Thursday, January 7, 2010

RESONANCE & The Wisdom of Avoiding "Drama on Thursdays"

Resonance is an empathetic feeling for Being in which one’s seemingly separate Presence (Dasein) apprehends and is apprehended by the presence of “an other”.

In speaking of resonance, I am reminded of a story my old, philosophy professor, Ed Field, once told me concerning an experience he'd had in France in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. From an early age, Ed had had a proclivity for striking out on his own, disappearing for hours or even days into the back country outside Santa Cruz. Being both adventurous and reclusive by nature, he never felt more at home than he did when he was alone in a grove of giant Sequoia trees, or picking his way along some treacherous, unmarked track into the labyrinthine hinterland of mariposa-covered canyons. Such odysseys would've no doubt played a part in awakening Ed's philosophical sensibilities.

When the war came he joined the Army, and by 1945 was a 26-year-old enlisted man stationed near Nancy. Still very much a loner, Ed spent whatever free time he had exploring the old French city with the same kind of ardour that he'd had for his beloved redwoods. He'd wander for hours up one narrow laneway and down another. Late one afternoon, he found himself climbing the stairs into the bell-tower of Nancy’s austere, 18th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l'Annunciation.

From the vantage point atop the cathedral, one had breathtaking, panoramic views of the French countryside. But it was not the visual beauty of the scene that caught Ed’s attention that day. What he noted, and remembered long after the vision had gone, was a sound - a sound and a feeling.

As he stood in the tower surveying his surroundings, some distance away, in another tower, another set of bells began to peal. To his surprise, the large, still bells beside him started to vibrate and hum. Placing his hands upon one of them he could feel the bronze shell resonating, infected by the sound waves from the bells resounding in another church, 30Ks away.

More than fifty years later, when I was staying with in space 31, at the Blue & Gold Star Mobile Home Park in Capitola, California, he suggested to me that such was the nature of love. One “sounds” and, in perfect empathy with one’s sounding, one’s beloved sounds back. Someone else could have easily dismissed Ed’s comment as the expression of a sentimental old man, but I knew what he was talking about, and it was something much more profound than some glib romantic notion.

Later, in the scattered writings he did after the stroke had made it difficult for him to write, he spent most of one day typing out the following:

“Origin means the Source of the essence of something. Essence means that the thing is just as it is. BECOMING an essence means that the thing is NOT YET just as it is. It is the thing promising to become invisible. Becoming is its INCIPIENT Being: its Being NOT YET; its hope of Being invisible and also its faith in negating its present and past visibility.”

Coming upon such a statement, without the benefit of our nearly thirty years of friendship, would, I am sure, prove a confounding experience for most readers, so let me interpret what I believe Ed was trying to express. And then let me extrapolate on how this might apply to cinematic story-finding and telling, if not to creativity in general.

Let us assume, heuristically, that a distinction can be drawn between “the storyteller” and “the screenwriter”. Let us, for an instant, consider the possibility that the screenwriter is a creation of the storyteller, a character construct formed out of the volcanic drama continually erupting within the storyteller’s imagination. A screenwriter expresses an essence and that essence is the storyteller.

Our lives ARE stories, replete with choices and errors, victories and frustrations, desires and fears, which we go on enacting and remembering and re-enacting again and again, attempting to place every emotion, every belonging or lack of belonging, every wounding and every significant relationship, in its rightful place, playing out each betrayal and every weakness, longing and sentiment, so that we might certify our existence and identity by sensing ever more vividly the eternal partnering of life and death – and how they dance us to distraction and surrender, into darkness or into light.

The life lived dramatically, like the story told dramatically, is a story of passion, vide: suffering. Being dramatic, it is an active story in which one constantly bets one’s life, risking everything for what one loves or hates, embracing great efforts in the face of eternal hopelessness. In the dramatic story world there is no place for indifferent characters.

The struggle for success at another’s expense, whether it comes easy or hard, is the core deception that inhabits the deep structure of every dramatic tale, whether tragedy or comedy. It is this deception that renders the dramatic character, as well as the storyteller, a victim of the situation of irony that is the defining mark of both the product and process of every dramatic adventure.

The irony, continually dramatized by effective screenplays and the films they inspire, is that in our weakness is our strength, in our courage is our cowardice; in our servitude is our freedom. AN irony played out large in present time, forever and ever, both inside the script and out.

In essence, to be is to be a storyteller – a tribal storyteller, insofar as each one of us expresses our original nature. But not all storytellers are screenwriters. And not all storytellers have bothered to write down the stories that they tell. Whether our passions are expressed in screenplays, or poems, novels or making bread, each of our seemingly unique and individual stories has an origin and is possessed of a mythic dimension that is in evidence everywhere, and is just as commonly ignored or denied everywhere, almost all the time.

Such a dimension is found in the story from Genesis 3:1-21, which narrates the Fall of Wo/mankind, and is continually recounted in our everlasting history, which serves to dramatise our recurring readiness to sacrifice freedom for non-freedom (servility) as consummate proof that we are free. As such, my story, your story and our story – they are all rooted in situations of irony.

For Ed Field, freedom resided in the act of withdrawing – a withdrawal into what he called “the resonance” - the continuing sound of his own solitude. “There,” he wrote, “one finds one’s genius: the bell-ringer in the tower.”

