Homo sapiens [essay]
Amy Adams as an exo-linguist? I am so here for this, but then again…
Arrival uproots all the usual sci-fi magic of universal translators and Disney Pocahontas language learning with the quickness. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who lives in an impossibly expensive-looking glass house on a lake. Ha. The linguistics professors I’ve known have all been lovable, disheveled, malaria-flashback-ridden dorks.
ALSO, linguistics professors are not translators; they know how languages work, but they don’t necessarily know every language or translate Farsi for the military like Dr. Banks does. Whatever, Hollywood, keep doing you and your half-ass science appropriation. Dr. Banks quietly overcomes fears about changing gravity and scary aliens while surrounded by judgy army guys. She is the sole woman in a sea of dudes—except maybe Abbott and Costello, the aliens, who could be any gender (but obvs they’re male, duuuuhhhh).
The aliens were unconventional in their shape and congeniality, but their motivations for landing/hovering on earth were murky at best. Their written language is the reason to see the movie, especially if you have some linguistic background, and you’ve always envied your engineer friends calling bullshit on sci-fi pseudo-science. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is an old, contested idea almost stamped out by Chomskyans: it posits that the structure of your language forms the way you think.
It’s true to some extent; in English, for example, we refer to direction with the self as a reference point (left/right/back/front), while in some indigenous Australian languages direction is in relation to the environment (north/south/east/west). Yep, we actually use both in English, but which comes more naturally? Herein lies the squishiness of social science. There’s a really interesting Radiolab episode about how people see and name colors cross-culturally and throughout history. Ultimately, the hypothesis is correct in its weak form, otherwise, no one could ever translate anything or learn a second language. (Anthro friends, feel free to school me on this subject if I’ve dropped the ball.)
The aliens use logograms that look like fucking coffee mug stains. Dr. Banks makes quick work of translating them while the super-advanced aliens hang out in their fog doing nothing. Basically, the aliens experience time as non-linear, and since their written language has no past/present/future tense, Dr. Banks “catches” non-linear thinking just by learning their language, and starts hopping around in time. The way we see a particular coffee mug stain translated on Dr. Banks’s futuristic space-tablet looks like a list of words puked out without a grammatical case or tense. I feel like there’s a difference between word puke and non-linear time cognition, but I’m just a dumb archaeologist and can’t think of a clever alternative.
Can’t help but think of 2001: a space odyssey, my favoritest movie: big black phallic objects floating in the air, an eerie vocal soundtrack, heavy breathing in space suits. I’ve always interpreted the floating baby and the weird multi-aged Daves at the end of 2001 as Dave in an alien zoo with non-linear time, showing his entire lifespan for the alien audience. Bugs me a bit how Dr. Banks’s non-linear time experience is centered around her family; if she was a man, it would have been some corny existential crisis. (See spoiler below, if you dare.) This damage works both ways, of course; men can’t care about their families, while women can only care about their families.
Dr. Banks saves the day because she can see through time, hooray, it’s kinda dumb. Maybe I should read the short story and see if it’s equally corny. I doubt it.
Should you see it? Yeah, I guess. I keep supporting corny crap because I want more female protags who aren’t perfect robots, and this movie in particular because of its academic linguist as the star of the show (!). It’s linguistic Indiana Jones. But the spoiler (below), it’s giving me issues.
So, Dr. Banks can see through time and shit, and she sees her unborn daughter’s life from its beginning to its early end due to some rare lymphoma. She decides to have her daughter anyway. Wait… is this some kind of pro-life parable? But she DECIDED… or did she? Is non-linear time deterministic? *brain explodes*
I’m not going to slap a label on the film because the lead made a painful choice (?) to have a kid destined to die early. I’m fighting the urge to interpret every film as a political product: did they draw liberal, over-educated Shannon in with aliens, linguistics, and Amy Adams’s delightfully pointy nose to try to undermine my pro-choice beliefs? I leaped straight to rage at first, but then I was all like, “Naw, indoctrination ain’t what sci-fi is for. They’re trying to get us to think about choice/abortion/disease/life in a nuanced way. Shit, I might have that baby too, being able to see all those sweet moments we’d share together.” We all need to work on escaping black and white thinking, myself absolutely included. No, they did not get to me, I’m just trying to work on being less reactionary in this current political climate.
