Not This Week, Arrival

By  · Published on November 11th, 2016

When life gives you humanist science-fiction and all you want is down-and-dirty horror.

I’ve never been a big fan of overtly mixing film criticism and politics. Anyone who has studied film theory at any level would probably argue that it’s all politics, and to deny that fact is to deny one of the key tenants of arts criticism itself, but I always felt better leaving the important issues to people who actually belong to the affected communities. Every time I veered towards the political in an article, there was always a part of me that was just a little worried I might be virtue signaling, playing up my political conscience to show that I, too, belonged to the Responsible Film Critic crowd. If you aren’t certain you’re doing something for selfless reasons, best not to do it at all.

I’m not questioning my motives anymore. Please bear with me as I try and get up to speed in a very short period of time.

The truth is, I’m still coming to terms with the importance of film criticism in what happens next. If art is important, then I know talking about art is important, but there are times this past week where it just felt stupid to talk about the next Marvel or Star Wars movie. Even some of my most anticipated movies are having trouble moving the radar. There’s a movie in theaters this weekend – Arrival— that’s predicated on the theory that learning a new language actively changes the way you think. That your brain, in effect, rewires itself to accommodate the new information and creates new neural pathways that affect how you view the world. Through this conceit, Arrival tries to speak to humanity’s capacity for evolution through an understanding of things foreign to us. It’s a powerful message, and in most weeks, it would be help promote unity and cooperation for people from different ways of life.

Not this week. I don’t want to watch uplifting movies about the potential of humanity. All I really want to do is hunker down and watch horror. Movies where characters are immediately punished for making terrible decisions that conflict with their own interest. Movies where a strong woman outwits slobbering monster while everyone around her falls to pieces. Movies with an appalling approach to gender and diversity, not because I support such backward thinking, but because it’s so obviously an anachronism in our more-enlightened world. I want to watch people die onscreen and laugh because it’s only a movie, and nothing like this could possibly happen in real life. I want to enjoy movies that barter in the worst of humanity and know that it’s only entertainment.

Most of all, though, I want to watch horror movies because they’re a safe outlet for all the anger and aggression that I’m feeling. No matter who you are, these next four years are going to affect your life, and not for the better. That means I’m going to do my best to be an ally. To know when it’s more important to amplify than be the one to deliver a message. To support my diverse community of friends, family, and fellow writers. To donate money or time when I can. Even if we somehow manage to make it past the ocean of civil rights violations many see in our future, the heavy budgetary cuts that our president-elect has promised mean terrible things for the arts and arts education. Life has gotten harder for freelancers, for non-profits, for anyone or any organization that relies on government spending to help keep the arts alive. This isn’t wild speculation or millennial angst; these are campaign promises, all but signed, sealed, and delivered.

Look, I probably could have turned this into some lengthy screed about how the power of film, but that’s just not the mood I’m in. Odds are good that you’ve already ready something to that effect this week, and even if you haven’t, the last thing in the world you need right now is another white dude waxing poetic about the healing power of cinema. I should hope that by now we’ve each found occasion to watch a film – new or familiar – and reminded ourselves that movies can play a key role in helping us shape the world that we want. And I promise that next week I’ll get back to the business of film and how we engage with as a community. Today, though, I just want to blow off a little steam before settling in for the long haul.

Oh, and ask you for this one thing: please, listen to the diverse voices we offer at Film School Rejects. Read the works of our regular columnists Tomris Laffly, Jamie Righetti, and Paola Mardo. Of Danny Bowes and Erica Bahrenburg. If you like my regular contributions about film history and culture, then pay me back by taking the time to add new voices to your reading list. Read, listen, learn, and maybe, just maybe, you might find that there’s something to this Arrival linguistics science after all.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)