It is never easy to analyse the time you live in at the moment. It’s much easier to look back in time to see cultural and societal threads developing and culminating. But sometimes that elusive contemporary sensibility that German thinkers once named the “zeitgeist” can be felt, especially in the cultural artifacts a society produces. The current zeitgeist seems to be that while technological progress is moving ever faster, cultural progress has come to a standstill, which in turn creates high expectations for the times to come. This is not my idea, of course. It has been written and talked about a lot recently. Someone who summarised it, about two months ago, in a way I could relate to a lot, was “Generation X” author Douglas Coupland. In an interview with a Swiss radio station, he said:
What I find exciting about the zeitgeist right now is that something big is about to happen. We all know that. We grew up with the idea that the future was something that was still down the road and we still just live in the present. But today we live in the future. Every day feels futuristic. (This is mostly a re-translation of the German translation of Coupland, so these are not exactly his words.)
Part of the zeitgeist being that “We live in the future now” felt familiar to me. I had even blogged about it before with respect to SF-films like Tron: Legacy and The Book of Eli. I had heard it before from authors like William Gibson, who have stopped setting their novels in the future because the present has caught up with them, and it ties right in with the discussion about “Retromania” in popular culture.
“Something big is about to happen”, however, is something that I heard for the first time in Coupland’s interview. It rang very true for me and I noticed that I had also encountered it in other films this year. Films that don’t necessarily count as science fiction, even though they might have some fantastic elements in them.
(The following paragraphs contain inevitable spoilers for all three movies discussed)
Miranda July’s second feature film is even called The Future, but it’s a long way from being science fiction. Instead, it tells the story of two thirtysomethings who exist in a relationship that has reached its peak after only four years. The protagonists, played by July and Hamish Linklater, have nothing to say to each other, because they don’t progress. All high hopes for their own development have failed to come to fruition and so they spend their days in a sort of melancholy hipster stupor (a fact that made both characters extremly annoying to me). When they decide to adopt a cat a month from now, they suddenly realize that they should use the remaining days to follow their impulses. Both quit their jobs and decide to do something meaningful. July’s character Sophie wants to express herself through dancing and Jason (Linklater) joins a climate-saving iniative that sells reforestation door-to-door.
But their efforts fail yet again. Sophie begins an affair and Jason starts spending time with an old man who has been married for 60 years. Even though there is some hope for reconciliation at the end of the film, the general feeling that remains is: There is no future for Sophie and Jason. They have already used it up and have only the eternal present left to them. This manifests itself in the second half of the film, where Jason literally tries to stop time. However, while he feels that time has stopped, the moon in the sky outside his window (who has the voice of the old man), constantly informs him that time is actually still creeping forward and that Jason can’t stay in his cocoon forever.
The last time people felt they were living in the future, in the 80s, “We live in the future” quickly turned into “No Future”. The only way out, it seemed, was through the self-destruction of mankind. And indeed, Jason says something to the same effect in July’s film: “The wrecking ball has already struck”, he tells a potential reforestation customer. “This is just the moment before it all falls down.”
That big thing that is about to happen, then, is it an apocalypse?
If you believe Lars von Trier, it is. While his latest film Melancholia is mostly a reflection on depression, it also confronts humanity with a doomsday scenario that can easily keep up with Armageddon and similar films whose plot centers around the imminent destruction of earth. In Melancholia, the titular planet is about to come close to earth and most scientists believe that it will safely pass by. Only conspiracy theorists and the main character Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who suffers from depression, are convinced that Melancholia will destroy earth instead. Which, as even the opening scenes promise, it will by the end of the movie.
Von Trier spends a good two thirds of his film setting up and the last third portraying their reactions to the impending doom. Justine is content with this notion, even literally bathes in Melancholia’s light. As a depressive, she “knows” things will always turn out for the worst. Her sister Claire is filled with fear but eventually gives in to her inevitable fate. And Claire’s husband John, a capitalist conservative and a believer in science and mankind’s ability to prevail, commits suicide as soon as he learns he was wrong.
It’s easy to read those reactions as – or compare them to – interpretations of the zeitgeist mentioned earlier. We can accept it, we can fear it or we can try to hide from it. What von Trier makes clear, though, is that the Big Thing, which in his movie is a threat, will happen, no matter what. So it might be best to side with the depressives.
One other movie was released this year, which shares the feeling of anticipation I have described in Melancholia and The Future. It also shares Melancholia‘s key image of an uncanny new heavenly body in the sky above us. But Mike Cahill’s Another Earth also offers a more hopeful prospect of the time after the metaphorical wrecking ball has struck.
Cahill’s main character Rhoda is in a “no future” situation as well, although her reasons are quite different. As a teenager, she was responsible for a car crash that took the lives of a young woman and her child. The child’s father John, who was also in the car, has survived. When Rhoda is released from prison after a number of years, she has lost all ambition and instead starts a cleaning job at her old high school. Then, she seeks out John and without revealing her identity to him, offers to regularly clean his house. He agrees and she slowly brings both the house and him back to life. He eventually falls in love with her but casts her out when she tells him why she came to him in the first place.
The catalyst for the car crash, which leads to all the events that follow it, is the appearance of a second earth in the sky. Rhoda gazes at this other earth when the crash happens and she later wins a spot on the first flight to what turns out to be an exact mirror image of our planet, people and all. Because the parallel timelines have started diverging when the two mirror planets became visible to each other, there is hope that John’s family might be alive on the other earth. Rhoda eventually gives her space on the flight to John.
In Cahill’s thought experiment, the big change that society faces is not a destructive wrecking ball at all, it might even offer a chance to begin again. This general sentiment has been a trope of post-apocalyptic scenarios for ages, but in Another Earth there is no major scale apocalypse, only a personal one. A Big Thing wakes mankind from its futureless existence and offers new perspectives on how to continue.
Personal postscript: I was too young in the 80s to understand any societal notions of Future or No Future. The very fact that I spent my earliest childhood in exactly those days (without older siblings) has made it hard for me to understand or appreciate 80s pop culture at all, while I find everything that came before or after much more accessible. But as far as I am concerned, there was a Big Change at the end of the decade. While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of the country I live in might have robbed the western world of a clear antagonist (at least until 9/11) and lead the world at large into the global economic meltdown it is facing right now, culture and society in general, at least the way I see it, have benefitted from that change. If only to prove to us now that the world, and thus: the future and the zeitgeist, very probably will continue to exist.