By John Duncan Talbird.
Since 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi (dir. Godfrey Reggio), time-lapse photography has become a convention, sometimes to the point of cliché. Still, we’re stunned every now and then by its beautiful use as in the opening and closing of flowers to the tune of The Turtles’s “Happy Together” (1967) in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). It can also be versatile, doing double duty as transitional device and thematic stylization in the meth crime show Breaking Bad (2008-2013). But often we hardly notice it, perhaps saying more about our hyperspeed lives than the films and television we watch. Alison McAlpine’s new documentary Cielo has made me think of this rhetorical strategy as more than just a camera trick. Amidst the stillness of the landscape, we see the stars spin above the earth as if we’ve become unstuck in time, we watch the gargantuan housing of a high-powered telescope whirl like a top. Unlike in Koyaanisqatsi which seems to rush as us like a train, Philip Glass’s soundtrack vibrating our nerves, Cielo is a quiet film, composer Phillippe Lauzier’s soundtrack evincing an exploratory percussiveness which seems to float above and beneath Benjamin Echazarreta’s alternately still and roaming camera. This film should be watched on a big screen.
Cielo, the Spanish word for sky, is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Because of its high altitude and aridity, this location is an ideal place to gaze at and admire the stars. We have shots of the nighttime sky and we have shots of people looking at the sky. Some of these people are scientists, planet hunters who work with gigantic telescopes and high-powered computers to locate planets and stars in other galaxies. Some of these people are just ordinary people – a Native American storyteller, a UFO photographer, algae collectors, even a gold miner who spends his days inside a mountain. These people are not talking heads. They talk as they live, scientists and mystics alike discussing what the stars mean to them personally. These are engaging stories, many of them, but the best moments are the ones where no one speaks. McAlpine simply trains her camera on these people’s faces and they watch the sky, they really seem to watch with the intensity of professional actors, almost not aware that they’re on film. We watch, sometimes longer than it’s comfortable, as she sets up the point of view shot, letting us see the sky that they see, offering us the worm’s eye view, diminishing us gloriously. As one scientist puts it: “When you look up and become really aware of the immensity of space, we realize how little our problems are down here on our planet.” But even as the sky diminishes us – a sensation that it’s hard not to believe is good for us – it connects us to it. It’s both of us and separate, unfathomable and right there in front of us. It’s everything. In addition to “sky,” cielo also means “heaven.”
Sometimes, McAlpine disorients us, a sensation that is not entirely unpleasant. There is a long shot of ancient drawings on the roof of a cave. The camera drifts beneath, almost seeming to dance in slow motion, until we’re unsure if we’re looking up or down. Are we still in the cave? Is this a different shot, a bird’s eye shot from high above a canyon floor? This long shot is in silence, but McAlpine narrates throughout the film – not to explain, but to explore and contemplate – and sometimes she lapses into second person. This can be jarring. Is this the generic “you”? we might think at first and then realize, Oh, she’s talking to the sky again. Some of this can be a little precious. But there’s a boldness to it too. McAlpine’s background is in poetry where the second person is a common mode. Perhaps its transfer between mediums comes with uneven results.
In most documentaries, we hear only the answers of the interview subjects, not the questions of the filmmakers. An exception, of course, is Michael Moore who has made himself into a celebrity, thrusting himself into his own stories as a character. McAlpine isn’t doing that. She never appears on camera, but we hear her questions. Her subjects are kind and generous with their thoughtful, honest answers and, if we haven’t been there before, they make us want to visit Chile for more than its beautiful deserts, mountains, and skies. In one scene, we watch a group of scientists gathered around a table bountiful with food and wine. They are about to eat when we hear McAlpine say in Spanish, “I would like to make a toast.” They raise their glasses. And then she proceeds not to make a toast, but to ask them to state what the sky means to them. They’re baffled by this self-serving and vague question and don’t know how to answer. It’s a cringe-inducing moment and we can see that at least some of the scientists are annoyed. We’re annoyed, too.
Despite moments of dissonance from the narrator, some lines stick with us. McAlpine says, “Because we aren’t looking downward from above, we are looking upward from below.” This statement runs the risk of seeming like a tautology, but it’s not. Despite the vastness of her subject matter, this is a personal film. McAlpine lives in Vancouver. As anyone who lives in a big city knows, you can’t see the stars there because of all of the light pollution. Not only that, but people are on the go, constantly moving, very rarely stationary enough to look up. If you look up, someone will walk over you. And so perhaps Cielo and Koyaanisqatsi are not that different from each other after all. “Koyaanisqatsi” is the Hopi word for “life out of balance,” the whizzing world of the metropolis juxtaposed against slow-mo images of nature and the land. Cielo, at a sleek hour and eighteen minutes, has more modest goals, it doesn’t try to capture all of life. But then, at the same, it does.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.