Visibilia I

Herman Asselberghs and Emiliano Battista


Ralph Waldo Emerson has this to say on the difference between academic and letter writing: ‘The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, – and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words’. This exchange of letters between Herman Asselberghs and Emiliano Battista certainly hopes to prove Emerson right, though it will be for you, the reader, to decide whether their exchanges are graced with ‘good thought’ and ‘happy expression’. Their subject will be cinema and anything related thereto that seems to capture and reflect something of the contemporary situation. An exchange can be discrete, or build on an earlier one; it can be long, or short; lopsided, or even-keeled; it can come across as a dialogue, or as two monologues joined only by a common object... There are no rules, other than sticking to ‘chosen words’.


Dear Emiliano,

I hope your night walk with Ella through the park went fine. The punchline of our conversation on Interstellar was delivered right after the two of you left: Kobe asked me how people can still drink bottled beer when wheat no longer exists and the world as we know it has come to an end. Although I know that mais beer exists (Corona, right?), I have to admit that I was unable to come up with a clear answer to that question, as to many others generated by Nolan’s far-out sci-fi epic. The film seems to shrug off its many incoherences by way of a single implied one-liner: ‘It’s relativity, stupid’. Why not? Time dilation, gravity bleeding and the bending of Space-Time make for some exhilarating SFX and all dumbed-down, speculative science theory aside, the new Nolan delivers a few nice set pieces. Watching spacecraft float near a wormhole next to Saturnus in a packed Grand Eldorado on a Saturday evening is why we go to the movies. Watching that same spacecraft explode in outer space, seeing huge dust storms shroud the land and witnessing the last people on earth (almost) expire is why we’d maybe better stay at home. It must be the film’s key scene in a home library coupled with our high up seats overlooking the large cinema, hence watching spectators watching, that once again brought to my mind the final paragraph of Walter Benjamin’s famous ‘Work of Art’ essay: ‘Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’

Interstellar is the umpteenth film in an increasing supply of mainstream films, TV series and games catering to our taste for the apocalyptic. Its spectacle of destruction is probably closest to Gravity. Both tales of future space travel address the very feature that nowadays space tourism entrepreneurs want their clients to forget about: on board, there’s a very thin line between being and nothingness, it consists of nothing but the flimsy layer of the space probe’s fuselage. In both films, this clear metaphor for the precariousness of our earthly existence is played upon repeatedly by use of state-of-the-art sound and image design. At times to thrilling results: I find it hard not to like the awe-inspiring vistas onto distant galaxies (they must be even better in Interstellar’s IMAX version), the impacting debris on vulnerable space vessels (the destruction of the ISS in Gravity is a wonderful scene) or the vast silence of deep space (usually preceded or followed by contrasting blast sounds). Yet, how much more exciting would these films be if they’d dare to stick to no sound at all throughout the entire length of their out-of-the-capsule exterior scenes? How much more convincing and engaging would they be if they’d be able to surpass the box-office guarantees of their film stars and show us less well-known or even unknown actors to face the event horizon of a supermassive black hole?

Still, it is not so much the restraints of commercial filmmaking as Nolan’s downright conservatism that is weighing down his ambitious attempt to blend astrophysics and popular culture. The many online quarrels about Interstellar’s scientific accuracy are completely beside the point. Who cares whether a Hollywood blockbuster is correctly visualising either the Lense-Thirring effect within ergospheres or the X-ray radiation in accretion disks around a rotating black hole? The only reason the director is keen on countering any criticism in this area is probably to stir up the marketing buzz on his product in order to expand its global box office. He is not doing a very convincing job at that, I must say. His recommendation for spectators ‘who really want to take on the science of Interstellar’ to engage in multiple viewings and to read theoretical physicist (and production consultant) Kip Thorne’s companion book, sounds as ludicrous as some of the film’s incomprehensible dialogue/monologue scenes. A Christopher Nolan film being overly long and exhausting by definition, its plot development always seems much closer to the use of levels in computer games than to the deployment of narrative script formats. I didn’t care much for Inception precisely because of this obvious moving from one platform to another. Supposedly complex and labyrinthic, I never really felt lost in its multi-leveled dreamworld for every plane is identifiable at all times, properly distinguished from the other planes by setting and production design. And like with all of his films, it just feels too much like I’m sitting there without the controller, watching the director avidly play his game.

