“On Netflix Now” “Neurons to Nirvana” — Robin Gilbert-Jones

Neurons to Nirvana
Director: Oliver Hockenhull

Whether or not you agree that psychedelic experiences can be useful, there is a growing consensus that the so-called “War on Drugs” has been a catastrophic failure. This is not a difficult case to make and constitutes more an illustrative side-note to this really quite beautiful film. Instead, the focus is on the nature and utility of the experiences themselves and the substances that induce them. The background around their illegality and the establishment crusade against them, acts only as further evidence for their revolutionary potential.

Oliver Hockenhull’s Neurons to Nirvana explores the possibilities of the psychedelic experience through a combination of historical record and interviews with researchers in the field of psychedelics, notable examples including pscychologist Ralph Metzner, psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt and ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna (brother of the famous shamanic philosopher Terrance McKenna). Aside from the potential therapeutic benefits, there is also a sense in which, through the proliferation of a cultural zeitgeist inclined towards demonising these experiences, we could be missing so much. As Ralph Metzner puts it:

“We suddenly found a way to explore a continent [through psychedelics] that we didn’t know existed and not many other people knew existed either. This is like Marco Polo in the 14th century, he went with his uncle and father to China, and then came back and told stories about China and people said, “oh you’re hallucinating, you’re crazy, there is no such place, you made that up, you’re fantasising.” and he said, “no, you can go for yourself.’”

On a purely scientific level, it is frustrating to realise how little we know, indeed how little we have been allowed to discover, about the therapeutic potential of the substances covered in this documentary. Marijuana alone contains a veritable smorgasbord of organic molecules whose potential has been left largely unexplored, thanks to the global crackdown on the substance, effectively handing over the stewardship of this plant to a black market interested only in increasing yield and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient) content. Both LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) have both shown some promise in psychotherapy and the early experimentation with LSD, before its explosion on the 60s counter-culture scene, focused on this area. Ayajuasca is considered a ‘medicine’ by the native South American tribes who use it. Its active ingredient, DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) has shown some astonishing properties, a subject covered in two other fascinating documentaries, Ayajuasca: Vine of the Soul and DMT: The Spirit Molecule . Psilocybin too, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms (which were, until fairly recently, legal in the UK and could be bought over shop counters) has some fascinating effects, to the extent that psychonaut philosophers of the Terrance McKenna ilk have been led to believe they are the vessel of communication for extra-terrestrial or extra-dimensional intelligences.

There are aspects of this film that come across as naïve, of course. The harmful (or potentially harmful) effects of these substances are glossed over as establishment propaganda or ignored completely. While marijuana may not be physically addictive or physically harmful (aside from the obvious often-ignored fact that you are still inhaling smoke) it can be habit-forming, detrimental to productivity and paranoia-inducing. There is also good evidence that MDMA is neurotoxic.

Despite the slight tone of hippy idealism, it is hard to argue with the central premise that a great deal of potential, medical, scientific, psychological, philosophical and even spiritual is being squandered in the name of fear-mongering nannyism. There is a broader argument presented by Neurons to Nirvana; that our rejection of these mind-expanding substances goes hand-in-hand with a widening gulf between our society and our essential nature, indeed our relationship with nature at large. Instead of broadening our minds by breaking down the barriers that filter our experience we choose instead the sedative approach; raising more barriers between ourselves and our experience of the world.

Aldous Huxley

By Acquarello

On a television interview conducted near the twilight of his life, Aldous Huxley articulated his belief that the fullness of human potentiality can be achieved within one’s lifetime – that the realization of an ideal eternal cognition can be accelerated through a cultivation of reason and virtue – in effect, that transcendence is within human grasp.

From this seductive and intriguing introductory framework, Oliver Hockenhull relates a seemingly tangential personal anecdote on the synchronicity on having been born on the same day that the Russians launched Sputnik 2 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with a dog named Laika onboard in order to prove that animals could, indeed, survive in the vacuum of space.

Nevertheless, these two disparate trains of thought inevitably cohere and interweave within the film’s idiosyncratic, yet fascinating convergence of personal history, cultural biography, and philosophical exposition into the complex, often delusive role of technology and applied science towards humanity’s quest to transcend the bounds of human limitation and approach ever closer the limits of infinity – a mortal transfiguration to an existential ideal.

For Huxley, this state of technologically induced transcendence came, not only in the form of creative abstraction in the submissive, dystopian bliss in the absence of free will depicted in his novel Brave New World, but also personally, in the author’s controversial, late career interest in parapsychology and psychotropic drug experimentation – revealing his underlying interest in exploring the process and continuity of human consciousness in the absence of the body. It is this disengagement and autonomy of incorporeal information from the physical that is similarly reflect in a soliloquy performed by Hockenhull’s alterego, an actor named David Odhiambo who bears little physical resemblance to the filmmaker (an incongruence that is further underscored by the use of a female narrator’s voice in the sequence), on the evolution of the digital age which represents the existence and transfer of informational data without the medium of human consciousness, essentially creating a simulation of the human cognitive process – an artificial being – that, as the alterego comments, has “distinct memory but no resemblances”.

