Chemical Decadence: Pfisters Mühle on Stage in Stuttgart

In a 2012 interview on NPR religion scholar Elaine Pagels suggested that the enduring appeal of the Book of Revelation is that it provides a language that has been useful to movements of all sorts of political stripes since the early Christian era. “[P]eople who longed for justice have always felt that the book speaks to us now and we are now on the cusp of that great change,” she observes to Terry Gross. In appropriating the rhetoric of apocalypse, more recent environmentalist camps are in that sense only the most recent iteration of a longer tradition. In tactical terms, apocalyptic rhetoric can be a double-edged sword, as when those parties with a vested interest in the ecosocial status quo attempt to portray their adversaries as so many Chicken Littles. But as I sat in the Stuttgart State Theater recently watching their stage adaptation of Pfisters Mühle, I was reminded of the particular pleasure that can be taken when the material of Revelation is effectively deployed.

The stage version follows the plot and conventions of Raabe’s novel: Ebert Pfister and his bride Emmy are on a honeymoon at the Pfister family mill in the weeks before its destruction to make way for a new factory. Ebert sets about writing his “Sommerferienheft,” recounting how the factory Krickerode opened up upstream, how the hydrogen sulfide killed off the fish in the stream and released a stench that drove everyone away and ruined the mill. The play develops the humor of its source material: in a novel concerned also with the status of the image in the era of its mechanical reproducibility, the characters gather before a nineteenth century camera mounted upon a selfie stick. On the other hand, the humor is layered on top of the play also explores the commonplace that the memory as narrated in the text itself is somehow dangerous. When we arrive at the description of the degraded stream for instance, the dead fish rise up from the stage to haunt the characters in the present.

Everyone is a partisan in the world, as a line from the story reminds us, and Pfister’s Mill is in many ways an exploration of how nature ultimately loses out to the various ideological commitments of everyone in the years after German unification. Adam Asche, the natural scientist who helps the Betram Pfister in his court case against Krickerode in spite of his stated wish to pollute every river, stream, and bubbling spring in Germany, is in this sense different from the other characters only in his openness about his own partisan loyalties.

The play imagines modernity as an era of chemical decadence – decadence being, of course, a close relative of apocalypse. At one point Adam Asche falls into a vat of his own toxic brew. It overtakes his body and he breaks out dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which is, I might add, a well chosen anthem for this particular story. Lippoldes, meanwhile, the novel’s living anachronism, dances down the throat of the enormous industrial drainage pipe that is the play’s main set piece.

Out of principle I find comparing adaptations to their source material to be like comparing apples and oranges, but all the same the stage adaptation gives the “where do all the pictures go?” speech to Ebert. The speech is core to the novel’s thinking about art and aesthetics in an era when nature is yoked into the process of industrial production. But the melancholy discomfort that comes with going to an art exhibition in modernity is not Ebert’s, it’s Emmy’s. Ebert dismisses it, and then later appropriates it, but what strikes me about Emmy is that she makes some very incisive observations about how urban and industrial modernity affects our perception of the world. Interestingly, it is a circumstance that has often been either missed in the reception history or has received very little comment.

Finally, the production makes a bizarre choice that I’ve never encountered before in theater. After over two hours we had something like a forty minute intermission to allow for a set change for a kind of tableau vivant. When the intermission began without a curtain, I was actually very confused. Was the play over? In the end it seemed a very ham-fisted solution to the medium’s technical limitation.

On Writing a Dissertation: The Joys of Writing by Hand

I wrote the entire first draft of my dissertation by hand. Here is a picture of the entire thing, every piece that eventually went into the finished product.

Complete Rough Draft of the Dissertation, Norwich, NY, May 2015

There is an obvious dig to be made here: I wrote a dissertation on ecology and literature, and here I was actually increasing my paper consumption. But in the end, writing by hand was more conducive to completing the project.

