27 December, 2011

A Tewahedo Christmas Eve



Sometimes this woodchuck ventures out of his burrow and doesn't have to ramble far to feel that precious sense of discovery. 

My friend Paul is a man of many passions - a consummate contradancer, a philatelist whose stamps are lessons in history and geopolitics. He recalls time spent in Austria, and laments the absence of truly good doner kebab in Boston (an observation with which i concur).  When we made dinner plans i'd promised to introduce him to Afghan food - but since i'm scraping rent together from odd jobs, needed something less expensive. So we decided to try out a little Ethiopian place in Malden another acquaintance had raved about. 

Up the orange line, a walk in the brisk night air to Malden center - neither of us with smartphones, and none of the people in the few shops that were open knew of the restaurant. But a block or two of wandering, and there it was, Amharic script on the sign: Habesha, as one online reviewer called it "an unassuming spot… for those more interested in food than environment." At least on Christmas eve, the clientele seemed to be mostly of east African descent, which bode well in our quest for authentic ethnic cuisine. 

Now, this is not a restaurant review; it was my first foray into African cuisines, the flavors unfamiliar. We began the meal with samossas and spiced tea (the water is spiced; choose your own teabag), and struggled to read the small font on a menu with the dishes named first in Amharic. The kitifo (ground beef with Ethiopian butter and chili pepper) and doro tibs (sauteed chicken with onion, hot pepper, garlic, and fresh tomato) were served without utensils, accompanied by rolls of the spongy, sourdough injera flatbread. I sat in the dimly lit restaurant, with Ethiopian music videos playing, tearing off strips of injera to scoop up the meat and wondering if i'd ever start to like the sourdough flavor, and somehow i felt a lot farther from Boston than Malden. 

On our way back, as we passed the First Baptist Church, carols rang out from a carillon. Churchbells, something heard so rarely in America - and the in the clear cold, the sound had a certain transport to it, nevermind the bells that rang a bit off key. Across Malden center, i could see the stained-glass windows of another stone church glinting in the urban night. 

Back when i worked on a Christmas tree farm in Maine cranking out mail-order centerpieces, replenishing the homemade doughnuts and cider, and baling the occasional tree, the holiday season was a seven week marathon of jingling commercialism and manufactured tradition, and holiday music was as stuck in my head as the balsam pitch was stuck to my fingers. This year it rather snuck up on me. Suddenly, it was Christmas eve. I picked up the phone to dial a dear friend, and remembered it was also his birthday. That's how the whole day went, a sort of existential surprise. 

What stirred within me, with stained glass glinting and bells ringing a little off key, surprised me. Religion, inasmuch as it carries the hallmarks of a human institution, is not something i take kindly to, too often hijacking an individual's spiritual journey for political ends - and yet there are moments when, shedding their hierarchies, shedding hearsay and heresy and the secondhand ideas of Divinity that people kill each other over, moments when religious ritual and symbol speak to me from their depths of the deep human longing toward God. 

~

Something in the evening's juxtapositions got me curious. So i did a bit of research: Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christianity relies on the Julian calendar, and so, like the Armenian Apostolic Church and other Oriental Orthodox faiths, they'll observe Christmas on the other 25 December, which - by the Gregorian calendar the rest of Christendom uses - is 7 January. (A curveball in the "taking back Christmas" culture wars?) Why the schism? Why two completely different calendars? The answer, it turns out, lies back in 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, an early schism of earth's most schismatic faith, one little discussed among the vocally Protestant crowd. I don't pretend to know anything about the theology involved here; if there's anything life's recent lessons have taught me, it is the need to maintain a healthy sense of how little i actually know, and to nurture the curiosity it engenders. 

That schism was based on a simple disagreement about the nature of Jesus Christ: was he two natures, Divine and human, in one body? Or was he a single nature, Divinity become human? (Which latter the term "Tewahedo" sums up nicely: being made one.) It might seem like a silly distinction, but the personal theological implications of that question struck me as immense. Christ as person, Christ as symbol: not a dichotomy, but a unity, human and Divine being made one. It's an idea at the heart of Christianity, and at the heart of Christmas - a holiday which, i hear, is under attack. 

….. to be continued?

