Sunday, March 29, 2020

"Vivarium," a movie about quarantine

"Vivarium," (available on Prime Video) written and directed by Lorcan Finnegan, stars Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots as a young unmarried couple who are sucked into an insecure security.  The film offers, uncannily, the perfect claustrophobic metaphor for quarantined viewers.  It is not soothing, but it is entertaining in the way that unsettling art can be.  

The movie opens with scenes of the woman teaching a preschool class, then finishing work and meeting her boyfriend (this synopsis contains no elements not in the trailer).  The couple playfully linger around the school, seeming innocent and tentatively happy.  They go looking for something to do and end up wandering into the office of a company offering cheap houses in a new development called "Yonder."  The salesman, whose name tag identifies him as Martin, is a creepy fellow who sounds like an alien trying to impersonate a human.  

The couple ends up driving to Yonder, following Martin's car.  They enter Yonder's gates, past a billboard showing a happy young couple with their laughing baby, set to enjoy newly energized lives "forever." The CGI artwork of endless rows of identical two-story green-purple houses, under a blue sky filled with unchanging small puffy stylized pink and white clouds, offers a chilling combination of reassuring cleanliness and basic prettiness (flower beds, lawns) with the sterility of a vivisection lab.  The total absence of other humans adds to the effect.  

Martin ushers the couple into model house Number 9, which, like the grounds and even the sky, is immaculate, minimally pretty and sterile.  The quarantined viewer feels (or at least this quarantined viewer felt) a chill of recognition at the enticement and threat of hermetic confinement.  

Martin shows the couple a bedroom made up for a baby boy, and the couple looks at him quizzically.  He responds with a few non-sequiturs and a maniacal grin.  The couple privately converse, and when they look up, Martin is gone and so is his car.  The couple drives in circles and discovers they can't get out of Yonder.  A box is delivered in front of House Number 9 containing a baby boy, with a message reading, "Raise the child and be released."

The rest of this sci-fi/horror/metaphorical feast involves fuller definitions of the terms "raise," "child" and "released."  

I found it necessary to decompress after the movie to allow my thoughts to air.  Among the first thoughts:  The fact that Martin and the rapidly growing baby/boy/man appear alien makes them likely metaphors for the coronavirus, which is trying to replicate itself in us, using us as disposable parents.  

It's a coincidence that "Vivarium," which premiered at Cannes in May, 2019 when there was certainly no advance knowledge of the coronavirus, would come into general release in the middle of the current pandemic.  
Perhaps non-microbe related hints of things to come inspired the movie makers, for instance the way people feel herded around like cattle, and the way they might wish to be herded around; unease at being governed by distant, uncaring forces, which people may wish were closer to them, bringing protection and security, and their fears about what closeness to a governing source could cost, like loss of privacy, or way of life, or, perhaps, life.

Like all effective works of art, "Vivarium" offers no help beyond the momentary solace that comes from knowing that other people feel what you feel.  That's a real solace, but just as the relief offered by mood altering drugs wears off, the effects of great art wear off and leave us without much benefit.

After all, the coronavirus and its attendant and unexpected remodeling of human culture are still happening, despite works of art.  We are still trapped in this transformation with little sense of agency or possible escape. 

Faulting art for being a short-lived fix would be unfair, since art does not claim to "fix" things.  I don't know what we'd
 do without art, and we should be grateful for whatever balm it supplies, but art is a short-lived fix, and in the case of "Vivarium" very short-lived.  However, if you're looking for something to take you out of yourself and then back into yourself as you wait to find out what unnamed aliens have in store for you, you can't go wrong with "Vivarium"!

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The strife below

The Emperor of Japan looked from his mountaintop at the strife below and wrote this poem.

Quietly a leaf seeks

a vanishing sun.

At the shore

water rushes...

I said too much!

My words pile up like

beached whales.

