School had let out for the summer, but I was still on campus, planning a seminar on science fiction for the fall. I sat in the library, in a large, empty room. On the screen before me was a famous speech that Ursula Le Guin gave shortly before her death. “I think hard times are coming,” Le Guin said that night:
when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.
It was a hot, cloudless June day. Outside, banks of tall grass stood still. The high school where I teach is in Northern California, and aside from a few live oak trees, the campus is without shade.
Le Guin’s speech has been quoted often, but I had not read it before. I found it sober and direct and the room in which I worked was so quiet and clean. The ordinary pleasure of sitting there, imagining various forms that this new course might take, made for a queasy contrast with the horrors that Le Guin alluded to.
Hard times are coming. Somewhere behind me, the air conditioner hummed. I read these words and a while later, out in the heat, I settled into my car, to sit in traffic for an hour.
Any realism of the sort envisioned by Le Guin will have to acknowledge the climate crises we face. But as the novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh has noted, these crises have cast “a much smaller shadow within the landscape of [literature] than” on the rest of the world. Since 2016, when Ghosh published these words, the changing climate has received somewhat more frequent treatment in novels and poems. In the films of last year, however, a curious silence persisted. For the most part, the weather has yet to find its way into the movies. If one were to go only by the films that received a wide release in 2019, one could be forgiven for assuming that concerns about climate change are negligible.
Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves represents an exception. The film, which takes place in southern Oregon, follows two young, disaffected people—Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning)—as, in collaboration with an older man named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), they prepare to engage in an act of ecoterrorism. The morning after they detonate a bomb at a hydroelectric dam, a man who had been camping nearby is declared missing and presumed dead. The rest of the film depicts Dena and Josh’s attempts to reckon with the consequences of their act.
Early on, Josh and Dena attend a screening of a documentary film that aims to serve as a call to environmentalist action. The screening takes place in a cramped, spare room, in which a small audience sits on folding chairs. As images float on-screen—marches, Earth seen from space—a serene voiceover plays: The disaster we see is happening everywhere at the same time. The clock is ticking. So let the revolution begin.
The documentary is too boilerplate to register as agitprop. And the ensuing Q&A with the director is a rally of self-congratulation. When Dena asks a question (“I’m curious what you think it is, exactly, we’re supposed to do?”), the filmmaker responds with glib dismissal. Immediately, another audience member begins to extol the value of “just coming together and sharing concerns.” But we see where he is going with this; the scene ends abruptly, before he can finish his sentence.
Night Moves seems to regard this documentary, and Josh’s work on an organic farm, as inadequate. Butthe film also rebukes the group’s act of ecoterrorism. When the bomb goes off, it is off-screen and barely audible. Characters in the film condemn it as mere “theater,” and the judgement of the film itself is harsher. The sole effect of the bombing is senseless, deepening ruin. After fleeing the scene of the attack, Josh, Dena, and Harmon agree not to speak for a while. But Harmon keeps hearing from Dena—who, he tells Josh, is “not doing so good.” She is guilt-ridden, and only more so when the camper’s body is found. Finally, just as she is closing up for the night, Josh visits the spa where she works; to keep her from giving up their secret, he strangles her.
In this clenched fist of a film, an adequate response to our predicament seems unthinkable. The world will not be saved, and the time has come to stop pretending otherwise.
Early in Paul Schrader’s similarly clenched First Reformed, a young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), the leader of a small, dying congregation in upstate New York. Mary is pregnant, and she asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), who, wracked with anxiety about the environment, cannot fathom fathering a child. Michael also appears to be contemplating his own act of ecoterrorism. He has rigged up a suicide-bomb vest, although he does not go through with using it; soon after meeting with Toller, Michael takes his own life by shooting himself in the head.
But despite—or because of—Michael’s dire state of mind, Toller finds their encounter galvanizing. He too becomes fixated on climate change, and begins planning his own attack, for which he intends to use Michael’s vest.
