I’ve presently been teaching for more than two decades and my years have followed the same academic schedule in childhood and adulthood: I return to school in late August with anxiety and am released happily into vacation again the following May. Summer represents self-determination and freedom. An occasional ritual that I enjoy during my summer breaks from teaching is the ‘spontaneous day,’ named ironically because my behavior is always predictable. I’ll wake up one morning and decide that I’m not going to draw animation that day, but rather I’m going to set out on my bicycle with the attitude of unstructured adventure that I enjoyed as a child on break from school. I bike to a coffee shop, buy a cup of tea and a cookie. Then I find the nearest bookstore, flipping noncommittally through poetry collections or reading reviews of recent jazz releases in "Downbeat." The final destination is an afternoon matinee in a movie theater. Returning to daylight outside after watching a film suggests a suspension of rules and responsibilities to me. When I’m teaching in February and the temperature is five degrees below zero outside, I warm myself with the recollection of these desultory summer episodes.
Although I have a routine, what I encounter on each particular outing is unique. In July of 2008, I set out with the plan of eventually watching Speed Racer at the Mann 6 second run theater in Hopkins, a suburb of Minneapolis. The bike trail nearest my house in St. Paul runs on an abandoned railroad line straight east/west; thirteen miles from my starting point it passes the Hopkins movie theater. After the tea and bookstore ritual I arrived at the Mann 6, bought a ticket for Speed Racer and found myself alone with a man playing a flute. He sat in the left section of the auditorium. As I passed, I smiled and said “hey” and he acknowledged me with a nod of his head, pausing briefly to say, “It’s okay, man, I’m not crazy or anything. I’m just a musician.” I laughed and answered, “It’s fine for me.” He continued improvising until the movie started and then put the flute away.
The oddness of the circumstances may have influenced my reaction, but I felt that Speed Racer was one of the best-financed experimental films I'd ever seen; Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic, musical production numbers would be other candidates. In the case of both Hopper and the Wachowskis, the filmmakers established their commercial credibility with financially successful films (Easy Rider and The Matrix) and then produced wildly unorthodox projects bankrolled by major studios. As the end credits scrolled and the flute playing began again, I thought that traditional film language might eventually catch up with the Wachowskis’ vision, a radical conflation of narrative past, present and future into one compressed simultaneity; time, in the film, folds rather than unfolds.
When I emerged from the theater, the main street of Hopkins was filled with World War II fighter planes. I thought that it might be a hallucination resultant from the visual overflow of Speed Racer. I blinked but the planes didn't disappear. Apparently, a group of historical fighter plane collectors had arranged them in the street while I was watching the film.
My first wife Sayer contacted me recently, asking for a photo of a giant Ex-Lax thermometer that hangs in my downstairs bathroom. Now living in Los Angeles, she was writing a screenplay about her family’s drugstore in Ohio and was collecting visual material to reconstruct the place in her mind. Sayer had originally found the thermometer in storage in the drugstore and somehow, at the end of our marriage in 1993, I ended up with it. I once sat in a chair beneath the big blue and red Ex-Lax logo while reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” In the description of a walk through a small mid-western town Humbert Humbert observes that, “A large thermometer with the name of a laxative quietly dwelt on the front of a drugstore;” Nabokov had just described the thermometer hanging above me! The set dressers for Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the book, unfortunately, overlooked this odd detail.
Over the course of a few emails back and forth, Sayer and I noted that thirty years had passed since we’d met each other and we worried about the speed of our passing lives, an uncontrollable reflex among my fifty-year-old friends. I said to my present partner Hilde at dinner that evening, “Let’s never talk about how short life is again. In fact, let’s start complaining about how long life is. Every day you have to wake up again, dress again and eat again, always the same routines.” As we introduced the ‘life is long’ mantra into our social interactions, I realized that we were beginning to reprogram our thinking. The more that I practiced the willful illusion that ‘life is long,’ the easier it was to view time as one sustained moment, the hovering eternity of the present.
