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Spiritual Religiosity at UCLA

For those who believe that today’s college students are concerned only with sex and beer, I have heady news from UCLA. They are into things allegorical and metaphorical and chock full of transcendental religiosity.

I come to this conclusion after having attended the preview of a movie by Peter Wollen called “Friendship’s Death,” the story of a British journalist and a beautiful extraterrestrial robot caught in the cross fire of war.

That’s a simplification, I suppose, and indicative of the fact that the movie’s thematic strategy may have escaped me completely. My tastes run more toward “The Fly II” and “Throw Momma From the Train.”

My wife sold me on the idea of attending “Friendship’s Death” in UCLA’s Melnitz Theater on Thursday night by implying it was a movie about sex and violence, both of which are subjects I enjoy.

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I should have known, however, that nothing enjoyable ever occurs on a university campus. That suspicion was confirmed when, just before the movie began, I read a pamphlet that described the film’s message as “belief and existence without a passport” and Wollen as someone versed in the theories of post-structural semiotics.

I don’t even know what that means.

My wife is a bright person with a cant toward subjects that escape those of lesser intelligence. Recently, for instance, she was discussing new knowledge in the area of neutrinos, which I assumed were young Latinos who were not in gangs. It wasn’t until later that I learned they are sub-atomic particles.

I cite that to explain my reluctant presence in an academic environment watching a movie laced with twisting strands of seamless Joycean narrative and recombinant memory patterns.

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“What’s this?” I said when the film began, realizing almost instantly that it wasn’t going to be what I expected.

“Shhh,” she whispered back. “Just watch and listen. Pretend it’s Debbie doing Dallas.”

Friendship is the code name of a robot who comes to Earth as a peace envoy from another galaxy and lands accidentally in the middle of a war zone, whereupon she instantly befriends a British journalist named Sullivan.

She is tall and beautiful and speaks in modified mechanical tones. When, for instance, Sullivan seems to suggest a sexual alliance, she observes him in the manner of a biologist watching a microbe and says, “I don’t blush, I have no liquids.” So much for foreplay.

Later, however, she begins to manifest an unusual interest in Sullivan’s typewriter because she and it are both machines. But just at the time I’m beginning to think the film’s thematic strategy is finally tilting toward perversion, Friendship explains that she isn’t interested in sex with anyone or anything. What she says is, “I don’t tingle.” Nice.

The movie ends with a psychedelic montage that includes overlapping glimpses of floating sperm, bacteria, white corpuscles, the veinal system and British soccer players. We’ve come a long way from two people kissing.

Afterward Peter Wollen, who is a kind of cinematic poet-in-residence at UCLA, fielded questions from the audience of about 100 students. I didn’t ask any, much to my wife’s relief, because, as I explained to her, I felt it improper for a person with gray hair to intrude upon the spiritual religiosity of youth.

She said, “Don’t laugh, you may be submitting a script someday to the ratty-looking kid in the second row.” True, UCLA has a great tradition of churning out high achievers in the film industry--people like Francis Ford Coppola, for instance, whose “Apocalypse Now” proved war can be both meaningful and commercial.

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One student, a woman, asked about cosmic aliens in terms of spiritual reality and Wollen replied that there was a cultural coding to beings from outer space. Words like allegorical and metaphorical crept into their exchange.

“My God,” I said to my wife, “they understand each other.”

“We used to talk that way in college,” she said. “Well, I did anyhow.”

Ah for the days of cheap red wine and transcendental visions.

“That was actually a pretty interesting movie,” I said later in an effort to interface with her intellectually.

“Wait,” she said. “I know what you’re trying to do and you don’t have to. You made an effort to elevate yourself beyond ‘Peewee Herman’s Big Adventure’ and I appreciate that. “Perhaps now,” she added, smiling, “you might be able to think of something you’d like to do.”

I think I can, but it won’t have anything to do with the seamless flow of Joycean narrative.


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