Saturday, February 3, 2018

Communicating with aliens in palindromes and pictographs

Usually I bring you two movies in a row I watched that had something surprising in common. This time it's a movie and a TV show, and on the surface, they do not seem like they should be related one iota.

My wife and I have been watching the second season of Fargo, and came into Friday night with only the season finale remaining. After that, I knew I was going to sit down for my second viewing of Arrival.

Spoilers for both to follow, so tread carefully.

As I always tell you in these situations, the decision to watch one had nothing to do with the decision to watch the other. I've had Arrival out from the library through one renewal cycle, and it's due back this weekend. And we've been watching Fargo since December, having taken a short break on this addictive masterpiece and then run through the second half of the season within the past week.

The second season of Fargo is, on the surface, very realistic. I mean, you could quibble with the alleged realism of its incredibly high body count, but beyond that, it takes pains to portray reality accurately. It doesn't even rely on common contrivances like coincidence or deus ex machina. Characters get what they deserve, except when they don't. It truly is among my favorite seasons of television I've seen in recent years.

However, there's one thing that is completely out there about this particular season of Fargo. Twice -- in the first episode, and in the penultimate episode -- a UFO is seen. Actually, it's more of an IFO. It comes down close to the characters, shines down those familiar beams of light, the kind it would then use to suck them up into the craft (though does not in this case). If it's not an alien spacecraft, it is a collective delusion of the characters, which is actually more problematic on a story level. In true Fargo form, it comes, is barely talked about, and has no narrative payoff. It's just an unexplained part of this show. (It might pay off in season 3, and if so, please don't tell me. We'll start that soon.)

Cut to the end of the final episode, when the characters we care about are safe at home -- even Patrick Wilson's cancer-ridden wife (Cristin Milioti), who did not get the sugar pills and potentially could be on the road to recovery. Wilson's father-in-law, a fellow law enforcement officer played by Ted Danson, has survived the gunshot wound he received in the scene where the spacecraft descended on the motel. (I'm not going to bother with character names here -- I'll just refer to everyone by the actor's names.)

In another kind of unexplained bit, Danson admits to something Milioti confronts him with -- that she went into his office and saw the project he was working on. Danson explains it is a universal language based on pictures rather than words, which would help people of different cultures communicate with each other better. As far as I recall, we have not heard anything about this previously, and though it is a good indication of the character's deep soul and good intentions, it is again a rather random inclusion in a show that has really not had anything to do with that.

Please also note that the name of this episode is "Palindrome." I don't think there is any direct and obvious way to read this episode as a palindrome, or even that the episode itself makes the season a kind of palindrome. For that to be the case, I'd figure it would indicate that the middle of the season is a type of climax and the final episode has brought us back to where we started, but that's not a reading I take from this episode or this season. Then there's Milioti's dream sequence, which borrows heavily from the end of Raising Arizona and includes characters from the first season of Fargo, which are revealed to be her husband at an older age and her daughter grown up. (I guess an observant viewer would have noted that Wilson's character has the same name as Keith Carradine's character in the first season, but I was not such an observant viewer.) Anyway, don't worry so much about the meaning of the title in this context, just stick a pin in this for now.

Cut to 30 minutes later, with me starting Arrival.

Arrival of course is also about aliens coming down to Earth (aliens who also don't quite land, if you want to take it a step further, as the crafts in Arrival hover about 30 feet off the ground). It is also about the attempt to share a universal language, and determine the meaning behind pictographs. Not only a shared language with the aliens, but a shared language among people on Earth, whose disagreements about how to approach the "invasion" are the closest we come to the movie ending in tragedy. On a thematic level, the movie is about how we humans communicate with each other -- the only practical lesson we can apply (since we are not currently engaged in a potential dialogue with aliens, at least as far as you and I know). So, that's also what Danson's Hank Larsson (there's a character name) is interested in -- one has to imagine as a result of serving in World War II and having to kill another man.

Both Arrival and this season of Fargo involve a consideration of time as well. As you start to learn about halfway through Arrival (if you're observant) or closer to the end (if you're not, like me, or if you're sleep deprived the night after Donald Trump was elected president, which was the circumstances of my first viewing), Amy Adams' character is beginning to see flash forwards to events in her life that have not yet occurred. Of course, since the narrative of this film is tricking us, we are meant to perceive them as flashbacks -- because we as audience members, like the characters in the film, are trained to perceive time as linear. We don't even consider the possibility that Adams could be seeing memories that have not yet occurred, though this is indeed the unique perspective the heptapods possess -- it's their very language.