I decided to do my first drafts by hand when I was working on the papers for my oral exam to advance to PhD candidacy. My academic papers I had always written on a screen, but the things I had written for the drawer I did first by hand. I decided to try writing by hand to see if I could get more joy from the creative process that goes into essay writing and I found it satisfying enough that I continued the practice of handwriting for the dissertation.

There is, admittedly, a certain amount of vulgar romanticism at play here: pushing my pen across the paper and producing something that I could then hold in my hand brought a certain satisfaction over having done something creative, whereas the screen felt more alienating. There was a certain Wollust to writing by hand.

But writing by hand also had many practical benefits for the writing process. Being only able to cross out things allowed me to focus like never before on simply getting the ideas on the page. That also meant that I felt more liberty to try out certain ideas and lines of argumentation, even if much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. By the second half of the drafting process, I began noting the date of each section that I had written, which helped me track my own progress. And typing the document later meant that an extra round of editing was already built in to the process. Then there are the apparent cognitive benefits of writing by hand.

In the summer of 2013 I visited Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane’s archives in Braunschweig and the Berlin/Potsdam area respectively (photos and musings here!). Part of the value of the archive work was being able to see their handwritten manuscripts. Raabe’s were fairly clean, even the extent manuscript of Die Akten des Vogelsangs, which he labored on and corrected extensively, does not look like it went through that much revision and change. Fontane’s manuscripts could not be more different: he wrote all over the page in different kinds of ink, he wrote bits of his stories on the backs of letters, envelopes, or other scrap paper, and if he liked something and felt it belonged in a certain place, he would rip it out and glue it into the new section. The manuscripts are a perfect window into the origins of the novel, or they would be, if Fontane’s family hadn’t scattered so much of the archive to the wind.


On Writing a Dissertation: All Beginnings are Hard

In The Man without Qualities Robert Musil compares solving an intellectual problem to a dog with stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door: he turns and turns, and eventually the dog finds the right angle and manages to get the stick through. Trying to start a dissertation can feel very much like this, especially since for most people it is their first major academic undertaking.

The comparison may be cynical, but I found it relaxing, especially when I began the dissertation. In the weeks after I advanced to candidacy, I faced a period of uncertainty over how to approach the texts I wanted to write about. I was unsure of whether the topic I ended up writing about, realism and ecology, would be sustainable (so to speak). I tried getting around my doubts by first making the topic impossibly abstract, then coming up with a different topic altogether. I lost interest in that alternate topic halfway through writing the prospectus, had I tried to turn it into a dissertation the project surely would have fallen apart.

Reading more widely in ecocriticism gave me the confidence that I could talk about what I was planning to talk about, but getting started was as simple as putting my conceptual doubt aside for the moment and pushing the pen across the page. I started with the novel I had thought the most about up until that point, and began writing about the environment in that text. I had written almost half the dissertation before I began to have a sense of both the arguments and the stakes of the project, and much of what I wrote up until then looked something like the dog with the stick, turning this way and that in search of an angle. And that is how it should be. While it can be hard trying to pin a project down as one is generating the material, it was also gratifying to see a form finally emerge, and one that was, in fact, distinct from the hundred years of criticism that had accrued around my authors.

Note: This is the second in a series of reflections on my recently completed dissertation. The first is here.

On Writing a Dissertation

Recently I defended my dissertation. The defense was a milestone in a long process that was ultimately very satisfying. Years of thinking and writing went into it, and I see in it the many happy moments of discovery and insight that happened along the way. There was also plenty of drudgery: the hours at the copier, the mental energy spent over single sentences or phrases, the never-ending quest for just the right iron clad word that would perfectly capture the Ding an sich. And on a personal note, like any book length project the dissertation accompanied me in one form or another through all of the life that happened from the first day of graduate school until now with my first academic position.

As a genre of writing a dissertation is a very unusual beast. It’s as long as a book, and like a book, it tells a story about its material, one that could also be told a different way. But a dissertation (at least in the American academy) is not a book, and it’s other things besides a study of a given object. It’s a document that proves that one can generate original research. It’s a way of carving out a scholarly space for oneself and building a professional identity: in creating it one stakes a claim in a discipline and in a conversation within that discipline. The odd thing about the dissertation, in other words, is that while it’s a piece of original scholarship, it very much serves a bureaucratic, gate-keeping purpose. And while it caps off anywhere from five to ten years in graduate school, it is also a point of departure for future work.

