February 8, 2022 at 5:23 pm #74512
Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D., is joining us once more in Conversations of a Higher Order (COHO) to discuss “Don’t Look Up: The Doomsday Dilettante” (click on title to read), his take on the recent controversial Netflix movie, in JCF’s MythBlast essay series.
Netflix is available in 190 countries; Don’t Look Up, populated with a stellar cast (including Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo diCaprio, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and Jonah Hill, among others), is Netflix’ second most popular title of all time, recording over 360 million viewing hours in its first 28 days on the streaming platform. With four Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), this is far from an obscure subject; the odds are good many MythBlast readers and forum participants are familiar with this film and have formed opinions.
We want to hear from you!
I will get us started, but please do engage Norland (and each other) with your own thoughts, observations, comments, and questions about his essay, and the film.
Norland – in addition to your gift for exploring the deep, dark nooks and crannies of the mythic imagination, in the past few months you’ve also shined a light on popular culture, with ruminations on UFO phenomenology, the film Dune (also up for a Best Picture Oscar), and now, Don’t Look Up.
Your essay this week opens with the assertion that, “Despite all rumors to the contrary, Don’t Look Up is not about climate change.”
I really appreciate the way your piece expands the conversation beyond the focus of much of the media hype surrounding this story. And yet Adam McKay, the film’s creator and director, clearly states in this piece he wrote for The Guardian that the film is very much about climate change.
So who is right: he, or thee?
Forgive me for posing this as an either/or, black-or-white white choice, absent nuance. It’s a completely unfair question, though one familiar to all literature teachers (my default setting): is the symbolism of a narrative circumscribed solely by the author’s intentions, or is something more at work?
Here is Ernest Hemingway, responding to a question about symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea:
There isn’t any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse.” (Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961)
Hemingway will always be a better writer than all of us put together, but I do take issue with his observation (and there is evidence to suggest his point is only that he wrote his story without consciously inserting symbolic references).
To be honest, the second paragraph of your essay does make clear the distinction between the allegorical reference to climate change, and a much richer, far more layered mythological reading of the symbolism in Don’t Look Up, so you have really already answered the specific question.
But before we dive further into this film, I’d like to return to basics. Would you mind briefly discussing symbolism in general? How is it that we can arrive at and trust an interpretation of a work at odds with an author’s intentions – and how can we know we aren’t just making our own projections and reading what we want to into a work? (Consider this a teaching moment.)
I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder so, beyond that, I’m trusting others will bring up some of the juicer aspects of your essay, as well their own reactions to the film.February 11, 2022 at 5:34 am #74533
Thank you Stephen,
It is a great pleasure, as always, to join you and our outstanding participants, circling around the mythological review of Don’t Look Up. The film is so rich in content and relevance that in the format of our mythblasts I could not but scratch the surface, necessarily leaving much in the dark or merely hinted at. But I agree that before diving into the film further we need to expand a little more on the nature of the proposed reading of the film, both in terms of symbol and allegory.
So when I wrote that despite rumors to the contrary, I should have added, rumors started by the writers themselves, Don’t Look Up is not about climate change. I was well aware that Adam McKay and David Sirota did have an explicit intention to construct an allegory for climate change. But you’re right, to me this is not a question of either or. Neither do we exhaust the meaning of a work of art by tracing it back to the author’s conscious intentions. The comet can stand for all manner of planetary threats or disasters, including climate change. But as a symbolic or archetypal image, the presence of the comet, the way it functions in the narrative, says something more than that, something which is both greater and more precise.
But I should clarify that unlike the standard Jungian dissociation of symbol from allegory, the kind of “symbolic” or mytho-historic reading I am proposing here maintains their interdependent nature, in the same way it maintains the interdependency of myth and history in its fundamental pattern. So it was and continues to be standard Jungian wisdom to say that an allegory or a “sign” reduces an image to a fixed meaning whereas a symbol opens the gates to infinity, translating the unknown in terms of the unknown, pointing to that famous transcendent mystery which eludes all signification and language. Although I am not denying that such a scheme has its value, from a mytho-historic perspective I cannot so neatly cleave sign from symbol—or what was latter conceived of in terms of the differential play of signifiers and an alleged “transcendent signified.”
