Nearing the finish line of a year devoted to the making of 9, I’m finding more time to reflect on the tireless and miraculous journey I embarked on 12 months ago. Born from not just a script, but memories and experiences that shaped my childhood, the story of 9 drew me into a year long inquiry into the cultural conditioning of the feminine and how 9’s young heroine confronts these conditions and then integrates them into the larger context of wholeness.
Ballet is 9‘s vehicle to tell the story of how perfectionism and order can distort and even maim the creative expression when out of balance. In the 15th century, ballet was born in the European courts as part of the cultural rebirth that was the Renaissance. This rebirth included a significant shift in human perception. Philosophy, science and medicine were expressing a new paradigm of Reason. The feminine was regarded with suspicion as an inferior and unruly force, like nature itself, and further reduced to an unimportant status with masculine values of reason and control seen as superior. Death, nature, woman, the body and sexuality were often clumped together as things to be controlled and overcome. It follows that around the same time the Church had a heightened emphasis on the virginal feminine as the ideal woman which further encouraged the split between spirit and flesh. Early forms of ballet became an expression of this split, further emphasizing virginal perfection over carnal earthiness. Devotion to Mary as universal mother continued to spread and some believe that many of these early forms of ballet were just that - devotional dances to the Virgin.
Transcendence. Idealism. Purity. Reason. Order. Many young maidens today wouldn’t use these words to describe their own adolescent pursuits. But when taken to extremes, they can feed the perfectionism pervasive in our modern culture, inhibiting a natural maturation into an embodied feminine wholeness. Our preoccupation with order has sequestered chaos and mystery to the darker corners of our psyche.
And for hundreds of years, with the help the church as well as Disney, we often personify this “other half” - death, chaos, darkness, mystery and destruction - as the archetypal witch. The Black Madonna. In 9, ballerina meets witch. Maiden meets Crone.
In many ways, the unexpected death of my father when I was 18 was my own introduction to the witch. Suddenly my shiny fortress of perfection built from pointe shoes and leotards felt unsteady and false. However, this violent and harsh encounter with the unknown only reinforced my need to make sense of the world, so I traded slippers for science. Pliés for reason. Instead of welcoming the wisdom of the Crone into my home, I locked her out.
My father’s death may have formed a crack in my foundation but it would take another decade for the house to fall. I found a new passion in pursuing perfect health and chasing degree programs in medicine, all the while my own body crumbling under the stress of avoiding the inevitable - the emotions that didn’t have answers, the mess I felt inside that didn’t respond to pills or herbs. As Jungian analyst Marion Woodman notes in her book Addiction to Perfection, “Perfection is static, unlike life which is constantly changing and moving. Therefore, perfection is more closely related to death than it is to life, and the pursuit of perfection can be seen as the unconscious pursuit of death.” So on the one hand, in the pursuit of my dream of fulfillment, I did everything in my will to avoid the pain of the unknown but on the other hand, within that very darkness lived the vitality and passion that I needed to bring my dreams to fruition.
When we avoid the darkness we are also cutting ourselves off from a limitless reservoir of intuition, insight and energy that are burning at its core. Many of us live entire lives without really immersing ourselves in this heat or use addiction to skirt around its cathartic edges. When 9’s protagonist comes face to face with her own transformation, her street that was once full of magic, serendipity, aliveness and booming orchestral notes is nothing more than an unresponsive, empty city block. She is small and insignificant, no longer in control, and the street answers back with silence. Baba Yaga, 9’s archetypal Crone, appears in our heroine’s journey to challenge her to step into the fire. To go beyond an immature, dualistic stage of development and into a world that embraces opposites.
She meets the witch and opens the door.
We are both perfection and chaos. Light and darkness. Our journey is full of understanding and meaninglessness. We are made of magic and wonder and we are also water and carbon. Our entire human existence is this duality. To dance is to embody this dichotomous tension, constantly listening and responding to the opposing forces that live in and around us. As Nietzsche once said, “The tree that would grow to heaven MUST send its roots to hell.” The trees have been doing it for millions of years. So why are we so afraid?
So with arms stretched to the cosmos and feet grounded into the earth, the maiden and the crone fall into step. The silent sky is their orchestra. And we, the fleshy, exquisitely graceful and messy nerve endings of consciousness, become the dance, dancing itself.
Let there be color.
