It’s Got to be the Goin’: The Journey of (Self) Annihilation

By Michael W. Harris

N.B. – This is part three of a series on Alex Garland’s films, if you have not already, you should probably read Part I on Sunshine and Part II on Ex Machina before diving in.

Almost any film (or narrative story) is about “the journey.” It is what gives a character their arc and shows their growth. Sometimes there is a very literal metaphor of this arc with a character climbing a mountain or driving across the country with a friend or their father’s ashes…or Einstein’s brain. Regardless, something they all have in common, though, is that the journey is the means by which the character grows. This is the essence of “The Hero’s Journey” and the well-trodden Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces and what not.

But what about a film that is not about the hero’s journey and how it changes them? What about a film in which the journey itself is the point? A journey that, while somehow revelatory of the character and either their motivations for the journey or society as a whole, rather than changing them or causing them to grow as a person, instead ends up either not affecting them or, if anything, leaving them worse off for making the trip.

These kinds of films are about how what is being journeyed through reflects or, in the case of Annihilation, refracts back on the person or society. Continue reading “It’s Got to be the Goin’: The Journey of (Self) Annihilation”

Visions of the Things to Be: Reflections on M*A*S*H

 

By Michael W. Harris

The gang’s all here

I try not to identify a lot with fictional characters—the Fantastic Four aside. It is hard, though. Fiction is designed to engage us on an emotional level, draw us in and create moments of reflection within us. Growing up, as strange as it may sound, one of the characters I identified with most was Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit. Continue reading “Visions of the Things to Be: Reflections on M*A*S*H”

The Real Test: Humanity and [Artificial] Intelligence in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina

By Michael W. Harris

Yes, what will happen?

If there is one question left in my brain at the end of Ex Machina, it is “who was the true villain of the film?” For so much of its runtime we are left in a state of unease at the actions and personality of its erstwhile genius creator Nathan (Oscar Issac)—some sort Steve Jobs crossed with Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Dr. Frankenstein mad scientist—and we wonder when the other shoe will drop. Nathan is erratic, quick to anger and just as quick to soften; unpredictable, clearly an alcoholic, and also paranoid. His security measures prove to be his very undoing, and also cause the death of his unwitting test subject/examiner, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of Nathan’s employees who is there to perform a Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s android creation.

There is not a lot of set-up to the film—we are quickly dumped into the beginnings of the story which is slowly unwound for us via dialogue—which works because Caleb is just as clueless as the audience. Nathan, on the outside, would seem to be the picture of the cool, laid back, Silicon Valley billionaire. A brilliant, youthful genius whose ambition is outpaced only by his reckless and odd behavior. Continue reading “The Real Test: Humanity and [Artificial] Intelligence in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina”

Stardust to Stardust: An Adagio to Life and Death (Alex Garland’s Sunshine)

By Michael W. Harris

Our world is dying…

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), written by the future Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) writer/director Alex Garland, was, for me, the film from which I learned the phrase “third act problems.” In this way, it was a seminal film in my development as a critical viewer and analyzer of the cinematic arts. And yet, despite these problems, it remains, in my regard, an outstanding example of the science fiction genre and a film that I whole heartedly recommend.

The following essay had its start in my long delayed hauntology project (I promise that will begin posting soon), but in the process of streamlining that series and removing a number of films because the essays I was writing kept getting longer, I decided that both Sunshine and Ex Machina did not really fit with the themes I was developing…though Sunshine was heartbreaking to remove because I do want more people to watch it, flaws and all. Continue reading “Stardust to Stardust: An Adagio to Life and Death (Alex Garland’s Sunshine)”

Artificial Reports of the Worlds: Steven Spielberg’s Early 2000s Sci-Fi Trilogy

By Michael W. Harris

Steven Spielberg is an interesting director. Often derided by “refined” cinephiles as too commercial and mainstream, not to mention his part in the creation of the modern blockbuster with Jaws (1975), Spielberg is, in reality, a very astute and sophisticated director whose films have surprising depth when you peel back the surface layer. His works have undergone a bit of critical reappraisal thanks to many YouTube essayists and such opinions are beginning to filter into the mainstream. And with this new criticism has come some re-evaluation of films that, upon first release, suffered from disappointment critically or financially (at least in the public perception).

In my memory (which could be flawed or skewed in this respect), early 2000s Spielberg is and was undervalued by the public, that some thought he had somehow lost a step. Coming off the successes of Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), he followed those up with the three films under discussion here: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005)—with Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004) sandwiched in between the latter two for good measure. These are not objectively bad films, they demonstrate a master in full command of his craft. Yet, I never saw any of these three films in theatres, catching them only after the fact on DVD. In my memory, I also do not remember overwhelming praise nor box office (though the internet tells me otherwise). However, they have remained in the back of my head as films that I would like to revisit, especially when taken as an interesting grouping in Spielberg’s career. Three sci-fi films coming in relative proximity, and all adaptations at that. Continue reading “Artificial Reports of the Worlds: Steven Spielberg’s Early 2000s Sci-Fi Trilogy”

My Personal New Year’s: The Birthday Hike and Recommitment/Reflection

By Michael W. Harris

I have never been one for going in on the hype surrounding New Year’s and resolutions. I get how some people can see the ticking over of a calendar year as an important or significant moment and a good time for reflection and making a commitment for the upcoming year. I understand the hype, but I never really bought into it. It was never, for me, a special or memorable moment (New Year’s 1989/1990 notwithstanding for entirely different reasons), and I treated New Year’s Eve like most other nights, just one with an added excuse to stay up late and maybe marathon Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

Somewhere along the line, though, I started to use my birthday to actually reflect and look ahead. Which is entirely strange in retrospect since for so long I actually shunned openly celebrating my birthday and would even avoid telling people when it was (thanks Facebook for ruining that!). It was a slow process, to be sure, to change this mentality, but change it did. First, I had to accept getting older and to stop judging my “progress” along the path of the “life goals” checklist against my peers. And I guess that that making peace process can be seen as part and parcel with my newest and perhaps most significant birthday traditions: the birthday hike.