On this point, I must confess, I am leaning more on structural linguistics and Derridian grammatology than Jungian psychology, which is to say that I ultimately agree with Jacques Derrida more when he writes in Of Grammatology: “there is neither symbol nor sign but a becoming-sign of the symbol” (47).
Nevertheless, in terms of Campbell’s 4 functions of myth, we could still say that the allegorical reading corresponds to the sociological and cosmological functions, whereas the symbolic reading belongs to the mystical and psychological. What I like about Campbell’s scheme, however, is the way it suggests that all four functions may be present in a myth at the same time. It all depends on the perspective we take.February 14, 2022 at 9:36 am #74532
Love the conversation! Such a great forum!
My view is that an author or artist’s statements about their conscious intentions regarding the symbolism or lack thereof in their works is valuable for a discussion of just that; their conscious intentions. If the work creates waves of response on different levels than the artist intended then the artist has touched some collective fibre, deliberately or not.
Regarding the billionaire in “Don’t Look Up”, I found Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Isherwell an almost direct take-off of Elon Musk.
Elon Musk himself is sign or analog of our madly off-tilt capitalism, a system that swirls around selling fantasy products to cover existential holes, products that in our drive to attain them and in their consumption only alienate us more and more from our own being and each other and the living planet. Round and round and deeper into the hole we go.
Elon Musk is also a symbol of a far darker mystery, the human gift of rationality without the brakes of human feeling, a 21st century Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Musk incarnates something that is willing to host a terrifying symbol. There’s something tremendous and fascinating about the panic to get in a metal capsule, escape our tortured earthly souls with crushing speed and punish those who don’t us understand by leaving them behind in flames. Musk is producing thousands of Starlink satellites, nearly 2,000 have already been launched. This space ballet looks like an overture, a study for an Apsberger’s rocket to some sci-fi planet where only billionaires on the spectrum can be members.
If they could just go off in peace together, there’d be no problem. The trouble is, they won’t go until they’ve mined and ravaged everything on this beautiful planet.
At the end of “Don’t Look Up” the young scientist says she’s grateful they tried to stop the madness and save the planet. We have to keep on trying.February 14, 2022 at 7:18 pm #74531
Thank you so much Janet,
You’re most welcome to our forum. For some reason, your response has been truncated but I was able to read it in full in my inbox. For I think you make a great point, which we’re all in agreement with, regarding the extent to which the conscious intentions of an author exhaust the full meaning of a work of art.
Without denying that an element of political propaganda may be present in it, I believe Don’t Look Up has taken a step beyond its intended ideological message. Although it may be rare when a work of art exceeds its own expectations, sometimes it does happen. On the contrary, when a work of art merely translates an explicit doctrine into aesthetic form, in other words, when it only says what the author consciously intended to say and no more, then we could rightly say that we’re dealing with nothing but sectarian propaganda.
This is why it is important for us artists to be working up to a point where we don’t quite know what we’re doing. Otherwise, if we only say what we consciously want to say, we can easily become mere instruments of a given doctrine, or mouthpieces of an ideological fantasy or belief system. In other words, we merely take up the function of “mass entertainment” and become perfect propagandists—even if it’s for a good cause!
On the other hand, to the extent that a work of art touches a deeper archetypal level of truth in the collective, it may be called a manifestation of true myth (vera narratio). It then becomes in the style of Picasso: a mythical lie that tells the truth.
In this context, truth has a different sense the exposition of an objective fact—be it climate change or any other empirical process. Mythical truth is not subjective either; it is not an idiosyncratic private affair with a “personal mythology” as it essentially belongs to the collective. As such, mythical truth points to our collective “mental” or “spiritual”—in a word, ideological—atmosphere. Therefore, from this point of view, Don’t Look Up expresses more precisely a truth about our collective submersion into what I will broadly call cultural capitalism.February 14, 2022 at 7:36 pm #74530
Norland & Janet,
No idea how the truncation happened, but wearing my admin hat I was able to restore Janet’s complete post from my email notification (which is fortunate – it’s a great comment that we definitely wouldn’t want to lose).February 14, 2022 at 8:07 pm #74529
Thank you Stephen! Yes, indeed, we wouldn’t want the rest of Janet’s response to get lost for she leads us quite nicely into the discussion we promised: the mythic dimension of the film, and especially, Peter Isherwell.
