www.newyorker.com /culture/screening-room/an-artists-imagining-of-life-after-humanity

An Artist’s Imagining of Life After Humanity

Condé Nast 5-6 minutes 11/4/2021

When the Dutch filmmaker Arjan Brentjes was growing up in the nineteen-seventies, he was taught that, in general, the story of humanity was one of progress, “going from a worse to better world for everybody.” Brentjes held onto this belief for much of his life. But, in recent years, observing the widespread inaction of world leaders in the face of the climate crisis and the global rise of authoritarianism, he felt the pull of fatalism. It seemed clear to him that a catastrophe was under way, and we had likely passed the point of being able to do anything to avert it. “We could have reached the peak. And now we are sliding back into something much worse,” he said. With some understatement, he continued, “I was not a happy camper.”

In 2018, he began working on an animated film, “Sad Beauty,” an exploration of his ecological anxieties. Set in a fictional city, it features a landscape that, other than its human inhabitants, is stripped of the organic: the sky rains ash, and the stark silhouettes of dead trees stand in contrast to the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau buildings—the closest thing to nature that remains is its facsimile captured in steel. The film’s protagonist, a young naturalist, spends her days drawing extinct insects in the back rooms of a natural-history museum; she must walk down a corridor lined with the fossilized bones of dinosaurs and mastodons to get to her workspace. At home, she listens as a news anchor reads a daily litany of the species of animals that have gone extinct. As the film progresses, the anchor begins to report on the emergence of a new drug-resistant microbe and its unstoppable spread.

Brentjes had completed most of the film before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He said that, for a while, he was worried about how it would be received. He even changed the ending, which originally featured a skeleton in an astronaut suit floating in space, a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and to Brentjes’s distaste for space colonization—“totally stupid because we are part of life on Earth”—because he was afraid it would be interpreted as insensitive commentary in the face of the ongoing pandemic’s death toll. To date, such reactions have not materialized. Many people have viewed the film as an environmental warning.

But it was not his main intent to sound an alarm about climate collapse. People interested in the film, he pointed out, are likely already concerned with the environment, and don’t need anyone to tell them about the dangers of climate change. Instead, Brentjes hopes that “Sad Beauty” provides viewers with an “extreme form of consolation.” Around the time he came up with the seeds of what would eventually become the film, Brentjes had been watching documentaries about nature, deep time, and the history of the cosmos. As he watched them, he found an unexpected source of solace—bacteria. “I discovered that bacteria were around for, like, three billion years. And they were, in a way, the basis of life. At some point, [humans] are there, but we are also just carrying the original life of the world around with us, which are the bacteria,” he told me. (A study from the National Institutes of Health estimates that the ratio of bacterial to human cells in the typical person is about one to one.) “And then I thought, Well, it’s actually quite beautiful.”

Brentjes’s musings echo those of the biologist E. O. Wilson, whose work has shaped our understanding of biodiversity on Earth. Wilson, too, has contemplated the horror of extinction: “Deeper than despair, more terrifying than death, is the thought that everything in time will disappear, that all we have been and will become will leave no trace whatsoever,” he writes. But he also believes that it is possible for humans to envision “a different kind of immortality,” beyond the thriving of our own species. That possibility, Wilson writes, “resides in those remnants of the natural world we have not yet destroyed. The rest of life is a parallel world. It could exist and continue evolving for what to the human mind is an eternity.” This is the “extreme form of consolation” that Brentjes hopes to offer through his film. He told me, “We have to try to make the best of it on Earth, but if we don’t succeed there is still beauty. There will be beauty in one million years on this planet.”

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