[Forthcoming in the DVD of the film “The Sonosopher”]
Fixing the Sonosopher
by Scott Abbott
About three years ago I was bathing with a young man whose development at that time had a wonderful grace about it. . . . As it happened we had just seen, in Paris, the youth pulling a thorn out of his foot. . . . Resting his foot on a stool, to dry it, and glancing at himself as he did so in a large mirror, he was reminded of the statue; he smiled and told me what he had seen. . . . He raised his foot a second time, to show me; but the attempt, very predictably, failed. In confusion he raised his foot a third time, a fourth, again and again, a dozen times: in vain. He was incapable of reproducing the movement. . . . From that day, or from that very moment, forth the young man underwent an unbelievable transformation. He began spending days in front of the mirror; and one after the other all his charms deserted him. (From Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Puppet Theatre,” translation by David Constantine)
About three weeks ago I had lunch with a man of my age whose performances as a “Sonosopher” have a wonderful, if sometimes terrible, grace about them. We spoke about a film he had recently collaborated on. After seeing himself through the camera’s eye, Alex said, he has been unable to reproduce the movements, the gestures, the sounds the camera recorded. At least he can no longer do so naturally. His charms, he fears, have deserted him.
I mentioned the young man in Kleist’s essay.
Exactly, he said. I’ve been robbed of the grace of un-self-conscious movement. I’ve been pinned to a specimen board for observation.
You feel like you’ve been fixed? I asked.
Yes, he answered. The film has fixed me, neutered me. How do I continue? My work is process, my media are temporal, sonorous, fleeting.
To what extent is that true? I wondered later. Has this film, in fact, fixed the Sonosopher?
As with all works of art, from one version to the next there’s a sense of panic brought on by the knowledge that the composer or writer or painter or filmmaker will have to settle on the final, fixed version, knowing all the time that it is just one of an infinite number of versions. Documentary films of a certain kind work to make their audiences forget that fact, constructing a seamless and supposedly truthful narrative. This, I take it, is what Alex most feared.
Because theirs too is a documentary film, Travis Low and Torben Bernhard are generically bound to reach for a truthful or even Platonic portrayal of their subject. But because the person casting most of the shadows is Alex Caldiero, a self-described “recovering Platonist,” and because Low and Bernard have made their film after Nietzsche’s assertion that “truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” this film approaches fixed forms with trepidation. Like Caldiero’s lifework, the film longs for the transcendental signifier while anchoring itself in epistemological humility.
The film begins with a blurred image of a belltower seen from below; indistinct lights flicker to the wavering tone of a guitar; the sound of breathing precedes the poet’s voice: “I want to go where the sound goes after the bell stops ringing.” “I’ve always been blessed with visions,” Alex asserts later. And yet the most revealing statement of what the silent sound is or what the vision reveals is the performance for Park City television of “This is not it.” As long as the transcendent remains articulate, the words must insist that “this is not it.” And when the words break under the load of meaning, when they reach beyond themselves, they cannot articulately state what “it” is and must eventually return to “this is not it.”
The film performs this double dance as exquisitely as does Caldiero.
For instance: about twenty-four minutes into the film, to the rhythmic twang of a jaw harp and to a low chant, the film presents a performance of its own, a collage of sorts, a sequence of quick and sometimes overlaid images of cobblestones, aisles between high book shelves, multiple self-portraits of Alex and multiple scenes of him painting and drawing and writing. Near the beginning of this cobbled curriculum vitae Alex gestures back across a field to the filmmakers and/or to the audience: come with me the psychopomp seems to say, come into my heads, into my bodies. “How many ways will any path be approachable in the imagination?” a typed text asks as it progresses across the screen in this sequence: “You don’t want to answer this question, because it would mean that what you are seeking for is nothing but of your own making.” The rich scene and the film in general imagine many paths, paths unabashedly of the filmmakers’ own making; and somewhere in the complexity of splendid multiplicity my worries about fixing the Sonosopher evaporate.
