Aliens, Art, Liminality and the Existence of the Soul

In Sophie Barthes’ delightful new film COLD SOULS actor Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who is struggling with Uncle Vanya. Convinced that his soul is causing him physical discomfort and holding him back, on a whim and advice from his agent he gets his soul extracted. Hijinks ensue as Giamatti begins to live life without a soul. In one of the funniest moments of a frequently funny film, we see Giamatti mangling Vanya and molesting his attractive, young scene partner. Now lacking a soul he no longer gets Vanya’s passivity and desperation and plays the role like, well, someone from Los Angeles. Like, Tom Cruise or something. It is hilarious and heartbreaking.  Finally he decides to rent another soul – a Russian poet – and he is soon performing a pitch-perfect Vanya. Of course the possession of a Russian poet’s soul is too much, eventually, for a New York actor and Giamatti goes to get his own soul back – only to discover it has been stolen and given to a Russian mobster’s wife who believes it to be Al Pacino’s soul. More hijinks -and high concept humor – ensue until Giamatti’s soul is restored, the black market in souls is shut down and a “soul mule” who has been trafficking the Russian souls has her own soul returned.

I really loved the film and definitely recommend that you check it out. It is smart and funny, gently ascerbic but not too full of itself. (I sound like I’m describing wine!).

Last Friday I saw what would seem to be a very different film – DISTRICT NINE. But on further examination they share one important idea – that there is something immutable about the Self that exists beyond the physical. In DISTRICT NINE the seemingly hapless Wikus, played by Sharito Copley, gets infected by an alien fluid that slowly transforms him physically into an alien. Yet his essential self remains unchanged and he continues to leave small hand-crafted gifts for his wife at the door of his former house. That’s probably not the first takeaway from this action-packed adventure film and allegory on race relations. But nonetheless its there – this question of what makes us “human” – or if not merely human that what makes the self the Self? What is immutable? What survives within, beyond and through the physical?

I’m not even going to pretend to offer any kind of answer – but I will suggest that these questions are becoming even more pressing in our mediated age – as we move ever closer to integrating technology into the physical experience, as we transform our human experience into one that is ever more reliant on technology. And I will also take this opportunity to re-assert that art and culture are a kind of science, a laboratory for examination of the Self. There is a (and I shudder to use the phrase, but) spiritual dimension towards the exploration of human experience through the arts. Why do I say this?

A few weeks ago there was an article in the NY TIMES called “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” in which a husband declared that he no longer loved his wife, indeed he doubted he ever had. The wife, rather than freak out, said, “I don’t buy it.” (Follow the link for the full article). I was fascinated by the woman’s perspective and bought a book she mentioned – The End of Suffering – which it turns out is all about moving beyond Aristotelian dualism and into “the Middle Path” – an expansive consciousness that embraces complexity rather than opposition.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, because if art is a laboratory for the exploration of the spirit/self/immutably human, then it must embrace chaos and convey disorder while trying to create ever more complex systems of knowing. The challenge is creating art that is revelatory and comprehensible out of the sheer overwhelming enormity and variation of actual experience.

I’m not quite capable of truly articulating this right now. I’m just trying to put some things into juxtaposition. The soul, “aliens”, complexity, philosophy, dualism, the craft of making art, the art of conveying the essential truth of experience – I am putting these things together to try and sort out, make an argument for, contemporary art and what it must be. Why “entertainment” is not enough.

Living in a world where experience – and the sharing of experience – is being broken down into ever smaller, more digestible, bits, we need to figure out how to maintain a commitment to complexity, difficulty. We need to develop elaborate, complicated ways of knowing that embrace ambiguity and acknowledge change and disorder.

It is August and it is hot. My brain isn’t working very well. But take some of these ideas and play with them if you’d like.

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