This idea of the commutation of human legacy without physical transference is also reflected in the filmmaker’s tantalizing, tongue-in-cheek anecdote on his family’s potential genealogical commonality with the Huxley family through their intersecting geographic lineage of prominent landowners in feudal England. However, as the filmmaker subsequently discovers, the aristocratic surnames were appropriated by many of the serfs themselves in their quest to improve their prestige and social standing as they seek out their fortune. A subsequent anecdote recounting his brother’s telephone call to a woman who also bears the same surname reveals another incidence of transference of identity as she explains that her husband’s forefathers had apparently taken on their former landowner’s last name after their emancipation from slavery. In both cases, the transcendence of the ancestral family name – a phenomenon that is intrinsically associated with the human processes of procreation and conscious desire – occurs without the exchange and recombination of genetic imprint. As in the alterego’s exposition on the development of artificial intelligence, the continuity of human history occurs in the absence of a biological element, without the physical body…devoid of “resemblances”.

Tracing Huxley’s philosophy that applied science and spirituality are integrally correlated in humanity’s process of self-enlightenment, Hockenhull includes an excerpt from the television interview in which the author provides a thoughtful account of his crisis of conscience during the 1930s from which he emerged with a new-found clarity for the possibility of immanent transcendence. However, within this context of changing the course of one’s destiny through conscious and active self-engagement, the notion of potentiality begins to intersect (or more appropriately, collide) with the practical dichotomy of an allegorical Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: a realization that the simple act of observing alters the other characteristics of that which is observed – in essence, that myopic engagement in temporal reality detracts humanity from the cultivation of unrealized potential – and consequently, estranges it further from the ideal of transcendence. It is this existential paradox that perhaps best illustrates the genius, enigma, and irony of the unconventional, yet deeply philosophical author and modern thinker: the ability to see beyond the limits of physical vision towards the unimaginable promise and resolute faith of achieving true human transcendence.

Top Docs at Vancouver International Film Festival

From Neurons to Nirvana:
The Great Medicines

“Writer, director and visual artist Oliver Hockenhull outlines the mounting peer-reviewed evidence that nonaddictive psychoactive substances (including ayahuasca, psilocybin, LSD and MDMA) can have profound healing effects when used in a safe, therapeutic setting. The benefits, say a conga line of clinicians, psychologists, neuroscientists and authors, extend from the treatment of alcoholism to the anxiety of terminal cancer patients, and beyond. This could have been a snorefest of talking heads in lesser hands, but through judicious editing and sublime visuals, the filmmaker succeeds with colourful advocacy for a new medical paradigm informed by “cognitive liberty” — the freedom to dictate one’s own consciousness. (In a recreation of the famous Good Friday Experiment, Hockenull uses a recorded sermon from Dr. Martin Luther King’s mentor, Rev. Howard Thurman, to fuse science, art and spirituality into a seamless whole.)” Geoff Olson, Vancouver Courier

Review Building Heaven

Oliver Hockenhull’s voluptuous, textural, and thematically (and experientially) dense essay film is an intricately constructed, stream-of-consciousness meditation on architecture, memory, immortality, and transcendence. Evoking the sprawling, trans-continental journals of the faceless, globe-trotting (metaphoric) time traveler and ethnographic filmmaker Sandor Krasna in Chris Marker’s Sans soleil, Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect is similarly infused with a certain wide-eyed curiosity and sense of adventure, thoughtfulness, and self-effacing humor.

From the film’s introductory anecdote on the first book of architecture, a ten-volume documentation of buildings, machines, and timepieces, Hockenhull presents an implicit interconnection between architecture and time, both serving as materialized representations of projection, shadows, and geometric space. The analogy is subsequently developed in the filmmaker’s exposition on the Pantheon in Rome as he reflects on the ancient structure’s innate symmetry through negative projection for which the apparent structural complement – and therefore, its spatial negation – occurs at an intersection on an imaginary axis that is defined by infinity.

The realization of imaginary intersections and approaching theoretical limits similarly provides the underlying concept for the Aquatic Pavilion in Neeltje Jans, Holland, an example of media architecture in which undulating, nodal mesh forms characterize the functional construct of the numerical data: the ideal form generated by a human-less, synthetic vision of empirical limits and discrete interpolations.

Hockenhull further correlates the process of architectural construction as an innately human quest for immortality – a mortal bridge to the divine (note the thematic correlation to György’s underlying futile search for the harmonies of the gods in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies) – a rapture. It is this ephemeral state of artificially induced transcendence that is thematically threaded to the juxtaposition of images between a heroin addict and the somber, forbidden architecture of New Metropolis, an asymmetric and aesthetically nondescript behemoth commercial space projecting ominously from the industrial landscape of an Amsterdam harbor town, both representing a depersonalization of the individual: the erasure of the human element (which, in turn, expounds on the idea of architecture as a means of achieving closeness to gods).

