to her father, then to her occasional boyfriend. (She seems to think of her father's death, and by implication his life, as mere material phenomena: he went on living because of medicine, and he died because she couldn't reach it in time. His reappearance in her vision is because the aliens have recreated him from her memories.) In a remake of today, the woman radio astronomer would be in complete command. Even the president of the United States would probably be a woman. The men would be eunuchs or at best beta males or Pajama Boys. (And real-life men would probably stay away from the movie theater in droves.) But again, this was still 1997, a time when Bill Clinton was in the White House. (He's in the movie, though he doesn't know it.) Women in the America under his leadership were, consequently, all crazy or bimbos or doormats or walking humidors or meant to serve him or be used for his purposes in one way or another. And people so recently wanted him back in the White House. With nothing to do.

Next: Genres, continuities, discontinuities, flying saucers, aliens, contactees, abductees, Charles Fort, Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and more.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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