Although often called the “anti-hero” of the film, Mark Rylance’s Peter Isherwell is a reprise of the same heroic character he played in Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), where he became James Halliday, the saintly high-tech billionaire who designed and owned the OASIS, the virtual space into which ordinary people could escape from their own, otherwise miserable socio-economic reality. Having already died at the beginning of the movie, James Halliday assumes its archetypal role as the god-head of this virtual universe. It is only in the virtuality of the OASIS that we can meet the genius billionaire the way we would meet God. As the figure of the Old Wise Man, Mark Rylance can freely take on the mythic garbs of James Halliday, the Supreme Wizard and master mind of the OASIS.
In Ready Player One, the scene of the “First Key” in which the young hero of the film encounters James Halliday, makes clear that the billionaire figure stands in the symbolic place of God, calling itself the Anorak.
Although I didn’t want to get too side-tracked, this little excursion into Ready Player One with Mark Rylance not only helps us to grasp the archetypal dimension of Peter Isherwell as the God and hero of cultural capitalism, it also helps us understand the fundamental blasphemy committed by the film. I believe this is the real reason Don’t Look Up so incensed critics across the conservative-liberal spectrum. Where Ready Player One is a complete deification of the system as the old wise billionaire, justifying a succession of power to maintain a status quo, Don’t Look Up brings down this deified statue of the billionaire, with the pathos of true comedy, like so many statues of Christopher Columbus have come down.February 14, 2022 at 10:53 pm #74528
I don’t know if this movie was intended to be an allegory of human-caused climate decline (I prefer this term to climate change in that the latter can refer to changes in climate that occur naturally), and I really do not care whether it is or is not such an allegory. However, it is very much worth reflecting on the parallels between the challenges faced by climate decline and those in the movie. And to consider such parallels, it is worth doing some legwork as to the real problems facing the understanding of and the development of solutions to climate decline.
One challenge, of course, is the exceedingly short lifespan of the human species. It is incredibly difficult to think on the scale of hundreds of thousands or millions of years. It is also very difficult to interpret the massive amounts of data that we have from things like deep ice core samples which can give us clues as to what the climate was like over vast distances in time. Many arguments between well-intentioned highly intelligent scholars precisely revolve around the interpretation of this data. Then there is the complexity involved in terms of developing a cause/effect interpretation on climate. It is quite unclear whether this is the best lens with which to use, and even if it is, the challenges are massive. Even using some of our greatest tools such as massively parallel supercomputing with possible AI support, it does not account for the incredibly large number of intricately complicated interactions necessary to form reasonable hypothesis on the human impact on climate. And then there is the challenge of employing a purely rational interpretation of the problem of climate decline, one in which it is easy to demand hard-and-fixed answers – binary yes or no – to the questions being posed and the solutions being offered.
All of this makes it incredibly easy to form divisions into how we look at our present circumstances and makes it exceedingly difficult to come to some sort of consensus. There are many diverse interests at stake and an immense history of and momentum behind the structures of power and influence that are currently in place. Crucially, it is clear that intellect alone will not be enough. It is worth noting that there are even claims, some made in good faith, some not, which hold that science itself is incapable of developing a cause/effect model for or interpretation of our climate and thus we cannot at present properly evaluate human behavior’s influence on climate.
Thus, even with respect to science alone, we find ourselves to be in extremely difficult circumstances. Now add to this so many of the other aspects of human life which pose challenges to seeing that a problem exists, fully understanding the problem, appreciating and valuing the problem, and making the difficult choices which could involve both short-term and long-term suffering with absolutely no guarantee on whether those choices will lead to the improvement of the situation.
In my opinion, the parallels between the movie and real life are not the coming catastrophe (comet vs. climate destruction), but in how much similarity there is in the challenges of even seeing that a problem exists and getting the right people to develop and implement solutions in the context of incredibly powerful and diverse interests which stand in the way. In the movie, the problem is quite simple – there is a comet verified using the scientific method and whose path can be determined through science and mathematics. The problem in the movie is far simpler to identify than that of human-caused climate decline. But even with a far simpler problem to identify, the challenges that are present in the movie completely overwhelmed them, and they are the same or similar challenges which are currently present with the far more nebulous problem of climate decline, it being far easier to ignore because of its nebulousness (is that a word?).