In correlating the confluence of structure and time, Hockenhull characterizes architecture as commemorations of history. From a statue immortalizing the commander of the Dresden raid (a personally traumatic episode for Hockenhull’s father that the filmmaker revisits in the short film Mother, Father, Son) to an examination of the works of artist and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Hockenhull illustrates the inevitable bifurcation between the conceptually ideal – the “glowing painting of a reconciled world” – and the ravaged artifacts of human history (most notably, in the bullet-ridden pillars of the New Watch Building and the variegated rubble used to line the perimeter of a summer house in postwar, suburban Berlin). It is this corruption and decay of the ideal that is encapsulated in the utilitarian history of the Prince Albrecht Palais, a stately residence later transformed as a headquarters for intelligence gathering and dissemination of propaganda by the Nazis.

Traveling eastward to Asia, Hockenhull then forgoes the inherent politicization of 20th century European history and returns to the more abstract theme of transcendence through architecture, remarking after a Sergei Eisenstein retrospective in Istanbul of the role of cinema as “time and aspiration of memory”, and further concluding that architecture and memory are integrally correlated by the nature of their “pure constructions”. This idea of continuity through memory and architecture – the intertwining of the mortal and the immortal, life and death – is perhaps best represented in the Indian city of Kashi, known as the city of light – a cremation grounds where nature and structures represent, not only ancient relics of the past, but also a continuity and an afterlife.

In essence, the architecture serves as a place of ceremony and ritual: the human imperative to define the amorphous nature of God and consequently, find a path to transcendence. It is this complex interconnection of functionality and meaning that is inevitably embodied by the egg-shaped stone that punctuates the film, an eternal, indefinable object that curiously encapsulates the genesis, mortality, human imprint, and metaphysical enigma of a greater, and unfathomably more complex, immortal design.

Building Heaven

Electronic Magazine of the Centre Internaional D’Art Contemporain De Montreal

Building Heaven, Remembering Earth, Confessions of a Fallen Architect

Architecture, the point of convergence of four worlds—the natural, the cultural, the contemporary, and the virtual, either works or it doesn’t. In the first place, it has to obey the same natural laws (the law of gravity, for example) as nature itself. Reflection, which is fundamental in classical art, between nature and culture, is still eminently pertinent in architecture today, even more so because a new tool, the computer, allows it to invent forms in a new space, that of virtual reality. With the addition of the space-time dimension in design, architecture is liberated from the static drawing on paper; the architectural model is enclosed in natural laws from the moment of its conception, without waiting to be built. This does not have to occur for the architect to create monuments, places and worlds possessing their own reality—virtual reality.This view led Oliver Hockenhull to begin research into the possibilities of VRML, combined with a software invented by a professor at the University of Calgary – a virtual model of morphogenesis (the formation and differentiation of tissues and organs), the Lindenmayer system modeler (L-Systems). Hockenhull thus conceived a project entitled Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect, as a video work, while at the same time setting up a Web site of the same name, for his “first foray into the relationship of 3d space and AI [artificial intelligence], and Mutational Architecture.”

The site is composed of Hockenhull’s own thoughts and quotes by writers from different historical periods on the fundamental meaning of architecture, its (real or desired) effects on human beings, and its relation to nature. The title evokes nostalgia, but also guilt, from an architect’s point of view: why is today’s urban world so uninhabitable, so inhuman? To answer this question, Hockenhull sought the primary meaning of architecture, studying the models proposed by architects throughout human history, from the most ancient (prehistoric caves), to Hindu temples and utopian structures that were proposed or attempted but rarely achieved (Newton’s Cenotaph by Boullée, Tatlin’s tower for the International). Thanks to VRML technology, these very diverse models are presented and can be toured in the site.

But virtual reality also allows the invention of new forms, where culture is finally (re-)modeled after nature on the most fundamental level, inspired in turn by models of the creation and growth of minerals, plants and animals. To convey this more utopian and inventive dimension of his project, Hockenhull used the L-Systems mentioned above, that he integrated into a 3D VRML environment. This may be how the “fallen” architect can redeem himself, forget too-often false paradises, and come back to earth.
(uses VRML, QuickTime VR, Real Player)

Film Scratches: Channeling Visions Through Machinery – Robot Pavlov Sputnik (2014)

Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.

A Review by David Finkelstein.

Robot Pavlov Sputnik is a complex and gorgeous eight-minute animation by Oliver Hockenhull. The video derives inspiration (and a main layer of its imagery) from Norman McLaren’s 1971 film Synchromy, an early landmark experiment in simultaneously generating music and geometric animated forms electronically. Hockenhull combines McLaren’s film with a 1950s film about robots, a film about Pavlov, and animated versions of the Sputnik launch, as well as his own original footage. Lisa Walker’s beautiful score combines the tribal feeling of wooden flutes and percussion with sputtering, mysterious electronica.

RobotPavlovSideThe result is a deliciously rich and varied landscape of colors and forms, with stripes of soft pastel lavenders and blues, rich reds and yellows, and rapidly changing forms of rounded rectangles, circles, and floating spheres. At many times, the video has the look of a beautiful gouache painting on textured wood. At other times, it is if Klee and Kandinsky joined forces to animate their paintings at dizzying speed.

