Thursday, December 01, 2016

Breaking Saturn's Spell: Arrival & Doctor Strange

2016. Yes, sir. What can you say about 2016? 

I've noticed that after eight solid years of relentlessly attacking and ridiculing anyone who questioned the press-release version of reality that we get from our mainstream media, people on the left side of the spectrum are starting to see conspiracies under every rock. 

There are, of course, but still. 
We're just at the starting gate here: we'll be seeing so-called "real news" sites absolutely bursting with conspiracy theorizing in 2017.  Hold on to all those hit pieces we've seen in the Times and The New Republic et al over the past few years; you know, the ones with the ghoulishly unflattering photographs and the unfunny jokes about tinfoil hats and trailer parks.

Even so, UFO sightings have become so routine this year that even the debunkers seem to have given up trying to shame people into looking the other way. This of course doesn't mean these are alien spaceships; recent mass sightings in Turkey may well point to a more conventional origin point for at least some of these objects. 

But something strange is going on.

It makes sense then that this year rang in with a tsunami of hype for the X-Files revival, whose kickoff unleashed some of the most radical rhetoric ever heard on network television. The conspiracy community lit up like a Christmas tree and excerpts from 'My Struggle' popped up all over social media. 

The revival's momentum seemed to founder with a string of routine monster-of-the-week episodes (and an inexplicable decision to air not one, but two, comedy episodes) but the seeds were planted, nonetheless.

They bore fruit in the summer with Netflix's nostalgic Stranger Things miniseries, which took on MK ULTRA and experiments undertaken in the 1980s by the Department of Energy (which the DoE would at first deny, then admit to). The series seemed to set off a depth charge in the collective unconscious, speaking to those who were there as strongly as those who were not.

It should be noted however that sources with TenThirteen Productions - which produces The X-Files - report that plans for a new season were suddenly cast into doubt the day after the US elections. 

I've had a very strange 2016. And not in a good way, either. It also seems to be getting stranger in ways I can't really talk about now. But I very much wonder if this process of unveiling, of illusions of normalcy falling away and revealing a much weirder reality underneath, isn't just a macro-process. 

So I guess I was looking for answers of some kind when I decided to catch up on my movie-going and see two films that are directly connected to themes we've discussed in-depth here over the past 10 years.


Arrival and Doctor Strange might both tackle topics broadly familiar to those in the loose Synchromystic community, but could not be more different: tonally, thematically, cinematically, temperamentally. 

Arrival is a long, slow, quiet tone-poem, sci-fi in the Solaris mold (perhaps the remake more than the original), and Doctor Strange is a fairly traditional Marvel superhero origin movie with some cinegenic Hollywood metaphysics tacked on for seasoning.

I haven't been to the movies in some time, having been on a provisional boycott. I'm still very much interested in the form, but the intellectual vapidity of mainstream media-- conjoined with the persistent social engineering agenda evident in nearly every form of commercial entertainment-- is keeping me away. I want to be entertained, rather than indoctrinated by a radically dumbed-down version of Soviet Socialist Theater.*  

Doctor Strange touched all the tentpole bases-- apocalypse-sized threat, cities aflame, multiculti heroes banding together under a militaristic regimen-- but added themes roughly parallel with the wilder expressions of Tibetan Buddhism and psychedelic culture (according to this writer, DMT culture, specifically. 

It's a fascinating admixture, especially given how closely it in fact lines up with the Mithraic Mysteries that were the power base of the Roman Praetorian Guard, a theme Secret Sun readers have seen well up in the wake of the election. Timing, as they say, is everything.

The most surprising thing about Doctor Strange was how closely it followed the plotline of the animated Doctor Strange DVD, a film I quite enjoyed at the time.

The arc is essentially the same (and roughly hews to the original story, briefly sketched out by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko): Strange is a hotshot surgeon whose hands are damaged beyond repair when he wrecks his sports car. 

Searching desperately for a cure Strange eventually finds the Ancient One and his/her disciples, who are essentially raising a magical army to battle an existential threat from another dimension and its human agents. 

As with the animated film, and as distinct from the original comic book stories, the emphasis here is on collective action, on a magical collective acting in the service of all humanity.

It's not necessarily the way I'd personally treat the material. I'd go smaller and darker, and try to create a world in which it all felt very real. That there really were supermagi fighting it out all around us and we were essentially oblivious to it, because it all worked on a much more limited scale. Think a grown-up Harry Potter, but even more scaled down and realed-up.

Given that Doctor Strange is a major international hit, this shows ($618 Million in box office so far) how out of step I am with what the movie-going audience is looking for these days.

The extradimensional threat is depicted in a similar manner to the way it is in the animated film and as such is distinct from its depiction in the original comic stories. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I think the traditional depiction is actually more threatening (or could be, depending on how it was handled), since it exists in a spatial context we can wrap our heads around-- sort of-- in our mundane reality. 

Sometimes things can be so big that we can't really see them anymore.

