In Defense of “Conspiracy Theories”

Let’s imagine living in Soviet Russia during the 1960’s – the height of the Cold War – and let’s imagine that the KGB used the Russian phrase teoriya zagorova to signal to the Soviet public that certain ideas, beliefs and sources of information were to be marginalized, even shunned – how would you, as a literate adult in the 21st Century look upon those ideas and information? I think the rational response would be to take a closer look at them, for the simple reason that the Soviet-era KGB (or, for that matter, the SVR, the contemporary Russian intelligence agency) is not, by any reasonable measure, to be regarded as a reliable source of public information.

Now, let’s flashback to November 22, 1963 – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, commonly believed to have been perpetrated by a lone, crazed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, from the Texas School Book Depository. This was the official version of events propagated by the mainstream press of the time. However, since then, a small group of out-of-the-box thinkers, based upon significant evidence – as publicized, most famously, in the Oliver Stone film JFK – began to suggest that the Kennedy assassination was not as it had been made out to be in the mainstream press. There may have been other shooters involved, most notably a shooter from behind the so-called “grassy knoll”, while Lee Harvey Oswald may, in fact, have been a CIA operative, and the assassination itself may have been orchestrated by former CIA chief and notorious Nazi sympathizer, Allen Dulles. Well, FSU professor Lance deHaven-Smith, in his 2013 book Conspiracy Theory in America (as cited on Wikipedia), alleges that the CIA “deployed” the usage of the phrase conspiracy theory in the 1960’s in order to discredit such alternative speculation about the Kennedy assassination, and this became the first widespread usage of the term as we understand it today.

What does this historical background about the origin of the modern colloquial usage of the phrase conspiracy theory suggest to the rational adult living in the 21st century? I guess it depends on how much credence one gives to the CIA, as a reliable source of public information – the CIA, one of whose stated objectives is the perpetuation of disinformation, especially with respect to the perceived enemies of the United States! One would have to be gullible indeed, if not utterly deluded, to take the CIA’s word at face value! For the same reason that no rational adult living in the modern world would take the KGB’s or SVR’s word at face value – because these are state-run intelligence agencies for whom deception and disinformation is standard operating procedure!

And yet, somehow, against all sense and reason, the term conspiracy theory has entered common usage as a label with which to discredit and marginalize any information or idea that happens to conflict with or challenge the widely accepted mainstream, institutional interpretation of reality. No doubt, if Galileo or Kepler had introduced their theories about heliocentrism and elliptical planetary orbits in this day and age, the CIA would label them as conspiracy theories, even as the Catholic Church of the 16th century declared them as heretical ideas at the time! The phrase “conspiracy theory” is, in effect, the modern equivalent of the Medieval “heresy” – both are basically ways of flagging certain ideas or information as unacceptable, even threatening, to the establishment. It is the establishment’s way of marginalizing and discrediting any form of knowledge that may threaten its hold over the public imagination.

This is not to suggest that every idea in the realm of the conspiracy theory must, at once, be taken seriously. No doubt, there are many ideas in that domain that have no rational basis or justification, and must, therefore, be considered to be irrational, pending the disclosure of additional supporting evidence! However, it does imply that any idea, however far-fetched or outrageous it may seem to be at first glance, should be assessed on its own merits and on the evidence supporting the claims made. Not because some mainstream institution happens to dismissively label it as a “conspiracy theory” without any serious consideration of the case to be made in support of the claims. Anything less than this essentially amounts to surrendering one’s rational faculties to the self-appointed wardens of taste in our society, many of whom have no more than a grade-school understanding of the facts in question, and certainly are lacking in the specialized knowledge necessary to make sense of them.

An excellent example is the theory, posited by the well-known “conspiracy theorist” David Icke, that the universe is constituted of wave-form energy and that our perception of the solidity of matter is, in fact, a trick of the senses. The immediate, reflexive response of most of us in mainstream society, conditioned as we are by mass media and a simplistic grade-school understanding of Newtonian Physics, would be to roll our eyes and murmur the words “conspiracy theory.” And yet, this idea is substantiated by modern experimental quantum mechanics – wave-particle duality as demonstrated in the well-established “double-slit experiment” – that clearly points to the possibility that all matter is, at its core, wave-form energy, and that electromagnetic energy waves double as material particles upon the intervention of a conscious observer. Similar themes have been expressed by such brilliant minds as Einstein and Planck. Unless one is aware of this background into theoretical and experimental Physics, one would not be in a position to adequately form an informed opinion on what the mass of uninformed humanity might dismiss as a “conspiracy theory.”

