Heliophage


20 films (and Interstellar)
January 5, 2015, 11:11 pm
Filed under: film

As ever, I am struck by how many new UK releases I wanted to see this year and which I believe were utterly fab I just didn’t get to (eg Leviathan, Winter Sleep, 20 feet from Stardom, Life Itself, The Overnighters, many more). But I saw 50 films in all, and I was rather pleased to find, looking at the list, that 20 of them had struck me as outstanding in one way or another. To wit:

12 Years a Slave — Tim’s Vermeer — Inside Llewyn Davis — Her — Nebraska — Grand Budapest Hotel — Under the Skin — Calvary — Locke — Edge of Tomorrow — Boyhood — Pride — Maps of the Stars — Ida — ‘71 — Citizen Four — The Babadook — Mr Turner — Nightcrawler — Birdman

You should probably assume that most of the UK releases you think were really good that aren’t on the list are things that I missed. The notable exception to that, I think, is Interstellar. I put this down largely to the fact that I saw it only once, on a really good Imax screen. I was blown away by some of it but also very aware of its story and structure weaknesses, and those, along with some other duff notes, stayed with me more than the being blown away did. People I respect have told me that seeing it again in 35mm lifts one’s appreciation, and I really meant to, but didn’t get round to it, and as a result when I saw it on the list I couldn’t really say it was a standout. I hope sometime soon to see it again and reach a measured conclusion that puts me closer in line with Tom Shone, though I would be surprised if I ended up liking it or admiring it as much as I did Inception.

I will however say something about the science. A huge amount has been written about the astrophysics, and the creation of new software to do relativistic ray tracing, and all that. I’m glad they made the effort even though aspects of the space travel stuff remain profoundly unconvincing. But the Earth-system science is atrocious to the point of demonstrating (and meriting) contempt. Some bollocks about a rust that breathes nitrogen? A notion that the Earth can run out of oxygen in just a few decades? It’s utterly ludicrous. If all photosynthesis stopped tomorrow the oxygen in the atmosphere would last for thousands of years.

This leads to three thoughts. One: a lot of people, both film makers and film discussers, think getting physics right, or at least seeming to or trying to, is in some way more important than getting the science of the earthsystem right. This shows, to my mind, strange priorities. The carbon cycle is a lot more easy to understand than general relativity and a lot more germane to terrestrial existence (yes, I know, GPS, OK). Why not take the small amount of trouble to get it right — or at least to fudge it with a modicum of respect?

Part of the answer is simply a sort of intellectual snobism: physics is proper hard science like what Einstein did, and Earth-system science is not. But another part (which is my second thought on the subject) is that people don’t take the trouble to get it right because they don’t feel they have to. The audience has no need to be told a convincing story about mechanisms because it has no trouble buying “the Earth is fucked” as an idea. Frederic Jameson has said that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (interesting background on how he came to have said it here) and part of what that says to me is not so much that imagining the end of capitalism is hard but that it has become amazingly easy to imagine the end of the world, thanks to the practice we have been offered by the past half century of apocalyptic fiction, not to mention the threat of nuclear annihilation. We have come to a point where people just accept the apocalypse as an initiating device with no need for any argument whatsoever (though some nice CGI helps).

The third thought is that the film doesn’t need to provide end-of-the-world science because to the extent that the audience cares at all they assume that it is *really* about climate change, but the sensitivities of American marketing and an aversion to being seen as “a climate film” lead the film makers not to say so. On this reading the insulting implausibility of the apocalypse-as-explained might almost be a wink — “look, we can’t say ‘climate change’ but we’ll underline that we’re not saying anything else by making what we do say utter crap”. I don’t actually believe it is such a wink, but who knows. This, though, leads us back to thought two, by lazily conflating climate change — a huge geopolitical and humanitarian issue — with “the end of the world”,  a step that leads to talk of  climate action as “saving the planet”. And I really don’t like such talk. As I have said elsewhere:

The most important thing about environmental change is that it hurts people; the basis of our response should be human solidarity.

The planet will take care of itself.

(Gosh: for once a post about film ends up linking into the larger themes of this sorely neglected blog. What a pleasant surprise!)

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