20 October, 2011

Courtship and hardship: Boston



May in Boston is a glorious thing. Sunday morning, neighborhood parks warm to the first pickup basketball games of summer, and the paths along the Charles River  are thronged with joggers. Everywhere the city's brick and stone is broken by spring green - the Crayola that, as a child, i thought too garish. I'd never seen it against the stately red-brick houses of beacon street, punctuated with blooming crabapples, as late afternoon sun slants warmly in. Bound for the south shore, from I-90 i see the skyline rise, downstream, across the BU memorial bridge, reaching to meet a cloudless sky. 

Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Malmo, Istanbul, Antalya, Batumi, Suleymaniyah: with each city i saw, i wondered what it would be like to call them home.  After all that rambling, i see Boston from a new angle - a city that, though i grew up scant miles from, i've never had the chance to appreciate for what it is - a small metropolis brimming with brilliant minds and cobbled corners, ethnic groceries and elite universities. 

Today i'm walking Harvard Square, keeping an eye open for "help wanted" signs. Old men on the park benches are talking at the volume of hearing impaired, their voices ringing with a thick Bahstin accent. The classier restaurants slide their windows clear aside, opening to the spring air. I wince when i notice i'll be leaving town before Harvard Book Store hosts authors Jonas Hassan Khemiri and Elif Shafak (acclaimed authors i first heard about while in Turkey; so far Khemiri's work has not been translated to English). But i'll be back in Boston soon: now that i've got a room in Somerville, just over the Cambridge line, the People's Republic of Camber-ville will be home. 

~~

October. There are three dollars in my wallet, less than ten to my name. I've found a job, but with the first paycheck still days away, i'm walking a tightrope. Budget shortfalls are all over the news, and they're all over my mind. When you take seventeen dollars to the grocery store knowing that's all you have until perhaps Friday, you understand austerity measures. 

My situation isn't per se a direct ripple of the global financial crisis. It's simply what happens when you move to a new place and the urgency of finding a job takes a backseat to painting your dad's house in another state and meeting your year-old goal of buying a motorcycle and learning to ride. Well, those are crossed off the to-do list and now the only "to do" left to do at the moment is climb back out of this hole. It makes you wonder the value of living in a city, without money to enjoy the urban life. 

But there are still things to do and people to meet. And one thing i have learned from all that traveling is a deeper appreciation of the relationship between person and place. The difference between denizen and explorer is not simply the difference between native and interloper, or local and tourist. It is a difference of habit. The denizen is set in patterns that the explorer does not hold; the local sees the same commute every day, and rarely finds himself in corners of town the tourist is drawn to. The native becomes, in a way, inured to place. If you take the red line across the Longfellow bridge every day, i suppose, you'll start to see the CITGO sign without feeling anything, without hearing faintly the voices of Red Sox radio announcers Jerry Trupiano and Joe Castiglione in the childhood recess of your mind. 

Getting to know a place is like getting to know a person. Sometimes you stall, and it takes finding a new approach to rekindle the passion. 

19 October, 2011

Art as collective therapy? (part 2)


This post picks up some threads from the last one, heading in a different direction. It stems from some time exploring the entwined psychological and metaphysical aspects of the question "why do i create?" and in terms of my encounter with the world, what is the result of that creative act? Do those two dimensions inform and discipline each other? 

~

Cleaning out my bookcase before a move, i came across a book a friend had handed me years ago. I never got around to reading "Mosquito: A natural history of man's most persistent and deadly foe", yet the title made me think. And after a little thinking, i have come to believe that the most persistent and deadly foe of Homo sapiens is, in fact, H. sapiens.*

As individuals, we grow, held back by convenient but damaging beliefs, by our myths, our defensive mechanisms, by childhood traumas and their resultant fears, rooted deeply in our subconscious. Unaware of their influence, we carelessly, subconsciously repress them - but if we are to reach our potential as individuals, we must bring them to the light. (On that thought, here's a song: take your medicine.)

So it is for societies as a whole, national or global. We possess a certain collective consciousness, a mentality, which forms to differing extents the basis for our individual mentalities. And like the individual, each collective consciousness has its convenient but damaging beliefs, myths, traumas and resultant fears. Take racism for example, or the excessive medical interventionism fueled by a stubborn unwillingness to simply accept our place in the cycle of death and physical reincarnation (better known as "compost"). 

Individuals, once aware of these blockages, can take action to dissolve them. We can use mindfulness, a  liquid-plumr of meditation and self-reflection. Our friends can hold these blockages up for us; we can consult professional counselors, therapists, inviting another person to journey with us as if holding a lamp, being a mirror. There is no shame to doing so. 

