Probable Impossibilities

Physicist + Writer Alan Lightman in conversation with Artist + Filmmaker Smriti Keshari

While in conversation with Alan Lightman about his latest book, Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings, we spoke at length about the synchronicities between science and film, the deep and fundamental questions they both ask about our place in the universe.

His book takes you on a poetic and scientific journey to the infinitely big and small, and dives into the peculiarities of the human species and the universe. It leaves the reader marveling at the origin of species, at the existence of nothing, at the order/disorder nexus, and countless other scientific discoveries that have shaped our understanding of how the world works.

Probable Impossibilities begins with a story of how we all come from our mothers, and ends with the impermanence of memory and the mystery that is consciousness.

Similarly, films afford us the imagination to pose these grand, yet intimate, scientific inquiries through the moving image. I’ve often thought that filmmaking is the closest art form to imitating how the human brain works. They share similar languages through editing techniques; you can travel through time, have jump cuts, juxtapositions, contrasts, builds, and releases of tension and ultimately infer infinite meaning—all depending on your point of view.

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” -Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer

I mentioned to Alan that I first learned desire and heartbreak through film. He offered a wonderful explanation of mirror neurons and their response to actions that we observe in others, how they also fire in the same manner when we actually recreate that action ourselves. In a way, mirror neurons are a great art of illusion, just like filmmaking, serving as a window to other lives and reflection of our own.

Here is a recommendation list of some delightful films to juice up the imagination—both old and new—on memory, consciousness and our place in the universe.

Powers of Ten (1968) dir. Ray & Charles Eames

Created by the renowned designers Ray & Charles Eames, the Powers of Ten is an adventure in  magnitude and scale. What is the significance of adding a zero to any given number? The film elegantly expresses a different way of seeing the world from the next largest or next smallest vantage point; from the galaxy to the protons. The journey begins with a couple on a picnic blanket in Chicago; every ten seconds the camera zooms out to show a square a factor of ten times larger on each side. The film then reverses, zooming back in a factor of ten every two seconds and ends up inside a single proton.

Tango (1981) dir. Zbigniew Rybczyński

At a certain point in all my friendships, I always force close friends to watch Tango with me. This mesmerizing animation is set entirely in one room in which a series of events take place, repeat and overlap over the course of thirteen minutes. It makes one think about everything that has occurred in a space before and after you leave. Tango won the Academy for Best Short in 1983 and is on Vimeo, so stop everything and go watch it right now.

Playtime (1967) dir. Jacques Tati

In his chapter, On Nothingness, Alan describes his most vivid encounter with nothingness at the age of nine:

“It was a Sunday afternoon. I was standing alone in a bed-room of my home in Memphis, Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away, and suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a vast chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterwards. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant. A speck in a huge universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence. A universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience, meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once. Then the moment was over, and I was back in my body."
-Alan Lightman, Probable Impossibilities, pg 38

Now imagine Tango in a futuristic Paris, and you get Playtime. Jacques Tati is a hero of mine; he was endlessly inventive in how he used just visuals to tell a story, and took people through a whirlwind of human movement.

In Playtime, he discards dialogue and lets imagery carry the plot and humor. It’s people-watching in an age of advanced technology and modern architecture; it invites the viewer to observe the world we live in and find the simultaneous beauty, and absurdity, in what we’ve built and keep building upon. Everything is significant without being symbolic; call it a mesh of nothingness.

Corpo Celeste (2011) dir. Alice Rohrwacher

In our conversation, Alan mentioned how often he gets asked “the big G question.” He playfully said to me, “Well, don’t ask me if I believe in God…” It’s not surprising that deep philosophical questions about the cosmos would lead some to pondering about the spiritual universe. I watched Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste last night, and it is such an intimate and beautiful portrait of a young Italian girl on a spiritual quest testing the boundaries of the Catholic faith.

Daughters of the Dust (1991) dir. Julie Dash

Alan’s writing and the legendary Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust share a kinship as poetic passages that touch on how the ghosts of our past provide the strength needed to push forward.

The film is a staple in narrative cinema and presents a rich series of contradictions, as it battles with modernity and tradition. It is set in the early 1900s off the coast of Georgia as recently freed slaves and their families are preparing to move to the mainland, and, in theory, join the modern world, yet not everyone believes this forward movement promises progress.