Not always undertaken on my birthday, but always birthday adjacent. Continue reading “My Personal New Year’s: The Birthday Hike and Recommitment/Reflection”

On the Meaning of Pens and Gins: Eros and Thanatos

By Michael W. Harris

The deeper I have delved into my hobbies of pens and gins, the more I was struck by their opposed temporal aspects. Part of this came out of my previous post about how pens do have a timeless quality to them. They are created, tools to be used, and maybe passed down to a new generation as treasured family heirlooms. They are markers of our existence. Proof of our lives and a piece that might live on to carry small part of us forward with it.

Gin, on the other hand, is the opposite of all that. It is a product that is, first and foremost, a consumable. Enjoyment of it only comes through using it up, leaving only the bottle, and a possible hangover, behind. Gin, unlike win or whisky, is also “cheap” in the pantheon of wine and spirits. There is little point in “saving” a bottle in the hopes that it becomes rare, like scotch or whisky, or improves with age, like some wines. And there is certainly no reason to acquire some gins to only save and pass on. Gin will always expire with the emptying of the bottle.

But the longer I thought about it, the more complex the reality of this notion became. Within each is part of the other. Life and death. Eros and Thanatos, as Freud might argue. In creating objects for our posterity, there is an inherent meditation on our death. And in the enjoyment of good spirits, there is a celebration of life.

Granted, drinking too much can kill you. And while the pen is mightier than the sword, I doubt it will actually kill you—unless you are James Bond, a ninja, or Marcus Brody fighting Nazis in a tank with Henry Jones, Sr.

Barring that highly unlikely scenario, or accidently drinking poisoned ink (DON’T DRINK THE INK!), pens will not kill you.

And yet… Continue reading “On the Meaning of Pens and Gins: Eros and Thanatos”

The Makings of History: Vintage and Modern Heirlooms

By Michael W. Harris

Time is a funny thing.

So often, we are enamored with thinking about the future or the past that we often don’t stop to consider how what we are creating now might be considered, in a similar fashion, by those in the future. Moreover, if we do consider the now, it is usually in terms only of ourselves or those immediately around us (i.e. our immediate family), and almost never in relation to future generations that we can barely conceive of.

The products, tools, and/or traces of the past can fascinate us, and we will rehab or otherwise bring back to life “vintage” ideas and trends. In essence, make all things that once were old new again. Conversely, we can also become fixated on the latest trends or gadgets. Dream endlessly of what is to come: the flying car, jet packs, trips to Mars, VR, and so forth.

However, lost in this dash to either recreate the past or design the future, is a lack of consideration of our present needs alongside what might be necessary or even useful to the future. And if we do think about what we might pass on to the future, we tend to overthink a “legacy” and fail to consider those who are left to reckon with that legacy.

And all of this is the long way of getting to the topic at hand: our current romance with analog and the debate of vintage vs. modern pens. Continue reading “The Makings of History: Vintage and Modern Heirlooms”

The Curated Life: Social Media, Identity, and Image

By Michael W. Harris

The word “curated” or “curation” is perhaps a bit overused these days. We talk a lot about how we “curate” our photos on Instagram or Facebook, or “data curation” for academics and scientists. Or how we might “curate” our collections for display in the home. Believe me, I am just as guilty of these things as the next person, if not more so, and I am not saying this is good or bad (yet). However, what I do believe is that the word itself, “curate,” has become one of those buzzy words, and whenever I heart it I just want to go all Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word…” Continue reading “The Curated Life: Social Media, Identity, and Image”

A Playlist of Parting -or- Mentally Leaving Virginia

By Michael W. Harris

Note: A playlist of all the songs I discuss here is available on YouTube here. It is also embedded below to listen to while reading.

A few years ago, around the time of the 2016 election, I wrote a post reflecting upon the Japanese principal of mono no aware. Around that same time, about a month before, I also wrote a post on three albums that reflect the mood of fall. In my mind, these two posts are very much linked in spirit even if I do not explicitly link them in writing. The spirit that I speak of in the “Autumnal Playlist” post, the cold fragility, the feeling of passing, is very much the feeling of mono no aware. Which, if you do not click on the link above, is a recognition of the impermanence of all things. An acceptance. And while there is a sadness inherent in that acceptance, there is also joy in it, because in ending is also beginnings. In every death, there is also life.

Such is the mood that I find myself in as I prepare to leave my home of less than a year in Williamsburg, VA, and begin a new life in Memphis, TN. And as I have been mentally reconciling myself with this change, and all that led to it (to be discussed in a more detailed upcoming post), a few tracks have entered heavy rotation in my listening. Continue reading “A Playlist of Parting -or- Mentally Leaving Virginia”