Can cinema teach us the true value of human communication?

Films like Arrival and Paterson have plenty to say about the importance of learning how to listen.


Alex Denney

Your friends on social media all agree, 2016 is the Worst. Year. Ever. It can officially ‘do one’. Jog on. Get in the sea. But if there’s one thing we can say this most abject of laps around the sun was good for, it might be this: it helped legitimise the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

If you’ve yet to see Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s nearly explosion-free sci-fi drama, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a school of thought in linguistics claiming that the language you use determines how you look at the world. To give an often cited example, the word ‘blue’ didn’t exist in the languages of many ancient civilisations. Which begs the question of whether they could, in fact, ‘see’ blue at all (in ‘The Iliad’, Homer makes reference to the “wine-dark” sea). The theory is given a new lease of life in Arrival, in which Amy Adams’ linguistics professor, Dr Louise Banks, is recruited by the US government to decipher the language of a group of visiting aliens. Honour prevents us from saying more, but the point is this is a film that illustrates, in brilliant fashion, how words can help shape and even transform our perception of the world around us.

Words matter. That’s a phrase we’ve been hearing a lot lately, as politicians scatter hate-words like so much confetti and online political discourse increasingly resembles a form of trench warfare. There’s a question in all of this: have we all forgotten how to talk to each other? And if so, how do we learn to start communicating again?

In Villeneuve’s film, the answer lies, above all, in striving for clarity in the language that we use. After weeks of painstaking research gives Banks the grammatical know-how to ask the aliens about the purpose of their visit, the reply comes that they’re here to “offer weapon”. Naturally, this causes the world’s top military types to wet their knickers, but Banks counsels caution – the translation is imperfect, things might not be quite what they seem. Later, a dispatch sent to another alien landing site reports that the reply they received was “use weapon”, subtly vindicating the professor’s argument.

Banks isn’t the only good listener on our screens right now. In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch puts a little poetry in a world of hectoring prose with his portrayal of a week in the life of a bus-driving poet, played with quiet sensitivity by Adam Driver. Jarmusch, who seems to have a direct line to the god of small things, presents in his film a figure who really knows how to listen – not just in the sense of knowing when to stop talking, but in his ability to weigh a person’s words and, by extension, the world around him.

Paterson is about poetry as the art of living, about making yourself open to the rhymes and rhythms embedded in the prima materia of everyday life. Unusually for a film about an artist, it also depicts a guy who is also a secret pillar of his community, attentive to the woes of friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances and, a touch wilfully, allergic to modern technology. (“I don’t want a phone,” Paterson protests to a local bartender. “It would be a leash.”)

In other recent films, it’s possible to discern a sense of being done with language altogether. In High-Rise, a TV journalist resorts to grunting like an animal when the social order begins to break down. In both Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant – films about Mother Nature taking her revenge on mankind – the viewer is thrust into apocalyptic landscapes both real and symbolic with only a scant supply of salty dialogue for provisions.

But what if the retreat into silence is really a rediscovery of how to communicate? In Embrace of the Serpent, the sole remaining member of an Amazonian tribe complains that the trees and rocks have stopped talking to him – a silence called up, we must presume, by the destruction of his culture. Yet by leading an unwitting Westerner on a spiritual quest through the rainforest, he is able to reconnect with his calling as a shaman, and acquaint the Westerner with a deeper form of communication. “I wasn’t meant to teach my people,” he concludes. “I was meant to teach you.”

According to theologian Maggie Ross, one of the (softly) talking heads in Patrick Shen’s 2015 documentary In Pursuit of Silence, shamanism can be read as “a kind of history of proto-monasticism, where someone in the tribe has a facility with silence and understanding the unspoken processes of the world.” Taking inspiration from Zen Buddhists, scholars of silence, John Cage and one bearded fellow who’s decided to push a trolley cart across America, Shen’s film contends that it’s precisely this facility we’re in danger of missing out on in the “race towards modernity”. After all, how can you make sense of sound without its binary opposite?

Published 30 Nov 2016

Tags: Adam Driver Amy Adams Jim Jarmusch

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