Audiovisual Art vs. the Travel Show: 'This World Is Unreal Like a Snake in a Rope'

A voyage to India doubles as a Sublime Frequencies CD. It just happens to come in a different format.

This World Is Unreal Like a Snake in a Rope

Director: Robert Millis
Label: Sublime Frequencies
Release date: 2012-06-05

Generally speaking, there are two reasons why people watch programs hosted by Rick Steves, Rudy Maxa, or others of that ilk. The first is to gather tips for a vacation that has already been booked; the second is to vicariously experience travels that financial circumstances or personal obligations may never allow. (The viewer could also be motivated by some combination of the two, e.g. "I'm going to Italy, but I won't have time to make it as far south as Naples—might as well see what I'm missing.")

Not surprisingly—and completely justifiably—these shows adhere to a fairly specific set of conventions. The creators and crew know what they are doing; they craft 30-minute time blocks narrowly tailored to meet the equally narrow expectations of the home audience. Thus, the most aesthetically appealing aspects of a given location receive the most emphasis. Postwar architecture is rarely glimpsed (except to acknowledge the legacy of Stalinism in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain), while poverty and social problems are avoided altogether (it helps not to visit developing countries). More importantly, everything is kept moving at a decently fast pace. The host talks almost constantly—if not to the locals, then to the viewer; and if not in front of the camera, then via narration.

But one thing the host never really explains is how the whole experience makes him feel. He may occasionally comment on random moments of enjoyment ("This gelato tastes delicious!"), but he never pauses to contemplate the psychic effects his surroundings have on him; he never attempts to articulate any deeper meaning behind it all. This is why films like Chris Marker's Sans Soleil are rare enough that no label exists to classify them as a genre, and why there are few (if any) television equivalents of a Paul Bowles travel essay (though such shows would almost surely be worth watching).

Of course, camera crews cannot capture the full sensory breadth of the travel experience. But it is within their power to record sound, and there lies one of the biggest differences between walking down the street in real life and watching someone walk down the same street on TV. The sensitive-eared traveler picks up on a great many things—how the absence of technology in isolated rural areas seems to alter the sound of the human voice, how the hellishly congested traffic of some cities becomes an ambient noise soundtrack to daily life, or how the call to prayer in Muslim countries takes on a kind of physical presence that reverberates through every inch of space—things that professionally produced television tends to block out.

Because Sublime Frequencies’ This World Is Unreal Like a Snake in a Rope focuses so much on pure sound, it functions as something of a corrective to the sort of travel-based programming that contents itself with shots of pretty buildings set against voiceover recitations of historical facts. But because sound is ultimately its primary focus, the film also very nearly over-corrects by leaving out almost anything resembling context, at times rendering questionable the very presence of the camera.

The DVD documents a trip to India. The title comes from the ancient Ashtavakra Gita. Filmmaker Robert Millis lands in Mumbai and then promptly turns southward, taking in ever more remote, less developed regions, seemingly welcomed wherever he ventures. Opening titles list a couple of locations, but also state that “the specific city names are not so important.” This is the last bit of information we are given; everything that follows is merely an informal succession of shots. And it appears to be a very low-tech operation—one man and his digital camera. Ironically, some images suggest nothing so much as b-roll from an episode of GlobeTrekker, even employing the same blurred slow-motion effect (though, perhaps regrettably, no appearance from Megan McCormick or Justine Shapiro).

But remember: Sublime Frequencies. This is the label responsible for CDs like the audio-tourism-verite I Remember Syria—or, better yet, Radio Palestine, an impressive collage of radio snippets recorded in Eastern Mediterranean Arab lands in 1985 but released much later. The World Is Unreal Like a Snake in a Rope, then, is essentially a Sublime Frequencies album set to visuals–and, like any good emissary of the label, Millis gravitates toward sound sources. He wanders the streets and points his camera at beat-up stereos, antiquated TVs, and semi-wrecked cars with radios blaring, presumably on a search for live musicians but seemingly content to record whatever sounds he happens across, no matter how distorted.

Eventually, Millis finds real instruments being played. The camera enters a temple and ceremonial bells overtake the soundtrack; this must be the immersive experience he was looking for. What had earlier played like a more compact, shorter-attention-span take on the style of Antonioni’s China documentary now begins to slow down somewhat… times stretches out… and shots are held longer as reed players enter the fray, blowing in seemingly unnatural breaths, unleashing sounds not unlike certain forms of free jazz.

Or at least that’s how it sounds to Western ears. At this point, the viewer may well be of two minds as to the whole endeavor. On the one hand, the music is weaving an enjoyably hypnotic spell; on the other, some prior knowledge of Hindu ritual customs seems necessary in order to fully process things. It only becomes more intense with an abrupt switch to a ceremonial procession in which some people wield hand drums while others cavort in garish costumes. Next come elephants, which are in turn followed by more reed players, whose elongated horns mimic the animals. It all culminates in another ancient temple blowing session.

By now, I felt vaguely embarrassed that my only point of comparison was Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet solo on John Coltrane’s “India”. (It may be worth noting, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have never been to India.) Perhaps I really have been conditioned to expect a host explaining what is taking place onscreen. (Where is Megan McCormick when you need her?) These feelings reached their height with the depiction of other ceremonies in the second half of the film—people holding burning cauldrons and literally rolling down roads in scenes of self-inflicted pain and discomfort. But my own cluelessness as to their motivations should not take away from the film’s overall merits.

This World Is Unreal Like a Snake in a Rope achieves its creative and transportive ends in ways ultimately closer to an audiovisual art museum installation than anything else. Beyond its documentary purpose, it is really all mood, all feeling. And it is for that reason that fans of the Sublime Frequencies aesthetic—potentially anyone who’s ever dreamed of journeying to the ends of the earth in search of new sounds—will be in the best position to appreciate it.


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