Each of us – like Ishmael at the masthead - has always been there, in our own bell-tower, as poet, prophet, composer of speech and actions, withdrawn from all rules governing those language games by which the world goes on with its economic commerce – from which even dramatic storytelling is not immune.

“The genius presiding over first-person singularity,” Ed once wrote, “has always been there as the necessary bowman of the cello, which makes the music of humanity; necessary for the becoming, the future, the not-yet- past of Man.”

When considered from this vantage point, it becomes possible to understand “resonance” as one of those illuminating, first-person-singular experiences that conducts one ever closer to the source of one’s Being.

When William Blake wrote: “to the see the world in a grain of sand / and hold Eternity in an hour”, he was speaking of such an experience. Likewise, the fractal designs encountered on the great mosques in Isfahan stand as graphic metaphors of the resonant interconnectedness of all Being, what A.N. Whitehead referred to as “the withness of the universe”.

Of course, one could, without applying Ockham’s Razor, indulge in an eternally frustrating game of addition, invoking storyteller upon storyteller as mere characters of each preceding storyteller. Like the Hindu who, when learning that the universe rode on the back of a Turtle, enquired as to what the turtle was riding on, and in reply was informed, “It’s turtles all the way down.” So, too, might one say, concerning the character of the screenwriter, it’s screenwriters all the way down”. Hence, for the sake of keeping the argument robust, let’s posit a storyteller that in some way stands within, behind and beyond the screenwriter, and understand the screenwriter as an imaginary character/friend/colleague of the storyteller’s who works best when s/he understands that the most important part of any screenplay is PLAY.

In other writings, I have talked about screen storytelling as being an act of both faith and love. Interestingly, it was an email from an ex-student of mine – Matt Hawkins – that started me thinking about resonance and its relevance to dramatic film making, and that ultimately encouraged the writing of this essay.

In his email, Matt reminded me that the directing department at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School - where I worked for seven years – had, as part of its full-time programme, coordinated a “resonance workshop” in which teams of filmmakers would “get together and share aesthetic notions before shooting (their) films.”

The principle creatives would talk over their vision for the story, bringing in photos, drawings, physical objects, pieces of music, whatever “resonated” or otherwise connected with their understanding of the film-to-be. It was a way of informing one another of the different places each member of the team was starting from in their quest to realise a unified, coherent and fully collaborative final product.

It would be inaccurate to say that the exercise was unhelpful. It was probably better to have had an opportunity to present and examine one’s views about and connections with the story than to have not had the experience at all. However, by transforming resonance from a verb into a noun, by making it into an event that merely occurs at a certain time and place, one runs the risk of sub-rating its real meaning, thus turning the experience of authentic receptiveness into a wilfully conscious activity that has more to do with personal taste and habit, than it does with genuine openness. To say: “oh yes, we did ‘Resonance’ on Wednesday” makes about as much sense as saying “we do ‘Drama’ on Thursdays.” One either works dramatically or one doesn’t; one either resonates with one’s characters or one doesn’t. When resonance is reduced to a specialised activity informing a school exercise it is next to useless.

One is either IN the drama or OUT of it. There is no halfway house in which one vicariously “feels” the energy whilst remaining thoroughly safe and immune from the rigors of confrontation.

But resonance has more to do with what’s going on outside the script than what’s going on inside it. If one is to find and tell a transforming story, then one must be transformed by the experience of finding the characters, and having the patience and courage to listen and wait for their true voices. For this to happen, one must be faithfully open to them, especially to the character of the screenwriter who, when in danger of exposure, will do almost anything to lie and cheat and scheme his/her way out of a jam.

Great drama is full of jams. Jams occur when we least expect them, and they frustrate, defy and challenge us with their presence. A jam is the story's way of reminding you you're dealing with something that has a mind of its own. A jam is the screenwriter’s equivalent to the protagonist’s obstacle. The story has an inner and outer plot, and these two resonate with each other. The script mirrors the characters; the characters mirror the script. The trials and tribulations of the characters inside the screenplay reflect the trials and tribulations of the characters outside of it. The experience of resonance is central to the finding of all dramatic stories because resonance is really what the process and product is all about – connection and disconnection and the need to reconstruct the connection that has been broken. This is the essence of drama. A present-time account of Being, with which we – the filmmakers – must resonate if we are to find ourselves in the story and the story is to find itself in us.

“Being sounds,” Ed Field once wrote; “it does nothing but sound. Earth, which prepares solitude and forgoes society in its favor, continues the sound. Listened to from the proper distance, the revolving Earth is solitude: it resonates with the primeval tone of creation as on the first day. In that continuing sound the first-person singular came to be-not-yet. Not-yet is a definition of Eternity’s ever becoming. It is also the definition of genius presiding over the singular solitude of whoever the first-person is, whose autobiography is now underway but just begun.”


Richard said...

You actually can teach an old dog something new. All these years, steeped in Catholic tradition, and only now, for the first time, I have I understood the deep and profound truth of what laying on of hands is all about, the quintessential act of being present with "the other" for as Levinas teaches us, we are all others ... we are all others to one another -- the consummate act of love. It seems to me, then, that as you have taught us, the act of screenwriting is, in essence, a profound act of love. Until one learns to love the other, one cannot enter into the life of the other, as the other will have no part of us.

Billy Marshall Stoneking said...

Thank you for this, Richard. You have taught me something - another way of saying can often be extremely enlightening, and of course it is always miraculous when, after sending these missives off into the blac khole of cyber space, they provoke an echo, response, insight. Thanks