Mar 28, 2017
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Antero Alli: Narratives Crafted for the Ages
by Doniphan Blair
After a head injury, Charlie (Malachi Maynard) can't remember his girlfriend Bonnie (Alicia Ivanhoe) in Antero Alli's new feature 'Out of the Woods'. photo: courtesy A. Alli
ANTERO ALLI IS THE RARE ALTERNATIVE,
underground filmmaker where you don't have to be tested by the fire of boredom just for a few visionary morsels. His
fifteen or so features
are mostly narratives, although there a few docs and
, as he calls them, and they are very well-plotted, compelling and enlightening even—not that he tries to be.
"None of my films are message films," he told me recently, when we sat down at his North Berkeley home for this interview, see below, "I am totally against that."
Out of the Woods
”, his latest, concerns Charlie, played by Malachi Maynard, who has enjoyed wandering in the woods since childhood but, on one occasion, falls, hits his head and looses his memory.
After he staggers back to the road and meets the gaudy girlfriend of a Nevada impresario (Robin Coomer), and she realizes his injury allows him to read minds, we are off to the races, Antero Alli-style, where realism meets surrealism and stories can soar into the stratosphere.
Cutting between Charlie being interviewed decades later by a documentary filmmaker and him being trained by the impresario (Andrew Gurevich) and then performing on the mentalist circuit, “Out of the Woods” explores a lot of Alli's interests: identity, relation to modernity, love and mysticism.
But "explores" is the operative term. Indeed, “Answers are the thrill that kills," Alli has written. "Just say no (thank you) to answers,” which he expands elsewhere to conclude, “Truth without compassion is cruelty.”
After premiering mid-September in Oakland’s Humanist Hall and selling-out a fortnight later in San Francisco, "Out of the Woods" is now touring the West, generally showing at the alternate venues Alli favors. He also distributes through his
and his "paratheater" classes.
As well as filmmaker, Alli is a modern-day, agnostic mystic who has published a half-a-dozen books on the subject, teaches paratheater, and uses the alchemy of narrative to investigate his concerns, physical, emotional or metaphysical. At the same time, his hand-crafted style addresses issues in the medium of narrative film itself.
Filmmakerand modern mystic, Antero Alli in the room of his Berkeley house, where he wrote and edited almost ten films. photo: D. Blair
Although his films are very low-budget, that detracts nothing from his storytelling and only a tad from his production values—this is what features look like in the hands of an artist! Indeed, his
100 favorite film list
, from Houston to Tarkovsky, Jodorowsky to Maddin, Kurosawa to Russel, is a master's class in the "art feature."
"My fantasy with 'Flamingos'  was to fashion an 'outlaw romance noir'," Alli explained in CineSource's
at that time, see
. With a story about sexy twin sisters who both fall in love with a charismatic bank robber—also a junky, Alli most certainly succeeded.
"It is a swoon spiraling out of control... [but] in the end, it's all about love: How we rush towards it, flee from it or sometimes find love within ourselves."
I have seen a half-a-dozen of Alli's films and they are all branches off this tree. "
The Mind is a Liar and a Whore
” (2007), his best title, follows four roommates trapped at home during a biochemical attack, which one, a "Web Diva," insists is a government conspiracy. "To Dream of Falling Upwards" (2011) follows a magician adept in the art of love and sex who journeys to the desert to consult a witch about his own personal crisis.
The calmer, more complex "Book of Jane" (2013), see
, I found to be his masterpiece, essential viewing for anyone interested in the evolution from Bergman to Linklater or Aronofksy of what can be called the “Spiritual Film”, see
About the rapidly increasing intersection of the lives of three women, a homeless person, a Berkeley professor and her gorgeous girlfriend, "The Book of Jane" in a triumph of writing, character development and idea evolution.
With its interesting cinematography (also by Alli), often featuring action along the edge of the frame, and incredible music, by his wife Sylvi, “The Book of Jane” deliver a fulsome, filmic punch, in the running for “Top Ten, Cheapest and Best Feature Ever Made,” considering its less then $10,000 budget.
A lot of Alli’s unique feel comes from paratheater, which informs his films' occasional transcendent mise-en-scenes. A non-performance body work which, nevertheless, uses performance, dance, story and ritual, paratheater was developed by Alli in '70s and he has been teaching it ever since.
