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Walden with Internet Access: The Distraction Towers
(This article previously appeared in Film International.)
The Distraction Towers is a rich, complex, and fascinating short essay film by David Baeumler. The film is narrated by Kevin Silva, who plays a professional voice-over artist with a decidedly philosophical bent. In the opening sequence, Silva speaks about planning a trip of aimless wandering, wanting to enjoy remote natural places for their own sake. He plans to diligently pursue his Zen goal of goallessness. His authoritative voice sells the idea of meditative walking, sounding like the narrator in an ad for an expensive, cultish retreat center, while the camera floats serenely backwards from close-up shots of leaves and flowers, in gorgeous, saturated colors. But something strange keeps interfering with the serenity: blips of overlaid screen text and electronic noise keep popping into the frame, as if our experience of being immersed in nature is being cataloged and stored in a remote database.
The various levels of narrative reality presented in the film are quite complex. In the film’s first shots, we are alone in nature. Then we see footage of Silva, giving a talk about Gnostic philosophy, but we’re watching him on an iPad which is set up on a tripod in the woods. And we’re not just watching his actual talk, but also the outtake moments before and after the taping of his talk, when he’s adjusting his mic and his clothing. Meanwhile, these images are still being continually disrupted by the electronic blips and subliminal text with computer graphics.
By including those awkward moments where Silva is preparing to give his spiel, Baeumler reveals that Silva’s ability to present a polished, smooth presentation of his ideas is the result of considerable artifice. A film editor would normally cut out all these moments of Silva clearing his throat, in order to present the narration with a feeling of intellectual clarity and authority. Infomercial editors generally prefer to take out all the stray remarks and body adjustments which make up the texture of actual daily life. Silva’s message is that the Gnostics saw the messiness of the physical world as an enemy, but Baeumler continually allows this messiness to interrupt his message. Meanwhile, the computerized overlaid graphics keep pushing the physical reality even further away, compressing ideas into pure electronic code.
The film’s editing style, which consists entirely of interruptions, is itself interrupted by a hilarious mock drug ad for something called Zabrinor, a psychoactive agent with a sketchily outlined purpose of making you feel that “things aren’t that bad.” Evidently, recording the narration for this ad is one of Silva’s bread-and-butter voice-over gigs, but it also serves as another witty example of how technology is being sold to us as a way of shielding ourselves from the terror of experiencing our own feelings. The ad’s pitch describes the typical Zabrinor customer as someone who would “love to get outside, but inside is ok for now,” and we hear these words while watching the ad on the iPad out in the woods. Watching the Nature Channel on a screen is so much safer and more comfortable than confronting actual wildness.
Ominously, Silva’s text for the ad runs out in mid-sentence, just before we find out the ostensible purpose of the pill. He walks out of the sound booth, looking around for the end of the ad copy, but the recording studio is deserted. The hollowness of the drug pitch bleeds into the larger hollowness of our technologically-cushioned lifestyles.
As the film continues, every story is interrupted, every thought is derailed, and every image is undermined. As we get used to this style, these interruptions, which at first appear to be distractions, become the main point. The film’s underlying philosophy slowly becomes apparent. Silva keeps pursuing his goal of immersing himself in an immediate sensory experience of the natural world, but his every attempt to “sell” this idea, whether to others or to himself, ends up turning into something like a YouTube video about the joys of meditation. We live in a vast, beautiful and terrifying universe, which is not in any way centered on us and our individual needs, and so the connectedness we feel through our sensory experiences serves to pull us out of our egos. At the same time, however, our minds continually convert every experience into language and ideas, which take us away from a direct experience of reality, and there seems to be no way to turn off this non-stop distancing device.
Silva recalls his childhood, and a pesky younger brother who always knocked down whatever Silva was trying to build with blocks. He describes how he took to building “distraction towers,” so his brother would go after a decoy tower, and leave him alone with his “real project.” But he ends up putting more energy into these decoy towers than into the structure he is trying to protect.
Since this story is told while we see images of Silva meditating in a field (still shown on the iPad), it reminded me of the relationship which forms, during meditation, between one’s verbal, intellectual mind, and the quiet inner awareness which is the intended focus. You can try to give your mind a task, such as counting your breaths or keeping your spine straight, to give it something to do, and thus allow your awareness to float away from the chatter and into the silence. But frequently, the effort to distract the mind becomes a distraction, in and of itself. Have you ever tried to meditate, and found yourself talking to yourself about the process of meditating, instead of simply being in the moment?
The Distraction Towers is a deliberately over-burdened narrative, a verbal, philosophical argument that is interrupted and overlaid with so many layers that it is designed to tumble. As an essay, it argues against the validity of the essay form as a way of expressing truth. It espouses the Buddhist notion that all separateness is an illusion, masking the underlying oneness of experience.
Viewed this way, our technologically obsessed age presents no fundamentally new problems of consciousness, but it takes the old human tendency to mistake the map for the territory, and puts it on steroids. For young digital natives, the reduction of feelings and experiences into symbols which can be squeezed into an Instagram post is reality. Sometimes it seems that, to younger people, there is no such thing as inner reality at all. They live in a world of styles, symbols and surfaces. To an old fogey like me, this is terrifying.
Silva, too, is clearly no youngster, and so it comes as no surprise when he responds to the alienation of our time with the hippyish idea of packing up his djembe and heading out to the woods to commune with nature. But with the fragmented, complicated narrative structure of this film, Baeumler effectively shows us that the age of returning to Walden Pond has passed for good. Even if Silva doesn’t bring his iPad with him, he won’t be able to escape the urge to Google every flower and mushroom he sees.
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