Possessed by Violence: Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising is a complex and violent film, full of beautiful, savage images and scant dialogue. What actually happens onscreen?

Nicolas Winding Refn‘s brutal tour-de-force Valhalla Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute killing machine owned by a Norse Chieftain. The Chieftain keeps him caged, barely seeing to his physical needs and trotting him out to fight to the death for money. He’s an impressive warrior, driven by a massive interior rage. Nameless, voiceless, and one-eyed, he sees visions, which help him to rebel and murder the Chieftain and his band, claiming his own freedom. A young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who fed him while he was a prisoner follows him, seeing that this strong man is the only hope he has for survival in a wild world in which he no longer has a home. This unlikely duo quickly meets up with a band of Christian converts who are embarking for the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. Thanks to a twist of fate and a mysterious mist, they end up in the New World instead, where the morale and the newfound faith of the Christians shatter in the face of indigenous hostility and internal doubt and betrayal, while the fighter, dubbed One-Eye, undergoes a profound transformation.

This film has a great deal to say about the ambiguity of belief and the difficulty of conversion and change. It’s a bleak piece, but honest and not without a measure of hope. The main difficulty is in cracking the code and finding a way into Refn’s nonverbal language. This post is designed to delve into that language and is filled with spoilers, so I recommend watching the film first. It takes some time to digest. I’ll also admit that the ambiguity in the script leaves room for different interpretations. I would love to hear what you see.

3aa812c4197aea05e5a94c7daaf66595.png

In Norse legend, the head god Odin, also known as Wotan, forfeited one of his eyes to gain the ability to see the future. He also possessed wanderers, pouring his essence into their bodies and guiding them with his ability to see visions. We learn that One-Eye is a drifter who never remains in one place for more than five years. Odin was also a god of warlike frenzy, the kind of madness that grips One-Eye when he is faced with an opponent. As the Chieftain says, “He is driven by hate. It’s how he survives and it’s why he never loses.” For now.

The irony is that having foresight does not convey the ability to change fate, only the opportunity to take advantage of it and prepare for it. As the film progresses, we are privy to One-Eye’s visions. The screen becomes suffused in red and he seems to look out at another image of himself, curiously not a mirror image, as the absent eye stares directly at its reflection rather than being faced by a good eye. We are then treated to short clips of the next pivotal moment in One-Eye’s future, such as the finding of a lost spearhead in a pool of water– a spearhead which he will later use to escape– or his own death at the hands of native people armed with clubs.

0848.jpg

If One-Eye is a vehicle for Odin, how do we interpret the interactions he has with other characters and the roles they represent in this grim allegory?

valhalla_rising05

We have the Norsemen: violent people, afraid of the rumors of Christians coming to kill them and take their land. But it isn’t the Christians that destroy these warlords, it is the violence that they have capitalized on for many long years, symbolized by One-Eye, the surrogate of Odin. Odin has not chosen to favor the money-grubbing, cruel Norse elite, but a middle-aged slave who kills to survive, an underdog.

2348.jpg

The next group One-Eye falls in with are the Christians. Their leader invites One-Eye to travel with them, as they could really use a killer like him to destroy infidels so that they may proclaim Christianity victorious. In return, they offer the killer salvation and forgiveness, not realizing he is an embodiment of a god they seek to destroy. These men are on their way to the Holy Land, searching for fortune and glory, which they don’t recognize as profoundly unholy things. At their core they are no different from the Norse, clinging to violence as a means of asserting control. While they may have been converted in name, they remain loveless and bloodthirsty. When the boat becomes mired in a windless mist, they revert to superstition and believe the boy traveling with One-Eye must be bringing a curse on them. As they fall on the boy in an attempt to kill him, One-Eye unleashes his lethal force to assert his dominance and save his young friend’s life.

2048.jpg

As the mist clears, the travelers find they have sailed up the mouth of a river and are nowhere near the Holy Land. Some of the group believe they are in Hell, and that they have been taken there by One-Eye. Perhaps Odin was looking for new territory? The group’s tenuous grip on reality begins to disintegrate, perhaps infected by Odin’s madness, fear at their isolation, or by something in the mud of the riverbed. The Christians turn on one another in terrible ways, and, after constructing a cairn, One-Eye sets off with the boy on his heels. Cairns are a way of marking where you have been, for yourself and for other travelers. Who is it that Odin/One-Eye expects to follow him? Two of the Christians try to come along, but one has been mortally wounded by his best friend and the other has lost his father and cannot go on without him. Although they do not survive, these men seem to find peace, perhaps because they are hanging on to their human relationships and their compassion. All the same, death is neither easy nor beautiful.

As One-Eye and the boy reach the seashore, hoping somehow to go back home, they encounter a group of natives. These fellows have already been featured in One-Eye’s final vision, the vision of his own death. Are they enemies, or are they followers, new converts to an undetermined religion? It seems that Odin is about to use One-Eye to transform himself into the archetype of the dying god, or, perhaps, One-Eye’s hatred has finally run out. In a most Christlike and uncharacteristic fashion, One-Eye looks lovingly at the boy, reaches out to touch him, then turns and walks meekly to the native people, who raise their clubs and beat him to death. We have one last vision of One-Eye/Odin, free of his body, his spirit overseeing the scene of his own sacrifice, his journey to the New World complete. The boy looks out at the sea, knowing he can never go home, his fate uncertain.

valhalla-rising-scene.jpg

The relationship between One-Eye and the boy drives the film. They have some sort of understanding, perhaps even a telepathic connection, as the boy is able to speak for One-Eye, who is completely mute. They are fellow travelers and sufferers and they care about each other. It is this caring that transforms gods and mortals alike into something more worthy and admirable.