Ain’t it a great time to be alive? Two movies released this season feature women who do things of their own volition, as opposed to being smart/strong/sexy/perfect sidekicks, romantic interests, or aesthetically pleasing background noise. In fact, both women are straight-up frowny assholes caked in filth. It’s so fresh.
In Tracks, a twentysomething woman walks 1,700 miles from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with four camels and a dog. In Wild, a twentysomething woman walks 1,100 miles from the Mojave desert to the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon-Washington border. Both films are based on memoirs by Robyn Davidson and Cheryl Strayed, respectively.
It’s no coincidence both movies were released within a few months of each other–and it’s no accident that I drove down early to Tucson for Christmas just in time for the last (only?) showings.
“Why not?” is Robyn Davidson’s (Tracks) flippant response in a voice-over. She wants to be alone with four camels and a dog and forget she’s white, forget she’s a woman—lose all her cultural trappings.
Strayed (Wild) walks to cleanse herself after her mother’s untimely death, a divorce, and battles with various addictions. She feels like a fuck-up and wants to accomplish something, become “the woman her mother raised.”
Tracks: White woman will die of thirst in the desert.
Wild: Woman alone will get raped in the woods.
Conflict is woman versus nature in Tracks. Funny since she’s the most competent person I’ve ever seen, breaking foaming-at-the-mouth camels. Camels are like lightly domesticated moose. Fucking scary.
She acts in a masculine way–brusque, callous, unafraid. She shoots two rutting bull camels in the desert while I would have stood there pooping my pants. When people respond to her in a sexist or racist way, she gives them the silent treatment. It’s tense and uncomfortable. Silent power!
Conflict is woman versus man in Wild. Strayed is massively incompetent–her boots don’t fit, she didn’t train, she brought too much stuff–but the biggest risk factor for her is creepy men who can’t read body language.
She’s strong but still feminine. Out in the middle of nowhere she’s approached by two bow hunters. We fear for her; one guy “compliments” her ass and she thanks him. Dammit! I would have too–in those situations you have to toe the line between not pissing the asshole off and letting him know you’ll gladly plunge your thumb into his eyeball.
Wild tells a braver story, without apology showing what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world. It’s great medicine for male audiences–they identify and care about a female main character, and then share her panic in these situations. It should be an eye-opener.
Doesn’t anybody remember laughter?
Strayed (Wild) needs all kinds of help all the time, and it’s a little disappointing–but in the end she makes it so give her some credit. She yearns for conversation most of the time, and never seems quite at home in nature. We get a few slapstick laughs throughout—Strayed with her massive backpack, songs stuck in her head.
Davidson (Tracks) is more withdrawn. Almost every whitefella in this film is so fucking annoying: Tourists, doubting family members, and Adam Driver taking pictures of Aboriginal elder’s secret business. The only laugh is when Mr. Eddie, her Aboriginal guide through sacred land, tells her a story over the campfire in Pitjantjatjara. We have no clue what he’s saying, but through gestures and body language we get it. It’s silly and awesome.
Mise en Scene
10 or 15 minutes of Robyn and Mr. Eddie scenes forgo English dialogue. Something happened with a kangaroo I didn’t really understand–but I like that the film is subdued and doesn’t beat me over the head with every plot point. In contrast, Wild was very, very, very busy–somehow panting up a steep hill becomes a sex flashback. Kind of a stretch.
Tracks is way more prettier. They captured the gritty seventies Nat Geo spirit pretty damn well. The Australian landscape morphs and changes from scene to scene–the sand is red, then there’s a big rock, then the sand’s brown, then there’s a dust storm. The scrub and the gentle roll of the land alternately hide and reveal things.
The Tracks movie poster makes the movie look like a romance, which irritates me. It’s not. In fact, I think she hates that dude, and not in a jovial Leia/Han Solo way. In a I-kinda-hope-that-guy-fucking-dies way.
