When the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to the big-screen world premiere of Antero Alli’s first feature in five years, The Vanishing Field, he probably had no idea of just how timely it would be. Yet he made the generous choice to release it on YouTube, where indie cinema fans around the planet can view it for free. And now lockdown is giving many of us more time to explore inner horizons, we have more to gain than entertainment by watching this film with an open mind.
Ostensibly, The Vanishing Field is about meditation, or being here now – hardly popular topics in our culture, which, besides preferring doing to being, elsewhere to here, and the future to now, actively promotes and even enforces a state of distraction. And the film opens on a live vlog, which made me think I’d clicked on the wrong link; that sort of thing far outnumbers original movies on YouTube.
A disaffected millennial, Jacob (Jogen Salzberg) solemnly tells followers he intends to ‘hack’ the ‘bardo’: tech jargon + the Tibetan term for the realm between death and rebirth. Alluding to conspiracy theories (or current affairs – who knows which?), corruption and ecological destruction, Jacob declares he’s done; he wants to live in a time where he can make a difference, and for this more worthwhile life to begin, he just needs to die. From hereon in his logic becomes less clear. Apparently death for him is a mere idea; yet he’s got cold feet, so instead he’s off to join an ashram, not dying but retreating… at which point his mom (Nita Bryant) turns up at his door. Attempting to stay calm as she reproaches him for ignoring her, Jacob resumes his earnest monologue, unswayed by her shaming commentary. As she asserts her dominance, unfazed by the virtual audience, we start to understand one possible source of his disenchantment. Cut to Empty Sky Zen Monastery, one year later…
And now the pace changes. Jacob spends his days meditating to a soundtrack of birdcalls and bells, still intent on disappearing, but struggling with boredom (a kind of aversion, says his teacher, Hogen Bays as himself) – until, out in the wooded grounds, on the path ahead, he sees a ghost (Sylvi Alli), then has an out-of-body experience, to which he – predictably – accords undue significance from a Zen perspective.
According to Alli’s vision statement, The Vanishing Field is informed by his own out-of-body experience, a life-changing traumatic event he underwent many years ago; one reason why his heroes (or heroines) typically encounter or journey into and through the spirit realm – or their subconscious, speaking psychologically. His stories tend to involve some sort of meeting of ancient and modern: a punk rocker with shamanic cultural roots enters his comatose grandfather’s dreams via a drug-enhanced ritual in Under a Shipwrecked Moon (2003); a homeless crone initiates a professor of comparative religion into her own goddess wisdom in The Book of Jane (2013).
Born in Finland, a country with a rich shamanic tradition, Alli grew up on the US West Coast in the psychedelic ’60s and later aligned himself with such cutting-edge thinkers as Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson. How could he make anything other than marginal films?
Yet the challenge of how to use the film medium to convey the sorts of states and perceptions that scientists or sceptics call dreams and hallucinations, while brilliantly realised by a few inventive directors with ample budgets – e.g., Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009); Gaspar Noë’s Enter the Void (2009); Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) – can’t be overestimated.
Having seen The Vanishing Field on three different-sized screens at assorted times of day and in varied moods, I’ve found it more than rewards repeat viewings; the non-actors’ compelling performances, Sylvi Alli’s entrancing soundtrack, and lingering shots of Great Vow Zen Monastery set amid forest in Oregon, combine to induce a contemplative state. Yet the dramatisation of Jacob’s troubled reflections lends suspense.
Sometimes Alli achieves this via digital effects that look crude to an eye conditioned by state-of-the-art CGI, while at other times he returns to his theatrical roots, a hit-and-miss approach – unless unity of vision resides in the eye of the beholder? If Alli seems to be making films for a small cult following – viewers who take reincarnation, the astral plane and OOBEs for granted – rather than reaching out to a broader audience, perhaps it’s because, e.g., those less attuned to his alternative slant might not get why, near the climax of Jacob’s quest for rebirth, a brand new character wearing nought but goggles and tights slides out of a sack and performs a stylised dance, while Jacob, pursued by his monk mentor Tomas (Ed Welsh), whirls and lurches around him in blackness. I guessed the giant crumpled sheath was a chrysalis, but not until the credits rolled did I learn the dancer (Douglas Allen) was a dragonfly. In an actual theatre this ambiguity wouldn’t matter. Yet in the context of what might be Alli’s most restrained film to date, this sequence, despite its dynamic beauty, distracted me. But of course… the bardo (or Jacob’s subconscious) is seething with bound and blindfolded ghosts, solar-hued vapours, goggle-eyed creatures… and gold-painted demons declaiming anguished lines from Chekhov’s The Seagull.
