RATED RAWLINS: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Ecstatic Truth

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It can be a daunting task to intimate stories alone on a stage, but Dallas-based radio personality/poet/adventurer Rawlins Gilliland is not alone. Standing in the Kessler Theater among an eclectic demographic (all ages, walks, and circles), I can sense there is something elemental at work here – something archetypal – a unifying principle in the man in the suit.

The crowd knows Rawlins from various arenas, and given the stories he tells, I will not speculate on the crazy circumstances that have likely flung this group together. I, myself, know him through my Godmother who worked with him during his Neiman Marcus years. For awhile, due to some egregious blunder of facts, my family feared he was dead. They could not have been more misinformed.

Accompanied by the tunes of the Matt Tolentino Quartet, Rawlins calls what he’s doing “time-travel,” and from the first lightning fueled imagery of the prelude, I can tell this is going somewhere good.

In many ways, this is an unplugged live radio experience, showcasing well-chosen stories from the “improbable life and times” of the host, rich with extended similes and a striking honesty. There are a lot of laughs: stowaway mishaps, odd intersections with history, geyser-charged orgies, and even a brief stint as a turkish pimp.

There are darker stories too involving murder and loss but infused with a levity of perspective that elevate them beyond mere somber bearings. This is purity in storytelling: anecdote with heart that never asks sympathy, memory with purpose that never invokes nostalgia. What emerges is Life, the bizarre thing, fully lived. An adage from Rawlins’ mother reflects this theme: “Never become an aging version of your former self.”

Like a great Werner Herzog film or Tim Burtons’ Big Fish, the meaning is in the act of telling as much as in the substance of the prose. Embellishment melds with detail, fact melds with fantasy. Rawlins contends his outlandish stories are “all true.” I think Herzog might call it the “Ecstatic Truth,” that undeniable place that transcends fact.

That is why I stop here and will not divulge or attempt to summarize any additional specifics of the evening.

It’s something you have to witness to believe.

Orbits and Oceans: The Free Life

Uncertainty begets a loneliness but the right kind, I suppose. Søren Kierkegaard said, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” All this comes with the territory of freelance work. I think day to day, the freelancer is closer to the reality of things. He must openly admit an element of uncertainty in all he does. The elegant instability. The fabric of the quantum universe. (Responsibility for one’s own taxes). Embedded in the laws of the universe is a certain unknowable quality one only encounters in tangent moments of fear or ecstasy, a roller coaster accessible only to the free.

The pilot of his own endeavors, a freelancer must overcome the vertigo of sudden changes in turbulence, correct course as a stable orbit tends to require, approaching waywardness. No larger corporate body will do this for him. Yes, the view from these pinnacles contains the secret of things, but maintaining orbit costs energy and requires a firm understanding of the laws of gravity.

This is no exaggeration. Most of my friends are all striving to be free in their own way, despite the particular requirements of their ambitions. When I ask my friends how they are doing, several jokingly cite a slow descent into madness, referencing side projects designed to keep them sane. This is a recurring motif in people I admire: the willingness to admit madness and confront it – to invite doubt to the table – to be, at least partially, freelance. Fighting for the survival of sanity itself. Just the right amount. Only through these things do we live, do we come to know ourselves, and glimpse the greater picture.

In the final sequence of The 400 Blows (Truffaut), a misunderstood boy who throughout the film has run away from school and from home, runs finally away from his childhood. The sequence tracks his escape from the delinquent center that imprisoned him, across the barren landscape and dilapidated structures, the fences, the trees. The boy runs away from the world. We find his destination is the shoreline, a place he has always wanted to see. With this, his escape gains the weight of liberation (the higher form of running, where one is no longer moving away but rather toward).

Yet upon arrival, he finds the ocean is but another boundary. His uninflected expression, frozen in optical zoom, is key. Born from this moment is not an emotional victory or defeat, but rather a broader uncertainty, the beginning of a new quest, the end of childlike understanding. The ocean is but a promise of liberation. Liberation, itself, is the struggle of all existence.

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Aurora

Months ago, I wrote (but did not post) this reaction to the Aurora project that graced Dallas with one public, luminous night. Walking the arts district was the first time in awhile that I felt I was living in a city comparable to the vibrant never-sleeps that enchant our coasts. Cities that have something to say. If you ask why the wait, I’ll simply cite another mystery.

Light and sound are all about. Some by design, some by the spectators, perhaps an intention itself, as I am walking the streets of the Dallas Aurora Project, contributing foot-step chatter of my own. We are all the animation of the evening. A temporary installation of interactivity.

Almost church.