The movie has been criticized for practically bashing the viewers head with a sermon. But I am quite sympathetic with such “bashing.” Here, I recall an event a couple of years ago when Senator Diane Feinstein was confronted by young teenagers regarding climate decline. In contrast to the politicians, scientists, etc., it was the children who showed, in my opinion, the proper urgency of the problem – the understandable panic due to the tepid and self-serving approaches currently being taken.
The movie also shows another parallel – that of the challenges of communicating the problem to a widely diverse audience who may not share the same technical background to understand the problem and who do not want to hear the dire implications. In the past, I have been frustrated at how the description of human-caused climate decline has been dumbed down. But now I am somewhat more sympathetic. From a certain perspective, the urgency of the problem and the great urgency of a solution to that problem is not compatible with a slow nuanced debate on the existence of that problem, a debate which could go on indefinitely.
In my opinion, it is wrong to look at the problem and solution to human-caused climate decline in terms of a hero myth. There will be no heroes here. If there is to be a solution, it is likely to be brutal and cause extreme suffering for prolonged periods of time, suffering that could last for a number of generations. Far better would be to imagine the solution as the Goddess Kali at whose hand one is dismembered, but by whose hand one is put together again having a better sense of what is important and who is stronger because they have survived.February 15, 2022 at 5:00 am #74527
Thank you Robert, so glad you decided to join our COHO on Don’t Look Up. As always, you provide great nuance in handling the topic. And I am in full agreement with what you’ve said, to begin with, that we should first all challenge the conventional language. You are absolutely right, that “climate change” makes one think we’re only talking about changing weather. I like your suggestion of calling it instead something like anthropogenic climate decline. Others have suggested human-caused “climate chaos” which also captures the true meaning.
I also sympathize with your sympathy for the urgency of the matter, which those kids in the video you shared certainly grasped. In response, Feinstein could do nothing but wield her authority over them like a cudgel “to put them in their place,” flashing her credentials of an old-standing guardian of the status quo.
Acknowledging the urgency means that despite the “nebulousness” of climate science— the fact that it works through statistical analysis and modeling rather than linear cause-and-effect predictions— there are enough concrete markers of empirical evidence to warrant such urgent action. We can see these effects all arounds us; from a certain point view, the evidence is overwhelming—like a comet about to hit earth.
Notwithstanding the complications, we should all be sympathetic to a certain measure of oversimplification in order to take action, as we’re dealing with an existential threat and not just another story among others.
As I think of the logic of this problem, I am always brought to a point of reflection about creativity. Whenever I am engaged in my art, when I’m drawing or painting no less than when I write, the challenge is always the same: to make things as simple as possible. The world is infinitely complicated, never to be fully grasped, but our image of the world, if it’s going to mean anything, must be made simpler than the world is. For this is the precondition of being in a position to say something about it and issue a response.
This “alchemical” reduction of the primal matter of the Real, the massa confusa at the start of the Opus, may have something to do with the creative instinct that likes to make order out of chaos. But it is also a property inherent in the functioning of human understanding as such.
And speaking of chaos, is it not the implications of chaos theory and statistical analysis that make climate science so difficult to understand? I’m not even going to pretend that I fully grasp it myself! Nevertheless, with respect to this issue of knowability, I think the film still provides nice parallels.
For although it was known with an almost 100% certainty that the comet would smash into earth, this knowledge remained obscure to the general public. Because it was not directly visible, the existence of the comet could be ignored, even by government officials. Precluding direct observation, the comet was like the arcane knowledge of experts locked away in their ivory towers, looking at a dot in the sky. But that is exactly what everyone saw the night the comet became visible in the sky.
This is a great analogy of the difference between empirical knowledge and myths or stories. What begins as a dot in the sky is not just another story. Where stories try to give meaning to a life, science studies precisely what is perfectly meaningless, the “accidental” nature of Nature, the nature of what simply is, irrespective of any human meaning or purpose. The comet hurling towards the earth has no particular meaning; it means nothing at all; it is completely non-essential. It simply is on a collision course with Earth.
