Mists and Myths: Fragments from Baden-Baden and Zurich

Vertov’s premise was that film’s power came from the ability to interpolate seemingly disparate images to create an ideal world in a way that the masses could comprehend— the truth of the ideal world would be conveyed through montage.

Kluge built on this, or perhaps contracted upon it. He thought it was necessary for the viewer to reconcile the relationship between the film on the screen and the film in their head. To him, the smallest unit of montage was not a single frame, but the empty space between frames. Truth came out not from creating understanding through montage, but through the co-mingling of the interpolation with the viewer’s knowledge of history and society. This was especially true when the images were irreconcilable with each other and/or the viewer’s knowledge. The most striking example of this is at the beginning of The Artist Under the Big Top: Perplexed, where film from the Nazi’s day of German Art is overlaid with an Italian rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

Applied to writing, it would mean that the base unit is not the letter itself, but the space between letters (and paragraphs and sentences, of course).

******

I couldn’t figure out how to turn my headlights off. The confluence of them, the thick fog, and a steamed windshield meant I could only see about 25 feet in front of me. Switchbacks were particularly empty. For a few seconds, I’d become convinced that the road just disappeared into nothingness, my rented Infiniti entering the infinite. Then I’d realize I needed to hit the breaks and turn before I flew over the guardrail.

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darker tree in the mist

“What seems to work best for you is the distraction technique—whenever you feel panic setting in, open up twitter or boot up FIFA and try to stop thinking about time.”

-My therapist

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“Country Girl I think you’re pretty/ Got to make you understand/ Have no lovers in the city/ Let me be your country man”

-Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

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“Baudrillard also talks about virtual realities and deceptive images, but his point isn’t that they have clouded our perception of the reality beyond. The present system of social images is so vast and all-encompassing that it’s produced a total reality for itself; it only lies when it has us thinking that there’s something else behind the façade. Baudrillard, always something of an overgrown child, loved to refer to Disneyland: As he pointed out, it’s in no way a fake—when you leave its gates, you return to an America that’s just one giant Disneyland, a copy without an original, from coast to coast. ‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.’”

-Sam Kriss

******

Though I had never visited the Black Forest before, it felt familiar. I couldn’t see it as it was—only through memories of Colorado winters. The tall firs, shaded a green that at times bordered on black and speckled with brown needles, blended with the dense Vail forest I sped through on skis; the languid walking paths were just the off-season version of the catwalks I knew so well.

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really pretty stump

Ethnologists are quick to point out that cause-effect relationships and a desire for clear demarcations between good and evil are not as inherently human as those in the Judeo-Christian tradition believe. For example, in Basque folklore, there is the Basa-Juana, an almost sasquatchian wild man who lives deep in the forest with his wife. In one story, the Basa-Juana is chasing a group of men to eat them. When one man trips and falls, the Basa-Juana teaches him how to grow wheat and other food staples. No explanation for the change of heart is given.

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centered city in focus.jpg

“Zurich wants to be Brooklyn.” That’s how Guille put it to me as we walked by expensive furniture stores built into the side of a viaduct. He scowled at a shop window that revealed a simple wooden kitchen chair, pre-worn at its base. The €500 price tag swung softly in the air conditioning.

“Or maybe Berlin,” I responded, glancing at a nightclub with a canopy of brightly lit umbrellas. The area smelled of weed.

“Zurich doesn’t mind anything, as long as it doesn’t affect them. It’s the same way with money,” Guille explained. They don’t care how dirty it is, as long as it doesn’t soil their hands when they take it.

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“We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.”

-Kyle Chayka

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The tallest building in Zurich, Prime Tower, was completed in 2011—though with its smooth green glass and façade-like flatness, it seems like something from the John Portman hits of 70’s collection. We visited it the night I arrived in Zurich, stopping in for drinks at the bar on the top floor. It was darkly lit, with all the elements of a posh watering hole in 2016—a bar with a literal brass bar and oversized jug of Hendricks’s gin (so you know they aren’t using Bombay or, gasp, Tanqueray), ornately illustrated bathroom doors, and fries that came in a mini-fryer lined with fake newspaper. The only identifier that I was in Zurich was my locally made craft beer, a bargain at eight euros. The bar was dressed down, except for the prices.