Yet for H. sapiens to reach our true potential, there is no simple corporate solution. It's not like you can take mankind and sit the whole lot of us down with a collective therapist. "So, can you tell me more about this feeling? Isn't it perhaps another manifestation of your fears?" 

It has occurred to me that you could look at different disciplines through this lens: If science is our collective problem-solving faculty, it is art and spirituality through which the collective consciousness engages in self-reflection and wrestles with our myths, with our convenient but damaging beliefs, at cultural and national scales. And it is my feeling that artists have a responsibility to consider this as an implicit basis of their work. 

~

*I'd hesitate to call myself a feminist, believing that men are equally oppressed by "the patriarchy" and its gender-role expectations, yada yada. Yet there is a certain smugness about most of the terms for our kind as a whole, a certain self-congratulatory connotation in words - such as "humanity", "mankind", and "man" - which i simply wish to avoid. 

To have, to be, - to document? (part 1)


Shortly after filming the "Samburis" short documentary, a question emerged in my mind. The question dredged up a recollection of Fromm's "To Have or to Be" - specifically, does the increasing permeation of our lives with documentary technology offer up yet a third mode of being, characterized neither by direct embodied experience nor possession? 

Mahmut Mutman's "Visual Technologies and Visual Narratives" course at Bilkent University offered up a heady bunch of ideas. The lectures, readings, and films explored how documentary technology, particularly film and video, changes our relationship with the world, among other things conceptualizing experience as a world-picture (Heidegger), penetrating a three-dimensional reality to open new angles of perception (Vertov), inserting itself into social relations to create a society linked by the experience of "spectacle" (Debord), and coming between an event itself and a collective "sense" of the event (Deleuze). 

All these concepts, fascinating as they were, seemed at some remove until this spring. As i engaged more fully with filmmaking i began to note how, for a documentarian, the camera eyepiece changes experience on a more personal level. Thinking back on last year's travels - Iraq, Georgia, Iceland, and Arizona in particular - i recall how the process of documenting the journey in photographs somehow diminished the journey. By contrast, between the time my camera was stolen in Diyarbakir, and the time i bought a new one in Tbilisi, the memories are somehow richer. As if i was more fully present.

For the photographer, the camera can become a barrier to full experience of the present moment; the presence of a lens between you and the subject modifies the interaction, undeniably creating a new present moment. Additionally, by recording a moment in time - as if preserving a specimen in ether - documentary technology alters one's experience of temporality. In the moment of recording, the camera becomes a rift, placing me in the future; much as later, viewing the document places me in the past. In the alleys of Ankara Citadel, the camera's presence widened the rift between low-socioeconomic inhabitant and tourist, reinforcing a dichotomy of subject and object that, surprisingly, flowed both ways. 

So it is that i ask: Is there a way to engage in documentary creative process while remaining in the present moment? The camera, the movie camera, they come between me and the unfolding moment. Is there another layer, on the other side of this experiential rift where, mindful of the technology's influence on the reality being created, the technology becomes almost a dance partner? Unlike fiction, where the auteur's objective is to create the story's "reality" from scratch, this question seems particularly important to the documentary style: how does one document an extant, authentic reality even as the documentary process is altering the context of that reality? 

In our age of world picture, youtube and iPhone, the balance of living and documenting in the moment begins to shift. As a sometimes-filmmaker, i question the more subtle internal effects of my work both on self and on my species. In the twenty-first century, will viewing come to replace doing? When we are intent on capturing the "real life" around us, do we lose our own? Does the democratization of documentary technology imply a mode of existence characterized neither by having nor being - but by documenting and passively observing? 

07 September, 2011

Contra choreography: Simple physics versus conditioning


When i started writing "Soul Reversal", i didn't know what a becket-indecent formation would be; in fact, i don't think i've seen another becket-indecent dance. It began with the simple thought to combine a circle left > circle right progression (which i fell in love with thanks to Rick Mohr's dance "Night Sail") with a melt-into-waves. Having danced "Soul Reversal" at Pinewoods American week, i can safely say that if a dance flows intuitively enough, an odd starting formation will disappear into the background. Tricky end effects are far more formidable an enemy. And dancers, it seems, appreciate the juxtaposition of intuitive flow and unconventional choreography. 

