TRANSPORT ME, PLEASE: In Praise Of Otherness
September 18, 2001
For me, the main purpose of art is transportation. I’m not talking about murals on the sides of buses. I’m talking about the singular ability of art to pull us, Alice-like, through the Looking Glass and into other realms. I have always maintained that the fictional depiction of such journeys — as when Aeneas descends into the Underworld, or when the Pevensi kids go through the wardrobe to Narnia — is really about what happens when a person encounters art. In fact, in the second Narnian story, the kids literally climb into a painting. But however it happens, Alice and Aeneas and everyone else go someplace otherwise inaccessible — to the other side of the rainbow, the horizon, the mirror — and then, even better than that, they return, still the same, but somehow ineffably changed. They come back from the dead, as it were, and tell us about it. And their journey is a picture of what it is to read a story, or view a painting or a film; you enter a realm beyond your own and then you return to your own realm, but you are not the same. To put it yet another way, you fall asleep and dream and wake up.
And nothing can take us elsewhere more quickly and powerfully than movies. There is something about the visual and aural power of film that is unparalleled. If the sound is good enough and the screen is large enough and the other people in the audience eat their popcorn quietly enough we can sometimes vault up into the darkness and over the bar at the edge of Reality and fall and fall like Alice into another world. This, generally, is why I go to movie theaters.
But most movies these days don’t aspire to pull their audiences into other worlds the way they used to, and that is why I often find myself hissing like a treed cat at the current state of cinema. I am especially bothered because never before in the history of film have special effects been so good. Digital technology can take us to Mars and make it convincing even to a jaded adult. So when movies don’t use this technology for real transportive purposes, I get upset. Let me give you an example.
Did you see Jurassic Park? I know it’s old news, but it serves my argument here and most people saw it. When it came out I thought, “At last, something that will take me to the other side of the mirror!” I couldn’t wait to see it. I knew that, given the advances in techonology, I would, in fact, actually see a dinosaur.
A real dinosaur! Now, technically I’d seen dinosaurs before — who hadn’t? — in cel animation, in stop-action claymation. I’d seen the guys in the rubber suits galumphing over crappy HO-scale models of pre-Nikkei Tokyo. I could see their unconvincing and ill-shaped plastic mouths, painted sloppily by some hungover intern on a deadline. The high-octane suspension of disbelief necessary for these sweaty pseudo-lizards was achievable only via fatigue and malt liquor, and keep it coming. Ah, but Spielberg’s dinosaurs would be different. The reviews told me so, and hallelujah, the reviews were right. Spielberg and his special effects geniuses delivered the goods, and I was in heaven. At least at the start of the movie. For a few moments it was unutterably glorious, and then — Ichabod! — the glory departed. But those few moments are worth recounting.
They were toward the beginning of the movie, when the three protagonists have arrived at the eponymous Jurassic Park, and are zup-zupping along in a jeep, hoping to spot their anachronistic quarry. Then, behind them — or beyond them, so the viewer sees it but they cannot — rises up as out of some premythical depths the awesome spectacle of what we had only heard existed, of what we had only imagined existed, and now here it was, the very thing itself: a view-filling 80-ton brontosaurus so outrageous and so real that one was immediately in awe of it. We were suddenly and actually in the presence of a living monster, resurrected from the prehistoric mist. And a few seconds watching it showed that this beast was no phoney-baloney stop-action model; no, it was the true monster itself, the one all those ersatz reptilians meant to get at, of which Godzilla is a mere type and shadow. This is what it’s all about, I thought. This is worth 150 million dollars and two years of labor. And closer to home, this is even worth eight bucks for a box of Good’n’Plenty and a waxen cup of Dr. Pepper the size of a fat man’s fez.
And then it got even better: in a quintessenially Spielbergian cinematic fillip the massy monster shifted his awesome bulk and was suddenly and impossibly on two legs, the better to reach the more tender — one presumes — foliage at the whippy tippy-top of a verdant Jurassic tree. This primordial ballet was a kind of cinematic perfection, because the mundane physical act of a hungry vegetarian reptile reaching for food became holy and sublime. It was like watching an angel cough. For those few moments it was as though we, like fairy-tale Jack, had just poked our head through the hole in the top of the sky and were staring, agog, at a land of gold and giants. Lo! we had ascended into the heavens and were mingling and cavorting with gods and monsters.
Of course I had wanted to groove on this terrific otherness forever, to stay in this holy otherworld outside of time for as long as possible, at least until the credits rolled. But this, alas, was not to be. You see, Mr. Spielberg had a wide load of plot to extrude, and there was only 90 minutes left! The next thing I knew Jeff Goldblum was storking around with Laura Dern and people were getting munched by Happy Meal Raptors and the once billowy fantasy was shadoobily in tatters. The balloon had been pricked — bang! — and instead of staring dreamily at a golden age of gentle monsters I was suddenly zooming headlong toward the credits, propelled by the tackily decaled dragster of Spielberg’s plot. Holy Crichton Page-turner, Batman! It was over before it began, as though Jack’s mother had peevishly chopped the beanstalk out from under him because dinner couldn’t wait. Well, you can’t have everything.
Still, it’s a pity. So few current movies seem to be able to take me to another realm that I often find myself renting old movies just for this purpose, just for a hit of pure unadulterated otherness. Usually the older the movie, the better. I am especially drawn toward silent films and some of the earliest talkies. The faces and make-up hearken back to nineteenth-century theater. The acting is stagey and stylized. The villains are Villains, with black capes and longish hair and high eyebrows. And everyone exists in a jerky grey-toned amber, in a sun-starved underwater realm, staring at us from the depths of the past, from the other side of the mirror. There is often a creepiness to it: one knows that everyone in such films is long dead, and yet there they are, smiling and talking and weeping. They are alive and dead at the same time. They are ineluctably Other.