Alli was inspired in this study by Robert Anton Wilson, the prolific writer, futurist and ‘agnostic’ mystic (1932-2007), and the similarly credentialed Timothy Leary, also a counterculture leader and respected psychiatrist (1920-1996), both of whom lived long stretches in Berkeley and were his friends.
'The Book of Jane''s Jane, played by Luna Alcott, in front of her homeless bivouac, a tunnel on the UC campus. photo: courtesy A. Alli
“Life may just be a positive conspiracy bent on putting us in the right place at the right time every living, breathing moment of the day,” Alli writes, following some Wilsonian and/or Leary-esque themes in “Angel Tech: A Modern Shaman's Guide to Reality Selection” (1986, Falcon Press).
Born in Finland in 1952, Alli came to Toronto, in 1955, and LA, in 1962, with his grandmother, a physical therapist, and his mother, who became a freelance photojournalist in Hollywood. “Never knew my dad,” he said, “I have been dodging and communing with women my whole life.”
A straight A student in East LA, he dropped acid in the 9th grade and “realized there was nothing taught there that would help me survive in the real world except drama class and typing.” But not wanting to disappoint the women, he went on to graduate before decamping for a long, solo camping trip through the Big Sur Wilderness.
“I was crashed on top of a hill,” Alli recalled, “when I was awakened by the thundering sounds of what sounded like angels wings. Opening my eyes, I see above me, about 20 feet up, a vulture, talons extended, making his way down to my body, which it had deemed for dead!”
“Above this angel of death, spiraled about five or six other black angels, making their way down. I sprung up on my feet screaming, ‘I AM FUCKING ALIVE! I AM FUCKING ALIVE!’”
Other than a pantomime class at LA City College, Alli skipped college and headed north to act, direct theater and live in a commune in Oakland. A decade later, he moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he “got married, bought furniture, had a child, got divorced and left for Seattle,” in 1988.
There he met Sylvi, a gifted vocalist and musician, who does almost all the music in his films and some acting. She also teaches voice. They returned to Berkeley in 1996 (for more bio, go
Alas, after enjoying the Allis's films, paratheater classes, plays and other inspirational work off-and-on for over forty years, the Bay Area now has to say goodbye.
The Allis are moving to Portland.
They closed their house in mid-September, leaving behind only some DVDs and books, an elegant black couch (donated to CineSource) and this interview, conducted in or around that overgrown, old two-story in North Berkeley, site of so much art and experiment.
Although his creative space is now empty, since he is moving, Alli has no regrets. photo: D. Blair
What a fabulous place, have you ever shot here?
Oh yeah, we’ve shot in almost every room in the house.
We’ve been here 17 years. A lot has been produced here and now we are leaving. We came here with very specific dreams and succeeded ten-fold more than we expected. We both feel [including his wife Sylvi] that we couldn’t do much more here.
There has been so much change here in 17 years, for what we do. We are—both of us—underground artists. We produce a lot but we are not mainstream. We depend on venues to [put on] our stuff and they have been closing.
You remember the Fine Art Cinema on Shattuck? Now it is condos. You know 21 Grand over in Oakland? That went down—we depended on them. The Jazz House? That went down—little holes in the walls that were great gathering places for people to see films.
So you don’t distribute that much and it is more about performance?
No, no, we distribute too. I have been a book publisher since ’85—my publisher is the original Falcon Press. I have seven books in print. My publisher distributes my films and I also have a pretty
big web presence
It is a labor of love—not a money maker.
Do you use a lot of improvisation?
All my films are scripted but many have holes punched in them where I am looking for the actors to flesh it out. I like writing so there is definitely always a screenplay involved.
‘The Invisible Forest’  had no screen play. That was pretty much [cobbled] together from three Shakespeare plays. It was filmed in ’08 out on the beaches of Bolinas, up on Mount Tam and in this house.
You also teach acting?
The dream puppet from Antero Alli's masterpiece 'The Book of Jane' played by his partner/wife Sylvi Alli. photo: courtesy A. Alli
I conduct what is called ‘Paratheater Labs.’ These run from seven to ten weeks: small groups of eight to ten, very specific training, physical, non-verbal, various processes. [It is] something I have been working on since 1977.
Would you say it has a shamanism aspect?
