THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT
June 20, 2020
When a construction project’s only goal is to save a few decimals of a second for stock market transactions, a lot of important elements are left behind and neglected. This film is about some of these elements we leave behind in our rush to save time.
A 2019 Belgian-Canadian production from previously Oscar nominated director Kim Nguyen (Rebel), starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard and Salma Hayek.
The hummingbird is a small bird whose wings move at an almost impossible speed, so fast that it can stay at the same exact spot without moving about.
(this is a spoiler alert: do not read this section if you wish to follow the plot only at the screening of the film)
Drawing from this natural phenomenon, Vinny ( Jesse Eisenberg) convinces his cousin Anton ( Alexander Skarsgard) to team up with him to build a fiber optical cable that will follow a straight line between Kansas and New Jersey, reducing the current speed of the connection between these two locations’ data centers, so as to accelerate the buying and selling of market shares , a few mille-seconds faster than the regular market, thereby making an estimated 500 million dollars a year for the scheme.
The scheme seems legal enough, and Jesse finds some risk capital to finance its construction. Not that the construction is simple. Jesse’s cousin and prospective partner, nerdy and brainy Anton, is already under employment with a specialized organization involved in high speed cable research and wants to defect, so to speak, to Jesse’s project , under the protests of his previous female boss ( Salma Hayek), who feels betrayed by his move.
But Anton’s betrayal of his former employer is not the only difficulty of this ambitious project. Anton is a nerdy geek who works under pressure from Jesse to cut still more infinitely small time elements to the communication between these two unlikely points. In responding to Jesse’s coaching, he neglects his young family, something he will regret later. The project also has to traverse both public and private land, and Jesse sees to it that these potential obstacles are overtaken, through legal and not so legal means. Jesse is working under the assumption that everything, and everyone, has a price.
THE ELEPHANT BEHIND THE FILM
There is in this film an elephant behind the screen. It is the idea of time. Indeed, this film is very much about time, in more ways than one. As can be predicted, the pristine state of the environment is not a factor to be considered by Jesse, and the pressure to finish the project quickly forces the participants to cut corners when dealing with the environment. This neglect is very much in line with German philosopher and ecologist Wolfgang Sachs’ observations, in Planet Dialectics (1999), that the will to save time, generally speaking, is not a friend of the survival of our planet. In very much the same spirit, in Time and Being (1927; 1962 in English), another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, had described our Western technological societies as forgetting time, and by the same token, ourselves. And Jesse himself, upon learning that he developed stomach cancer, continues to work on the implementation of his time pressured project, neglecting by the same token his own health.
The film’s finale has the two cousins returning to a religious village enclave of Pennsylvania, living at a radically different pace than its contemporaries, drawing a strong contrast with the speed that Jesse and Anton were trying to achieve. In the final image, the two cousins help out in tasks of another age, helping the village leader in transporting some of the grain harvested by the village folks. In the meantime, their own unlikely project has failed, as Anton’s former boss, with some dirty tricks of her own, beats them to the finish line.
Obviously, this film offers food for thought. But what is it really about? Is it tied together and carried by some overarching element? Is there an elephant on the screen?
THE BIG PICTURE
We have mentioned time as a unifying element, as the elephant behind the film, and it is an unavoidable element of the film, even in its title.
But, in looking for the big picture, we are led to look at our conception of time as part of other contemporary developments.
Let us first look at the world of finance. Current socio-economic critical theory has it that the current financial paradigm, with its abstract and disincarnated calculations, with its excesses and short term view, has taken over all of us, our human relationships, our countries, our governments, and our natural environments. Even traditional honest goods and services producing entities are taken over by this financial tsunami, at least in this view.
The compression of time leads us to look at one thing at a time, causing a lack of balance. Jesse is obsessed with his project of saving time for financial gain. It is a tunnel vision of things, a tendency of men more than of women, although women can become part of it, in a man’s world.
Is this short term of time a particularly American phenomenon ?
At the outset of the film, Jesse recalls his first job, when after an error he made as a beginner in a plumbing contract, he was severely punished by his employer for his error. Later in the film, we learn that his employer was in fact his own father, who tried to instill in his son the idea of being strong and independent. His father was a Russian immigrant, intent on succeeding and seeing his son succeed in America.
Is this, then, a story about America or about time in America? Is the American will to succeed quickly, at all costs, the elephant behind the screen? It is, after all, difficult to imagine a private cable network being planned in old Europe, traversing different countries of the European Union, including a plan to traverse thousands of kilometres of unbuilt land, including public land.
Ten years after the financially induced recession or 2008-2009, The Hummingbird project draws unwillingly the portrait of a mindset and a concept of time that set in motion those excesses, where abstract financial calculations, with minimal relations to real physical reality ( including time), had hijacked our world.
The 2008-2009 recession was a universal phenomenon. But the origins of its excesses and singlemindedness had a particularly American twist to it. Its short term view was the elephant in the room.