(Using a fancy box of crayons with Jalal Jemison at Portland’s Mission Control)
I am thrilled to announce that actress Orianna Herrman has brought her blazing talent to the voice of 9’s stern dance instructor, Miss M…
Since Orianna is in LA and I’m up here in the wild north, we communicated about the character via email, I sent over a few youtube clips with examples of Royal Ballet master class instructors, and worked via Skype with the actual footage and text. Sounds challenging? Not really… with Orianna’s wicked versatility, consideration and intuitive sense, she nailed the performance in one take. In fact, it was so good, that while I was listening at my desk, I found all my old ballet neurosis coming back as she brought the text to life. My posture straightened, my toes pointed, and I found myself both longing for her approval and fearing her scrutiny. PTSD anyone?
I am delighted to have reconnected with Orianna and am already looking forward to the next project when she and I can really dig our heels into something longer term.
You can enjoy her reel above, or better yet… rent her latest feature film, James Westby’s Rid of Me, tonight. Orianna spent 4 months on Scott Feinberg’s (The Hollywood Reporter) Oscar watch list under the category of Best Supporting Actress for her role of Trudy in Showtime’s 2012 release of Rid of Me.
Behold, a synesthete is among us.
What a treasure it was to receive an email from 9’s sound designer, Tim Harrison, a few days ago that shared a link to his “visual sound design treatment.” Wait. Visual sound design? A lover of boundary blurring myself, this idea thrills. And then on further investigation, not only thrills, but makes ridiculous sense. Suddenly all those months of narrative conflict and development are mapped for both my eyes and ears so I can sit back and understand the tension, the ache and the resolve not just in my mind but in my bones.
Tim’s process is very much inspired by filmmaker David Sonnenschein and he is presently using 9’s script and David’s theories and strategies as a teaching tool for his students in Barcelona. http://www.sonicstrategies.com
Tim’s next treatment will be delivered with a dinner menu and a scratch and sniff timeline as well.
Cardboard Castle, an inventive motion production studio in Portland, gets a huge nod from the great Baba Yaga. A pain-free operation for everyone involved, Cardboard Castle’s designers executed the task at hand with surgical precision. With talent, vision and radiant bedside manner, I would highly recommend this team for any of your practical or otherworldly motion production needs.
Headed by the creative spirit of Cooper Johnson, Cardboard Castle is a motion production studio specializing in imaginative, high-end visual content. Faithful to the magic of the imaginary, artisans of the practical, they make castles that are real foundations. Armed with brave minds and big hearts, they turn the everyday on its head, infusing it with the wonder and playful spirit of daringly imagined worlds.
Cardboard Castle is the natural extension of rich artistry that has guided Cooper Johnson throughout his life. His childhood – spent in the wilds of Alaska – was filled with long winter nights and endless summer days drawing and creating. This gift soon found expression in other places and mediums—from Cooper’s bohemian period as a tattoo artist in Paris, to fifteen years in motion graphics artistry and filmmaking for clients from the East to the West Coast. Now settled in Portland, Oregon, he is at the helm of Cardboard Castle, from which many creative quests continue to be launched.
Come join us Monday, October 21 at the Hollywood Theater for a stellar lineup of short films. New works by 9 local filmmakers who explore myths, rituals, and the dark corners of the mind, including a freshly resuscitated version of my first film CPR, 9’s haunting teaser, Chel White’s hypnotic music video for David Lynch “Bird of Flames” and world premieres of Guy Baker’s “Legacy” and Matt Schulte’s “Image.” Come and celebrate the fruits born from Portland rain and the mad creativity it inspires in her inhabitants.
Soon, very soon… we will all gather again for 9’s premiere. We are just days from a final cut and then sound and score will unleash their rabid souls upon her.
As we near a finish line in London with the final cut and prepare for some luscious sound design to enter 9’s world, I thought it appropriate to pause our clocks for a moment and reflect on our time bound existence. 9’s protagonist Katarina both dances and wrestles with her own experience of time and ultimately realizes, as the great e.e. cummings so eloquently writes, “we are never, but forever now.”
what time is it? it is by every star
a different time, and each most falsely true;
or so subhuman superminds declare
–nor all their times encompass me and you:
when are we never, but forever now
(host of eternity; not guests of seem)
believe me, dear, clocks have enough to do
without confusing timelessness and time
Time cannot children, poets, lovers, tell–
measure imagine, mystery, a kiss
–not though mankind would rather know than feel;
mistrusting utterly that timelessness
whose absence would make your whole life and my
(and infinite our) merely to undie
- e.e. cummings
I’m not quite sure what sort of wizard water Londoners drink, but I can only thank my lucky cat for stumbling into a team of young, inventive geniuses from across the pond who have hopped a ride on my own adventures into filmmaking. Our most recent passenger is Tim Harrison, whose sound buffets seduced me on first listening. And indeed, I believe sound may be the most powerful tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal to seduce. That’s because “sound,” as the great sound editor Alan Splet once said, “is a heart thing.”