Many have said that. With due respect to traditional shamanism no but, in essence, yes.
Do you look to [Alejandro] Jodorowsky, [Konstantin] Stanislavski—
[Jerzy] Grotowski? He was my main inspiration starting in 1977. Meeting people who worked with him inspired me to go in my own direction. Working from my history in mime theater, I developed the paratheater medium, going on 40 years now.
Jodorowsky started with mime.
Jodorowsky is an inspiration for sure: ‘El Topo’ , ‘Holy Mountain’ , ‘Sangre Sangre’ . I am not so much moved by him now [but] when he first came out—I was living in Berkeley through the ‘70s—he had a huge impact.
My first experience in the Bay Area was in a commune theater company in downtown Oakland, in a big three-story mansion, from 1972 to '73.
We called ourselves the Dudesheep Theater Company. We staged Jean-Claude Van Itallie’s ‘The Serpent’ . We did some highly experimental shit, extracting passages from ’The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ [8th century, Padmasambhava] to create a performance ritual dramatizing what Buddhists call ’The Hungry Ghost’.
And the name Antero Alli?
Finnish. I was born in Finland.
Interesting, you have no accent. Before meeting you, I thought perhaps you were Muslim and a Sufi.
I was initiated by Pier Valaya Khan into his lineage of Sufism in the mid-’80s, a personal initiation, just me and him.
Antero Alli and partner/wife Sylvi, who was too busy cleaning for the move-out to be interviewed. photo: D. Blair
But that doesn’t tie into your work.
Spiritually but not image-wise, intellectually or thematically—more a personal connection.
Do you think Portland will be a little more fecund for your paratheater and filmmaking?
I would say a LOT MORE fecund, at this time.
The last fifteen years, I have made nine or ten features and each one toured up and down the coast from Seattle to Santa Cruz. We were always going through Portland, doing screenings, building connections and friends.
It is not so much jumping into the unknown since we have been [to Portland] so many times, the screenings have increased and there is a following there.
Basically we are going for not downtown [Portland, as place to live] but across the bridge, anywhere from 20th to 45th. Stark out to about Brooklyn. We are also open to finding someplace 20-30 minutes out of town.
How about opening a theater, a storefront, perhaps?
Funny you mention theater, that is one of my plans. I directed plays before I turned to filmmaking. But opening some kind of store front? No, no, nothing like that.
I am more about finding an old, beautiful church and developing a relationship and renting space and creating a theater from the ground up. I like creating from the ground up—except for screenings.
That is what is nice about Portland. There is a movie theater that likes my work, The Clinton Street Theater. They are a regular, big theater, with 200 seats, a big screen and great projector—very popular place. Portland loves that place.
How about Oakland?
I have been here 17 years and searched far and wide for people to work with and venues to work through, so I pretty much know the lay of the land.
There is a certain spirit that is trying to kick-up here again and god bless Oakland. I hope they keep doing that there but there is something ailing this place.
Due to the dot com billionaires?
Madeline H. D. Brown (left) as the girlfriend and Marianne Shine, as the professor Alice, who discovers the truth behind the homeless Jane, that she was a renown academic. photo: courtesy A. Alli
I don’t know, partly. Those things are mysterious
I lived here in the ‘70s to ‘82-‘83. Something similar happened in the ‘80s when rent control went out. A lot my friends were forced out, so I just left town and didn’t come back ‘til ’95-‘96.
And you purchased here?
And now we are going to sell here.
To a nice tune?
That is what we are counting on so we can have an easier life—both of us are now in our early ’60s—so we can slow things down and have some breathing room.
You come from avant-garde gentry, in a sense?
What do you mean by that?
You have some capital to work with but you are dedicated to the avant-garde.
Most of my films are self-funded from money I make on the side, teaching. I conducted my first crowd-funding for ‘Out of the Woods’ [his most recent film]. I was able to finish that with some help from a lot of other people.
I am a ‘make-do’ artist. All my features were under $10,000, most between five and eight.
That includes shooting, everything? And you do most of it?
It’s a hard question, [film] is so collaborative. I write, direct and shoot but then there is the editing—so much!— I could never do it alone. The vision is mine. That is kind of my thing.
Let’s talk about your recent films.