As such, the least one can do is to give such ideas a fair hearing, because, who knows? It may not be so far-fetched after all to suggest, for example, that the Bushes and Clintons are involved in narcotics and human trafficking and child abuse, or that the Rockefellers conspired with the Nazis to suppress the healing Solfeggio frequencies. Without a clear knowledge and understanding of the evidence and the case to be made, are we in a position to adjudicate on the credibility of these ideas?

Voices of Doom

Media Sensationalism vs. Mindfulness Meditation

It is a cliché, by now, to state that the media thrives on sensationalism and fear-mongering. This, now obvious and undeniable, fact applies not only to trashy tabloid publications like The National Enquirer, The Daily Mirror and The Sun but even to the pillars of the supposedly mainstream media like CNN and Fox News and, dare I say it, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

It is now apparent that even responsible, mainstream journalism cannot escape the influence of the established tenets of lurid tabloid journalism, namely, that “sex sells” and that “if it bleeds, it leads.” This explains the over-abundance of gratuitously sexual and violent stories and images that have saturated the media for the last century and, even more so, in this century. And, as in the case of Rupert Murdoch, when the press barons of today are actually purveyors of tabloid journalism themselves, the line of distinction between so-called “responsible journalism” and “tabloid journalism” becomes increasingly blurry and indistinguishable.

Recent examples of the absurd depths to which mainstream media institutions have fallen in their ongoing attempts to sensationalize the news, range from CNN’s infamous reporting on such trivial occurrences as the changing seasons as if they were national catastrophes and Fox News’ exaggerated reporting about teenagers on spring break as if they were crime-ridden orgies. You can say what you like about the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst — at least they had some standards! Compared to the blatantly unethical press barons of today, those vendors of early 20th century yellow-journalism come across as the most credible of media outlets!

The long-term effects of this constant, never-ending barrage of negative news can be devastating to the public. It is designed to distract and stimulate the brain’s amygdala, much in the way that Roman imperialists relied on “bread and circuses” to keep the public preoccupied and perpetually on-edge, and oblivious to their own poverty-stricken, miserable condition. Simultaneously, it is about selling massive quantities of newsprint and gleaning millions of dollars in TV advertising revenue. But for the populace at large — over time, they are reduced to a mass of cowering, paranoid, jittery lemmings — perpetually panic-stricken and on the verge of mass hysteria over the slightest untoward circumstance!

It is no overstatement to say that this is, in itself, a dangerous development. When the public has become conditioned by mass media to become so nervous and on-edge that any sudden movement by some unsuspecting bystander may be misinterpreted as a horrendous crime against humanity, then when real tragedy or catastrophe strikes, the public is so completely off the deep end that they would, potentially, give up all their human rights and liberties in the service of the next wannabe authoritarian tyrant or dictator! This is very similar to what has happened in the US over the last decade since 9/11, with the introduction of mass-surveillance, the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq as textbook overreactions to an undeniably devastating national tragedy and catastrophe. This trend in the media can only have one long-term consequence — to realize a self-fulfilling prophecy of Doom by inducing a populace of panic-stricken lemmings into a frenzy of hysterical self-destruction!

There is no easy solution to this problem. The only one that has really helped me has been the practice of mindfulness meditation that I have taken up recently. This form of meditation has its roots in the Zen practice of the far-east, which, in turn, developed from Dhyana Buddhism, originally from India. In fact, the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which morphed into Zen when the practice migrated to China and Japan, literally translates to “mindfulness” or “awareness.” This practice ultimately derives from the archaic Indian tradition of yoga and pranayama breathing techniques, which have truly stood the test of time in proving their usefulness and power.

