Monday, 17 November 2014

Christopher Nolan and the locked-room mystery: Interstellar

On Friday I managed to go to see Interstellar, at the cinema, a rarity for me these days. And it was a mighty long experience, so much so that I misjudged the starting time of the film and the amount of parking I needed and was haunted during the film by the promise of a ticket upon the return to the car. (I was lucky.) Quite appropriately, while I was watching the film I was also still in the past (why did I think the film started earlier?) and rehearsing the future (this film is going to cost me £50. But it might not…). This didn’t impair my enjoyment of the movie, though. Although I understand and agree with many of the criticisms of the film – though I have to say its liberties with science don’t bother me – I liked its scale, Matthew McConaughey (Coop) and Anne Hathaway (Brand) in the central roles, the use of the robots, and in particular the ‘realistic’ look of the spaceship interiors. Some of the effects sequences were quite exciting, such as the re-docking with the spinning Endurance or the ‘escape’ from the black hole (though not as exciting as Gravity).

The narrative does have major weaknesses. The visits to the two exo-planets seemed mechanically differentiated: we’ll kill a crew member on this one! Oh, here’s a villain on this one! (I was particularly irritated by Matt Damon’s character, who was obviously going to turn out to be wrong ‘un, and the plot didn’t disappoint.) The ending, where Coop flies off to ‘save’ Brand on the third exo-planet, using a local ship that surely would not have the fuel to get there, waved off by his 120-year-old daughter, was silly. But the core of the film is time, not outer space, and the really crucial space of the film is not the through-the-wormhole other galaxy to be explored, but Murph’s (Coop’s daughter’s) bedroom.

In some ways, Interstellar reminded me strongly of Inception (a far better sf film, I would say). Both films are emotionally located in the Father’s loss, of both wife and children, and a desire to restore or heal that trauma; both films return to an interior space which holds the key to the film’s enigma; both films attempt to subvert or complicate Hollywood continuity narrative through time-dilation motifs (caused by the subconscious ‘levels’ in Inception, and by proximity to the black hole and relativistic effects in Interstellar); and both feature Michael Caine as a benign old mage who effects the male protagonist’s re-entry into narrative time. In Inception, this is Cobb’s (Leonardo di Caprio) trajectory towards re-establishing a future with his children through completing the Fischer mission; in Interstellar, this is Coop’s escape from the entropic Earth suffering from slow-motion ecological catastrophe, and the stasis of being a farmer, looking down at the dirt instead of up to the stars.

Both films are locked-room mysteries, by which I mean that the solution to the narrative enigma – what is Fischer’s secret, held in the subconscious ‘safe’, in Inception; what is the solution to Professor Brand’s gravity equations in Interstellar – is contained within the finite set of interior narrative elements rather than coming from outside. For Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and his father (Pete Postlethwaite), for Cobb and his children, and for Coop and Murph (Mackenzie Foy/ Jessica Chastain) this is to do with the healing of emotional estrangement, a resolution of the parent/child relationship. The time-paradox ‘solution’ in Interstellar isn’t so much about the transmission of the binary code that will unlock Brand’s equation, but the fact that it is Coop who is able to do so. The ‘infinite’ rooms that Coop is translated into after entering the black hole are a figure for his emotional imprisonment, his need to return to that space and time to try to undo, or repair what has been done. Murph feels the same need to return to that room, and it is her realisation that it is her father who is the ‘ghost’ transmitting information from somewhere else that impels her towards the mathematical solution. In a sense, in Interstellar the physical trajectory of the narrative (Coop’s journey outward to the stars) is countermanded or superseded by the emotional trajectory of the return to the room. It is the latter that provides the key to the former. Although, as Ian Sales in his blog on Interstellarnotes, Brand’s rationale for going to the third exo-planet (where her lover has landed) – ‘love is the only thing which transcends time and space’ is ‘cringeworthy’ vapouring of the highest order – it does express the underlying emotional plot, and the impetus behind both Inception and Interstellar.

This is banal enough, I agree. But I am reminded of the moment in Vonnegut’s Timequake in which Kilgore Trout stands upon a beach with Vonnegut and others towards the end of the novel, and asks Vonnegut to pick out two stars from the sky. ‘Now then’, he says, ‘whatever heavenly bodies those two gints represent, it is certain that the Universe has become so rarefied that for light to go from one to the other would take thousands or millions of years. Ting-a-ling? But now I ask you to look precisely at one, and then precisely at the other.’ When Vonnegut confirms he has done so, Trout continues: ‘Even if you’d taken an hour [to look at them], something would have passed between where those two heavenly bodies used to be, at, conservatively speaking, a million times the speed of light.’ ‘What was it?’ Vonnegut asks. ‘Your awareness,’ replies Trout. ‘That new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering the Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something new and beautiful, which is human awareness.’ He then concludes: ‘I have thought of a better word than awareness. … Let us call it soul.’