At least, that’s the theory. The contemporary politics of higher education mean that the career path for which the dissertation prepares one will be closed to most of those who manage to actually write a dissertation. But these realities are already well documented, and so I recuse myself for the purposes of this post. Except to say this: the ultimate value of the dissertation was that I answered a question for myself, and I was fortunate to be able to do it in a framework that allowed me to take maximum joy in the process.

Note: This will be the first in a series of posts on the writing of my dissertation.


Worm Composting in Theory and Practice

One of my worms in what used to be vegetables, used teabags, eggshells...

This used to be vegetables, used teabags, eggshells…

Last year we decided to take up a hobby we had been thinking about trying since way back in my first year of grad school: vermicomposting. Back when we moved to Ithaca for my start at Cornell, we spent our first few days in Ithaca staying at the house of a graduate student in plant biology who had two trashcan sized vermicompost systems in her basement. Ithaca’s garbage pick-up incentivizes waste reduction through a system of trash tags, and so when our host pulled back the lid to show us the rather squirmy mass that consumed her kitchen scraps, we were certainly intrigued. Her advice was to take one of the classes in worm composting offered through Cornell Extension, because while worm composting is fairly simple, it can be done wrong. And besides, I would get everything I needed in the class: a bin, bedding, and a starter herd of worms.

The idea sat on the back burner for a while, and as it did plenty of compostable kitchen scraps went off to the landfill (probably about 1,700 pounds in those years…a side effect of this project is that I know how many pounds of kitchen scraps I produce in a week). This is bad because space in landfills is finite, but also because when organic materials decompose in landfills, they release greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Feeding my garbage to worms instead quickly transforms kitchen scraps into nutrient rich worm castings. It also eliminates the problem of wasted food.

Recently I harvested our first round of compost. We don’t have a garden, and only

Cat grass growing in compost.

Cat grass growing in compost.

a few houseplants, so we use it instead as potting soil for cat grass. A red worm composting system is an ecosystem in its own right, and as I’ve seen it evolve I’ve thought a bit a lot about the unexpected pleasures of having a box of worms cut down on trash.

Ingeborg and Babette enjoying some cat grass last Christmas.

Ingeborg and Babette enjoying some cat grass last Christmas.

The Theory

When I put my own guests in the position that my host put me in back in my first days in Ithaca, the responses are mixed. Apparently peering into a box full of worms eating trash is not everybody’s cup of tea. But the fascination for me has been in maintaining an externalized metabolic system: maybe I won’t eat that mushy apple, but they will. And it is not just them. A worm bin is an ecosystem in which other small organisms develop. Flies were a minor nuisance in the summer, although they were gone by winter. It also interesting to see the afterlife of some of my vegetables. The bell pepper seeds in particular tend to sprout; after a week the seedlings are all that is left of what didn’t go into that night’s stir fry.

Processing part of my waste in my house is the other pleasure of worm composting. In the past I would buy something appealing at the grocery store, and then whatever I didn’t consume would go into the trash, turn into a foul smelling slop, and then be out of sight and out of mind when the trash truck came. Owning at least part of my garbage is far more satisfying than banishing it to some liminal place that I never visit. And there is a fascination to the thought that I can grow something for my cats in what used to be teabags and vegetable peelings. Yes, the final link in the metabolic chain is that the worms eat what I don’t as to produce compost that I then use to produce grass to aid the cats in their own digestion.

The worm box is also a pleasant reminder of just how noisy nature is. If one stops to listen, one can easily hear their rustle.

