education, Uncategorized

Listening to Arrival

I fell in love with linguistics because of a course in my undergraduate second major in Spanish. Our class at Vanderbilt University started in Latin, followed how sounds and spellings became Spanish (distinct from other Romance languages), and further traced dialectal variants from the Mediterranean coast to the Andes mountains. The systematic explanation of how language works fascinated me.

My graduate work in music composition and cultural studies at Stony Brook University included two research papers on electronic music based on samples of speech: I wrote charts that compared similarities and contrasts of vowel sounds to harmonic sonorities and produced a three-dimensional graph with axes of time, prevalance of spoken phrases, and sections of a musical work. I also read a play in Brazilian Portuguese using techniques I learned in the Vanderbilt linguistics class. To this day, my affinity for the sounds of words in songs I hear and in poetry I write and my retention of infrequently practiced Spanish have been heightened by exposure to the field of linguistics. Thus, the premise of a sci-fi movie with a linguist as the protagonist attracted me to Arrival.

The theme of communication resonated with me: we must first listen and converse before we decide how to act and react. I cherish this principle in how I approach marriage, teaching, and social justice, and I hope for it to be practiced in all kinds of others’ personal and societal relationships.

The progression of the film was like a photo-poem, more perspective than plot, more psychological than physical. I savored the cinematography of slate-colored, almond-shaped vessels over vast landscapes and of a rugged stone chamber lit by a screen-like transparent barrier. I thought I would feel sad that the sounds were not the focus of communication, but the visual effects of the writing were a beautiful kind of calligraphy, of ink flowing into form.

I saw the film without reading any reviews beforehand (except a couple of brief recommendations from friends on facebook). I wondered what people besides my husband had noticed in the film and if others had liked what I liked. Instead of my usual IMDB survey, I went to Rotten Tomatoes. I saw that the majority of reviewers liked the film, but I also saw numerous green splats. I set out to discover the reasoning of people who disagreed with me.

I found that I agreed with some points of the negative reviews. The minor characters were developed poorly. I wish the colonel would have had more in-depth conversations with the linguist throughout the film, building on his abrupt interruption of her familiar life at the film’s opening. I was excited about the potential for the physicist to become a philosophical foil to other characters like the mathematician in Jurassic Park, but the science vs. humanities vs. military debate never happened.

I also agreed that the film was slow-paced and lacked action. If someone’s definition of a sci-fi movie is a vibrant tour de force like Star Trek of any era or a charming elaboration of a fairy tale like A.I. or E.T., then Arrival does not fit the genre. With few explosions and no alien armies, if I had thought I were going to see a Marvel Universe blockbuster, I would have been disappointed, too.

I felt compelled to understand why some people did not like the film, and I spent enough time reading their words to express their views to a friend at dinner the next week. I did not realize until that evening conversation, however, that over the months of unsavory political discourse, I had developed a habit of trying to find clear voices from multiple sides of issues. Movie reviews are innocuous, but if I can’t listen calmly to others’ views before responding, I missed the vital point of a movie I love.

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