Hockenhull writes that he used data from the images and sounds of the McLaren film to generate some of the rhythms and colors in the film, and the robot, Sputnik, and Pavlov imagery all speak to the danger as well as the power of automated, machine-driven action. Synchromy was an attempt to electronically join sound and image in a simple way that was innovative for its time. In Hockenhull’s homage, sound and images influence each other in a much more sophisticated manner, using interwoven and strange loops. Machines become a device for channeling remarkable visions.

David Finkelstein is a filmmaker, musician, and critic. For more information on Film Scratches contact lakeivan@earthlink.net.

A Jewish Mystic Meets Prairie Baroque


One Yellow Rabbit’s first film morphs a 17th-century holy man into a suburban used-car salesman on a spiritual quest



CALGARY — At the best of times, the story of a Jewish man who thinks he’s the Messiah and ends up converting to Islam would be a sensitive topic. In light of current events, it’s downright provocative.

Beautiful Jew, One Yellow Rabbit theatre company’s first feature film, was shot before the latest Palestinian intifada and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but now its contents seem highly charged. In fact, even the title has proved prickly.

“People seem to take offence to it,” says Blake Brooker, co-artistic director of the Calgary theatre company, who also co-wrote and co-stars in the film. “I’m sure we wouldn’t get the same reaction if we’d called it, say, Comely Baptist.”

However, the movie, screening tonight through Saturday at OYR’s High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, isn’t about religious fanaticism but religious ecstasy. It’s a loose recounting of the life of 17th-century Jewish mystic Sabbatai Zevi, who proclaimed himself the Messiah and gathered a large following before abruptly becoming a Muslim, possibly to avoid execution by the Turks.

The Rabbits and director Oliver Hockenhull have moved the story into the present day, turning Zevi into Barry, a used-car salesman from suburban Calgary, who dabbles in drug dealing and assisted suicide en route to divine enlightenment and a job slinging falafel in the West Bank.

“It’s about a spiritual quest,” says Hockenhull, a Vancouver-based filmmaker and long-time friend of One Yellow Rabbit, who adds that the joint project grew out of his personal fascination with Zevi. “He was this ecstatic character whose beliefs were more in line with Sufism than any other formal religious practice. I wanted to place him in a context that I was familiar with, and in relationship to what the Rabbits could give me, which is the kind of ‘Prairie baroque’ that they’re so well known for.”

The Rabbits, in turn, had been looking for an entry into movies. While individual members of the company have done occasional screen work, and a live taping of their hit play Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, has been shown on cable TV, this is the first time they’ve created a group work specifically for film.

The troupe wrote the script collectively, played the principal roles and even used their own homes as locations.

Brooker and Hockenhull say they took their cue from the prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose first films were shot fast and on the cheap with members of his Munich theatre company. Beautiful Jew was written in three weeks and shot in two, using digital video rather than traditional film stock. Hockenhull pegs the entire budget at “a low five figures. It cost less than most one-minute car commercials.”

For the Middle East sequence, Hockenhull and the film’s star, Michael Green, spent an additional 10 days shooting without a permit in Jerusalem, Nablus and Ramallah. Their guerrilla filmmaking went without incident, although it included a scene in which Green’s shifty-looking Barry had to abandon a briefcase (stuffed with money) in a busy area near Jerusalem’s Damascus gate. Hockenhull says the experience felt pretty intense. “We weren’t following any of the rules that are laid out for film crews in Jerusalem, and it’s a hot spot no matter when you’re there. For Canadians, just seeing guys running around with machine guns is always a little bit unnerving.”

Although the picture was made in 2000, Hockenhull — whose credits include five other independent features, including a documentary on Aldous Huxley — has had a hard time selling it. “It’s been difficult to get it out there,” he says. “I really love the work. I’ve had other films that have been more successful in terms of [playing] festivals and getting recognition. This piece is more difficult because of the complexity of the dramatic presentation — it goes back and forth from comedy to drama — and at the same time there’s a lot of political content that is unnerving for people nowadays.”

However, its first public screening, as part of a retrospective of Hockenhull’s work at Vancouver’s Blinding Light Cinema last March, was well received and prompted the Rabbits to include it in their annual experimental-theatre festival.

While Hockenhull doesn’t hold out any hopes for a theatrical release, he is pushing to get Beautiful Jew on television. For now, it’s available on DVD through a Vancouver distributor, Video Out.

The Rabbits, meanwhile, are keen to do more movies using the Fassbinder quick-and-dirty method and have acquired digital video technology of their own. “We have a couple of ideas for films and as soon as we can we want to make another,” says Brooker. “I anticipate doing one within a year.”
Beautiful Jew screens Thursday through Saturday at the Engineered Air Theatre in the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts in Calgary. Tickets: 403-299-8888. It is also available on DVD from Video Out Vancouver at videoout@telus.net

Martin Morrow is the author of Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit, to be published this spring by the Banff Centre Press.

