Notebook: The Unity of All Things
One of the highlights of this year’s Migrating Forms, Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt’s debut feature deploys an allusive network of metaphors grounded in physics, geological time frames, and the borders between the physical and the virtual. Set largely at a particle accelerator on the verge of shutting down for good, the film uncovers the similarities and discrepancies between the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the experiences of the flesh.
Carver and Schmidt’s provocatively esoteric hodgepodge of human endeavor—Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the burgeoning sexuality of adolescents, talk of drones and spirituality—is equally experimental and narrative in design. Michael Robinson’s Circle in the Sand comes to mind, as do the shorts of Portuguese filmmaker Sandro Aguilar, who works from his own idiosyncratic notions of what could broadly be termed sci-fi tonalities, and the uncanny narrative structures of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Unity of All Things resembles all of these in certain aspects, if only superficially, though it remains wonderfully difficult to categorize, making it avant-garde to a T.
Deep underground in an undisclosed somewhere, Xia Huang, the program’s aloof-verging-on-forbidding matriarch, is hosting a visit by her teenage sons (actresses Celia Au and Andrea Chen). The boys take considerable pride in their physical beauty but struggle to form an identity and conceive of themselves as independent from their role as brothers or from their mother’s much-noted brilliance. The young pair, whose flashes of cruelty toward one another are as scathing as their features are porcelain-smooth, have their doubles in the two remaining scientists at the depopulated facility: Huang’s right-hand “angel” (Haruka Hashimoto), and another woman (Jennifer Kim), pregnant by an anonymous sperm donor, who’s nearly as demanding for would-be mentor Huang’s embrace as the teenagers are.
There are two more pairs (or doublings): wanderers played by the directors themselves, introduced at the halfway mark exploring a cave (at which point the title card finally appears), and a couple of Mexican biologists hunting for a “non-indigenous exotic” (which might be a helpful way to think of this curious film). “It’s becoming difficult to track this jaguar with all these physicists, particle physicists roaming the desert,” one of the researchers remarks in hushed concern during the film’s ascension from the prenatal tunnels of the defunct accelerator to the deathly-white sunlight of the border.
As Huang prepares to secure funding for a new particle accelerator, her grasp on reality becomes increasingly slippery; her children remain awestruck if understandably confused. Carver and Schmidt’s film is essentially structured into three parts, each corresponding to a shift in geographical location and the characters’ emotional temperatures. The first is set during the accelerator’s end days in its facilities and surrounding forests; the second at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the terrain for a new accelerator program is being scouted; the third, basically an epilogue, in three separate places after the program’s team has disbanded. But there is a fluidity to the scenes that merges past and present, moving beyond a strict definition of when or where. (One recalls how Huang tells her kids that, eons ago, the universe was one “perfect liquid.”) As the boys talk about a Chinese soap opera featuring a time-traveling kung-fu master, a shot of fireworks reflected in a pair of black eyes is superimposed over a shot of a far-away valley (a memory from the boy’s youth); clouds rolling off a mountainside cross-fade to “become” the smoke from the fireworks.
Wry fluctuations in tone carry the narrative from one ellipsis to the next, and at times the humor undercuts the myopia of the narcissistic characters as they yearn for whatever shreds of certainty they can grasp (about anything whatsoever, their lives spent in the pursuit of Total Understanding). So the grim emotions at their and the film’s core become, if not humorous, what with all the increasingly unruly behavior (a flipped table at a party, one brother hitting the other in the face with a rock), then perhaps easy to relate to. These are defensive attempts at keeping that grimness at bay, like the grapefruit pink sunset that occurs during a funeral, with chuckling old women telling good-natured but dirty jokes and anecdotes about the deceased. Gradually, the characters’ impassivity (vacant stares and rigid body language) gets chipped away to reveal their throbbing insecurities: a son’s fear of being the least loved; or in the case of Huang, an exceptional intellect coming to terms with the limits of her abilities.
Light on plot, the film is heavy on character backgrounds and declarations (or confessions) of motivation. The detachment of the performances is disquieting, if slyly amusing for its deadpan humor; what’s more, the performers have all been dubbed in voices with almost robotic cadences, the hyper-articulate scientific jargon hyperenunciated. This clarity is itself doubled in the subtitling of the English-language dialogue, suggesting a split between body and action: what sound like the words of people confident, fully in control of themselves read, when paired with the on-screen action, like the babble of people hesitant, even fearful, at the very thought of rejection or uncertainty.
Particle science is the movie’s grand metaphor for longing and the precarious nature of personal connections. (The scientific project at hand involves constructing a miles-long particle accelerator, which requires finding a suitable space underground to house the gargantuan, delicately complex, and potentially unstable device.) Huang and her motley brood define themselves to a great degree in relation to one another, and they seek messily, earnestly, to clarify the nature of their relationships, and what these relationships might mean to the ongoing definition of each of their identities. This is less along the lines of sci-fi allegory than the sensual transcendence of Rimbaud: “from the soul for the soul, summing up everything, perfumes, sounds, colors.” The beautiful existence of something like a particle accelerator—a testament to man’s ingenuity and scientific derring-do that “looks like a chrysanthemum,” as one of the boys says—registers most significantly in the image of that boy’s fingers as he walks hand-in-hand with his brother, skimming along a part of the accelerator itself, “where the beams cross.”
That image of the boys helps portray the workings of the unimaginably powerful multibillion-dollar modern marvel as a kind of tender caress, bridging the infinite and the ephemeral. Touching and being touched becomes the film’s defining gesture: a slap seen in the background of a shot as a geologist, in the foreground, lectures on the folly of building an accelerator in mountains that, by their very existence, testify to an era before man; a boy’s hand on a pregnant belly, seen in silhouette through the windows of a high-rise from many stories below.
Carver and Schmidt’s rich images have a vaporous quality, a mistiness hanging over the abundant grain of their Super-16 and Super-8 photography. The color palette morphs subtly from acid-wash to colors that are thicker, darker, then back again to something downier before progressing in slight variations and combinations of the downy and the dark. During an early night scene the patterns of grain buzz so visibly, and gorgeously, that it appears a layer of reality is beginning to peel off.
Taken in this light, the film’s effect is similar to viewing a lab sample (a drop of blood, say) under a microscope: when seen with the naked eye it has a uniform color and consistency, but when examined closer it's apparent there are numerous different substances (cells, fibers, nutrients, waste products) with discrete elements replete with countless different truths ready to be probed for meaning. (This observation could also be applied to the film’s fluid but segmented structure.) The movie's muddy, indistinct blacks are outlined in shadowy blue, sometimes set alongside a deep purple or purple-pink that, in its synthetic-bold hue, seems to announce the presence of an invisible fabric holding the various egos and their accompanying neuroses together in shifting harmony and discord. These blues and purples reach their apogee in an eerily calm nightscape of Huang stroking the head of her favorite underling, who lays unconscious from a snakebite in her lap, as that searched-for jaguar appears nearby—signaling a fade to black.