Among the many films I attended at the Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth film festival there was one that still weighs heavily on me. Luckily, the director and producer, Godfrey Reggio, was there to guide us all through his masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi, for if he were not I may still be lost back among the entrancing images captured by Ron Fricke or the rolling score of Philip Glass. All said, I made it out alive. But something was left unsettled, namely, an apparent contradiction between a statement made by Reggio prior to the film and then one response during the Q & A after.
Before the film Reggio encouraged everybody in the theater to, and I am paraphrasing, ‘sit back and experience what we were about to see.’ He explained that if we were too bent on deriving meaning from the film, we wouldn’t experience the film at all. And continued by indicating that what we were about to see was not about some underlying narrative that could be ‘derived’ from the images or sounds, but about the images and sounds themselves. Okay Godfrey, got it. I was a bit hungover, so the premise of just sitting and soaking in light and sound was about as far as I intended on getting anyway.
The film rolled. It was a journey that began with an image of a rocketship taking off, bound for space, quickly transitioned into over an hour of other images, but then concluded with the same ship, this time, making its way through Troposphere, Stratosphere, Mesosphere and then BOOM! exploding in Challenger fashion amongst a blue sky. During the Q & A someone asked the question, why the bookending? What caused the conscious decision to wrap the film in this image? Godfrey’s answer was simple. He said that without bookending in a film like this, without a frame on an image, or general sense of ‘full circle-ness’ in a song, its much more difficult for humans to make a commitment to derive meaning from that art. And, to be honest, I’m still working through both the film and the comment myself, but this seems important.
Initially, I thought this idea contradictory to Godfrey’s initial asking of us to ‘not try and derive meaning’ from Koyaanisqatsi. I’ve since realized what he meant, and you would understand this entirely if the film was familiar, is that the film itself does not move in time like narrative requires. It is just image and sound. That’s it. And thus, the image requires a frame. The frame in this case is an image itself. Okay, so how is this all related to our class? The bridge is in this idea of meaning.
This is the problem: A sense of nothing and a sense of meaning are one in the same, but only one of them, from a rationalistic or objective perspective, is ‘provable’. There is, truly, no evidence for nothing, there is no clear reason why the zero should be a number, yet this sense of nothingness seems intimately related to meaning, to narrative, to religion, and even science. Reggio knew that he must define his work’s start point and end point in much like religious texts must define an origin story in order for resonance with humans. Yet, I left the film alive, and there is evidence to suggest existence prior to the birth of the Universe suggested in Genesis. And so what seems to be a more accurate rationalistic notion of the nature of things is the idea that everything has always been and always will be. The powerful play will go on. Verses will come in and out, each thinking, and needing, to convince their constituents, for some human reason, that their verse is it, is everything, is all that ever was and ever will be.
Now, regarding the class material, how does the idea of awesome coolness fit into this equation? And here I can only speak from my personal experience, but awesomeness and great mystery resonates with me hugely. It always has. Einstein has been a hero of mine since a very young age, and I have for a while now been extremely interested in Native philosophies, so much so that I almost entered a graduate program at Montana State right out of undergraduate to study just that. But, when that feeling of euphoria precipitates inside me on particulate-ly awesome facts, I often realize that I find the awesomeness tied so clearly into a terror of nothingness. I worry that without a sense of nothingness, a sense of awesomeness may not be such a powerful experience. It seems to me that we humans ultimately need this sense of nothingness to find meaning in whatever narrative we follow, whether it a traditional religion or modern scientific endeavor. Nothingness, or Elseness, is necessary to define a narrative, whether its Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi or the Bible. And, here we go, since nothingness is unprovable in the most basic sense, no human endeavor will ever be purely rational. It can’t be.