It was the original strip's intimacy that crawled under my skin when I read the original comics- Doctor Strange was a kind of Kolchak, a weirdo loner solving occult crimes before eventually getting drawn into a globetrotting occult conspiracy. It was kind of like The X-Files in that regard, starting small and self-contained, growing somewhat but staying intimate, dark and paranoid.

What I found especially interesting in the wake of the election -- and the work I've been out on a limb alone exploring-- is the presentation of Time as a malevolent force. And in the perspective of the film's main antagonist, as the great existential evil and threat to all human striving. Which, of course, it is.

There's no readily-apparent parallel to be found in the film but this is practically orthodox Mithraism. In his incarnation as Aion, Mithras represented Infinite Time, who freed men from the ravages of Finite Time. The great scholar of the Mystery cults, Walter Burkert, observed that Mithraists saw the limitations of time as the source of all evil.

There's an interesting parallel in the original comics as well, since in battle with this great evil Doctor Strange was instructed to see the aid of Eternity himself, a kind of superheroic analog to Aion.

Now I've seen some of the more imaginative speculations as to this film being filled with MONARCH triggers and being an MK ULTRA training film and so on and so forth. 

Um, no. There's really nothing here that you can't find in the comics (I've seen speculations about the hand poses, for instance; actually those come straight from the original Ditko comics, being one of the artist's idiosyncratic trademarks), so I wouldn't look too hard for kitten programming or whatever those kooky kids are into these days.

But if you're looking for deeper subtext in the Doctor Strange character himself you might want to look into the fascinating evolution of magical superheroes (starting with my beloved Doctor Fate) that eventually bore fruit in the good doctor. 

All of the Secret Sun hobbyhorses are there for you to ride: Jack Kirby, ultradimensionals, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, ancient astronauts, Egypt, Mars, Salem, Mass., and on and on and on.

Arrival was a surprise. That it's done comparatively good box office is probably encouraging news. 

It's slow and languid, and is fueled more on dream-logic than standard Hollywood octane. Doctor Strange goes big and stagey for the dream imagery, drawing heavily on Christopher Nolan's Inception but also on Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. If you don't get the reference, google it before you see the film. Or better yet, afterwards.

If you've been tuning out the media entirely let me bring you up to speed: Arrival is a film about a mass alien contact event: giant UFOs appear across the world overnight. As may well happen, the authorities discover they are completely unable to communicate with the aliens so an American college professor - who also happens to be a languages prodigy - is enlisted to try to decipher the random grunts uttered by the visitors. Other countries do the same but a crisis erupts when the aliens' complex, symbolic language is misinterpreted.

As with Doctor Strange the plasticity of time is a central conceit in Arrival, but all that will sneak up on you in ways you can't anticipate. I'm not going to say too much about that because I don't want to spoil it. But also because I'm not entirely sure I could spoil it. 

Doctor Strange is a movie about spells; Arrival is a movie that strives very much to cast one.

Interesting to note also that Arrival featured a major player on loan from The Avengers (who are referenced in Doctor Strange), none other than Hawkeye himself, Jeremy Renner. He's capable enough but I'm not sure I completely buy him as a physicist so brilliant that the government would choose him above his peers to initiate contact with an alien race (both films also feature character actor Michael Stuhlbarg in roughly-similar bureaucratic pest roles).

Amy Adams - an actress I've had limited exposure to - is very good. It's a complex, challenging role, filled with hairpin emotional and narrative turns, and she pulled it all off, nary a seam to be seen. She conveys the sense of terror and awe (plus, more terror) one would experience in her situation.

The aliens themselves- as you've probably heard- are cephalopods, or as we called them back in the old days, giant octopi. This jibes quite with recent scientific discoveries about these fascinating creatures:
Octopuses are aliens — or, at least, so vastly different in their genetic makeup that they might as well be considered out of this world. Scientists recently sequenced the first genome in the Octopus Genome Project, a huge undertaking to map out the entire DNA structure of the complex cephalopod. What they found was simply incredible.

Octopuses have 33,000 genes, roughly 10,000 more than a human. This alone sets it apart from any other invertebrate in the world. They are also uncannily clever, with the ability to open jars, solve puzzles, and even use tools. It’s no wonder that some might think this creature is from another planet.
In uncovering the sequence, scientists found that octopuses have a similar set of genes to those found in humans, that make up a neural network in their brains, which accounts for their quick ability to adapt and learn. We also share a large brain, closed circulatory system, and eyes with an iris, retina, and lens. All of these independently developed in another species vastly different from our own mammal origins.
The film's aliens communicate by spraying ink in the dense atmosphere they exist in, and it's their complex form of communication that becomes the central McGuffin of the story.

Let me just say that while I found all this to be theoretically fascinating (exactly how we'll get to in a moment), as a tentpole experience it was a bit lacking. Anticlimactic. I'm not exactly sure what I was looking for in place of the film's central conceit, but definitely something a bit less writerly, a bit less film-school. 