Valhalla Rising makes the case that these Pagans and Christians alike are cruel men, born in a cruel time, trying to exert their cultural dominance over one another. The Christians are stand-ins for the Crusaders, who, when they could no longer sustain a “Holy War” in Palestine, turned to the Americas and brought their honed taste for torture and death with them, still doing horrors in the name of God. No creed will save humanity. The only hope is that we may be transformed and redeemed by love and compassion.

I am reminded of a verse from the Bible, I John 4:8,  which states that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The people that know God are not always the people you would expect. They are the people that, in the end, choose love, not violence, even if that means their own death.Valhalla-Rising.jpg

Yearning for Catharsis: The Transitory Sound and Movement Collective

When we get caught up in evaluating performance, life, and art, become uninspired. How do we refresh our vision?

I found my seat in the darkened room. A soundless film was projected upon the bare wall and musicians waited in the darkness at the sides of the space. Soon, low electronic sounds began to enter that space, building slowly and steadily, and a dancer began to unfold herself into the light and shadow. The musicians phased in, bathing the room with a matrix of vibrations, living sounds. Something about the way the sound resonated in the room and within my own body reminded me of a session with a friend who plays therapeutic gong. It wasn’t about notes. It wasn’t about narrative. It was about vibration, vision and motion.

The first time I encountered the Transitory Sound and Movement Collective, it took me a solid twenty minutes to slow down enough to shed the excitement and yes, the anxiety and disorientation, that I felt in order to connect with the piece. One is accustomed to a story, or least a framework and purpose that one can perceive. One is used to evaluating the execution of those things. This is a different kind of experience, a physical encounter with sound and how it moves us, not far removed from meditation. I was lucky to have this experience twice last month. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing TSMC again in a few days and enjoying the Zen-like atmosphere these artists create with through the vulnerability of improvisation.

Founder Lynn Lane is an important force here in Houston. He is quite probably the busiest arts photographer in town, shooting performances all over the city: dance, music, theatre. He’s shot me as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus many, many times. But we had never met until my friend Julia Fox invited me to Echoes of Solitude in Grand Central, Transitory Sound and Movement‘s February show at the Rec Room, a new and exciting venue here in Houston that supports local artists with their Artist Residency Program and inexpensive rentals. I didn’t know what to expect, and that always peaks my interest.

Echoes of Solitude featured Ron Kiley’s film of foot traffic through Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Travelers moved through the frame, becoming solid and “real” only when they paused in their walking. In front of this visual offering, dancer AJ Garcia-Rameau and singer Julia Fox moved. Lane provided a matrix of electronic sound and field recording into which Fox and the instrumental musicians could enter, meander and exit, just as the film’s travelers had done physically in Grand Central. Ben Roidl-Ward (bassoon), Emily Nelson (flute/piccolo), Emmy Tisdel (violin/viola) and Caitlin Mehrtens (harp) occupied the shadowed edges of the performance space. The interaction of the aural, visual and physical planes, as well as that of the pre-recorded and the improvised, created a sense of being together and yet being apart, a feeling of loneliness within a group. The work rose and then receded, leaving a feeling of peacefulness, like the calm after a storm.

Echoes of Solitude capitalized on catharsis, the healing element in music and art, which seems often to suffer from our desire to evaluate and sometimes even from our desire to understand. I knew then and there that I wanted to see more. Luckily, there was a private loft performance the following weekend which I was able to experience as well, a different piece with many of the same musicians and familiar, yet different elements. The second time I was swept up immediately. This healing music is habit forming.

TSMC - Rehearsal Photo - Photographer - Lynn Lane - WEB-1

Rehearsal for Untitled: Darkness and Light in Eight, photo credit: Lynn Lane            

I wholeheartedly recommend Untitled: Darkness and Light in Eight, the next show presented by the Transitory Sound and Movement Collective at the Rec Room on Tuesday, March 14th. TSMC is presenting a new piece there each month and I can’t wait to see where they will go next. Please follow these artists on the group Facebook page.

 

Deciphering the Dream: Robert Altman’s 3 Women

Dreams allow symbols, objects and personalities to form fluid associations. Can their suspension of reality help us understand our lives?

bf612f5785c453edd2d32866b514a54b.jpg

Robert Altman was having a terrible day. He had argued with Warner Brothers executives over decisions about his next film project and things had been said that couldn’t be unsaid. Much worse, his wife had to be taken to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital. Doctors were unsure she would survive. In a few minutes of fitful sleep, Altman had a dream.

