Sunday, December 8, 2013

Don't Make a Scene: Contact

The Story:
Logos: 1. (often initial capital letter) Philosophy. the rational principle that governs and develops the universe. 2. Theology. the divine word or reason incarnate in Jesus Christ. John 1:1–14.


1. In pre-Socratic philosophy, the principle governing the cosmos, the source of this principle, or human reasoning about the cosmos.

2. Among the Sophists, the topics of rational argument or the arguments themselves.

3. In Stoicism, the active, material, rational principle of the cosmos; nous.
Identified with God, it is the source of all activity and generation and is the power of reason residing in the human soul.

1. In biblical Judaism, the word of God, which itself has creative power and is God's medium of communication with the human race.
2. In Hellenistic Judaism, a hypostasis associated with divine wisdom.

Christianity. In Saint John's Gospel, especially in the prologue (1:1-14), the creative word of God, which is itself God and incarnate in Jesus. Also called Word.

It is one of the great ironies, in these times of rancor between the spheres of the sacrosanct and the secular, that the two philosophies are united by a single word, logos. That one word is claimed for the core truths of the two Universes, the one created by God and the other where it is a happy accident of the forces of gravity and mass.* Both sides hold their truths to be self-evident, because the evidence is bound by belief, bound by Faith. Scientists say that black-holes exist because the math works out in the equations. Religious leaders point to their written texts, like the eye-witness testimonies of the Apostles in the Bible to the Divinity of Christ. The truth is that there is no Truth, so much as there is Belief. There is Faith. In black-holes and in God. But the other side requires proof, even if those proofs are then disputed. It comes down to Faith in the absence of hard evidence. In the equations and in The Word. They can't both be true.

Can they?

Even if you can't have one without the other.

If not, what are the Heavens for?

"The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

In the cult of personality of Science, the name of Carl Sagan looms large. It was Sagan's gift as a scientist, that he could explain science in simple terms, so that they are "understandable to a bar-maid"--he could make the cosmos relatable, in terms of fact, without losing any of its intrinsic wonder.

Sagan's novel "Contact" was its own Einstein-Rosen Bridge between Knowledge and Faith, science and religion. It is a zero-g flip that puts a person of science in the same position as a religious heretic—having to defend their Faith in something that has no evidence against the slings and arrows of the earthly Powers That Be who doubt her.

For Ellie Arroway, the scientist-protagonist of Contact, nothing is to be taken on Faith. It must be based on sound scientific principles as evidenced, tested and re-tested to similar conclusions, and then and only then is it an inviolable Fact or a Law. For her, religion is superstition, not provable. And yet she works for SETI in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, itself a cosmic leap of faith. She holds that the universe is too vast to not hold life like us. And if there is life, there must be evidence or residue or something that can reach us, tiny little speck that we are, in all that expansiveness (as if we were the center of the Universe—sound familiar?). But where's the proof? What evidence is there, except for the vastness of space, and the theory that if Life can make it here, it can make it a-ny-where.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."

Here's where it gets interesting, folks: Ellie is put in the position of being the one human being sent on an ET-designed spaceship to take her to meet its Makers, a journey that opens her eyes to the wonders of the Universe, that she embraces as a certainty, as she sees it, feels it, tests it. It is reality to her—but only to her. She returns to Earth, without a shred of evidence that she was ever gone for more than a split-second. No odometer reading, no frequent-flier miles,** no bumper-sticker that says "I've Been to the Blue-White Star Vega and All I Got was Grief"—"What happens in Vega, stays in Vega," there's only a mocking static on her recording gear. To the rest of the world, it never happened, and it can't be duplicated. She is the sole witness in a world of skeptics. And all she can do is testify her gospel.