Somehow the filmmakers of Wild managed to flatten some of the most dynamic vistas in the US–or maybe they chose to make the land itself less obtrusive than Strayed’s life story. I dunno, I was expecting postcard grandeur.
Go see both. (Forget all the negative things I said.) You may have to travel. Neither movie played in my small, outdoorsy, hipster mountain town–kind of a surprise but not really. I found Tracks at an independent theater, and Wild was playing at a Cinemark theater but only on Thursday nights (weird).
I tell you to see both because I want more movies like this, and I want them accessible and mainstream. They might not have been earth-shatteringly good, but at least they weren’t about white dudes killing things, fucking things, or whining about things. (Please, stop giving those fools your money. DON’T GO SEE THE HOBBIT.)
They say every story’s been told, but I think it’s a lie.
I often inhabit the inner circles of introvert hell. My work involves isolated groups of youngish, wierdish, over-educated people forced together, for better or for worse, until we all get laid off.
The forced camaraderie of the first days of any project is always difficult. I find out, for the first time EVER, that I am quiet. Very quiet. The quietest person anybody has ever met. The quietest person who ever existed. Uncomfortable extroverts put words and phrases in my mouth and assign emotions to me that I may not have, and I nod and bare my teeth like a nervous ape.
Inside, I’m angry, embarrassed, and feeling inferior. I am someone who has to be coaxed out, cracked, or broken, and the whole affair is painful for everyone involved. I feel inadequate, like I’m missing out on life, and life is missing out on me. On the other hand, I feel like I have a duty to entertain people as we stand around, bored and unstimulated, in our orange vests leaning on shovels.
I come to share the gospel of silence. Close extroverted friends have complained to me of the verbal garbage they feel destined to spew for all eternity, and that duty to entertain they can’t escape. I admit that I love them for that very reason—they make me comfortable enough to draw out my own extroverted side. We all slide around on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, and the labels of “loud” and “quiet” are confining. We introverts can hold lively conversations, we can be belles of the ball, but at a price. We get drained.
First, in defense of the quiet: we’re not all snobby, we’re not all stupid, and we’re not all mass murderers or serial killers. I can’t even kill one of those thousand-legged pre-Cambrian monsters that drop from the ceiling fan into your lap in old Midwestern houses. We don’t generalize like that about outgoing people. They’re judged and labeled by their verbal prowess and quick on-your-feet intelligence. I’m shy. People struggle to define me when we meet, and I let them talk at me and just shrug it off, trying not to get upset. I guard my personality and stay silent until this stage passes. Mutual comfort grows from shared experiences, like charging grizzlies and shovel probing in smelly marshes. I am fond of this slow-growing intimacy that has little to do with talking.
Part of the problem is the need for instant gratification and understanding. I need to show these new people NOW how smart/sexy/funny I am. I need to push the joke farther, make you laugh harder, make you see how clever I am. We miss out on entire facets of both extroverted and introverted personalities; and worse, we’re all performing, which is not healthy.
Sometimes, just experiencing something with another person is all you need, and no conversation is required. Sometimes actions can speak louder than words. Watch someone deep in thought, watch someone give dirt hell with a shovel, watch someone skip gleefully to grab their lunch from the truck, watch someone sit bored at a desk. It can warm you up and make you grin, because you behave the same way when you’re thinking, working, eating, or bored, and so does everybody else on earth. I live for these little shared bits of humanity. I use them to remind myself not to be intimidated by talkers—we’re all going through the same motions.
I love the point on projects where we can all sit in the truck in silence. It may sound boring, but that is a truckful of people who are comfortable with each other, and content to watch what is happening in that big wide world out there. But I also love listening to a rant about Congress, or musing about future chicken ranches, or how we’ve all missed the news about Syria and Miley Cyrus since we’ve been out bush. Variety.
You know me—fuck the Mainstream and the System and the Man, and all that shit is really, really loud, and favors really, really loud people. And here again is the thesis that crops up in all my writing: think of what we’re missing out on.
Japanese proverb: “The duck that squawks gets shot.”