We live in this present with instinctive, animal directness as children, when a single summer day can really feel like eternity. We are absorbed in being, not yet preoccupied with becoming. A summer day is all summer days and what changes we may began to apprehend, the cycles of the seasons as a progression for example, we quickly revert back to play within the static timelessness that lies beneath shifting appearances. Consciously cultivating this perspective as adults, Hilde and I mimicked the surfers in Endless Summer as they pursued summer around the globe, liberating our awareness into the perpetual now.
During this 'life is long' period, I saw Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli at the Trylon Microcinema. Two days later a young filmmaker friend who lives in Paris coincidentally sent this description of psychedelic timelessness from the same Italian island:
We took crazy shrooms on a beach with our old American friends and time collapsed upon itself making us float above or next to our bodies. Our brains were working completely differently. Very realistic memories merged with the present and the future felt unthreatening as we saw that we are all basically made of the same stuff. Our egos despaired a bit too. The sun sat on the water, rendering the rocks in front of it flat and black, as if they were shapes cut out of the sky. Slowly the stars rose in Technicolor. Some green, some red, some blue, connected by thin white lines. Then as we walked in the midst of Bronze Age ruins a distant thunderstorm struck and we saw lighting hit the water. Boats were underneath us, stars above, everything reflecting on everything. EVERYTHING EXISTED AT THE SAME TIME.
This powerful apprehension of the present moment and the connectedness of all things, that the English Romantics had exulted in their poetry, became a major theme of the 1960's in Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now.” The common description of psychoactive oneness, of cosmic consciousness . . . time, space, energy, matter and mind merging together . . . generally sounds like William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence:”
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
For a cinephile, films have a similarly psychedelic effect on the experience of time; the repeated viewing of particular movies, at intervals of many years, can inspire an equivalent insight. Films of a certain age inherently produce a dislocation in time. Stromboli, for instance, amounts to time travel back to 1950 (the "film as unintentional documentary" idea that I’ve presented throughout these essays). Though all the adults depicted in Stromboli must currently be dead in 2016, on the screen they are alive, their youth restored; the film transports us back to a moment in which they still wrestled tuna into fishing boats. This distortion of directional time is even more pronounced when one has seen the same movie multiple times, at different ages. Then the viewer is confronted not only with a captured event removed and repeated in time, but also the echo of that experience as two separate points within their own evolving self-awareness.
In August of 2014, the Riverview Theater screened My Neighbor Totoro every afternoon for a week. I’d seen Hayao Miyazaki’s film once before in the 1990’s and I planned an unspontaneous, spontaneous day to revisit it. I biked dutifully through my tea and bookstore routine before arriving at the Riverview on a cloudless day when an inkling of summer’s passing was already evident.
I’m not familiar with any folkloric basis for the Totoro character; I read him broadly in the context of Miyazaki’s other films as a generalized nature spirit. What impressed me most seeing the movie again was the baldly nostalgic evocation of childhood in summer. The rendering of clouds stacked in deep blue skies over the trees, the fields of grass as an unimpeded vastness viewed low to high. The clear streams and rural dirt roads aroused dormant memories of my aimless summer days as a child in Amery, Wisconsin. I remembered what our first naïve job as children is: simply to explore the place in which we have accidentally appeared with our senses. As I left the theater after the movie, squinting into the sunlight, the boundaries of “here,” “I,” “then” and “now” dissolved, the movement of the world around me slowed into stasis and I stepped into timelessness. I understood implicitly that this day was the same day I had seen the movie twenty years earlier, the same day that I had walked through a field of grass to the Apple River in Wisconsin to catch crayfish with my friends, the same day I had fed dandelions to a rabbit on the edge of my family’s yard. I appreciated that Miyazaki had captured the fugitive essence of summer in his film and the Romantic literary notion of a visionary innocence. I dissolved from Miyazaki’s reverie back into my spontaneous day, which was clearly an attempt to escape the directed purposefulness of adulthood, an opportunity to retrieve the experience of timelessness that vibrates behind the quotidian illusion of past, present and future. Life is long.