He was directing Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in a film about identity theft set in the California desert. Upon waking, he jotted down a few notes and went back to sleep, eager for more details. Altman was convinced that his vision was important and wasted no time in getting approval for this new idea, as vivid as it was disjointed, from 20th Century Fox. He scouted locations in and around Palm Springs, California and signed Spacek and Duvall. Originally, he thought he would film without a screenplay, allowing the film to take an organic, dreamlike shape. That proved too daunting, so a screenplay was written before filming began, but it allowed for a great deal of improvisation, a technique to which Altman was no stranger. This would result in an eerie and disturbing masterpiece, his 1977 film 3 Women.

Initially, the plot seems deceptively simple, but the atonal musical score by Gerald Busby, Bodhi Wind’s murals, and Altman’s camera shots hint at a palpable anxiety trembling just below the surface. Pinky Rose is the new girl in town. She takes a job at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center, where she befriends Millie Lammoreaux, a trendy young woman who longs to be the center of attention. Pinky falls for Millie’s big talk, so mesmerized by this grown-up woman that she never realizes that the men Millie tries so desperately to impress can barely tolerate her. It is only after the two women become roommates that her idolization of Millie is shattered, resulting in Pinky’s attempt to commit suicide by jumping into the pool from the top floor of the apartment complex. After that incident, the reality of the dream begins to break down and the character’s personalities become increasingly fluid and unpredictable.

3women-750x400

Duvall proves adept at composing and delivering the long, rambling monologues of dating advice, unappetizing recipes and self aggrandizement that define Millie, a character both shallow and complex, annoying and compelling, while Spacek communicates Pinky’s youth and immaturity through impulsive action and body language, blowing bubbles in her Coca-Cola or downing an entire glass of beer in a matter of seconds, a feat which she follows up with some nasty belching. The camera loves Spacek’s naturalness, even when she isn’t saying anything. Janice Rule plays the third woman, Willie, a pregnant artist who owns much of the town, including the bar where the girls hang out and the Purple Sage Apartments where they live, alongside her ultra-macho husband Edgar, a washed-up Hollywood stunt double. She barely speaks, expressing herself in pointed and sullen glances and in the terrifying and grotesque murals she paints everywhere. In one of the most devastating images of the film, we see Willie lying in the bottom of a dry pool like an animal next to one of her murals. These tremendous paintings depict half-human figures engaged in angry abuse of each other. The more we see of these monstrous figures and of our three women and Edgar, the more we begin to understand that they are synonymous.

We can surmise that the three women are aspects of the same being: the child, the sexually awakened young woman and the mother. Their names are clues to this: Pinky is a childhood nickname, her name is Mildred, which is also Millie’s real name, and it doesn’t take much imagination to relate Willie to Millie. Let us consider also that this is Altman’s dream, rather than trying to envision it solely as the dream of one of the three women. Carl Jung spoke of the anima, or female personality within a male psyche, and the animus, or male personality within a female pysche. Here we have an anima that has split into three distinct personas, which are in conflict and competition with one another, but are later unified against an ultra masculine, misogynistic male figure.

Which brings us to Edgar, the flashy, yet faded, cowboy played by Robert Fortier. He is suitable neither as a love interest nor a father figure, an aging male who can’t find his place. He ignores his pregnant wife, a wife who is clearly feverish and unwell, in order to chase the skirts of younger women. Even when Willie is in labor he seeks out playmates, crying that his wife doesn’t need anyone and is perfectly able to take care of herself. He shoots, drinks, and rides motorcycles, but is ultimately a pathetic character. Whatever creative life he possessed is gone; he survives like a vampire sucking the life out of women desperate enough to fall for his ability to make them laugh. And yet he has power. When Millie threatens to call the cops on him he shrugs it off, saying that the cops are all his friends.

There is a profound distrust of authority figures in 3 Women. The female nurses all come across as masculine control freaks, varying shades of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the doctors are more interested in their reputation or their libido than their patients. After coming home from the hospital, Pinky voices to Millie her fear that she might be pregnant because the doctor was always in her room. This same doctor flirted with Millie as Pinky lay near death in her hospital bed, so we can’t be sure she isn’t correct. It might be tempting to see this as Pinky trying to appear worldly before Millie, but it is no coincidence that neither the medical community nor the police are seen as helpful to our heroines. If these women desire balance and harmony they are going to have to create it themselves.

There is a scene in which Willie shoots bullet holes through two of her smaller paintings, then turns and fires shots through the head and heart of a practice “man”. Instead of marring her own creations, as she has been doing, she takes out her frustration on the male image. It is a satisfying moment for her and for us.

4849_5

What does all this mean?

Altman’s demands had not gone over well at Warner Brothers, and it is likely he was feeling guilty over his lack of concern, real or imagined, for his wife’s health, which had allowed her to become critically ill before he made the decision to take her to the hospital. His creative side, his artistic anima, may have manifested this dream as a sort of warning to his overly aggressive and self-absorbed ego.

Male or female, we all have internalized oppression, aggression which both drives and hampers us. Creative people are often the worst offenders, beating themselves up over things that most people would overlook. Our dreams can give these forces faces: crooked policemen, cruel nurses, unethical doctors, abusive fathers or husbands. Whatever we do we must fight the emergence of a world that mirrors our nightmares. When we find these monsters manifesting in our lives, we need to resist them, whether they come from within or without. The difficulty is that oppression can morph into new shapes more quickly than we can overcome it.

