ARRIVAL And The Building Blocks Of Culture

Understanding art, language and each other.

Arrival is finally out (you can buy your tickets here)! In celebration, we have a collection of great articles inspired by the film.

There are a great many things to be said about Arrival in the context of the recent election (for that I turn you over to Andrew Todd and Kalyn Corrigan), but they all boil down to what seems to be at the core of Denis Villenueve’s latest: communication. Adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story, the film opened this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin to a largely positive response. Fantastic Fest the kind of genre festival where you can find the best of horror and sci-fi, but this year’s lineup was also dedicated in part to Indian cinema. For myself, someone who rides the line between identities steeped in Indian culture and American genre on a daily basis, this proved to be the perfect nexus for my interests and how I communicated and interpreted them.

Language is a strange thing, and having two first languages (in my case, English and Hindi) gives one an insight into just how strange it can be. For instance, translating dialogue and pronouncing titles of Indian films to assist my fellow Fantastic Fest-ers provided a window into not only the wildly different structures of my two mother tongues, but the different ways in which they’re expressed. Each have their own linguistic limitations (the limited muscle memory of English speakers in the West thanks to a mere twenty-one consonants is why I still go by “Sid”), and beyond that, each have idioms and other figures of speech that don’t necessarily translate, because they may not be based on the same cultural experiences.

Spoilers to follow.

Arrival attemps to approach this cultural connundrum by placing a linguist at the center of its alien encounter. Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks opens the film by narrating the nature of its story, or of stories as a cultural artifact, i.e. having no fixed point of beginning. They are, in some ways, timeless. Some epics and scriptures lack definite historical origins, and those that don’t “feel” timeless in the lessons they espouse. Arrival’s big “lesson” feels more like two lessons, split definitely by the moment Louise reveals that the flashes we’ve been seeng of her daughter aren’t flashbacks, but premonitions that she doesn’t fully understand. They are functionally the same, both in cinematic language and seemingly in literal mental function, but contextually, they come from opposing directions in time.

From this point on the film does sort of begin to slip, and while I don’t quite care for the third act disconnect and the lack of warmth between Louise and Renner’s Ian Donelly (it can certainly be said that she goes along with their relationship because she knows she has to for a greater purpose, though I don’t necessarily subscribe to this), that’s besides the point for the time being. The point here is that this meeting of past, present and future is exactly how the aliens communicate. Louise even describes their language in our human terms, as written from both left and right, with precise knowledge of how the two sides will meet in the middle.

What’s especially interesting about the presentetion of this language is that it feels like an abstract painting. Language forms the basis of art for human beings, but that’s when speaking of “language” in literal terms, i.e. the coding of ideas through words and sentences. If we break language down to its barest elements, it’s the coded interpretation of ideas. An art form in itself.

To further illustrate this point, I’d like to highlight a portion of Ian Danskin’s The Artist Is Absent, a stellar video essay on authorial voice and the independent video game Beginner’s Guide. In it, he breaks down the process of describing a childhood experience surrounding a tree that needed to be cut down because of its interference with power lines, pictured here:

The explanation he provides uses “language” (in this case, the English language) to mean a code through which we translate experiences, more specifically our own personal language, a coded understanding of the world around us, one that we then re-code into a shared pool of agreed upon words that denote, as accurately as possible, a set of ideas. Those words are then in turn interpreted by someone else, using their own personal code. These two understandings will never be exactly the same no matter how “accurately” the experience is described – the examples Danskin provides relate to how differently we might code and interpret colour, texture, or even the height or power lines – but this also highlights another element vital to Louise’s challenge: the idea-coded interpretations of language depend largely on common experience.

The alignment of experiences, and thus the understanding of them, forms the basis for the alignment of interpreting both art and language. In film school, just as The Walking Dead was entering the popular consciousness, I was that guy that made a zombie short, where it was implied one of the characters had been bitten. Everyone familiar with the concept understood immediately, but my mother (who had neither seen The Walking Dead nor any zombie film) was at a loss as to what this bite meant, or why the character needed to be killed.

Common understanding of experience extends even to fiction, allowing fans of sci-fi to be thrown headfirst into Arrival’s world of aliens and, eventually, time travel without having to stop for excessive exposition. To speak of a recent example, if we have the necessary reference points for a film as specific as Moonlight, we’re likely to understand what it has to say about black and/or queer experiences, either through our own understanding of such experiences, or the understanding provided by others in their words, their writing, or even their art. If we don’t have this frame of reference, we’re likely to deride what we percieve as alien and unfamiliar. That isn’t to say that we can’t empathize with the unfamiliar if we’re willing (this willingness is never a given), but it is to say that if we’ve grown up in the same region of the world, chances are our trees and our power lines will be similar in our heads, and we won’t have to make an extra effort to paint a more accurate picture.

The reverse is also true – not having a common understanding means we need to foster one, and we need to be willing to make that extra effort – and it doesn’t stop being true until we acquire or provide each other with a frame of reference for each other’s trees and power lines. It’s what allows a line of dialogue like “Costello is death process” to hold such an immense amount of weight, even in subtitle, not only because it speaks of the universal experience of death, but also the attempt to code that experience in terms that bridge a cultural gap. Had the line come early in the film, we wouldn’t have the context for how hard it is for Louise and the heptapods to overcome this barrier. When it finally does appear, we have the experience and understanding necessary to contextualize it.

Ultimately, art and language are expressions of similar things – thoughts, intents and experiences – and Arrival asks us to break down the barrier between them in order to understand what makes up our cultures, and how we can break down those barriers in turn. Not just those that separate the vast differences between cultures, but those that separate their commonalities, and how we might go about fostering a sense of understanding using those common elements as our basis.

In conclusion, I’d like to recall an anecdote that’s been on my mind since watching the film. On a train from Manhattan to upstate New York, an elderly European couple with limited command over English was searching for directions. I watched as they asked the conductor for assistance, and I remember how obvious it was that he hadn’t had much exposure to people who didn’t speak the same language as him. “You have to get off at Poughkeepsie and transfer” he said, hoping his instructions would be clear. They understood “get off” as it was simple enough, and “Poughkeepsie” as it was a destination on the map, but the word “transfer” escaped them. Rather than explaining what “transfer” meant (decoding it to describe the experience of getting off one train and on to another), the conductor kept repeating the word “transfer” over and over again. “You have to transfer. Transfer. TRANS. FER.”

He grew more frustrated at the couple’s inability to understand what was, to him, a simple word with a specific meaning relating to his daily routine. As his frustration grew, so too did the couple’s embarrassment at being yelled at in public. Eventually, someone who spoke their language came along and explained it to them, but I often wonder how the situation would’ve been resolved if the conductor was forced to examine the language he was using. Maybe he’s travelled since then, and had new experiences with people of different cultures, ensuring he won’t make the same mistake again. Or maybe he’ll watch Arrival and figure out how language can be both a weapon and a tool.