Carl Sagan’s Contact

Curator's Note

Following my initial viewing of Robert Zemeckis’s film Contact, adapted from a novel by populist Astronomer Carl Sagan, I left the theater stunned by its awfulness. The film provides a constant drip of pathos, a slew of romantic notions about science, and a terrible performance by Matthew McConaughey. But after repeated viewings on cable, Contact has become one of my favorite films. McConaughey still sickens, but the scenes depicting Ellie’s travel through an intricate circuit of wormholes in space reactivate an adolescent imagination buried deeply within myself. Somewhere back in the summer of 1973, I lay on my bed reading Carl Sagan’s bestselling paperback, The Cosmic Connection. I fixated on a chapter entitled “Night Freight Train to the Stars.” It was a vignette that ran a page or two and featured an illustration that depicted an old steam engine superimposed over a background field of stars. Sagan’s text evokes a day in the distant future when a young boy sits late at night listening to the sound of space ships laden with cargo slipping the grip of earth’s gravity and chugging off to distant planets. As a teen, this sentimental vision of starships saturated my thoughts with the promise of escaping the suffering silence that enveloped my adolescent years. I shudder a bit as I write this - few want to remember the coarser desires or fanciful longings of their teens - but that rush of romantic urges floods past me again as I recall Sagan’s book, that summer, and the night freight to the stars. Which brings me to the idea of a guilty pleasure. For me, a guilty pleasure must be a cultural object that fluctuates between an intense sensation of pleasure and a miserable awareness of guilt derived from knowing that the object of one’s fixation is mediocre. By this measure, trash, cult, and other kinds of good “bad” are excluded from consideration. If the common consensus is that a given cultural object is good, or pretty good, then this makes for an excellent guilty pleasure. The knowledge that others believe your chosen guilty pleasure is simply a pleasure - as many think the work of Robert Zemeckis to be - enhances the guilt associated with the pleasure derived from this cultural artifact. My favorite kind of guilty pleasure is the kind that everyone else thinks is simply a pleasure sans guilt. Which brings me to today’s clip. What does it say that my favorite scene from Contact is the one between Ellie and her long dead father - who is actually an alien presence using her neural memories to recreate their holiday spent together in Pensacola, Florida?


I'm intrigued by the way that Dan has recast the notion of guilt to include shame for taking pleasure in the mediocre, for a guilty pleasure that most would think is "pleasure sans guilt." In CONTACT, we have a film that garnered mostly positive reviews -- as can be seen in its rating of 65% "fresh". So, pretty good, but not great. The definition of mediocrity. Do other participants in this week of guilty pleasure share Dan's definition? I'll be interested to see...

Dan, it sounds like your guilt has nothing to do with the object itself, but rather with your ability to see that object more clearly that other people. I imagine if you asked people, they would consider that ability a good thing, but I wonder how many of us do feel the same sense of shame, as though our own clear-sightedness ought to preclude enjoyment.

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