Photography by David Armstrong. Text by me.
PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID ARMSTRONG
TEXT ELLIOTT DAVID
ACTRESS AND FILMMAKER BRIT MARLING ESCAPES A BANKER'S DESTINY TO CREATE SUMMER'S OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD ANTI-BLOCKBUSTER
A place for prayer and offerings, the Temple of Dendur was built in 15 B.C. by Petronious, the Roman governor of Egypt, along the left bank of the Nile. Spread above the gate and temple entrance are the wings of a sky god, Horus, the deity who personified the entire cosmos and everything within. Horus was an important upholder of Maat, the ancient Egyptian concept of humanly truth, balance, morality, and justice, but also a symbol of the chaos of the universe—an amalgam of the heavens and the natural world. Amelia Edwards, a 191h·century English traveler, wrote in her book, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, of seeing the temple "half by sunset, half by dust...the rosy half-light of an Egyptian afterglow covers a multitude of sins." Dendur is a testament to permanence: the unyielding foreverness of our actions, our decisions, the world we create, and the world into which we were born, the constancy of our sins that like stone don't deteriorate but rather stay with us always.
There's perhaps no better place than the perimeter of the temple (now housed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art) to be sitting with actress and filmmaker Brit Marling. Her first feature film, Another Earth—which she co-wrote, produced, and stars in—is the story of Rhoda, an MIT-bound astrophysicist who, while drunkenly gazing from her car window at the sudden appearance of a new planet in the sky, crashes head-on into a family car, killing wife and child, leaving behind a broken widower. The planet turns out to be a duplicate Earth in a parallel universe. Several years later, after Rhoda is released from jail, she struggles to live with her guilt and the idea of another her. Soon she begins stalking the man whose family she killed (played with eerie brilliance by William Mapother), and a messy love affair ensues.
"It's breathtaking," the 28-year-old Marling says, staring up at the temple. "It's magnificent. My gosh, this light. When you're living in a city, New York or L.A., you have almost no connection to the sky. In New York, you don't have a connection to the horizon, and in L.A., the smog and the light—everything's just preventing you from connecting with your real place within the cosmos, which is so infinitesimally small. I think that [Another Earth director and co-writer] Mike Cahill and I became obsessed with wanting to tell a story that had something to do with space, with that sense of wonder and mystery."
Cahill and Marling went to school together at Georgetown, then briefly lived in Cuba, where they created the documentary Boxers and Ballerinas, but Earth is their first feature film, and Marling's debut as an actress. Their obsession led them to a good place, as Earth won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for outstanding film with science, technology, or math as a major theme at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
"I'm feeling this anxiety about running out of resources on this planet," she says. "I think that's in the collective consciousness, but we don't want to acknowledge it, because we keep going to the Apple store and getting into cabs and living our lives, but it totally seems like the world is falling apart. And collectively we're all thinking, 'Oh my God, escape! What are our options? Is there another resource out there that we can destroy?' But it's like those infinite designs that you lose yourself in in a mosque," she continues, looking from the pond behind us back to the temple. "If there is a finite number of particles in the universe and you shuffle that deck an infinite number of times, you're bound to repeat the same order in the deck. So, with this theory, it's very logical that there—somewhere—is a duplicate Earth."
Earth is a deeply emotional and existential film on the nature of identity and regret, and Marling gives a superb performance punctuated with wrought silences and endearing meditation. At Sundance, Marling also showed Sound of my Voice, yet another film she co-wrote, produced, and stars in, in which she plays the leader of a cult who claims to have traveled back in time from the year 2054. The polymath's film debut is all the more impressive considering Marling was once a double major in Economics and Studio Art with only a vague fantasy of making movies. It was when an internship at Goldman Sachs gave her a harsh dose of reality that she decided, basically, fuck this. "I was just like, Wait. I don't want to get to the end of my life and find out that I haven't lived it with any courage. I think something happens when you're young where you feel like time is forever, and you are forever. And something about that experience—it's like I felt my mortality sitting in that cubicle, on the fucking whatever floor of this massive skyscraper, and I thought, 'Oh my God, I am going to die, and probably really soon if I stay here." So she moved into a house in Silver Lake, California, with the directors and co-writers of both the films she showed at Sundance, and got to work.
"I spend a lot of time sitting in a chair, looking out a window, just daydreaming about the conditions or circumstances of the story until it begins to feel real, until it begins not to feel separate from me anymore," Marling says. " I feel like I have to keep going because I haven't been true enough, authentic enough, I haven't gotten close enough to what it's like at the center of a violin performance or a dance or a story, when you feel something unlock. It's not a bad kind of dissatisfaction, I still take so much joy in what I'm doing. I love it. And there's something about not ever quite getting at the center that is actually really beautiful and invigorating, and makes you love being alive. I guess if you could get at the center, you'd feel done, it would be over."
The morning light hits the temple. It's the same color as Marling's hair. She looks back at the pond behind us and asks if we should make a wish. We don't have any coins, so she tears a dollar in half, hands one to me, and closes her eyes. "I've got a good one," she says, and throws it in the water.