This is the new one, ‘Out of the Woods’, [he holds up a DVD] and this is old one, before the new one, ‘The Book of Jane’. It was made in 2013, mostly shot on the UC Berkeley campus.
Antero Alli and partner/wife Sylvi in more relaxed times—their back yard five years ago. photo: courtesy A. Alli
You did most of the shooting?
For half of my films I have done all of my own shooting and half I have hired out. Part of why I don’t like this one so much [holds up ‘The Mind is a Liar and a Whore’] is because I didn’t like the shooting. It was my fault because I hired him.
I have gotten very attached to shooting because that expresses the vision of [the film]. Wherever I point the camera that’s the movie. If and when I make more movies, I will continue being the only one shooting because I really like doing that.
It is weird because I also like acting, so there is a sacrifice.
My brother is a pro shooter but he downplays the value of shooting. He says, ‘It is only six percent of the movie.’ Would you put it a little higher?
For my kind of films, yeah. It depends on the style. Because I also write and direct it is a kind of combination, a fusion of influences, that [is what] makes the shooting worthwhile for me.
I really loved ‘The Book of Jane’. What a matriarchal film, not only its focus on women characters but its style, its languid, horizontal feeling, while still being directed and plot driven.
It took me fifteen years to learn to write like a woman. I was raised by two women, my mother and my grandmother, so I have been dodging and communing with women my whole life.
It took me a long time to find the rhythm and the writing and the themes that would magnetize the kind of writing I needed for ‘The Book of Jane’. And to find the women [to act in it].
I knew two of them. I cast one of them in ‘Flamingos’ , the blond [Madeline H. D. Brown], and the older one who played Alice [Marianne Shine] had been working with me in paratheater for two years.
They are both professional actresses—that’s their day job! I had to raise the funds to pay them.
Here’s a crass question but also metaphysical: How much did you have to pay for those performances?
They both had different fees but between the two of them about a couple thousand.
You rehearse a lot?
In Alli's 'noir romance' 'Flamingos', the character played by Madeline H.D. Brown confronts her bankrobber husband, played by Joe Estlack. photo: courtesy A. Anterro
I don’t really rehearse my actors. They were professionals, so they knew their lines. Instead of rehearsal I have a series of ‘subtext meeting’ to get on the same page about what is going on in each scene, regardless of the writing.
They handled it very well.
‘Out of the Woods’ that was mostly non-actors, individuals I handpicked based on [whether] they could probably do this or that.
The only actors I paid there was Charlie [Malachi Maynard], the guy who got lost in the woods, and his girlfriend Bonnie [Alicia Ivanhoe]. Close to a thousand.
So for a thousand bucks the indie filmmaker can get a damn good performance?
Not ‘the indie filmmaker,’ this filmmaker. I wouldn’t generalize.
So Jane herself, Luna Alcott—did she ever act in anything before?
No, she had never acted.
Was she a bit of that type she was playing?
She was the girlfriend of someone I knew very briefly. He lent me the firearm I used in ‘Flamingos’ and showed up with his girlfriend Luna. I just saw her for a few minutes and that was all. But after that one meeting, I thought she would be good, so I asked her.
She said, ‘No, absolutely not, that is not what I do, I don’t have the kind of confidence to do that.’
[Nevertheless] I just kind of met with her once a week for coffee and built up mutual trust. After four or five weeks getting to know each other, I asked her again would she like to do this.
She said, ‘OK, will you be there?’ and I said, ‘I would be, every step of the way.’
Alli in the backyard of the his Berkeley house, site of much barbequing and discussion. photo: D. Blair
The final test was I asked her if she would be open to shaving her hair. She had long hair and never shaved her hair before. She gave it, like, five seconds thought and then said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’
I chose her because I knew she was in a crisis state: she was almost homeless; she had no place to live; she had just ended a long term relationship. I knew she was a very creative spirit [but] it was a gamble that she could tap into the state she was in.
The character provided her with a point of solace. By stepping into Jane, she could enter a world that was free of the suffering she was going through.
You really found the perfect actress.
It was really just luck.
She had some catharsis?
Huge. She went through the most transformation as person of everyone [involved]. She was so totally committed. She had a couple of friends come over and help her run lines. She had never memorized lines before.
Everything was new to her and that served the character who was roaming around, living in present time, sleeping under a bridge on the campus. She found what she was looking for: Alice [a professor at the university who becomes her friend].