For instance: at about the film’s thirty-sixth minute, the film performs Alex’s poem “foam and sand.” We hear Alex’s voice and at times see him reading his own text from the book Text-Sound Texts edited by Richard Kostelanetz. Again the filmmakers juxtapose and overlay and insert images of Alex as a child, of his impassive face, of mysterious white circles, and most wonderfully, of moving lines of text from the poem. To hear Alex read what sound like herds of consonants and schools of vowels while the literal animals pass by in all their fontal glory is to experience this poem in a collaborative performance neither Alex himself nor the filmmakers alone could achieve. As “foam and sand” nears its end the special effects drop away, leaving Alex in his basement workroom reading the last lines of the poem from the book he holds in front of him. He finishes, closes the book, rubs his nose, and turns away. “This is not it,” the film admits, “but isn’t it fantastic!”
A final note on this scene: A cardboard box perches on the filing cabinet behind Alex as he reads “foam and sand.” The box is labeled by hand: “LETTERS KEEP.” And I, who have always wondered where Alex keeps all those letters at night when he’s not training and exercising and playing with them, suddenly have an answer. He keeps them, the film unwittingly reveals, in this very box!
A third example of a humble reaching for the name that cannot be named, for the shape of the shapeless, for the language beyond language: radio journalist Scott Carrier suggests in one scene that Alex is “trying to be the actual thing when he performs it.” The film demonstrates that with another attempt of its own to be (rather than document) sonosophy. Alex holds a drum close to his head, sounds a bell, and the scene flickers hallucinogenically to a shamanistic performance in Alex’s basement. We see rapid and spooky images of a davening figure wrapped in a Native-American robe and wearing a black wooden African mask and a thick black wig. If we let ourselves go we can follow the shaman’s chanting to unknown places, to unspeakable experiences, to unthinkable thoughts. The trance continues, the chanting and smoke and flickering lights endure even as the robe comes off, tentatively, then the wig, and finally Alex lifts off the mask, exhausted or perhaps disoriented, and puts on his glasses. Inexplicably (unless of course we subscribe to Brecht’s theory of dramatic alienation – and we do), ironically (and surely this is an irony fully intended), the merchant’s tag explaining the mask’s origin and meaning still dangles from the black wood like the price tag from Minnie Pearl’s hat. Again the film achieves truth and beauty – and then winks. No fixing going on here.
I could cite many other examples in the film where a fine piece of documentary footage is accompanied by a surprising turn that both calls the footage into question and reinforces its truthfulness. The emotionally charged scene in which Alex disparages poets who need grants for “time off” is left by the patient filmmakers to find its way to a final statement that poetry is about energy and then to wind down to a close-up of Alex’s face, slack after the expenditure, and to the sound of a tired breath. The confronter is confronted. In the context of the entire documentary film, the set of black-and-white discussions Alex has with the camera, the last of which shows Alex shutting his eyes tight and then saying “I close my eyes. Please, now close yours,” introduces a self-consciousness about the whole idea of film that asserts and questions simultaneously. These brilliant scenes, shot by the filmmakers but constructed by the Sonosopher himself, make clear that this is not Low’s and Bernhard’s film about Caldiero. This is performance from beginning to end, joint performance, collaborative performance, the work of a trio of artists working in various media.
Finally, for this essay too must come to an inevitable end, I’ll end with the scene in which Alex stands in Salt Lake’s Gilgal Sculpture Garden and explains the “Joseph Smith Sphinx.” “Joseph Smith,” Alex, says “was a seer and a revelator. A prophet and a charlatan of God. He was a coyote figure, you know, the dark/light figure, that told the greatest truths in the greatest lies. . . . What a sweetheart.” A sweetheart, of course, just like Alex himself.
And, it turns out, just like the makers of this sonosphistic film. A fantastic marriage of filmart and sonosophy raises the film from documentary to performance, exhibiting charms that will desert neither the Sonosopher nor the filmmakers because they are temporal charms, fluid charms, seriously ironic charms.