But close on the heels of that feedback came the challenge of composing an auctioned-off dance to follow it. Now, i'm not one of those computer-programmer caller types whose mind can think in matrices, plug in discrete sequences, and solve a dance choreography problem in seconds flat. Instead, i painstakingly diagram, scribble, and erase for hours. The dry-erase board is my best friend. This approach isn't exactly efficient, but gradually i'm building an inner database of transitions between moves, and the process becomes simpler. 

Paying attention along the way has taught me a lot about how various moves interact, and dictate the sequence of a dance, leading me to believe there's a lot of unbroken ground yet to explore. By changing something simple - gents lead a move traditionally led by the ladies, or vice versa - new choreographic ground is opened up. However, this unbroken ground seems to have two distinct reasons for being unbroken: simple physics, and conditioning.

First, the case of biostatistics and simple physics. Why is "ladies roll the gents away" so rare? Because, quite honestly, it's terribly unsatisfying. The height/mass differences between average male and female Homo sapiens dictate that a male rolling a female away will generate more momentum than a female rolling a male. Physics doesn't change much from one type of dance venue to another, or from small rural events to dance weekends. 

In the other case, unbroken ground results from an absence of innovation, or perhaps an excess of conditioning to just one way of doing a move. An extreme example: anti-clockwise swings feel absolutely bizarre, and do not exist - yet there is no underlying mechanical reason*. We just do so much clockwise swinging. Because of the sheer volume of conditioning, to mirror the swing - thus allowing a segue from the circle right, and potentially alleviating overuse injury to the right knee - while entirely possible, would never catch on with dancers.

Other things, like the gents' chain, are not so far-fetched. Though more common than it once was, gents' chain is still rarely utilized. In my opinion, the courtesy turn does not suffer from the same limitations of physics that dictate who's rolling away who. Teaching a "reverse courtesy turn" is as simple as directing the gents to give ladies their right hands, and walk forward whilst the ladies back up. Reverse courtesy turn sounds odd to some people; granted. But it opens up some intriguing, and entirely doable new options for flow. I would bet there are some other such avenues to be explored.

*An afterthought. I can come up with one mechanical reason for clockwise swings: a prevalence of right-handedness may dictate that bearing ones' weight on the right side of the body is more comfortable for the majority of dancers. Testing this hypothesis would demand comparing the tolerance of anti-clockwise (mirrored) swings between right- and left-handed dancers. 

31 May, 2011

Finding Sambūris


A couple years ago, i tried to win a travel internship with STA travel, blogging and vlogging a trip around the world. I worked with what i had handy to home; for the first round video, buddy Ryan took me out for my first spin on a snowmobile. In retrospect, in a pool of hyperactive younger folks, the video would have fared better had we shot me gleefully squeezing the throttle, put me in front of the camera - but that's not where i am most comfortable. 

At any rate, another friend (thanks Emin!) helped me jump the gun on a second-round submission just in case mine was among the twenty selected. We walked Boston, along the way meeting friends who gave me challenges. Silly ones, of course, like eating octopus or doing a Turkish soccer chant, things any world traveler should be capable of, right? Josie - a globetrotting Kiwi i met on that trip, who stood in Harvard Square and devilishly challenged me to do a split - somehow keeps popping into my life. And it is to her i owe this current project. 

Six weeks ago or so, she posted something on my facebook: World Nomads documentary video scholarship contest. The prize, a trip to northern Australia and mentorship from National Geographic filmmaker Trent O'Donnell. The challenge: a three-minute video themed "local encounters". Good luck. 

~

Despite all the traveling i did in 2010, i had no footage to work with. No new nifty narratives nagged at my thoughts. I was at a loss, until at the New England Folk Festival i did an unscheduled stint as a stage hand. The young dancers of Sambūris - Boston's Lithuanian dance ensemble - had an energy that captured my imagination. The more i thought about them, the more i wondered how this dance, how these costumes and traditions fit into the rest of their lives. It triggered bigger questions about the relevance of folk traditions and about growing up with a strong ethnic identity in America. Aha! Documentary subject found. The group's leader, Ruta Mackunis, gladly replied my inquiries, and i scrambled to film their final rehearsal and performance before the summer hiatus.