American proverb: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
It is not like this everywhere else. In Japanese cultures, silence increases credibility. Silence is active, whereas to blabber is to postpone action (aaahhhmen). I work in an office some days, and I don’t understand how people can get up every half hour and have a meaningless convo about sugar or their daughter in South Carolina and get anything done.
You can’t sink in and lose yourself in work that way. Quiet is absolutely necessary for any and all work. If you’re not silent, you’re not working. You could fight me on this point with examples like teaching, talk-show hosting, and any kind of communication required in a team setting—but when it gets right down to it, creation and deep thought cannot happen if you are blabbing. Real work gets done when you are on your own with a pen or a shovel or a keyboard—the rest is just moving the product around and getting second opinions. I consistently work harder and smarter and more than other people, not because I’m awesome, but because I’m a shy, boring person who doesn’t take many gab breaks.
American Indian cultures view silence as the mark of an exceptional person who understands that the precariousness and volatility of life means that nothing is definite, certain, or worth voicing. That last bit is something to think on for all of us. We are trained to advertise ourselves, not to question our own assertions or the value of what we want to say.
Traditional Amer-Indian learning is visual and experience based; asking questions means you’re being rude and distracted. Navajo students in English-speaking classrooms do not see themselves as shy, though they rarely offer answers in discussion; knowledge is not freely given to strangers, and small talk is not necessary. I like this idea of having to earn knowledge instead of drowning in it. Nothing is worse to me than someone asking a question that was just explained five seconds earlier, if only they had been listening.
In American culture, old white dudes like Emerson say things like, “Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” It’s true, but what’s so great about making people think things/worship things/do things? This is, in fact, kind of scary, and makes me think of Nazis and the Klan, a couple of loudmouths and a whole swarm of mindless listeners who are convinced of their own superiority by some slick wordplay.
People say a lot of unoriginal shit. People force me to have conversations that I don’t care about, I’m forced to spout more unoriginal shit, and ultimately, my comfort in silence is sacrificed to soothe an extrovert’s discomfort. They can tell me to speak up and force me to talk, but telling someone to stop talking is the penultimate rudeness. For introverts, this is draining, and extroverts, who naturally feed on social interaction, steal all our energy. Vampires.
My favorite cliché of all: “It’s always the quiet one.” What? Who’s not talking? Bah. I have a decent sense of humor, but when you hear this with every new group of people you meet, it’s infuriating. (It’s not worth saying, guys.) It’s always a joke, but it’s not even fuuuuunny. It’s like clutching your purse and saying “It’s always the mestizo.” I was born this way and I’m kinda proud of it, even though the mainstream considers me inferior. There’s one thing that’s definite and worth saying: it’s always the loudest asshole who says, “It’s always the quiet one.”
To be honest, and not the least bit self-praising, I think the quiet ones are the smart ones. We might not always have the biggest IQ or the quickest, smartest comeback, but we’ve seen more, heard more, and probably read more and spent more time musing. Extroverts are adept at sharing and spreading knowledge, and brewing that knowledge into action. Extroverts are movers and shakers, but they need introverts to whisper good, new ideas over their shoulders. Geniuses are almost always introverted, because they are the ones devoting ten-thousand lonely hours to honing their talents. Up with introverts. Think how much electoral politics would change if we had distinct, written plans and life histories of candidates instead of voting on who lied to us the best.
I love extroverts and loud people. They’re entertaining. If the world was full of people like me, it’d be so boring we’d all drink Draino and quietly die. Extroverts might be happy without introverts, but I’m willing to bet ya’ll would be living in the Neolithic today. There would be no good books or ICBMs.
Consider the extrovert and introvert in you, and ask if both get their fair percentages of your time. I’m often anxious to hang out with friends for fear that I’ll miss out on something, but that’s just my dumb ape brain worrying that they’ll find a pig carcass and I won’t get to eat any. We have the luxury of taking time alone, so maybe if you’re grumpy or dreaming of heads on pikes, what you really need is to read the lone voice of an author, listen to music, meditate, exercise, whatever, just enjoying your own company.
So let’s all be good to each other, and let’s acknowledge that we live in a society of incessant, silly chatter. And it’s dumb. So be friendly to that quiet guy or gal at the office and listen to what they have to say.