Film Scratches: Never-ending Metamorphosis – A Cherenkov Radiation Jewelry Box Meltdown (2015)


Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.

A Review by David Finkelstein.

A Cherenkov Radiation Jewelry Box Meltdown is a three-minute computer-animated short of radical beauty by Oliver Hockenhull. It can be classified as a psychedelic film; the symmetrical and kaleidoscopic forms suggest mandalas. Soft, luminous reds, greens, yellows, and blues surround an incredibly dense and complex mass of quickly changing forms which suggest Mayan totem poles, skeletons, crystals, and almost every other kind of organic and inorganic structure imaginable. It is as if you are looking at Meaning itself, traveling down to the realms below ordinary experience where the energy patterns that generate the world are circulating. The music combines brilliant, sustained chords with shimmering notes.

CherenkovSideHockenhull writes that the mathematics which generate this video represent the radiation emitted by charged particles. Its beauty is generated by a deep structural quality of matter itself, translated through Hockenhull’s artistic skill. The mesmerizing quality of the film comes from the rapid and unceasing changes, so that the beauty always seems to be slipping through your grasp. It maintains this quality steadily throughout, and therefore would make an excellent installation video, where viewers could decided for themselves how long to be mesmerized. Watching the three-minute version was, for me, tantalizingly short.

David Finkelstein is a filmmaker, musician, and critic. For more information on Film Scratches, contact lakeivan@earthlink.net.

Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light

by Alex Burns

As eternity changes him into himself, we don’t have to wait
for eternity. It is possible to become ourselves
in the fullest ego-transcending form, even in this life.
~~ Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley woke up. We must do the same.
~~ Jean Houston

“This is not a proper documentary,” director/producer Oliver Hockenhull explains at the beginning of Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light (1996). “The project is not about his chronological life, but about his ideas.” Hockenhull’s narrative traces Huxley’s intellectual and spiritual development through a series of re-enactments, montages, archival footage and computer animation. The production design splinters Huxley’s life into fractal recombinations of the ideas, experiences and influences that shaped his life.

The documentary charts Huxley’s life from the publication of Crome Yellow: A Novel (London: Chatto & Windus, 1921) to Island (New York: Harper & Row, 1962). Even the titles are epithets (my favorite being “The Singularity of Mind”). The hidden thread that runs through Hockenhull’s documentary are excerpts from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviews that Huxley did in 1957. Hockenhull offers viewers an Impressionist snapshot of the author best known for Brave New World (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co. Inc.,1932). A wake-up calling card rather than a dry instruction manual.
Jump cut to Jean Houston reminiscing about Huxley at a 1994 symposium. She reminds the audience of Huxley’s passion for Homeric Greek and leads them in a call-refrain. Having summoned Huxley’s creative daimon, Houston will later suggest that his life’s turning point was Eyeless in Gaza (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936), which was his first overt spiritual work. Huxley, anticipating James Hillman’s archetypal psychology, observes: “The seed grows according to its own being.”

Transition to sequence on social persona: What ‘setting’ created the ‘set’ for Aldous Huxley’s gnostic voyage of inner discovery? Huxley identifies a period during the 1930s of depression and life-crisis. He writes pacifist articles and receives death-threats from patriotic English-men. He notes that war manifests as group intoxication and barbarian hysteria. He experiments with the Alexander Technique’s psycho-physical exercises as a defense against body-military drills and punishment football. He records sermons for theBBC. It’s not enough. The external world triggers internal dissonance. Huxley quotes a letter (21 October 1949) he wrote to George Orwell that conveys what he felt these trends would generate: “The nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four will modulate into Brave New World.” This observation grew into Brave New World Revisited (New York: Harper & Collins, 1958), in which Huxley re-examined how his dystopian vision had come into being.

Hockenhull shows montages of boxers, gymnasts and yogis as Huxley presciently warns against the dark-side of the post-war boom. People are being socially conditioned through education that assails free will and encourages social trance. Science and technology accelerates the drive to efficiency.

Hockenhull drives this point home in a sequence taken from Point Counter Point (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co. Inc., 1928) that captures the postmodern angst about the fragility of personal relationships. An ex-couple talk by phone: he is fractured and confused, she remains defiant and has moved on. When he evokes visions of Love, she turns this mirage into the sexual conquest by a ‘fallen woman’. The tantric Dance of Shakti devolves into a consumptive flight from intimacy. “I’d rather be human,” he replies. Faraway, she laughs. Hell is losing other people yet, in an inter-connected society, having them always near (just out of reach). In these moments, Huxley reminds us, “Nothing short of everything is ever enough.”

Many would-be Seekers After Truth would turn to drugs and pre-egoic mysticism as an escape from this existentialist cul-de-sac. Author Thomas Mann replies that such strategies are scandalous and admonishes Huxley in correspondence for advocating experimentation with LSD, mescalin and peyote. Huxley replies that there may be a pharmacological substitute for alcohol in fifty years time. Hockenhull wryly notes Huxley’s interest in Spiritualism and his friendship with J.B. Rhine. The filmmaker remains detached and unconvinced: in a sequence where he visits a channeler to ask what Huxley thinks of his film, Hockenhull dismisses her performance as dramatic acting influenced by her unconscious mind. Our minds, Hockenhull reminds us, sometimes enlighten us with what we want to believe.