The Practice

Worm composting can go wrong. The best species for worm composting, red wigglers or eisenia fetida, are very tolerant but will try to escape en masse from a bin where conditions have turned toxic (plenty of horror there for anyone who cares to look it up on Google). In the end we did not take a class, but there are plenty of resources on the internet that are helpful. Bentley Christie maintains this helpful website, while there are plenty of online forums and instructional videos on YouTube. While there are many good resources, there are plenty that might be wrong or cause unnecessary worry. I spent a lot of time trawling websites early on whenever I encountered a perceived problem. The rest of this post will sum up a few of the hurdles encountered along the way.

  • Bin Setup: The first decision is whether to buy a readymade system or to make your own. A readymade system costs around $100. I set up my own system with roughneck bins, which cost under $10 a piece, depending on size. I built a three tier system, with the lowest tier collecting the liquid, but there are variations. Again, plenty of instructional materials on the internet. I built something based on  this and this.
  • Buying worms. I ordered from a supplier online, but there are smaller organizations in many areas that sell. If ordering, it is best to order from someone geographically proximate. The less time the worms spend in the mail, the better.
  • The first weeks.  I ordered from a large farm, and that caused a few problems. The worms were used to a large bin, and so they wanted to explore. Red worms are photophobes, and so I kept them under constant light for the first two days in order to discourage them from exploring up and out of the bin. This trick worked.Ventilation was another problem I had in the beginning. At first I kept a lid on my bin. This trapped a lot of moisture, and that, in turn, encouraged the worms to crawl up and out. Since it was summer, too much heat and moisture might have been getting trapped inside as well. I started finding worms that were dying a most gruesome death. This is often a result of overfeeding and acidification, and I worried that I was overfeeding. But the bin was not smelling bad. It seems that this problem is common in the beginning. Worms at worm farms eat horse manure, and switching to kitchen scraps does not sit well with some of the population. I don’t know if this was the issue. I took other steps to improve the environment in the bin. For one thing, I switched to an open system. Instead of a lid, I put a thicker layer of bedding on top (a mix of shredded newspaper and cardboard) and left the lid off so that the system could breathe. In any event, the dying stopped by the third week.Pests have not been a problem. When my bin was too wet I would see a lot of mites. Mites are not bad, but their presence did tell me I needed to keep the lid off, and I stopped noticing them once I did. Fly larvae was also a problem at first, but they went away too.

    All in all, it takes the system a few weeks to sort itself out, and one has to be patient.

  • Adding garbage. In my house we produce about five pounds of compostables a week (yes, I’ve weighed it). Worms will eat most anything, but not everything that could go into other types of systems should go into the worm bin. Meat and animal waste are self-explanatory, but citrus can make the bins too acidic. Coffee grounds, I am told, also can be acidic, but those can go straight into the garden. Starch is something one should avoid, so stale bread and potato skins are still heading off to the landfill.
  • Going away. I left the bin alone for a month relatively early on. This is a long time, and I had nobody to look after it. When I got home I found that the worms were fine, and that a good layer of compost had developed. My impression was that there were fewer, and indeed their population may have gone down with the lack of feeding, but if so then they quickly bounced back.
  • Storage. In the summer I kept the bin in the basement, but when the temperatures began dropping in fall I moved them to a dark part of my apartment, where they now stay. Excessive heat and cold are obviously bad, and when I was convinced that the bin would neither stink nor attract a lot of pests, I decided it could live inside

The bottom line is that the biggest challenge starting out is to resist the worry. None of the mistakes I made early on were catastrophic, and some minor changes, such as increasing the amount of bedding and leaving the lid off helped the system to stabilize. As I said, it consumes about five pounds of compostables a week, and it could take more!

Picturing (Eco)misanthropy in Ilija Trojanow’s “Eistau” (“The Lamentations of Zeno”)

A comeistau-9783423142885mon charge used against ecological politics is that it hates humanity and reflexively rejects the benefits of progress. Consider, for instance, this New Yorker cartoon of 2006, where two cavemen muse on the fact that they have clean air and organic food, yet don’t survive past thirty (never mind that infant mortality accounts for the “low” life expectancy before 1900, and that in the Paleolithic if you could make it to 15 you had a decent chance of making it to 54). This kind of charge is little more than a cudgel that reduces all of environmental politics to a deep ecology caricature. At the same time the charge does not come from nowhere, and what’s more, it’s not at all clear that (eco)misanthropy is necessarily a bad thing, especially as a corrective to the kind of blunt anthropocentrism that gave us Interstellar.