Although much simplified, this is a fundamental analogy of our knowledge of human-caused climate decline. From the moment it becomes a verifiable scientific fact, the phenomenon still requires a little faith to grasp. But in a media space and culture where this type of faith and trust on authorities has eroded so much, scientific knowledge comes to be regarded as one more “myth” among others. Although this is a fashionable belief in many “spiritual” circles around myth, it can be extremely dangerous, as the film suggests. For when the critical line between empirical knowledge and belief/faith is no longer recognizable as such, when everyone is content with private truth (i.e., ideology), we wind up in a culture of mendacity, a “post-truth” disinformation culture where myths proliferate without bounds. Such a loss of the common logos of self-understanding, or the proliferation of “personal mythologies,” so the film seems to say, which has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, is a very serious existential threat.
The movie shows us that such a flippant attitude towards scientific knowledge, the very lack of rationality, flawed and limited as human beings are, nevertheless leads to disaster. Our inability to grasp basic facts and truths in the face of impending disaster will come to bite us in the end, when it is too late. For the moment that you can “see” the comet in the sky, banking on irrefutable sense certainty, it means we have already failed.February 15, 2022 at 6:30 am #74526
Mythistorian – Recently, I was in a discussion with a wonderful professor of mine at PGI about the ancient problem of squaring the circle. It began because I had posted an article on a recent paper which solves it through the process of equidecomposition, the breaking up of an object into identical potentially complex pieces. The idea is to take as the object a circle, decompose it into equal pieces, and rearrange the pieces such that it forms a square of equal area to the circle. This paper used 10^200 pieces (10 with 200 zeroes after it), each identical peace being exceedingly complicated and very difficult to visualize. In our discussion, I made the distinction between a rational interpretation of the problem and the problem as embodying a true mystery. The original problem posed in the 5th century B.C. took on an entirely rational character, and it turns out it was unsolvable (the additional requirements were that only the Euclidean tools of compass and straightedge could be used, and that the process entailed a finite number of steps), though this was not proven until 1882. Yet there was an intuition of its unsolveability. Thus, eventually it became acquainted with anything thought to be impossible. The medieval and early modern Latin alchemists adopted a less rational interpretation of the problem, one which embraced to a much larger degree the irrational and preserved the far deeper mystery it embodied.
I suppose I see the problem of human-caused climate decline in a similar way – it embodies a profound mystery which is lost if made completely rational. For here there is a parallel between the comet in the movie and climate decline. When the comet becomes visible to the naked eye, it is too late. Likewise, if the problem of climate decline becomes fully visible (i.e., every scientific measure indicates catastrophe), then it is too late – the point of no return has been reached. The visibility and measurability of the problem where cause-effect is completely uncontroversial indicates the problem has fully manifested into the rational sphere and is too late to solve. But, while there is still mystery in the problem where there is an irrational relationship to it, then there is hope.
With respect to the challenges posed by differing agendas and existing power structures which have long history, I think that Naomi Klein’s book entitled This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate (see enclosed link below) is quite excellent. One argument is that those who are pushing for progressive agendas are obfuscating their intentions by using climate decline as their argument for certain actions. And this is a very difficult argument to counter.
I am not sure I agree that simplicity is preferable in all cases. For example, you expressed interest in Giegerich’s work. But he argued that what is required for psychology and for the world more generally is a higher form of thinking or thinking on a higher plain, an approach which is far from being simple. The process of using thinking to accomplish the alchemical dissolution is itself of high complexity. And he feels Hegelian dialectics is the best tool we have, not the easiest approach to learn or use. To be honest, I fully agree with Giegerich here – we do need a higher form of thinking to solve modern problems, psychological or otherwise.February 15, 2022 at 7:07 pm #74525
I especially appreciate this observation of yours:
If the work creates waves of response on different levels than the artist intended then the artist has touched some collective fibre, deliberately or not.”
Norland does a wonderful job of seconding your thought and expanding on this theme in his reply (post #6826, which for some reason appears out of the order in which it was posted).
What also stands out for me in your remarks is your characterization of Elon Musk, whom you associate with billionaire and BASH founder Peter Isherwell in Don’t Look Up, as “a symbol of a far darker mystery, the human gift of rationality without the brakes of human feeling . . .”
That really strikes a chord for me; though Isherwell and Musk appear to share similar traits, in my mind this applies not just to Musk, but to all of Silicon Valley. For many, there is an assumption that technology will ultimately save the day (even as that technology is evermore driven by impersonal AI logarithms impervious to human feeling). I can’t help but see the figure of Isherwell (and Musk) as the inevitable end-product of our “off-tilt capitalism.”