This scene is from the hearing, in which Ellie is made to defend herself and her vision from a gallery of skeptics and doubting Thomases. All she has is her story that sounds incredible, and flies in the face of a concocted (and complicated) conspiracy theory. And her own scientific principles are used against her in prosecution, including "Occam's Razor," which favors simplicity over the complicated—an argument used between Arroway and her former lover, Porter Joss, in their philosophical pillow-talk.***

Foster is great in the role, and necessarily isolated—except for the dramatic philosophic difference, they didn't even need the Joss character. Her performance, especially in this scene, brings to mind another emotive performance that is a classic, Marie Falconetti's work in Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent film La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). Shot mostly in close-ups of her face, Falconetti's wide-range of emotions from religious ecstasy to deep sorrow is considered to be one of the great film performances of all time. Foster's performance is a bit less intense, but nonetheless seems to come from an internalized place that bubbles up in the face of frustration and emotional fervor. The words sound like they could be spoken in Sagan's own voice (which Foster mentions on her commentary track for the film), and the sorrow that Foster projects in the final moments of the scene is palpable, her passion buried within, when she realizes her words are falling on deaf ears, and her own Faith is tested.

In this way, Contact is a cosmological The Song of Bernadette backed by the music of the spheres. It is "Joan of Arc" where the stakes are not so life-threatening. It is where spiritual ecstasy (supplanting "the subjective perception of time, space and/or self") informs the objective observer, and where the cold facade of Science is grounded by the three cornerstones of religion—Faith, Hope and Love.

"Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."
Albert Einstein

The Set-Up: The Universe seems to be collapsing around Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster). A leader in the SETI program, it was Ellie who first heard the throb from space—a consistent signal originating from the area of the distant sun Vega. The United States government and Arroway's patron S.R. Haddon (John Hurt) manage to decipher the signal as a cryptograph that is translated as the plans for an elaborate transport. But to what end?

An agnostic, Arroway is denied the mission to ride the transport for political and PR reasons, but Fate puts her in the passenger seat when the first attempt to launch the sphere from space. For her, it is a soul-bending trip through time and space. On Earth it appears that she just dropped through the machine, going nowhere.

The conflicting eyewitness reports demand the pomp and puffery of a government investigation, led by an ambitious political operative named Kitz (James Woods) and televised to a divided nation. In the gallery are the President's science advisor (Angela Bassett) and Arroway's former lover, the Reverend Porter Joss (Matthew McConaughey), as dedicated to his theology as Ellie is to her science.



Every corner of the cavernous Senate Chamber is jammed with media, politicians, onlookers. The world stage. The big show.

The International Committee is composed of eight men and two women, including Kitz. Occupying the center seat is the COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN, An Asian American Senator in his sixties.

Sitting all by herself at a long table opposite them, Ellie looks very small and alone.

SENATOR ...And yet every scientific instrument confirms the IPV was out of contact for...only a fraction of a second, is
that correct, Doctor?

ELLIE A fraction of a second Earth-time, yes.

SENATOR (pausing) Earth-time.
ELLIE (a deep breath) Senator... I believe the machine opened up a wormhole.

ELLIE A tunnel through the fabric of space/time, also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge.

ELLIE Now, because of the effects of relativity what I experienced as a period of approximately eighteen hours passed almost instantaneously on Earth.

KITZ Doctor, isn't it true that these...

KITZ ...wormholes you speak of are merely theoretical predictions? There's no evidence they actually exist, is there?

Ellie hesitates. Looks up at Joss in the gallery. Then:

ELLIE There is no direct evidence, no.
KITZ Now tell me something, doctor....

KITZ Why do you think these aliens...

KITZ ...would go to all this trouble....

KITZ ...bring you tens of thousands of light-years...

KITZ ...and then just send you home without a single shred of proof?

ELLIE (hesitates) They said that's the way it's been done for millions of years...

KITZ That's very neat, doctor. You have no proof because they didn't want you to have any. A phenomenon known in psychiatric circles, I believe, as a self-reinforcing delusion.

ELLIE (hesitates) Is that what you think? That I was delusional?
KITZ Well, I do think you've suffered some kind of episode, yeah. I do.

KITZ Doctor, I'd like to propose an alternate hypothesis, if I may, and I'd like you to bring your considerable scientific expertise to bear on it.

KITZ To fake...a signal from Vega....

KITZ ...whatya you need?
ELLIE Uh...You'd need a, a satellite to transmit the signal, but it'd be impossible to simulate something that...
KITZ You'd need a satellite...

KITZ And you'd need launch capabilities to put it in orbit, and, of course, the message itself...

KITZ To put something like this together, so...complex, drawing on so many disciplines...

ELLIE ...Would be impossible!

KITZ Impossible.

KITZ Impossible. (pause) Is there...anyone who might've been up to the challenge?

