Director Samuel Orr presents us with a painstakingly beautiful account of the unique 17-year lifecycle of Cicadas. The video is a trailer, a promo, a ‘greatest hits’ version of the full-length movie to come. It’s designed to capture our hearts and imaginations, to stir us into watching the entire story – and hopefully – inspire us to help pay for it. It’s an ad in other words, utilizing all the seductive devices that selling ideas involves. The imagery is stunning, revealing the director’s remarkable craft and passion for his subject. The framing and editing are exquisite, resulting in a story well told.
A superimposed text dissolves on and off throughout, describing the course of the Cicadas’ endeavor: an insistent pulse of narrative, pushing out the story and urging it forward. It’s a subtle driving force, the heartbeat of the drama as it were, amplified by the tempo and tenor of the music that underscores it. Without the music it would be a very different experience altogether – the way it is with all movies – and nowadays, most natural history documentaries. Unlike real life that is not played out to a musical accompaniment, film uses sound to coax our emotions into a fixed trajectory of perception. We are told where to look and how to feel.
The chuff, chuff, chuff of the cello and poignant punctuating step by step minor notes of the piano evoke an engine of indomitable spirit surging forward, the violins sawing out strains of tragedy and triumph as the miracle unfolds. Against all odds these determined little creatures scramble towards life’s sublime reward, its truest joy: a soul mate, “love,” continuation. It’s an apotheosis, an ascendancy, a transcendence even. The music stirs up our own sense of indomitable spirit, the triumph of the human endeavor: families, tribes, nations, striving against all odds to continue. Surely our own years of waiting in the “dark” will also finally be justified.
But in what sense is a Cicada’s life justified? 17 years underground isn’t so remarkable. Many life forms, including some mammals, experience their entire existence this way. They’ve been doing it without respite for millions of years and in all likelihood will continue to do it for millions to come. Life is just plain weird for everyone.
What distinguishes the Cicadas is that they emerge from solitary darkness into our world of social interaction and light. It is our indomitable tendency for anthropomorphism that gives them their appeal. We view them within the context of our own desperate need for miracle. Like the cliché associations between particular feelings and musical tone, the cliché associations between darkness and light and death and resurrection are evoked. It’s a religious transformation comparable to the raising of souls from earthly internment to heaven. In keeping with the times it is an image of hope.
But it is also an image of stark conformity, a more chilling representation of our current condition. In a time when behavior is more and more controlled, when uniformity of ideas and purpose are increasingly enforced from ‘above’ – politics, history, culture, even our appearances – the music and images strike a base chord of despair. Even the video itself has controlled and manipulated our feelings. Social conformity results in precisely this form of insect-like, machine-like, undifferentiated mindset. In that scenario, only that which does the controlling benefits.
As much as the spectacle of the Cicadas seduces us into awe and wonder, the roots within us that extend far deeper than the earth, become mindful of their unattachedness, their fundamental insecurity. We know this story only too well:
Darkness into light … a gloriously fragile perfunctory fuck … an inexorable dwindling of material self … light back into darkness…
Round and around and around.
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of 2012.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.