There are so many symbols and details here that I have barely scratched the surface, including many opposites: the desert and pools of water, youth and age, life and death, hot and cold. What do you see?

 

 

 

 

 

The First Annual Late Summer Reading List

Looking for something to do with the rest of your summer? Here are twelve books to help pass the time.

2728527.jpg

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer/Annie Barrows, 2008

An epistolary novel, meaning it is presented as a collection of letters. Historical piece that puts a personal face on the German occupation of the small British island of Guernsey, which sits in the English Channel off the coast of France. Comic and charming at times, wistful and sad at others.

18423.jpg
The Left Hand Of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin, 1969

Ambassador Genly Ai is a visitor on the icy planet Gethen, where normal humanoids are completely gender fluid. While trying to bring Gethen into an intergalactic alliance, Ai becomes embroiled in political intrigue, finding himself in need of rescue. Perhaps more relevant now than when it was written. Unique exploration of sexuality and gender.

 

1440148
Little Fuzzy – H. Beam Piper, 1962

The “uninhabited” planet Zarathustra is owned lock, stock and barrel by the Zarathustra Mining Company, intent on exporting all of its resources. Then the colorful prospector Jack Holloway comes in contact with a small two legged creature, whom he dubs Little Fuzzy. Soon an entire community of Fuzzies comes to light, ready to fight for their home. The company will stop at nothing to protect its interests. Charming, easy read with a big message.

 
77773.jpg

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis, 1992

In the near future, historians from Oxford do their field work by time traveling into the past. Lady Schrapnell has employed most of the department to help her rebuild Coventry Cathedral as it was before the Germans bombed it during World War II, but the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a large Victorian knick-knack of some sort, remains elusive. On top of that, someone’s brought a cat from Victorian England into 2057! Hilarious and clever, with many nods to Victorian and early 20th century literature. The second book of the Oxford Time Travel Trilogy, but it stands alone nicely.

 12994515.jpg
The Shining – Steven King, 1977

Horror classic that many people haven’t read because they  have seen Kubrick’s movie and think they know too much. My advice, if you like horror: read the book AND watch the movie. They are both masterpieces in their own right, but they tell very different stories. Abusive alcoholic Jack Torrance takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Cut off from civilization with his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny, he is exploited by the hotel itself in an effort to get to access to the boy, who has special psychic abilities.

 

395040
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath, 1963

Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman trying to make her way in the world. Fearful and unsure how to make the transition from school to the workplace, she fights depression and attempts suicide. Mental illness and the modern woman’s struggle for identity and purpose are illuminated with audacious honesty.

 92644
The World to Come – Dara Horn, 2006

Benjamin Ziskind steals a painting by Marc Chagall from an art gallery wall, convinced that it hung in his childhood living room. A sprawling family saga that encompasses the persecution of Jews after the Russian Revolution, the confusion of Vietnam, the disaster of Chernobyl and modern day terrorism, as well as personal struggle, love and tragedy. Humor and a touch of magic realism derived from Jewish folktales, as well as the nonlinear narrative, keep it from being ponderous. Violence, sex and harsh language are present, but so are piety, love and spirituality.

 

 369669

The Tale of Murasaki – Liza Dalby, 2000

Gorgeous historical novel about the life of Murasaki Shikibu, 11th century poet and author of The Tale of Genji, sometimes called the world’s first novel. It dramatizes her development from a shy, idealistic daughter of a minor scholar to a master storyteller using her talents to entertain the Empress of Japan. Enchanting read. Sexuality, sensuality and the oppression of women are explored.

 3181953
The Heretic’s Daughter – Kathleen Kent, 2008

The story of Martha Carrier, one of the first women tried and put to death during the Salem Witch Trials, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah, who survived that bloody time. It presents a dark picture of the depravity of which mankind is capable, full of violence and oppression underlaid with twisted sexuality. Kathleen Kent is ten generations removed from Sarah Carrier and tells a tale that honors the memory of her ancestors.

 

2517
My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk, 1998

Four master illustrators have been selected to complete a secret book for the Ottoman Sultan, a book which strays from the traditional elements of Islamic art to include illustrations influenced by western style. Elegant the gilder is now dead, his body rotting in the bottom of a well. The murderer is one of the other three, but which one? Religious and political intrigue in Istanbul, illuminated by incredible insight into Islamic art, history and culture.

 

  15819028

The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker, 2013

Two “monsters”, a Jewish Golem and an Arab Jinn, each find themself in New York City at the end of the 19th century, hiding their identity from everyone around them. Will their contrasting natures and cultures destroy each other, or will they be able to confide and trust one another in order to defeat the evil, violent man that comes to possess and use them? Fusing the riveting stories of immigrants, full of hardship and sweetness, with fantasy and mythology creates a fascinating and perceptive novel.

 

334598
Dance Dance Dance – Haruki Murakami, 1988

A surreal journey that begins when a commercial writer returns to a seedy hotel where he once stayed with a lover, only to find it transformed into a fancy western-style palace. There is something waiting for him there, guiding him as he attempts to salvage the pieces of his life and forge valid human relationships. Sexuality, gender and violence are integral to the plot, which inhabits the darker side of humanity, delving into prostitution, rape, murder and suicide. Mystery, science fiction and satire rolled into a dreamscape searching for the meaning of life.