The entire film, including the double exposure ending, was all written?
Yes, it was all scripted.
Not a single improv moment?
That is a hard question. I would have to watch the film again. ‘Flamingos’ is about half improv. ‘Book of Jane’ was about 90-95% on book and about 5% improv.
Very nice. I liked Sylvi’s appearance [as a gypsy busker playing the accordion] but then tying in the actual book by the Jane character [at the end], that was the capper! I didn’t want to check the Internet to see if the book was your invention and spoil the enjoyment.
Earlier, ‘book’ came up as metaphor for vagina.
Yes, Alice and Colette [who are partners] were drinking wine and having some fun with each other over dinner.
The writing really took off at that point, entering deeply into metaphor, playing with the discovery of the actual book, the fact that Jane was previously a scholar and teacher. Her befriending Alice completed the circle.
Yes, that script went through about nine drafts.
You actually type out a professional script with all caps for names and scenes?
The impresario and his girlfriend are overjoyed to start profiting off the memory-impaired Charlie, in Alli's 'Out of the Woods'. photo: courtesy A. Alli
I don’t do professional anything!
I type it out but my scripts are bare bones. Industry standard is 100 pages for a screen play that is 90 minutes but Jane was two hours and the screen play was 54 pages. Zero description and direction, mostly dialogue.
I flesh it out on set. I work with the actors and fill in the rest of the movie on site.
On set, do you focus mostly on the shooting and have a light touch with directorial?
It depends on the scene. Some scenes the actors are going so strong I don’t have to say anything, just follow them around.
Other times the actors are flailing and I have to put the camera down and talk with them.
You have a continuity person?
That is one of my weak points, maintaining continuity. [But] it is funny. One tends to show up on each production.
Did you OK it with the University of California or go ‘guerrilla’ for the campus scenes?
It was shot on graduation week. Everyone was busy with their cameras taking pictures. It was a very difficult to shoot because the people were very loud.
You use radio mics?
No, not on that film. The thing is, to put Jane on campus, I had to use an audio technique that didn’t bring attention to itself. Booms—that wouldn’t work. I have a real long cable so I could plant the mic pretty far away. The shooting took about a month.
And the hallucination scene?
The CGI is by Michael McWhirter, who is in Austin, Texas. We’ve been working together on CGI sequences for 15 years so we have a good shorthand.
The music is with Sylvi [his wife] and [that collaboration] is very whimsical. We have been collaborating for 25 years; we know each others ins and outs and idiosyncrasies. It is a bit mysterious how that comes together but it always does.
So she was playing the accordion and that was scripted?
In the actual script, Sylvi was singing. As the movie developed, it [became] accordion and there was the costume thing. Some songs she [actually] did out there as a busker.
Mystical films often veer toward pretension. But ‘Jane’ was very solid and the little roughness didn’t effect the cinematic gel.
That is good to hear.
It is very cinematic. It captures the magic and mysticism of cinema, like using the double exposure at the end, so gently, prettily. And it is also very matriarchal.
That is a good way of putting it.
Alli holds up his 'The Mind is a Liar and a Whore', not his favorite of his own films but popular with his fans and arguably the best titled. photo: courtesy A. Alli
There is a lot of matriarchal-patriarchal conflict of late but we are all in this together. It is absurd to think the patriarchs just took over.
Yes, it is more complex then that.
Alice’s dance [at the end of 'Book of Jane'] is very good. It didn’t have the pretension of a professional dance: she stumbles, it is organic, not indulgent. Indeed, it could have gone on longer. Especially Sylvi playing the accordion. Her character was introduced, not glued on.
Part of the reason I cast Marianne Shine as Alice was, as I mentioned, she had worked with me for a couple of years in the process of paratheater, which is really the study and practice of the kind of movement you saw there, in that dance. Almost all of my films have influence from the paratheater work.
How do you sum up paratheater?
There is no way to sum up but i f I were to encapsulate: It is a non-performance medium combining methods of physical theater, dance, vocalization and Zazen meditation as a means to access the internal landscape and give it expression through movement and sound.
I am going to gift you with this book ‘Towards an Archeology of the Soul’ that I published 12 years ago . It outlines various stages of the work and includes interviews with people who have inspired me along the way, lab reports from people who have participated, a series of techniques, principals and rituals.
