Making Waves, or, Interstellar

Right off the bat: I’m a Nolan fanboy. Feel free to take everything I say with a grain of salt. Additionally, while there aren’t any full-on spoilers below if you’re trying to steer clear of any information about the movie prior to seeing it, obviously don’t read on, but if you’ve seen a few trailers than this post shouldn’t ruin anything for you.

SPACE ATTACK

SPACE ATTACK

There’s a scene in Interstellar where a spiffy spaceship is parked in a knee-deep ocean that stretches out for miles in every direction. Cool, calm, gorgeous waters stretch out to a lavish mountain range in the distance. Only those aren’t mountains yo. As the trailers for Interstellar have made abundantly clear, those are waves. Massive, inescapable, overwhelming waves.

Watching the sequence unfold I found myself irritated that the trailers for the film had already shown me the insane imagery rather than letting me watch it unfold unaware of what was to come. But at the same time, that impossible wave is probably the image that best invokes the feel of Interstellar.

Director Christopher Nolan tied Leonardo DiCaprio to a chair and dropped him backwards into a bathtub. So he’s a pretty ambitious guy. Which means calling Interstellar Nolan’s most ambitious film to date is no small matter. And yet it’s utterly undeniable.

Interstellar takes place sometime in the future, on an Earth turned dustbowl by a wild, whacky plant-eating virus/disease/thing called the blight. Desperate for salvation from starvation and suffocation mankind looks to Matthew McConaughey and the stars.

From there Nolan does away with the precise three-act structure that has framed much of his previous work in favor of episodic crescendos that build to almost unbearable heights before crashing down like that monolith of a wave again and again. Tension piles on top of tension while Hans Zimmer’s score pounds away with Judgment Day organs louder and louder, only offering relief when the audience has been visually, sonically and emotionally fatigued.

For a majority of its nearly three hour runtime Interstellar is a collection of explosions, a series of dizzying tidal waves relentlessly hitting one after another. The film is at its best when it blends speculative physics with top notch filmmaking to mesmerize the audience with light and sound. At its height it is essentially the cool high school science teacher who lets students play with fire to illustrate scientific concepts. It provides just enough scientific background for the audience to key in to what’s going on before illustrating it with absolute grandeur.

Where Interstellar will perhaps lose some viewers, however, is when these displays of grandeur leave the realm of the scientific and move into the literary and metaphorical. Interstellar reaches a point at which previously Christopher Nolan would have made a hard cut to black, a top spinning on the table if you will, but this time around Nolan presses onward providing something of an epilogue to the tidal onslaught.

Interstellar ends up blending science with a hint of spirituality to ask big questions about human potential, human life and the human legacy. And it actually offers some satisfying answers. The film isn’t without its plot holes and it makes little attempt to tear away from the arguably elitist sentiments seen in Nolan’s recent work, but when those gargantuan waves come tumbling down Interstellar is moviemaking at its finest.

Step Aside Nerds, or, True Detective is the Future

Guess what? No spoilers ahead! How do you like them apples? Feel free to have seen absolutely none of True Detective and have absolutely nothing about True Detective spoiled for you. Except the protagonists’ names. Sorry.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the films and shows that first really clicked with me as a young(er) adult. The movies I watched in high school that opened my mind to just how much a movie could achieve. I suspect everyone has a list of entertainment that meets that criteria, and I suspect a lot of our lists have a lot of the same things on them. Entertainment that raises the bar for entertainment, or morphs it entirely. Things that capture the zeitgeist in such a way as to constantly appear on a towering, sometimes pretentious, pedestal above the uninitiated.

When I was in high school many of my peers put the works of Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky on that pedestal. When I was in college it seemed perpetually occupied by The Wire. For me that first work that blew the lid off of what I knew movies to be was No Country for Old Men.

There isn’t a right answer, to be certain, but there are definitely movies and shows that seem to hold that place for people more than others, and I suspect there is a new member of that pantheon.

LOGO ATTACK

LOGO ATTACK

If I were in high school today I suspect the hushed discussions during geometry class would be exclusively about True Detective.

The eight-part HBO mini-series, which now seems poised to be the first season in an anthology series that changes stories and characters year to year, ended last night after stirring up no small amount of discussion and speculation for the past two months. And rightfully so.

True Detective perpetually presented new ideas or reframed old ones. It’s very much a study of tradition cinematic masculinity, yet it tilts the concept just enough to the left to allow for an honest examination of that masculinity’s associated tropes and pitfalls. Similarly it’s very much a cop drama and yet its ambitious storytelling sensibilities differentiate it entirely from the likes of Law & Order and other traditional procedurals.

For all the familiar ground it treads in terms of detectives and investigation the nuance in True Detective is unlike anything else. Whether it’s a gaze into space, a tracking shot or mumbled existentialism the show never remained complaisant in its titular genre.

Just a couple of bros, broing out bro style.

Just a couple of bros, broing out bro style.

And why would it have?

