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Knowing: Nic's Gnostic Numbers
Time is not a road--it's a room-- John Fowles
By Professor W
March 28, 2009
Gottfried Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton discovered a method for inflicting pain on schoolchildren worldwide, which was subsequently called calculus.
© Summit Entertainment
I seem to belong to be the very small minority who really enjoyed Nicolas Cage’s latest outing, Knowing (2009), directed by Alex Proyas (I, Robot, 2004). Many reviewers (including the official Mania review by Rob Vaux) weren’t impressed and gave very low ratings to the movie. For me, the film simply worked. It was an edge-of-the-seat thriller with fantastic special effects (a stunning underground derailment and a breath-taking plane disaster), which as a movie didn’t put a foot wrong. The script, written by Alex Proyas, was strong, and the plot worked both as a thought-provoking adventure and as a visceral thriller. It made a better, more exciting movie than M. Night Shyamalan managed, even when he was on form.
I’m not Nicolas Cage’s biggest fan (I think he’s the beneficiary of enlightened nepotism!), believing that he makes a handful of turkeys for every film where he shines (Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation, to name but two). As Knowing’s hero, John Koestler, he’s not the most convincing MIT astrophysicist, but he didn’t get in the way of the script. Rose Byrne, the rather plangent lead in TV’s Damages, has made her transition to the big screen as the female lead. Rather like Cage, she didn’t add a lot to Knowing, but she didn’t detract from it either. The two leads’ children were not unbearably cute, although Koestler’s mantra with his son (“You and me, together, forever”) would have made my popcorn reappear, if I’d had to hear it again.
The plot begins in 1959, when a girl, Lucinda Embry, puts a series of apparently random numbers on two sides of paper, which her school puts in a time-capsule, which is then buried in the ground for fifty years and re-opened in 2009. Koestler’s son is given the girl’s paper in 2009 and Koestler, a recently widowed, scientist with a drink problem, discovers that all the “random” numbers are, in fact, the dates and the number of fatalities in disasters, which occurred after the time-capsule had been interred. There are some other numbers, but I won’t spoil the mystery for you.
The plot device is a cool way of a character in a film being able to forecast future events in a relatively verifiable way. (It’s not like Nostradamus’ forecasts, written in the Language of the Birds, where the future reader can interpret the forecasts pretty much as they want (You know the stuff, “Pau, Nay, and Loron will be more of fire than of blood”. This is interpreted as referring to Napoleon, geddit?). No, in Knowing, Lucinda can forecast real future disasters with pin-point accuracy. She can even forecast the date and time of her own death and that of her daughter, Rose Byrne’s character.
Now, it may be a coincidence, but Cage’s character is called John Koestler and it’s hard not to believe that this is the screen-writer paying homage to Arthur Koestler, who in 1972 wrote The Roots of Coincidence, which looks, inter alia, at the statistical improbability of certain coincidences and other paranormal activities. Koestler was heavily influenced by CG Jung’s book on coincidence, Synchronicity. (Sad people will note that The Police named two of their albums after books that their lead singer, Sting, associated with Koestler: Synchronicity and Ghost in the Machine.)
Koestler tried (pretty unsuccessfully) to use modern physics to explain the inexplicable connectedness of coincidences. A high-brow example of such a synchronicity would be the German mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz, and his British counterpart, Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered--at almost exactly the same time in the late seventeenth century--a method for inflicting pain on school-children worldwide, which was subsequently called calculus. On a more everyday level, Koestler cites the case of an African eight-year old boy going off to play football and being asked by his mother a question about their evening meal. The boy replied that he wouldn’t be coming back home again and that his mother shouldn’t worry. He didn’t come home; he was struck by lightning during the football match and killed.
We all have our own examples. Some are just wacky; some are spooky. Perhaps there’s a greater meaning behind coincidences. “Coincidence is the word we use when we can't see the levers and pulleys.” Maybe, if we abandon our fixed idea of linear-time, coincidences might make more sense. It could be that coincidences and synchronicities are manifestations of tears in the fabric of time. Or maybe, there are so many gazillions of events happening at any one time, that it would itself be astonishing if there weren’t any form of overlap.
One of Jung’s favorite quotes is taken from the interchange between Alice and the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass:
“’Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’
‘—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’
‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’
‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.”
Maybe all time is looped and Lucinda simply transcended linear-time and “remembered” the disasters over the next fifty years. It could be that that TS Eliot hits the nail on the head: “Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past”. Be that as it may, Knowing’s not a bad way to spend two hours and it’s a long way itself from being one of the biggest movie disasters of the past fifty years.
Knowing will certainly stick in your memory!