Huxley’s self-quest to uncover the reality beyond vaguely-defined freedom reached its pinnacle with The Perennial Philosophy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946) and The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954-56). Captions also quote from Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience (New York: Stonehill, 1977). Hockenhull invokes the altered states of consciousness that Huxley experienced with LSD and mescalin through looking at flowers. Huxley developed cancer, and on his deathbed (22 November 1963), took LSD-25 while his wife Laura read passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The documentary, true to Hockenhull’s vision, illustrates the contours of Huxley’s life at the expense of biographical details. His exploration of philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and flirtation with Zen, for example, are barely mentioned. Rather, Hockenhull evokes in the viewer a glimpse of the questions that Huxley wrestled with and the subjective nature of his explorations. As with Derek Jarman’s sparse Wittgenstein (1993), Hockenhull relies on actors and the creative use of sparse sets. His camera tracks from phone to phone as Huxley’s thoughts resonate on the soundtrack, the camera gliding over flickering film lights, melted ice creams and tables. By juxtaposing the focus of a yogi with flower petals, Hockenhull hints at the polarity of consciousness, will and emotions that are transmuted by personal alchemy. His own on-camera appearances are detached and ironic.

Huxley became the visionary laureate for dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Within years of his death, The Beatles paid tribute by featuring him on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and Stanley Kubrick condensed the Vision Quest with the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Those viewers wanting a summary of his novels or his biography will have to look elsewhere. Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light will explain to you, instead, why Huxley remains an important influence on contemporary psychedelic culture and spiritual-oriented philosophies. “If the work has any value,” Huxley reminds us, “that is it represented the record of a long learning process.”


By Fred Camper

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Oliver Hockenhull

Not long into Oliver Hockenhull’s film Determinations, following a dense collage of images and sounds, we see a woman in an empty room. She identifies herself as a prostitute, and describes how she has served time in jail for stabbing a man “in his privates.” As the sequence progresses, she describes how her foster father had molested and raped her, beginning when she was seven; by the scene’s end, we learn that the man she stabbed was her foster father, whom she had sought out for revenge when she was 18.

Although this story is spoken by an actress, it has the ring of truth, and in fact it was taken from the reminiscences of a French woman in the 1950s. Part of the scene’s effectiveness comes from the nonlinear way in which it is ordered. We first hear of a repugnant act of violence, and then of another one that occurred years earlier, and only then do we understand that one caused the other. This pattern, of seeking out causal and other connections between different forms of oppression, violence, and despair, is the principle underlying this recent Canadian film, which has its U.S. premiere tonight at Chicago Filmmakers.

Hockenhull bases his film on an actual series of bombings in the early 1980s, carried out by a Vancouver-area group called Direct Action. These five Canadians–two women, three men, all in their 20s–bombed a defense plant, a hydroelectric power substation, and three porno video stores, expressing their opposition to the war machine, to pornographic images of women, and to at least some instances of hydropower. (To many, hydropower is nonpolluting, “clean,” but for an extreme environmentalist it is also oppressive–of the river that it dams, of the land that it floods.) The group, which had both leftist and anarchist ties, declared itself against “ecological destruction and human oppression,” against “all repressive hierarchies of East and West.” In early 1983 they were captured on an isolated wooded road that the police had sealed off in order to arrest them; they were later sentenced to long prison terms.

Not all of these facts are apparent on a first viewing of the film, because Hockenhull’s method follows the rules of neither the documentary nor the political diatribe. He does not tell a linear story because to do so would be false to the multiple connections between actions and events in the world. Nor does the film advocate any one method of thinking about causes; it is not pedantic. Instead, the viewer is flooded with a dense clutter of images and sound: scenes shot in a variety of cinematic styles, shots filmed off a television screen, rock and punk-rock music, diverse voices speaking and reading various texts. In one scene, footage of a street prostitute soliciting clients is accompanied by two texts read simultaneously. One describes violent acts against women, the other is a rather poetic and idealized text about love. The viewer is thus forced to make a decision about how to listen to the texts: Which one? Or both? Or as a weave of word-sounds without meaning? One is encouraged to arrive at an independent judgment about the relationships between the texts, even though Hockenhull’s sympathy for one of the texts is clear.

It is characteristic of much of the best art of recent years that it contains multiple viewpoints, without necessarily arguing for one over the other. Throughout Determinations, the viewer is asked to assume the active role that such works require. But there is another, almost contradictory effect. The viewer feels assaulted by the sounds and images, as if trapped in a collage-barrage from which there is no escape. Here the film tries to describe, even replicate, the aggressor-victim pattern that Hockenhull sees as informing the relationship between culture and the individual in society.
While some choices concerning right and wrong may be clear, the means for implementing one’s ideals are far less obvious. That one of the group’s bombings injured–to their professed regret–seven people is one indication of the perils of “direct action.” What makes Hockenhull’s film so extraordinarily rich is that it combines three different ideas, any one of which would be sufficient for a lesser film, into a richly intersecting weave. We feel the filmmaker’s clear condemnation of what he regards as oppression and destruction; the film’s editing patterns encourage the viewer to think about cause and effect and evaluate the material from an ethical perspective. And yet stylistically the work is a brooding, poetic meditation on its maker’s confusions and despair.