A work of art often serves as a Rohrshach inkblot test that reveals more about the the viewer than its creator. For what it’s worth, I experience this satire as a compelling commentary on our post-factual society, a lampooning of elites across the board (whether politicians, the media, “woke” celebrities, MAGA partisans and their more liberal critics, etc.), with a focus on widespread selective denial of evidence in favor of pre-conceived beliefs (e.g., even with the comet clearly in view, a significant swath of the public follows the advice to “don’t look up”).
Others experience this as a harsh, heavy handed, self-righteous attack on conservative beliefs and values (true, up to a point – but that reaction ignores the implicit criticism of Hollywood liberals and pundits on the left as well as the right). At the same time, a great many who fall into that camp have not actually seen the movie (ironically, they don’t look up Don’t Look Up, but base their opinions on what others say).
What I do find intriguing is that the film raises questions, but does provides no solution, which reflects where we find ourselves in “the real world” today. There is no rallying of the troops, no deus ex machina at the end to make everything right. Pessimism carries the day – a dark comedy indeed!
I’d like to think it’s not prophetic, but . . .February 15, 2022 at 8:04 pm #74524
I do see a solution in the film, though it may be far from being popular. About 10 years ago, I wrote a paper entitled Living into the Decline, a paper which was written from a place where we cannot solve certain essential problems such as human-caused climate decline. It is important to note here that the paper is not meant to be a pessimistic view. Instead, it looks at the state directly and acknowledges that the hero myth may not be applicable, that it may be too late for us to act in a ways which reverses the decline, that the road of no return may have already been reached, and it asks the critical question “What do we do then?” How to we proceed and, more importantly, what attitude must we cultivate to do so.
The paper was written from a place that recognizes that we in the West are living in a period of decline and what I thought was the crucial issue of how one can live an authentic life during such a difficult period. This imagining was greatly influenced by my reading of Dr. Oswald Spengler’s excellent book Decline of the West, a book that views cultures as biological organisms whose life can be seen in terms the stages of birth, ascendancy, peak, decline, and inevitable death. ‘Civilization,’ Spengler wrote, embodies the final stage of a culture, the culture’s possibilities almost exhausted. And this is a similar view to Goethe in his short essay Geistesepochen (Epochs of the Spirit) which sees cultures as natural processes which go through four fundamental stages; Poetry, Theology, Philosophy, and Prose. Cultures begin with “deeply experienced perceptions” and end with “confusion, resistance, and dissolution.”
The attitude I suggested which I think would be helpful in such circumstances is to see decline as a perfectly natural stage and to not necessarily assign to it negative judgment, a judgment which would potentially weaken our ability to lead authentic lives during this period. We must abandon the hero myth and embrace decline, solving what problems we can, but also being open to experiencing what decline brings. I believe that one must have the attitude similar to the “Rainmaker” of Kian Tschou who, when he restored himself to the Tao, there was a downpoaring of the rain that was urgently needed in a place that for many months had seen only drought. And it is with such an attitude that we can help each other likewise lead authentic lives.
This is what I see as the solution expressed in the film (whether they intended it to be a solution or not) – everyone coming together at the dinner table and, with their entire being, authentically living in the moment … together.
RJFebruary 16, 2022 at 12:04 am #74523
So glad that you brought up Naomi Klein, whose thesis is also running in the back of my mind, as Don’t Look Up can be said to be a mythic globalized instance of what she calls “disaster capitalism”, otherwise known as the “shock doctrine.” The obscene notion that we should attempt to profit from the human suffering and oppression that we may directly or indirectly cause.
I also like your zeroing in on the aspect of true mystery, which is, in the first instance, a quality of unknowable Nature, Nature beyond the reach of human meaning and purpose, beyond the human, all-too-human web of significances. For even in understanding the laws of nature, we do not come close to understanding why they exist, why they are just so and not otherwise.
This transcendent mystery also extends right into our human nature, which may come to face us in the unknown nature of the human experiment. The meteor then becomes a mythic projection of the collision course of the self—both collective and individual—at the intersection of myth and history.
