Space is the ultimate void with which we fill with stories, because human nature abhors a vacuum. After seeing Rogue One and reading various articles about women and Star Wars (especially since the passing of Carrie Fischer) and after happening on a Twitter thread about symbolism in the Aliens franchise, space seems just like vast arena where all the usual beliefs, prejudices and biases crop up, not because of the limits of space or knowledge, or science, but because of the limit of our imaginations. For these stories, it is the realm of horror of the void, which is also the horror of pro-creativity, of birth, and also death – that old ‘womb-tomb’ idea of the European feminists. It’s interesting to think about, but is fairly old hat. Surely we know by now that Aliens (etc) is about the monstrous nature of childbirth?
This is what occurs to me…we do better with…
Perhaps we should avoid the void of space for our stories? It’s too big a canvas. It’s a truism that holds true for me: tighter rules and more difficult constraints make the work of imagination easier. Travelling through the empty vastness of space? Increase the drama but making the space ship smaller and smaller (hello Red Dwarf).
Anywho, when there is a border around a picture we can test our limits… when there is none, our own limitations find us out all too easily. With this in mind I found myself recently enjoying both 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive and also The Words (2012), and realising how much they had in common, despite their style and genre differences. In terms of themes, they explore family, secrets and creativity – and secretive creativity. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are two vampires, who are friends with Christopher Marlowe, also a vampire, and the secret author of Hamlet. Meanwhile, Adam’s own subterranean musical compositions are known, but he cannot be, given what he is. Daylight, blood and immortality are constraints on getting the work out.
In The Words, author (Dennis Quaid) reads from his book about a wannabe author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) stumbling upon a manuscript that he presents as his own, making him a best seller, which is when he encounters the original author, who remains unnamed and unknown even as he reveals the back story of the manuscript to Jansen.
Both films feature characters with public lives and private demons, in words where they encounter their own and the world’s ethical, physical and emotional boundaries. This happens as they deal with death and messy relationships, survival, and difficult moral choices in small worlds.
Each narrative makes clear that the constraints upon the characters give rise to conflicts that shape the stories. These films are about archetypes (writers, musicians, vampires) who become individuals through how they cope or fail to cope, with their worlds. In this way, whatever biases the writers and film makers may possess, remain more elusive than say in Aliens or Star Wars. If they are there, they form the texture of the background, rather appear upfront and loud and clear as the foreground as with Star Wars‘ dead mothers and daddy issues.
And a note on Darth Vader here, in the central he episodes remains a powerful archetype. He is iconic because he is commanding, but also shadowy and unknown. The prequels, in making Anakin an individual, remove his mystique in a way that say Lovers doesn’t with Adam and Eve, the original lovers and sinners, who, in this film are fetishistic about instruments and books, petty, and tender and selfish and curious about entanglement’s spooky action at a distance that Darth Vader actually commands (the Force). In a nutshell, Adam and Eve may live in the shadows, but are all too real.
In The Words, I was happy to see how an otherwise humdrum found ms narrative turned out to be three open-ended stories cocooned within each other, each with their own internal conflicts. In Lovers, I was happy to see immortal beings finally dealing with mundane passport and travel issues, as well as more aesthetic concerns about creativity, depression, and identity. I was happy to see Swinton’s Eve take control of the chaos, and be erudite, and concerned about history and tradition, while also being subtly amusing (booking flights as ‘Stephen Daedalus’ and ‘Daisy Buchanan’). I mean Daedalus – the mythical dude who flew too close to the sun, and also the Joycean anti-hero. Then I appreciated how all of that is authentic, but also a facade – an important one – that falls as soon as survival is at stake (ah me stake).
If The Words ends in a slightly clichéd way, leaving us to ponder whether author Clay Hammond got close to revealing whether his book about a book was based on his own clearly messed up life, it doesn’t matter. While he says…
…at some point, you have to choose between life and fiction. The two are very close, but they never actually touch.
I think both films demonstrates life and fiction do touch. Fictional characters in both films are lovers of fiction, they are stories within narratives, becoming more real, and less fictional as the constraints they face simmer their experiences down into universal truths. We see this as a fictional Adam playing at being the self-indulgent, dramatic and depressed Hamlet, only by the end of the film to just quote the play that his friend Kit Marlowe purportedly wrote. In reducing Shakespeare’s work to a nub of a quote about quintessence Adam, like the other characters (especially the unnamed author) become irritants in the creative clams that gives rise to the pearls of new works in fiction and in ‘life’. We see it too in the ‘real’ base ball Clay Hammond inserts into the fictional story of Rory Jansen.
The fictions these characters invent and the lives they led are beautiful and terrible. Whether Hammond wrote the truth about his early career as a writer, or not, regardless it messes with his head when he is with the inquisitive Daniella, who is searching for the ‘story’ behind the story. The story Hammond can’t tell her, tells us what he is capable of. In Lovers, art and music are worthy pursuits and Kit, Adam, and Eve are characters in a family drama, or in an epic romance, but the base reality of their hunger undoes all of them. It destroys old Marlowe and properly reveals the predatory natures of Adam and Eve beneath the mask of their civility. In making it all up as they go along, Rory Jansen, Clay Hammond, Marlowe and the unknown author, and the only lovers left alive, do the hard thing in life and fiction by enduring the consequences.
Not sure how I got here, from Rogue One and Alien, but there you go.