Homo Sapiens, showing at Cornell Cinema on September 6, opens with a drenching view of what Ithaca lacks: rain. Not the misty sort of showers that ironically serve to heighten the humidity but the real wet drops of purifying, sustaining rain. From this point, director Nikolaus Geyrhalter spans from one scene to another, each averaging about 26 seconds with a different naturalistic soundtrack of birds, bees, breezes, blizzards and beaches. Intermittent power outages — in which Geyrhalter cuts to black — provide the only pauses from one still life to the next. In its human-free view of the world, Homo Sapiens presents a powerful glimpse of our ethereal human legacy.
Depending on your degree of liberalism, the film is frustrating or honest. Even in the absence of people and words, human nature marks every landscape in Homo Sapiens. Geyrhalter sets his moving photographs in an uninhabited world reminiscent of Wall-e, only missing the animated cuteness. Scenes range from desolate and disturbing to peacefully picturesque. Each man-made structure stands out sorely in a picture of the unpeopled world. But, the film allows for multiple interpretations with its drastically different scenes. Geyrhalter’s photographs contain natural elements and human impressions in variant proportions which emphasize, in turn, both our smallness and our impact. Every moving image elicits an individual response that fades into the director’s artful message.
Regardless of its connotation, Geyrhalter shows how humanity fights against nature. Like his image of light poles emerging from expansive greenery, we exist in rigid contrast to the world’s flourishing wildness. Even the idea of civilization contradicts the ecosystem’s anarchy. Yet, Homo Sapiens puts destruction and harmony, movement and stillness side by side to emphasize their differences and expose a raw truth of their existence. Geyrhalter argues that the world tends toward its simplest state: disorder. Rain falls; bikes turn over; weeds sprout between cracks in pavement; residue stains stucco siding; businesses fail. And, as the window of an abandoned hospital room blows open, I envision a gradual and natural deconstruction. Geyrhalter foreshadows the union of infrastructure and naturalism. Paint peels off the walls and the world works in reverse — stripping away human intervention. In the latter part of the film, cyclical shapes in many scenes form a coherent theme of continuity — from order to emptiness, from life to death.
Homo Sapiens shares a universal human message exposed not only in its worldly images but also in its relations to other works of art. Geyrhalter’s film, through some strange chain reaction of my interneurons, reminds me of W.B. Yeats’ popular poem: “The Second Coming.” The poem, interpreted in many different ways and applied to expansive purposes, speaks to either the end of the world or a new beginning. Geyrhalter scans over a forgotten bookstore, a deserted theatre, a decaying planetarium, and I’m brought to Yeats’ line: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Homo Sapiens shows the cycle of life and the simplest state of nature. According to thermodynamics, the universe moves from order to disorder through the common measurement of change: entropy. Geyrhalter adequately calculates this difference. Despite humanity’s best spent efforts to produce permanent fixtures upon this Earth, science succeeds. Entropy triumphs over architecture and the system of growth and decay becomes the most prominent fixture of Geyrhalter’s abandoned landscapes. Ultimately, Homo Sapiens proves our smallness yet recognizes our achievements.
Throughout my life I’ve struggled with this idea of entropy. For many years, I’ve fought against it, holding on to unattainable goals of continued perfection. I’ve scheduled my days only to have to adjust my plans once more, I eat and exercise only to grow hungry and fatigued again, I’ve studied over and over the same slide in the BioG PowerPoint only to get that question wrong. Homo Sapiens shows, through a photographic display of change, that this is all part of life. And, strangely, these daily disasters appear beautiful and serene through Geyrhalter’s lens. When not looked upon, every book falls off the shelf, every crack fills with weeds, every white fence stains brown. But, with our enduring humanity we keep on restocking our shelves, filling our brains and cleansing our bodies. We fight, together, against disorder, and although we’ll lose in the end, for now, our common cause keeps us together. So, ending with a word to the class of 2020, welcome, join us in our futile journey to perfect GPAs, clean rooms, and unbeatable resumes. You’ll get a “C,” your laundry will overflow from that hamper and we’ll carry on. Like Kurt Vonnegut wrote in that book you were supposed to read before the start of freshman year, “and so it goes.”
Homo Sapiens will be shown at Cornell Cinema on Sept. 6 and 8 at 7:15 pm.
Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]