Learning the locusts’ lesson

We depend on insects for our existence, yet we abuse them casually.

Some years ago, at a time in my life when I was close to unemployable, a friend wangled me a job at Zoology Field Station No 3 (Insect Breeding), which, in spite of its grand title, was a series of small, almost ramshackle wooden huts and a couple of old glasshouses on a tiny plot of land just off Huntingdon Road in Cambridge.

My task there was simple: I grew plants to feed to the locusts and tobacco moths, I carried buckets of food mush into the cockroach house and scattered it across the concrete floor and I vacuumed the glass cases where the various insect tribes lived and died, and, in ways that never ceased to fascinate me, transformed themselves from one form into another. The locusts were my favourites: they would fasten themselves, upside down, to the side of the case, then gradually slip free of their old skin, leaving behind a perfect, if slightly shrunken image of the shining new body that had emerged. It was an astonishingly beautiful process and I would often take my lunch in the locust room so I could watch it happen, over and over, the new form emerging from the old, the massive continuum of transformation that is the essence of what we call nature, occurring before my eyes in one emblematic instance, endlessly repeated, yet always individual in the fine detail.

It is common knowledge, now, that we depend on insects for our continued existence; that, without key pollinators, the human population would collapse in less than a decade. Yet there is no other life form on the planet that we abuse so casually, as the current neonicotinoid controversy shows. In serious matters, our duty is to err on the side of caution – a policy that goes undisputed when the ecology of Wall Street or the City of London is in apparent jeopardy – but when it comes to safeguarding bees, all manner of folk, from government departments to the National Farmers Union, are now up in arms about the proposed ban.

Meanwhile, all over the country, garden centres and hardware stores are stocking their shelves for the summer with a wide variety of poisons, so their untrained and unconcerned customers can eliminate any variety of insect life that might cause them the least annoyance.

In response to the introduction of agricultural DDT in 1945, the great entomologist and popular science writer Edwin Way Teale said, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety per cent of all insects are good and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”

When Teale uses the word “good” here, he is speaking from a human point of view. There is no good or bad in nature, which is the great lesson that careful attention to insect life teaches us – and nobody paid closer attention to insects than Teale. He saw how essential even the most common or, to human eyes, annoying bugs are to the economy of nature but he also understood that the lessons they teach us can be subtly philosophical, even spiritual.

“In nature, there is less death and destruction than death and transmutation,” he said – and, as I munched on my cheese and pickle sandwiches in the locust room at Field Station No 3 almost three decades ago, I was subtly, perhaps even subliminally, learning the truth of that saying.

As they move from phase to phase of their life cycles or shrug off an old skin to emerge brightly reborn in the summer light, insects remind us that life’s changes, life’s transmutations, are subtler and more varied than we think – and that our ordinary narratives of profit and loss are rather tawdry compared to the generational play of the butterfly, which in ancient Greece (lest we forget) was synonymous with the soul. 

There is no good or bad in nature. Photograph: Laura Letinsky/Gallerystock
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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue