And Maybe Learn A Little Something

I can tell that the School Year has truly begun, because my wife and child have started bringing home all the latest plagues. Outside of dousing them with boiling water and bleach when they come home, there’s not much I can do except avoid them as much as possible, and hope my wife doesn’t cough on me too much at night.

I know what I like to watch when I’m sick: kung fu movies are my comfort food. But I’m not there yet, so I’m assuaging the tickle in my throat and my occasional dizziness with documentaries.

Documentaries aren’t my usual cup of tea, you know. Oh, I can watch pretty Blu-Rays of wilderness all day long, but I seem rarely interested in pushing the button on real life adventures. In my current state of health limbo I don’t want to get riled up by life injustices or embarrassed by eccentrics being brought up short by the real world.

So, Stop Number One on my Netflix Instant queue: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. The basis for this is one of those pieces of true-life high weirdness I enjoy: there are a series of tiles embedded into roadways in the American Northeast that read: “Toynbee Idea/in movie 2001/resurrect dead/on Planet Jupiter” or variations thereof. There are often side panels that dangle tantalizing clues. These things have also cropped up in South America.

The primary character of Jon Foy’s movie is Justin Duerr, an artist who first noticed the tiles in the early 90s while working as a foot courier. In those early days of the Internet, he eventually finds a small community of people trying to figure out just what the hell is going on, and finally winds up with his own little Mystery Inc. of three guys who are equally obsessed with what the tiles mean, and who’s been making and placing them.

This tale of amateur sleuthery is engaging, and it all seems to point in the direction of one individual, a virtual hermit in a Philadelphia neighborhood. All attempts to contact him are ignored, and eventually Duerr, convinced that he has shared a transit bus with the perpetrator, still decides to let the man walk away unbothered. “Let him go his way in peace, and let me go in mine,” says Duerr, who closes this chapter of his life and goes on to the next. The other two, we are told, are still investigating the phenomenon, especially the many copycats who have surfaced in recent years.

Resurrect Dead remains interesting and focused for most of its runtime; an occasional digression keeps it from being too Lone Gunmen in tenor, and seeing the guys’ detective work actually bear fruit is satisfying.

Next up was a recommendation by my friend Rick: Into Great Silence, which is about the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery deep in the French Alps. These monks have sworn a Vow of Silence, theoretically using their voices only in prayer or song; this proves to be pretty flexible, as they are also apparently allowed to converse during their weekly recreational hikes. Being monks, they talk about monk stuff – you know, religion, ritual.

One of the conceits of Into Great Silence is that there is no narration, no commentary, no incidental music. Your experience is going to be just as silent as that of the monks. It is worth noting that this has the effect of making prayer and ecumenical chants that much more moving.

It also means that there are many times the viewer is left wondering just what the heck is going on at several points; simple tasks take on an aura of mystery. Never introduced to any of the monks, we are left to our own devices to sort out who they are, and what their duties in the monastery may be. My personal favorite is the bearded monk, shoulder stooped in old age, out in the winter, shoveling snow off his vegetable plots… and, while limping away from his work, still able to direct a friendly smile at the camera. Truthfully, it is the day-to-day life, the background work that keeps the monastery running, that I find fascinating. Especially the monk going over the monastery’s accounts, using a laptop.

In the final titles of the movie, director Philip Groning tells that he first approached the Grande Chartreuse in 1984, and the response was basically, “Not right now, give us a chance to get ready”. Sixteen years later, he got a second letter, “Okay, we’re ready.” That sort of deliberate pace carries over into the movie; be aware that once you hit play you are in for a two hour and forty minute stint with the monks.

The running time has a purpose, I think. The other continuing motif is a series of intertitles with excerpts from prayers. I didn’t keep count, but there seems to be six or seven, and they repeat themselves throughout the running time. The length of the movie and the repetition serve to bring home the extent of the commitment of the monks; we’re going home to TVs and the Internet after almost three hours, but this is how the monks will spend a lifetime.

Even after spending six months with the monks, Groning apparently still has the ability to experience boredom, as several times he chooses to switch to a lower resolution, and process a shot in a grainier fashion. I’m going to shrug at that. It’s not really necessary – but then, it could be argued that two hours and forty minutes isn’t truly necessary either. Although that slow build-up makes seeing normally silent monks shouting “Whee!” as they sled down a snowy slope all the sweeter.