Now, the most interesting things unfold outside the frame. While i was in Boston shooting the micro-doc, i couchsurfed with a fellow whose childhood had revolved around the same sort of ethnic activities: Ukranian folk dance, Ukranian school, Unkranian Boy Scout. We discussed the differences in how various immigrant groups maintain and express ethnic identity in the U.S. today. Through conversation it became apparent how waves of immigration and their sociohistorical context, particularly the pressures on an ethnic group before emigration, and the race relations they face upon arrival, shape that expression. Some communities arrived diffusely; others, planning to stay only temporarily, at times recruited by corporate interests as imported labor, formed tight nuclei of their native culture. Caught between annexation by the Soviet Union and invasion by Nazi Germany, Lithuanians, i learned, fought hard to keep their language and culture from being erased. Perhaps it was that mid 20th-century struggle which positioned the culture to persist so strongly in diaspora. 


Sofia and Marius, the two dancers who became interview subjects, added another dimension to the experience. Have your non-Lithuanian friends seen you in costume? i asked. They live parallel lives, as Sofia put it, but Lithuanian identity is central to them, a matter of pride despite its "nerdy" aspects. It's not confined to weekends, to scouting or church or Lithuanian school. It shows up wherever yellow, green, and red do - even the cards left in your hand playing Uno. 

It's a sad fact, though: the best moments always happen when the camera is off. Marius confessed he eats the purple and orange Skittles first. Sofia reflected on her service trip to Lithuania, echoing something my couchsurfing host expressed: after being steeped in tradition outside the homeland, seeing how little of it remained inside the homeland came as a little shock, a disconnect. "We got there, and i found myself thinking, 'Why aren't you as into your culture as we are?'"  Our unfolding encounter brought up a deeper and more interesting idea: how “Lithuanianized” these youth are compared to their peers in an increasingly Americanized homeland. 


With all this attention to maintaining and transmitting the tradition, i asked Sofia, do you see yourself marrying a Lithuanian guy? Yes, she answered. Every four years, during Šokių Šventė, two thousand dancers from around the globe - Lithuania, and communities in the U.S., Canada, and Australia - converge, filling a stadium with the swirl of traditional costumes. It's great fun, she said, with everybody staying in the same hotels - and added, "we all joke we've seen our husbands before, we just don't know who they are." 

In 2012, the dancers of Sambūris don't have to travel far. Boston will host the 14th Šokių Šventė.

~

Meanwhile, the three minute doc is in the can. It's online here - please share, "like", and "tweet" up a storm! More info on the scholarship contest at worldnomads.com. 

06 April, 2011

Parsvottonasana in North Station


That title might sound pretentious; really, i hope it doesn't. Parsvottonasana is just a more colorful way to say pyramid pose....

I spent a fair share of time waiting in 2010 - in metro stations, train stations, bus stations, airports - more than seventeen cities in seven countries. Lately i've seen the ones closer to home; as i more actively seek cultural enrichment, Amtrak's Downeaster from Portland to Boston becomes a familiar ride. 

Last weekend i trekked south to attend the MIT European Short Film Festival (i'll write about a couple films which stood out, elsewhere). After a whirlwind day and night working from a cafe in the North End, watching films sometimes emotionally challenging, and catching the last trains from Cambridge to a friend's couch in Malden, i stood weary and bleary in North Station. Just to rub it in, the Downeaster was delayed by a freight train stuck on the tracks. The train scheduled for turnaround departure at 11:10 wouldn't arrive until almost noon. 

Now, North Station is decidedly a commuter terminal. The ratio of seating to passenger numbers is fairly low, and there are no electrical outlets, few amenities for long-term waiting. I half considered buying a magazine, but something told me to detox, not to ingest more psychic baggage. Thus it was i stripped to jeans, tee, and socks and began doing yoga in the middle of the station. 

In the past month i've been attending a yoga class. Yoga is one of those things so rewarding, yet sometimes difficult to get into without a community of practice - and the more i practice, the more it is the practice itself i come to enjoy. After a few years of dabbling, yoga to me is no longer about the physical benefits of flexibility, strength, or stress relief, no longer a means to an end; it is about the mindful union of breath and movement, a meditation bringing spirit and body to one. What one achieves in the practice neither exceeds nor fails to meet expectations; expectations are the biggest obstacle to finding your true limits. 