So without further ado, I’m delighted to welcome Tim Harrison… 9’s auditory heart surgeon. His film reel (above) will make your auditory ossicle gyrate with joy.
Tim Harrison is a sound designer, filmmaker and tinkerer. He runs Aumeta, a company specialising in feature film audio post (mostly recently Sus and Keith Lemon: The Film) and commercial sound design (clients include Adidas, Mulberry and Nokia). He has a keen interest in experimental cinema, regularly working with director Luke Losey. Results include the microshorts The Promise and 'i' for which he won the International Sound Design Prize at the 2007 Hamburg Film Festival. Collaborations with Luke have also seen him work alongside Damon Albarn on The Boy in the Oak and Phil Hartnoll (Orbital) on various projection mapping projects for Drive Productions.
Tim is a member of filmmaking collective Studio Murmur. Work includes the butoh inspired pieces Dreamt in Flesh and 1/4”. He has also produced and assistant directed Studio Murmur music videos for the likes of DJ Shadow, Kwes and Get People.
A current focus is on interactive videos and installations. In 2012 he co-directed Helioscope, following on from the earlier interactive video experiment The Adelphi. Past installations include Synaesthete, a Java-based cymatics system. Amongst his technical expertise in these areas are programming languages C++, Java and Flash, with Processing and Arduino featuring heavily in more recent experiments.
Tim is a technician and lecturer for the Sound Arts & Design courses.
And while a spectrum of human emotion from thrill to terror is captured in front of the camera, the moments behind the scenes are every bit as textured.
Mia Allen, spinstress of beauty (both behind and in front of the lens) once again focuses her own camera on the poetic threads of life behind the scenes and captures what now, just two weeks post-wrap, feels like nothing short of a wildest, most precious dream come true. http://www.miaallen.com
No sleep and pure ecstasy have left my noodle in a happy state of mush. Here’s some exquisite footage candy for you all to enjoy while I try to recover the English language.
Just a little interior decorating for Baba Yaga’s domain. I don’t know how he continues to do it, but my forever muse Dave McLaughlin once again turns the blobs of my soul into an eloquent, irreverent and wickedly cool design.
I have recently fallen head over heels in love. With a book.
The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images by TASCHEN is an astounding and thorough exploration into the fabric of symbolism and how images have carried meaning and expressed the infinite layers of humanity’s unconscious throughout history. Meister Eckhart once said, “When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.”
In 9, Katarina creates a stage much like the painting of the street above. Titled The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, by Giorgio de Chirico, this image evokes the possibility of both loneliness and serendipitous connection. As with any town street, there is a balance between orderly flow and chance, and it is this archetypal setting that lays the foundation for our protagonist’s salvation, catharsis and transformation.
And within this setting, her universe is ripe with symbols, each one every bit as potent as adding another human to our cast. I have dug through The Book of Symbols and found a a treasure chest of research and wisdom that examine and celebrate our vast theater of characters.
So without further ado, I introduce our mysterious, pulsing, colorful cast:
(I’ll begin with the image on the top left and proceed left to right…. I have cropped these into squares so often you’re not seeing the image in its entirety but all are easily googled.)
FIRE: In myth as in reality, fire sometimes merely destroys, but often destroys so that from the purified residue or ashy essence a new world may come into being. “It is through fire that nature is changed,” wrote philosopher Mircea Eliade, making it the “basis of the most ancient magics,” and in its symbolism carrying, even now, our terrors and hopes of transmutation. Death and cremation, as well as the meditative heat are conveyed by this image from a manuscript of Bhagavata-Purana, painting on paper, ca. 17th century, Rajasthan
TOWER: Standing at the center of the world as an expression of the universal desire to reunite with the heavens. The Great Tower, by Giorgio de Chirico, oil painting, 1913 France
FOOT: Feet can symbolize pilgrimage and following the path to revealed wisdom. A 16th century illuminated manuscript from Iran depicts two colossal feet, perhaps the sandals of the Prophet, standing on either side of an open Koran.
WITCH: Witches brings us to our true nature. She breaks stasis, or purposefully creates it. She sets things in motion, stirs the pot, is instigator and matrix of fateful odysseys and transformations. The young woman hoping to catch a husband is not identified as a witch, but such innocent rites in the MIddle Ages hooked the Church’s fantasies of female sorcery. The Love Potion, oil on panel, Flemish School 15th century.
