Alex Garland on “Attack on Titan” and other “male” influences

Alex Garland’s latest feature, menis a sinister descent into a chthonic nightmare world disguised as a noble English country estate – where ancient forces are embroiled in violent cycles of death and rebirth. The film is filled with resonant symbolism but defies easy interpretation; Put simply, it’s a real mindfuck. Garland doesn’t tend to delve too deeply into the whole thing means – for his benefit or that of his audience. “I have my own interests in my head, and I don’t bother explaining them or going over them too often,” he says.

While Garland believes the audience’s interpretation men more important than his own, he has left a few breadcrumbs for viewers curious about the film’s influences. Some are pretty literal: Hajime Isayama’s hit anime, attack on Titan, for example. Or the sad 90s romcoms by screenwriter Richard Curtis. Others are more abstract – the “impossibility of objective truth” kind of abstraction. In the dark forests where these strange and terrible men live, dreams are real, catharsis is a lie, and sacrifice is demanded by the old gods. Below, Garland describes some of the images and influences that have shaped her Men.

Photo: Wit Studio

One thing I noticed attack on Titan was that it didn’t present nudity in the typical way. Usually when nudity is featured in movies, statues, or art, it has been thought about. It was posed. The titans are terrifying and strange, but so are the strange shapes humans make when not being watched.

The other thing I liked attack on Titan was that it made some smart changes and then really pulled them through. Rather than trying to add bat wings and horns and ten arms or whatever, the film took ordinary people and lightly caricatured them. Some are more extreme, of course: one is skinned and another looks like a monkey with fur and those very long, skinny arms. But most of the titans are drawn like political caricatures you might see in a newspaper. They’re massive and they don’t have genitals and all that, but it’s these pretty subtle changes that turn them into monsters.

It’s a bit like being in a cut and there’s a very handsome actor on screen. You press pause. He’s mid-blink – one eyelid slightly lower than the other. His mouth hangs open in a strange way. Suddenly he’s not a handsome actor anymore; he is only human.

Photo: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

I first wrote a screenplay with The Green Man about 15 years ago. I regularly researched or drove to a church that had one. The more I became aware of them, the more I realized how common they are. I was walking down a street I had walked a thousand times and suddenly I realized that three of the houses had green men in the eaves above the doors. One thing I found out is that a neo-pagan explanation was attributed to these images, especially starting in the 1960’s. Quite often they made the green benign. He became a benevolent forest god.

I would look at the carvings and think they looked angry – like they were screaming in pain. And I thought, I will not date a benign, cuddly Green Man. I’ll go with one thing I can sometimes feel in these carvings, which is anger, and not assume that green is full of goodness.

As with all things, you learn more about the person interpreting than about the thing itself. One of the things that interests me about this film is the way things are interpreted – whether it’s a bit of ancient iconography or human behavior. I’m skeptical at the moment.

Photo: Polygram/Channel 4

I don’t mean to denigrate Richard Curtis in particular, but there’s a bourgeois sensibility and a kind of mythologization in his films: attractive people in attractive worlds that are, by and large, benign and uninvaded by the prickly difficulties of reality.

I remember watching The Wonderful Years when i was younger. I used to look at the front lawn and think, God how amazing. A beautiful, green, perfect lawn. There was something mesmerizing about it. Seductive. So I find a movie like that notting hill yes, very stuffy and problematic in some respects, I would like to be there, you know?

I wanted to have the landscape and the house in it men having that bourgeois reassurance—that comfort zone. It’s ambitious. Somebody really has a house like that. Someone really has a garden like that. And for Jessie Buckley’s character Harper, it’s like this: This is perfect. That’s how I dreamed it. This is a place where I can be comforted, processed and bettered.

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Everything is surreal, and pretty much everything is open to interpretation. Lawyers and judges – their professional life revolves around the interpretation of judgments. Laws are written to try to be clear, but we never stop arguing about their meaning. And human life, as far as I can tell, is a lot more dreamy than not. Encounters are surreal. Other people are surreal. Things that happen to us in everyday life have a deep strangeness.

We live in a much more imaginative space than we think. We see the world through our eyes and ears, and we have to fancy that we have an objective understanding of what we see – so we can just go about our day talking to our work colleagues and buying some food in the shops. we to have to believe that this is all objective. But we all disagree constantly, strongly about almost everything, so it clearly doesn’t that objective. I’m not trying to get bogged down in a discussion of what constitutes truth – I think there’s one thing you could call truth, but I’m not sure we’re the best to judge that.

I just think life is weird and I’m trying to reflect on how strange life feels to me. I don’t feel like life is predictable and comfortable. It’s often unsettling and surprising, and it leaves me unsure of what’s happening and why. This feeling, I don’t know what’s happening or why, probably happens to me several times a day. It always feels like surrealism is actually a pretty fair way to present a story.

Photo: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

I wanted to give the film a sense of something that’s both fantastically ancient and fantastically contemporary. It would be incredibly disingenuous to suggest that the subject matter in this film is a modern phenomenon. I would say it isn’t above Original sin so much so, for these are the flickering touchstones in people’s minds when they think of the subject.

I know some people will think this is a Genesis allegory if I put these images in there. But if the social media phenomenon has taught us anything, it’s not to bother trying to get everyone to agree; you’re wasting your time Funnily enough, it got me further in the direction of — I’m just saying this as I see fit.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity. Alex Garland on “Attack on Titan” and other “male” influences

Lindsay Lowe

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