chapter one {Free of Time: Temporality, Memory, Love, Loss, and Choice}

Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”

I knew I wanted to see Arrival from the moment I saw the first trailer. I wasn’t familiar with director Denis Villeneuve’s previous films, but Arrival promised to be a visually stunning, thoughtful science-fiction film. Something that has been sorely lacking in the genre, at least amongst the traditional mainstream fare.

For those in need of a “brief” refresher, Arrival is the story of Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, who is one of the world’s foremost linguists. The movie begins with what appears to be a flashback to Louise playing with a daughter, who is then absent for most of the film, the audience is led to assume the daughter is dead, except for apparent flashbacks, and we see “present” Louise in a very solitary and somber state. Quickly, world events take over as twelve alien ships arrive on Earth, and Louise joins a team of scientists trying to establish contact. The big twist is that the aliens, or heptapods they are called, communicate in a language in which their words appear all at once rather than in a linear string, as in human communication. The upshot is that because the heptapods communicate in such a fashion they it causes them to perceive time not as linear but all at once, via what is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. And because Louise is learning to read and understand heptapod, she also begins to have the same perception. This is when we, the audience, understand that the daughter that we believe has been haunting Louise’s memories is actually the daughter of her and another scientist, Ian (played by Jeremy Renner), and this is the moment they meet. In other words, because of her newfound fluency in heptapod, she now perceives past, present, and future as one. However, she also now knows that her and Ian’s daughter is doomed to die from a rare disease, and yet still chooses to begin the relationship with Ian. The question lingering over the ending of the film, though, is if she actually has the choice in that matter or if our lives are fixed. Continue reading “chapter one {Free of Time: Temporality, Memory, Love, Loss, and Choice}”

chapter one {encounters with the Other} – an introduction

Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”

The ability to create an empathetic response in an audience member is one of art’s greatest powers. It forces a viewer, reader, or listener to consider something from a point-of-view other than their own and can even create a change in attitude within them. And if an artist can do this while also building sympathy with something alien to the viewer, creating empathy for something truly “other” to the viewer’s world, all the better.

Sometimes that something alien is literally an extra-terrestrial, or at least something so foreign it might as well be of another world. How we change after encountering the Other can only be described as “apocalyptic” in the literal sense of the word: an uncovering. While today we usually associate the word “apocalypse” with the end of the world, or some world altering event, it literally means a “revelation or disclosure,” such as the biblical Book of Revelation—or in Greek “Apokalypsis Ioannou,” John’s Revelation. As such, an encounter with the Other can be an apocalyptic moment because it can be revelatory about ourselves, both the audience surrogate on screen and our actual selves. For the sake of clarity, I will label these two types of apocalypses as either a revelatory or catastrophic apocalypses. Continue reading “chapter one {encounters with the Other} – an introduction”

chapter_0: haunted cinemas {part ii – hauntological foundations}

Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”

Hauntology is a seemingly straightforward concept, yet it can be fraught with complexity and misunderstanding. As mentioned previously, French philosopher and deconstructinist Jacques Derrida first coined the term in relation to the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. In a piece for The Guardian, Andrew Gallix wrote that, “Derrida argued that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave.” The word itself is a play on the word ontology, which is simply the philosophical study of being and existence, and Colin Davis argues that, “[h]auntology supplants [ontology by]…replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” Hauntology is literally that: the haunting of our present by that which came before, the past lingering on after it has passed. A ghostly apparition right behind us, in the corner of our mind’s eye.

While I generally hate the word nostalgia, especially in our current cultural age wherein I feel it is overused in reference to our wave of ‘80s themed/tinged shows, I think my favorite brief definition of hauntology, also coming from the Gallix piece, is that it is a “nostalgia for all our lost futures.” To me, this nicely sums up how hauntology works for me on both a personal and global level. When I reflect on the past, on choices, forks in the road, and what I had hoped my life to be and what I wished for the future of our world, my haunted sense comes from those “lost futures.”

For me, a haunted film might make me reflect on my own possible lost futures, or maybe those of humanity, much like my reaction to The Tree of Life I described in part one of this chapter. It came as I was deep in my PhD work and questioning and comparing myself to my grandfather. Would I ever start a family, or does my personality preclude that in an age so obsessed with outward performances of self. Regardless of the film, something about it rips me out of the moment and thrusts me into a ghostly otherworld of the specters of the past and future, like some sort of trippy Christmas Carol. Continue reading “chapter_0: haunted cinemas {part ii – hauntological foundations}”

chapter_0: haunted cinemas {part i – specters of futures passed}

Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”

There is a feeling I get after watching some movies. It is a simultaneous desire to not only immediately rewatch the film, but also to never see it again. It is hard to describe, but it stems from how the movie has so thoroughly torn me down to my bare essence, laid bare all my thoughts and emotions, and caused me to examine that which I work so hard to cover up and ignore just to get through life on a daily basis. My reaction is one of raw feeling. I want to see these movies again because I long to better understand my reaction, and, in the process, understand myself. But at the same time, I never want to see them again because I am afraid of my reaction to them. I am afraid of what the film exposes, and I am afraid of what it might say about me.

