Film

'On the Nature of Daylight': Arrival's Gentle, Beating Heart

Alex Lindstrom
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner

Max Richter's 'On the Nature of Daylight' signaled that as a new parent, I was going to have a relationship with Arrival's message.


Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Year: 2016

Max Richter

The Blue Notebooks

Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Year: 2015
Amazon
iTunes

Arrival's Oscar disqualification for 'Best Original Score' did not escape controversy this year when Academy rules dictated that Academy Award nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's stirring score was 'diluted [as presented in the film] by the use of pre-existing music', a single work which nonetheless powerfully bookends Villeneuve's latest. That piece, Max Richter's 'On the Nature of Daylight' (The Blue Notebooks, 2004), deeply informs the kind of film Arrival is trying to be under its rich social and political themes.

In a year as socio-politically tumultuous as 2016, Arrival deftly handles commentary on a range of hot-button issues which reflect the state of our lives as much as it lends a compassionate gaze, presenting viewers not with the well-trodden mediocrity of another design-by-committee sci-fi action-adventure, but with the kind of prodding science fiction which all too often eludes viewings at multiplex theaters. Whether the heat of Nigel Farage's divisive anti-immigration discourses during the UK's (yet ongoing) 'Brexit' debacle, or the unending sound and fury of the American duopoly's latest schizophrenic display of electoral convulsions, Arrival gives viewers pause to consider the role of fear, paranoia, and incendiary language in the generation of conflict on global scales.

Indeed, between the exhaustively obstinate partisanship which dominates our national discourse, the barrage of increasingly banal bickering 24/7 news cycles relentlessly proffer in, and the looming threat of serious climate change (to name but a few issues), the collective atmosphere of the nation and the world seems to be that of a cumulative anxiety. It's within this global context that Arrival seeks to position it's message as both deeply resonant and intensely personal. At the heart of Villeneuve's efforts lies an uncommon grace, a gentle yet hard-won message, which transcends the issues. To understand Villeneuve's intentions here is to understand what Richter's minimalist 'Daylight' seeks to so elegantly convey.

The science fiction enthusiast can find themselves starved for competent film adaptations of some of the genre's finer examples. As a loving fan of science fiction which deals in more than lasers and space wizards (not to necessarily denigrate fans of those galaxies far, far away), a fan who cherishes every competent celluloid iteration of the genre's most biting themes and salient social commentaries, I deliberately screened away any promotion materials, plot details, reviews, filmmaker interviews, or production reports upon the simple knowledge that the film existed and word was good. I was satisfied in the knowledge that after a frequently disappointing year at the megaplex I might have another Ex Machina (2015), a Black Mirror (2011-) with a side of chemical-butter flavored extortion, and I wanted to go in as relatively unawares as possible.

While this baseline did not fail to rightly guide me into my immoderately cushioned seat, and while Arrival indeed submits to the audience the kind of sociopolitical commentary the genre's finer examples are defined by, expectations were immediately transmuted when Max Richter's 'On the Nature of Daylight' broke my fellow theatergoer's lowest pre-reel murmurs and struck me solid, immovable. It is rather specifically Richter's work which so clearly signaled that I wasn't merely going to appreciate (or denigrate) the film's artistic and technical merits, laud or criticize its direction and performances, but rather, that I was going to have a relationship with Arrival's message. This relationship would prove twofold, informed both by my academic career and my recent foray into parenthood. Between the two (the cerebral and the emotionally visceral), Villeneuve grabs his viewers by first tending to the latter with the aid of Richter's 'Daylight', immediately presenting Arrival's core tragedy: our lead, a linguistics professor expertly portrayed by a gentle Amy Adams (as Dr. Louise Banks), suffers the loss of her child to a rare and terrible disease.

The emotive weight these first few moments placed upon me can only be reemphasized. Indeed, musings on why parenting is difficult so often fall hopelessly short of the experience of parenthood. It isn't the dirty diapers, the added bills, or the growing pile of inane plastic baubles which serve as both pastel eyesores and bare-footed landmines that keeps the parent up at night. Rather, it's the risk of bringing a child into this world. To be a parent is to know what it truly feels like to have your existential and emotional neck stuck out a few kilometers from the cozy self-interested confines of your adolescence, to offer to the world a thing which is a present sum of your muddied self yet somehow perfect, a defiant, blissful, happy, loving and aware thing newly inhabiting an otherwise indifferent world. A parent's child is simultaneously their greatest source of luminescence and the world's grandest and most deeply personal ongoing threat, a threat which dangles the merry threads of your life over a razor's edge, should that incandescence be snuffed out by some moment of inattention, some cruelty of fate, an accident, a tragedy, a disease.