Revealing the Internal Voice: Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man

woman-510480_960_720.jpg

 

If our internal dialogues were revealed, what would the world learn? None of us could bear that kind of scrutiny. We are each far more wonderful and far more horrible than anyone could imagine. Thankfully, in A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood supplies us with the internal dialogues of a fictional character. George may not be an actual person, but Isherwood writes him with such brutal honesty that his struggles, fantasies and vicissitudes read as painful and as poignant as our own, perhaps even more so because they have been crystallized on paper.

 “Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face-the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man-all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us-we have died-what is there to be afraid of?
It answers them: But that happened so gradually, so easily. I’m afraid of being rushed.”

man-1455433_960_720

 

I have to admit that I didn’t take to George, or to this novel, right away. He haunted me for a solid week after I finished the book, winning me over gradually. A fifty-eight year old gay British expatriate and college professor in the 1960s, George is fussy, irritable, repressed and sometimes downright unpleasant. His dislike for many of those around him, especially the neighborhood children, startled me until I acknowledged that I have similar judgemental thoughts, especially at my more vulnerable moments. Cynicism, a valid reaction to disappointment, feels a lot more attractive than it looks. He fantasizes that he is Uncle George, head of a terrorist network that takes down people who ought to be killed. He has inappropriate sexual thoughts about people around him. These things are embarrassing, uncomfortable and part of being a human being. They lie intertwined with better moments: George’s assertion that Jim was not a substitute for anything and that there is no substitute for Jim, his loyalty to his friends, his desire to see the common man educated and liberated, his forward looking racial sensitivity and hope for a better world, his concern for his students, his desire to live. It is scary to do what Isherwood has done, to remove the filters and barriers we rely on in daily life: propriety, compassion, shame, silence, to name just a few, and gaze inside the human being. Sometimes our filters get in the way of living an authentic life; sometimes they make authentic life possible.

“Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them!”
The world around him may not know it, but George is deeply depressed. His beloved Jim, with whom he shared a home and a menagerie of pets, has been killed in a car crash across the country. He is a complete wreck, but as a gay man in the 1960s, George doesn’t have many people in which to confide. He imagines that his neighbors see him as a monster, the men branding him queer while the woman find him a creature to be pitied. He is sure that his students either hold him in distant professorial esteem or write him off as an old fogey. His fellow teachers are stars of their own stories, wrapped up in their own realities. Who else? There’s Doris, now terminally ill, who once made love to Jim and remains a tentative, though somewhat repulsive, link to him. Perhaps his best bet is Charlotte, middle aged and divorced, a fellow Brit, drinking buddy and survivor, but her preoccupation with her own problems makes her hard to take. He is desperately in need of human connection. On this day we will see him try to reach out; we will see him fail and succeed. And we will be struck that none of it is enough.

pexels-photo-large

As you read his thoughts, you come to understand that George has lived a life that doesn’t come close to portraying an accurate picture of who he is, a life that has kept him from recognizing the commonalities he shares with the people around him. He’s much sillier and much more tragic. He’s not alone, either. As you think about George, you may come to realize that much about your life doesn’t reflect who you are, even if you do strive for authenticity. Every person that you think you know, even yourself, is, to a large degree, fictional. It reminds me of a line from the film Miller’s Crossing, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.” We are all mysteries. And yet are we not more similar, and more connected than we think?

“Up the coast a few miles north, in a lava reef under the cliffs, there are a lot of rock pools. You can visit them when the tide is out. Each pool is separate and different, and you can, if you are fanciful, give them names, such as George, Charlotte, Kenny, Mrs. Strunk. Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness – so to speak – are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures co-exist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And, throughout the day of the ebb tide, they know no other.
But that long day ends at last; yields to the night-time of the flood. And, just as the waters of the ocean come flooding, darkening over the pools, so over George and the others in sleep come the waters of that other ocean; that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present, and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars. We may surely suppose that, in the darkness of the full flood, some of these creatures are lifted from their pools to drift far out over the deep waters. But do they ever bring back, when the daytime of the ebb returns, any kind of catch with them? Can they tell us, in any manner, about their journey? Is there, indeed, anything for them to tell – except that the waters of the ocean are not really other than the waters of the pool?”
 

Burying the Beloved: Love and Loss in Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles

What would you do if the love of your life was taking on something that you knew would kill them?

Homer’s Iliad is a mainstay of western culture, one of the first epics to be written down in that tradition. So why read a novel that retells part of that story when everyone knows how it ends?

Well, for one thing, as poetic and action filled as Homer’s great epic is, it is far removed from modern western thought and our desire for character development. The heroes are writ large as befits a story soaked in myth and other characters don’t get much time in the light at all. What we get are wooden symbols, splendid puppets, rather than individuals. There is space for a rich tapestry of personal stories not fleshed out in the original and Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles has fixed on a gripping one– the enigmatic relationship between the tragic Greek hero Achilles and his dearest friend Patroclus.

