I Origins is divisive. Even the statistics bear that out: go to the (admittedly specious) Rotten Tomatoes website, and you’ll find that exactly 50 percent of critics have given it positive marks — battle lines are being drawn around it as we speak. You can count me in the pro-Cahill camp, but identifying which uniform I’m wearing isn’t our focus today. What I’m interested in is hearing director Mike Cahill and star Michael Pitt respond to the idea that their work is egregiously self-serious.
First, let’s pour some context into the suggestion that negative reviews for the film have been particularly aggressive. Our own Tomris Laffly volunteered that it “will give you many reasons to hate its guts (hipster scientists, anyone?).” Grantland’s Wesley Morris wrote, in his own mixed piece, that the film “skates on a rigorously pretentious lake of pseudo-science.” The Village Voice’s Calum Marsh grouped it alongside other “Serious Intellectual Films” (like Donnie Darko) and suggested you’ll like it if “you are a serious person who only has time for serious films.” A.O. Scott, in the Times, may have landed the curtest strike. “It may blow your mind,” he wrote, “but only if you’re not in the habit of using it.”
What say the filmmakers to this kind of charge? While interviewing Cahill and Pitt for another outlet, I found myself broaching the subject. And while I stopped short of quoting the aforementioned reviews to them (for one thing, they don’t represent my opinion on the film, and for another, it was way too early in the morning to ask people to respond to negative reviews), I did ask them to discuss the danger of lapsing into “strained seriousness” in I Origins. Their response – and thus, in an indirect sense, their counterpoint to these criticisms – led us through a discussion that spanned from Blade Runner to “post-postmodernism” and David Foster Wallace. That counterpoint, copied below, show us two men who are well aware that they’re fostering hostile responses from some, and who seemingly plan to continue doing so, unfazed.
MovieMezzanine.com: We were talking earlier about “strained seriousness” in movies with lofty themes. You mentioned after the screening last night that your movies look to ask (but not answer) “the big questions in life.” In terms of craft, how do you aim to keep a film like this from seeming portentious? Or is that not even a concern in your mind?
Michael Pitt: I think that you got to keep it in your mind. That’s something that [Cahill] always has in his mind. He always kept himself honest. Anyone who’s good, that’s what you’re doing. You’re keeping on top of yourself — “Am I going too far?”
Mike Cahill: You have to be aware of where that line [of strained seriousness] is. Then you step your feet over it. Then you come back to where the line is. And dance right the fuck up to it.
MM: So toeing the line – pushing seriousness so far that it almost becomes silly – is something you’re conscious of?
Cahill: One hundred percent.
MM: And why do things that way?
Cahill: Because it’s post-postmodern.
MM: Tell me about that.
Cahill: Postmodernism is ironic and cynical; it started off as pastiche and collage, and quite wonderfully so. There’s Blade Runner [that fits into that category,] and a lot of other great films from that era. But earnestness, sincerity, universals – all those [qualities] were rejected. There’s no space for those in the realm of post-modernism. And we’re doing a disservice to the mass population to not allow for those qualities.
MM: So not to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like a David Foster Wallace / “New Sincerity” thing?
Cahill: It is a Foster Wallace “New Sincerity” kind of thing. Which is grand. And wonderful. I appreciate that [style of working.] I like when artists are doing that. They’re out there. They’re all over the place.
MM: But you think most filmmakers are speaking with air quotes around the topics they’re talking about, then?
Pitt: It’s becoming such a copout. We live in this place where everyone’s scared to be real.
MM: Do you see that in movies you’ve worked in, or that you watch, or …
Pitt: I see it in society. I see it in movies, I see it in music. Everyone wants to be ironic. And there are aspects of that [ironic distance] that I do love. But I think it takes a brave person to say, “This is something that I think is important.”
MM: “This topic is interesting, and I’m going to dig into it, and if you don’t like it then you can go fuck yourself?”
Cahill: Not to put words in our mouth or anything [laughs].
Pitt: See, that is how I would put it.