Mindfulness meditation is enormously helpful in enabling one to clear one’s mind and free it from the distractions of day-to-day urban life. It effects a shift in consciousness from the amygdala — the easily excited, constantly distracted seat of consciousness that is so rampantly exploited and manipulated by the modern media — to a deeper seat of consciousness, where one can achieve perspective and think more clearly and profoundly about things. The results for me, after a relatively brief foray into this practice, have been astounding. I feel more at ease and relaxed for the most part and I find my level of reading comprehension has improved significantly. I feel less traumatized by the horrific images to which I am repeatedly exposed on the TV and I find myself more inclined to read good books instead of habitually vegging out in front of the boob tube. I find myself more aware and appreciative of the simpler things in life and, in general, my life has become more meaningful and filled with serendipity and Jungian synchronicity.

While I cannot prove it, I think there is a strong case to be made for a direct causal relationship with these developments to my recent practice of mindfulness meditation. Indeed, the scientific data supports my argument, as mindfulness meditation has been proven to be extremely powerful in treating cases of stress and trauma. The power of mindfulness meditation techniques have even been demonstrated to ease PTSD among military veterans.

The prevailing mood of pessimism and gloom induced by media sensationalism is a problem, especially when such a mood can induce the public to panic-stricken acts of overreaction and self-destructiveness. The only olive branch I can offer as a symbol of hope and peace to the hysterical masses is an entry in my blog urging more people to take up mindfulness meditation. There are apps for this practice on the IOS app store (and, I presume, on Android as well), so it is all the more accessible these days, no longer requiring one to travel to the Himalayas in search of a Guru! Here’s hoping that calmer heads will prevail in the future — and the more calmer heads there are in the future, thanks to Zen and mindfulness meditation, the more likely it will be that they will prevail!

Loud and Stupid: On Groupthink and Mob Psychology

We live in an age when, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, it is easier than ever before to express oneself and to make oneself heard. On the other hand, thanks to these very same technological wonders, the sad reality of groupthink seems to be more pervasive than ever before — people appear, at some level, to be more inclined to follow the herd and less inclined to think critically as individuals and ask difficult questions of themselves and others.

The media appears to have lost every shred of integrity, a fact underscored most recently by the Brian Williams fiasco, and is so much at the mercy of market influences that one cannot take it seriously any more. The public appears to be more misinformed and deluded than ever before — at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians, marketers and PR firms peddling their dubious wares. The disturbing levels of pervasive religious superstition and the lack of basic scientific knowledge in mainstream society are getting to be downright dangerous — the prevalence of apocalyptic ideas among the religiously minded is on the verge of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy!

And yet, the tools for widespread education and enlightenment are readily at our disposal. It is easier than ever before to educate oneself — one can even audit lectures from the world's leading universities online for free, and great works of literature have never been more accessible, thanks to their publication in digital form by such ventures as Project Gutenberg, Google Books and others.

So what keeps us in this state of pervasive ignorance? What prevents us from achieving the enlightened state that would keep us from being manipulated and exploited by politicians, marketers and religious con-men? Perhaps it is about recognizing that mere access to tools and technology is only the first step in a very long process. There needs to be a cultural shift away from ignorance, groupthink and a mob mentality, and towards education and critical thought. There needs to be greater awareness of the tools and technologies at our disposal that enable us to better ourselves and others. We need to learn to think for ourselves and give less credence to loud-mouth talking heads on TV who try to tell us how and what to think!

The truth is probably that we are in middle of a cultural paradigm shift — a fundamental transformation that is at least as significant, in many ways, as the invention of the printing press. Technology changes so rapidly that it hardly has the time to be fully appropriated by society before it makes yet another quantum leap! And the exponential rates at which technology continues to advance means that the problem is likely to get worse in the near future before it gets better!

I guess, in the end, the only thing that will save us is our own human individuality — our human capacity to grow, learn and adapt to the rapidly shifting circumstances around us — to develop the faculty for critical thought and the ability to learn empirically as well as theoretically.

In the end, I believe that we, as human individuals, can do a great deal to shape our destiny.

 

Controversial Visions

July 4, 1776 — a date that lives on to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and to celebrate liberation from the tyranny of an oppressive global empire. It was a day, like any other, marked by a decision made by a group of idealists in a small assembly room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, to ratify the radically egalitarian vision expressed by a visionary document.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the legendary figures of US history, who was the primary author of the Declaration, outlined his case for the separation of the thirteen American colonies from the British Empire, stating, unequivocally:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These words have since become one of the best-known and widely regarded statements of human rights the world over. Jefferson's document has since become the seminal text underlying all modern democracies, all of which may be traced back to this seminal event — the signing and acceptance of this document and it's vision by the continental congress.

