Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Other

The Other

“On top of these imponderables
is the vexed issue of whether
we should respond to the signal,
by sending our own message to
the aliens. Would that invite dire
consequences, such as invasion
by a fleet of well-armed starships?
Or would it promise deliverance
for a possibly stricken species?”
—Paul Davies, The Eerie Silence:
Renewing Our Search for Alien

He didn’t realize he was alien—until afterwards.

But then it was too late—too late to be anything but all too human. Perhaps that was the Null-A part of the game—alien self-awareness disguised until at some point he’d gradually realize that contact had already been made.

That to become human was the first priority—and then deconstructing that identity delicately was the next order of business. Such a delicate denouement had to be done, well, how was it to be done?

That was the problem—the plausible deniability of being Other. Rather than the other way around. Humans simply couldn’t interface with us—there was just too much baggage and cargo cult flack involved. We didn’t want to lose them—like we had done on other worlds.

Mirrors for Observers—don’t always work. They crack sometimes—or a young species gets lost in its own reflections. Infinite regressions. Like Stilitano in Genet’s “Journal of a Thief”—trapped one day in a carnival House of Mirrors. Unable to find himself out of the labyrinth—the audience laughing at him.

Was it that ironically reminiscent, rather oxymoronic quip—that Donald Rumsfeld once made at a news conference? Whether consciously or unconsciously, he’d let the cat out of the bag: “Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence” (on weapons of mass destruction).

It was like Nicole Kidman in that strange Alejandro Amenábar remake of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” Kidman was the last one to find out—the last one to know the weird, eerie truth. That she was dead already—one of the ghosts in the big haunted mansion. She was one of them—the Others. And not the other way around…

The ghostly disjunct between who Kidman thought she was and who she really was—is like the alien denouement that occurs when Contact is made. In retrospect it seems easy enough to make the connection—but each time is very complex and sometimes humans are all like Kidman without a clue.

Fredric Jameson calls it “The Unknowability Thesis” in his “Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.” Stanislaw Lem the author of “Solaris”—simply shakes his head. There can be no contact—between mankind and any non-human civilization.

“The conceptual limitation then confirms Lem’s ultimate message—namely that in imagining ourselves to be attempting contact with the radically Other, we are in reality merely looking in a mirror and searching for an ideal image of our own world.”

Not only that but—“Solaris” is negative proof about writing science fiction itself. For there is no SF writing, no message—and the oceanic Other is merely activating traces within our own brains and projecting them back to us. We become lost like Stilitano—in our own House of Mirrors, nicht wahr?

The servants in Amenábar’s huge mansion know—the psychics in the séance know. Even the piano that plays mysteriously in the middle of the night in the empty room behind locked doors—it knows the awful truth as well. The absence of evidence—isn’t the same as evidence of absence.

In other words, if I may briefly divagate from James into the eerie silence of the SETI soiree (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)—the absence of any evidence to Nicole Kidman that she is a ghost is indeed very different than the kind of evidence that would prove or disprove the existence of ghosts themselves. That Kidman is herself—a ghost.

Kidman must go through her own journey of suspicion—that the huge mansion that she and her two photo-sensitive children are living in is haunted, But surely she and her children are alive and well—and not ghosts themselves? She and her kids are surely doing the ghost hunting—the ghosts are surely the “others” and that’s the real problem?

Gradually, slowly as the plot develops, though—hints are dropped by the servants who appear out of nowhere. Surely there’s something amiss—surely something is not what it appears to be. The wise, solicitous man & wife servant couple—they’re not actually who they appear to be are they? Whoever they are—they’re actually doing more than just taking care of the house, the grounds and doing the domestica Americana sort of things that normal household help does. The day-to-day tasks, chores, cleaning, yard-work, things like that.

In fact, one of the revealing/concealing scenes has the male servant working the yard—raking up leaves. Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it. Except he’s raking the leaves over some tombstones—with his wife nodding knowingly about something they themselves know, but which Kidman is clueless. Do the gravestones belong to—the already deceased Kidman and children? Are the servants trying to protect Kidman—or gradually ease her into the realization that she’s already dead and a ghost like them?

This is the kind of cat & mouse game—that Alejandro Amenábar plays with the movie audience of “The Others” (2001). It’s a much more sophisticated, surreal approach to James’ ghost story—and the earlier screen adaptation “The Innocents” (1961) directed by Jack Clayton.

In this earlier movie version—Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens the governess to the seemingly precocious children of another huge haunted estate. Miles and Flora, as well as Mrs. Grose and the shadowy Peter Quint—these characters interface with Governess Kerr in much the same way as the servants in Amenábar’s “The Others” interact with Kidman the mother of the children.