The death-in-life or life-in-death aspect is at the essence of all of this somehow. A corpse is horrifying because it is a semblance of life, a mockery of it. It is dead life. Merely inert matter is not frightening. It’s the unheimlich, the uncanny of Freud, that spooks, that awes. The thing/not thing. Following this thinking, one sees that the image of a waking dream is at the heart of this as well. We are sleeping and conscious at the same time. Subject and verb, Earth and Heaven, are impossibly and wonderfully conflated. This impossible conflation is the true and mystifying and secret magic of Art: an otherness that somehow points you to something even more Other beyond it, ultimately to that ultimate Other, God Himself.
But most contemporary movies would rather connect with focus groups than with the horizon or heaven. They seem to say: let’s all laugh at divorce and how our hips have gotten bigger and how our sophisticated children know all those words they shouldn’t. I never pay to see such movies, but they all seem to find me on domestic airplane flights. There is a terrible smallness and insideness and familiarity to the worlds they depict. They aspire toward sitcom-ness. Watching them is often like watching ourselves in our own living rooms. Or like watching videos of ourselves watching videos of ourselves watching videos, an abyss of endless facing mirrors leading to the increasingly enclosed and lightless nothingness and meaninglessness of the Self’s Black Hole. Hell in a shrinking nutshell. Something is missing. And it ain’t us.
All of which is why I found Jurassic Park so especially disappointing. It promised just the opposite of that, and didn’t deliver. And it wasn’t just the nitro-burning plot, it was the contemporary references littered throughout the movie like so many ketchup-stained Big Mac wrappers. Even the casting contributes to the problem. Because we know the celebrity actors’ eating and mating habits and see them on Letterman and Leno, they have lost the air of mystery that once lent them that requisite aura of otherness we associated with oldtime movie stars. The current scandalsheet tide washes them up too close to our beach blankets and we can smell them and touch them and know they are not the fabulous sea-serpents and ethereal mermaids we thought them to be.
Which brings me, finally, to that infinitely unplotty classic of Soviet cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. 1 confess that I started this piece for this magazine two years ago as a review of that movie, which had just been screened at an L.A. film festival, but on the cheap flight back home they showed some awful Nora Ephron comedy (see?), and I’ve been cogitating on the painful dissonance between them all this time.
Andrei Rublev is three hours of unalleviated otherness. There are no celebrities and no contemporary references and snide inside jokes, and there are no obvious plot devices. Because it was filmed in Soviet Russia in the 1960s, it is already in a world as foreign to ours as Andrei Rublev’s fifteenth century is to ours. The premodern mujiks and kulaks of Khruschev’s rural dystopia were very similar, at least I thought, to the ones of Rublev’s day. The landscape has a bleak otherness to it. The mud and cold, the chapped Slavic faces, the mattocks and wooden shoes and coarse clothing inhabit some kind of parallel universe — surely not the same one that we do.
These characters are like nothing we have seen before. It is as though they had just fallen out of a painting. The movie follows the wanderings of a painter of icons, the title character, a historical figure best known for his icon of the Holy Trinity. I can hardly tell you what the story was all about, probably because it was all about something besides story. But I can tell you that it was powerful and mesmerizing and glorious. It was a Siberian mammoth steak of otherness, and it didn’t come with a packet of ketchup. Two years later I am still digesting it.
Andrei Rublev’s wanderings end with a long, exquisitely memorable scene in which a number of peasants are making a gigantic bell in the old style, pouring hot metal — melted down in home-made furnaces — into a baked mud form. It is as awesome and impresive in its inert monstrosity as Spielberg’s initial animated megalizard. The bell is so utterly huge — so much larger than the people who made it — that it stops us as the grazing brontosaurus stopped us. Our mouths open and we stare and stare at its stupendous otherness. The potential of this pre-tolled giant is almost palpable. When this bell tolls it will wake people in other continents, in other centuries. It is a kind of Ur-bell, ready to sound the return of Father God Himself to his old, abandoned planet.
Well, what else is there to say? Hollywood directors and producers, now hear this; I want the bell or the dinosaur — just the bell or the lizard — get it? I don’t want to find out that Jim Carrey is trying to steal the bell, or that Robin Williams is trying to bring the lizard back to Ork. I don’t want to find out that Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler are trying to get the bell back from their ex-husbands, who have taken up with beautiful young lizards. I just want the Thing itself. Please, just give me the bell or the lizard, okay?
And while I’m at it I don’t want selfconscious camera angles, or cute cameos. I don’t want any scenes in a Pizzeria Uno. I don’t want product tie-ins or cute, smartass kids; and I don’t want Keanu Reaves or Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan or Ben Affleck or Kevi Gn Bacon or Whoopi Goldberg or Kevin Spacey or any other of the extremely usual suspects. I don’t want soaring Grammy-fodder from Sir Captain Fantastic with the Goog-Goog-Googly Eyes. And I don’t want to feel the love tonight, or ever.
I just want to stare at something amazing, something that pulls me beyond myself and into the other side of the world, behind the veil and through the liquid mirror. I want to swim there for a while, tread some water, splash around, and then I want to go home. Can ya dig it?
Oh, one more thing: don’t be surprised if sometime you see some crazy guy zipping through the crowds at Cannes or Sundance, or along the red carpet in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at Oscar time. He’ll be wearing a T-shirt that says: “It’s the Otherness, Stupid.” And, of course, dear friends, it is.