SCISSORS: Scissors reflect the darkest mysteries of the primordial feminine, suggesting the severing jaws of death, cutting the thread of life, but also the emblem of the divine midwife who mediates the birth of the individual in the cutting of the umbilical cord. Scissors also intimate that conscious life itself is vulnerable to simply getting snipped. Scissors, Tang Dynasty, 8th-9th century, China.
BLOOD: Blood symbolizes our feeling for the sacredness of life before we distance ourselves in bloodless, abstract thought - it is the soul of embodied life, forming our essential character. Kako Ueda’s hand-cut figure, delineating the cyclical nature of life and death in freshly severed red paint. Tree of Life, paper, 2005, United States.
DISMEMBERMENT: Dismemberment is a mythopoetic rendering of the process of dissolution, which ultimately provides the seeds of rebirth and wholeness. From a peyote vision, the painting renders the process of dismemberment leading to differentiation and renewal. The Dismemberment of Watákame, by José Benitez Sánchez, yarn painting, Huichol, 1973, Mexico
DARKNESS: Darkness is our first reality, the looming riddle of our becoming. It is the primordial feminine energy of chaos from which all is born. North Pacific Ocean, Stinson Beach, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, gelatin silver print, 1994.
SPARK: Carl Jung found that fiery sparks correspond with the multiple centers of the psyche. They depict how a human being can become conscious of, or “gather together,” the luminous substance of the personality, extracted from unconscious projections into a more integrated whole. Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) illuminated vision of the spark of creation. From Liber Scivias, Book II, from a facsimile, 12th century, Germany.
With less than two weeks until we begin filming Part II, my beloved graphic designer David McLaughlin pulls out some more visionary tricks. Who needs a Warner Brother’s Hollywood backlot when we can transform a street 90 miles away from home? So for two magical nights, Magnolia Street will have a few new proprietors. And if the shoe fits, who knows, maybe instead of taking the signs down, the city of Centralia will instead take out an ad for some new entrepreneurs. Every town needs a surly cigar shopkeeper.
"If you’ve ever walked into a movie one way, secure in your familiar worldview and self-image, and walked out after the screening feeling radically transformed, then you’ve experienced the power of film as Initiation." - Deep Cinema, Mary Trainor Brigham
Initiation is the birthright of all humanity. At its core, initiations clarify our vision and help us plant ourselves in the grand scheme of things. Shamans and fire were once the central conductors of these rituals, bringing tribesmen into states of altered consciousness and facilitating insight and transformation through dance, rhythm, story, poetry, vocalization, and symbolic costuming.
Sound a bit like modern theater and cinema?
Have you ever wondered why films are called “flicks?”
Is the cinema reminiscent of this original, shamanic ritual?
I believe there is something deep in our primal DNA that remembers gathering around fire to evoke mind-altering initiations that open novel perspectives relative to our normal perception. But because our lives no longer regularly seek initiation through trance-dancing with masks these dimensions of tribal life have been partially displaced onto the collective experience of film-viewing. And whether it’s Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Rocky Horror Picture Show, falling into a film on the big screen alongside a group of strangers, and for a solid duration of time, has the power to transform us.
Modern life has all too often sterilized and packaged our longing for initiation. We mistake a bottle of Jack for a shaman or seek council from reality tv. Our identities are overvalued, inflated and branded onto the flesh of social media. Stories live on pocket-sized boxes and instead of communing under the stars until the last burning embers go black, we slice our myths into anemic bites. Our modern “fires” are luke-warm at best as we use story to pass time instead of allowing story to shift, bend and even create time.
But however idealistic it may be, I like the thought that cinema has the potential to reintroduce this ancient phenomenon into our culture. The dark theater becomes our cave. The screen, our fire. In a theater we commit ourselves collectively to the shedding of our own dramas for two hours and try on new myths. And in an age when we have a hard time even sharing elbow space with an airline passenger, it’s nothing short of a miracle to see a group of strangers coming together to laugh, contemplate, weep, vindicate and forgive.
What a strange and wonderful sanctuary the cinema can be.
“Identity would seem to be a garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self, in which case, it is best that the garment be loose; a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.” -James Baldwin
So turn off your On Demand TV. Buy a ticket to your local cinema. Enter the dark, fertile womb of the theater. Sit next to a stranger. Shed your day, your year, your life.
Let the flickering heat into your bones and then emerge… something better.