******

 

tram ways.jpg

“Getting caught up in the coked-up propulsion of New York, or the foibles of the rich and powerful, is a losing proposition. It gets you high for about a day, you feel like you have a stake in power even though that’s an illusion, you feel a part of an exciting modern movement, and then you have to replenish your ammo in two, three days…The theater of urban power brokers is hackwork. Sure, they’re corrupt. Sure, they’re statistical outliers and therefore novel. But that’s too easy. It’s too easy to think exclusively about novel people. It’s too clean a victory. It’s robbing a liquor store with a shotgun when a laser pointer in a jacket pocket would suffice. Self-righteousness in the face of powerful people is a foolproof position to assume and it makes you look good, but it’s an affected antagonism.”

-Kaleb Horton

******

My last day in Zurich, I went for an early morning walk. At the plaza where I watched the sunrise, a tourist in yoga gear asked a trash collector to take her photo. He obliged, and as he prepared the camera on her iPhone, she assumed the lotus position in front of the rapidly rising sun. Nearby, there was an empty sleeping bag, a rare intrusion of Zurich’s invisible but existent homeless population. I walked back to the city proper. I arrived on a major thoroughfare at the same time as the tram. The disembarking men and women streamed past me, hoping to get to the bank before their boss. Each wore the same black or navy suit, using a single accessory to attempt to individualize their uniform—colorful socks or a small pocket square, dress boots or a monogrammed belt. In my tweed jacket and Blunderstone boots, I felt superior. In a café down the street, I sat next to a man with my glasses and shoes. I ate the seven-euro cheesecake; he ate the six-euro muffin. We both drank cappuccinos and wrote.

******

In the 1970’s, Bowie started experimenting with cutting up his lyrics. In essence, he’d write the lyrics to a song, cut them up, and rearrange it. Doing so changed the meaning, opening up interpretations and understandings that were previously unavailable. The risk was that the song’s original meaning would be lost to all, even Bowie, without a suitable replacement.

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Zurich’s opera house is rather tame, by the standards of opera houses. Or maybe gilded letters and ornate stonework stick out less in Zurich, the city that is the epitome of wealth. The golden seals of the town’s guilds are embedded in the granite planks of its courtyard. If you look closely at certain homes along the waterfront, you’ll see the same emblems, marking their owners as an elite within the city of the elites. The seals on the house are all the differentiation they allow themselves, however, usually preferring to attempt to blend in with the city at large.

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In Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog uses every tool at his disposal as a filmmaker, including montage and narrative, to craft a theory on ecstatic beauty, madness, music, and nature. What is seen as the madness of the titular character is, in reality, the lasting effect of experiencing pure ecstasy.[1] Though the beauty of music provides this particular ecstasy, it can also be found in nature. Because of this, the listener who becomes enraptured in music returns to a state usually only found in indigenous tribes who still interact with nature’s violent beauty. This is why Fitzcarraldo is a laughingstock of modern civilization, yet is in some way respected by those in the jungle. Furthermore, art is the only semi-justification for the destruction of nature, for the possibility of ecstasy is not gone, as it is when nature is corrupted in the name of capitalism, but simply repositioned.

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blue chairlift tree center

There was a ski lift at the bottom of the path into the Black Forest national park. The chairs, left hanging even in the offseason, danced in the thick fog. It reminded me of an abandoned industrial space, or a Scooby-Doo episode about the Abominable Snowman. Or perhaps both. There were a few more scattered across the mountain, the only sign that the forest has changed since the days of the brothers Grimm. For the most part, they were a stark and unwelcome intrusion of the material world, reminding the hiker that in the winter, much of the now-pristine landscape is crushed by skiers—only to be reborn again in the spring.