The thing about theatre, a medium predating the most basic special effects by two and a half millennia, is that it catalyses its audience’s imagination. What defines the modern spectacle, by contrast, is the displacement of our imaginative faculties into technology. And along with our loss of the knack of envisioning anything quite as spectacular as the latest Hollywood fantasy (or even HBO’s Game of Thrones), technology is colonising our consciousness (such as it is), progressively occupying our growing emptiness. Kudos to Alli for leaving viewers room to do some heavy lifting… so, hmm, let’s see… the oracle lays a shroud over our hero during his OOBE and he bounces back to Earth babbling about death… then a dude pops out of a shroud/cocoon and spreads his arms/wings. Invoking ancient mysteries, Alli’s a man both of and out of his time with an urgent vision that speaks to now – but in a symbolic language geared for initiates. And yet it’s as if he doesn’t quite trust his audience to get it. Take his raven fetish… Why feature this clichéd motif when these birds already haunt the setting, and the cut-out decal effect clashes with the low-tech Zen aesthetic? Impressively prolific for an artist working on a shoestring, Alli has developed a kind of shorthand – as filmmakers do – to represent inner visions, shifts of consciousness etc., but unsubtle symbolism (Corvid-19?) can distance a viewer.
Or is it just me? Like keys, symbols unlock the doors to some viewers’ imaginations. A certain kind of mind excels at pattern recognition: useful for a scientist, artist, gambler, healer, mystic or anyone predisposed to reading signs or symbols. But taken too far it can look like so-called schizophrenia – or, e.g., the Facebook-fuelled belief that 5G caused Covid-19, as shown on the new UK £20 note: Margate Lighthouse (a 5G tower?) topped by Tate Britain’s rotunda (the virus?). The thing is that, like Facebook icons, a generic image can blunt the edge of an at times inspired style.
As always, Alli’s work brims with ideas. Bryant, Jacob’s mom in the video within Alli’s docufiction, later reappears as Delphic oracle, her speech borrowed from a scene in a play within Chekhov’s play. This trope – the dream within a dream, not new for Alli – should resonate with anyone who’s ever ventured, or been transported, beyond this realm, footage of which is black-and-white here, contrasting other-world colour, a choice that works well and pays off beautifully at the end.
Alli has given us versions of the hero’s journey before. Yet The Vanishing Field is also a coming-of-age story. Outwardly an adult, Jacob still lives in his mom’s shadow. He’s right that this world has become disenchanted (a process that began with the rise of monotheism and climaxed with the Enlightenment) – ‘Where has the enchantment gone?’ he asks. And his mom is no less right when she answers, ‘Well, that’s up to you. That’s up to you to create a place that you want to be at.’ (Think dream catchers, yurts, the flat-earth movement, Wiccan rites, tours to sacred sites, Harry Potter, archetypal psychology…?) Of course she’s no less disenchanted – a lonely, sad-eyed woman bound to scare off any man, and implicated in, if not to blame for, Jacob’s recent relationship break-up. But isn’t he naïve to think that with an act of will he can exit the game into which he was born – his fate – and pick a time more to his liking… or has he bought into capitalist myths: unlimited choice, customer rightness, a free market/will and entitlement? Isn’t this urge to relocate a function of the ego? In a sense, The Vanishing Field seeks to address this question.
And yet Jacob’s intuition was sound. In the Roshi and a fellow monk, Tomas, he finds the fatherly love and wise guidance he must have missed out on. And we see no flesh-and-blood women at the monastery – only those who haunt Jacob’s inner vision or his subconscious: desolate souls who gesture towards death. So it’s apropos that Jacob’s rebirth – envisioned as a male shedding his skin – is facilitated by a male midwife.
Can this psychological subtext to Jacob’s overt spiritual quest be read as autobiographical? A world-class astrologer and author of the radical Astrologik (Vigilantero Press, 1990), Alli is wired to recognise the universal in the particular and strikes a rare balance in a field where psychological (retrospective) and spiritual (progressive) models compete. Fuck your psychological reductionism, Jacob thinks, reluctant to discuss his deeply meaningful brush with death for fear that Tomas will minimise it. His need to believe he encountered a demon and not just his ‘negative mother complex’ might seem regressive; atavistic – but isn’t this numinous no-man’s-land the wellspring from whence not just religion but most if not all great art originates? It’s certainly the wellspring to which Alli returns on a regular basis and from which his visionary influences have likewise drawn inspiration.
Personally, I could relate to Jacob’s weariness with both a world and a mother so resistant to transformation. But maybe this film worked better for me than others of Alli’s I’ve seen because it’s about where we all are now, collectively: powerless over external events, forced to retreat and reflect. ‘You’ve always been dying,’ the Roshi tells Jacob. ‘It’s all you are.’ Not a desirable concept in a culture that’s made denial of death its raison d’être, and ditto when the Roshi says, ‘There’s only this moment…’ Yet it’s at least as liberating as working from home in your jammies. So there’s something here for anyone who could use an injection of Zen.
And if The Vanishing Field appeals and you want a booster, why not check out Alli’s diverse, unique, newly free-to-view back catalogue…