Love pervades Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) and soars through Birdman (Alejandro Iñáritu, 2014; with the divine E. Lubezki as DP). Or rather “love” saturates these recent releases…and it is a ‘love’ that breathes only in a trembling tango with death.
Interstellar might be seen to posit that only science can save us. The film’s political interventions into our off-screen, real-life climate-change-denying government are allusive, signaled by the fact that NASA has become a secret agency, and by Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) line, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” The film keeps its political frame oblique and, while maintaining steady pressure on the earth’s predicament (regardless of who or what made it so), it turns to the affective dynamics internal to the only pragmatic response to terrestrial devastation and human extinction: escape to another planet. Substituting scientific “anomalies” for angry aliens, and climate degradation for asteroids barreling towards earth, the film refreshingly provides apocalypticity without apocalypticism (theory folks will forgive me). Brand (Anne Hathaway) voices the film’s affective counterpoint to its embrace of pure reason—the latter symbolized by the massive physics equation plodding across multiple chalkboards in her father’s office—when she speaks passionately that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” The plea for the power of love is balanced by Brand’s assertion to Cooper that there is no evil in space except what we humans take with us, a claim grimly proven by the aptly named Dr. Mann, brilliantly played by Matt Damon. The sophistication of the film lies in its placement of love and evil within an evolutionary frame, but loosely not reductively, so that viewers can sense how a biological ‘explication’ of emotionality lies in a different register from a physical explication of gravity (say) and makes all the difference in how the truths of science are or are not received, deployed, and trusted. Still, for a film putatively about the survival of the entire human race and about the importance of love, Interstellar is bizarrely individualistic. Though the affective motor of the film is driven by relationships, the loved ones almost never connect; they see each other in memory and on screens (indeed, the opening screen-faces talking about dust evoke the 1930s dustbowl of the Midwest and introduce from the outset a folding of space-time that the film sustains to its end). Names, steles, and spaceship fragments substitute for corpses or photographs. Love is evolutionarily crucial but trapped in disconnection. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” indeed. The collective enterprise of species survival is mirrored by the rage faced by each mortal body cut off in death from his or her loves.
Birdman is so stunningly awesome that any commentary will only ever scratch the surface of this film. Touching only on its affective dimensions, it might seem that love is solidly subordinated to relevance and authenticity—the desire to be a real artist; the scorn of celebrity (popularity) in the protection of art (prestige); the slippery, syncopated line between being and performing (the being of performing or the performing of being)—but the stable axis of all the film’s mirrorings, foldings, parallelisms, and repetitions is Carver’s “What we talk about when we talk about Love”, so that it seems most productive to consider how the film foregrounds the question of love and then probes and tarries with the manners, dispositions, bodies, and delusions that devolve from the hungry ache of love’s lures and desires.