The hurling comet is the secret identity into which we were born and in which we actively participate, re-creating and reproducing a global system which has become sustainable.The transcendent mystery of the comet is announced with these words uttered by Dr. Mindy when he first spotted the comet with the naked eye: “It’s horrific and it’s… And it’s beautiful at the same time.”
What in the world can bring together the qualities of the horrific and the beautiful at the same time? Are we not here in the presence of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans? The “noumenous” is here written in prose as something that appears both horrific and beautiful at the same time. Dr. Mindy, without the need of great poetry or mysticism, can express the essence of such an encounter with the Divine by simply describing what everyone can see now with the naked eye. As we know, such paradoxical descriptions—a component of the Hegelian dialectics— effectively serve to collapse the function of meaning and identity within human language, like the alchemical description of the polymorphous lapis as “the stone that is not a stone.” And if you listen to film composer Nicholas Brittell’s track for this moment, entitled “The Comet Appears,” the qualities of a transcendent mystery becoming manifest to the common person is perfectly invoked:
The important thing here is the placement of the mystical experience within the reach of the common person, the average citizen with their oversimplified ways of thinking.
I should say that this moment is not necessarily a sign of failure as it would have happened anyways, even if humanity had managed the correct response. What it is is simply a sign of the inevitable and what is to come.
I totally agree, by the way, for the need of more complex thinking. But we should perhaps talk here about the difference between the language of science or a discipline and the language of its popularization. One thing is for experts to talk to each other at the cutting edge of their research, another is to make these sights accessible to the wider public.
On the other hand, being a Hegelian myself, I cannot but turn around this problem of simplicity. As it seems to me, the true mark that one has reached that higher level of complex thinking, say, to be able to understand Hegel or Einstein, means that one has been able to recognize the enormous simplicity of their schemes and language. I’ve always kept in mind Einstein’s motto to “make everything as simple as possible—but not any simpler!” General relativity, therefore, is an extreme simplification of the cosmos—but who would call it anything but simple?
So when it comes to a popularizing style for such insights, we are dealing with a different sort of simpliciter simplicity. There are at least these two senses of the notion of simplicity, not one necessarily better than the other, but each appropriate to its particular context.February 17, 2022 at 8:45 am #74522
With respect to the ending of the film, I do think, like Robert, that the film does provide a solution, but I see it very differently.
Always in terms of the film, I see beneath the apparent pessimistic tones of the Last Supper scene, which moves within the groves of the Christian myth, an ultimately optimistic redemptive core. There is redemption in the end; it is possible to trick the devil with the devil himself, allowing the devil to fall into its own trap the way Isherwell does in the new planet.
The image of the family dinner, a kind of thanksgiving “holy family,” does connote the image of the Last Supper in the Christian story. This is also an archetypal image on its own right which forebodes the Hero’s Sacrifice and eventual Resurrection. Within the frame of the Christian myth, the “failure” of the hero, the hero’s crucifiction, becomes a sign of its “success” or redemption. Such is the paradoxical language of true myth as vera narratio. Although I don’t want to get lost in a theological discussion, the inclusion of this image in no way points to the abandonment of the hero. On the contrary, it is the hero’s ultimate sign of completion: it is finished.
If we stick to the imagery of the movie, I don’t see how the ending—or the whole movie— means that we should accept our collective demise as a “natural” occurrence. There was nothing natural in the process that led to the movie’s conclusion. That sounds like a different kind of movie—a truly pessimistic one. (I think of a movie like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) as better fitting a depressive description). But everything that led to the demise of humanity in Don’t Look Up happened through the “unnatural” agency of human beings, of our hyper individualistic uprooted culture, which is splintered by ideologies and fanatical beliefs with very little rationality to go around, and which is ultimately taken over the brink by the very hero this culture worships: Peter Isherwell, who is the truly “Satanic” figure of the movie.
At the heart of the movie’s tragic ending, no doubt, there is a sense of a collective failure of responsibility, for which our beloved protagonists would have to pay with their dear lives. Nevertheless, in the beautiful prayer spoken by Yule (Timothée Chalamet) which I think very powerfully puts forth the still living core of the Christian myth quite beautifully:
That is the sad ending of the movie where, I claim, most people get stuck. Moreover, after this point, they even stop watching or hearing what the movie is saying beyond this point. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to concentrate on those parts which virtually everybody misses or glosses over—probably because it was mixed with the rolling of the end credits.
