A dear friend, a great scientist, now dead, used to tease me by saying that because politics is the art of the possible, it appeals only to second-rate minds. The first-raters, he claimed, were only interested in the impossible.
Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountain of Paradise
A primary reason psychic phenomena are hotly contested by the scientific community is that the validity of such phenomena would mean a major scientific revolution, similar to the Copernican revolution that forced us to accept the sun as the center of the solar system. Scientific revolutions are not easy matters.
Diane Hennacy Powell, The ESP Enigma
In early April of this year, Jeff delivered a lecture on Authors of the Impossible at Southern Methodist University (hear the lecture in Episode 4 of the Impossible Talk podcast). Prior to the lecture, we screened a rough cut of the first eight minutes of the film, the first such public screening. This segment of the film largely consists of a re-enactment of an event that happened to Jeff's friend, the psychotherapist and accomplished historian of animal magnetism and Mesmerism Adam Crabtree. In 1968, Adam awoke suddenly in the middle of the night and turned on his bedside radio. Although Adam was in Toronto, the radio somehow picked up a California radio station, which was covering, live, a campaign speech event of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Alas, within a few minutes, the live broadcast of a campaign speech became a live broadcast of Kennedy’s assassination.
Adam was devastated by this sudden attack on a man whom he deeply admired. Upon reflection, he came to believe that he had somehow experienced a precognitive event, that is, that he awoke just then for a reason that a deeper, unconscious, dimension of his psyche somehow “knew.” He later found what seemed to him a possible explanation in anthropologist Max Freedom Long's exposition on Huna, a religious doctrine of the Hawaiian islands. The Huna doctrine states that, whenever we have meaningful physical contact with someone, we remain connected to that individual throughout the rest of our lives. Adam had previously shaken RFK's hand at a campaign stop and had been struck that his hand had felt unusually cold and dry. He felt that this physical contact somehow “connected” him to RFK, and that it was this same connection that woke him up in the middle of the night immediately before the politician’s tragic end.
During the question and answer session after Jeff’s lecture, a young student stated unequivocally that he had not been convinced by Adam's story and would only be convinced if Jeff could present scientific evidence that paranormal phenomena are real. Jeff answered the young man by calmly noting that there is already just such a scientific literature, and that this literature is summarized in the books of authors like Dean Radin and Diane Hennacy Powell. It seems that there is always one of these arch-skeptics in the audience of every lecture Jeff gives. We later learned that students from an SMU physics class called “The Scientific Method: Critical and Creative Thinking (Debunking Pseudoscience)” were in attendance. One does not need to be a psychic to deduce that the skeptical questioner was likely a member of this class.
I begin with this scenario for a reason. Though many readers will find the weight of the total history Jeff narrates in Authors of the Impossible quite convincing, we (the Authors of the Impossible team) expect neither the book nor the film will convince hard-core materialists or ideological skeptics of the reality of paranormal phenomena. While the film, like the book, does consider and deeply value scientific perspectives on the paranormal, we nonetheless think that the hard science is best left to Dean, Diane, and their colleagues. Jeff takes up his own authority and his own voice as a prominent historian of religions, that is, as someone who has been trained to study the history and meaning of such anomalous events (and the question of meaning lies entirely outside the scope of professional science). That said, we ignore the skeptics at our own peril, for they are an important voice in contemporary society. We also leave ourselves open to needless ridicule, if we do not come up with a strategy that at least mitigates this knee-jerk incredulity.
This attempt to describe the creative strategy for the Authors of the Impossible film is made more difficult still by the fact that we can find no outstanding examples of metaphysical documentaries to which we can compare our envisioned film. Certainly, there are many films, fiction and nonfiction, that deliver a sense of the transcendent, the mystical, and the paranormal, but, ironically, there are precious few, if any, truly sophisticated documentaries about the paranormal as a very real human potential. We are no doubt charting new territory here. And therein lies a tremendous opportunity. We have a chance to create a film of tremendous depth and meaning that will literally be the first of its kind, communicating ideas at once ancient and revolutionary to a Western, and eventually worldwide, audience. The Earth is round, the sun is the center of our solar system, Mind is not brain, and superpowers lie latent within each of us. A revolution indeed.