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Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

-David Foster Wallace

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Most agree that the Grimm Brothers didn’t create the folktales they documented. If I remember correctly, several of the tales may have come from their neighbor, an old French woman, who in turn read them in Charles Perrault’s collection stories.[2] This is fascinating because the tales are so linked to the Black Forest. Think of Little Red Riding Hood skipping down a path, or Hansel and Gretel running from the witch, or the house of the seven dwarves. Whether because of the tales themselves, or Disney, or something else, I’d guess that you imagined the scenes not in French farmland, but German forest, with the architecture to match.

Upon visiting the Black Forest, the first thing I noticed was how different than landscape was from how I had imagined it. It was much hillier and foggier. It didn’t help that, since I was visiting in late fall, only 50% of the trees had leaves. It was stunning nonetheless. At one point, I found a path—it was lined with pine straw, pockmarked with red mushrooms, and had a creek running nearby. As I stumbled down it, I had to restrain myself from leaping in the air. I had discovered a path reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm. I entered the world of folktales, a place with innocence and witches, with no intentions on leaving.

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mushrooms best

“Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but I do not mean this in the Gallic, po-mo sense that all experience is relative and there is no such thing as truth. I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising. Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth.”

-Tom Bissell

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immovable force meets istobbable object

One of the striking things, when listening to the music of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, is the obsession with settling down. It was part of the idealism—they were going to change the world, and then go back to the countryside and live in an egalitarian relationship with their lover. In the decades since, such a concept has fallen out of fashion, and fallen hard. Nowadays, the majority of love songs have an implicit phobia of the contentedness that CSNY, The Beach Boys, and even Bowie craved. This has been one of the great, if accidental, victories of the moral majority. The media made now that celebrates settling down is almost entirely regressive: Nancy Meyers Rom-Coms and the tattered remnants of a country genre that is now closer to rock. Gone is the celebration of two people living together as loving equals, such as in “Kooks” or “Our House.” Now, the only examples of long-term relationships retain gender roles more fitting of 1950 than 2016.[3] Obviously, this benefits the faction of the USA that would like to return to that time. But it also hurts the rest of us in another way—it makes it taboo to want long-term contentedness. Admitting that you want to find a partner for life before the age of 30 is seen as tantamount to announcing that you believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen and that trickle-down economics is valid. This is absurd, of course. There’s no real correlation between wanting a permanent relationship and regressive views. Approaching every relationship before the age of 28 or so as inevitably temporary isn’t healthy. It leads to skepticism at every potential relationship; being worried to enter one, no matter how much you like the other person, because you are convinced it must end.

******

I started up down the path into the Black Forest, filled with excitement. I’ve dreamed of visiting the region for as long as I can remember, wanting to walk through the thick trees and past the bubbling creeks. I stopped after three steps. Was that sign saying it was all closed, or just one path?

Just to be safe, I hiked back out and drove down to the national park information center. The teenager working the front desk confirmed that, yes, despite the heavy fog and rain, the park was open. I thanked him and walked outside. I started walking up the path. Wait, how did I know this was the way? I returned to the heated building to confirm that, yes, that was the path. I went on my way again. As I left the open field to enter a tree-lined path, I felt panic set in. Are there bears in the Black Forest? I saw one on a brochure. When do they hibernate? I tried to Google it—the Internet wasn’t working. Once again I returned to the park center. No, don’t worry about bears, they aren’t around. Finally, I could go on my way, free of fear. What about wolves? Or if I got lost? The fog was thick. Maybe I should just stay inside. Eventually, I had to remind myself I had driven nine hours to do this, and I shouldn’t waste the opportunity to fulfill a dream. Cautiously, I continued down the path.

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“That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money in power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy…In a nation that which increasingly appears to prize social virtues, Howard Hughes remains not merely antisocial but grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly, asocial. He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.”