After so many films in which climate change goes unmentioned, watching Night Moves and First Reformed is a relief. Still, their insistent negativity comes at a cost. The characters in these films resort to extreme measures in response to the peril involved in living on a warming planet. Their extremism potentially underscores the severity of that peril. But, on the other hand, it may let us viewers off the hook.
Both films introduce us to lost protagonists—characters who, even in the presence of others, are deeply alone. Their lostness, moreover, leaves them unstable. Paul Schrader gestures at this point in an interview, when he questions whether Toller is “an environmentalist first and foremost,” or whether, on the contrary, his environmentalism is incidental, even opportunistic—a flimsy pretext for his pursuit of a meaningful life. Both Night Moves and First Reformed follow people who, as global disaster looms, come undone. But they seemed fragile to begin with. How much of what we are seeing is the result of their psychological vulnerabilities?
Perhaps, as we watch, we are supposed to be like Toller speaking with Michael, positioned to inherit these characters’ despair. But as they pursue ill-conceived acts of violence, their certainty of doom seems not productively disquieting but aberrant—and in this way, dismissible.
In The Future, which is also troubled by climate change, Miranda July deploys aberrancy to an altogether different end. In the film, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) live together in a state of indeterminacy. Details of their pasts are omitted: how long they have been together, how they came to know each other. Even whether they are spouses or boyfriend and girlfriend seems to vary from scene to scene. Any aspirations they hold—Sophie, for instance, imagines pursuing a career in dance—have languished for years. What comes through most clearly is the inertial drift of their lives.
They present as passive, but not indifferent. At the beginning of the film, when they learn they must wait 30 days before adopting a cat, they treat this impending responsibility—as well as the question of how to spend their last pet-free month—as bizarrely consequential. Awaiting the cat, Paw-Paw, they shut off the Internet in their apartment, and both quit their jobs. Jason begins volunteering for an organization that sells trees door-to-door, thereby responding to climate change in the gentlest conceivable way. Meanwhile, Sophie films herself dancing, intending to post a video a day on YouTube. She also slips into an incongruous affair with Marshall (David Warshofsky), a man a couple decades her senior.
Bewildered and wry, The Future asks what we can and cannot do during a vanishing span of years. And in pursuing this question, July—as Richard Brody noted upon the film’s release—eschews naturalism, in favor of something more affectingly bizarre.
The stylization comes in a few varieties. Inevitably, reviews of any new project by July will relitigate whether “twee” or “whimsical” are valid descriptors of her work. In the case of The Future, many reviews focused on the animatronic, almost Henson-esque elements of the film. Paw-Paw, for instance, provides a voiceover from beyond the grave, in point-of-view shots that feature puppet cat paws waving. The full moon also speaks to Jason, its voice that of an old man he gets to know canvassing. And then there is Shirtie, Sophie’s yellow comfort T-shirt, which, when she leaves the apartment, follows her, creeping over the city streets in a creaturely way.
I remember chafing at these affectations at first. But as the film goes on, its strangeness deepens. In an early scene, bickering with Sophie on the couch, Jason claims he can stop time, and raising his hands, he proceeds to demonstrate this power. The two of them freeze, in a moment that reads—if ambiguously—as a joke. Their testy exchange has shifted into levity, the way fights between couples sometimes do. It seems like a private, impromptu mannequin challenge, as they both hold their bodies as still as they can.
Later in the film, when Sophie has slept with Marshall, Jason again exercises his power. This time, however, just before Sophie can break up with him, he arrests the movement of their neighborhood and greater Los Angeles. Jason’s subsequent walk through the frozen, moonlit city has a weird, quiet beauty. The film has shifted out of whimsy into a mode more like a trance. Watching, I am at once disoriented and involved. The same is true of the scene in which Sophie dances (also by moonlight), wearing Shirtie. The garment has found her at Marshall’s house, and, as Sophie dances, she pulls it over her head, its fabric stretching with unexpected give. She leaves her legs exposed, but covers her arms and face. Staggering with slow grace, she looks as if she has pulled herself into a straitjacket, or a womb.