Dash dissolved barrier of time and geographical space, by having outside voices present their perspective to what was immediately on screen. She conceived a work of art that’s as much a cinematic probe, a challenge to ancestral mythologies and a desire for an esoteric future.

Andrei Rublev (1966) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

Esoteric symbolism naturally brings to mind Tarkovsky. All his films are so strange and beautiful; Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It is an inventive, hypnotic, and meditative film that focuses on acts of creation and acts of destruction. Ultimately, the film asks many questions about spiritual beliefs without seeking to answer them.

Synecdoche, New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York lingers with you for days after the credit rolls. Caden Cotard, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has recently received the MacArthur Genius Award and attempts to put on the epic play of his time, which eventually takes him over twenty years. As Caden gradually loses track of time, himself and the play, the film in itself becomes a maze to follow. The audience, just like Cotard, is lost between fiction and reality.

It’s a tender look at the fleeting and fallible nature of memory and our obsession with ambition.

“Neurobiologists say that memory isn’t the replay of a video camera, but instead a pastiche of neuronal fragments gathered from here and there, wandering smells, oddly cut visual scraps, translucent experiences laid on top of one another. It’s all in the electrical currents and flow of particular molecules. Neurobiologists say that connections between the billions of neurons in a human brain change over time. If so, the universe shifts and shifts and shifts in our minds.”
-Alan Lightman, Probable Impossibilities, pg. 107

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) dir. Alain Renais

“What happens when everything around you ceases to exist?” Alain Renais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a story of two lovers set against the backdrop of the atomic bomb. The film daringly begins with fifteen minutes of close ups, of elbows, heads, and arms intertwined. Renais then takes us straight into the past, to footage of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before bringing us back to now, back to the lovers, as you hear their voices discuss their memories around war.

The film was groundbreaking at the time because of how Renais played with the structure of time: he dissolved the barriers between past, present, and future, looping them into each other.

All Light, Everywhere (2021) dir. Theo Anthony

Theo Anthony’s latest documentary All Light, Everywhere examines the technology humans have used to capture sight through the history of cameras, weapons and policing. The film presents a complex argument on how an objective tool, such as a camera, can present a bias point of view.

Ultimately, it leaves audiences asking, if what we see could ever portray what actually happened?

A Ghost Story (2017) dir. David Lowery

In Alan’s chapter “The Ghost House of My Childhood, he tells the story of revisiting his old childhood home in Memphis, Tennessee to find it is no longer there. For a moment, he questions whether it even existed:

"I take a step back, blink. But there is only the silent, dead air. There was a house here. There was a cosmology of lives lived here, meals of fried chicken and mashed potatoes at the wood table in the kitchen, closets of clothes, drawers, home- work by the light of the maroon double lamp, cops and robbers games with my brothers, my father shaving in the morning, evenings watching TV. I try to put back the house where it was, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the closets, my father practicing his guitar, my mother dressing in front of her long mirror. I try to will it into solidity. It was here.
Some careless god has cut the ribbon of my life. The sixty-five years of the past, and the remaining years of my future. The piece that was the past has slipped away into black eternity, or perhaps into nothingness. Until this moment, I was sure that the past was still present, caught in the spaces between things, in photos, in books, in places my body had been. I try to spool back time in my mind.
I wish that my brothers were here. I want to see the people who lived in my past, the piece of the ribbon that has slipped away. We could compare testimonies. They lived in this house. But their heads are not mine."
-Alan Lightman, Probable Impossibilities, pg 105

Reading this chapter immediately brought to mind David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, which is about a recently deceased man returning to his suburban home as a spirit to passively watch life continue on without him, as it does for the living. As the life he once knew disappears, he continues to reside in the house as the environment changes--at a gradual pace at first and then, rapidly--until he’s left on the empty field where the house once stood millenia before. The film explores the question: Does your consciousness stay in a place after you’ve left?

“I am content with the illusion of consciousness. I’ll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, some of my atoms will remain in this place where I now lie in my hammock. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment. Some will once have been part of my hand. If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocean and then floated again to the air. Some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people. Some will become parts of other lives, other memories. That might be a kind of immortality.”
-Alan Lightman, Probable Impossibilities, pg. 103
Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings
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