A large part of Determinations is spent recounting some of the ills of the world. The U.S. defense establishment’s nuclear overkill and Canada’s participation in that is a primary target (the bombed defense plant made cruise-missile parts). A viewer seeing a small portion of the film might be annoyed by its sometimes shrill tone. But as the work progresses, its repetition of facts combined with variations in form and style suggest a film that is far less sure of itself, or of any absolute answers, than one might think at first.

Indeed, at the heart of Determinations I see a despair so profound that I would not hesitate to call it a kind of suicide film, in the great tradition of Christopher MacLaine’s The End (1953) and Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night (1958). In these earlier works, the filmmaker looks at the external world and finds in that looking the reason to contemplate his own suicide. Hockenhull is not present in an autobiographical way in his film, but his cinematic style does have some of the tormented quality of the Brakhage and MacLaine works. In The End, which Hockenhull has not seen, we are struck by constant shifts in the film’s representational mode. And in Determinations, written texts are presented in an almost bewildering variety of forms. We hear them spoken by a number of different voices, sometimes simultaneously; we also hear sound recorded from TV. We see printed words and sentences, made on a video-titling system and filmed off a video screen, in a variety of different formats. Certain key words, “schizo” and “dead,” are privileged texts: they’re scratched directly onto the film emulsion.

A similar variety can be found in image styles. Many shots are filmed from broadcast TV, at times presented in ultrarapid montage. The film often alternates between black and white and color. In some scenes, carefully choreographed camera movements are used; others are shot in an improvisational, documentary fashion.

The juxtaposition of two sequences near the film’s center illustrates the effect and meaning of this stylistic variety. We first see a man on an aerial tram that bridges a wilderness river. He tells a story of an insomniac so tormented by his condition that he kills himself, only to find that “he still cannot sleep. . . . Insomnia,” he says, “persistent thing . . .” At the beginning of this scene, the man is in long shot above the river amid the wooded landscape; at the end, repeated close-ups of his hand on the tram rope create a rhythmic, repetitive trap, also suggesting a possible reference to the suicide by rope at the end of Anticipation of the Night. The sequence that follows is an extremely rapid and assaultive video montage, synced to a loud rock song.

As in the scene of the woman describing her childhood rape, we move from effect–the description of a man in torment–to possible cause: it’s suggested, indirectly, that the intrusive cultural noise that surrounds us denies not only a genuine appreciation of nature but any real inner peace. We are all like walking dead; we have killed ourselves, but animated by the endlessly self-duplicating cultural energy that surrounds us, we still cannot sleep.

However dense the skein of specific meanings that Hockenhull elicits from his material, what is most impressive about the film is its overall emotional impact. As in the films of Yvonne Rainer, which Hockenhull admires, personal and public issues are not separated but are presented as inextricably linked. The aggressive collage form and the constant stylistic shifts of Determinations finally lead the viewer to experience a crushing despair. This is the case even when it seems as if those shifts are also producing clear meanings. In the juxtaposition cited above, for example, the viewer can’t help but feel bombarded by the color video-montage and its loud music, which have the opposite effect of the black-and-white bridge scene with its quiet story telling. On one level, this difference supports the meaning cited–the noise of the world denies us rest–but on another level, it is just one of many moments in which the stylistic shifts prevent our feeling either a smooth flow or a clear contrast at the point of transition. Instead, the new images and sounds act as if to deny, even obliterate, the previous sequence, almost as if the film were destroying itself. The accretion of such shifts means that we’re permitted no consistent sense of physical space. At such transition points, a void opens up; one feels oneself staring into a whirlpool, into which all of the material of the world, now drained of its meaning, is being irretrievably drawn.

The constant shifts deny any feeling of consistency, undercut any possibility of belief. The film’s inability to settle on a fixed mode or modes for representing the world evidences an inner nihilism beneath its fundamental, and authentic, commitments. The shifts begin to open, in the viewer’s mind, a kind of vacuum in which nothing is possible, in which nothing can live–the vacuum, perhaps, of the world after the holocaust toward which Hockenhull believes we are headed. In the words of one of the film’s texts, “At the end of the world . . . figure becomes lost in ground,” and fine art is rendered irrelevant.

Herein lies the film’s central contradiction: that its dense sound- and image-filled surface, one that appears to be committed to specific beliefs, is really only a vision of a terrible spiritual emptiness, the emptiness of the prison of a culture that seeks to deny all of us our fundamental humanity. But then, the real contemplation of apocalypse that the film attempts must lead in itself to a denial of belief. In the words of another of the film’s texts, “The centre is no longer occupied by a political power but by a capacity for complete destruction.”

