In the Shadow of an Oak
By Greg Cwik
Dir. Michael Almereyda, U.S., IFC Films
Michael Almereyda is currently receiving a short retrospective of 21st century works at Museum of the Moving Image, which ends September 20.
On the north shore of Long Island, about 15 miles before the island splits, there’s a small, unamazing town called Shoreham. On the west side of town, right off of 25A, on one of the many wiry side streets lined with handsome houses and well-groomed lawns, there is an old stone bridge, across which early morning trains rife with sleepy-eyed men in slouchy suits used to go. Further east, near a stretch of pretty green fields and a school bus depot and a memorial fountain for cops that perished in the World Trade Center, is the site of an unfinished museum. Here once lay the ruins of a tower, a magnificent, ambitious project that was abandoned a century ago and left to rot like a corpse amid gnarled branches and decomposing leaves. The tower, called Wardenclyffe, was the creation of Nikola Tesla, a Croatian-born ethnic-Serb inventor. Wall Street magnate J. P. Morgan provided the initial funding, but Tesla, never a deft schmoozer, had few wealthy friends and even fewer fans willing to invest in his experiments. So the tower, which once reached up through the foliage and glinted in the sun, and which represented the ambition of its progenitor and the promise of unfathomed scientific progress, was scrapped. Tesla went back to the city, where he spent his final days feeding pigeons in the park and moving from hotel to hotel, leaving behind unpaid bills and the fading vestiges of hope.
“There is no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally,” Montaigne said. This particular knowledge proved elusive to Tesla. He came to America in 1884 to pursue the American dream, and he died 59 years later, impecunious and forgotten, in an unimpressive room on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel, in midtown Manhattan. They now hold conventions in his honor there, and the room in which he had his last dream is a destination for those interested in history and science. Tesla’s difficulties with English made him susceptible to manipulation. Edison, whose mendacity has become increasingly apparent to modern eyes, pilfered ideas from Tesla.
Public knowledge of and appreciation for Tesla—as an inventor, as well as a character who represents the tragic fallacy of the American Dream—has grown gradually and significantly, and the man who died alone, convinced that he was a failure, has taken on a mythic grandeur. Wardenclyffe, rescued from oblivion, has been beautified with suburban landscaping and benches and modestly sized statues, while the building is being turned slowly into a center honoring him. A street in Manhattan bears Tesla’s name, as does a company run by an eccentric CEO who has mutated into a living meme. Tesla has appeared in several notable works of Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, and served as the inspiration for an H. P. Lovecraft character. In Max Fleischer’s first Superman cartoon, released in 1941, a maniacal scientist modeled after Tesla attempts to destroy Metropolis with a ray beam, but is thwarted by the Man of Steel. Disneyland’s Tomorrowland attraction includes Tesla in a coterie of inventors called Plus Ultra, which also includes Edison, Jules Verne, and Gustave Eiffel. David Bowie gave a dignified portrayal of Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, walking through the writhing tendrils of a machine-made lightning storm, an unperturbed, enigmatic gentleman.
And now there is Tesla, Michael Almereyda’s unorthodox bio-drama starring Ethan Hawke as the tragic title character, alongside Kyle MacLachlan as the suave, silver-haired Edison. (The actors also appeared together in Almereyda's 2000 Hamlet.) Hawke, closing in on 50, still has a boyish ebullience, a feeling of warmth and vulnerability and intransigent hope that’s been present in so many of his roles—an anxious teenager in Dead Poets Society, a man-child father in Boyhood, expressing his love through mix CDs, a lovesick flaneur in Richard Linklater's Before films. He is, at his best, an actor undistracted by ego. In so many of his best roles—from his unguarded decency in Reality Bites to his perseverance and idealism in Gattaca to his naïve, neophyte NARC in Training Day—Hawke has a buoyancy that keeps him from succumbing to self-destruction. Hawke has lost that buoyancy as Tesla, a role not so dissimilar to his priest in crisis in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. The priest is a man of eroding faith searching, longing for a flicker of hope, while Tesla is a man of science, trying to find a light in the darkness.
“Nothing grows in the shadow of an oak,” Tesla intones at the beginning of the film. Edison and his consorts sit in the warm glow of a candle in an otherwise tenebrous room. Edison recalls a childhood memory of his friend George, who drowned when Edison was five. “I always assumed people can swim,” he says, before adding, “Oh, Tesla, I didn’t see you there.” In response, Tesla says, curtly and calmly, “I can swim.” Shot by Sean Price Williams (who also shot Almereyda’s 2017 Marjorie Prime), Tesla is a film of light cutting through darkness, candle flames undulating and alluring and light bulbs bursting with artificial illumination. Electricity creates light and it ends life (e.g. a convicted ax murderer is sentenced to fry in the electric chair, which prompts Edison to mention that he has never killed anyone). The sun bleeds across the sky as Tesla types away in his unfinished tower, and blue squiggles of energy writhe out of coils in small lab rooms. The film conjures a fungible present, a world that is, as J. P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) puts it, governed not by rules of logic but by manipulation of power. It is a world that feels appropriately familiar yet somehow strange, with seemingly arbitrary details, the collapsing of years and collating of moments, the consequences of the future leaking back into the past. In Almereyda’s Experimenter (2015), Stanley Milgram says that he works with “illusion, not deception—illusion has a revelatory function”; one might say the same about Almereyda, who draws inspiration from Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Italo Calvino, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Ashbery, whose poem "The Lonedale Operator," named after the Griffith film, serves as the basis for Almereyda’s kaleidoscopic 2018 documentary of the same name. Almereyda’s obsession with Tesla dates back to at least the 1980s, when he dropped out of Harvard to work on his screenplay for what would become Tesla, then titled Eternity’s Sunrise.
The fallibility of memory, and of history, is a motif that has beguiled Almereyda for years, most prominently in Marjorie Prime. As her memories are manipulated and malformed by Alzheimer’s, an old woman (Lois Smith) tries to remember her life with the help of an artificial intelligence modeled after her dead husband (Jon Hamm) while he was still handsome, young, lucid. But her hologram husband can’t help her remember because he himself remembers things the way she tells him. The reality of his past—or the past of the man whose face he now wears—is constructed from the debris of someone else’s crumbling memory palace; history is altered, the way the mind is altered by the mnemonics of the loci method. In the end, in the epilogue of human life, all that remains is the ageless Primes and the stories they conjure in the collective of their credulous consciousness.
Almereyda’s playing with reality and time, inserting contemporary technology into scenes of the past, recalls Henry James’s intermingling of disparate metaphors. Towards the end of the film, a woebegone Tesla steps up to a mic and begins Tears for Fears’ Reagan-era anthem "Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” singing with the unselfconscious sincerity of last-call karaoke at a dive bar. “There’s a room where the light won’t find you / Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down / When they do I’ll be right behind you / So glad we’ve almost made it / So sad they had to fade it / Everybody wants to rule the world.” (The song’s original music video features a vintage Austin-Healey, an electro version of which the company bearing Tesla’s name would make 20 years later.) Hawke’s Tesla has little of Bowie’s enigmatic allure, little of his urbanity; he is penurious, quixotic, an idealist undone by his refusal to reconcile the inextricability of capital and creation. Tesla isn’t an imitation of life, but a depiction of a life born in the imagination. It is a story of history, which remains as gullible as the people who make it. As Tesla may have said, “The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.”
Reverse Shot is a publication of Museum of the Moving Image. Join us at the Museum for our weekly virtual Reverse Shot Happy Hour, every Friday at 5:00 p.m.