By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 21, 2023)
Back in February of 2017, my dear mother passed away, at the age of 86. While she had been weathering a plethora of health issues for a number of years, the straw that ultimately claimed her (pancreatic cancer) was diagnosed mere weeks before she died. In fact, her turn for the worse was so sudden that my flight to Ohio turned into a grim race; near as I could figure, my plane was on final approach to Canton-Akron Airport when she slipped away (I arrived at her bedside an hour after she had died). And yes, that was hard.
Since I obviously wasn’t present during (what turned out to be) her final days, I asked my brother if she had any “final words”. At first, he chuckled a little through the tears, recounting that several days prior, she had turned to him at one point and said “I wish I had some wisdom to impart. But I don’t.” I laughed (Jewish fatalism-it’s a cultural thing).
Then, he remembered something. The hospice room where my mother spent her last week had a picture window facing west, with a view of a field, a pond, a small stand of trees, and an occasional deer spotting. Two days before she was gone, my mother, my father, and my brother were quietly enjoying this pastoral scene with the bonus of a lovely sunset. My mother broke the silence with three words: “Trees are important.”
I’ve been mulling over those words ever since. What did she mean? Indeed, trees are important. They are, in a literal sense, the very lungs of the Earth. As a metaphor, I must consider the foundational significance that The Tree of Life holds in Judaism. Was she “imparting wisdom” after all? Had she, at the end of her journey, reached what Paddy Chayefsky once called a “cleansing moment of clarity” about The Things That Really Matter? Granted, it may not be as cinematic as “Rosebud”, but it’s at the very least a kissin’ cousin to a Zen koan. If I’d been there, I might’ve responded with something profound, like “Nicely put.”
Those memories came flooding back to me like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist during the opening scene of Godfrey Reggio’s Once Within a Time (in theaters), when a central figure in the narrative first appears …Gaia, Mother Earth, Great Mother, Tellus, the Log Lady (her names are legion). I couldn’t fathom where this was going, but intuited that She was going to be Important.
Billed as “a bardic fairy tale about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one”, this visually arresting 58-minute feature (co-directed by Jon Kane) represents an 8-year labor of love for Reggio (now 83), who is primarily known for his “Qatsi trilogy” (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi). He re-enlisted his Qatsi trilogy collaborator Philip Glass to score the project. Glass’ score is quite lovely (and restrained-I know he has his detractors) with wonderful vocalizing provided by Sussan Deyhim.
Ostensibly aimed at a young audience, the film (a mashup of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Tron, 2001, and Princess Mononoke) utilizes a collage of visual techniques (stop-motion, puppetry, shadow play, etc.) with echoes of George Melies, Lotte Reiniger, Karel Zeman , Rene Laloux, George Pal, Luis Buñuel, The Brothers Quay, and Guy Maddin.
A small group of children are spirited away to a multiverse that vacillates (at times uneasily) between the lush green world, future visions of a bleak and barren landscape, and the rabbit hole of cyberspace; surreal vignettes abound.
A wolf pack gathers around and begins to bay at a huge smart phone displaying a scene from George Melies’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. A monkey wearing a VR headset swings along power lines in a post-apocalyptic landscape. In a sequence recalling “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” in Fantasia, emojis leap from smart phones, transform into amorphous figures (resembling Teletubbies), and begin to gyrate in unison. An oversized wooden marionette with a b&w photo of Greta Thunberg for a face lumbers about for a bit amongst the children, and Mike Tyson has a cameo that I couldn’t even begin to describe (I couldn’t get this high).
An occasional visual quote from Reggio’s earlier films suggests that this can be viewed as “a child’s guide to the Qatsi trilogy”. This is reinforced by reiteration of pet themes from those films; namely humankind’s callous indifference to nature’s delicate balance, and the ever-increasing encroachment of the technocracy on society (the latter which is all but complete).
Those themes seem a tad dark for a “children’s film”, but Reggio’s vision here is not completely devoid of hope for the future. On the other hand, neither does he tie everything up neatly, ending with a title card that asks: “Which age is this: The sunset or the dawn?”
So what does it all mean?
In a recent interview, Reggio said of his intention:
I wanted a piece without words, so that it may be perhaps accessible to a lot of people. Something that was at once linear and non-linear, ambiguous and clear. At the same time, I wanted to leave you, not with an answer, but with a question.
Not helping. Although…Reggio at least sheds some light on Mike Tyson’s appearance:
So let me make a long story short. The crew said: If you get him, we can’t afford him. Anyway, I got a notice from his partner saying meet us at Robert De Niro’s hotel downtown. Mike wants to talk to you. He’s got a few guys with him. So I talked to him for half an hour. Mike says ,“Motherfucker, you’re speaking right to my subconscious.”
A cleansing moment of clarity. As Ella sang, I think I’m beginning to see the light.
And as my mama always said, Trees are important.