Interpretation: The Arrival, A Hero’s Journey

A recurring motif seen in stories is the journey of the hero. It is one where he is thrust out of his normal life, and thrown into danger. He is faced with a monster, who can unleash a power unknown. He then willingly accepts the tribulation, defeats the monster, and emerges triumphant. He now possesses this new power. In that sense he better than everyone else, but he also uses it for the well being of others.

This theme plays out in the movie, the arrival. It is uniquely interpreted, and I’ll get to why that is in just a bit. But first off, to summarize what the arrival is about: Aliens have landed on Earth and a linguist is employed to understand what they want, and see if they pose a threat to humanity. This story is interlayered with themes of love and loss, and the importance of communication and language. The storytelling is distinctive.  Just like the language of the aliens, the plot is also circular, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The beautiful quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows summarizes it well: “I begin at the close.”   Louise Banks, the protagonist of the movie, learns the language of the aliens and in the process rewires her brain to be able to access time in its entirety. In consequence of that, she sees her future and the sum total of her whole life. There is also some tension among nations about how to approach the aliens, with some countries proposing to decimate them, while others want a more diplomatic approach. Amy Adams has done a great job in portraying the character, although her turgid body language gets confusing at times.

Now coming to the overlay of the hero’s journey with regard to The Arrival. The first stage is when the hero is thrust from their normal lives into an unexpected dire situation. This happens when the aliens arrive. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics is required to leave her cushy job to head to the military base near the spaceship. And in typical hero initiation process, at first it looks like she won’t be chosen to go, as the officer hints that they are looking at a professor at Berkeley as well. But she makes a case for herself, ascertaining her superiority in interpretation compared to her peers. And she’s ultimately selected. The next step is confronting the monster, which is where they meet the aliens and begin the process of fighting them. In this case, the fight is understanding what they have to say, while explaining the human tongue to them. A complication arises, in the form of lack of co-operation by other nations, and internecine conflicts. This is solved by the hero by breaking the rules. She takes a secret military phone and directly reaches the dour leader of China, convincing him to abandon the violent approach. She also finally learns the language of the aliens, and is able to view time as a continuum – the power obtained by the hero at the end of the quest. She sacrifices the love of her life for this, a hero’s sacrifice. And finally, she teaches the language at university, a gift for humanity.

So what is it about the arrival that is different?

The first aspect is that a hero’s journey is a traditionally masculine archetype. From my preliminary understanding of it, it involves the masculine realization – a boy to man transformation, so to speak. It requires a development of masculine traits, such as physical strength, building a fraternity, authority and assertiveness, to be competitive (arguably a human trait, but more closely masculine) to name a few.

But the movie builds a hero narrative employing the strengths of femininity – like communication, compassion, sacrifice, instinct and motherhood. Movies take the easy route when it comes to portraying strong female characters. They make them more like men. But this movie instead exalts the strength of femininity, which I found distinctive. And this is what made me really love this movie.

I have a basic understanding of the concepts elucidated in this essay. For in depth reading, I suggest the works of Joseph Campbell.

Image Source: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/arrival-2016

 

 

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Mirrors and Windows

 

 

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Image courtesy : lovethispic.com

Mirrors are highly polished surfaces that reflect the sight of its viewer. A mirror shows what it sees; it cannot show beyond that or create something that doesn’t exist in its view-focus. This is the limitation that exists in the mirror. When one stands in front of it to see themselves, a mirror not only reflects what one sees but also one’s perception of oneself. This part is a trick played by the mind. The reflection is a reflection of one’s self assertion.

There has been a history of fascination with these shiny surfaces; people hoping to know more than what the mirror reveals. A popular Indian superstition believes that a mirror must not be broken. If it is, one faces bad luck. Consider the hypothesis that a mirror reflects what we think and breaking that is the equivalent of breaking away from what we know to embrace the world of possibilities. This comes in the wake of uncertainty, unreliability and breaking away from the norm. We are free to choose what we wish to believe. The superstition is making light of this, telling us that we should conform to the ideas that were conditioned into us by society rather than embrace a life freed from the shackles of convention.
Consider Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the mirror is a metaphor for the Queen’s inferiority complex that she masks with pseudo superiority. In these tales, mirrors are cautionary- to be consulted not indulged in. It makes one wonder if they stood for something more- like the limitations we set ourselves without our own knowledge.

Folklore has been one of the most advanced tools of communicating wisdom by word of mouth. There is a popular story about Buddha during his time as Prince Siddhartha. His palace had a large polished window that was covered with a curtain on the outside- an effort by his father to never let his son see the real world. This window acted as a mirror, reflecting the opulence and grandeur of his home; an extension of his luxurious life. One stormy afternoon, the curtain fluttered widely, revealing a frame of what the outside world looked like. Astounded, the Prince stood in front of the mirror, waiting for the curtain to flicker again. He demanded the curtains to be pulled down after the storm and was shocked by the view that was in store for him. It took a storm for him to realize that there was a world outside his own.  He was amazed by reality, the muddy city beneath him in all its greatness and grime. The storm turned a mirror into a window.I wager that the storm is a metaphor for a learning experience, an education.  The word education takes its roots in the latin word ēdūcō which means ‘I raise, I lead’. Its roots are entrenched in the meaning of self-betterment; something that makes us take charge. And to this day, that meaning holds true. Any experience that broadens our worldview is an education; an understanding that instills humanity in us is an education.