Wow, so this your mystical process?
It is my yoga, as I put it. I don’t just teach it—that is my least favorite part—I am actively participating in it.
One of the difficult things about leaving this area is I have been working with a group for over ten years, a pretty solid group of people who have found this work of great value.
About how many folks?
It oscillates between eight and 12. Sylvie has been doing it with me for 20 years.
The movement process she gave expression to in ‘Out of the Woods’ [a mystical scene centered on a undulating female figure], that was all out of the paratheater process.
Pretty much every film I have there is some character that is kinetically more active then anyone else.
Sylvi as sprite in a mystical mis-en-scene in Alli's latest, 'Through the Woods'. photo: courtesy A. Alli
Is it the same woman figure in both ‘Out of the Woods’ and ‘Jane’?
Very different. [The ‘Jane’ figure] comes from a rich pagan tradition. Her name is Morpheus Ravenna. I have not worked with her in paratheater. She is a priestess in a local pagan group, very committed, who agreed to come on board for those scenes.
They seemed similar to what Sylvi did in the ‘Out of the Woods’.
To the untrained eye, they would be very similar.
Very hallucinatory! And, of course, the raven, Gimbal, was great.
Yeah. He is a whole story in himself.
I tried filming ravens out in the wild and it was almost impossible. They were too hip to my camera. Anytime I put up my camera—it could be like 200 feet away—whoosh, they flew away. I couldn’t get the footage I needed.
Actually Morpheus, who does the ‘Raven Dance’ in the ‘The Book of Jane’, a friend of hers had an adolescent African raven as a pet.
There was also CGI of birds flying in the beginning.
That wasn’t CGI but actual footage I took of ravens in flight which I overlayed.
The opening shot was spectacular. It really helps for a film to get over, to become totally filmic, to have a strong opener. Hollywood has the advantage of so much production values but the writing is the missing part. They lack the soul values to get them over.
I enjoyed the ‘Out of the Woods’ story. It had some great elements which point to your work, especially exploring mystical values through narrative.
For me, if I were to describe all my films, the thread that runs through them: They are ways of discovering new ways of seeing. That is what pulls me forwards, finding ways to share that.
When people sit down to watch my films, they may say ‘Oh, I have seen this, but there is a way this filmmaker is seeing that I haven’t seen before.’ If I can shift their perspective, that is a lot for me.
What I hear you saying is: Shift the perspective on the overall narrative to another zone?
The Allis's (former) big, baggy and overgrown house was perfect for shooting scenes from his films and teaching his 'paratheater' as well as just, well, living. photo: D. Blair
Complex stories in simple situations. Doing whatever I can to destroy stereotypes, so that there is some sense of the unexpected, so people don’t know what will happen next.
That to me is always the exciting part any story: I don’t know where it is going. I like staying close to that edge of not having a clue of what is going on.
You feel that when you are writing?
I have to. This is why I go through so many drafts.
My big, wide mind is also my big, wide, CLEVER mind! I am looking to sabotage it along the way—to create holes in the script where something organic can come up.
Where a character can take on a life of their own and just run, independent of my ideas of what they should do, I try my best to write it down. It is not what I wanted them to do but this is what they want to do. That is exciting to me.
All the while you have a deep objective of a sort of transcendence?
I think that is mistake, at least for me, to focus on that.
If there is transcendence in my films, it is usually a result of a kind of organic unfolding that is there or it is not there. If it is there, great. If something really transcends, it has got to be beyond me. It has to go someplace I didn’t plan.
Transcendence is such a tricky word and it is thrown around a bit. In my own experiences, where I can get to a total surrender, that is pretty much the only time I have experienced transcendence. It is not often.
I see you more as the ‘everyman’ standing on the edge, opening the door, rather then the transcendent figure or guru beckoning from beyond through the door.
The thing is: I am completely against creating characters that act as role models or somehow embody any kind of ideal for living.
It seems inauthentic. It is also something that Hollywood has being doing for a long time, whether it is superheroes, this hero or that heroine: ‘This what you want to be,’ ‘Identify with this,’ ‘Get out of your life and you can have some sense of grandeur.’
It is a big turn off to me. I am not impressed by that. I want to get down into something more real, I guess, so my characters are typically more complicated. They have flaws, they fuck up—none of them are role models.