There is a duality to contend with: light and sound are as much a distraction as a point of focus. We are constantly presented with choice. Where to look and when. It’s all part of the fun.

Here is a place where the skeptic struggles in quiet internal moments. You can feel it in the crowd, among the genuine social positivity – the occasional awkward moments where people accidentally engage with this piece or that. It is unexpected. Almost embarrassing. Most just pose for a photo and move on. Some take the road of mockery. Some choose to over-explain. Some genuinely feel nothing.

Perhaps I feel too much. Or perhaps I am starved for this sort of thing, and the craving drives my comprehension.

“The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw.”

This comes from Don DeLillo’s most recent work, Point Omega, a sparse novella riddled with the dangers of over thinking. It is a scary read for an analytical mind. Characters fall into new definitions of nothing on every page, and nirvana in all forms – even minimalism – seems out of reach for sentient beings.

I keep this in mind as I engage the exhibits around me. I admire the spectacle despite the fact that I am the spectacle.

My overactive imagination often contributes this light and sound, this purpose, even on normal evenings. For me, this is seeing what is always there, just with more people present to witness. Especially the sounds: the long-drawn-low-frequency-harmonics of the darker more profound corners of music that live near the bass line. Always there.

One of my favorite installations is actually two:

CLOUD PAVILION by John Barker accompanied by the ominous music of Water Falls, and TURBULENCE by James Clar – a single light bulb in chaotic pendulum swing.

Aurora

After my fellow wanderers depart, I return to this space alone. Stand experiencing. I see a sliver of highway traffic to the left of the installation, speeding away from the night, reminding me of real forgotten things. But here – here is a realm of much needed meditation as the city rests still behind, and I find myself wide awake.

After awhile, more of Point Omega comes to mind, in particular a passage that centers on a man in a museum regarding an installation over a long period of time.

“He began to understand, after all this time, that he’d been standing here waiting for something. What was it? It was something outside conscious grasp until now. He’d been waiting for a woman to arrive, a woman alone, someone he might talk to, here at the wall, in whispers, sparingly of course, or later, somewhere, trading ideas and impressions, what they’d seen and how they felt about it. Wasn’t that it? He was thinking a woman would enter who’d stand and watch for a time, finding her way to a place at the wall, an hour, half an hour, that was enough, half an hour, that was sufficient, a serious person, soft-spoken, wearing a pale summer dress.

Jerk.”

The light bulb and the atmosphere reverse hypnotize me as I search for like minds in the ether.

And for the time, find only music.

X Quantities

broken theory

Perhaps the best theories reduce to mantra. And perhaps the best mantras reduce to subconscious.

I speak especially of Eisenstein or Mamet’s “juxtaposition of uninflected images” (a thought which remains my greatest theoretical influence to date). Even the above thought from Philip Glass – “first thought, best thought” – recently served as a beacon through a dark period. Are any of them true in the deepest sense?

Whenever I seek a definitive answer from a wise person, their answer is always the same: “It depends.”

Thus I present yet another theory above – learned from and kindly discarded, lest my work become the theory and not the practice.

Theory has its place, and I get a bizarre enjoyment out of an attempt to understand the fundamentals of mercurial things. But theory is a near scientific thinking about something that is ultimately rather intuitive. And if I’m being honest with myself, the most fulfilling times for me as a creative are those when I am not thinking of theory at all. Just doing.

Film theory also has value in the academic sense – to track and support the timeline of the art form, and to explain the resonance one might feel from an experience with a style. Therefore, I am not simply casting it aside as a contrarian (itself, a theory), but rather embracing the thoughts of rule #8 below: “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.”

sistercorita

Incidentally, Rule 10 affirms it all: “We’re breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for the X Quantities” – John Cage

More often than not, it is meaningful departure from theory that brings discovery, yet this can only occur when the mind is disciplined enough to engage theory in the first place. Another word for this is praxis which is basically the art of direction. Praxis is theory in practice and a director’s prime directive is “Action.”

At the very least, broken theory is a fission that promises an end to procrastination. And so I imagine I’m on the verge of a new productive phase.

Just don’t ask me to explain it right now.

Telescope

The telescope allows great conclusions to be drawn at great lengths. Edwin Hubble proved that the universe was expanding. I’ve always been impressed by how much we have been able to surmise, being so far away from the rest of everything.

Observation from a distance is clearly relevant in the life of a filmmaker. It is often a valuable tool in searching for the truth. Stealing a moment, rolling when no one knows that its happening or counts. The wide shot, as we know, is undervalued in the mainstream, but quite alive elsewhere throughout.