Except that the level of awareness of Otherness—is more heightened by Alejandro Amenábar. So that the servants and the clairvoyante in the second movie—are all more aware and much more a part of the plausible deniability of the Other than in the first movie.

In fact, Amenábar creates a film noir version of James’ ghost story—very much like Jacques Tourneur creates a similar scenario with “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943). Tourneur, Amenábar, Clayton and James—these directors-writers-magicians play their audiences like a finely-tuned Stradivarius violin. They develop the idea of “Contact” awareness like Stanislaw Lem in “Solaris.” The actors and plots with their various and sundry encounters of the third kind—perform a Contact sport.

“I Walked With a Zombie” is a tragic zombie romance story—out of Inez Wallace’s novel using Curt Siodmak’s screenplay. Francis Dee the naïve nurse, like Deborah Kerr and Nicole Kidman, gradually realizes—that everybody is in on the act except herself. That’s when her contact awareness begins.

It happens through a series of ghostly encounters, journeys through unearthly nightscapes and gradual revelations in regard to the intricacies of voodoo witchcraft and human possession—so that indeed Kidman is a “ghost” or “alien” or “voodoo zombie” just as much as all the others. Otherness opens up like a deadly rose or putrid orchid—such that alien self-awareness happens through the human point of view rather than through a schmaltzy, crummy, Grade-B horror flick kind of direct confrontation with little green men.

This jump I’ve made between James and SETI—what kind of “Otherness” is happening here? What are the dimensions and limits—of such a Phenomenon?

Is it the kind of otherness George Clooney experiences in “Solaris” (2002)—with Natascha McElhone his supposedly dead wife in her various guilt-inducing Solarian klones? Is this the same kind of Otherness we’re talking about—as far as SETI is concerned?

If Alien-ness is beyond human comprehension—how can human/alien contact actually happen? Surely James is pretty close to the truth—it’s done supernaturally through another dimension? The same with Tourneau—and the contact with the Voodoo Zombie Land of the Dead? Is it approximated or partially accomplished by means of a human analog to the alien Other—as with Tourneur and his ancient Afro-Haitian-Caribbean voodoo version that flows through its black & white, neo-noir plot of a Zombie world embedded in a Western sugar plantation decadent analog world?

The same with “Solaris”—the Phenomenon interfaces with Clooney the psychologist from the future through something familiar and erotically simpatico? Cloning itself as Natascha his suicidal, born-again, over-and-over-again wife—returning again and again to him until he finally gets it? His guilty consciousness assuaged somehow—aided by Solaris like some celestial alien counselor? Just as perhaps Kidman, Sandra Dee and Deborah Kerr eventually get it—the fact that the Other has entered their lives?

Or do they get it? What’s there to get? What’s there to understand? What’s there to somehow comprehend—other than that the Other is already you? Somebody as close as your wife or husband or lover or domestic other? Would there to be an alien Other anymore—if the alien were a part of you?

A sort of soul-brother or soul-sister kind of relationship? Maybe even a narcissistic twin-paradox kind of thing? Like Heinlein’s “Time for the Stars” (1956)—with telepathic contact between twin brothers going on during space travel. So that telepathic communication could be possible—between the various torchships and Earth. As the various complexities of faster than the speed of light space travel and exploration of nearby star systems—is smoothed out for future Exo-tech possibilities?

Of course, Stanislaw Lem the author of the novel which led to both screenplay versions of “Solaris” (2002) and “Solyaris” (1972) has written his own reactions to these film treatments of the Other.

In one interview I read, Lem says that he thinks both movies are failures—that neither one could possibly portray the Other since the “Other” is just that. It’s pure, unadulterated “Otherness”—above and beyond human comprehension and understanding.

It makes one wonder if indeed Stanislaw Lem’s novels and short stories are any better at it—compared with the filmic versions? Is it possible for science fiction—to portray, narrate or explain Otherness? Other than the Golden Days of SF—with Astounding Science Fiction magazine and a heavy dose of “hard science,” adolescent, juvie sci-fi “Sense of Wonder” stuff. Whatever that is?

Maybe Lem is right. Otherness is beyond human comprehension? Perhaps it’s up to the Others—to find their own way of contacting us? Perhaps not through—vast SETI radar dishes spread out in the deserts like ogling eyeballs or ears listening to the static of the universe.

But rather more subtly human—and less intensely electromagnetically hypersensitive? Something more like what we are—“all too human” naked apes constantly fighting with each other on this tiny blue marble planet. Perhaps to help a “stricken species” as Paul Davies suggests in his “The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence.” As we circle our lonely star—out here seemingly in the middle of a cosmic nowhere?

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