-Joan Didion

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Even when he’s portrayed as evil, I always have sympathy for the Basa-Juana. He just wants to live in the mountains and protect his trees while his wife Mari rules over nature. As human settlement expands, he’s pushed farther into the green morass, constantly having to relocate his castle to an ever-darkening enclave. A group of men, searching desperately for food, encroach on his solitude. He decides to teach them how to farm. They run away and call him a monster. Another man cuts down the Basa-Juana’s trees. The Basa-Juana asks the man to come with him to be punished. The man tricks him, pinning him to the tree he wanted to protect. One day he wakes up, and his lover is no longer a benevolent goddess known as Mari but simultaneously the mother of a man named Jesus and the head of a cult of witches. And then they’re gone, pushed into non-existent myth as we map the last of the forest. He is super-human yet wants to live a simple, human life. But it is because he is super-human that he never can.

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“There is silence; but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly harps on the fact of its own deep perfection.”

-Aldous Huxley

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impressionistic

The most important part of the trip to Baden-Baden, more important than the solitude, was the freedom—though I guess the two are inextricable. The car emphasized both. I not only didn’t need to meet up with anyone, but I didn’t even have to be anywhere at a certain time to catch a bus or tram. I could just drive, alone except the music coming from the stereo, winding my way through mountain passes and tight village streets. The few times this freedom was limited, I was livid. I took it as a personal affront when my AirBnB host kept calling to ask when I’d arrive; I would get there when I got there, and besides, it wasn’t my fault traffic was bad.

When I walked through the forest, the silence confirmed both my solitude and freedom. There were no crowds to avoid, no beautiful works of art to see, just trees and creeks and the occasional lake. Huxley said his father’s idea of church was a walk through the mountains.[4] I empathize. The silent fog was almost mystical—I understood why the idea of supernatural beings living deep in the trees is so seductive. Every intervention modern man makes into nature destroys some of its silent beauty. To borrow from quantum mechanics, we change it just through observing. So fairies and werewolves and Basa-Juanas act as our proxies. We insert them into the natural world, and act as if they continue to exist there even when we leave, a last-ditch effort to reclaim our place within a perfect order from which we have been expelled. Leaves crunched under my boot. I came to a stop, closed my eyes, and listened to the silence breathe softly. I imagined where in the forest I was. Just over the hill, fairies nibbled on mushrooms while the Basa-Juana slept.

Footnotes:

[1] There are many types and definitions of ecstasy, of course, but the ecstasy most common in Herzog is the emotion one feels when one comes close to understanding capital-t Truth.

[2] Or more accurately, was told stories that came from Perrault’s collection, since it was written a century before and aimed at the upper class. Eventually, the tales filtered down into the lower class they allegedly originated in, such as the French neighbor.

[3] Yes, I know the female characters in Nancy Meyers films have high-powered jobs. But they never find happiness until they find a man and give up their individuality.

[4] Of course, Leonard Huxley was a rung below the aristocracy, with the free time and means to disappear into the mountains whenever he wished. And I could only take this trip because of my family’s economic well-being and my father’s support. Someone working for minimum wage can’t afford to go off the grid in the way in search of the solitude so necessary for self-realization. Missing a call about an overtime opportunity could mean not eating for a week. And perhaps this, not the fifty-dollar fondues and bevy of Bentleys, is what is so obscene about Zurich: they have the means to search for truth yet don’t. They are all Baudrillard, deluding themselves into thinking the insular little world they have built is the entirety of reality, that because there is no truth in it, there is no truth anywhere—that their cultural creations are so imprinted on us that even in the most virgin areas all we see is that which has already been made. Perhaps they’re right, and any attempt to find truth is delusional. But the ecstasy I experienced in the Baden-Baden, and Herzog experienced in the Jungle, and Huxley experienced in nature’s peculiar silence—the ecstasy that man tries to recapture through folktales and fairies—suggests otherwise.

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