"This is How it Feels to Read": "Waterdrop" and Abstract Remediation

Tor.com pointed me recently toward filmmaker Ren Wang’s “Waterdrop,” a short work of experimental animation and a “tribute to” Cixin Liu’s mind-blowing novel of alien contact, The Dark Forest. Tor.com signal-boosted the video under the headline “This is How it Feels to Read Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest,” a title that got me thinking. Wang’s film takes a highly intellectual doorstop of a book, one that is in part a thought experiment (how would our world react to knowledge of an impending but distant attack from the stars?) and translates it into an abstract, largely emotional fourteen-minute video. The book leans heavily on an intergalactically complicated plot that folds and twists around on itself several times—I would be very interested to hear someone who hasn’t read The Dark Forest try to describe it based on “Waterdrop.” And yet there’s a clear and profound theme to the film in its own right, including an audio collage of voices debating and discussing the idea of contact with alien civilizations. Based on Tor.com’s headline and my own (very positive; it’s a beautiful book) head-swimming experience with The Dark Forest, I half expected, and can easily imagine, a much more abstract take on the novel’s essence in short-film form.

In part this betrays my fiction-writer’s hangup about the clarity of an absolute meaning—more than once, trying to interpret a poem or avant-garde film, I’ve had to be shaken by the lapels and reminded that “it doesn’t always matter ‘what’s happening.’” But Wang’s film has me thinking about this kind of emotional remediation, expressing something concrete in abstract terms, as both an act of fandom and one of creation. (In grad school I heard colleagues in the rhet-comp program talk a lot about remediation and the pedagogy of “making meaning,” with students interpreting texts by connecting them to each other and to their own lives,  so that’s part of where I’m coming from here.) I’m interested in Wang’s film and in Tor.com’s take, which seems to point towards the idea of a kind of radical adaptation where the artist tries not to tell the original story in a new format so much as to express what it feels like, what thoughts it sparks, to experience the story.

This gets head-twisty pretty fast, of course, concerned as it is with that part of mental-emotional response that we can’t, or at least don’t usually, put into words. In my limited experience I’ve found that the most accessible versions of this mixed media impressionism are works like Fantasia that become more creative than they are responsive—in Fantasia’s case, the visuals imposing so complex and complete a narrative over the music that I can’t often remember both film and soundtrack at the same time. So there’s a question here of whether accessibility is or should be the goal of this kind of pastiche/adaptation/remediation—do you make a video or write a song or draw a picture to show others what it felt like to experience a work of visual art or literature or music, or to unpack the feeling for yourself?

Obviously these questions are applicable to pretty much any creative work, not just conscious acts of response or remediation. As someone who almost always works in a very traditional and straightforward form and style, I like considering this kind of ekphrastic, experimental, or abstract interpretation of themes and emotions. This may not be the right way to engage with a creation like Wang’s lovely film, but oh well: among much else, it’s an interesting thought experiment.