BAMcinemaFest Takeover: Mike Cahill (I Origins) Talks James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence

Set on the night of the passing of Miller's Comet, Coherence is about a dinner party for a group of eight friends...

Set on the night of the passing of Miller’s Comet, Coherence is about a dinner party for a group of eight friends where reality starts to unnervingly disintegrate. A well-acted, thought-provoking lo-fi sci-fi film, it combines two subjects I am deeply interested in: string theory and the malleability of perception.

String theory posits that there is a multiverse, which means there are multiple, in fact, an infinite number of universes. Infinity is hard to grasp. It is much bigger than a lot. It is much bigger than a trillion trillion trillions. Take a deck of cards, a finite 52 cards, in hand. Shuffle them once, then twice, then an infinite number of times. Every possible ordering of cards occurs when you shuffle a finite number of cards an infinite number of times; even the same ordering occurs over and over, and the same ordering with only one difference, and only two differences, and so on… This is the concept behind parallel universes. Brian Greene is one of the leading scientists both exploring and popularizing string theory. It is cutting edge theoretical physics, the new frontier.

I was once on a panel discussion with Brian Greene after a screening of my film Another Earth at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and an audience member asked him what if his work in string theory turned out to be fruitless. To which he responded, “It would be sad of course to spend a lifetime pursuing something that is wrong, but I believe that turning over rocks and finding nothing is progress.” I used this line in my new film, I Origins. It was a concept that struck me like a brick.

The malleability of the mind, another topic of great interest to me, is the reason I avoid drugs. I have a very loose grasp as it is on the current reality. Sometimes while driving on the highway I can trick my mind into believing the road is a massive conveyer belt and I imagine that my car is not moving anywhere, as if on a treadmill. This makes it very difficult to drive. Optical illusions and faulty police reports offer compound evidence as to how absurd the notion of a common reality is.

And then along comes the film, Coherence, a perception-bending, existential disruption by way of string theory. Here is the multiverse outside your house, knocking on your door. I have to say (if it is not abundantly obvious) I revel in this kind of stuff. My hat is off to the mere pursuit alone…

The actors all felt like real people with real histories. I liked them all and felt in them and in the director, James Ward Byrkit, a spirit and love for creating as the invisible context surrounding their work. You know they enjoyed themselves. And we get to enjoy the play unfold.

I appreciated the fact that, in a strange way, the film was a whodunit – “Was it the ketamine or the comet?” Or, “Was it a drug-infused distorted perception or the multiverse?” This gave the film a unique shape and motor for propulsion.

The ultimate moment in the film for me was not the conclusion of the whodunit (they do provide an answer in the last five seconds) but rather when the lead female, Em (Emily Foxler), looks through the window at various alternate versions of her life. We see only a few, but the implication is that they are endless. Confrontation with one’s other self is one thing (see the ending of Another Earth), but to be confronted with an endless string of possible versions of you is something else entirely.

The job of an artist is to transmit an emotion from his or herself to an audience via their art. We succeed if we do it with clarity and sincerity and if the emotion transmitted is a rare and unique one. Scientists, who are the people I admire most greatly, consistently open the door to new frontiers where new experiences and possibly even new emotions may exist, as is the case with string theory and the multiverse.

The feeling I had some time after viewing was this: Even the concept of the self loses its power against the backdrop of the multiverse and the sea of infinite selves.

How does being you mean anything anymore if there are more than a trillion trillion trillion yous?

Just as Dustin Hoffman and Jude Law proclaim, “How am I not myself?” in I Heart Huckabees. Just as Tyler Durden in Fight Club says, “You are not your job, you are not how much money you have in the bank… you are not your fucking khakis…” Coherence, in a way, proclaims, “You are not even your self.” Not really. Your self is not uniquely yours. The yous in this world are infinite. Therefore the only thing you can actually hold onto, the only thing that is uniquely you, is your narrative.

We are our narratives.

Writer/director Mike Cahill (also the cinematographer and editor on his films) made his feature debut with Another Earth, a science fiction film about a parallel planet. The film was a huge success at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize as well as the Special Jury Award. His second feature, I Origins (to be released July 18) also won the Sloan Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Both films were distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Mike currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.