Ilija Trojanow’s novel EisTau (The Lamentations of Zeno, the paperback edition of which appeared this year) is an exploration of a character given to a kind of ecomisanthropy. Zeno Hintermeier is a glaciologist through whose eyes we see that such a seemingly taboo attitude at least comes from an understandable place. Reflecting on how whale oil was a source for glycerine, Zeno thinks:

Was für eine bewundernswerte Innovation, aus Walen Sprengstoff herzustellen, was für ein leuchtendes Sinnbild des Fortschritts: Wesentliches zerstören, um Überflüssiges zu produzieren.

What a marvelous innovation to make explosives from whales, what an illuminating symbol of progress: destroying the essential for the production of excess. (131)

Zeno is based in Munich for most of his career, and his work is devoted to a distressed Alpine glacier. When he visits his beloved glacier to find nothing more than a few scattered, muddy blocks of ice, his personal and professional lives sink into crisis. He joins a company that takes ecotourists on Antarctic cruises, where he gives talks about the local ecology. The text of the novel shifts between his journal entries and montage of mass media language from after the novel’s end, in which we slowly discover that Zeno has hijacked the ship, marooned all the people on board, and eventually committed suicide. The protagonist has an interesting name: Zeno of Elea, after all, is known for his paradoxes of motion, such as that when traveling we never reach our destinations as we are only ever halfway. Global warming is a kind of catastrophic personal and environmental break-out from this non-movement in movement: Glaciers hit definite points of no return as they melt, a circumstance correspondingly mirrored in the activation of Zeno Hintermeier’s Todestrieb towards the end of the novel.

Zeno is something of a latter day Cassandra, who is now not simply ignored, but dismissed as an irrational wet blanket:

Er war eine Spaßbremse, er war ein Spinner, aber wenigstens ein Spinner mit Überzeugung, Sie werden ihn nicht verstehen.

He was a party pooper, he was a nut, but at least a nut with conviction, you will never understand him. (140)

As a teacher Zeno is in the bind of wanting others to appreciate the subject he specializes in, and frustrated that his students necessarily don’t share his appreciation or devotion. During an expedition to the glacier he has devoted his life to, he remarks of his students:

Sie waren nicht einmal peinlich berührt ob ihrer Ignoranz, als stünde ihnen das Grundrecht zu, Vernichtetes zu vergessen.

They did not even have a touch of embarrassment over their ignorance, as if they had a fundamental right to forget what had been destroyed. (56)

The situation is presumably worse on the ship. Zeno shares an enclosed space with a group of passengers present for the aesthetic consumption of nature. We learn, for instance, that the cruise ships space themselves out so that all on board have at least the illusion of being the only humans in a space radically other from civilization, even as human economic activity is transforming the terrain before their very eyes. In this context Zeno is little more than a form of infotainment, the knowledge he shares ultimately does not result in any change in his audience’s attitudes towards nature or everyday practice. At one point a passenger sees a skua steel an egg from a penguin’s nest. The passenger saves the egg, for which she is rewarded with a bite in the hand, causing her to fall down and crush another penguin and the eggs in her nest.

One of the questions I pursue in my research is how an environmental thematic squares with a certain historical notion of the autonomy of the work of art. The reception of the novel was initially cold partly because it was seen as didactically coerced. My own feelings about the novel were mixed. Zeno’s ecomisanthropy is actually quite interesting, but the character’s own voice makes for some exasperating moments. The descriptions of sex struck me as particularly hackneyed. That would just be a complaint about artistic merit, except that the female characters end up appearing as distant and flat. Zeno’s ex-wife is a shrew, and even the more sympathetic Paulina, with whom Zeno has an affair in the novel, appears as a more distanced sexual object viewed through the lens of national stereotypes. This doesn’t combine well with the portrait of the ecomisanthrope that the novel sketches. And that’s unfortunate, because instead of a nuanced portrait of an attitude that is often quickly dismissed, we encounter in this novel yet another example of an ugly and ultimately self-defeating masculine brand of conservationism.


