Monday, January 02, 2017

Bubble Universes (Welcome to 2017)

First of all, to head off any elevated expectations: this post is mostly about movies. The title sounds broad and philosophical, partly because I'm trying to stretch my frame a little, but movies are where this idea started, and I doubt it's going to wander too far from that starting point.

On New Year's Eve, I did what a lot of people do, aside from watching the ball drop: I caught a couple on-demand movies. In my case, these were The Witch (2015, but really 2016 as far as public release) and The Lobster (2016). These choices were entirely arbitrary, no more thematic than "oh, I remember wanting to see that one!"... and yet, in retrospect (where so many things become more orderly), I feel like they were pretty perfect for closing out 2016 and moving into a new solar cycle.

There's been a lot of talk, of course, about how rough 2016 was, and 2017 is a frontier under such a dark cloud... it's not really a pleasant transition, even if change is welcome. It kind of puts into relief that angst that comes with every New Year... the feeling that under all the celebration, all the rhetoric about renewal, the truth is that it's exactly the same world, just tagged as the next iteration.

But a couple movies like The Witch and The Lobster helped with that transition, it turned out... and not just in a way that every other movie would help (which is distraction and spectacle, mostly). These helped because they did something unique among movies: they created self-contained little bubble universes, and these gave me the stepping stones I needed to move between two troubled years and really feel that threshold.

The Witch creates its bubble universe out of vivid sensory detail and historical specificity. Beyond the incessant use of "thee" and "thou," the world was relentless and textured and -- probably my favorite word for it -- grimy. Full of grime. After William and Katherine leave their Puritan plantation, they are caught in, essentially, a tiny world of two settings: the homestead, and the forest.

The immersion on display here isn't just stylistic or aesthetic. Director Robert Eggers (by his own admission, here) was trying to place his audience in an authentically Puritan frame of mind. This means a gawking fascination with sin and perversion, a manic-depressive relationship with Christianity, and a belief in Satan and witchcraft in their most literal forms. Eggers is trying to rip us out of our modernity and instill in us the fear of a wild, corrupted abyss populated by malevolent forces.

The Lobster does something similar in the abstract, but in almost the opposite way. It also creates a small, self-contained universe ("city," "woods," and a hotel make up the whole world). However, instead of a jarring injection of detail and history, it fashions this world out of the familiar and the taken-for-granted, reconstructed in absurd and unexpected ways. The City has the feeling of Washington, DC (at least that's the closest analog from my own experience), and the hotel feels like any mid-priced Hilton convention center hosting a huge conference.

This world is structured metaphorically, emphasizing the absurdity of the familiar. The Lobster's bubble universe alienates us from everyday life, floating up above and letting us look back on social psychology and romantic conventions as they might appear to an alien anthropologist.

The longer I sit and stare at these films side by side, the more parallels I see. They're both about a breakdown at the margins of an overly-structured society... they're both about exiles, creating rituals in defiance of the rituals that initially excluded them. They're both about the terror and anxiety instilled by the demands of conventional thinking, whether it's consensus or superstition.

All that aside, I'll go back to the title. It was this little skipping action, this move between bubble universes, that's helping me make sense of the New Year transition. In every practical sense, the new world is the same as the old one... I just stepped out of it for a couple movies. But in another sense, we're moving into a reality with a new framework... a whole new set of rules are coming into play.

These new global rules include an escalating authoritarian trend, sudden fractious instability in international consensus (both political and economic), and a step back from reasoned discourse, idealism, and accountability. So in this sense, the "bubble universe" concept might not be such a bad tool: a focus-shifted lens for seeing 2017 as radically, qualitatively different.

In honor of this effect, I'd like to reflect for a moment: what other films have this sort of feeling, that they're taking place in a tightly-constrained reality whose rules are alien and temporarily absolute?

I'll note, and set aside, those horror and science-fiction films that make this a point of premise... The Cube, Snowpiercer, THX 1138, Alien, The Village. Even The Shining is a little more explicit than I'm talking about. I'm trying to come up with movies that tease a larger reality, but then compress it, to wring every drop of significance out of the setting.

Hitchcock tended to do this... The Birds is such a film, I think, since it takes place in an island village, isolated from the outside world.

Rules of the Game has this sense, as well (it's been quite a while since I've seen it).

There must be others... Gilliam? Haneke? Anderson? ... BUELLER?

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