By Daniel Hudon
The screen is dark, but I can hear the projector rolling. Someone crinkles a candy wrapper. Crunches popcorn. Shifts in the seat. And then: a man breathes. He inhales deeply, holds… and lets go. He repeats – like waves at the shore.
Two young girls look into the camera. With hair smoothed back under white bonnets, their large, round faces fill the screen. One is freckled, smiling, showing spaces between her pointy teeth. The other has braces and is smiling even more. They’re looking out at us as though into a Hall of Wonders. The freckled one closes her eyes – her eyelids come together in slow motion, remain closed for a moment and finally open again – without changing her smile. The other follows. They are laughing but the only sound is that of a man breathing. The screen fades into blackness – bonnets first, then eyes, then shiny smiles. I find that I am breathing as slowly as the man in the film.
Grainy images percolate onto the blank screen. Something going round in circles, silver rods tick past until a wheel forms, spokes and pedals, circling slowly. Two boys fill the picture, cycling around one another, around cracks in the asphalt, around tufts of grass as sunlight glints off handle bars. They make shapes with their mouths – a silent childhood code – planning a route, a game; they stand on the pedals and ride slowly out of view. The cracks in the asphalt grow larger and darker until the screen is completely black. The sound of a man breathing continues.
Each time the screen fades I expect the credits to roll, then I remember from the program that the film is 18 minutes long. I slip down into my seat and stretch my legs into the aisle. All this slow motion and lack of a narrative reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi, a film I saw years ago.
A stone arcs into the air, falls. Small fingers release and another stone follows the first. Blond hair and shirtless, his eyes fixed on the distance. The beach is speckled with stones. His arm rises and falls. One stone follows another into the air. In slow motion, with the breathing in the background, the boy’s movements are majestic and effortless.
Whenever the man inhales in the film, I imagine it’s the male chorus getting ready to chant.
Water, maybe a lake. A placid surface scattering sunlight. Leaves float over reflections of trees. A stone appears and breaks through the surface. The water engulfs it. A splash blooms, a translucent orchid, and withers back into silver-ripples.
When I first met Diego at UBC he was hunched over photographs from the Palomar Sky Survey, counting galaxies. “So you’re one of the new grad students?” he asked, eyes flicking up from his work. He was short, with thick brown hair and a proud, bushy beard. “Good. You’ll like it here.” He explained that for his PhD thesis, he was generating a catalogue of compact groups of galaxies before studying the dynamics of each group in detail. He said it was like stamp collecting at the moment, “except with more interesting stamps.”
I began a research project on red giant stars; it appeared relatively straightforward – photometry and analysis of stars in a nearby galaxy. It took a while to get going because I didn’t understand the details of the data analysis or the software I was using. Every time I took a break I found Diego sitting up on his stool hunched over the Palomar Sky survey – his music on in the background – counting out more groups of galaxies. His work always seemed so much grander and more important than my own. He went at it doggedly every day until about seven o’clock and then went home for dinner, stopping by the computer room on his way out. He wore Birkenstocks and would make a few loud steps so as not to startle me. I’d ask him how many new groups he had found and soon I began to keep a tally on the blackboard. Seven one day, three the next. As the days passed and the list grew longer, the blackboard took on a greater importance, and we often looked at it to decipher patterns in his productivity, trying to make correlations with what he had for lunch, the weather, or day of the week. There was a string of Mondays in November in which he found a minimum of five groups each time, and a gray sunless week in February in which he found sixty-three – more than twice his average of thirty-one.
Another stone splashes. The man inhales, and for a moment I see eyes in the water. Men are chanting. Koy-aan-is-qat-si. The eyes stare into me. Waves ripple over the leaves on the water as the screen fades.