 

Akhilleus_Patroklos_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2278-1

Achilles tends the wounded Patroclus, from a Greek Vase, ca 500 BC

You probably know that Achilles dies near the end of the Trojan War. It’s quite possible that you also remember the death of Patroclus, which returns the furious Achilles to fighting after a terrible quarrel with Agamemnon. What you aren’t familiar with are all the details and personal struggle that led up to their deaths and the aesthetic value, as opposed to the violence, of their lives. You’ve probably never thought of Achilles and Patroclus as two teenage boys faced with death, armed with honor, cunning, talent and their passionate love for one another.

The novel is narrated by Patroclus, a very minor character in the Iliad, and is preoccupied with fate and the avoidance of fate, a theme that runs through Greek literature and theater. Miller is a scholar in addition to being a gifted writer (who also attended Yale drama school) and has done her homework in building characters true to the original and imbuing them with startling humanity. Her effort would surely have delighted the ear of ancient Greece while teasing out things into which they would not have delved.

490px-William_Henry_Fox_Talbot_(British_-_Bust_of_Patroclus._-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Bust of Patroclus, William Henry Fox Talbot,  ca 1846

Patroclus is the son of a minor Grecian King, and has been exiled to the court of Peleus, Achilles’ father, for accidentally killing another boy. He is spellbound by the ravishingly beautiful, intelligent and multi-talented Achilles, who is beloved and sought by everyone. Patroclus is gangly and awkward beside Aristos Achaion, best of the Greeks. But who wouldn’t be?

Despite the tendency of Patroclus toward self deprecation, which is repeatedly apparent during the novel, Achilles reciprocates his feelings. An intense relationship buds between these two young men that becomes a sexual one. It wasn’t unusual for Greek men of this era to have homosexual relationships, especially soldiers who spent so much time together. It was also fairly common for young men to “grow out” of these relationships, marry and raise children. Over the course of the novel, we see this tension move through the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, but they remain devoted to one another. Thankfully they have more time than they expect. Achilles does have a child, the monstrous Pyrrhus who appears at the end of our story, but has precious little interest in Deidameia, whom he marries in secret to please his mother and produce an heir.

329px-Thetis_Massimo.jpg

Thetis with a triton, Roman copy of Greek Marble Statue, 2nd Century BC

Perhaps the most vivid personage in the novel is Thetis, Achilles’ terrifying and powerful mother. Her shining white skin and raspy voice are inhuman for she is a goddess. She bears no love for Patroclus, whom she considers an unfit companion for her superhuman son. It is she, however, who reveals to the two boys the dire prophecy. If Achilles goes to Troy to fight he will be a great hero. He will also die there after killing the Trojan prince Hector. If he does not go to Troy he will live a long, undistinguished life. Like most mothers, Thetis tries to protect her child, but she cannot keep him from his destiny. Even Patroclus, whom Achilles loves more than anyone, cannot do that. The decision is finally made to go to Troy together. Achilles will stay away from Hector, who, after all, has done nothing to him personally. Not yet.

Watching the wheels of fate slowly roll over this couple is heartbreaking. We are mute bystanders with foreknowledge, unable to cry out a warning. It is in the moment that Patroclus, who has always been more of a healer than a warrior, goes to battle wearing Achilles’ armor, sacrificing himself to uphold his lover’s honor, that we see with shocking clarity how destiny will play out. We knew the moment would come, but nothing prepares us for how tragic it is. It is in protecting and thereby assuming equality with Achilles that Patroclus, steered by forces beyond his control, finally seals their fate. He becomes for a short time the best of the Greeks.

800px-Patroclus_corpse_MAN_Firenze.jpg

The death of Patroclus, Etruscan Alabaster Urn, 2nd Century BC

If Achilles brings out the noble and godly in Patroclus, it must be said that Patroclus brings out the merciful and human in Achilles. One cannot make choices for another, but the influence friends and lovers have over each other can change worlds. The choices Achilles and Patroclus make have repercussions for Trojans, Greeks and gods alike. They are much more than pawns pushed across a chessboard.

We all fear being separated from our loved ones by death. Sometimes this brings out our noble qualities and sometimes it makes us bitter and hateful, but it cannot cheapen the value or beauty of the lives we have been given together. There is something lasting there, even if we can’t quite name what it is, something that rings across the ages.

 

I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If you have to go, I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbor of his arms.

The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.

-Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles

 

 

 

Buried Memories: The Other Immigrants by Saba Husain

There are moments in which events in our past connect powerfully to our present. How do we express such synchronicity?

 

8090001749_f4ff11766b_z

Grand Central Terminal, 1929 © Recuerdos de Pandora with CCLicense

As human beings we move from one reality to another, crossing so many bridges that we become bridges ourselves: between countries, between cultures, between periods of time, between our own memories.

Most of the time we simply keep moving.

Sometimes synchronicity, the meaningful connection between seemingly unrelated events, stops us in our tracks and asks us to reevaluate and reinterpret how we see our lives and their connection to others around us. The Other Immigrants by Saba Husain is a revealing expression of one of those moments.

Passing through the soaring architecture of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, in the footsteps of travelers and immigrants from many lands, Saba is transported back to her home in Lahore, Pakistan. It was a whisper carried across the famed Whispering Gallery that took her back to childhood under the lemon trees. She hints with an eloquent simplicity at a sense of continuity between her younger self and the self that now makes a home in this distant land. It seems, almost, that she could step across time and into the streets of Lahore, taking us with her.

sKR9IeLr7ifDjul-mpYWHrbXFhPa3yCvdfxePZ_hADI.png

Saba Husain, published in Natural Bridge Journal #34, Fall 2015

 

Note the path that winds its way through Saba’s words. How exhilarating and humbling to experience a moment in which the pattern of your life reveals itself!

