Saturday, March 21, 2020

Nate Hood on Echoes of the Invisible (2020)

In the Ethiopian desert, Eastern Orthodox monks live alone in caves, eschewing all human contact. Their churches are hewn from the stony cliffs and can only be reached by pulling oneself up the side of the vertical chasm with a rope. There they live silent lives of prayer practicing a 1,700 year old form of Christian meditation known as Hesychia which seeks to still and silence the soul and mind, shutting out all the mental and emotional pollution of the outside world so they can commune with God. Elsewhere in Tibet, Buddhist monks make mandalas of sand that mimic the fractal patterns of the cosmos which echo down throughout creation from the warp of galactic clusters to the shape of river deltas and down, down to the twistings of neural pathways in the brain. Elsewhere still, journalist Paul Salopek sets out to walk the 21,000 miles from the cradle of humanity in Africa to the southern tip of South America, mimicking our prehistoric ancestors’ migration across the globe, dodging tribal warfare and corrupt police states, all the while reconnecting with our genetic memory of ceaseless migration before our species invented the concept of Home.

Look across the world and there are still more wanderers and explorers of the extreme and inexplicable: photographer Rachel Sussman takes pictures of the oldest surviving organisms in the world like a half million year old Siberian actinobacteria; a group of theoretical physicists live in a city-sized machine underground seeking to literally create matter out of almost nothing; a blind endurance runner who’s trained his whole life to run through Death Valley tries not to die while running through one of the most inhospitable places in the world.

All of these stories weave together in Steve Elkins’ stunning documentary Echoes of the Invisible. What do they have in common? They all focus on humans desperately pushing against the boundaries of what can be known about ourselves, our universe, and our places within in. It’s a document of feeble mankind forcing itself to the brink of extremes and finding beauty, peace, solitude, and perhaps even salvation.

Watching it, one is reminded of the outsider eccentrics populating the documentaries of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris and the experimental films of Godfrey Reggio. But whereas Herzog and Morris are largely content with letting their bizarre subjects exist within their own cloistered environments, Elkins seeks to connect all these disparate stories into a singular saga of human struggle and endeavor—and incredibly, he succeeds. And whereas Reggio’s films are largely stoic aesthetic tone poems about alienation and societal decay, Elkins favors bold, immediate emotions intended to sooth, comfort, and inspire.

It’s easy to imagine the crowd that turns their noses up at the hopeful cheesiness of Spielberg or the self-absorbed spiritualism of Malick finding this film hopelessly pretentious. Laughable, even. But this film is a prayer, and prayers require the resignation and surrender of the self to something greater.

Go, seek this film, and surrender. Be healed. Amen.


No comments:

Post a Comment