As i eased through warrior two and into triangle and reverse triangle poses, i could feel awkward gazes turn towards me. I could feel the gaze of people thinking about their own bodies - "i could never do that. i wonder how he does it?" and the quick glances of others taking studiously little notice. Those thoughts arose and flowed away like autumn leaves carried by a stream, and i found the sensation of being watched drive me, in both physical and spiritual aspects, deeper into the poses. In class my eyes wander, comparing my form to others'; here, in the train station, attentiveness to the pose drowned out that sense of being watched, as in difficult poses when the instructor's voice enjoins, "our breath is louder than our thoughts." Deep in practice, i didn't notice an MBTA security police woman watching until she spoke. "You can't do that in here." 

I did my best to peaceably inquire why, and she said, "because someone might trip over you when you're doing those push-ups." I brokered a solution: sticking to standing poses. 

As i resumed practicing, a little voice grumbled on about how Americans are such sheeple just sitting their lost in their iPods, how our litigious society has absolutely no tolerance for personal risk when another party could be held remotely responsible, how North Station ought to have proper waiting amenities, a day check for baggage, and on and on. The same little voice that's always telling me i'll never be what i hope to be, always reminding me of shortcomings, beating my body up for what it simply can't do. 

~

One foot in front of the other, about a foot-length apart. Hands on the hips, or in reverse namaste, behind the back. Bend forward from the waist, reaching your chest - not your forehead - toward your knees. "Pyramid pose is our gratitude pose," the instructor says, and i wobble in assent. "As we bow forward we give thanks for all the good people in our lives. We thank our bodies for what they allow us to do." We give thanks for delayed trains and reasonable security officers. 

We give thanks for what our bodies allow us to do. 

Whenever i get discouraged now, that has become my mantra. It's a simple way of remembering that one has a conscious choice whether or not to let the good in life outweigh the bad. Pyramid pose is more than a profound challenge to one's sense of physical balance. It's a very good way to wait for a train. 




19 March, 2011

Globalisation!

Small potatoes in the world of internet stats, i suppose, but Rambling Wejak has had 1,534 visitors from 64 different countries.

When writing shrivels to drivel, you know it's time to take a sabbatical. I'm currently working on some new posts, seeking creative inspiration, and attentive to the development of other writing projects that have simmered in my head for years - and also beginning to check out graduate programs.

Here in Maine, the dirt roads are alternating between frozen and muck, and maple syrup season is winding down. Hoping all my visitors and regular readers are enjoying the slow unfolding of spring as it greets them - or, if you're south of the equator, warm and dry in the autumn!

14 January, 2011

127 Hours


(aka geeking out on nature, experiences of sacredness, screenwriting and visual storytelling technique, phenomenology of perception, film as an empathic and synesthetic medium, et cetera)

Ever since October, when i noticed advance publicity for Danny Boyle's new film, i was determined to see it. Between "Slumdog Millionaire" and the new film's soundtrack (featuring A.R. Rahman and Sigur Ros), and story (closely based on climber Aron Ralston's autobiographic account "Between a Rock and a Hard Place"), i was sold; the trailer alone made me choke up. I figure that to truly experience a film, one has to see it in the medium it was designed for; story gains power from size, and a protagonist's actions have a keener impact on the silver screen than the LCD. (Maybe images on small screens are so ubiquitous they've lost their "magic", while the big screen remains a more singular experience?) So, having missed its two-week run an hour from home, i went all the way to Boston to catch it, still clinging tenaciously in limited release ten weeks after it opened.

(Here's the U.S. trailer. The international trailer is better, but includes almost exclusively material from the first twenty minutes of the film.)

Chronicling the five days Ralston (played by James Franco) spent with his arm trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall, the film faced an interesting challenge: like Ralston, once trapped, the story doesn't have much room to move.

In screenwriting terms, a film can draw energy from any of three sources of conflict: intrapersonal (vs. oneself, which is particularly tough to dramatize), interpersonal, and extrapersonal (vs. 'nature' or society). These three feed and accentuate each other - for example, interpersonal events can be either an antecedent or consequence of a character's internal conflict. In "127 Hours", antagonism supplied by the elements - the boulder which trapped him, the danger of hypothermia,  lack of water, flash floods, et cetera - serves to punctuate Ralston's intrapersonal battle. And, since for the majority of the story Ralston is alone, his ordeal is punctuated by fantasy and memory sequences allowing short forays into the more familiar interpersonal realm. A slot-canyon flash flood cuts to Ralston standing at his ex-girlfriend's door in a soaking downpour; images blurred by water on the lens blur the distinction between Ralston's actual state pinned beneath a flood and his rising tide of memories. This is one of several sequences which help stoke Ralston's internal conflict. Yet compared to similar films in which nature and the elements figure prominently, the challenge here is that, even more than "Into the Wild" (where a backstory unfolding in parallel supplies interpersonal motives for McCandless's flight from society) or the more documentary "Touching the Void" (about a climber who has to cut his incommunicative partner's line in order to himself survive), Ralston's story relies far more heavily on interior experience. 