None of my films are message films, I am totally against that—kind of hate it.
Alli shooting Charlie (Malachi Maynard), the amnesiac savant, in 'Out of the Woods'. photo: courtesy A. Alli
[A squirrel suddenly appears in the open window just over his shoulder.]
This is the first time this window has been open since we have been living here—it used to be jammed shut. He’s just checking us out. We have had all kinds of animals: raccoons, possums, squirrels, rats.
It is quite a Charles Adams house, especially this room.
Yes, this is the room is where I wrote all my screenplays over the last 15 years. And where all the rough cuts occurred.
And it has a sleeping loft in case you need a nap.
Totally. I crash up there so I don’t have to wake up the wife.
Amazing. It must be sad to be leaving.
No. It would be sad if I never fulfilled the promise of this place. But I did, in spades!
Now I am in fallow phase. I enjoy the fallow phase where no creativity is happening. It is really important, recovery, emptying out, taking walks, living life kind of thing. I don’t expect to get into any projects until spring. We are in a huge transition.
Do you have children?
Yes, three daughters; one passed away; she was young, two.
The other two are from different mothers. One is almost thirty, the other is 22, they are both out in the world. I didn’t raise them. I put in ten years trying to become a family man, a father, and I failed ridiculously.
So you were doing a straight job?
I have never had a straight job in my life.
Just the identification of being a father, a husband—I thought that was my life. It was for ten years but it just got worse and worse.
Were you doing your art while being a family man?
And with a wave of the hand, Alli was off, joining friends on the journey of a lifetime. photo: D. Blair
Not very well. I tried but I did both poorly for ten years. That was enough to register that this doesn’t look like a future I want to be part of. It was the most difficult decision I had to make, to start all over and get back to who I am. I did that about twenty years ago.
I am a kind of all or nothing guy. Whatever I get behind I need to get behind it 100% or none at all.
That is partly why all my films get done. Each one is a huge, massive undertaking, involving a lot of people. If I don’t muster 100% commitment there would be all kinds of loose ends.
So you are deeply in touch with that element of the ‘Jane’ story: loosing a child.
Oh yeah. Absolutely. You see this in various films of mine but in ‘The Book of Jane’ it is huge.
Essentially your mysticism is expressed through narrative?
I love story. Some of my films are more character driven, some are more story. I go back an forth.
Robert Anton Wilson once told me—he would come up with these quotes from I don’t know where—all stories stemmed from two primary archetypes and their hybridization: the Iliad/Odyssey and the Crucifixion.
The Iliad/Odyssey is a journey, you are going some where, and the crucifixion is a complete surrender, you are not going anywhere! There is transcendence, maybe. You are crucified, there is drama in that.
I thought that was interesting. Looking at my own stories, I never applied that [thesis] when I was writing but, in retrospect, ‘Out of the Woods’ is more a journey story. ‘The Book of Jane’ is a hybridization.
There are strong elements of sacrifice: the character of Jane sacrifices her life, which catalyzes profound change for Alice. The sacrifices that Alice underwent—the eviction, the loss of her job, the loss of her new friend [Jane]—through sacrifice, there was a transcendence.
The killing of the virgin? There are many different women, including the woman detective, but also a couple of men. I loved the little cut-away at the end of the male student watching.
She is being observed.
Are most of your stories locally-oriented?
This one is [holds up DVD of ‘The Mind is a Liar and a Whore’, 2004]. This is my bastard child, the one I don’t like but a lot of people do.
It takes place in Berkeley—in a typical Berkeley household—under an alleged bio-terror attack in their city. They are locked in their house and have to deal with each other.
I am kind of a West Coast creature. I have been on the West Coast for most of my life, between Seattle, LA and Berkeley. All my films are influenced by living on the West Coast. You see that in the topography, the settings.
I also hear you implying that means modern and post-modern discourse?
I don’t know what you mean. Those are really big words, Doniphan. [laughs]
There is something about the West. I am currently writing an article about touring the West ‘Ditch Camping’. You can rent a car for 12 bucks-a-day and stay in any national forest for free.
I like that.
The West has a certain egalitarianism and freedom which is unknown in the East, particularly in Europe.