Writers love to imagine that words themselves will save the world and rewrite history at its core. It's an inspiring idea, to be sure, but unfortunately it tends to be action and not words that decides the direction that events will take.

There's some real theory behind the sci-fi here, though, a theory dealing with the transformative effects of language:
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that an individual's thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks. The strong version of the hypothesis states that all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language, and is generally less accepted than the weaker version, which says that language only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior. 
So Alan Moore's truisms about "spells are spelling" and "grimoires are grammars" aren't quite as facile as they sound, are they?

But you can read all that anywhere, can't you? What's the Secret Sun angle? I'm glad you asked.

Over the years I've mentioned a guy I used to know who kind of got me started on this whole Synchromystic business, some 20 years ago now. He was a genius when it came to breaking down words and numbers and finding parallels in history that people wouldn't even sense, never mind connect. 

We got to know each other through email and were stunned to discover that he once lived a short distance from where I do know, off the very same highway. 
Stunned, but not surprised, really.

I lost touch with him several years back. He worked under psedonyms and seemed to vanish back into the electronic fog. I thought I found him time and again, but could never be certain.

But before I lost track of him he came to hold very radical- some might say extreme- ideas about Synchronicity. Where some people might take a quantum physics-based approach to the phenomenon, if not a spiritually-based one, he took a more specific approach. 

He came to believe that we were all being manipulated by extraterrestrial, interdimensional beings of unimaginable scope and power, beings who exist outside of time and space. He came to take a profoundly paranoid interpretation of meaningful coincidence, and quite probably a malevolent one.

It reminds me in a way of John Keel, whose research into paranormal phenomena was second to none, and the paranoid worldview he came to hold. No one can accuse Keel of jumping to conclusions, of failing to do his homework or show his math. He knew the material better than anyone, forgot more than most people will ever know. So if nothing else, we should take his POV under careful consideration, if we do nothing else.

But it may be more complicated than all that. Maybe we are not in fact bound by time and space, as both Doctor Strange and Arrival come along to tell us.

There are scientists like Rick Strassman who took people to realms like those we see Strange travel and there were scientists like Wolfgang Pauli who flirted with ideas about the transformational effect of reframing time as something other than a fixed constant.

Is there a way of recording our experience that will in fact work to help us transcend the nature of those experiences? Is Synchronicity itself a kind of language, one we haven't even begun to map? 

Those who work with Synchronicity can't help but notice how it seems to communicate with the experiencer, how it responds to thought. And it can do so the more rigorous and analytical you are in approaching it, which certainly seems counterintuitive to many people.

Just don't pretend that that process is always going to be easy or pleasant. The deeper the waters go, the colder they get. And the pressures can become intolerable. 
Anyone who tells you otherwise has never been there.


Space is not the final frontier, Time is. Learning to break Saturn's spell might well be the true Grail. We're hardly at the beginning of that journey, but we may finally be beginning to realize that there may be ways out of Chronos's cosmic concentration-camp.

Time is our jailer, it's the great taskmaster. It's the ultimate destroyer. It takes everything away from us. But only if you choose to play by the very reductive and incontrovertible rules you are taught when approaching it. 

Does Synchronicity play a role in breaking this spell? I don't know. But it certainly usurps conventional models of time and causality, and that is definitely a good place to start.


One thing I found fascinating was the choice of sneak previews frontloaded before the features. I told my wife just before Doctor Strange began that I felt like I'd seen eight films already. 

The previews for Arrival focused on the increasingly rare standalone feature, meaning a movie whose title isn't bisected with a colon or numeral. The only previews that stood out were for the creepy new M. Night Shamalayan movie, Split (a movie on DID Dissociative Identity Disorder aka Multiple Personality Disorder) that is certain to raise a ruckus on social media from the "multiple community." (If one doesn't exist, it will by the time the film is released)  

And I hasten to add Split comes across as creepy in ways that the filmmaker may not have intended. I should also add that I'm currently living a LARP of Shamalayan's ecodisaster film The Happening, which starred my old Braintree neighbor Mark Wahlberg. It's even less fun than it sounds.

The other was for a Jennifer Lawrence SF vehicle that is milking the corporate space exploration megatrend. I'm certain a lot of these projects were greenlit in the wake of Interstellar- there was a teaser-trailer for a spacepic before Doctor Strange as well. 

There was a preview for a new Will Smith picture that seems to completely misread his appeal and presents him as a low-energy depressive who is either in communion with embodied archetypes (Death, Love, etc) or is suffering from pharmacological hallucination, take your pick.

The previews before Doctor Strange were all genre, explosion-laden junk. Was a time when that might have appealed to the puer aeternus in me but really; enough is enough. You're starving the mind while feeding the eye (and the adrenal gland). 

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one burnt on the pabulum- audiences have been staying away in droves from the noisy garbage constantly foisted on us.

*I have been exploring some of the independent films on Amazon Prime, though I haven't had a great deal of luck so far. I admire the industriousness of the new independents, if nothing else. It's grueling hard work, particularly when there's not much of a payoff on the other end.