The purpose of this Creative Brief is threefold: 1) as a way of “thinking out” our approach to the film, Authors of the Impossible, which will ultimately result in guide for its creation; 2) as a means of communicating our approach to interested parties who might be able to provide input and guidance as to how best to approach the film; and 3) as a means of communicating to potential investors our plan and vision for the film.
The task before us, then, is develop a creative approach that will artfully render the ideas presented in the Authors of the Impossible book in an accessible way without needlessly “dumbing down” the vision. The film needs to be intelligent without being too technical, artistic without being pretentious, and commercial without being cheap or sensational. We believe that most potential viewers are hungry for exactly this kind of smart and sophisticated approach, that this “middle” is precisely where most people are.
In the following, I first provide a brief overview of our vision for the film. I then describe the principle components and proposed techniques to be used in the film. I then discuss the film's genre and mode, and finally I examine two documentaries that, while not explicitly metaphysical, still manage to provide a sense of the transcendent: Touch the Sound, and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.
In describing the creative approach to the creation of the Authors of the Impossible documentary, it is perhaps best to start with what we want to avoid. Jeff's book is one of profound depth, sophistication, and nuance, and so we want to create a film that will reflect this kind of subtlety. Accordingly, we want to avoid the visual and aural clichés too often seen and heard in exploitative television documentaries about the paranormal. These include cheesy visual effects, flash cuts, and the gratuitous use of ominous visuals, sound effects, and music that are nothing more than lazy expressions of "mystery," usually intended to induce fear. These films are typically shallow, usually posing, without answering, a simple question of whether or not a given paranormal event was "real.” The viewer is thus left with a simple either-or choice: either it is all true, or it is all false. Nothing in between.
We, on the other hand, envision a both-and, an in-between that can embrace both the constructed or fictional aspects of paranormal events (for example, the science-fiction frame of many UFO encounters) and their very real, and deeply meaningful core (the truly “Unidentified” part of the UFO encounter). Unhurried in its pacing, the film will gently seduce the audience into Jeff's desire "to call us out of our rationalist denials and naïve assumptions into a more spacious and generous Imagination."1 Returning paranormal events to their original sacred register, these events will be rendered as they are in fact experienced in the real world by everyday, ordinary people: as stories, as profound communications involving both terrifying and alluring dimensions that seem designed to transmit meaning to subjects, often for the sake of some sort of profound emotional need.
In short, the paranormal is a true story.
Mystical Realism and Transcendental Irony
The genre of Authors of the Impossible can best be described as mystical realism. Mystical realism seeks to represent paranormal events in their ordinariness, that is, in a way that is honest, that is free of sensationalism, and that strives to help the viewer understand their meaning and import. Thus the mystical is presented, as closely as possible, as it is really experienced. Put a bit more technically, mystical realism refers to a particular method of portraying anomalous experiences in fiction and film that (a) locates them squarely in daily life; (b) accurately contextualizes them in cultural history; (c) portrays them as real human potentials (read: no spandex, no capes); and, finally, (d) emphasizes the essential paradoxical, both-and, or fantastic quality of such experiences. As such, we are working against and beyond the usual handling of the psychical and the paranormal in the mainstream media and film industry, which inevitably polarizes such real experiences into simplistic, exclusivistic dichotomies: true/false, fiction/fact, subjective/objective, skeptic/believer, etc.