 

 

 

A Healing Song: The Breathless Choir

Society encourages us to pursue marketable things at which we excel. Is there value in pursuits that challenge our weaknesses?

 

The weeding and winnowing starts when we are very young. What was it for you? Too short to play basketball. Can’t color inside the lines. Can’t do math. Can’t visualize. Has no rhythm.  Can’t sing. Might as well give up now. We’ve all fallen victim to such pronouncements, whether they come from peers, parents or other authority figures.  It is incredible how powerful they can be, lodging themselves deeply inside our psyche, shaping every though and action that comes after them.

Many of these pronouncements come at a young age, but there is one type that we usually deal with later. I’m speaking of those related to health and wellness. Some of these things we cannot change; there is an intersection between perception and reality. For example, I have serious gluten intolerance issues. I can’t eat or inhale wheat, barley, rye or anything made from them without becoming very sick. I will never compete on any reality cooking shows– too many things there that would make me ill– but I can make some awesome tasting food in my own home!

Meet the singers in the Breathless Choir, a project sponsored by the Dutch technology company Philips, famous for innovation in the fields of lighting, sound and recording engineering, healthcare and lifestyle improvement. These are people who have extremely serious breathing impairments: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, cystic fibrosis, acute asthma. There is even a 911 first responder who has lost one third of his lung capacity. Director Gareth Malone had one week to get them to sing, to get air flowing and help them match pitch. He had to get past their diagnosis and their fear.

The result might not be the most perfect musical performance, but it is enjoyable, both for the performers and their audience. The miracle is that many of the singers become healthier in the process. Singing teaches people to make the most of their breath, loosening areas of tension and retraining the mind. Joy and confidence are worthwhile byproducts, but physical healing and maintenance are completely priceless. The intersection between perception and reality can also be a place for growth.

You might complain about their vowels, their technique or their tone quality.

Stop it!

As a professional singer and voice teacher, I can attest that we do far too much of this kind of critiquing. I see young singers every day who have no intention of becoming professional musicians but would like to learn to sing better. Many are afraid of their own voice because someone told them they were too loud or tone deaf. This often keeps people from starting or progressing, even if there is a “diamond in the rough” there. There is a place for being critical when singing is part of competitive, artistic business, but we must also recognize the value of singing and performing for the joy of it. There need to be safe places in the community for people to explore music, dance and art, even if they aren’t going to be stars, even if conventional wisdom says they aren’t talented. Let them move, let them create, let them sing. Some will surprise you.

We all reach points in our lives where we feel stuck and need to find a new point of view, a new tactic to continue growing. If we can consciously identify those pronouncements and assertions that are governing our lives, we can examine how valid they are for us. If you can’t do something that you desire to do, it may be that you need training to do it better. Even if you won’t be able to be the best in that field, pursuing it may supply something else for you: joy, calmness, confidence, even healing. Those things may not bring you public recognition or monetary compensation, but they can change the quality of your life.

What is it you have always wanted to do?

Water and Light: This is how I get to you by Tuba Sozudogru

Our most important thoughts and feelings are those that are hard to put into words. Can art give them voices?

Tuba Sozudogru presented her devastatingly beautiful and profound self portrait, This is how I get to you, at synkroniciti‘s Open Mic, Broken Pieces, on January 9th, 2016. In writing the overview for that evening, which you can read here, I found that I had too many thoughts about this remarkable painting struggling through my mind to put down in that post.

She dreams that she is drowning, sinking beneath the surface never to rise again and yet, surprisingly, at peace and surrendered. Smiling, she listens as all voices are silenced and the water hugs and cradles her to its breast. Light streams about her and she rejoices that she will never have to hide again. Here at last she can be her genuine self and trace the connections between the living and the dead, the seen and unseen. There is a noise, a motion from the outside world. As she wakes she feels both relief to experience another earthly day and sorrow to be separated from that wondrous light and water.

Being underwater requires a different mode of sensation and communication, something primal that eschews words. This is why it has so often been used as a metaphor for the subconscious mind. There is so much that we experience as human beings that evades description. Could it be that these are the very experiences that connect us with one another and with the creative spirit most tightly?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This is how I get to you is painted in bright, glowing colors upon a piece of scrap cardboard. The cardboard was damaged, the top layer removed over a portion of the surface to reveal a corrugated texture. Once painted, this texture recalls both an architectural quality of fresco painting, in which the building surface sometimes shows through the artwork, either from age or design, and the natural texture of reeds growing next to a pond. The entire piece is permeated by a sensual atmosphere of decay and transformation.

Our heroine lies exposed, cradled by bright blue water, surrounded by a brilliant yellow light that suggests an illuminated emotional state more than a sense of place. Her body is aroused and yet at peace, a contented smile upon her lips which reassures us that nothing is wrong here. A school of fish swim about her legs. These are a particular species of carp that eat away old, dead skin. The dead parts of herself are being eaten away, a disturbing and yet pleasurable experience. The cells of the human body are constantly dying and being renewed; the human self image is constantly being torn down and rebuilt. Death and life are the same process.

