the conundrum

I was thinking about Graceland this week. I haven’t been to Memphis since Bush was in office, but years ago they used to keep a climate-controlled airplane hangar full of King Shit just down the road from Elvis’ infamous estate. It was piled to the rafters with all sorts of marvelous crap and for an additional fee on top of your mansion tour ticket you, the humble fan, could poke around. Buried in the spoils was a pair of objets that left a permanent dent on my consciousness: a floor console TV that Presley shot in a fit of pilled-out paranoia, and a book he never finished reading about the existential threats posed by the nascent age of computers—opened to a page on which several passages were underlined and annotated with nervous exclamation points in His Majesty’s shaky hand.

Lore abounds that it was seeing his old nemesis Robert Goulet on the idiot box that got Elvis’ trigger finger itching to blow out the Zenith, but none of us can really know for sure. In his brief but memorable life Elvis took a lot of pills and shot holes in a lot of things. I mainly remember standing there in that mausoleum of Elvine detritus and wondering what exactly the King spied in the coming digital revolution that worried him so. Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy when I made my pilgrimage to Graceland, but nowadays I feel that if he’d lived far enough into the twenty-first century, Elvis might have concluded his concerns had real merit. 

There was a visceral terror about the ol’ IoT in those anxious scribbles he left in the margins, which was understandable because if anything, by the 1970s Elvis was looking to get as disconnected from the world as possible. He was living in a fortified cocoon out at Graceland that was designed to defy the concept of linear time: every room was a velveteen fantasy diorama where even the lamps were so heavily shaded that you lost all sense of your own diurnal rhythms the minute you stepped through the front door. The intense feeling of suspended animation I got standing in his living room had me nervous that at any minute he’d tromp down the stairs and walk right past us into the kitchen, where there were still frying pans on the stove and 70s-era glass Gatorade bottles on the countertop, and—I swear on Buddy Holly—a lingering smell of bacon grease in the air. It makes sense that Elvis died in his own personal snow globe and it makes sense that he’s buried there too—and I fully believe that late at night after all the Japanese rockabillies clear out, he rises up from under the mound of stuffed animals and floral arrangements they left behind and takes a stroll down to his indoor racquetball court to noodle on the piano.

I was thinking about all of this because I had to have a bit of an intervention with myself last weekend regarding some overwhelming despair I’d been feeling. There’s certainly plenty of despair to be felt about a lot of very challenging things right now, but this particular bout of angst was tied up in my own conflicted feelings about the role of technology in our current cultural quicksand. I hadn’t necessarily graduated to compulsively peppering my screens with small caliber bullets, but it was beginning to feel imperative for me to take some kind of decisive action that would push the vibe firmly in a new direction. I find short films are a very good way to reset my perspective in times when it’s hard to focus, so I turned to a set of documentaries by Vittorio de Seta that I’d saved for just such a moment of spiritual depletion. 

de Seta’s film career emerged from his own search for meaning in changing times. The son of a well-to-do family in Palermo, he abandoned an architecture career in Rome to return to Sicily in the early days of the postwar Italian republic and film the culture of the working class villages before “progress” washed them into oblivion. The result was a collection of ten short documentaries about rural life on Sicily and Sardinia in the 1950s, each its own magnificent and bucolic tone poem. 

The first nine films are each just ten minutes long, individual episodes which focus on a specific niche of island life. They are as artful as they are anthropological: over five years de Seta tracked boats racing back to shore ahead of the eruptions of Etna, and followed shepherds and their bell-clad goats across rocky outcroppings during midwinter snows. He took the tram with laborers five hundred meters underground into the sulphur mines, and floated on a flat sea under a boiling sun to watch village men chase and spear a single swordfish. He studiously watched women harvesting olives and baking shepherd’s bread, and trailed their children as they ran like little sandpipers to and from church and school. He propped the camera in kitchens and shacks and courtyards and on the decks of trawlers and along the routes of parades. He also created an incredible audio archive of these cultures in the process: he recorded the chants of workers harvesting wheat and rowing fishing boats; he recorded the triumphal march of a town’s brass band; he recorded the ballads women sang while they did their laundry on the riverbank. He assembled footage of the folk songs and dances of coastal villages and the Catholic holiday feasts of mountain towns. 