So, Nolan’s conservatism... I guess it first became clear in The Dark Knight: its timely and effective exploitation of both state and citizen safety concerns (within the mindset of the War on Terror and Homeland Security) was not so much meant to expose as to affirm and fuel post-9/11 paranoia. The Dark Knight Rises was even less subtle in advocating reactionary sentiments by pitting off populist resentment against civil dissent (that would be the Tea Party versus the Occupy Movement), in favor of the first. Of course, the film director denies any political preferences being voiced in his works, claiming that he uses societal events merely as a backdrop for just telling a story. And indeed, the worldwide resonance of these blockbusters, thanks to excessive viral marketing campaigns, would not be that huge if they’d take sides in issues that possibly could divide their audiences. That is why these Hollywood movies flirting with revolution and uprising (The Hunger Games, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, ...) can be read either way: depending on your personal stance, the Katniss Everdeens of these film worlds can easily represent left or right or any position in-between on the political spectrum. In the case of Nolan, it is his particular blockbuster-auteurism that gradually brings into focus his unabashed and uncomplicated American conservatism. Each new film added to his oeuvre does cleverly tap into these values and heartily promotes them as well.

Interstellar is all about the promotion of space exploration under the sign of the American flag. The timing of addressing the subject is a bit strange, given the massive budget cuts NASA has to endure for quite some time now. Since the retirement of the US Space Shuttle in 2011, government-sponsored manned spaceflight does well in Russia and China, but it never ventures beyond the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. When Kubrick started working on 2001: A Space Odyssey, man had yet to land on the moon, and did so before the film was out in the cinemas. In the few days between Interstellar’s world premiere and its US release, human spaceflight took a serious setback when a manned test flight by commercial spaceline Virgin Galactic took a fatal turn. Logically, Nolan’s plea for opening the (outer) space frontier has to hark back to the glorious past and prehistory of astronautics. Thus, Nolan screened The Right Stuff for his entire production crew as a Northern Star to the feel of his project. And, indeed, this heroic account of the seven test pilots selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first US attempt at manned spaceflight, delivers the blueprint for Interstellar’s gung ho, daredevil, final frontier ethos. Its main character is simply a future version of the 19th Century American settler, a space cowboy endorsing the deep-felt notion of Manifest Destiny. That’s probably where that self-evidence of drinking bottled beer on the porch at all times comes from (Mannen weten waarom!). But closing off the film on the Star-Spangled Banner waving over the very first human colony in a far away galaxy may be overdoing it a bit. Wishful thinking comes to mind. One wonders how Chinese cinema audiences feel about such a presumptuous ending? But then again, a quick online check of the box office figures tells me that Interstellar earned $5.4 million from 7,742 screens on its opening day (Nolan’s biggest opening in China, surpassing the $4.61 million opening record of The Dark Knight Rises) and that it went on to earn $42.3 million in its opening weekend from 7.14 million admissions, accounting 55% of the market shares. So far for ideology critique.

Signing off,




Dear Herman,

Please forgive this slow reply. Ella and I didn’t go through the park, but around it, which only made our journey marginally longer. After Interstellar, it felt like a breeze...

I love Kobe’s ‘got you’ comment, though one day you’ll have to explain how come he knows so much about the beer-brewing process at his age! In a way, his comment speaks directly to what I like best about the film – which, let me stress at the outset, I wasn’t really that crazy about. Nolan doesn’t tell us when the action is taking place; a century hence, maybe? What we know is that the threat of famine (as a result of climate change?) is on the horizon, that only one crop, corn, can currently thrive on the soil, and that there’s real danger that soon corn, too, will stop growing (though years later, when both Cooper kids are grown up and Murph sets fire to the field to get her brother out of the house so she can get back to the bookshelf, the corn still seems to be doing fine). Be that as it may, Cooper and his family (the wife, here too, has already passed on – a Nolan mainstay) live in what looks to be the American Midwest from the 1950s (the house, the interior decoration, etc.), with 21st Century cars and what looked to me like 1990s laptops – functional, but that’s about it. It’s as if what really matters to Nolan at this level isn’t verisimilar accuracy, but establishing the visual coherence of the film and inscribing it in a specific cinematographic tradition.

