Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Stop, Hey! What's That Sound?

Last year, as you may recall, I participated in writing jam facilitated by my esteemed Internet chum Andrew Weiss. And reader, I had a blast. Not only was it the sort of writing prompt or challenge that stimulates my brain (like the Bradbury Project, which is now... well, it’s complicated), it was a chance to work with the elder child. It was all of my favorite things in one: writing, games, the company of friends and family. The fact that the end result provided the seed for a future project — that was just gravy.

After a lengthy hiatus, the Ultimate Powers Jam recently returned, and of course I wanted in once more — only this time, I provided the art myself, in a crude combination of technical pen, colored pencil, crayon, a Photoshop tweaking. I stayed far more in the Marvel superhero tradition for the writing of this — it’s basically me doing a riff on 1970s Steve Englehart — and if the end result isn’t a classic for the ages, I reckon it’s still a fun little one-off.
Every vibration awakens all other vibrations of its particular frequency. And all frequencies are harmonics of a single tone — an eternal drone underpinning and sustaining all creation. Before all things were, it was. The ground note in the endless song of the Universe. It is the source, the sound, the secret of existence. It is the Om.

Jawali Ramavishnu is a cultural anthropologist conducting post-doctoral research among the Tibetan diaspora on the Indian frontier. Oppression, assimilation, and mortality conspire to erase the strange, rich folkways of these once-isolated people. Indigenous Tibetan culture is an endangered species; within two or three generations, it may cease to exist as a unique entity. Jawali Ramavishnu is racing against time to preserve what he can.

Jawali’s area of specialization is folk religion, and he works among the monks and lamas living in exile, trying to document the esoteric practices of shamanic Tibetan Buddhism. Many of these rites have been shrouded in secrecy over the centuries; but these holy men, fearing that their culture might otherwise disappear forever, have taken the Indian scientist into their confidence. For his part, Jawali — although agnostic by temperament — finds himself strangely drawn to the ancient rituals, and to the wise, kindly old men who have become his teachers. In particular, he is much taken with one elderly lama, named Kelsang, who tells him tales of a fantastical place called the Singing Cliffs.

Traditional Tibetan devotions, the old monk explains, have a curious mechanistic aspect. The mere repetition through chanting of a holy word is enough to birth holiness into the physical world. Even inanimate objects can be vehicles for propagating the dharma. Prayer flags inscribed with mantras of compassion spread beneficence into all pervading space with every flutter of the breeze; a clockwork striker taps a tiny bronze gong etched with the character for wisdom, and wisdom is thereby propagated. In ages past, Kelsang says, exalted sages — part mystic, part tinkerer — devised great engines of salvation, massive automated installations that would bring consciousness to the whole world.

The Singing Cliffs — a project, Kelsang says, that was begun in the 15th Century but never completed — was to have been the mightiest of these; a labyrinth carved into the living rock of a hillside, redirecting the flow of a mountain stream into a mazelike aqueduct where its current would turn a full ten thousand prayer wheels of ever-increasing size, flooding the mountains with the energy of the mantras within even as the rotations of the wheels themselves would set up vibrations evoking the base note of the eternal Om and its overtones, a fully-automatic prayer mill that would sound forth the universal drone in all its harmonic complexity. But there were those who feared the unleashing of such power, Kelsang says, and construction was abandoned. Now, he says, even the location of the Singing Cliffs is lost to memory.

Jawali is intrigued by these stories. They are the stuff of fairy tales, of course — parables, perhaps, with the Singing Cliffs as a Babel-like metaphor of human folly. Or so he believes. Until the day that old Kelsang dies, and Jawali discovers, folded in among his meager possessions, ancient scraps of silk that bear hand-painted diagrams — the very blueprints of the Singing Cliffs, and a map showing its location.

And deep within Jawali Ramavishnu, a vibration is awakened.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Glutton For Punishment

Back for the New Year, it's PopSmarts all over again, this time taking a look at the history of gimmickry in film — and the underlying idea of cinema as an incomplete artform. Featuring William Castle, Professor Layton, Madeleine Kahn, and Smell-O-Vision!