Oscar Best Picture Nominee “Arrival” and the Bearable Heaviness of Being

Oscar Best Picture Nominee “Arrival” and the Bearable Heaviness of Being February 26, 2017

(Promo still aken from Arrival's German website, Fair Use).
(Promo still aken from Arrival‘s German website, Fair Use).

Light is sweet; at sight of the sun the eyes are glad. However great the number of the years a man may live, let him enjoy them all, and yet remember that dark days will be many. –Qoheleth, in yesterday’s Office of Readings

Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with a meditation on the concept of the eternal return of being. This idea sounds a lot like something you might read in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The modern version of this was first formulated by Nietzsche in The Gay Science. Here’s Kundera’s novelistic take on it:

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?

The Czech novelist continues with an example whose brutal implications about suffering haunted me repeatedly since my first reading:

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

However, when understood positively the implications of the eternal return give existence a weight and solemnity the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being believes everyday life lacks:

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

These passages were some of the first things that came to mind when I first watched Arrival, because it is a film about weight, the weight of suffering as it plays itself out through decisions made in the fog of everyday existence. The weightiness of the plot is something that needs to be experienced.

We live in something of a renaissance for cinema when films with the depth of Arrival are marketed to the general public. I’ve heard it said that Arrival is like Terrence Malick making a science-fiction movie. Which is interesting, because Malick’s monumentally sacramental aesthetic owes its inspiration to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, another cinema giant whose films Stalker and Solaris were of the science fiction genre, and fueled by his deeply religious faith and attachment to religious imagery.

This type of cinema, at least for me, is more about style than content (even if the content is remarkable in itself). That is the reason is why I don’t feel the following summary by Damon Linker (interviewed by this blog here) for The Week will spoil the film for you . . .

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