It's terrible contrasts such as these that Richter's 'Daylight' so effectively explores through the language of minimalism (a work which, in the months leading up to my encounter with Arrival, gave me an aural avenue to process emotions of guilt and powerlessness during a prolonged period of unemployment as a young parent). Villeneuve's use of 'Daylight' plainly recognizes this, deploying the minimalistic nuances of Richter's work to convey the very same mixture of tones presented visually by the film's early moments of joy, laughter, and childish play, moments juxtaposed by flashes of parental frustration, equally childish anger, and then resolute tragedy. The way in which this tragedy is unfurled so early in the film's run-time is not entirely dissimilar in narrative function to the staggering emotional difficulty of the first few minutes of Pixar's Up (2009). Villeneuve effectively utilizes the crushing existential weight of a loving parent losing their child to eventually segue into much broader themes about the nature of suffering and our messy relationship with its intractable ubiquity.

Indeed, though Richter's work by no means stops at the sorrow, Arrival, in those first few minutes, does. What it moves forward with is thematically and visually substantiated by the film's every purpose-driven moment, an accumulation leading to a nonlinear whole which brings us back to its beginnings only to recognize its ends; Richter's work is hand-selected to accompany us on this journey, bringing the listener from contact with the unavoidable suffering of existence toward an opportunity for luminescent reconciliation in a single stream of notes and rhythms. Arrival paves this journey by, as the best science fiction does, using its technological manifestations and otherworldly encounters as stand-ins for difficult theories and concepts; these mechanisms are meant to elucidate observations on the nature of the human experience and the world we both create for ourselves and are confined to via the accessibility of common story telling techniques.


Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.


For, while 'Daylight' both opens and punctuates Arrival, the film excels at presenting its journey as equally essential rather than a slog at the end of which boorishly sits a banal twist that threatens to devalue what preceded. In fact, in a year which can only be described as persistently challenging in emotional, social, economic, and political terms for a nation and a world grasping with growing problems of unprecedented scale (minus the mobility and leadership to seemingly do anything about them), Arrival covers a remarkable breadth of salient themes along these dimensions.

As a recently graduated Master's student of political science from UCL, my relationship with the film only grew via its engagement with the same linguistic, discursive, political and social themes my own research had sought to explore. Dr. Louise Banks has a history of contract work with the US Army, which leads her swiftly to an offer to consult on our first intelligent cosmic visitors, 12 monolithic obsidian 'ships' hovering over various points in the world (which invariably invoke the visual language of 2001: A Space Odyssey's monument). This previous contract work, we learn, involved an analysis of insurgency operatives, which resulted in actionable military intelligence, a point Louise seems to grimace about, distasteful of her expertise being used to kill.

When later shuffled into a military transport en route to one of the 12, she meets fellow academic (though physicist) Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) browsing the introduction to one of her published works. Louise introduces her work, he reads, by painting broad the deep implications of the mechanisms of our language, by arguing that language is the foundation upon which our civilization rests and 'the first weapon picked up in war' (a striking opening salvo Louise concedes is meant to entice by avoiding the painstaking procedural detail of linguistic study when Donnelly counters that she is impressive but decidedly wrong, that civilization rests upon 'science', not language).

In this way, Arrival slyly and efficiently introduces us to many of the ideas it will spend the body of its running time exploring. Much as linguistic academia is ceaselessly procedural in the deconstruction and reconstruction of language, the film moves along its running time in a thoroughly deliberate manner. Though it would be hard to accuse Arrival of failing to develop tension and emotional investment in its many scenes aboard the deep, dark, fog-obscured confines of Earth's new visitors, there is, ultimately, no great battle here, no choreographed set piece, no moment of irreparable global crisis where Villeneuve seeks to show off Spielbergian digs. Arrival wages a war of its ideas, where the battles are fought trying to communicate (as Louise does with our visitors) in new and meaningful ways so that, at last, there can be understanding.

These key ideas are naturally informed by Arrival's source material, Ted Chaing's excellent The Story of Your Life. Arrival's core science fiction concept can be understood as the Sapir-Whorf theory, a linguistic theory which postulates that linguistic structures influence the functioning and development of neurological pathways. In other words, the language you speak may determine in some way the very nature of the thoughts you have, how they are structured and understood, even the core cultural concepts you are familiar and acquainted with (much as some languages have words for concepts English only struggles to approximate). Chaing takes natural advantage of his genre to extend this concept well beyond what is commonly understood as possible.

Next Page

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image