#haveseenmonday: Who Is My Neighbour? Attack The Block Asks Some Questions That Won’t Go Away

Over the last few years I’ve learned about ‘the other’; the person or people we keep at a distance, see as a generic group where the individuals who make up the group all share the same characteristics. These are traits that I don’t like, and they’re almost all people with whom we disagree in some ways. We can ‘other’ (it can be a verb also – like ‘medal’ can be a verb at the Olympics – which is a linguistic development about which I hold reservations) anybody. Take your pick: liberals, conservatives, Leave voters, Remain voters, non-voters, Trump supporters, the EFF, the ANC, whites, blacks, coloureds, gays, women, trans, bi. And so on; all of these and more I see being ‘othered’ in some way. Sometimes by me. It’s a way, I’m understanding, of keeping the challenge the person or group being othered presents to me at a distance; a way of not listening. A way of preserving my comfy echo-chamber (which was a human trait long before social media made it more obvious).

This was what was going through my mind when I revisited the 2011 British science-fiction/horror/comedy Attack The Block. I hold this film in great affection; a film which reminds me of London even more 9 years after moving to Cape Town. Starring a young John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker (they’ve done alright since, haven’t they?), it starts with a startling sequence of a young nurse (Whittaker) walking home from a shift on Bonfire Night. She’s on the phone, walking down a quiet, dark street. As she finishes her call, she realises she’s surrounded by a group of young men (teenagers, led by Boyega), on their bikes, armed with blades. They want her phone and jewellery; it’s a frightening scene, one which will play with familiarity to so many. All of a sudden a parked car next to them blows up as something falls from the sky on to it; there’s something inside the car. Whittaker runs away. The something turns out to be an alien, which the boys kill. As they head back to their home in the tower block (which is also home to Whittaker), the dead alien’s compatriots seek the boys out for revenge. What follows is a funny, violent, at times scare-inducing, play on all sorts of familiar film tropes, with dialogue that expertly picks up the language and intonation of many a South London teenager (or at least it did 8 years ago; in preparation, the director rode the top bus of London busses for a few weeks, listening to and recording teenagers speaking to make sure his film would sound authentic).

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It’s no spoiler to say that along with a multitude of nods to influential and cult films and books (I’m not even going to start down that rabbit hole), the film takes us to a place where the nurse and the teenagers who began the film in conflict end up finding each other and working together. Where initially they ‘other’ each other (most notably in a brilliant, breathless, funny scene where they all end up in the same flat together), by the end they’re working for and sacrificing for one another. The boys confess to Whittaker’s nurse that they carry weapons because “we’re as scared as you”, a moment which causes her to pause in the middle of a comedic yet urgent situation. Are we invited to consider that the boys are ‘othering’ the aliens (who are, after all, trying to defend an attack on one of their own); as the boys say at one point “They’re f***ing monsters”, a phrase often heard on the lips of an angry person lashing out a group perceived to have inflicted wrong?

The film ends on a note I’d forgotten, that resonated with and challenged me. Faced with the chance to get justice for the mugging, Whittaker refuses to identify John Boyega’s gang leader. “They’re my neighbours; they protected me.”, she says. For the follower of Jesus, that’s a phrase eerily reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges us to care for the very people we are most likely to describe as enemies, ‘the other’; a parable told in response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’. A few hours later I watched this TED talk (click on these words) by a South African journalist who was very public on the receiving end of a social media shaming for a mistake she made, ending with her losing her job. In it she reflects on the costs and consequences of shaming, and how we might go about things differently with those with whom we disagree; I reflect that when I shame someone out loud or in my mind as sexist/racist/whatever it is, I can easily ‘other’ them, the better to shut out any challenge from them which I may need to hear. Not that I excuse whatever the prejudice may be; but the question remains: how do I, we, do this better? And where is that same prejudice prevalent in myself?

Attack The Block appears to be a frivilous, esepecially British, sort of film that is entertaining but forgotten quickly. But it’s hard to forget; not only does it work well because it respects science-fiction, horror and comedy equally; and that it’s simply endlessly quotable, stacked with some great jokes and set-pieces. It’s also hard to forget because it asks me to confront in myself my gravitational pull to ‘other’ all sorts of people who upset and discomfort me; people who are in fact my neighbour; people who I maybe should seek to defend rather than shame.

