Invocation of the Muse: Visual Artists in Mark Titus’ film The Wild

Last night I watched a digital screening of Mark Titus’ stunning new film The Wild, a sequel to his 2014 film The Breach, on the struggle to save southeastern Alaska’s Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine project, which threatens vast environmental damage to the world’s last surviving major salmon fishery. There are many extraordinarily interesting aspects to the film, including the filmmaker’s skillful, and brutally honest, interweaving of his own struggle to recover from alcohol addiction with the collective quest to save Bristol Bay, in the face of the Trump administration’s headlong rush to relax environmental safeguards around mining expansion; and the subtle ways in which aerial and underwater shots of landscape and salmon are used provide glimpses into a Sublime that holds out the promise of individual and collective recovery from all that ails us.

For this purpose of this post, I’d like to concentrate on the way in which Titus uses the work of two quite different visual artists early on in the film. Brooklyn-based Zaria Foman is seen working in her studio on her enormous pastel, photo-realist works of wild places, awe-inspiring visions of diverse sites threatened by global climate change. Yup’ik artist Apay’uq Moore, who lives and works near Bristol Bay, is seen creating, on a much more intimate scale, acrylic paintings in her own studio, with an emphasis on her painting “My Agreement,” a visionary interior depiction of her first pregnancy, work which I have recently written about.

Why does Titus choose to open his own journey, out of his interior darkness back into nature and the joys of community, with these two sequences, of two women artists, non- native and native? In a sense, this a classic invocation of the Muse, with which epic journeys, from Homer through Virgil, Dante and beyond, are launched: the poet or bard, sometimes lost and despondent, summons up creative genius through a transcendent figure or figures, promising a new spark of life, a transfer of creative energy and vision that will propel the narrative forward. As Titus puts it, he had hit rock bottom following family tragedies and the election of Donald Trump, retreating inward into his own pain and cycles of denial, betrayal and self pity. Over the course of the film we learn that his own journey back to the surface has depended on re-encounters with an extraordinary group of people, united in their love of the bay and of sockeye, brimming over with a passion that just might be enough to overcome the short-sighted rapaciousness of corporate greed. But to get there, the filmmaker needs, in effect, the intervening presence of visual artists, to re-open his eyes and soul (and in a sense his camera lens) to the possibility of radical transformation, at individual and collective levels. All in the service of his central question: how do we save what we love?

aria Forman – Deception Island, Antarctica, 2015

Zaria Forman’s work does not directly, to my knowledge, address Bristol Bay or salmon as such, but it is easy to see why a filmmaker such as Titus would be so deeply drawn to her creations. Her large, piercingly beautiful canvases of glaciers and icebergs are cinematic in their scope, awakening within the viewer a sense not only of wonder but of a place we have always strangely known, even at the moment those places are most endangered. She is a visual poet of water in all its forms, from melting polar icecaps to the rising sea levels half a world away that threaten to engulf the Maldives and other island nations. Her evocation of photography, and especially 19th century nature photography from the age of natural science expeditions, is well suited to Titus’ purposes, launching us on this journey back into one of the planet’s great remaining natural sanctuaries, on the threshold of water and land. The scenes of Forman talking about the urgency of her climate change art, and calling into being images of ice floes that tower above her, are utterly thrilling–and for the filmmaker, who at the onset doubts his ability to create once again, are precisely the needed catalyst.

Apay’uq. Our Agreement

The companion sequence with Apay’uq does a different kind of work for the film. In terms of the plot, she is the first of a range of individuals whose livelihood directly depends on this enormous salmon run and the complex ecosystem it nurtures. Beyond that, the specific artwork featured here, “Our Agreement,” anticipates the central psychological and spiritual narrative arc of the film. The artist generously invites us into her own womb, in which her developing unborn child is seen being nurtured by her mother’s blood vessels, as the mother is herself nurtured by the blood and life force of Salmon, which speaks to her silently, promising a vital form of reciprocity: I will care for you and yours, as long as you protect me and my kind. The Wild is in many respects a deeply interior journey that is continuously projected out onto a stunning exterior landscape. Although the filmmaker does provide spoken narration, the most important work of the film, and its saga of psycho-social transformation, is accomplished through visual imagery that sears its way into the unconscious mind.

Well into the film we learn of the moment that provided Titus will the “moral clarity” to understand his own crisis of denial, the instant when he failed his own young niece Poppy’s desire for him to be present at a sporting event and she was visibly devastated. His journey back to psychic integration is imaged as him walking down a hallway holding Poppy’s hand as they gaze together into a green glowing wall (perhaps an aquarium tank?), an image that is, tellingly, used in at least one of the film’s poster. Traversing the route back to sanity requires standing outside of oneself and entering into a continuum of inter-generational transmission. I walk hand in hand with generations past and future.

And that is precisely what is so extraordinary about salmon, and why they are, in Levi Strauss’ terms, not just got to eat, but “good to think.” They are good to think about the profound mysteries of reproduction, not just biologically but in terms of the inter-generational transmission of wisdom and consciousness, the inner landscape that Apay’uq’s Our Agreement takes us into. Returning again and again from its thousands-mile journeys across the Pacific, Salmon provides its human cousins with a model for what we all owe to future generations whom we will never see. Salmon undergo the most remarkable series of bodily transformations, moving from being freshwater to saltwater beings, and then, when finally swimming back upriver, forgoing all food and consuming their flesh in their undivided mission towards spawning the next generation. We need Sockeye and other anadromous species for so many reasons, not least of which are the ways in which they remind us of the necessity for metamorphosis, for tireless, fully-directed efforts towards a future, for reproducing a universe that is so much vaster than any one individual self. Whether the scale of that commitment be externally macrocsomic, as for Zaria Forman, or keyed to an intimate inner world as for Apay’uq, that is the common mission of the artist, who in Paul Klee’s famous terms, does not simply show what is visible, but instead “makes visible.” Through the artist we see with new eyes, and that is the gift the artists give to Titus at the onset of the film, and the gift which he, swimming with salmon upstream against all odds, gives back to all of us.

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