On edit: 27. April 2016: Eistau is now available in English under the title The Lamentations of Zeno.

The Salton Sea: The Pleasures of Ecocatastrophe

I was recently alerted to the existence of the 2006 documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, now available on YouTube. The film is a curious short history of the Salton Sea, essentially a century old environmental accident. The area was supposed to become a major resort in the middle of the twentieth century, but the film tells how flooding and the vicissitudes of speculative capital ended up killing those schemes, so that today the Salton Sea is a landscape of spectacular devastation.

John Waters narrates the film, and given the landscape of the sea and the people whom we meet, it’s not hard to imagine what drew him to the film. The documentary is done in a screwball style, but its humor does not trivialize the environmental dilemma that the sea poses nor the economic bind that the characters living there find themselves in. What it points to instead is a way to love a blighted place. The lake is fascinating, both in the film and in real life, as the site of the detritus of the sort of grandiose visions of American capital that at least appear to be more intact on the coast.

On a personal note, I’ve always had something of a fascination for the Salton Sea. I grew up in San Diego, and I had found out that the lake existed in a unit on the geography of the region when I was in third grade. As it happened, the family of a friend of mine had a cabin in Salton Sea Beach, one of the resort towns built on the shore during the boom years. Having read about the lake in school, I was excited to pay it a visit. I had not expected the sight that actually greeted me. To get to the shore, we walked first through a line of trees, whereupon we crossed a field filled with trash, including a half buried, rusting automobile. The ground was white, and with each step my foot sank in inch or so directly into the earth. We had to climb across some dunes to the beach itself. I heard a crunching beneath my feet, and was startled to see a band of dead fish stretching as far up and down the shoreline as the eye could see. The actual condition of the lake was startling, but I had a fantastic weekend, and I hope to have the chance to go back some day.

Anyway, the film is worth watching. It will be an hour well spent.


Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

There is a common assumption underwriting much 51vMHuzcL2Lof so-called “first wave” ecocriticism that our contemporary ecological dilemmas are a matter of some sort of wrong thinking that grounds our destructive behavior. Certain modes of writing, the thinking goes, reorient us back towards nature, and so the major intervention of ecocriticism when it first hit the scene was precisely in giving serious critical consideration to the political aspect of literary encounters with nature such as Thoreau’s at Walden Pond or Abbey’s in what is now Arches National Park. When I first picked up my copy of Philippe Squarzoni’s graphic novel Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, I assumed from the cover that I was in familiar territory. I expected to follow the narrator through the basics of global warming science, and to see a triumphant conversion at the end. The persistence of conversion narratives in environmentally themed writing is fascinating, but Squarzoni is after something different. His book seizes on the ambiguous moment prior to the sea-change of conversion.

As always, translation is interpretation, and the original French title Saison brune is much more ambiguous. The “brown season,” we find out, is a liminal moment in Glacier National Park where the ice is gone but the green of spring has yet to make an appearance. The novel is an exploration of that liminal moment as a general condition when the shape of the future is not yet determined: on the global scale, the fact that we could still take charge of our destinies and avoid the worst impacts of global warming, while on a personal scale, it reflects Squarzoni’s (by which we mean the narrator who wears Squarzoni’s face) feelings about being middle aged. He reflects on the political and economic problems that are warming the planet, and confronts their intractability. To board an international flight or not? To drive a Hummer or to drive a smaller vehicle? Squarzoni spends much of the book reflecting on these issues at a personal and at a global scale while wandering through the world, both the real world “out there” and the utopian images of advertising.