These are films that linger in my mind long after I exit the theatre or hit stop on my remote. These are films that haunt me.

And it is time for me to go back to them and examine why I am haunted by them. Continue reading “chapter_0: haunted cinemas {part i – specters of futures passed}”

prologue < /life_out_of_joint> {part two}

Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”

The Ritual Process. Image taken from Niven Ibrahim’s thesis project “Liminality in Architecture” from Ryerson University.

Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner theorized about what is called the “ritual process,” broken into three phases: separation, liminal, and reincorporation. Turner was building upon the work of many before him but did most of his work in expanding upon the idea of the liminal phase. For him, when one is in the liminal period of the ritual, they are in-between, in the process of becoming something entirely new. If we think of a ritual like the rite of passage into adulthood (such as a bar or bat mitzvah), when one is performing the prescribed rituals they are neither a child nor an adult. They do not belong to the society that they were formerly in, but neither do they belong to the new community that they are entering into. They are in a limbo state, or, put another way, they are “out of joint” with normal temporality and being.

In one of my early papers on film music written for a doctoral seminar on ethnomusicology, I used this three-fold ritual model to describe the process of seeing a movie, with the actual viewing as the liminal phase. You have been separated from society proper when you enter into the movie theatre (indeed, these days you have to be reminded to actually separate yourself from the outside and “silence your cellphone”), then you experience the ritual viewing a film, and when it is over you are reincorporated into society a changed person. You are different. You are now part of the group that has seen that film.

While most films we see do not leave a lasting impression, nor do they truly change how we see the world, a good film will have such an effect. A thoughtful film. A film that lingers and haunts you in the days and weeks that follow. Continue reading “prologue < /life_out_of_joint> {part two}”

prologue < /life_out_of_joint> {part one}

Note: This is the first part of what will become my “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”

Dusk, a perfect example of a liminal space: not yet night, but no longer day. This photo comes from back in Boulder, CO.

There is a word that I encountered during my graduate studies that I quickly latched onto as one of my favorite words: liminal. Not only did I love the sound of it (limm-ma-null), but I also loved what it meant: the in-between state, intermediate phase, being in transition. Liminality is what I feel like my entire life has been, constantly caught between two things: I am a cusp baby by way of astrological signs (Leo-Virgo), I am in that weird middle ground between Gen X and the Millennials, and for the better part of 5 years, from 2013 until 2018, I was in a constant liminal state of temporary work between finishing my PhD and landing a tenure track position at the University of Memphis.

I have lived most of my life in a constant state of feeling adrift; not unlike Gustav Mahler’s famous sentiment of being “thrice homeless.” Continue reading “prologue < /life_out_of_joint> {part one}”

Looking Forward, Looking Back: The Past and Future of The Temp Track

By Michael W. Harris

Pen, paper, and coffee…the beginnings of so many posts this past year.

It has been a year. While I did not go into 2018 planning on doing one post a week, that is how it ended up. It just sort of started, kept going, snowballed, and before you knew it I had a pattern established, and I am loathe to break patterns. And looking back, I am really glad I did it. It was part therapy during what was one of the most difficult periods in my life, part exercise in finding a good writing process as I try to integrate my love for the craft of the written word into my life, and part needing an outlet for some of the smaller scale projects that I want to pursue.

However, more than anything else, I just wanted to write more. I have always loved writing, and it is a big reason why I decided to do a PhD and not a DMA all those year ago. When I thought about which I would rather do, practice bassoon for eight hours a day or read and write for 8 hours a day…the decision was easy to make. And now, with (hopefully) my last degree a year behind me, another year of tumult and upheaval over, and job stability ahead, it is time to think about what the future of The Temp Track looks like.

After a year filled with gin reviews, musing on stationery, some rather personal essays that made some people worry about my mental and physical health (and I share those concerns…hence writing as therapy), and other random musing on life, the universe, and everything, what does 2019 look like?

Let’s first look back before we look forward, shall we? Continue reading “Looking Forward, Looking Back: The Past and Future of The Temp Track”

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”

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)”