eli, eli, lema sabachthani?


The other night I went to Umeda to see Shinji Aoyama’s new movie, Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?, a meditation on the nature of explorative aesthetic practice and experimental living. Aoyama is the director of Eureka, one of the most incredible films of the last decade, and in his new film he revisits territory that he has covered before — the burden of incredible loss and the possibility of redemption via various types of opening up that are always rejections of dominative social forms. The set-up for Eli, Eli is simple: In the year 2015, a deadly virus that is visually transmitted begins to infect humanity. Miyagi, “the patriarch of a wealthy family,” is trying to save his granddaughter, who has contracted the virus. The only way “to restrain the disease” (there is no cure) is to listen to “the ‘sound’ performed by two men.” These men are Mizui (played by the great Tadanobu Asano) and Asuhara (Masaya Nakahara, who is in actuality a sound artist), two isolated musicians who live by the ocean where they collect sounds — the waves, the chiming of seashells, green peppers in the process of being smashed — and compose dense noisescapes. Miyagi hires a detective to seek them out and they drive to the coast with the granddaughter. The movie closes with a shamanic Mizui performing a guitar-driven sonic exorcism in the middle of a field with “four gigantic speakerhorns” pointed at the granddaughter, who is blindfolded. This sound becomes a part of her and it may, or may not, stave off the urge to commit suicide. Her final words are hopeful, however: “I will remember. I will not forget. I will remember. I will not forget this music.”

Aoyama essentially presents Japanese noise, an underground music phenomenon, as an alternative form of existence that emphasizes an anti-consumerist ethos that is centered around the practice of active listening. To listen to challenging soundscapes, or challenging music — to become alert to alternative modes of being and encounter — is, in this film, to reject modes of commercialized passivity that actually serve to construct the subject as always lacking, always sick, never whole. The inability of the subject to become whole is thematized by the incredible number of people in this movie that put holes in their head in what seems to be the only logical escape from a world in which pure consumerist transcendence (it’s no accident that the virus is a visual virus) is marked as inherently impossible — an unearthly desire with no place to go. Instead of transcendence, Aoyama’s film demands a rematerializing attention to the world that touches our bodies everyday — the world that enters through the ears, the eyes, the skin against the grass, the taste of food in the mouth. The challenge is to let these things enter us, to remember the world we live in now and reject groundless desires that are ultimately inhuman in scope. The visual virus itself is shown only once — it looks like a sperm cell, but rather than creating new life it wraps its tail around blood vessels or nerves to strangle the host body. I think Aoyama is commenting on the creative process here, a creative process that he sees as having become a kind of assassin, void of generative possibility.

Aoyama’s nomadic musicians are not archetypes for me, or symbolic otherworldly potentialities. My father, Darrell DeVore, inhabited this realm of musical articulation and experimentation with a fierce resistance to the flattening effects of commercial culture. His studio, Studio Um (named after Dr. Um, the persona through which much of his music was channeled) was filled from floor-to-ceiling with found sound devices constructed from PVC pipes, Slinkies, Styrofoam sound chambers, various metal objects, ripped out piano guts, gear housings, children’s toys, film canisters, detourned instruments, and various bells, gongs, whistles, and other percussive devices. The improvisational music sessions at Studio Um were incredible creations of new worlds of sound, new potentialities and possibilities of subjective being in the world. These spaces opened up at the moment of creation, coming to life in the communicative circuit between musicians, sounds, and the instantaneous possibility of the live accidental. If, as Wittgenstein has said, “To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life,” then we might say that to imagine music as a language beyond words, as a language that escapes the limitations of signification, is to imagine a boundlessness that we can carry inside that is not a lack, but the potential for a fullness defined precisely by expansion, transformation, and the refusal to remain small and fixed under the social pin.

As René Char puts it in Feuillets d’Hypnos, “So unreceptive has our sleep become that even the briefest of dreams cannot come galloping through to refresh it. The prospect of dying is drowned out by an inundation of the Absolute so all-engulfing that merely to think of it is to lose any desire for life, which we call upon, which we implore. Once again, we must love one another well, must breathe more deeply than the executioner’s lungs.”

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