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+ Official Competition +International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam + The Vancouver International Film Festival + Award - The Best of the NorthWest Film/Video Festival + Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montréal + Screened at MOMA, NYC — Archived at the Observatory — Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona

Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light

Director Oliver Hockenhull tackles a career of Aldous Huxley's thoughts on society, technology, and the complex relationship between the two, from his landmark 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World to his observations on his experiments with mind-altering substances in the late 1950s, and reconsiders them in the context of modern life. Woven through the snippets of a Huxley interview from 1957 are comments by U.N. advisor Dr. Jean Houston from a 1994 Huxley Symposium, dramatic skits (designed to explore ideas of communication, language, and identity), computer graphics, and a narrator whose remarks continue to reframe both the message and medium. It's a complex, dense cinematic essay...

Viewers looking for background on the work of the famous novelist, essayist, and social philosopher won't find much in the way of biographical information, but this meditative, self-reflexive look into his theories and thought is a fascinating approach to Huxley's work.
-Sean Axmaker

Film Review

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.

Film Review

"Just Relationships"

Oliver Hockenhull
Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light.

The unbearable lightness of Brave New World

In 1932 in London, the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was published. In his book, Huxley presents a hedonistic-materialistic sf-like society. The Canadian filmmaker Oliver Hockenhull tried to visualise Huxley's range of ideas in his cinematic essay: Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light.

In 1516, the humanist and statesman Thomas More wrote his Utopia. The word, taken from Greek, means 'no man's land': an ideal form of state and society populated only by happy and free people. But particularly in the previous century, with its industrial revolution and technical developments, this positive view on the 'perfect' society changed. Thinkers and writers formulated the negative utopia or dystopia, presenting the drawbacks of a seemingly ideal society. Dystopias have a cautionary character: if some (technical) developments are assessed too positively, man looks on passively or certain movements are starting to dominate, it can have disastrous consequences for society and man as an emotional, feeling creature. To Aldous Huxley, utopia and dystopia in the end were identical.

This, by the way, does not imply that Huxley considered all aspects of the future society dangerous or inhuman. Technological developments could serve humanity if structural mentality changes would come about. Hockenhull tries to express Huxley's ideas (How can people remain people in a cold, high-tech world?) in a kind of mixed-media form. Television interviews with the author are alternated with recited fragments from his work, enacted scenes and computer-made 3D images. His book 'Brave New World' is used as a vantage point for a cinematographic journey along the history of contemporary technology. The title The Gravity of Light, has several meanings. The importance of light as a mystical experiment taking place in the 'expanded' mind on the one hand, the importance but also the obnoxiousness of comfort, entertainment, frivolity and simplicity on the other.

The greatest happiness

In 'Brave New World', everything revolves around 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. After nine years of warfare, the world state has been brought about, its main raison d'?tre being to enforce its citizens' happiness. Hedonistic happiness as an obligation. This ideal society has been divided into strictly delimited classes. The members of the separate castes are easily recognisable because they wear clothes of a certain colour. The highest castes are physically stronger than the lower castes. Every person is happy in his own group and has a kind of innate satisfaction. Nobody is inclined to move up or change his or her fate. This is achieved by genetic manipulation. Natural births no longer occur and children are being cloned particularly among the lower classes, so that personnel that has to carry out unskilled and monotonous labour can consist of identical people. Thus, Huxley suggests that technical attainments are being abused by the government. Man is serving technology whereas it should be the other way around. But to him progress is apparently synonymous with slavery and subjection to technology.

Soma to the soul

To give the inhabitants of Brave New World a hand in attaining happiness, Huxley invents the drug 'Soma'. If someone feels tired or ill, a number of tablets can be swallowed. From a young age, children are familiarised with the drug and every citizen is apportioned a liberal quantity by the government. Soma has no physical side effects and demonstrates a relationship to the hallucinatory mescal. Huxley had become impressed by the use of mescal by followers of the 'Native American Church'. Owing to the hallucinatory effects of the substance, the Indians had been able to travel back to their utopia, the time before the white man came. It also gave them feelings of solidarity. Despite the fact that Huxley himself was a heavy user of LSD, there is a clear difference between him and the soma users in his novel. The citizens of Brave New World no longer have emotions and because everything is so 'wonderful', they no longer think either. Huxley saw the use of LSD as a way to explore the inner world and thereby the essence of life: 'every man's memory is his private literature'. He considered mind-expanding drugs as a permissible means to temporarily escape reality. A sojourn in the inner self was required to be purified and get out and participate in society again. You can anticipate the consequences of technology by using your fantasy, by making a journey through your inner self. In future society, the human body has become a robot, serving technology. When Huxley was dying, he used LSD to disconnect his mind from the machine, his body.

Hockenhull has made an experimental, artistic documentary that comes up to the spirituality and mental consciousness that Huxley envisaged. Mechanical movements, trance music and virtual slides are alternated with performances by an actor portraying the human emotion. The composition of the images perhaps refers to the human mind that is looking for happiness, but will never achieve it by switching off the human, rather imperfect moods and by relying on the technology.

By Eva van Joost
Aldous Huxley; The Gravity of Light 1997 / Can / colour / 70 min.
Produced by Luminous Eye Productions
Director: Oliver Hockenhull

"One of the many reasons for the bewildering and tragic character of human existence is the fact that social organization is at once necessary and fatal." AH.

"I have never had the smallest ambition to be a Classic of any kind, whether Neo, Palaeo, Proto or Eo. Not at any price. For, to begin with, I have a taste for the lively, the mixed and the incomplete in art, preferring it to the universal and the chemically pure. In the second place, I regard the classical discipline, with its insistence on elimination, concentration, simplification, as being, for all the formal difficulties it imposes on the writer, essentially an escape from actual reality."
“Music at Night” A.H.

"Two accounts of the same human event, one in terms of pure science, the other in terms of religion, aesthetics, passion, even common sense: their discord will set up the most disquieting reverberations in the mind." A.H.

"For now there is only the darkness expanding and deepening, deepening into light; there is only this final peace, this consciousness of being no more separate, this illumination."
“Eyeless in Gaza”

"To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness — to be aware of it and yet to remain in a condition to survive as an animal, to think and feel as a human being, to resort whenever expedient to systematic reasoning. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be." “The Doors of Perception”

"Dying's an art and at our age we ought to be learning it. It helps to have seen someone who really knew how. Helen knew how to die because she knew how to live — to live now and here and for the greater glory of God. And that necessarily entails dying to there and then and tomorrow and one's own miserable little self. In the process of living as one ought to live, Helen had been dying by daily instalments. When the final reckoning came, there was practically nothing to pay...."
“The Genius and the Goddess”

He considered the discovery of psychedelics one of the three major scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century, the other two being the splitting of the atom and the manipulation of genetic material. ...he always emphasized how delicately and respectfully these chemicals should be used.

"...The last thing I want is to create an image of myself as "Mr. LSD"...nor have I the least desire to get involved in the politics of psychedelics..." January 25-1963.

"What emerges as a general conclusion is the confirmation of the fact that mescaline does genuinely open the door, and that everything including the Unknown in its purest, most comprehensive form can come through. After the theophany it is up to the momentarily enlightened individual to "co-operate with Grace' -not so much by will as by awareness.”
Yours affectionately, Aldous.

“Do what you are doing now, suffer what you are suffering now. Nothing need be changed but your heart.”