Not far from her body lies a figure, a totem which hints at personal tension and evolution. A human body is stretched, dancing, between a large birdlike skeleton and a transparent, winged creature that seems to be a fusion of bird and fish, perhaps even a dragon or mermaid. Birds, fish, mermaids and winged dragons are all beings that have spiritual connotations through their form of movement: flying through the air or swimming through the water. They are not earthbound beings and Tuba makes a strong case that we are not truly earthbound either.

Tuba3.png

During the death/life process, part of us decays, leaving behind only skeletal remnants, while another part, ethereal, is released, an energy that flies or swims away. It is a constant dance between that which will decay and that which will escape. There is also a profound tension between these two realms, the physical which is so obvious and yet short lived and the spiritual which is hard to define and yet enduring. We can fully describe the remnants of our past because we have lived them, but it is the future that contains our hope.

Even as we age, change and ultimately die, there is a part of us that escapes, remaining unique throughout this transformation. It is that part that we cannot fully describe in words or paint with our brush. Despite all our efforts we can only trace its outline as it moves into a place we have not yet visited. We can long for that homecoming even as we enjoy or endure our physical life.

Tuba has given us one more clue, an inscription which reads “I am what I am Written in the skies Once was love Always light”. Everything we see here is Tuba, from the brilliant yellow light to the pool, from the woman lying before us to the strange evolutionary figure. Her words remind us that the blueness of the water can also be interpreted as sky. After we leave the womb, the protective power of water still surrounds us, now as vapor. In a sense, we are all water spirits. We never leave water, but the element is diminished to a level that our consciousness and physical body can handle. Once the physical body is left behind, we do not know where the light of our existence will take us. Tuba has great hope for that journey and she is ready to share it.

Artists are often highly intuitive and expressive people who experience life in unique and individual ways. While many of us push away thoughts and images that make us explore our own death, Tuba has the gifts to explore these dark places. More than that, her art is able to reassure us when words and consciousness fail. It really does get to us.

 

Through the Dream of a Child: Brent Bonacorso’s West of the Moon

There is pain and struggle in life that is universal. How can art help us to approach these things differently?
west_hi1

Brent Bonacorso has directed videos for Elton John (Home Again) and Katy Perry (Unconditionally) as well as numerous commercials. Technically stunning and innovative, as well as emotionally charged, his signature style is filled with striking images, bright and dreamy, set in imaginative narratives that sparkle with magic realism. He is able to use the absurd to get at truths that a more logical approach shies away from. His jaw-dropping short film West of the Moon is no exception.

Video via Brent Bonacorso on Vimeo

This film began as a documentary project. One hundred children were interviewed and asked to speak of their dreams. As Bonacorso worked through the interviews, he was moved to look inward and to create a film that would touch on universal themes and explore dreamscape as an alternate reality that coexists with our own. He used green screen technology to create this dreamscape and found a talented lead actor, veteran Jacob Witkin, to lend the right mix of humor and gravity to the piece. What resulted was West of the Moon, which, like most dreams, is rich with symbolism and understanding that “real life” doesn’t often exhibit.

I am particularly moved by the image of the heart. Our hero, or at least his alter ego, has been sent off to war and is wounded not by the enemy, but by a bullet from his own gun that circles the entire Earth and returns to pierce him. It is his own violence that destroys his heart, which his captors replace with a hand grenade. He tries to live softly and safely so that the fragile grenade will not explode, putting pillows under his feet on the stairs, soaking in his tub and shutting out the world. He is horrified when his grief at losing his lover causes him to cough up the pin to the grenade, and goes so far as to send his pet monkey, dubiously raised from a seed, in through his ear in a vain attempt to replace the pin. In the end it is not his own heart, but the heart of his lost love that he must heal. This involves risking his own life by allowing himself to feel again, which may make his heart explode.

None of this is logical, but we can relate to it emotionally by virtue of the dream images used. If we live long enough, we will all wound ourselves in life. We will experience time in which we harden our hearts to escape and override the pain and time in which we must allow that heart of stone to melt and beat again. The absurdist and childlike approach of West of the Moon helps coat the allegory, and by extension, our own experiences, with humor. It is a story that heals. Bravo!

West of the Moon

Winner of Best Short film @ Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Winner of Best Short film @ Aspen Shortsfest
Winner of Best Short film @ Rushes Soho Shorts Festival
Winner of Best Short film @ Carmel International Film Festival
Winner of Best Short film @ Florida International Film Festival.
Official Selection @ St. Louis Film Festival
Official Selection @ Palm Springs Film Festival
Official Selection @ Milwaukee International Film Festival
Official Selection @ Worldwide Short Film Festival
Official Selection @ Atlanta International Film Festival
Official Selection @ Gold Coast International Film Festival
Official Selection @ Maui International Film Festival
Official Selection @ LA Shortsfest
Starring Jacob Whitkin, Michael Garbe, Amber Noelle, Christopher Tomaselli, and Michael Galvin
Produced by Thom Fennessey
Cinematography by Tarin Anderson
Music by Devotchka
A Collaboration Factory production