Uncle Vanya vs Transformers near the 4th of July

Optimus Prime and Uncle Vanya had a party

It’s a weird culture that mashes Chekhov into the same week with Optimus Prime, but we followed an experience of Uncle Vanya (with terrific performances by Rob Matney and Liz Fisher, and staging that puts you right there on the farm) with a 3D romp through the Transformers universe, and somehow I’m trying to connect the dots. In Chekhov’s play, you could see trouble brewing – Rob says “that Vanya is about the moment before an epochal and cataclysmic culture shift as a culture and these lives look into a future that appears to promise little.” Sound familiar? Transformers, on the other hand, offers a world where one set of massive robotic aliens wants to enslave the human race, and another set – against all logic – are sworn to protect us. A massive battle levels Chicago; at the end, humanity is free from Decepticon enslavement (but not necessarily from our own particularly human enslavements, not addressed in the film, though the nastiest character on board is the human accountant, played by Patrick Dempsey, who makes a devil’s deal with the Decepticons).

While I experienced fanboy delight at the expert use of 3D and exquisitely choreographed robotic battles in the Transformers film, the very real tensions within Uncle Vanya were more real and more compelling. No Decepticons there, but the sense of a subtler, willing enslavement – hard-working farmers exploited by a spoiled elite, and everyone miserable except perhaps the character Sonya, who ends the play with these words: “We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. . . . In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. . . . We shall rest.” (This makes me think of the idea of grace in Malick’s Tree of Life, which is probably a reference to the concept of “actual grace”: a supernatural gift of God to intellectual creatures (men, angels) for their eternal salvation, whether the latter be furthered and attained through salutary acts or a state of holiness.)

After Vanya and Transformers, we had a muted 4th of July – in the midst of drought, no fireworks, surely a metaphor for our times.

The Tree of Life

Brain Shaped Tree, image by Bill Booth

The Tree of Life may be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or not); in his film called “The Tree of Life,” Terence Malick plays with the universals – grace and nature parallel good and evil. Nature is will, ego; grace is nurturing. The film’s narrative plays out in Waco, Texas and in the vast cosmos, infinite space and time, surrounding it; it places one very human story in a vast transhuman context.  In one primeval scene, one dinosaur, a predator, chooses not to kill and consume another… this establishes grace as something that precedes the human; I think the point is that nature and grace always coexisted, and always will, and grace seeps into nature. “Good” and “evil” are complex and intertwingled.

I thought the film was magnificent; in it I saw scenes familiar from my own life growing up in a Texas town in the 50s and 60s, though I wasn’t in that family, and I was far more innocent. And Malick’s family has no television set in the living room… imagine what a difference that would make.

The vision of the “tree of life” represents a sense that all life on earth is related… and there’s a tree of life web project that shows that connectedness. The planet is teeming with life, but all species are endangered by the actions and operations of one – is this nature acting without grace? Last night Oliver Markley spoke to the Central Texas World Future Society on the subject of risk and resilience – is civilization at a tipping point toward collapse?

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC?

Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20 years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking supply of oil.

This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems, but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added to the list. Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed.

I think it’s time to pay attention.

Photo by Bill Booth, licensed via Creative Commons