Unashamedly humanist, Timequake inserts the cosmological into the realm of human consciousness and human emotion. True, by calling it ‘soul’, Vonnegut explicitly nods to metaphysics, to the spiritual, even. This is a gesture found throughout cosmological sf, of course, from Olaf Stapledon through 2001 to Interstellar. Where the human narrative of the film of 2001 ‘ends’ with another locked room, the strange out-of-time apartment where Bowman finds himself and where he is translated into the Star Child, there seems to be no ‘God’ in Interstellar: the time-loop structure places the human as the Other, the means by which human beings can, by their bootstraps, life themselves off the Earth and into the stars.

Interstellar and Inception ultimately return to find the solution to their narrative conundrums in the most tricky of locked spaces to open, the ‘heart’. Nolan, in these two films, reveals the humanism (if not outright sentimentality) at the core of his sf work. Rather than the solution to Interstellar’s locked room being an orang-utan and a chimney, it is instead a message from (human) parent to (abandoned/ neglected) child: I love you.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Over-Investment Ethical Trap

It would be difficult to overstate just how angry and heart-sick I am as I write. I've long been guilty of over-investing in work, not just in critical activity and writing but in the satisfactions of teaching, of feeling that you're helping students to understand and investigate the world and our culture, and of doing your best for and by them; when I was Examinations Officer, for instance, or in advising PhD students, or simply chatting to students about things. This over-investment has had serious personal side-effects, but has acted as a kind of alibi for the time I've spent dealing with the river of thoughts that flows through my head, believing that by turning them outwards that they might mean something, not just to me. This blog is an example of that, I suppose.

It's not uncommon, I would think, among academics. The lines between home and work life, between everyday activity and critical activity, become blurred; to the extent that it is difficult to switch off, or to avoid feelings of guilt when you don't use that spare hour to read or write or be productive somehow. Work colonises your 'own' time, and it's fine to begin with because you want to do it, you want to explore, you want to know things, figure stuff out. And tell people about what you think or have learned.

But of course this gets turned against you. I've internalised the work imperative to an extent that I've over-invested, ethically, in what I do. That extends to my place of work too. I expect the university to behave in certain ways. I'm an idealist, I suppose. I've left institutions in the past because I could no longer put up with the way they were run, the decisions that were being made. I've been lucky to find other jobs. This is now catching up with me.

The union I belong to, the UCU, recently balloted its members on strike action over proposed changes (i.e. diminishment) of pension provision in the USS scheme, which covers most of the older universities. (The post-1992 universities, whose staff are on the Teachers Pension Scheme, as I once was, already pushed through these changes. Strike action by the UCU was not effective.) With a large turn-out, the members voted with a large mandate for strike action, which in this instance has taken the form of a boycott of assessment (marking coursework, but also things like PhD panels). This comes into force this week. As a response, my own university has considered 'partial performance' to constitute a total withdrawal of labour, and so have threatened to dock 100% of pay for those deemed to be on strike. The logical response for union members, faced with such a threat, I would say, is to withdraw their labour entirely. This is, I have just read in an email from the UCU, now the union's stated position, if such a threat is carried through.

This won't happen. There are mortgages to pay, families to keep. The UCU isn't the NUM in 1984. The union have found themselves caught in another trap: previous one-day strikes on pay have been ineffective, so they have gone straight to the most effective action short of a strike, a marking boycott; but this has provoked a response that will, in my opinion, cause the collapse of the action in short order. In the run-up to Christmas, even well-paid academics cannot afford to have their salaries stopped entirely for months.

My university, Lancaster, is one of several who have taken this particularly hard line. Others include 1964 universities such as UEA, York and Sussex. Lancaster, with a relatively new Vice Chancellor, has presumed to elevate itself to 'world class' status, wishing its staff to produce higher-quality research, to bid for ever-larger grant incomes (from shrinking pots). Yet it acts in a way far from the 'world class' research and teaching centre it presumes to be, in a brutal crushing of dissent, in a contemptuous disregard for its staff, in threatening behaviour that reflects the worst excesses of neo-liberal capitalism. This 'university', and others like it, have forfeited their ethical right to use that term.

In a couple of weeks, an afternoon event on 1964 is taking place on the Lancaster campus, which I've organised. 1964 was the year of the foundation of the institution, and the event was designed not only to reflect the cultural and political events of that year, but also the (utopian) impulses towards a more open access to education that informed the formation of the then 'new' universities. This week's events show that, for all the 50th 'Jubilee' celebrations, there has been a radical break between the informing principles of 1964 and the neo-liberal, austerity-state grimness of 2014. I'm also prey to over-investment in the 1960s, and have struggled to forge a means to revisit that decade's optimistic and progressive energies without falling into nostalgia. But in 1964, on American campuses, particularly Berkeley and its Free Speech movement, what the university was, how it operated, was already being contested. I have posted this before and make no apologies for doing so again:

Do I think that UCU members will have the political will to place their bodies on the levers and prevent the operation of the machine? No. But what this week exposes is that the ethical over-investment in the 'university', my place of work, is a delusion. The institution is a firm, and the staff are a bunch of employees, albeit ones who thought that they were, and their relation to work was, somehow different. It's time the motes fell from our eyes.