The visual economy of the book is remarkable. It draws widely from literature, art history, and film to consider what it means to unpack the “brown season” as a global and as a personal condition. At one point the narrator recounts the story of a skydiver who jumped without his parachute, a single mistake that could never be undone. We see the plane flying away, just after the moment that the individual’s future had been determined (as it happens the skydiver in question was one Ivan McGuire, who died in 1988). The departing plane also ends the memory of childhood summers in the south of France, and makes an appearance when Squarzoni decides not to fly to a conference because of the carbon planes put into the atmosphere. As he knew, the plane still takes off without him. The falling is also significant: in one panel Squarzoni and his partner fall from a bridge and land in the streets of Manhattan, doing battle with a personified consumer culture. The shooting of Santa Claus was an especially satisfying turn in this fantasy. Such drastic imagery is poised against pages of “talking heads,” that is, experts Squarzoni interviews. I personally liked these parts of the book, they seem at first repetitive, but I found the portraits to be very expressive, bringing a strong affective component to the science portions of this personal journey.

Because this is a graphic novel, to write about it without sharing actual images from the book seems somewhat unjust, but I don’t want to overstep the bounds of fair use. However, pieces can be viewed at this interview with Squarzoni.

The Dubious Politics of “Interstellar”

Techno-optimismInterstellar_film_poster is not a necessary ingredient to science fiction, but one can appreciate more of the genre by looking past the rosy view of human innovation. It’s a stance that holds together Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, which may be no worse than Star Trek in envisioning space as an arena for cowboy-like adventurism. But its political content papers over the murkiness that the Star Trek franchise has had five decades to confront, however indirectly.

The film sprawls over two hours and forty-nine minutes, giving it plenty of time to hit lots of bad notes before finally arriving at its core thought: parent-child relations through the lens of the theory of relativity. The first third of the film is centered around a farmhouse somewhere in the corn belt. The earth has experienced some sort of ecocatastrophe, where dust storms terrorize the community and crop blight destroys one source of food after another. The character of the catastrophe is unclear, but it has forced Cooper, a former NASA engineer and pilot, to take up life as a farmer. Cooper harbors open contempt for the occupation, complaining at one point that whereas humans used to reach for the stars, the species is now oriented towards the earth. The film endorses Cooper’s contempt; his son, who embraces farming more willingly, becomes an antagonist of sorts later in the film, and the others in this agrarian society harbor what the film presents as a reflexive and irrational suspicion towards science and technology. It is as if the only possible ways of thinking about modernity were an all-or-nothing embrace or rejection of an absolute notion of progress (that assumption is also what allows people to toss around “Luddite” as a pejorative, which it most certainly is not).

It’s not hard to imagine a disaster scenario that might produce a very justifiable suspicion towards science. Withholding the backstory makes space for us to share the film’s scorn for characters such as the teacher who insists the moon landing was a fake, or the brother who will not leave his farm to take his asthmatic son to fresher air (even though there is no such a place on the planet). The lack of context also strengthens the film’s trafficking in right-wing imagery. An enormous dust cloud descending on a mostly white community of corn growers somewhere in the “heartland?” No symbolic associations there, surely!

What makes the film a right-wing play, though, is the basic plot of projecting a kind of white masculine Americana vision into outer space. The North American continent is an inhabitable wasteland, but the stars and stripes flutter on space stations and planets in other galaxies. Cooper’s frustration at the beginning is that historical circumstances prevent him from a kind of self-realization in a space cowboy career. The film ends with a happy restoration, where we glimpse an idealized vision of small town America recreated in the interior of a space station. Special narrative concern is given to Cooper’s status as a parent, and while the father/daughter plot has its moments, it is mostly there to give Cooper a reason for confronting the adversities the plot presents him with. Supposedly he is interested in saving his family and (and other families, too!), but this ethical motivation ultimately really bends back on himself. The children are extensions of Cooper’s self, the fact that his daughter has children, and has established herself as a savior of humanity in her own right, does not change this, not in the least because her scientific career his contingent on her father’s space adventures. And in one scene on the ice planet between Cooper and Mann, Mann gives voice to what really motivates Cooper: self-preservation for him is really about their surivival. But if that is so, isn’t that equivalent to saying that their survival is important because they are an image of him?

It’s the narrow ethical field that makes Interstellar particularly problematic. The characters’ ethics of care do not extend to anyone beyond the immediate tribe, and we have to listen to extensive dialogue positing this stance as “natural.” It certainly does not extend to the earth, as the characters’ sole objective is getting off the planet and leaving it to its wretched fate. We may have been born on earth, we are told, but that doesn’t mean we have to die here. And if that weren’t enough to complete the film’s death-denying fantasy, we have a selected quotation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” offered as a leitmotif. It’s a far cry from, say, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its retelling in Blade Runner, both of which are profound as explorations of broken people living on a broken world.

Interstellar, on the other hand, is a very safe film, delivering an ideology that comports with a view of the world from Silicon Valley while making sure that we get a good cry in at the end. The director Christopher Nolan is famous for giving us such ostensibly mind-bending films as Inception. But like Inception, the film relies on its curious but empty visuals to reach that effect. That’s why it falls short of Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has no choice but to borrow from. Kubrick knows to pull the rug out from under our feet, as with the final minutes of 2001, or the last shot of The Shining. In Nolan’s films we see worlds folding into themselves hoping, perhaps, that we don’t notice that the film is reinforcing our conventional assumptions about narrative, cinema, and the world more generally.

On Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

Watching Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin brought to mind the infinitely cheesier 1995 film Species. Both share a similar premise: an alien is loose in the world in the guise of a human seductress, and male specimens of our own species had best watch out. Species is a fairly conventional entry in the horror film genre, Under the Skin aims for a more muted Grauen.

Laura, the alien in human form, drives a van (no horror there) through numerous environs evocative of different aspects of Scotland: elegant commercial districts, gritty urban streets, the preserved ruins of a medieval castle, and of course the Highlands.The film is beautifully shot, and savors the effect of each of the places it visits. There is a subtle exploration of spectatorship and the way that nature is experienced here. In one scene Laura is standing on a stormy beach at the foot of some cliffs attempting to lure in another victim. Nearby a woman has gone swimming into the surf to rescue her dog, only to be followed by her husband; all of them are ultimately doomed, and their baby is left abandoned on the shore. Together with Laura, we regard the destruction of the family from a distance, so that the catastrophe taking place at the level of the individuals seems very far away as they are destroyed at the foot of the cliffs.

Later in the film, after Laura has begun to experience something of moral agony over her actions, she is wandering in a forest trying to come to terms with her own increasing humanness. She runs into a logger there who asks if she’s out for a ramble, and stutters on about the forest as a space of solitary contemplation. There’s something more going on here other than the ominousness of a woman alone running into a strange man in a forest, although the man will later attack her. The film touches here on the commonplace of landscapes as being devoid of humans. That is, the interruption of the forest solitude (yes, Tieck’s Waldeinsamkeit), the experience the man blubbers about, is precisely what makes the scene alarming.

The film is all about gender and performance, and in that sense it is a very self-conscious film. Sady Doyle points out in her essay “Under the Skin’s Weird Feminism” that in the scenes where Laura finally does her victims in (if they are “done in” in any conventional sense), the film reverses the convention of directing the gaze away from the male body and making the female the object of visual consumption. That is to say, we see some erect male appendages. I might add that this film deserves lots of credit for casting someone who actually has neurofibromatosis in the role of the character with the condition, as opposed to slapping prosthetics on an actor and having him represent somebody else’s experience of social marginalization. In the end, we get to see Laura stripping off her own skin, and contemplating the face that she has been wearing.

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The climax of Species offers us a showdown between final girl and monster. In Under the Skin Laura transitions from being the monster to someone hunted in the forest by a rapist. Without saying too much (my love of spoilers notwithstanding), the more one considers the roles of each character in the resolution, the more deeply unsettling the film becomes.