So too does Milioti's character see things that have not yet occurred in her dream sequence. While it's certainly possible to see into your own future, or at least your own imagined future, in your dream, we as viewers get the sense that this is actually a real vision of the future, as Milioti's grown up daughter actually looks like Allison Loman, and her aged husband actually looks like Keith Carradine. You could say that's just a cheeky trick designed to make us slap our foreheads and get that something we didn't think was connected was actually connected, which, as I said, others would realize if they knew that Carradine and Wilson had the same character names. I, however, subscribe to the idea that the show is actually considering some kind of non-linear view of time, similar to the aliens in Arrival. Even though their ships look vastly different, could these be the same aliens?

If you want to take this part a step further in my recent viewings, I weirdly also saw a terrific Australian movie on Thursday night called Sweet Country, in which the audience gets to see little snippets of characters' futures briefly interspersed into the present tense action. Is it me, as a person, who is learning the alien language and starting to view the future and the past as all the same type of perceptions of memory?

Oh, one last thing. Remember when I told you to stick a pin in the title for the final episode of the season of Fargo, "Palindrome"? Well, palindromes are important in Arrival too. One of Adams' core realizations about the alien pictographs, which helps her identify something about their cyclical perception of time, is that the thoughts expressed do not have a beginning or an end. The pictographs are circular, which means, essentially, all words in the "sentence" expressed simultaneously. And while a palindrome is not technically circular, it does have a beginning that looks the same as its end. Inspired by this, Adams even names her daughter Hannah and has a scene where she explains to the girl that her name is a palindrome.

Again, this is just one man's viewing and so obviously it does not "mean" anything. Nor do I think one piece of popular art influenced the other -- season 2 of Fargo did debut a year before the release of Arrival, October 2015 to November 2016, though the final episode of the season didn't drop until ten days before Christmas.

I just think it's interesting to consider. So, I hope you have enjoyed considering it.

So you already know I loved season 2 of Fargo, but you may not remember my thoughts on Arrival. In part, I'm sure, because of that post-Trump haze, my mind was a bit mushy and I didn't know if the movie had truly earned its time-related conundrums. Ultimately, there was just something slightly unconvincing about it for me, and though I definitely liked it, it was not nearly in the same league as Denis Villeneuve's two previous films, which had both made my top ten of their respective years.

I do like it better after the second viewing, and in one area where I had some of my greatest doubts the first time around, I now feel convinced. One of the biggest cheats I perceived the first time is that the movie shows us the death of Adams' daughter before it shows us any of her present-day life, which we are initially meant to assume occurs after her daughter's death. That's not the cheat itself. The cheat was, I thought, that she is moping her way through life when we see her show up for the sparsely attended class at her university on the day the aliens arrive. If her daughter was not yet dead, that moping is intentionally misleading, manipulative, and unearned.

Well, this movie Kuleshov effected me. If you don't know what the Kuleshov Effect is, it's that cinematic experiment done a century or so ago where it was determined that viewers perceived different emotions in an emotionless face depending on what image was shown immediately before seeing the emotionless face. If it was a picture of a killer, the emotionless face looked scared. If it was a picture of a hamburger, the emotionless face looked hungry. And so on.

So, in a clever use of the devices of cinema, Villeneuve presented me with a sequence showing the death of Adams' daughter, and then Adams having an essentially emotionless face. This time through, I properly recognized that emotionless face as "Tuesday morning" rather than "I'm sad because my daughter is dead." In fact, if anything, she might even be a bit chirpy as she tries to introduce the day's discussion topics in a lecture that will never occur.

Damn that Kuleshov Effect, and kudos to Villeneuve for getting me with it.

I still seem destined not to watch this movie with the proper amount of sleep/attentiveness, however. Not only did I start it around 9:30, but halfway through I went down an internet rabbit hole that prompted me to stop the movie for a good 40 minutes. It shouldn't have been a surprise that I was fighting sleep for the whole second half, and actually gave in a couple times for ten-minute naps.

Maybe this is just destined to be my non-linear perception of this non-linear movie, and maybe that's as it should be.

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