Thoughts On ‘Interstellar’

I just watched Interstellar. I had a great time. I feel like director Christopher Nolan really nailed the feeling he was going for – which, to me, was a bold mixture of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brian Eno-scored NASA documentary For All Mankind, life affirming earth panorama Koyaanisqatsi, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos… with a sprinkling of exquisite 90s galactic haunted house Event Horizon and Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. It may not be for everyone, but for my particular tastes and predilections, it hit the spot in a very specific way.

Interstellar-Trailer-02

It never coheres perfectly, but I was genuinely caught up in the illusion he was pulling off this time. I was high on the experience, despite seeing his influences splattered everywhere, in startling clarity. Hell, the main theme is an unabashed riff on the final movement of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score. In that last sequence, we watch a Russian cosmonaut rocket explode on takeoff, then tumble to the earth, pirouetting in slow motion. See it here:

Powerful stuff, right?

It’s an apt metaphor for the fear driving this film’s ambitions. Writer Jonathan Nolan was quoted saying, “We’re not fucking going to space,” to originally attached director Steven Spielberg. He goes on to say, “We’ve literally peaked as a species with a little flag on the moon. Can you imagine in a million years when the alien anthropologists turn up and they find the flag and say, ‘Fuck they almost made it. They got that far.'”

I get the feeling that when a science fiction film is considered, all bets are off for the pedants who normally respect the illusory irrationality of cinema. While I will make no case for Interstellar as a perfect piece of cinema, or an important one, I will say that it’s not only a grand ride; Neil DeGrasse Tyson agrees.

As I reminded a friend: Tyson is an astrophysicist, not a film expert. I’m merely making the case that, because someone who has dedicated his life to what most of us deem speculative fiction can fully accept the film and take it on its own narrative terms, surely the armchair (or wood panel basement) equivalent can learn to relax and enjoy sci-fi as you would any other genre. Or not.

I suppose that tangent was merely a nod toward the fact that, hailed as a “true” sci-fi epic or not, this was a supreme aesthetic experience that never blows audience intelligence out the airlock. It may not even attempt the depth most of its inspiration (especially Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, which Nolan has specifically mentioned and is totally fucking streaming in full on youtube here) but it grabbed me on a gut level that few films do. I think you should watch it.

Addendum

Sitting at work this morning, contemplating Armistice Day, I recalled a line from Interstellar, regarding the spaceship under construction. “Every rivet could have been a bullet.” This appears to be a direct nod to President Eisenhower’s famous Chance For Peace speech, where he intoned the following:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

This reinforces my understanding of the film as not only a thoughtfully grand magic trick, but a call to arms (so it were) for the current generation to focus our ambitions beyond ourselves, and look to the skies rather than our borders. It’s a remarkably similar sentiment expressed countless times throughout the modern iteration of Cosmos, which is now streaming in full on Netflix. Watch it if you have yet to.

Philip Glass + Sesame Street

This is a collaboration between legendary minimalist composer Philip Glass and rainy day childhood staple Sesame Street. It is called Geometry of Circles. Somehow, I never shared this before. I am so sorry.

Years ago, a friend linked this video and I nearly wept with the recognition of something I knew so clearly from childhood and never since. This is perfect. Literally. I can’t imagine a more direct pairing of music and visuals; form and content reflect and amplify into the very essence of an idea.

Behold the hypnotic logic.

Koyaanisqatsi

So I discovered that the entire groundbreaking, timeless, brilliant film is free on youtube.

Koyaanisqatsi

Instructions for those who have not seen Koyaanisqatsi:

1. Stop what you are doing immediately.

2. Turn volume up high.

3. Watch Koyaanisqatsi.

4. Bask in silent astonishment.

5. Thank me.

Honestly, this is one of those life-changing works of art which you will simply and honestly never forget.  I fondly recall my first viewing, laying prone in front of a laptop in a cabin on a mountain at night and feeling my astonishment overtaking all physical sensation.  This truly begs for the big screen, or at least a reasonably large one, with a reasonable sound system accompanying the visuals.  Yet its artistry thrives in any time, place, or size.  Which is exactly why I am sharing the profound discovery that it is free to anyone willing to pay only time and curiosity.  Hell, if you have firefox with adblock plus, you won’t even see the ads (and honestly, get it – I couldn’t imagine this seamless dream interrupted by commercials) and the only thing you’re missing is the absolute clarity of the original high fidelity print.  You’ll undoubtedly recognize certain elements within this time travelling all-encompassing slice of Life Itself, both stylistically and culturally.  From the frenzied time-lapse shots of nature and city life contrasting with assembly lines and traffic patterns to the impossibly slow motion glimpses of astonishment and banality, the style and content of this film has influenced more than a generation of visual art and storytelling.

The best part is that I haven’t even gotten to the music; the reason this stands 30 years on as the timeless accomplishment it is:  Philip Glass‘ score is the 10 ton monolith blocking out the sun, the elephant in the room, the absolute gravitational pull of this work.  If you are at all familiar with 20th century minimalism via Charlemagne Palestine, Steve Reich, Terry Riley or their contemporaries, or especially Glass’ emotive, often romantic take on the sound, you are likely already familiar with some or all of these sounds; if not you are in for a warm embrace of what will likely become a hermetic world you’ll find easily inhabited and unequivocally addicting.  Call it lazy, but having the film here and ready to watch makes me reluctant to begin ascribing descriptors to the music.  It must be experienced to be grasped.  The marriage of sound and picture is essential for direct, uninhibited understanding, for knowing the intrinsic appeal of minimalism itself, for laying bare the nature of conceptual ourboros, the cyclical existence we’re evolved to respond to.  This score is meant to evoke the cosmic design of life itself from violent beginning to violent end and all of the impossibly close and personal yet gigantic moments in between.

Note: Do not listen before viewing.  Although entirely gorgeous, worthy, and entrancing on its own…  divorced from the imagery at birth, Glass’ score will never reach the same affection and thus should be saved for after-film experience.