Sounds Of A Tired City | Exper:Mental Exh:B:Ton
Watch/Read/Travel: Robert Rich
June 4, 2015
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). I tend to follow certain rare directors whom I trust, because I have trouble with the loudness and violence of most Hollywood movies. I rarely watch new films, although I love great filmmaking. My favorites include Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Werner Herzog… but most importantly I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Andrei Tarkovsky. Four of his films rank among the most important art I have experienced in my life: ‘Stalker’, ‘Nostalgia’, ‘The Mirror’, and ‘The Sacrifice’. It is not an accident that I named several albums and compositions after his films. ‘Stalker’ is almost the perfect Hero’s Journey, the Joseph Campbell model of the allegorical mystical quest to self-discovery. The Zone represents the unknowable, the blank slate, or the emptiness (“Sunyata” perhaps?). It personifies Numin, the magical energy of a place (I named an album ‘Numina’ because I am very attracted to this idea of the energy of a place). The Zone becomes a Rorschach test for people, and the only person who seems immune from its dangerous forces is the one person who doesn’t seek anything from it. The Stalker is not greedy, he respects the Zone and its wisdom. Therefore the Zone does not tear him open into an ugly example of humanity, as it does to the people he takes to its center, who only expose their greed and resentment. The Zone mirrors what is in their hearts, but the Stalker’s heart is honest (not pure – it is full of pain, but he does not seek retribution.) As a gift we see that the Zone is creating a new form of energy… the Stalker’s daughter shows signs of telekinesis. I don’t know any other film that I could watch with pleasure as many times as ‘Stalker’ except perhaps some of Tarkovsky’s other films (‘The Sacrifice’ especially!) … or perhaps Jeunet’s ‘Amélie’ just for the sheer joy of living in the world it creates.
Among so many great books, the one that I return to the most is ‘Star Maker‘ by Olaf Stapledon. The author was a Quaker in England living during the Great Wars of the early 20th century, a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War One. He is considered one of the greatest early science fiction writers along with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I think he intended his writing to show people possible ways of thinking beyond our animal short-sightedness, which leads usually to violence. He wrote ‘Star Maker’ in the mid-1930’s during the growth of the Nazis and forebodings about the next big conflagration. It is essentially a 200 page out-of-body-experience: the narrator flies away from earth as pure mind, and makes contact with consciousness of all types, ever increasing in scope and time until he starts to see an overview of the meaning of life, the smallness of the individual in reference to the large picture, the fragility of life in relation to cosmic scale and deep time. For example, at a certain point he learns that stars themselves have consciousness, and they become distraught that the most dominant creatures in the galaxy have started engineering the motions of their planets. Out of shame from the departure from natural symmetries, the stars begin exploding as a suicidal means to maintain balance. Every chapter in the book is full of detail about possible worlds, possible ‘otherness’ which is also very familiar, a pattern of meaning, yearning towards consciousness. Although there is a naive character in the book that derives from the era when it was written (we know a lot more about cosmology now, and we don’t tend to think in Theistic terms) the pure creative beauty of ‘Star Maker’ makes it one of the most important books in my life.
My favorite paradise is the one that evades our view because it is so close, the place we could see everyday that might be the most beautiful place on earth. The redwood groves of northern California are my cathedrals, my most sacred place. If I drive 40 minutes, I can get to a place called Memorial Park in the Santa Cruz mountains. The trees here are 1000 years old (not the oldest redwoods by any means). They have signs of old fires, some evidence of logging 150 years ago. The wildlife is quiet – the birds and insects do not make much noise here. The wind is soft in the tall forest. The fog dripping into the sparse undergrowth etches a different kind of silence. This cathedral was not built by humans, not built for humans. We are only observers, visitors. We are foreign to this, it came millions of years before us; yet this is our adopted home. Under the logs live salamanders and frogs, beetles, ants and grubs. The chemistry of the soil makes for a minimal understory, few plants can grow in the high acid and low light. The views through the shafts of tall trees are clear within the shadows and fog. Although I delight in collecting wild mushrooms, the redwoods do not play host to many edible species of fungus. This is not a place where humans find much food. The ferns and azaleas are toxic plants, as is the hemlock and poison oak. The redwoods themselves create a tannin that protects them from wood-eating insects – which is one reason people logged these forests so destructively, to start the cities on the west coast of the USA. When we have visitors from far away, I like to take them to our redwood forests, to the remaining old growth, to show them the cathedrals built by trees, the silence and dark solitude that only invites people who wish to share their shadows with respect, to show them the silence that I learned to love and tried to emulate, branded on my childhood consciousness.