And even so, the text and its author are not without controversy. At the time, this bold vision of the egalitarian rights of man and separation from a global empire were deemed radical to the point of being considered to be treasonous (by the British). And subsequently, the founding fathers have come to be criticized for being slave-owners and for holding double standards with respect to their slaves.

However, we must consider the fact that Jefferson's bold, controversial vision was, actually, in its inception, even more radical than we give him credit for. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained the following passage indicting the British Empire for the practice of human slavery and condemning slavery in no uncertain terms:

“[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…”

The sad reality was that the horrific practice of human trafficking and slavery, as practiced by the global, Christian British Empire and its colonies, was so widespread and entrenched in society, that this passage was deemed as being too controversial by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. They edited and amended Jefferson's draft to exclude this passage from the final draft that was adopted by the continental congress on July 4, 1776.

It took another 87 years until Abraham Lincoln, another legendary figure from US history, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, to free all slaves in the United States. This executive order was controversial enough in the second half of the nineteenth century — one can only speculate on how much more controversial Jefferson's vision of radical egalitarianism would have been nearly 100 years earlier.

And yet, one can only wonder — what if the founding fathers had decided to leave that passage in — effectively to condemn the practice of slavery at the very outset — would that have given the modern civil rights movement a 100 year head-start? Would it have made the bloody, brutal US civil war unnecessary? Would we remember Jefferson, not Lincoln, as the heroic liberator of the slaves in America?

Controversy can often intimidate us from pursuing our visions — but one can only speculate on what the cost of abandoning or compromising on those visions might eventually be, in the long run!

At Horizon Cybermedia, we aim to hold true to our vision of pursuing the endless possibilities of modern digital media to redefine our cultural milieu. We aim for the horizon and we move boldly forward in our ongoing exploration of the constantly shifting seascape of digital media.

Do check out our current, ongoing web series, American Castle: the Secret World of William Randolph Hearst, and our YouTube channel.

Wishing you the very best,

Uday Gunjikar,
Founder and CEO,
Horizon Cybermedia.

A Question of Belief

I take my beliefs seriously, and sometimes, I feel compelled to express what I believe and why. I’m not sure if it has any impact on the rest of the world — maybe it’s a way of clarifying my own thoughts about my beliefs in my own mind.

In the 21st Century, the biggest challenge — really, the only significant challenge — to Christian ideas and beliefs is science and the scientific method. As Neal Degrasse Tyson stated in the first episode of the brilliant new television program Cosmos, the scientific method is so powerful that, in a matter of a few centuries, it has taken us from Galileo’s telescope to the moon and beyond — to nuclear power, Wifi and to the edge of quantum computing and biotechnology. Who can honestly foresee where it will continue to lead us?

But even though science continues to push the boundaries of explanation of the observable universe, and pushes the limits of observation of the universe itself, there still remain some kinds of questions about human experience that science is incapable of addressing adequately — philosophical concerns such as the purpose of human existence, the nature of human consciousness and identity, the metaphysics of human morality, the role in our lives of the humanities and arts, and, most notably, the nature of the human heart.

I don’t want to delve into the details of the philosophical questions I grappled with on my journey towards my Christian faith because doing so would be an arduous trek into some obscure conceits. Ultimately, what I personally find most compelling about Christianity, is an intangible, undefinable sense of veracity that seems to transcend any purely intellectual attempt to grasp it. Perhaps that is what a leap of faith amounts to — making a decision to believe in something without complete knowledge, but with a reasonable, reasoned sense of the authenticity of the object of one’s faith. At the same time, one must be careful to keep an open mind and always ask questions, not allowing oneself to become trapped by dogma.

Like Giordano Bruno, whose life and vision were dramatically portrayed in episode 1 of the television show Cosmos, I guess my own faith is inspired by a sort of personal vision or insight that helps me reconcile what I know in the context of my scientific background and education and what I believe in the context of my faith. The difference is that my vision seeks to transcend science and religion (even as it is a concrete idea, not a mystical vision), and I hope that I do not meet with the same level of derision among skeptical scientific thinkers as Bruno did among religious people for his vision of a universe modeled after Copernican ideas.