Which is after all what I believe Jesus does for me.

#haveseenmonday: The Long And Winding Road Less Travelled in Arrival

I didn’t realise Arrival was such a dark film. Seeing it in the cinema on release I had been so overwhelmed by the sound, the cinematography and Amy Adams’s mesmeric performance that this passed me by. I’m not talking about tone, of course; this films ends in a place of hope and invitation. I mean in light levels. Most – or all? – of the exterior scenes of the film take place in shadows, or with the sun evidently just one side of the horizon or the other. Interiors are low lit also; I notice two exceptions – the spotlight shone from a helicopter in to Amy Adams’s face when Forest Whitaker returns to pick her up in the early stages of the story, the second towards the film’s end, when the whole screen is bathed in white smoke as one character goes behind the screen that had separated people from the alien visitors up to that point. It all points to a person – and a human race – living in the half-light of partial understanding; unaware that there’s a light that can be turned on until someone (or something else) does it instead.

In many respects Arrival tells a familiar story of alien first contact with earth, and tells it as a thoughtful drama rather than an action spectacular. Like many science-fiction stories, this is one concerned with how we as a species and as individuals understand ourselves, and how we conceive of ‘the other’ – whether that’s people or beings different to us, or God. It’s certainly the case that even on the small screen this is a film that’s deeply effective in evoking a sense of wonder; it may only be just over 30 minutes in to the film when we first see the aliens, but the lighting, the camera’s repeated reminding us of Amy Adams’s aloneness, the sound design and the remarkable score all evoke a sense of encounter with something that is truly different, alien in every sense of the word.

Arrival

Amy Adams’s performance is towering; she seems to be on screen for at least 95% of the run time; for much of that time we seem to be following her from behind or looking in to her face, a face blessed with the ability to express volumes. This film was always going to stand or fall on her performance; as a result, it stands very tall indeed.

The film initially sets itself up as a struggle between science (in the shape of Jeremy Renner’s character, a theoretical physicist) and language (Amy Adams); but it becomes more than that. Breakthrough in communication with the aliens is only achieved when Adams, followed by Renner, break out of the strict, rigid almost ritualistic structures laid down by science and the military; maybe it’s because I’m a priest and I was watching it in Holy Week, that I saw more than a hint of a reference to the curtain in the temple, separating people from God, through which only one priest could go and which was torn in two by Jesus’ crucifixion.

There’s something in that, however. So often words and laboratories, religion and science, mind and heart are pitted against each other. In Arrival we see the fruit of something else; something the film calls a ‘non-zero sum’ game, a movement beyond linear, binary thinking in to something more fluid, more supple. If moving beyond the boundaries laid down by military and science gives humanity a breakthrough in communicating with the aliens, it’s a departure from conventional ‘zero sum’, straight line thinking that is the key to the whole mystery and crisis that forms the heart of the film.

Like Arthur C Clarke’s classic 1950s novel Childhood’s End (clearly an influence on both this film and its source text), the vision of humanity presented could easily be something so optimistic and naive as to be of no use. Certainly that’s where Childhood’s End left me; but I felt differently on rewatching Arrival. Of course, right and wrong, truth and falsehood and many others are binaries we need – too much blurring of the lines leaves with an epidemic of uncertainty and fake news. This time around, however, I was reminded of how I characterise my own thinking as someone with ADD and two learning disabilities; not neuro-typical, I guess you would say. I say that I don’t think in straight lines; I think in blobs. Then I try to string the blobs together, make connections in order to form coherent thought and output (or not … ). Straight lines can be helpful; but I find it very difficult to follow them.

 

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A valuing of intuitive, relational thinking can also make us a bit more humble, a little less keen to make it all about us. Especially useful when it comes to the ‘other’ – the other person, culture, lifestyle or God. Trying to build bridges with something or someone utterly different to us needs more than a straight line-rationale; it needs a humble willingness to take the long, winding road of presence, listening and submission. When it comes to God, it comes with the awareness that we can’t build the bridge ourselves; we have to accept that all our rationality will only get us so far, and instead accept the invitation to the humble submission of walking across a bridge which we had no hand in building – and which for much of the time, we can’t see the other side of, or even much more than a step or two in front of us.

