“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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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
By MARTIN MORROW
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Martin Morrow is the author of Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit, to be published this spring by the Banff Centre Press.
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.