Island Life

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter:

“Long time long time,” sings a fish in a striped shirt and tie in the opening of Niki Lindroth Von Bahr’s short film Min Börda (2017), “This is where you come if you want to stay a long time.” The stop-motion film follows four groups of anthropomorphic animals late at night at a highway interchange.  In addition to the fish at the Hotel LongStay there is a pair of mice cleaning a fast food restaurant, a call center office staffed by monkeys, and a dog restocking a gigantic warehouse supermarket.  I watch this film pretty much every day, sometimes more than once.  It’s beautiful and melancholic and whimsical and speaks to the hard to articulate feelings of distress and isolation that seem to rule my pandemic life.  But the characters of Min Börda are only part of the anthropomorphized menagerie I’ve spent time with during quarantine.  The island town I’ve helped build in the video game Animal Crossing has loads of friendly neighbors like pop-star penguin Sprinkle and bookish dog Daisy, along with beautiful parks and gardens, and several unique terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.  My neighbor Charlise, a sporty lime green bear, just told me that sometimes she gets a craving for green curry and “nothing else will do!”  Same.

The game is a welcome reprieve from the quarantine island that is our apartment in Brooklyn, but I do wonder about the interior lives of these AI animals I call my friends and neighbors. My Animal Crossing island is a place I go to relax and escape, but while I have the power to flip between the world of the game and my life, Colton (horse) and Pancetti (pig) must stay behind, walking through the museum’s exhibits and sitting in their little one room houses. Worse, if I were to stop playing, the weeds and sticks would proliferate and the town would deteriorate but my neighbors still be stuck on the island at the mercy of real estate tycoon and raccoon Tom Nook.

Something else I’ve watched recently, though only once because it is Long, is Solaris, the 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s an existential sci-fi psychodrama – like Interstellar but in Russian and with more mesh shirts. The film follows a psychologist heading out to a space station orbiting the alien planet called Solaris. Solaris’s ocean, we learn, is a sentient being that projects the thoughts and memories of the movie’s human characters into reality. There are a lot of nice long shots of Hunters in the Snow and some really good stuff with the main character’s dead wife who comes back to life and knows she’s not real but can’t quite wrap her head around it which, I mean, I can’t exactly relate but I get it. The film ends with the main character having presumably returned home, walking around the lake by his dad’s house where we first met him in the film’s opening. Then the camera zooms slowly out to reveal that the land with the house and the lake is actually another projection, an entire island of memory floating in Solaris’s mysterious ocean.

Min Börda ends in the same way. The animals’ songs come to a climax singing “No sorrows, no troubles – when the burden lifts from my shoulders,” and we’re shown in a slow tracking shot that the highway interchange where the characters are living or working is really just a big asteroid suspended in a starry sky, with the lanes of the highway, like on the island in Solaris’s ocean, abruptly terminating into empty space. I’m not quite sure what it is but I feel there’s something to be said about our lives in colonized places in all of this. Tarkovsky’s researchers projecting their memories onto an alien planet, Animal Crossing’s Tom Nook setting up a housing co-op on a supposedly deserted island, and the globalized capitalist non-site of a highway interchange marooned on a space-rock. There’s an underlying anxiety in the inhabitants of these colonized spaces, the space station researchers and the dog working at the supermarket and maybe in my Animal Crossing neighbors, though they put on a good face, in their connection to place and to their deeper selves. It’s an anxiety that’s easy to ignore when you’re always moving from place to place or just passing through, but when you stay a long time in one place, as many of us are right now, the trouble beneath the surface becomes harder to ignore.

Feel free to get in touch if you want my Animal Crossing friend code! 😉

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