We think of mystical realism as among the family of genres employing transcendental irony, a concept derived from Romantic irony in literature and described by Eric G. Wilson in Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film. Here Eric meditates on the enduring split in film criticism between what is called “formalism” and “realism.” Formalism, derived from the world of art, is reflective of the inner workings of the mind and all its attendant oddities: dreams, fantasies, the subconscious, and the like. The formalist approach to filmmaking allows the artist to shape his filmic world to fit his abstract ideas. Realism, on the other hand, aspires to immediate presentation of the real. It does not seek to reduce reality to the familiar, but to paradoxically reveal what we might call the mystery of the real. Eric describes a “golden mean” between these two extremes, a middle path that he calls “transcendental irony.” In such an approach, formalism and realism are placed into a tense, conflicted relationship, which in turn invites the viewer or seer to consider a kind of transcendence of opposites. This is what Eric calls Gnostic cinema.2
Because Authors of the Impossible is an inherently reflexive work—projected consciousness (encoded as culture) reflected back to consciousness (encoded as an individual), who in turn is trying to make sense of consciousness—the characteristic self-awareness of transcendental irony will permeate the entire film, most obviously in Jeff's shifting point of view (see Components and Techniques of the Film, #1 below), but also in the combined use of allegory, metaphor and symbolism, on the one hand, and literal representation, on the other, in the paranormal re-enactments and visual illustrations of various theoretical concepts. Interestingly here, the self-consciousness of transcendental irony wherein the author, Jeff, signals his freedom from the limits of the film by puncturing its fictional illusion and exposing its process of composition is analogous to the very message of the film. In fact it is the message of the film: Jeff suggests we follow his example in the "real" world, in our "real" lives. That is, we can (and should) wake up from the story or movie of our lives and author ourselves anew.
Components and Techniques of the Film
1. Narration and lectures by, and interviews with Jeff Kripal. As our fifth author of the impossible and central character, Jeff Kripal is our guide through this strange and wonderful world. The constantly shifting meta-perspective, from Jeff's direct narrative meditations, to his lectures to live audiences, to intimate interviews with him, will provide texture and interest, and will help us avoid creating a film of non-stop talking heads. (Shifting back and forth from public narration to a live audience to quiet reflection was done to great effect in An Inconvenient Truth.) Jeff's on-camera persona, like his real-life persona, is friendly, honest and genuine. This, combined with the unique brilliance of his ideas make him an inherently compelling character.
2. The pinhole camera. The pinhole camera is a precursor to modern photography. Our use of it is designed, intentionally, to carry multiple meanings: a) it invokes or alludes to the ancient allegory of Plato's Cave, reminding us that everything we see is an illusion, and that we must look beyond our everyday conception of reality to catch a glimpse of the real; b) it works as a metaphor for the Filter Thesis, that is, the notion that our brains do not produce consciousness or Mind, but filter or reduce it in order to create our limited sense of the world, much like the pinhole camera filters light to create the projected image on the back wall of the box; c) the box of the pinhole camera symbolizes what Max Weber poetically called "the iron cage of modern rationalism"; d) it works as an homage to Stanley Kubrick's mysterious monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and is, in our use now, symbolic of the mysteries of the paranormal; f) it serves as a gentle (albeit, inverted) reminder to “think outside the box”; and, finally, e) the film's opening inside the pinhole camera, with the viewer traveling toward the pinhole and the light streaming in, is reminiscent of a near-death experience.
3. On-camera interviews with a wide variety of experts. Thus far we have shot fifteen interviews with experts, thinkers, and writers on various mystical and occult themes. The two living authors profiled in the book, Jacques Vallee and Bertrand Méheust, have already been interviewed. These will be interwoven with Jeff's narration, lectures and interviews to reinforce and help tell the story.
4. Re-enactments of paranormal stories. The re-enactments will be constructed using live-action narrative cinematic language and 2D animation. The animation will be used for scenes that are too expensive to produce using live action, or for scenes that for various artistic reasons will be better represented by animation. Visual effects will be limited, and will be as organic and realistic as possible.
5. Photos and film of the four authors profiled. Archival and newly acquired images of the four authors will be used to support their profiles.
