I’ve presently been teaching for more than two decades and, as a result, my years have followed the same academic schedule in childhood and in 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 entirely predictable. One morning I’ll wake up 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, in which I flip noncommittally through poetry collections or Downbeat magazine, reading reviews of recent jazz releases. The final destination is a movie theater for an afternoon matinee. Emerging into daylight after watching a film has always suggested a suspension of rules and responsibilities to me. When I’m teaching in February and the temperature is five degrees below zero outside, I console myself with the recollected warmth of these desultory summer episodes.
Although the ritual itself is regimented, what I encounter on each particular outing is unique. In early July of 2008, I began a spontaneous day with the intention 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 lies upon an abandoned railroad line on a straight path East/West; thirteen miles from my house it passes just two blocks from the Hopkins Mann 6 theater. The day was hot and humid, so I biked slowly with that leisure characteristic of my summers. When I reached the Mann 6, I entered the theater in which “Speed Racer” was showing and found myself alone with a man playing a flute. He sat in the left section and I chose a seat in the middle, two rows in front of him. As I passed, I smiled and said “hey” and he acknowledged me with a nod of his head while he continued to accompany the pre-show music on his flute. After another minute of playing he paused briefly, lowered his flute and said, “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 left the theater that day with the opinion that “Speed Racer” was one of the best-financed experimental films in the history of cinema; Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” and Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic, musical production numbers would be other contenders for the distinction. 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 pursued wildly unorthodox projects bankrolled by major studios. As the credits scrolled after the film I thought that, in twenty years perhaps, film language might evolve to 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 after the movie, 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 and the planes remained. Apparently, a conference of historical fighter plane collectors had arranged them in the street while I watched 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 looking for 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, it had remained with me. My favorite memory of the thermometer is sitting in a chair directly beneath the big blue and red Ex-Lax logo while reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” In the description of a stroll 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 version of the book, unfortunately, overlooked this odd detail.
Over the course of a few emails back and forth, Sayer and I realized 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 interminably long life is. Every day you have to wake up again, dress again and eat again, always the same routines. It’s just a relentless responsibility.” 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 and obligation of the present.
We live in this present with instinctive, animal directness as children, when a single summer day can really feel like an eternity. We are absorbed in simple being, not yet preoccupied with becoming. A summer day is all summer days and what becoming we may began to apprehend, the cycles of the seasons as a progression, quickly reverts back to play within the static timelessness that lies beneath these shifting appearances. Consciously cultivating this awareness as adults, we mimic the surfers in “Endless Summer,” contriving to pursue summer around the globe. Rather than being carried on the seasonal carousel, our liberated perspective remains fixed in the perpetual now.
A day after I’d seen Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” at the Trylon Microcinema, a young filmmaker friend who lives in Paris sent this description of psychedelic timelessness from the very 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 now, that the English Romantics had exulted in their poetry, became a major theme of the psychedelic sixties as embodied in Ram Dass’s hippie bible “Be Here Now.” The common description of psychoactive oneness, of cosmic consciousness . . . time, space, energy, matter and mind merging together . . . generally resembles 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
I contend that the repeated experience of particular movies, at a remove of time, occasionally inspires an equivalent revelation. Movies of a certain age inherently produce a dislocation in time. “Stromboli,” for instance, is a form of time travel back to 1950 (the “film as unintended 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 in time to a moment in which they still wrestled tuna into fishing boats. This suspension of directional time is even more pronounced when one has seen the same movie multiple times, at different ages in one’s life. Then the viewer is confronted not only with a captured moment removed and repeated in time, but also the echo of that experience as two separate points within their own evolving self-awareness.
During August of 2014, the Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis 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 one of my quite unspontaneous, spontaneous days 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 upon viewing 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 the 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 walked out of the theater after the movie, squinting into the bright sunlight, the boundaries of “here,” “I,” “then” and “now” dissolved, the movement of the world around me slowed into stasis, and I entered timelessness. I understood implicitly that this day was the same day upon which 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 in the 1970’s, the same day upon which 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 by doing so he sustained the Romantic notion of the visionary innocence of childhood within himself. I faded from Miyazaki’s reverie back into my spontaneous day, which was clearly my own 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.