This mixture of visual registers goes hand in hand with the insistence of such things as Morse code. You’re right to bring up Manifest Destiny: Cooper and his stepfather sitting on the porch drinking beer are future versions of Mose Harper in John Ford’s The Searchers, who dreams of one day having a rocking chair, a cup of coffee and a porch. Nolan very deliberately chooses to inscribe space exploration in the expansion of America’s settlers from the East Coast to the entire continent. Morse code was a central tool of that expansion, and in Interstellar it serves to close the loop between 1950s America and our not too distant future, for Cooper ‘telegraphs’ his daughter both his love and the information, processed by TARS, she needs to be able to ‘solve gravity’ and save humanity – hurray! It turns out that it was Cooper who had been communicating with Murph through the bookshelf, a couple of hours earlier and several years before. I liked this scene: I liked the rows of rows of bookshelves that seem at once to be lines and lines of code, and which give us the sense that Cooper is a future Alice, falling down the rabbit hole all over again. It is a set piece every bit as effective as the one you mention, with the huge tsunami initially mistaken for a mountain. The conceit itself is cheesy and, not being Kip Thorne, I cannot speak to its plausibility; if I understood it, it depends on bending the space/time continuum, and on the ‘fact’ that gravity – and love – are the only forces (correct term?) that can survive dark matter.

At this point, we see that the investment in Morse code runs deep. It connects to Manifest Destiny, as we saw, but I think it is also meant to call to mind the spiritualist craze of the 19th Century (Marx in vol. 1 of Capital mocking the fad for ‘moving tables’ in Germany), as well as the obsession with ghost stories in that same century. Cooper has supposedly entered some new form of reality, put there by the mysterious ‘they’ (I won’t even try to figure that out), and in the midst of all this, Nolan reverts to what is essentially a ghost story technique. Conventionally, ghosts can influence matter – make furniture or books move – but they cannot touch matter, nor can they communicate directly: they need a medium, be it a book, lights that flicker on and off, etc. I found this effective. But perhaps, and I am willing to concede this, it is because I could make something of it, when so much else left me baffled or indifferent.

You mention Nolan’s conservatism, and if I understand your point correctly, you see this in the fact that Nolan, far from complicating or exposing post-9/11 paranoia, preys on and affirms it. I see this clearly in The Dark Knight trilogy, which I find awful aesthetically, and which, like you, strikes me as entirely reactionary politically. However, I’m less certain of how this might apply to Memento (still my favorite Nolan flick), or to Interstellar. What did strike me as reactionary, however, was the portrayal of evil. Nolan shows a great deal of imagination with the set pieces – you discuss that, and there can be no denying that it is in these that the film pulls off whatever magic it has. But one front where his imagination seems to come up empty is in putting into images the ways in which all this technological innovation, all this flirtation with semi-bionic conditions, will affect our sense of what we are, or who we are, or what sort of animal we are. So when we come to the planet with Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), what we encounter is our average villain, our average bad man, transposed to another planet. Equally unimaginative is the way Nolan pictures Cooper Station at the end of the film: mid-20th Century America, transposed to another planet, where kids play baseball even though the game doesn’t seem to make any sense anymore. Inscribing a story in the visual tradition that informs and sustains it, without bothering overmuch about how all the plot pieces fit together, seems to me a good aesthetic choice; slanting a baseball diamond seems to me a cop out, a failure of imagination.

This failure of imagination strikes me as concurrent with a lack of political vision. The Searchers shows, rather brutally in fact, the violence that goes into securing the bourgeois dreams of the Mose Harpers of the world, and the hauntingly beautiful final shot of John Wayne walking away framed by a door shows that the one who makes that dream possible is by that very reason incapable of being part of it. That was the old scenario, and its cruelty no longer applies to Cooper: he can cross over to the other side, and return unscathed. No blood on his hands. I’m certain that, if humanity is to survive, it will eventually have to figure out a way to make space hospitable to life. There is something sublime in the thought that our species will in fact never die out, that we will in one way or another adapt and endure. But it will come at a cost – to the earth, incapable of sustaining human life, and to ourselves. Nolan’s conservatism in Interstellar is his unwillingness to look into the heart of this abyss, to give form to a thriving but entirely changed humanity.

More soon,