de Seta never added narration to these events, but instead would present a brief title card at the start of each film that frequently referenced the cyclical nature of life and death, or hearkened to some ancient truth about mankind’s relationship to the soil and sea and all the creatures that call this planet home. There’s a deeply primal comfort in de Seta’s films, and I think it comes from observing a way of living in which one’s relationship to self and family and spirit adhere to the cycles of nature by necessity—a way of living which has all but disappeared for most of us living in the modern world.

Many of the cultural practices de Seta documented would not last forever, and it’s in some ways miraculous that they lasted as long into the twentieth century as they did. After thousands of years of expansion, contraction, and reinvention, Italy found itself reborn yet again in 1946 as a republic. As Europe collectively began to recover from World War II, there seemed real potential to finally elevate the quality of life for people who had spent most of the last few decades simply surviving. The pastoral scenes that fill de Seta’s frames have faded almost entirely into antiquity, but they are the evidence that it wasn’t so long ago that the waters of the Mediterranean were still so blue and clear that you could see the shadows of passing tuna as dawn was breaking. Life was closer to the bone back then for Sicilians and Sardinians, but it was also, through de Seta’s lens, remarkably beautiful and serene.

Though the bulk of his films suggest this way of life was almost romantically appealing, the tenth documentary he made—ironically about the Feast of Silver—is perhaps his most bleak, because it identifies how much the rituals which seem quaint to an outsider had become a central and almost desperate aspect of buoying morale for villagers who’d grown aware how far behind the times they were living. The Forgotten opens with footage of villagers receiving a delivery of supplies from a truck that can only drive part of the way up the mountainside—the only road which would lead to their town has collapsed so many times it’s impassable. They’ll have to caravan the goods the rest of the way on hand-led mules, which will ostensibly triple the cost of these items once they’re offered for sale to the locals: they are literally trapped by their circumstances. It is at this moment that de Seta finally offers commentary: “The road leading to the mountains was started 10 years ago. The contractors abandoned it and left it to decay. It’s like a curse: technology was defeated by floods and landslides.” At last, de Seta confronted hardscrabble truth of the country idyll and the way its rugged circumstances can turn a charming town into a demoralizing prison. 

de Seta’s work continually seems to ask: at what cost does progress come? Only five years later, Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film in color seemed to offer one hypothesis about the complexity of a technologically advancing world. It depicted the spidery encroachments of petrochemical plants and their unchecked pollution across the scenic turf of ancient gods and holy imperial conquest. Red Desert is often praised for the painterly quality of its frames, in which the rubble of the antiquated collides with sleek and poisonous contours of the new. There is a realization, too, that the politics which yielded this progress no longer matter, that purpose has eclipsed people and automation overwhelms individuality. Antonioni doesn’t suggest that all modern progress is negative, of course, but he does illustrate that many of its trappings are inherently isolating and an affront to nature, causing the characters in Red Desert find themselves unsure of what they think or believe, tormented by feelings of dissociation from each other and from their planet. 

(Another thing worth noting here is that whenever I watch any Antonioni film I remember a rather animated little British fellow I took a film class with once, who yelled passionately during discussion that whenever he watched an Antonioni film he wanted to climb through the screen and into the action and “shoot everybody to put them out of their misery”. What I’m trying to say is that I sense this internal conflict about feelings of alienation in the space age has plagued all of us at times; it’s a Moebius loop of David Lynchian proportions that has no real ending or beginning. I also thought of that little British guy when I stood before Elvis’ gunshot-riddled TV; perhaps it was one of my own first brushes with the metaphysical Internet of Things, who knows.)