So I get why audiences are “bummed out” by the destruction of the whole planet in the end, especially with the beautiful score leading there, written by Brittel for the final scene of the Last Supper called Memento Mori. Nevertheless, in a paradoxical way, a fundamentally optimistic message makes itself felt in the final acceptance of the inevitable.February 17, 2022 at 8:52 am #74521
Once again, I want to stress that we need to “stick to the images,” as James Hillman would say, and try not to bring in any further hypothesis or concepts extrinsic to the film. That the Christian myth is written all over the movie, we can readily demonstrate as we have begun to do with the image of the Last Supper, where Yule, who gives the final prayer, plays the role of the Savior.
But the Christian myth is also leveraged by BASH itself, right from its initial presentation, with image of the creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, where God himself holds the new iphone in hand, thus positing Isherwell as an “ape” of God, all the way to the finish line, with the image of the Garden of Eden painted on the naked Golden Age that Isherwell imagined.
Letting the film speak for itself, I will keep uploading its imagery, concrete data we should be thinking with and not about. The mythological trick is to think within the film, avoiding modes of “external reflection” (Hegel), as the latter only take us closer to our own beliefs rather than what the film may be actually saying. So let us proceed with the conviction that everything we are looking for to make an argument is already contained within the film, down to its last details.
There are a couple of such key details which may reveal to us the film’s hidden optimism, ones that, in my opinion, outstrip the depressive tones of its apparent pessimism. I would call them “Easter Eggs” were they not so obviously out in the open. And yet they are consistently overlooked, together with the “happy ending” alleged by BASH’s arrival on another, even better planet—22,000 years later!
Since in my mythblast I’ve already made reference to the latter, I will in my following posts focus on these two details: 1) Randall Mindy’s final Redemption and (2) the final song, which started the credits, entitled “Second Nature,” written by Brittel and Bon Iver. And I will try to show how the latter is offered as an interpretive key for the former. For they come one after the other as kind of complementary structure.February 17, 2022 at 5:24 pm #74520
Let us consider the image of the Last Supper. While I think it is an extreme stretch to apply this image to the movie, in a way it could work depending on how you see that image. In some imaginings, Christ as redeemer does not do so in the way which is popularly held. He is not the Christ who saves humanity, but is instead the man who embodies the example of how to live life authentically and uniquely. He is the one who has lived his own life and worked through the problems as they have emerged, both psychologically and physically, in his own life. He is the one who has been gripped by the Divine and the Devil – the one who has confronted both and worked out a solution to both – instead of following someone else’s path (which may also be likewise Divine). He is the one who is dealing with the particular challenges/problems of the Age in which he has been born. And he offers the possibility of redemption to us, not by being a hero, but by having set an example of how to live life authentically and responsibly. Crucially, by living an authentic life, one can be led to dismemberment, whether physically or psychologically, something which is shared across the cultures of the world throughout time. The Divine has inspired us in Life, and as we are human-all-too-human, we must experience to the dregs the ultimate culmination of that life, which may be crucifixion. Thus, we see Christ, not in terms of the hero myth or in terms of the “Imitatio Christi” of Thomas à Kempis where imitation is of Christ’s outer life, but instead as a far more nuanced being whom we can imitate on a far deeper level by living, as Christ did, one’s own life and doing so authentically. If we are to see the final scene as relating to the Last Supper, it is as a unique life authentically lived, especially in its last moments, before enduring the crucifixion.
Of course, none of this is meant to say or imply that the crucifixion is a necessary part of the path. Instead, it is meant to recognize that crucifixion may be part of one’s life and, if so, we still must live an authentic life. And one of the great impediments to living an authentic life is the hero and that a hero will save us. Living like there will be a solution to our problems instead of living an authentic life whether there is a solution or not. There is a certain wisdom to Dante’s “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.” It is a very soulful saying, one which helps us to find our way in the dark; to learn to see without light. The hero myth can sometimes interfere with living life as it is, especially in dire times. It is the holding on to solving the darkness that is part of the experience of dire circumstances with light instead of learning to see or navigate in the dark. The challenges of life may or may not have solutions. If there are solutions, we must absolutely strive to find them! But, if there are no solutions, we should not live life in despair – we must go on living, not a provisional life in fear, but an authentic life, affirming and embracing Life as it is.
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