Given that the Center for Visual Music’s Video on Demand Vimeo channel has recently started streaming a newly restored version of Jordan Belson’s 1972 film Chakra it seems like an opportune time to highlight the spiritual dimension of his work. Belson’s moving image work can be broadly divided into phases with the second phase consisting of what have been termed gaseous films such as Re-entry (1964), Phenomena (1965), Samadhi (1967) Meditation (1971) and Chakra (1972). These films seek to stimulate the experience of meditation more obviously than perhaps his earlier more graphic films such as Allures (1961) do.
Eastern religions became valuable resources for filmmakers on the American West Coast in the post-war period. This is not only because they carried valuable cultural currency in that locale but, as David E. James points out, the “emphasis on vision in meditation”[i] made it easy to adapt the spiritual function to the screen. Belson began to apply his own idiosyncratic spiritualism to his films allowing “reference to interior or transcendental realities.”[ii] In addition to serving as a representation of the images that occur during a mystical experience, Belson used the physical process of producing his work as a way to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Generally this state is sought through deep meditation and it seems that Belson’s act of creating the film is actually functioning as a form of/aid to meditation both for the creator and the viewer.
Many of the images found in Belson’s gaseous works contain figures and characteristics that are typically encountered by subjects in the midst of a mystical experience. Walter N. Pahnke and William A. Richards however suggest that these aesthetic experiences of taking mind-altering drugs do not constitute a mystical experience and in order for a mystical experience to arise one must undertake serious preparation in a “quiet reverent atmosphere.”[iii] Belson engaged in yogic contemplation and transcendental meditation in addition to using psychedelic drugs in order to achieve higher states of consciousness. Furthermore, Belson developed such a high level of meditative concentration that he allegedly managed to achieve mystical states of nirvana using only yoga and meditation. This is similar to Immanuel Kant’s contention that it is only the virtuous, morally cultivated man who can experience pleasure and transcendence.
To offer a conclusion, in films such as Chakra and Samadhi Belson is attempting to both induce and reproduce a transcendental experience, laying bare his soul to the audience. Ultimately, while it is possible to enjoy Belson’s work on an aesthetic level, the viewer of a Jordan Belson film must relinquish their minds to the images and sound and be drawn into the world of the filmmaker in order to catch a glimpse of the sublime soul that Belson is offering us
[i] David E. James. Allegories of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. p. 128
[iii] Walter N. Pahnke and William A. Richards, “Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 1966, Springer. p. 175-208.
Belson, J. Allures (1961)
——- Re-entry (1964)
——- Phenomena (1965)
——- Samadhi (1967)
——- Meditation (1971)
——- Chakra (1972)
James. D.E. Allegories of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Pahnke W. and William A. Richards, “Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 1966, Springer. pp. 175-208.
CVM Vimeo https://vimeo.com/user4392897
Dr. Aimee Mollaghan is a research fellow at the Huston School of Film and Digital Media, NUI Galway where she also co-ordinates the MA Digital Media and BA with Film Studies programmes. Her research interests include conceptions of sound and music in film and animation. She is concerned with exploring sound and soundscape across disciplinary boundaries. Her new book, The Visual Music Film will published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year.