One of the joys of Tom Ford's "A Single Man" was its stream-of-consciousness style, a difficult thing to pull off well. While Boyle's film failed to master that technique as naturally, a partial stream-of-consciousness approach served to visualize objects normally unnoticed, expanding the viewer's traditional quasi-omniscient perspective as often as it windowed the protagonist's mind. Using techniques from the horror genre in novel ways, recurring images and extreme close-ups - particularly camera angles depicting the inside of a nalgene bottle or camelbak siphon - foreshadowed the growing threat of dehydration and the physical revulsion of drinking one's own urine. Other sequences underscored the immensity of Canyonlands in relation to one trapped hiker. (One of the best was a mind's-eye sequence running in extreme fast-forward from Ralston's eye to an orange soda in the cooler in his truck 17.3 miles away.) 

Ultimately, the challenge Boyle faced in tackling "man vs. boulder" was the need to work with subtler material. Heartbreak, betrayal, anger, and romantic affection are familiar ground; we're accustomed to resonating with them. Abstract experience and physiological states are tougher to communicate. How do you convey feelings of insignificance? Thirst? What about a sense of wonder, of contemplating the meaning of your own mortality, feeling your place in the universe? Of truly relishing fifteen minutes of sunlight? Can a visual medium adequately convey the sensory experience of dry lips, or the smoothness of sandstone beneath your fingers? What about the resonance of another living creature's presence? 

One bit of film trivia regards a raven that routinely passed over the slot canyon. It might be an artifact of my own experiences with ravens - long hours alone in a Christmas tree field, hearing their language of croaks, and the wind through their feathers in moments of perfect silence; it may be a function of reading Bernd Heinrich's works and recognizing in the raven manifestations of mind, of a kindred intelligence. Whatever the case, the bird's first appearance on screen was an arresting moment. Due to Aron Ralston's script feedback, however, his closest encounter with the bird is omitted; more precisely, in the film, the bird is replaced by an inflatable Scooby-Doo.

I can understand the choice - to replace an image which became nearly sacred to Ralston, an image of the only psychically resonant being with whom he shared that ordeal, with a more mundane, profane one. (I am tempted to write "sentient being", though that term is arguable from either side: some might deny ravens are sentient, while others would extend sentience to include all beings - including the ants, flies, and lizard that appear his slot canyon.) All i can say is that being aware of this visual "euphemism" changes the meaning of the scene, perhaps of the text as a whole, and increases its power. 

Another principal challenge of retelling Ralston's story is lack of surprise. When i mentioned planning to travel to Boston for the film, a friend remarked that "you know what happens." With Ralston's ordeal and minor fame a recent matter, and chronicled in a well-known book, Boyle knew he was telling the story of "the trapped climber who amputates his own arm." Big surprise. Film buzz focused instead on a single question: could viewers handle the grisly climax or not? 

There's little danger of spoiling the ending by saying i winced when Ralston deliberately breaks his ulna and radius, then uses the smallest blade on his multi-tool to tear away forearm flesh until he can free himself. I would argue that even more than the Normandy landing in Speilberg's "Saving Private Ryan", the amputation scene in "127 Hours" was difficult to watch because the gore depicted was more personal and inescapable. Contrasting the two scenes' positions in the arc of their film is also notable.

As screenwriter Amnon Buchbinder puts it, the protagonist serves as a "driver's seat" for the audience, and the power of a film often depends on how fully the audience can occupy that seat and agonize (or exult) with their onscreen surrogate. If a film fully engages our capacity for empathic experience - literally, to experience something happening to another - the onscreen action may become almost immediate. (Think for a second about what immediate means, and the paradox that implies. Despite the presence of mediating factors - actors, director, and the myriad media technologies employed in filmmaking - film is capable of transcending these and communicating experiences with a sense of immediacy, of putting us in the driver's seat.)