Oh, to be succinct 


Thursday, December 12, 2019

I asked a man

I was walking down Ventura Boulevard 
with pita from the Persian store and
I saw a man sitting on the sidewalk.
Yes, a black man, wearing black.
He was neither young nor old.
He did not ask for money.  He was sitting.
I looked at him and his brown eyes asked: "Where are you?"
and I wondered "Where am I?" and I asked the man
(with my eyes, for I was in a hurry)
what the President meant
when he said the enemy 
spent his last moments in fear panic and dread.
What did he mean, 
I mean,
What did he mean?
The man answered
(with his eyes, for he was not in a hurry)
"He meant our joy is not complete;
we are too conscious yet."
I saw a light at the end of a tunnel.
On the corner.
It was red.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

As above so below

Macro and micro
use the same clock
'cause they're in the same time
except when they're not.

Does a center need to hold?
Does a center need to be?
Does everything really
not refer to me?

The bonds of our atoms
it couldn't be clearer
break when the strivers
talk to a mirror.

Saturday, October 12, 2019


I got a call from Harry the Human, strange if only because he doesn't have a phone.  Harry is a telepath, the real kind, retired from playing nightclubs and cruise ships, where he pretended to be fake.  He inhabits a two-room shack in the desert north of LA.

Harry gets his fill of human communication out of the air and has no need for additional verbiage via technology.  Nevertheless my phone rang and it was Harry.

"Doug, man, I need help!"

"Harry?  Why aren't you telepathing me, if that's a verb?"

"I need you to help me think in human language."


I knew why.  Harry, in his communing with animals and people has concluded that human language is designed to manipulate what it describes (except when diverted from its purpose by poetry).

"You know why," Harry continued (he's telepathic, after all).  "For once, I want to control things."

"Harry, this must be serious!"

"We're all in the same boat," Harry sighed, "...the same sinking boat."

Harry is pessimistic by self-definition, whereas I continually strive to burnish my optimism (figuring my pessimism needs no burnishing).  Put differently, I view the glass as half full (of shit).

Harry believes that human consciousness is a construct, one of whose purposes is to individualize us, so that we believe we are independent actors, "people" if you will.  When Harry telepathically travels outside of human language he sees other possible constructs for consciousness.  He gets absorbed in other states.  Once he experienced being a porpoise with half its brain asleep; another time he was Zephyr- the spirit of the West Wind.

But Harry is alarmed by what he's picking up lately from random media and real time humans and animals who pass his way.  He increasingly sees "us" - his loose term for atoms and molecules of all sorts, including his own- as unstable, fissionable material.

In other words: Ka-Boom!

The city of Los Angeles offers a phone app to alert users to imminent earthquakes.  Harry wants to function as something similar.  He says we should be alert for psychic mindquakes (think social distancing), possible earthquakes and maybe even a volcano.  Once the distinctive shaking starts, it will not stop, but will gradually accelerate to its maximum.  

Harry notes that the instability will appear localized in time but will have been eons in the making, the latest in a series of shake-ups that started hundreds of millions of years ago, when predation first appeared on the ocean floor. Over long ages, single-celled life had grazed and meditated, observing the precept: "Good fences make good neighbors," until one day God said, "Let them eat each other, for their sins," and, at least per popular opinion, added, "The penance of the living shall continue until the final eruption of The Big One."

I don't think Harry would mind if I contrast his version of The Big One with Christian apocalyptic thinking, as expressed in Revelation, the final book of the Bible.  Revelation supplies a point to the human endeavor: Its end.  Though widely popular with early Christians, Revelation at first met resistance from Church authorities, who were perhaps wary of its explicit message.  Revelation was rejected for inclusion in the canon by the Council of Laodicea in 363 AD.  The Synod of Hippo, in 393 AD, was poised to reject it again but had second thoughts when it realized that Christians were going to read Revelation whether it was deemed canonical or not.  After all, it provided human life with a purpose: To die.  

Harry strives to offer more than an afterlife, the qualities of which he can't guarantee, but most of the time he aspires, perhaps Quixotically, to survive.

The duration of The Big One, from start to finish, is unclear, but its outcome is clear: The entire surface of the earth will be transformed.  To read Harry's message, go to Harry the Human @  


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