For sure. I was reminded of that when I took a one-way ticket to London about 15 years ago. I thought I was going to stay there. I have a Euro passport [since] I was born in Finland.
I found a job right away and people to hang out with and a place to live. But after three weeks I realized I didn’t belong there. Kind of what you are talking about: the spirit on the West Coast. Perhaps because it hasn’t been settled as long.
Cover of Alli's 1986 book 'Angel Tech: A Modern Shaman's Guide to Reality Selection”, published by Falcon Press. photo: courtesy A. Alli
Exactly. Why is the Middle East so troubled? It has been settled a long time.
Here is an interesting theory, I forget where it comes from. It may even come from my brain but I won’t take credit for it:
You go back time zones and, at least ideologically, it goes back 100 years with every time zone. You go back to the Middle East: they are not in the 21st century. The arguments happening there have been happening for a long time. It is just not going to be resolved by 21st century problem solving.
It’s an eye for an eye, there on some levels. I don’t want to comment since I am not that politically involved or interested.
All the arguments there, Palestine, Israel and now ISIS, concern their experience of deep, patriarchal trauma starting with the collapse of the Pharonic system in 1000 BC: injury upon injury, trauma upon trauma.
I don’t think the healing will happen any time soon.
There is a similar pattern with New York. Even though I enjoy New York and the level of discourse there is higher, there is a certain closemindedness.
You escaped? [laughs]
You see the openmindedness here, the spirit of hybridization, combining forms. It is more tolerant of discovery and experimentation here.
Robert Anton Wilson, he was always bringing up the notion that there are more Nobel laureates on the West Coast then any other place in the world. He was in the Berkeley hills in the ‘70s and then San Francisco and then Howth, Ireland for the tax write-off for authors.
Is he English?
No, he was from the Bronx and that was the wonderful thing. He would go on and on on these extraordinary mystical rants but it was always with this heavy Bronx accent.
Took the fun out of it?
No. It kind of anchored everything, grounded it, ‘Just you and me, down here.‘
One of my favorite essays by him is ‘The Demonology of the Word Is’. He was a big fan what is called ‘E-Prime’. It is a semantic study of the word ‘is,’ as kind of a lynchpin to formulaic thinking . If you look at ‘is’ and replace it with an equals sign: this is a formula. Look at a piece writing: the more ises, the more formulaic.
Actually [Alfred] Korzybski [the developer of general semantics] came up with that and Robert Anton Wilson made it popular. I learned it from him and started applying it. I was surprised how it changed my thinking, speaking and writing.
You come into a more dynamic, active and, I believe, more engaged experience, not just with the words but what words represent, which is all words can do, represent.
And the only fully functional, total and complete word is ‘metaphor.’
[Laughs] That was one of Bob’s favorite words. He used to say, ‘Who ever controls the metaphor controls the mind.’
I just read this quote from Timothy Leary: ‘Science is all metaphor.’ Two plus two may be four but two apples are a different weight than another two apples, so ‘two apples’ is just a metaphor for two generalized apples.
Good way of putting it.
Tim and Bob were good friends, [although] I knew Bob more then Tim. I have written a couple of books with endorsements from both of them, which kind of got me on the map over the years. They are still in print.
One of the great revelations of the recent movie [‘Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary’, 2014], is that Tim went to jail something like 30 times and Ram Das never.
They were scared of him. You know the story about his escape from Lompoc?
He shimmied out on a wire?
He wouldn’t have been able to do that if he was in maximum security but he was in minimum security.
When he was put through the system, they give you a written test. He had composed that test [years before, as a behavioral psychiatrist]! So he knew exactly which boxes to check. Within a few months he was shimmying out.
With the help of the Black Panthers, which one?
I don’t know whether it was Cleaver or…
It must be Cleaver's friends ‘cause he was in Algeria with Cleaver. But Cleaver got kind of upset since he was giving acid to the young revolutionaries.
He wrote these amazing books journaling the story of his journey: ‘The Intelligence Agents’, ‘Neuro-Politics’ and ‘Game of Life’. They are still floating around, you can still find them.
I presume you will start the paratheater in Portland.
Yeah, I have no choice, that work pretty much owns me. I will do it as long as I am healthy. And, when I am not healthy, I will sit around and tell people how to do it. [laughs long and hard]
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Oct 02, 2015 - 10:47 AM