The idea that inspires me is that the creation of the universe may be analogized with a more mundane act of creativity that we are more familiar with. If God’s creation of the observable universe can be thought of as something like, e.g., J.R.R. Tolkein’s creation of middle earth or C.S. Lewis’ creation of Narnia, it somehow makes more sense. If we think of God as existing beyond space and time and creating the universe as a continuity, in the way that an author writes a book, then the universe may have a history of billions of years, even if it was, in a sense, created only a few millennia ago, from God’s point of view. This would be similar, in a sense, to Tolkein writing his books 60 years ago, but his middle earth having a chronology or history of, perhaps, thousands of years.

We human beings, trapped in the continuity of our universe, would be incapable of comprehending or appreciating the space-time continuum that God might operate in even as the characters in a book might be incapable of comprehending the continuity of the universe inhabited by the book’s author and readers. The difference, of course, is that the drama played out in our universe is seemingly impromptu and unscripted — real life happens as a product of human free agency, not, as far as we know, because it has been pre-determined or scripted by God (though some philosophers might argue to the contrary).

Anyway, to speak in simple terms, it helps me to think of the universe as something between a novel and a dream — a product of the creative imagination of an omnipotent intelligence beyond space and time, i.e. God. But because the characters in God’s “novel” have free will and, as such, could influence the “plot” of the story with their own actions, things started going wrong when the “characters” started violently attacking and killing one another — depicted in the Bible as being initiated by a primordial act of fratricide — the story of Cain and Abel. Naturally, God, the author of this “imagined” universe, becomes concerned and attempts a series of interventions, which the characters in the “novel” perceive as supernatural events. Ultimately, God decides to write himself into the story as the protagonist to bring order to the chaos — and so, he creates Christ, who, though he is no different from any of the other characters in the story, happens to have God’s own consciousness projected onto him. God identifies with the protagonist of his story, even as an author might identify with the lead character in his novel, and, in that sense, Christ is perceived as the very son of God, with a Divinely inspired mission to redeem mankind from its unfortunate condition.

Do I have any evidence to support these ideas? No, but it is a theory that attempts to explain certain facts about the universe, such as the origins of human consciousness and morality, man’s relationship with God, etc. And even though it may not have any mathematical underpinnings to elucidate its meaning, it has the virtue of providing a coherent explanation of some Christian ideas. Much as the theories posited by major scientific theorists (Newton, Einstein, etc.) attempt to explain the observable scientific facts of our universe.

In that context, the miraculous and the marvelous are well within the realm of possibility. If one is limited only by the extent of our imaginations in our power to disrupt the fictional universes we might create, then a God, with an infinite imagination, would have an infinite power of intervention into the universe of his creation — our universe. Perhaps, some day, we might see such a display of his powers! In any case, it remains interesting to note that one of the New Testament gospels begins with the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God . . . .”

Thus, I am inspired by this somewhat grandiose cosmological vision, which may appear to be bordering on the fantastic, but is, ultimately, no more fantastic than one of Einstein’s thought experiments! And while it is lacking in specificity, it is, at least, no less empirically verifiable! Ultimately, it inspires me and gives me faith along with some speculative answers to some of the questions that I am faced with. And while it may be far from the truth, at least it works as a theory, providing an explanation, however imperfect, of the observable facts, in a way that, perhaps, Newtonian physics provided answers before Einstein appeared on the scene!

Meanwhile, even as we reflect on these profound themes, I encourage you to check out Horizon Cybermedia‘s current, ongoing production — a multi-part web series entitled American Castle: The Secret World of William Randolph Hearst. I hope you enjoy it!

Wishing you the very best,

Uday Gunjikar
Founder and CEO,
Horizon Cybermedia, Inc.

 

The Paradox of Modernity

Are we becoming dehumanized by technological utopianism?

Every age has its myths.

One way to describe and understand myth is: they are the stories we tell ourselves to motivate and rationalize our thoughts and actions.

In archaic times, recent scholarship suggests, primitive societies were primarily driven by scapegoat myths. As civilization evolved and advanced, the myths were rewritten to appeal to more refined sensibilities, while retaining a ritual sacrificial practice at their core.

During the Christian age in the West, ecclesiastical doctrine displaced the ancient myths as the predominant motivating principle in people's lives — bringing its share of problems — crusades, inquisitions, witch-hunts and the like.