Though Hockenhull has expressed admiration for the natural beauties of British Columbia, where he lives, and though one of Direct Action’s bombings was inspired by the notion of undammed, untamed wilderness, nature has only a marginal presence in the film. The wilderness images we do see are either brightly colored, in postcard style, or pale black-and-white. In either case, the viewer has no real sense of contact with the land. When such images appear, a voice on the sound track sometimes says such things as: “It’s the whole political society that nauseates.” The fact is that Hockenhull has chosen to construct his argument largely in negative terms: he gives us hell, not paradise. The film’s form represents the interlocking grids of oppression, the cycles of violence, that threaten in fact to turn our world into a kind of hell.

Among the few “beautiful” images Hockenhull allows himself are shots, spread throughout the film, of women’s shadows, often seen moving against a wall. These images are quiet, tender, evocative. They form an important contrast to the scenes of women exploited–they offer a momentary alternative to the film’s aggressive noise. Yet in this film’s oppressive world, they can exist only as shadows. And in one scene, the shadow is seen against the wall of the U.S. consulate in Vancouver. Another of the film’s “beautiful” images is the view of an apparently pristine wilderness. Then we quickly pan down to an isolated road, which is soon followed by images of a map. It seems this road is far from “innocent,” and in fact it is the road on which the five activists were captured.

Near the film’s end, in one of its more choreographed scenes, a woman reads a text about the history of the arms race. While the woman walks back and forth under a highway viaduct, the text ascribes all the initial arms escalations to the United States and identifies all the Soviet Union’s actions as “responses.” The camera follows her by moving repeatedly to the left, then right, and sometimes it continues these movements even when she can no longer be seen but is still heard offscreen. The camera’s back-and-forth action and reaction are clearly intended as a metaphor for the escalations described in the text. If the film’s poetic qualities come largely from the sense that its style generates a self-negating void, perhaps its strongest positive statement is achieved through the negative arguments–the analysis of what is wrong, rather than the construction of an ideal world–of this and other scenes. Hockenhull protests the ways in which oppression and violence perpetuate themselves, in ever-widening spirals. Whether the camera moves to the left or right, whether the cause is the United States or the USSR, is really not the point. The point is that if humanity is to survive–“We will either survive or die as a species” is another text in the film–we must learn to escape the cyclical traps of action and reaction, of the industrial and cultural noise that is increasingly filling our planet, and denying us our selves

On Screen Review

By Mari Sasano

Building Heaven, Remembering Earth
directed by Oliver Hockenhull

A shaft of light. Blinded momentarily by its intensity, we fail to notice that faint movement. A speck appears as our gaze adjusts: a feather is falling, following the curvature of the dome built originally to the glory of the pagan gods, then rededicated to Christ – now a scaffolding stands there to preserve this structure for the tourists.
Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect is filmmaker Oliver Hockenhull’s shockingly beautiful digital video essay on the philosophy of architecture. Not a documentary in any traditional sense, it refuses to explain, instead relying on image, poetry and music to meditate on the ideas and implications of buildings, time and existence.
Like the feather, each visitor is insignificant and ephemeral in the face of the massive immortality of the Pantheon in Rome. But a building exists as a monument of the imagination of the people who conceived and built them.
Hockenhull visits a number of cities, ruminating on the buildings there – Berlin, its history obliterated, rebuilt, divided and now the largest construction site in the world; Amsterdam and its glories, meaningless to those whose physical cravings loom more enormous than any carefully engineered housing complex; North American modernity; India, its sense of “otherness” existing only in the imperial eye. The West compared to the East – belittled by the continuity of a culture existing since before the Europeans began counting time. The act of recording places them all instantaneously in the same space and time.
We see the spectre of Hockenhull himself in reflections, shadows and movement of his tiny JVC digital camera. The confessional, his voice-overs, are that of a traveller accompanied only by a cloud that looks like a dove, the same cloud just to the left of the Tower of Babel in Breughel’s painting. The dramatized dialogue of the imagined architect is met with self-conscious disbelief: “You’re not smart enough to say that,” replies his companion. What, after all, is theory?
Digital video, which for some has been esthetically troubling, seems to be working for Hockenhull. He pushes the limits of the medium; pixels become beautiful jewels in his hands. Poppies grow in fields of wheat above the catacombs, then become an impressionistic mosaic, then morph back again. Superimposed images, negatives, still photography, animation and distortion are used to give familiar monuments new contexts.
Building Heaven, Remembering Earth is a highly evocative, theoretically engaging and sometimes difficult film. However, it also stands on its own as a series of visually stunning video anecdotes. Whatever theoretical apparatus you bring to it may enhance your viewing pleasure, but is thankfully not entirely necessary to the overall enjoyment of the film.


“Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect” is not a documentary.  Neither is it a narrative or fictional film.  It falls into a special catagory reserved for the works of filmmakers who are determined to remain unbound by the conventions of mainstream cinema.  It realizes the potential of a complete cinematic experience…beautiful and engaging complexity.”    -Tania Bolskaya- University of British Columbia, DISCORDER Press.