Near the end of the film, Jason is again canvassing, trying without success to persuade a man to buy a tree. “It’s probably too late for all this anyway,” Jason says, as the man’s brow furrows. Jason goes on:
You know how, like, in the cartoons, when the building gets hit with the wrecking ball, right before the building falls down, there’s always, like, this moment where it’s perfectly still, right before it collapses? We’re in that moment.
All at once, the weirdness relents. We are a long way from where we had been. It is as if, just before the end of Blue Velvet, Laura Dern blinked and started to say eminently sensible, devastating things. In this moment, the strangeness of the film—the flatness of the characters, the drifting artifice—reveals a shrewd function. July has taken a slyly defamiliarizing approach to proposing that it is probably too late. Stories, the writer Ben Marcus suggests, deploy what he calls “tactics of mattering,” strategies to last inside us for as long as they can. I do not know how central this moment was to July’s conception of the film, but it is the part of The Future that has stayed most enduringly with me—a shadow that still falls, years later, on my daily life. Having established narrative conditions of overriding strangeness, she presents an idea that under normal circumstances might seem almost unassimilable. In this decidedly odd context, though, it comes across as the least strange aspect of the film.
I first saw The Future in 2012, when Claire and I lived in Baltimore. On Friday afternoons, I would walk the few blocks from work to meet her at the Charles Theater. It was early fall and still fiercely hot and the school where I worked lacked air conditioning, but somehow—this, at least, is how I remember it—I rarely thought of climate change. I saw First Reformed in June of 2018, on a fairly typical summer day in Berkeley, when patches of the sky remained overcast well into the afternoon. Claire and I walked home from the film in the cool air, speaking quietly, stunned. By the time that we watched Night Moves, in the final weeks of 2019, Claire was pregnant. We lay in bed as evening faded and all the windows went dark.
For much of this time, I was trying to write a novel concerned with climate change. I wanted to bring into view what I saw as a dissonance fundamental to my experience of living now. When Amitav Ghosh asks why climate change casts such a smaller shadow on our stories than on the rest of the world, his assumption seems to be that, out in the world, that shadow does receive sustained, significant attention. But whether this is true seems to vary from place to place. Global warming cannot be ignored by the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans migrating north, away from droughts and floods. Elsewhere, though, the form of attention paid to what is underway seems more equivocal, inconsistent, disbelieving. I am thinking, in part, of regions of the United States not currently experiencing the most dramatic effects of rising global temperatures, where distance and privilege still afford the opportunity for inattention. Even in California, where wildfires now rage every fall, the behavior of myself and those around me fails to reflect the anxieties that we express.
Our son was born in March of 2020, during the first week of our county’s order to shelter in place. For a while, we did not know if I would be allowed into the delivery or postpartum rooms. The stockpile of medical supplies in the U.S. was almost empty. Thousands of ventilators on-hand did not work. Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Arbery had recently been murdered. Tony McDade and George Floyd were still alive. Everything around kept coming into awful view, even as where it all might lead remained unclear. Meanwhile, Claire and I had just brought home a perfectly healthy infant son. People had told me that while he slept, I needed to sleep too, but in those delirious first weeks I couldn’t, and in the middle of the night, I kept going over the manuscript of my book, increasingly dissatisfied with it.
What would satisfy me? I so badly want what Le Guin calls for—stories that allow for the discernment of other ways of being, and which imagine grounds for hope. But before that can happen, I think we have to acknowledge what is really going on. And this is the crux of the matter, because it seems quite possible to fool oneself here. Night Moves and First Reformed, for instance, seem to grab us by the lapels. By pathologizing their characters, though, they grant permission to dismiss their concerns. By contrast, The Future, though slower and more oblique, avoids offering this sort of reprieve.
I want stories that refuse to offer reprieves. Two of the fundamental narrative questions, I once heard, are What if? and Then what? Whatever else we might want our stories to do, they can serve as vivid picturing machines. They bring into view predicaments, and what those predicaments may entail. This possibility is not news, of course. But it is of particular interest in the case of climate change, where the predicament that resolves when we ask What if? is in fact, and so strangely, what is.
