Unreal Nature

May 26, 2016

Crystal Night

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… before that perfect flower / scissors hesitate.

This is from The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place by Scott MacDonald (2001):

… Few words are more likely to cause consternation in recent generations of American academics than “the spirit” and “spiritual.” Whether in the context of traditional religion or in the more recent New Age context, admitting to a spiritual connection seems to a good many educated people tantamount to admitting to a disease of the intellect.

… For many academics, the assumption has been that only a rigorous intellectual clarity, unmarred by sentimental ideas like a “higher power,” can train new generations to face up to social inequality and transform society for the better. That one of the most courageous and effective social transformations in American history was a project of the undeniably religious Southern Christian Leadership Conference might be expected to give pause to progressive academics, but the irony is that the work of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (and so many others) has often been patronized by an academic establishment that feels more comfortable with approaches to social change based on more intellectually complex social theories.

[line break added] The irony here is that, recently, when I showed a class segments of Eyes on the Prize (1980), they were astonished at what “unsophisticated,” young people and adults could undertake and accomplish in the name of the spirit; these students, like so many of us, were theoretically aware but could barely imagine having the “spirit” to take the kinds of action they saw in Eyes on the Prize.

In the world of academic film studies, and in the more academically marginalized world of independent filmmaking, the same suspicion of “the spirit” and “spiritual” is obvious. Recently, I had a conversation with Chick Strand, who has made a number of films that I would classify as “spiritual,” and when I told her I thought that her Kristallnacht (1979) could be categorized as a cinematic prayer she quickly responded, “Well, a prayer for the Godless!”

[line break added] I said, “How about a prayer for the spiritual?” And she responded, “Whatever that means.” Certainly, I understand her embarrassment with the team “prayer” applied to her film: it has come to sound pretentious and mindless at the same time. The paradox is that Kristallnacht is resonant with spirit, and only a spiritually driven filmmaker could have made it.

[ … ]

White chrysathemum
before that perfect flower
scissors hesitate.

The haiku is followed by a sequence of exquisite imagery of two young women swimming in what appears to be a lake at night (while we do not hear the young women speak, we do hear their splashes and a variety of nighttime sounds: crickets, frogs … ), exquisite because of the way in which the light sparkles and shimmers on the water.

[line break added] The sequence ends with the sound of a distant train whistle, the sounds of the train arriving at a station; and then, accompanied by the sound of a gong, a dissolve forms a segue into a nearly three-minute shot of water rippling through the frame from upper right to lower left (imagery as exquisite as the imagery of the young women swimming, and for the same reason: the complex reflections of light off the dark water), accompanied by a haunting, rhythmic music. Kristallnacht concludes with the dedication — white on black, echoing the opening haiku, “For Anne Frank.”

… On the most literal level, the term means “crystal night,” and thus can refer to the lovely evening evoked by Strand’s crystalline water and sensual sound track: the very image of growing up in an Edenic, rural America. Even the distant sounds of the train confirm the romance of the moment Strand captures: for many of us who grew up in mid-century, the distant sound of (especially nighttime) train whistles resonated a combination of nostalgia, security, and excitement about the future. On the other hand, the historical implications of the title, the dedication to Anne Frank, and the startling gong that accompanies the transition from swimmers to rippling water demand that we also respond to Strand’s “Edenic moment” as a haunting allegory …

My most recent previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.

-Julie

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