Response 1 – Ever After (3.1)

By Matt King

As Miah Saunders’s professor notes, this project creates an “engaging hybrid” of philosophy and fiction as well as the abstract and concrete. Rather than capturing death, these juxtapositions open the opportunity for engaging death as a possibility space through which we encounter our unlived lives. For me, the space opened by Saunders served as a call to reflect on how death has affected me recently. A few months ago, my maternal grandparents died within two days of one another, and they were buried at the Fort Richardson National Cemetery in Anchorage, Alaska. As I searched for something that could help me honor my grandparents’ memory and frame my relationship to them, I turned to Don DeLillo, a favorite author of mine. His novel Underworld includes a scene in which a husband and wife share a hot air balloon ride over the Arizona desert, eventually flying over a “graveyard” of World War II bombers. While such aircraft graveyards do exist in Arizona, DeLillo imagines that a conceptual artist has taken on the project of painting the aircraft, creating a giant art installation in the desert expanse.

This scene resonated with me in a few ways. One of my fondest memories of visiting my grandparents as a child involves watching hot air balloons from their back porch in the Alaskan summer twilight. Given that my grandfather flew a fighter plane in World War II, DeLillo’s scene suggested to me a dreamlike mixture of memory and family history. The quality of DeLillo’s prose and the nature of this moment shared by a husband and wife floating through the sky resonated with the journey that my grandparents were undertaking together. I shared this passage with my family at my grandparents’ funeral, and it now serves as the foundation of my video response to Saunders.

While the video primarily serves as my opportunity to reflect on death and my relationship with my grandparents, I hope that it engages “Ever After” in interesting ways as well. For Saunders, multimodal narrative offers her protagonist an opportunity to experience in death “all the things she has never had the chance to because of her circumstances.” Water provides the medium for this experience: “underwater photography is gorgeous and embodies the romantic dream state that is the complete opposite to the cold normalcy of everyday life.” My video turns to the sky as a space of stillness and embodied memory. As Saunders revised her project, she emphasized clarity and concision in her narrative. My recorded narrative blurs as the music swells, suggesting meditative distance rather than articulation. My response aims for polyphony rather than counter-argument, and my hope is that the juxtaposition of the two videos opens further spaces for engaging death and its radical otherness.

Text from: DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997. 123-126. Print.

Male Narrator
Cello instrumental

{Note: once the cello music begins, it gradually increases in volume until it nearly washes out the narration–they become competing intensities by the end of the piece}

[0:05] Marian leaned into me and laughed, watching the land surface expand around us. It was first light, a foil shimmer at desert’s edge. At three hundred feet we caught a mild westerly and drifted toward the eyelid slice of sun. But we didn’t think we were moving. We thought the land was gliding beneath us, showing a cluster of mobile homes, a truck on a blacktop to the south.

[0:22] (cello music begins; faintly audible)

[0:27] Then we were out over open earth, bone brown and deep in shadow, and we hung in the soft air, balanced in some unbodied lull, with a measure of creation spilling past.

[0:39] The pilot yanked the blast valve and we heard the burners pulse and roar and this made Marian laugh again. The basket was not large, barely taking the three of us plus tanks, valves, wires, instruments and coiled rope. Every propane wallop sent a man-sized streak of flame into the open throat of the nylon that bulbed out above us.

[1:00] We were lighter than air, laughing, and the balloon did not seem like a piece of science so much as an improvised prayer. Jerry spaced the burns and kept an eye on the pyrometer, adding just enough heat to make up for routine cooling inside the envelope. It was a game, a larger-than-life toy we’d found ourselves wickered into, and our eyes went big at the whooshing flames.

[1:23] About twenty minutes later Jerry touched me on the shoulder and pointed straight ahead and I saw the first splash of sunlight on wingtips. The piece began to emerge out of distance and haze, the mesh rectangle completed now, ranks of aircraft appearing as one unit of fitted parts, a shaped weave of painted steel in the monochrome surround.

[1:42] I felt Marian hanging a sort of tremulous gawk over the padded edge of the basket. It was a heart-shaking thing to see, bursts and serpentines of color, a power in the earth, and she pulled at my sweater and looked at me. Like where are we and what are we seeing and who did it?

[2:00] The primary colors were less aggressive than they’d seemed earlier. The reds were dampened, taken down by weather or more paint, deeper permeations. There were orderly slashes across the fuselages in one section, beautifully mixed blues and flat blues and near blues. The piece had a great riverine wash, a broad arc of sage green or maybe mustard green with brushy gray disturbances, and it curved from the southeast corner up and across the north edge, touching nearly a third of the massed aircraft, several planes completely covered in pigment.

[music and narration are equally present]

[2:34] The planes were enormous of course, they were objects of hulking size, stratofortresses, thick and massy. And truly I thought they were great things, painted to remark the end of an age and the beginning of something so different only a vision such as this might suffice to augur it.

[music and narration are straining against one another]

[2:52] The breeze took us past and the pilot yanked the handle, giving us a final inchmeal rise. We saw a cloudwall hung many miles to the east and hawks floating in the unforced motion that makes you think they’ve been up there, the same two birds since bible times. There were stones tumbled in a field, great bronze rocks with carved flanks. I felt my wife at my side. Everything we saw was ominous and shining, tense with the beauty of things that are normally unseen. The pilot pointed to an object some miles away and we saw it was the chase car, a droplet nosing down a long road toward the place on earth where we would light.