But back to nature: Red Desert solidifies its argument about the way that technology alienates people from nature by invoking one of the world’s rarest natural wonders: the iridescent and rosy sand beaches of Budelli, a small island off the coast of Sardinia. The film presents the island as a place where everything sings, where the rocks are like flesh, where people and ships are the guests of nature, not the masters of it. It is shown in the film as the setting of a fantasy, but it’s a real place that has, miraculously, remained as rugged as it appeared on camera fifty years ago, thanks in large part to somebody who—a little bit like Elvis and a lot like de Seta—determined that the growing scourge of neoliberalism was ultimately not his jam.

In 1989, a man named Mauro Morandi moved to Budelli to relieve its retiring caretakers and ended up becoming its sole inhabitant. He’d spent much of his life up to that point struggling to reconcile his concerns about our planet’s destiny with a modern existence that had him feeling more and more dissociated from nature and accordingly, hopeless about the future. “I started thinking about leaving a society that does not take the individual into account, but thinks only of power and money,” he told CNN in 2018. 

In their profile of Morandi, which is worth your time to read in full, National Geographic explains that over these past thirty years Morandi became Budelli’s Lorax, familiarizing himself with all its fauna and flora and taking time to educate people—through a solar powered Internet connection—about the critical need to develop a compassionate relationship to the earth. The pink beach was ultimately cordoned off to curb its erosion and the scale of visitors permitted was drastically reduced. His concerns about our planet’s exploitation are grave and well-founded, but his approach is ultimately more spiritual than many of his more prominent contemporary eco-warriors. Per National Geographic: “He believes all life is eventually reunited with the Earth—that we are all part of the same energy, which propels Morandi to remain on the island without compensation. The Stoics of ancient Greece called this sympatheia, the feeling that the universe is an indivisible, unified living organism endlessly in flux.”

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve been flung between extremes: experiencing profound isolation that does not mesh with our culture, and then attempting to ameliorate that loneliness with the connective tools of technology which also require us to abandon cultural norms. As the months have accumulated, we’ve learned that many quarantine enhancements technology offers seems to have an associated expense either to the planet, or to a human who puts themselves at heightened risk to facilitate the associated labor components. The resolution to this tangle, I realize, may not necessarily be connecting more to each other but connecting more to the reason we’re all here to begin with—the earth beneath our feet. 

The very emergence of COVID-19 should remind us how much our fate is intertwined with nature’s. We will be compelled to reconcile ourselves to the condition of the soils and seas which afford us nourishment, to their tectonic movements and tides, to the secret lives of plants and the mysterious languages of animals, to the distant stars which sparked us into being. Technology can serve as an aid or inhibitor in these efforts—it depends on how we use it. One such example of this is in the use of technology to share data and develop effective vaccines in record time, while others simultaneously employ those same tools to spread deadly disinformation and degrade our collective trust in science. 

The solution, as always, is a kind of radical balance: a sweet spot somewhere between the artifice of Graceland and the monastic sanctum of Budelli. Technology does have its place in a world of peace and plenty, but something about our relationship to it must change first. Not willful ignorance to the bad news of the world, but perhaps more attentive listening to what the world has always been trying to tell us. A decision to augment the marvelous potential of science with a foolishly simple but heartfelt kindness for all living things.

It’s a question I ask myself all the time on this blog. Can we un-fuck this thing? Are we really capable of grand recalibration? I suppose it won’t be too much longer before we find out. I believe we can, but I also believe that the Yucca Man is real, that secret cigarettes don’t count, and that my plants grow better when I play them opera records. I have been cursed with a large capacity for magical thinking. 

As for Morandi, though the Italian government insists that he cannot remain on the island forever, he’s held fast, continuing to post dispatches of the trees he speaks for and the beaches he tends, photographing everything from lichen clusters to glorious Sardinian sunsets. He remains confident that the beauty of nature can provide all the inspiration we will ever need to unlock the compassion required to save the world, provided he can reach enough of us like-minded global citizens via Facebook first. 

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