We live in science-fiction times. You have to read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life (filmed as Arrival).
Movies showing in New York: Moonlight (which I have to see with my friends), Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford’s latest, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice where Lav Diaz won the Golden Lion), and Manchester by the Sea, the new film by Kenneth Lonergan starring Casey Affleck. Cost of a movie ticket: $16.
I loved the ill-fated Lonergan movie Margaret and wanted to see Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck, who has used his freaky stare to great effect in his brother’s Gone Baby, Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James, is said to be terrific in it (the word Oscar has been used). But when I got to the Angelika both screenings of Manchester were sold out (there was a Q&A with the filmmakers aargh) so I settled for Nocturnal Animals.
Tom Ford’s first movie A Single Man, an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, was a feature-length perfume commercial (Bawal ang pangit) lifted by a heartbreaking performance by Colin Firth (who really won his Oscar with that). Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, is actually two movies. The first is about an art gallery owner played by Amy Adams who seems to have everything she wants: a thriving career, a rich and gorgeous husband (Armie Hammer), a fabulous house and glamorous lifestyle. It still looks like a perfume commercial, but this is to underscore the shallowness of her existence.
The second movie is a dramatization of the novel her first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written and dedicated to her. It’s a nasty, alarming thriller in which a man (Jake), his wife (Isla Fisher, brilliantly cast—she looks like Amy) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are driving through a Texas highway in the dead of night when they are forced off the road by a trio of thugs led by a terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The worst that can happen, happens. The ensuing investigation is led by the always disconcerting Michael Shannon, who would’ve made off with the entire movie if Jake were not so solid.
As the gallerist reads the manuscript, she recalls her relationship with her sweet, unambitious ex and how she destroyed him at the prodding of her mother (Laura Linney, who is brilliant). Nocturnal Animals stays in your head for days, and should cause a few arguments about the ending.
Amy Adams is having a great year. I’m looking forward to Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Even before I’ve seen the movie, I already owe it a great debt for introducing me to the work of Ted Chiang.
Arrival is based on Chiang’s The Story of Your Life. Ostensibly a first contact with extraterrestrials tale, it is a mind-bending rumination on language and cognition, and a deeply emotional story of motherhood. The main idea is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:
the theory that an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks. The strong version of the hypothesis states that all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language, and is generally less accepted than the weaker version, which says that language only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior.
Chiang is a writer who explores exhilarating ideas without losing sight of the familiar and human. Like many of the finest writers today, he is isolated from the general audience by the label “science-fiction”. But we live in science-fiction times, and the only way we can make sense of this pandemonium is to read writers like him.
If you see Ted Chiang’s books in stores, buy them all. Read them and give them to your friends. If for some reason you don’t like them, send them to me and I’ll swap other books for them.