A window is a way to see the world from where we stand. It is crystallized sand that stands between us and what we observe. But a window, unlike a mirror goes on and on. It shows as far as the eyes can see. The more you crane your neck, the more you see. And what you see is what you get; the window is a view into the world, our immediate surroundings. When one draws open the curtains and sees what the window has in store, they are never sure of what they see, because the window presents the reality. And reality is unpredictable. In all these ways, the window behaves in all manners that fairy tale writers wanted a mirror to act and believers of superstition wanted a mirror to not- as a means to go beyond what we know and into the realm of possibilities.

Education is like the wave of the magicians wand that takes the shimmer off the looking glass and turns it into a glass that looks upon the world. When we stand between two mirrors we see an infinite number of reflections of ourselves. Similarly, when we are caught up in our own lives, we are stuck in an infinite loop of our own limitations. We can take a dash of reality and humility as tools that impart education about life. Using that to scrub away the polish on the mirror, we are left with two windows that show us the two realities of our world. On one side are abundance, joy and light. The other side is pain, suffering, and darkness. And our own position is in the middle of them both, sometimes drawing in the light and sometimes enveloped in darkness.

 

This essay was written as a commentary on the quote

“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”

– Sydney J. Harris

MUSTANG AND THE VIRGIN SUICIDES – REPRESENTATION STUDY

As always, spoilers ahead.

Mustang and The Virgin Suicides are really two very different movies. The setting is different. Mustang is set in a village in Turkey while The Virgin Suicides is suburbia of Michigan. The view focus is different. Mustang is seen from the POV of the sisters with a view focus on their lives. TVS is seen from the POV of the neighbourhood boys where the view focus is their interpretation of the girls’ lives.

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Image source:- http://www.vtiff.org & http://www.icpbardmfa.wordpress.com

As the movies unfurl, we see how different the stories are as well.
TVS plays into the ‘bored white girl’ trope, at times making a parody of it – like when the boys try to decipher the meaningless scrawls of their diary and theorize what it could imply (the line, “what we have here is a dreamer” is a consequence of that). The movie is deep rooted in the western sensibilities which play as a background throughout the movie. It dwells heavily on the mystery that the girls are shrouded in. We see this as emptiness from the girls’ lives and as fascination from the boys. They internalize this house arrest they are placed under, only wishing to see the outside world rather than be in it. It feels like they have accepted their situation and rather than rebel against it have found ways to live with it.
Mustang is the opposite; the girls rebel at every chance they get, like they alone will have the final say in their lives. It deals with themes of identity and freedom. The movie is about what happens to each of their lives and aims to shed light in the various ways women’s lives are policed.

When I watched the trailer of Mustang, it reminded me of TVS. And even after I watched it, I could not shake off that feeling. And now that I have set tone to why they are different, I want to talk about representation- Starkly similar scenes that play out in the two movies while their end purpose is different.

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Images source:- http://www.hookedonfilmwa.wordpress.com & http://www.thedissolve.com

The manner in which certain shots are represented were very insightful. Though their presence in the movie had different motives, and different outcomes, in isolation these shots  were interchangeable. Some of these shots are

When the girls are under house arrest (happens in both movies, duh).
TVS aims to show the desolation in isolation. Mustang aims to show the urge for freedom from the entrapment.

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Image Source: http://www.mubi.com & http://www.variety.com

Both movies have one sister die (in TVS all of them do, but Cecilia, the youngest one commits suicide first) by committing suicide. While TVS uses this to exacerbate the clandestine thoughts of the sisters, Mustang uses it as a definitive. We have cause (her uncle sexually molests her and she is about to get married against her will) and action (her sudden promiscuity and deliberate insinuations to irritate her uncle which precede her death) for the girl’s death and consequences (her younger sister is to marry the man she was ‘promised’ to). While Cecilia’s death and attempts of death are shot in a manner that feels delicate and tragic, like a flower crushed under a heel; Ece’s (from Mustang) is not even in the frame. We feel the consequence of it, which is what the director wants us to focus on.

Both movies have one sister acting out sexually, but again Lexi from TVS is portrayed as uninhibited which accentuates under the stifiling circumstances where as Ece from Mustang is trying to push her luck out of spite after being sexually abused by her uncle and she ultimately kills herself.

And finally, there is the house arrest itself. In TVS a conservative family sends their daughters to prom and when one of them breaks curfew because she sleeps with her high-school prom date and falls asleep on the football field- they stop letting their daughters go to school altogether.
In Mustang, the girls play in the beach with their classmates and when their uncle and grandmother hear of it, they place the girls on house arrest after performing a virginity test on them.

The emotional chord struck by these representations are the same, despite their unique circumstances. And this is because, underneath the void and the fight, the house arrest bred melancholy. And the orthodox branch of the Western and Middle Eastern worlds share their need to moral police their girls. In the end, it is the humanity, both good and ugly which is the commonality in the movies’ representations.

On a separate note, please listen to this song from the soundtrack of The Virgin Suicides. It will change your life. Also watch the two movies if you have not and let me know what you think.