6. Recurring allegoric, metaphoric, symbolic and meditative visual motifs. Created using a variety of media, a number of themes will permeate the film. We are flagging these themes as we work on the script. First, actual text, sometimes animated, will be a consistent theme, used throughout to underscore the magical nature of writing and language and the “textual” or “narrative” dimensions of paranormal experiences. Second, light will be employed as a metaphor for the true nature of Mind or Consciousness. Light, a consistent component of mystical experience throughout history, is today described by scientists as both a particle and a wave. The paranormal, as described by Jeff in Authors of the Impossible, is described as having both a subjective (internal, mental) component and an objective (external, physical) component. Our intention is to use the particle/wave nature of light as a metaphor for subjective/objective nature of paranormal experience. Third, insects will be used to represent the Imaginal or future form of our evolutionary potential (a consistent theme from Frederic Myers in the nineteenth century to contemporary descriptions of aliens), and the imagery of a white crow will be used to underscore the idea that it only takes one such crow to prove that all crows are not black (this was the image that the early nineteenth-century psychical researchers used to demonstrate the logic of their own quest for “the white crow” or anomalous experience).
7. The usurpation of temporal logic and the building up of visual force. This will be done by repeating out-of-context shot sequences, accompanied by music, that resonate with, and thus help undergird, new ideas as they are presented. This will also harmonize with the vital technique of comparison used by all of the authors discussed in the book and by Jeff in writing it. By jumping around in time, within the film's timeline, we usurp temporal logic, rendering time an illusion. As the images repeat, with each sequence building in length and power, we will create an immersive force or visual wave that will envelop the viewer.
8. Visual illustrations of theoretical concepts. While being artfully rendered, these illustrations will be somewhat literal in order to help communicate complex ideas more clearly. While we will use various media for these, most will be rendered using animation.
9. Custom music score. We will be using a modern custom score by Boston-based composer Noel Flatt.
Tone, Feeling, Trust, Texture and Rhythm: Commonalities in Transcendent Documentaries
Touch the Sound is a 2004 documentary by German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer profiling Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who is legally deaf. This beautifully crafted documentary is patient, precise, and exquisitely tuned into the subject matter. Redelsheimer—and this is key—never underestimates his audience, believing they can make intuitive leaps, guided by sound and images, that bring them so much closer to the soul of his subject. Many of the scenes during which improvisational music is being created have a transcendent quality to them. The film is not merely watched, but is experienced and felt. It has a meditative quality that begets a feeling of openness and wonder. An underlying sense of the spiritual richness of life permeates the film. Particularly appealing are the many rhythmic visuals accompanying the music.3
Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is a 1997 documentary by American filmmaker Errol Morris. As in our film, this film profiles four unique individuals. Unlike our film, the four men profiled at first glance seem to have very little in common. On the surface, the film is about obsession, with the characters’ commonalities teased out throughout the course of the film. But like any good documentary, the subject is deeper and much more complex than this. Parallels drawn between artificial intelligence, societal mammals, the commonality of life, and art flesh out a world where the idea of God can be reduced to a simple inherent property of existence. Mole rat societies are not so far from human societies; humans are not so different from animals; robots are not so different from animals; and each individual represents a unique degree of specialization that proves important to the greater society in which it exists. The four interwoven stories result in a film that is elegant, subtle, and even-handed, not to mention completely unique in its structure and, like Touch the Sound, has faith in the audience to decipher meaning from the context provided. Each person interviewed is wholly engrossed in their very unique craft, lending the film a strange beauty that inspires wonder in trusting viewers, exactly the way that the experts' wonder has motivated their realization as truly unique humans. Morris' use of a wide variety of imagery provides a rich texture to the film. With each added component the film simultaneously takes on more complexity and subtlety.4
Scott H. Jones
1 Jeffrey J. Kripal, Authors of the Impossible (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 1.
2 Eric Wilson, Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film (Continuum, 2006).
3 IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0424509/
4 IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119107/