Ten years ago, while attending Comic-Con in San Diego, I met an artist who showed me an independent vampire book he'd created. As I recall, it was a couple hundred pages long and still "in-progress"; the illustrations reminded me of my own best work at age twelve; and they guy spent twenty minutes explaining the intricacies of his story's premise--none of which appeared to have yet made it into the printed material.
Occasionally, I'd slip a question into his mile-a-minute pitch, such as, "Why do your vampires have laser vision?" or, "What's the significance of the time-traveling spaceship, and how does it fit into this diner scene?" His answers laid the foundation for the artistic bullshit detector that I've used to judge entertainment and media ever since:
1. "It doesn't matter, 'cause that's where the imagination comes in!"
2. "What do you think the significance is?"
I'm going to let you in on a secret that will segue into a review of the new film Another Earth (I promise): Not all art has value. I've met and experienced the work of hundreds of artists who hide behind this cultural myth that all art (particularly theirs) is inherently worthwhile, simply by virtue of having been created. Quality rendering and audience accessibility, in some circles, are considered passé--expendable nuisances that stand in the way of the artiste splattering their soul across a canvas or projecting it onto a movie screen.
There is no shame in either admitting that you don't understand a piece of art, or in accusing the artist of being deliberately opaque. The human brain has a network of wonderful alarm bells that will sound whenever contradictory information is presented as gospel. If art cannot meet the viewer half way, a courtesy hand-wave is always appreciated. One should not require encyclopedic knowledge of the creator's history or philosophical and political views in order to understand why a small, black circle in the middle of a thirty-foot white canvas represents the history of the universe. Sure, that information might supplement an art fan's experience, but the only stars a casual gallery-goer is likely to see will emanate from the knowledge that someone has made several grand off a fifty-dollar (max) investment of time and materials.
Case in point: The other night, I attended an advanced screening of Mike Cahill's Another Earth. Afterwards, Steve Prokopy of Ain't it Cool News moderated a Q&A with Cahill and his co-writer and star, Brit Marling. Both creators' answers to questions about their movie confirmed the suspicions I'd wrestled with for the last hour of the run-time. More on that in a minute.
Marling stars as Rhoda, an exceptionally smart, college-bound teenager who ruins her future by driving home drunk from a party. On the radio, she hears that scientists have discovered an identical Earth that's gradually coming into view in night sky. Rhoda looks out her window while speeding down the street and, sure enough, there's a little, blue dot flickering in the blackness. Moments later, she's stumbling out of her wrecked vehicle, surveying an unconscious Yale professor, his dead, pregnant wife, and their young son, whose abrupt exit from their car stripped him of his arms and his life.
Four years later, Rhoda's released from prison and returns home to live with her parents and younger brother. She takes a custodial job at her old high school and skulks around town in her free time, watching the second Earth that now looms several times larger than the moon everywhere she goes. One night, she enters an Internet contest to join the first manned shuttle to "Earth 2". A Richard Branson-type entrepreneur (Rupert Reid) has funded his own mission and invites everyone on the planet to write a 500-word essay on why they deserve to go.
In an attempt to break out of her guilt shell, Rhoda visits the home of the professor whose life she destroyed. John (William Mapother) lives in a big, decaying house in the middle of nowhere. Peeking through his window, Rhoda sees that he's become a passive hoarder of booze empties, and has given up on his passion for composing music. She knocks on the door. He answers. She chickens out of an apology and instead poses as a solicitor for a cleaning service. He invites her in, and for the next several weeks, these two damaged people begin literally mopping up the mess their lives have become.
Until this point, Another Earth really had me. It was on my Year's Best list for sure. Cahill and Marling capture isolation, guilt, and shame in that first half-hour like nobody's business. The movie is quiet, honest, and promises a fascinating sci-fi surprise as the second-Earth storyline takes shape in the background. Each scene between Rhoda and John is undercut with tension; I waited for him to recognize her through his sad, drunken haze as the girl who killed his family.
And I waited.
Then I waited some more.
Through the time-skipping scenes where Rhoda and John play Wii boxing and eat pizza and gradually fall in love, I waited for an explanation as to how he could not recognize a girl whose face he would surely have seen in court if not on television. Sadly, the explanation comes about three-quarters of the way through the movie, long past the point where I'd assumed the filmmakers were just going to ignore it altogether. It happens shortly after John buys Rhoda's ridiculous lie about why the cleaning service she claims to work for has neither a record of her employment nor the checks he's made out to them for months.
I have a bit of unsolicited advice for Cahill and Marling: Explain crucial plot point such as the identity problem early. It will keep the audience from tuning out (as happened to me) or laughing at the sex scene between your protagonists (as happened to the rest of the audience at the screening).
Another Earth rapidly spirals into ridiculousness and pretension, and all of the cool introspection and somber stylistic choices are abandoned (actually, beheaded) for melodrama and a deteriorating sci-fi subplot. Rhoda wins the ticket to space and decides to confess her sins to John before she leaves. He is, of course, furious, and she runs from his house confused about her feelings for him and her motivation for wanting to meet the alternate-Earth version of herself. In the end, she gives John her ticket in the hopes that he will reconnect with his family on the new planet.
It's a touching sentiment, I guess, but it ignores a pretty big question: What if alternate-Earth John and his family are still alive? Wouldn't that thrown an even greater psychological wrench into everyone's lives? How would you feel if a sad-sack version of yourself showed up one day and wanted to move in? Would you let them sleep with your spouse? Help raise your kids? Can two such beings even co-exist, given that the movie posits both realities as sort of splintered pieces of mirrored realities (or something)?
These big questions mutate into even bigger questions. The last scene of the film takes place four months after the shuttle launch to Earth 2, and sees Rhoda running into her alternate-Earth self--presumably in her own reality. Earth 2 Rhoda is well-dressed and looks like the young professional she was once destined to be. How did she get there? How long does the trip between planets take? What was Earth 2's reaction to receiving guests?
During the Q&A, Prokopy made a couple of hilarious references to this being the rare movie that forces the audience to use their brains. My problems with Another Earth stem from doing exactly that, and I blame the filmmakers for having no satisfactory answers. Cahill's stock response to questions about the movie's meaning and ending went something like this:
"Me and Brit have some ideas worked out about what it all means, but we don't want to detract from whatever your interpretation might be."
So, I guess I'm the idiot for expecting a film to have a coherent beginning, middle, and end. What Cahill said might be true, but I frankly don't believe him. In fact, I don't want to believe him, because that would make him a giant asshole. I feel the same way about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, another gorgeously shot film that contains so much obfuscation and half-explanations that the only way to describe it is to make stuff up about ideas that the piece itself doesn't actually support. If you want to make a movie that's a "visual poem" that "doesn't have to make sense", that's fine. Just be honest about it.
If you genuinely want to make a film that speculates on the grand mysteries of life and the possibilities of alternate realities, take the time to map it out, seal it up, logic-wise, and then start shooting. If you want to make a serious relationship drama about peoples' connections in the wake of a tragedy, make it relatable to an audience that, say, understands how human beings work.
Barring that, don't waste everyone's time. Certainly don't charge them ten bucks to sit through a ninety-minute (or two-and-a-half-hour) con. The world is full of notebooks and hard drives containing failed stories and terrible movies; in the broadest sense, yes, they are all art. But if we are to appreciate the really good stuff, to recognize not only process and passion but also a creator's integrity, we must distinguish between art that gets there and art that falls short. If there's a planet on which Another Earth is considered solid filmmaking, I never want to visit it.