Arrival, in the form of Amy Adams’s portrayal of a linguistics expert learning a new of way of speaking and thinking, presents us with a humbling invitation to engagement with others and the Other; a vision which requires us to step beyond the straight lines we naturally default to, a commitment to the long and winding road of another’s design. It is in the letting go that we take up, the losing that we find, the dying that we live.

Have Seen Monday is a (hopefully) weekly series in which I reflect on rewatching a film I haven’t seen in a while. 

 

Elysium (2013)

A peril of blogging about film is that it can give the inadvertent impression that my opinion of a given film is fixed. My blog about District 9 (click on the last two words) is a case in point. I enjoyed much about that film the first time around, but I concluded that it didn’t have the depth it liked to think it did. I’ve re-watched it multiple times since (largely because it’s a film people like to watch when they visit us in South Africa), and my admiration has grown and deepened. I still find it exciting and fun, but I keep seeing new depth in it too. It turns out that it was I who wasn’t thinking deeply enough.

So it’s with a little apprehension that I finally settled down to watch the director (Neill Blomkamp) follow-up to that film, Elysium. Worryingly, my conclusions are similar if less positive overall; there’s much that’s good about it, but it’s ultimately disappointing. Like the former, this is a science-fiction earthed in the director’s South African reality. This time the context is the division between rich and poor; Earth has been left behind by the elite for an idyllic space-station called Elysium, always in view and out of sight by the teeming masses of poor left behind, grinding out lives of subsistence, dead-end jobs and subservience to a system loaded against them. Matt Damon gets caught up in an industrial accident on Earth; seeking healing he’s embarked on a dangerous course of action to earn illegal passage to the man-made paradise and certain healing.

There’s so much about Neill Blomkamp’s emerging style. He knows the grammar of science-fiction films well, but his is an authentically original voice and style. He directs actions scenes brilliantly in a post-Bourne world, using hand-held shaking cameras well but in a subtly different way. Every action scene is gripping and involving. As someone who lives in South Africa I like that he uses South African talent and patois alongside better known talent and language. Throwaway South African slang is brilliantly used to draw into the film’s world, not alienate. District 9‘s star is back again, similarly intense but in a key supporting role and a world away from that film’s fear-struck vulnerability.

Overall, though, it just doesn’t work. Key supporting roles (Jodie Foster’s being a case in point) are under-written to the point that we’re never quite sure what they’re for even at key plot moments; the coldness of the privileged elite seems less like the gap between rich and poor and more like lazy writing. Other than good medical care and nice gardens, Elysium itself doesn’t seem to have any actual content – which means the gap between rich and poor is never quite established beyond a need for good health care. Which might make sense (and it does) in South Africa, but just doesn’t work for the film’s central theme. By the time the climactic scenes roll around, you’re impressed and entertained, but confused as to quite what’s happening and why it all matters so much to so may people.

It’s a shame, but not a crying one. It’s still a decent film, but I’d be really surprised if I grew to feel about this film the way I do about District 9. What we do know for certain, though, is that Neill Blomkamp is a director to watch with excitement.

I rated this film 6/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

I watched this film at home on tv.

Star Trek (2009)

Re-watching this on DVD for the first time since I saw it on cinema release, it felt of a piece with its sequel in all the ways it should. It’s an origins story that reboots the whole Star Trek universe – we see the birth of Jim Kirk, him and everyone else enrolling in Starfleet Academy and the origins of their finding themselves on-board the Enterprise for life. It, like the sequel, is a joyride of a film; at pains to point how far its come from the cheap TV original with every swoop and swish and dash of lens flare (which is slightly less annoying than its omnipresence in the 2nd movie).

This is an action movie, not just a TV franchise now, so we have bigger set-pieces and buddy moments of a type we might not have expected: a Bond style skydive, a slightly irritating Spock/Kirk bromance and beefed up roles for bit-part players from the TV show. The effects sparkle, the sequences with Leonard Nimoy are a joy as opposed to what could have been horribly self-indulgent, and it all goes to show that J J Abrams really is the natural inheritor to Spielberg’s crown as cinema’s great entertainer.

I watched this on DVD on my laptop.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com