There’s also the principle of aesthetic distance – between the viewer and the fantasy. It serves as a fourth or fifth dimensional depth of field to play with. One can draw the distance close or one can pull far away. Consider Brecht, who favored a greater distance. The idea that the more the audience is urged to self-reflection rather than simple empathy for the events depicted leads to a greater form of catharsis – one that can extend beyond the work itself. I tend to agree that emotion, facial expression, relating to characters, can often be irrelevant to a truly powerful cinematic experience. Consider 2001. Perhaps that is why I despise the patronizing term “character piece.”

And finally, there’s distance in mentorship. For a time, I sought a mentor for my craft. But true learning in this career: of the construction, of the tools, of the purpose and of the politics, has come from a great distance. Watching films, reading books, watching others succeed in various ways, and trying to learn from afar. Like the astronomer, I am isolated by my current position but still have the tools to understand the greater picture from where I stand.

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Power and Presence

“Every author ought to write every book as if he were going to be beheaded the day he finished it.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

I think the words above are not intended to convey the importance of saying what needs to be said before death, but rather the importance of being concise. And by concise I mean confident. There is a certain urgency, after all, in keeping your head about you.

I’ve been thinking recently that pretty much no film needs to be longer than 90 minutes. A great idea rarely warrants the insult of length. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule, but we’ve all heard the famous apology of the writer who did not have time to render a shorter letter.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, David Mamet – a few of my favorite writers. What do they have in common? They all write works with a strong vector, a particular atmosphere (or universe), and a liberation from any notions of outside expectation. They convey themes of sophisticated simplicity that are as dense as they are brief. This gives the work power in the present tense. The words are alive.

In movies, the words are pictures – and within pictures, there is an inherent mystery. It is my opinion, therefore, that the best films are the ones that show you something mysterious and do not tarry long.

The Ether

This blog has been silent, and I can not really say why.

It has been a year of keeping busy punctuated by heavy levels of ambiguity. And I find myself wondering: is this the kind of ether to expect in the in-between on projects here and hereafter?

Nevertheless, I did manage to chronicle parts of my adventures in Peru as a young explorer for National Geographic (http://cranemakerpictures.com/cranemaker/Peru.html). Needless to say, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be among such inspiring company. And I had a fantastic time investigating a geothermal phenomenon in the Amazon. From Werner Herzog and beyond, I think shooting a film in Peru is a right of passage of sorts. Into what I can not yet say. More on all this soon.

Regarding the ether – that creative dead zone one travels through between projects – I think it is actually more of an excuse than an explanation. That is to say, it is non-existent. Scientists of the late 19th/early 20th century had proposed the existence of an unknown field  to explain the propagation of light waves through space. The “ether,” as they called it, was an assumption through and through.

I’ve been reading Einstein by Walter Isaacson, which chronicles the life story of that whimsical theorist. It is a timely book, as I will very soon be the age at which Einstein proposed special relativity. Insightful to read about his ambitions, frustrations and wit.

Special relativity ended the argument for the existence of an ether, and with it the notion of any single frame of reference. I propose that the same applies for the propagation of a calling or career.

Perspective

Perhaps it is time to outline the purpose I have in mind for Film Entropy.

The purpose of this blog is to chronicle my experiences in the film industry while exploring the intersection of art, science and philosophy. Cool, right?

I’ve been working through some new ideas lately and gearing up to write a new feature-length screenplay. Sometimes the uncertainty involved in such a task approaches disillusionment. The questions that feed this uncertainty can be specific, but the most daunting are often general: Is this idea good? Is this thought compelling? Is this story interesting? Am I good at my craft? What is the meaning of life? The pattern can become a sort of spiral that takes the writer on a journey from evaluation of the task at hand to that of existence itself. We must navigate these waters alone.

In such times, the key is perspective. The first three minutes of the film, Contact, offer just that, presented in a compelling opening sequence that frames earth in the context of space-time and takes the viewer on a journey from noise to silence.

A mind compelled by the vastness is a mind poised to create.

When the Time Comes

I recently wrapped on a shoot for a 3D network. One morning on set, a character featured on the show offered me a concise character analysis of myself, something to the effect of “I can see you’re quiet, but when the time comes…” With a knowing glance, the thought ended. Everyone laughed at the dramatic ellipse, and I enjoyed the notion of emanating that particular energy.

I am an independent writer/producer/director who frequently jumps above and below the line, from creative to crew.

One day I hold the slate, another day it bears my name. Some days both.

The contrast is a driving force, and when the time comes….

“We have embarked.”

Energy proceeds to chaos. Film speeds through the gate. And sometimes this happens:

One of my early attempts with 16mm film.

And so I welcome you to this blog-space in space-time.

-Peter Koutsogeorgas, Director

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