At the end of Night Moves, Josh is on the run, headed south, somewhere in California. “You gotta get real lost now,” Harmon says when Josh calls. “Gotta get lost and stay lost.” Off the highway, Josh ditches his phone, and, outside a sporting goods store, he spots a Help Wanted sign. When an employee asks if he needs any help, after first saying no, Josh asks about the job.
What is he doing? Perhaps he plans to use the fake ID he acquired in preparation for the bombing. Then again, he may simply be looking for a pretext to talk to someone. What is clear is that Josh does not have to get and stay lost: he already is. He stares at the job application for only a second, unable to answer any of its questions. All of his efforts have brought him to this random store, in this random place. He is nowhere, his future all used up. The film ends on a shot of the security mirror affixed to the ceiling, reflecting him alongside a few other oblivious customers.
The ending of First Reformed is less terminal. Toller is in the parsonage, strapped into the bomb-laden vest. In another moment, he will head to the 250-year anniversary service at his church, the setting he has chosen for his suicide attack. But then, from off-screen, someone calls him by his first name. “Ernst,” the voice—Mary—says. Seconds before the film ends, as the camera spins, the two of them embrace and kiss.
The scene is, literally, transcendence by the book. In Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader writes that to achieve transcendence onscreen, a filmmaker should first establish that grim everyday conditions prevail. The camerawork should be static, the sets spare, the color palette muted, the actors’ performances contained. But as the film goes on, the texture of that everyday life should reveal inconsistencies: glitchy suggestions that, however bleak life seems, there is some possibility of its being otherwise. About two-thirds of the way through First Reformed, for instance, Mary tells Toller about a game that she and Michael used to play. She would lie on top of him, on the floor, she says, trying to touch as much of his body to hers as she could.
This used to comfort her. And now, pregnant, her husband dead, she is in despair. So she and Toller play the game: she lies on top of him, and, extraordinarily, they begin to levitate. As their bodies hover several feet off the floor, the parsonage fades away, and they are flying over the face of the earth—surveying its wonders and then its damage, image of environmental devastation, polluted rivers and sprawling dumps. Abruptly, the film flees the realism it has hewed to up to this point, in a deviation that is frightening but perhaps also encouraging. As we follow Mary and Toller, we, too, are briefly released. The bleakness we find ourselves embroiled within may not be total, the film suggests. There may be more to life than we know.
First Reformed proceeds in this manner—static, but with the possibility of transcendence flickering—until, at the last possible moment, what Schafer calls “an incredible event” occurs. When I saw the film in a theater, as the credits rolled, I heard the elderly man sitting beside me grumbling. “Whatever happened to ‘happily ever after?’” he asked the woman he sat with. But that is what First Reformed offers. At the last possible moment, the stillness and bleakness abate. “The music soars,” Schrader writes, “the characters emote.” The film bursts into a dynamism that announces that Toller, and we, may not be doomed, after all. What has already happened needs not determine where we must go.
The Future also features a deviation from the known laws of the world, in the form of Jason’s ability to stop time. But July’s use of this device is quite unlike the transcendence on offer in First Reformed. Jason sees what Sophie is about to do and tries to make it stop. But he doesn’t, really. Yes, from his perspective, crouched in the dark bedroom, he is holding his surroundings still. But other people elude this arrestment. Sophie, for instance, pursues her relationship with Marshall, moving in with him. Jason’s grand intervention proves entirely ineffectual. Finally, he stands and walks out to the beach, where he impels the waves to go back to crashing, the tide to resume rolling in. In the meantime, he has prevented nothing, and now is reduced to playing catchup with all that has transpired while he absented himself.
First Reformed entertains the possibility of transcendence by means of brute force. In The Future, by contrast, hopes of transcendence prove hollow. “Is that the official word?” asks the man to whom Jason fails to sell a tree, after Jason has declared that, very soon, all of this will collapse. “No,” Jason admits, almost 10 years ago now, squinting in his ill-fitting volunteer vest. Rather than whisk us away from the future, July insists that we look. Jason’s words go on ringing like a bell: It’s probably too late, anyway.