One potentially powerful tool at the filmmaker's disposal is synaesthesia. In "The Spell of the Sensuous" (a meditation on the phenomenology language and embodied perceptual experience), David Abrams defines synaesthesia as the fusion of sensory pathways (typically considered separate from each other) in a single embodied experience. With two senses, sight and sound, engaged, can a filmmaker trigger other senses to join the ride? Remembering childhood trips to the Mugar Omni theater at Boston's Museum of Science tells me yes. At least on that enveloping imax screen, the right camera motion could produce the same kinesthetic leap of your stomach as a quick drop on a roller coaster. (Again, screen size amplifies the film's sensory impact.) And it is notable that Boyle spends much of "127 Hours" playing with synaesthesia: as Ralston's hands run across the smooth sandstone, do you, in some subtle way, find your sense of touch engaged by the image?

So back to the climactic moment, as blood-soaked but determined Ralston gouges away his own flesh. Averting my eyes didn't hack it. Stabs of distorted electric guitar provided a sucker-punch. Sound, remember, is a form of touch; it can be painful. Boyle succeeded in activating not only empathy, but also my damnable autonomic nervous system. I had to leave the theater momentarily.

Despite this, no, because of it, the film was worthwhile. It isn't often that a film appealing particularly to the "Outside" and "Backpacker" magazine audience hits theaters, and the limited release of "127 hours" proves why. It's risky for an artist to invest commercial success and the financial and creative liberty it at times commands into a more experimental and personally resonant work, but i'm grateful Boyle did. Yes, the film has weak moments; especially the scene when Ralston is first trapped (before the story gathers emotional momentum), feels too re-enacted. By contrast, a scene where Franco outright nails a dialogue between a mocking imaginary talk show host and repentant, reflective Ralston shimmers with the odd juxtaposition of comic acting and grave realisation. Boyle alternates between third-person perspective and Ralston's own camcorder image, an odd act of self-observation, accentuating the scene.  

Making art implies an encounter between content and form; Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that real style consists of a failure of content to fit within established form and the unique compromises an artist makes in the attempt of expression. Marrying pop-film sensibilities and art-film experimentation, Boyle is establishing a rather interesting style indeed.

Many thanks to Daniel Rosensweig for a couch to crash on and company to see the film with! I'd also like to acknowledge the influence of a semester at Bilkent University - namely classes with Mahmut Mutman and Genevieve Appleton - along with Eric Gallandt's skepticism and Marcus Collado's extracurricular reading, in making this a particularly rich movie-watching experience. 

On a snow day, Boston-bound



After an embarrassing combination of tardiness and technology-user failure at the Maine Ag Trades Show kept me from showing a video i'd produced for the occasion, i knew the change of pace i'd wanted was even more necessary. An evening with a true friend provided much-needed soul food, and with a last minute couch to surf in Boston, i braved the snow to drive at a nerve-fraying crawl. A quick accounting - between parking ($3/day in Portland; an expensive, infernal headache in Boston), gas and tolls, the train was decidedly more economical than driving, even in good weather.

The Downeaster, providing service from Portland to Boston, was running right on schedule, and it's a day like this that both makes me more grateful than usual for the train and, against the treacherous highway, proves its worth as a mass transit system. Packed with Celtics fans bound for Boston Garden, the afternoon train slid smoothly through a snow-covered landscape; Old Orchard Beach was particularly beautiful. Across the aisle, a man and his young son played cribbage. All around me, i could feel the snow had shaken up people's original plans. While plow-truck drivers had some extra work (i suppose an economic boon to them), the storm inspired blase cable news accounts and, more appreciably, spread a delightful, fluffy white spontaneity. 

One concern poked through, though. As i rode the train, working (yes! more on-task than i am at home; that was the whole point of this trip), i noticed the phantom burning smell that seemed to be following me wherever i went. Felt a little slow when i finally put together the burnt-toast odor and my fraying laptop charger cord. 

In Boston, i excercised the theory that the closer you get to a destination, the higher a percentage of the population are familiar with your destination and the more detailed directions you can procure. For example, a couple students in a Beacon Hill doorway could tell me the Apple store was on Boylston Street - and added, fun fact, it's the second-largest Apple retail store in the world, after the Shanghai location. At the Boylston T stop, an attendant told me to get off at Copley. Then at Copley, a woman supplied which direction to walk in. At last, at Apple's "genius bar", an employee pleasantly surprised me by replacing the charger at no cost. At the Starbucks nearby, a barista gave me herbal tea on the house. So, things were quite nice, and i could look forward to what i really came for….