True Detective was set up as a mini-series. Eight episodes. In and out. A story to tell from beginning to end within a predetermined span of time. It could pace itself accordingly, dulling out questions and answers at its own pace rather than having to worry about retaining momentum for an inestimable number of future episodes in an unknown number of future seasons.

Part of what makes True Detective so fantastic is that it’s self-contained.

Season one of True Detective is over in every sense of the word. The characters are done. The story is done. It was all extremely finite and all the more precious for it.

Here’s hoping the entertainment industry takes notice.

Are you excited for Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Did you see the first Captain America? What about the seven other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Did you read any of the graphic novels? Do you keep up with the comic?

What about The Walking Dead? Do you keep up with that comic? Are you caught up on Season Four? What about All-Out War? Have you played the video game yet? Are you read for the spin-off?

True Detective is eight hour-long episodes of television.

That’s it.

Two dreamboats coming up.

Two dreamboats coming up.

Sure it was influenced by various texts you could check out for your own curiosity, but when you have watched the first eight episodes of True Detective, you have watched True Detective. There are no tie-ins, there is no source material, there is just a single, stand-alone story about Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, two characters we’ve never seen before and will never see again.

True Detective is the antithesis of geek-culture’s mythology-heavy stronghold on entertainment. And I love it for that.

If True Detective is the piece of fiction that heightens my kids perception of what film and art are capable of I’ll be thrilled for them. And appalled that my kids are watching such wildly inappropriate television.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

Is there a television show or movie that changed the way you view entertainment?

Is it the 1999 romp Deep Blue Sea?

Why not?

Great Responsibility, or, Dallas Buyers Club

The relationship between a doctor and a patient is a tricky one. For a patient it entails an extreme amount of trust in a stranger. For a doctor it requires the ability to see each of a myriad of patients day after day as their own individual entities with their own individual ailments and concerns.

Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, explores the nature of that relationship in the midst of the lethal ignorance that plagued the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

dallasbuyersclub

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club follows Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey in a Golden Globe-winning performance. Woodroof is an electrician who enjoys rodeos, recreational drug use and rampant sexual conquest. In 1985 Woodroof also doesn’t understand that two out of three of those hobbies are likely to cause HIV. Woodroof has the social sensibilities you’d expect from a guy who goes to rodeos in Texas in 1985, and upon being told he has AIDS and somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 days to live, his first defense is an insistence that he’s not gay.

He eventually comes to terms with his lot in life and goes about fighting to survive any way he can – an undertaking that leads to Woodroof both helping countless other AIDS patients across the country and battling the FDA over what treatments he has the right to seek and partake in within the United States.

Woodroof’s battle with the FDA is the source of external conflict in Dallas Buyers Club as well as the aspect of the film I find myself dwelling on the most.

Ron Woodroof

Ron Woodroof

On its face Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t seem like a scary movies and I doubt anyone would categorize it as such. But it’s terrifying. Woodroof lived in a time in which people were dying and there were simply no answers. For an AIDS patient in the mid-80s options were extremely limited. Dallas Buyers Club presents two: luck your way into an FDA drug trial, pray you don’t get the placebos and hope against hope that an experimental drug actually works, or, join a buyers club where a fee gets you a subscription to questionably tested, FDA-unapproved vitamins and supplements that, when partnered with healthy living, can help patients survive another day.

Working with the FDA means a potential death sentence in the name of medical progress. Disavowing the FDA means potentially slowing down government funded research, and is absolutely no guarantee of survival. In Dallas Buyers Club, in the face of certain death, there is no wrong choice because for AIDS patients in the 1980s there wasn’t enough information available to make a right choice.

By the time I was old enough to know what AIDS was it was no longer a death sentence. By the time I was born polio was a relic. That’s because of wild advances in medical research that came with a very real, very human cost. Dallas Buyers Club puts a face on that cost.

Calling a movie, or any piece of entertainment for that matter, “important” has always sounded silly to me, but I think I would deem Dallas Buyers Club an important movie. It’s important because it’s a portrait of dying by way of the unknown. In my lifetime there hasn’t been a radical new medical threat that the world just straight up does not understand. Today, if you are diagnosed with most any disease you have nearly the whole of human experience regarding the topic available at your fingertips.

The thought of going into a battle for your very life with such limited information is a frightening and alien one, and it’s one that Americans 30 years ago and people in less modernized countries around the world today live with. Dallas Buyers Club gave me the opportunity to understand that notion on some small level and to peer into the medical past and appreciate modern medicine and my own health, two things I’ve simply understood as a given.

Within reason, every human being has a responsibility for their own life and survival. Luckily I live in a country and in a time where that responsibility can be fairly confidently placed in the hands of a medical professional. Dallas Buyers Club instilled in me the understanding that that confidence is very much a privilege and that it has not always been and may not always be the case.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Does the responsibility for one’s health lie more with doctors and regulatory agencies, or with the individual?

2. McConaughey, am I right?

3. Who the hell is the Yellow King?

 

For more on this year’s award-nominated movies:

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Captain Philips

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

The Wolf of Wall Street