December 11, 2011

Love (William Eubanks, 2011)


Stranded aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Lee Miller is left alone to ponder the majesty of our Earth and the fragility of his own existence, as he grapples with his waning sanity and dwindling air supply.

I have to say that I was wholeheartedly looking forward to this film. Although philosophical / psychological / contemplative sci-fi is rarely done right, there are great examples of the genre, movies that are transcendental, beautiful and thought-provoking like 2001, A Space Odyssey, Solaris and The Fountain. Alas, most directors fail at bringing to the screen the contemplation and sheer wonder of the genre; these duds are too numerous to exhaustively name here (Moon, The Clone Returns Home come to mind); and they all fail for the same reason: a lack of both gravitas and veritas.

First, let's talk about gravitas, a Roman concept evoking a certain weight, seriousness or substance, a dignity or importance; essentially, in art, it's about depth of the personality of the artist, a profoundness in the choice of a subject and its treatment. Gravitas usually comes from life experience (I personally doubt that anyone, no matter how much of a genius, could fake possessing any gravitas); anyone who's ever written (and is somewhat critical) will notice how life experience changes their writing, for better or worse, introducing to the work a complexity in thought and feelings, giving the impression that a work of art is 'lived-in', existing in a self-contained universe before and after we happen upon it. Complexity is crucial to contemplative sci-fi because that genre is rooted in philosophy and also because the pursuit of wisdom requires some measure of wisdom beforehand. Looking back at 2001, A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and its four-parts, although we may feel that Kubrick's discourse is over our heads at times, it always feels like he infuses the movie with existential queries he's personally grappled with. Even the movie's ending is a deep look into Kubrick's mind, embracing the ambiguity of existentialism and humanity's questions about its origin and destination.

Second, let's explore veritas. In Roman mythology, Veritas was the elusive goddess of truth, daughter of Saturn and the mother of Virtue (what we would call morality). It evokes truth, righteousness, beauty and virtue; in art, it's about a personal truth that transcends individuality and brings to light universal concerns. Veritas emerges in the artist's pursuit of existential questions, the chief one being 'what is the meaning of life?', a pursuit akin to philosophy. However, where philosophy is an intellectual treatise on wisdom, veritas also concerns emotional truths, and may favor approaches that appeal to the intuitive mind rather than the rational one. If we look at Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008), as well as most of Kaufman's oeuvre, although Caden's dream-like journey's fantastical and never makes any logical sense, it does make great emotional, synthesizing the human experience and artistic work in beautiful, gut-wrenching scenes. Kaufman is a master at veritas, from Craig Schwartz's need to be someone else to the ambivalence of heartbreak in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Although Eubanks infuses Love with noticeable production value, the absence of these two essential ingredients to any oeuvre d'art struck me, and I continuously asked myself why. The only reason I can come up with is that it's the nature of the genre itself. To endeavor to talk about life and humanity in a movie (or any other art form) is laudable, but the author needs to have something to talk about. Eubanks rehashes here everything he's ever seen in a movie that remotely feels existential; he 'borrows' heavily from 2001, to the point of plagiarism (some will say homage, but I'm going to stick to my guns on this one); he borrows heavily from philosophical directors like Terence Malick and Andrei Tarkovski without daring to bring anything novel to their work; the civil war re-enactments, although interesting at first, are quickly bogged down by their repetitive, slo-mo, music video aesthetic and their lack of pertinence; it also fails as a visual representation of Angels and Airwaves' album, unsuccessfully creating original tableaux worthy of Angels and Airwaves' music.

But, with all that said, William Eubanks shows a lot of promise as a director; his future relevance in film will hinge on whether he's able to grow as an artist and bring a new depth to the medium.