KITZ Someone with enormous expertise. Someone with enormous resources. Someone...

KITZ ...perverse enough, eccentric enough to have come up with the idea in the first place?

ELLIE Haddon?

KITZ S.R. Haddon.

The crowd murmurs. Committee members exchange glances.

ELLIE You're implying...that this was all some kind of a hoax? That he engineered this..
KITZ S.R. Haddon.

KITZ A legendary power broker and manipulator in, perhaps, his final bid for immortality.

KITZ Maybe he wanted to explore and exploit experimental technologies and get the governments of the world to pick up the tab.

KITZ Perhaps this was his final altruistic gesture to unite the world in some common goal. Maybe all of the above.

KITZ S.R. Haddon. A brilliant, complicated man.

KITZ Doctor. Are you familiar with the scientific precept...known as Occam's Razor?


ELLIE It means that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.
KITZ Exactly. Now...

KITZ You tell me, what is more likely here...

KITZ That a message from...

KITZ ...aliens results in a magical machine...

KITZ ...that whisks you away to the center of the galaxy to go ...wind-surfing with dear old Dad...

KITZ ...and then a split-second later returns you home without...a single..shred of proof.

KITZ Or...that your experience is the result of being...

KITZ ...the unwitting participant...

KITZ the farewell performance of one...

KITZ S.R. Haddon. A man with the means, the motive, and the opportunity...

KITZ play you, and, indeed, the rest of us, as pawns in the biggest, the most elaborate and the most expensive hoax of all time.

CHAIRMAN (sigh) Dr. Arroway...

CHAIRMAN You come before us with no evidence. No records...

CHAIRMAN artifacts -- only a story that -- to put it mildly --

CHAIRMAN -- strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent,

CHAIRMAN ...dozens of lives were lost...

CHAIRMAN Are you really going to sit there and tell us that we should simply take this all...

CHAIRMAN ...on faith?

The word rings out like a shot. Silence.

KITZ Please answer the question, Doctor.

JOSS Holding his breath.

ELLIE Closes her eyes. Finally, almost inaudibly:

ELLIE Is it possible it didn't happen? Yes.

The room murmurs.

ELLIE As a scientist, I must concede that. I must volunteer that.

Almost gently:

KITZ Wait a minute, let me get this straight.

KITZ You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence that can back up your story.


KITZ You admit that you could have very well hallucinated this whole thing.


KITZ You admit that if you were in our position you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism.


KITZ So why don't you simply withdraw your testimony and concede that this "journey" to the center of the galaxy...


ELLIE (pauses, then, simply) Because I can't.

(The crowd reacts.)


ELLIE ...had an experience.

ELLIE I can't prove it, I can't even explain it.

ELLIE But, everything I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me...that it was real.

The room grows quiet.

ELLIE I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, for a vision...

ELLIE ...of the Universe...

ELLIE ...that tells us, undeniably, how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are...

ELLIE ...a vision that tells us that we are a part of something that is greater than ourselves...

ELLIE ...that we are not...that none of us...are alone.

ELLIE I wish...

ELLIE ...that I could share that....

ELLIE I wish...

ELLIE ...that everyone, if even for one...moment...could feel that awe...

ELLIE ...and humility and the hope...

ELLIE ...but...

ELLIE ...that continues to be my wish.


Words by Ann Druyan & Carl Sagan, James V. Hart, and Michael Goldenberg.

Pictures by Don Burgess and Robert Zemeckis

Contact is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.

* The two are also joined as groups contemplating a construct vaster than themselves (and maybe vaster than they can contemplate) and attaching an explanation to it. The hilarity ensues when either side attempts to puff themselves up as having a greater grasp on Truth and that the other is diminished in some way by holding to their ideas—this in the face of their own insignificance. It's like playing "King of the Hill" for a pimple.

** With that many interstellar miles you get a gold-pressed latinum card. Suck it, George Clooney.

*** One of the unfortunate things about Contact is McConaughey's presence (or lack of it) in Contact. Still early in the young star's career, he isn't capable of projecting a strong character or piety in his role, nor do he and Foster have any chemistry. McConaughey has gotten much, much better, and would no doubt do a better job of it now. Here, his inexperience shows.

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