In our present age of scientific enlightenment and technological progress, we tell ourselves new self-validating myths — that modern education and industrialization will lead us to a utopia — a far cry from the darkness, superstition and ignorance of the past. And so, we are impelled inexorably onwards, towards scientific innovation, technological progress and self-illumination.

When religious fanaticism rears its ugly head, as it often does in various forms — fundamentalism, terrorism, theocracy, chauvinism and the like — we rightly denounce these as the misguided remnants of a benighted past.

And yet, even as we are impelled inexorably towards a utopian Promised Land in which all our needs will be fulfilled at the press of a button while we tread across space and time as effortlessly as the deities of the ancient myths, one cannot help but wonder if what awaits us is not really a utopia of liberty and abundance but, rather, a soul-crushing, dehumanizing form of enslavement brought on by relentless mechanistic technological progress.

As the inexorable tide of modernity washes us towards what may appear, from a distance, to be the shores of a progressive, enlightened future, in which we will have destroyed and exposed the superstitions of the past while all our material needs are instantly gratified, one wonders if we will pay for this future with our very souls! Will we end up as dehumanized, mechanistic beings with no sense of individuality or identity, while we progressively relinquish our humanity and privacy to corporations and governments in the name of security? Will we have lost touch with what it has meant, in the past, to be human, even as we progress towards a world of instant gratification and deliverance from want and need?

It is a delicate balance — to retain our humanity as we move towards a technological utopia — but it is a balance that one cannot afford to neglect, because we do so at the expense of our very souls! Ultimately, this balancing act will prove to be critical — it will make the difference between a true technological utopia and a nightmarish Orwellian dystopia in which we live slavish lives at the mercy of authoritarian power-brokers!

Horizon Cybermedia was created to tread the fine line between the promise of technology and the soul-enriching potential of the arts and humanities.

I am here, now, to proclaim that Horizon Cybermedia is still alive! In fact, watch for its imminent resurrection in an exciting new format, with fresh, new content!

Meanwhile, check out ExplorationTheSeries.com for an ongoing dose of soul-enriching, life-affirming content and stay tuned for much, much more to come!

Wishing you the very best,

Uday Gunjikar
Founder and CEO,
Horizon Cybermedia, Inc.

 

Napoleon

A couple of weeks ago, I had the rare opportunity to attend a premiere showing of the 1927 black and white silent film Napoleon at the Paramount Theater of the Arts in Oakland, CA, sponsored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. This was the first time that the six hour silent film had been shown in its entirety in the United States since the ’20’s. When Hollywood received the original print, it was edited down to a fraction of its original length and screened to unflattering reviews. Now, for the first time in ages, it can truly be appreciated for the cinematic masterpiece that it is.

The screening was accompanied by an original soundtrack composed and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. The rousing, breathtaking score was inspired by the music of Beethoven and Mozart, and created a remarkable atmosphere around the entire show. In essence, this was five and-a-half hours of live orchestral music while Academy Award winning film-maker Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of the film played onscreen.

It was a unique experience, celebrating a unique film. It played to packed houses for four matinée showings over two weekends — it was a minor feat of athletic endurance to sit through the entire performance, but coming out of it, you really felt as if you had actually been there — actually been through the French Revolution and witnessed, first-hand, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte from obscurity in the French Revolutionary army to the heights of glory as the emperor of France.

The film is probably most striking in its vivid depiction of the French Revolution. It presents, in bone-crunching detail, the horrors of the Reign of Terror and the atrocities committed by the likes of historical figures such as Danton, Robespierre, Marat and Saint-Juste, the last having been played by the director himself. It depicts, in brutal immediacy, the horrors of war, in its representation of the Siege of Toulon and of Napoleon’s unlikely victory over invading forces. Finally, it presents a breathtaking hour-long climax using an experimental cinematic technique with three screens and projectors giving the audience an immersive experience of Napoleon’s Italian campaign.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of this unique event is the story of how film-maker Kevin Brownlow accomplished this remarkable achievement in film restoration. The film was literally pieced together from remnants in various archival collections, having never been recognized before for its true artistic merit. It makes you wonder how many other unrecognized cinematic masterpieces have been condemned to obscurity, waiting for someone to restore them to their original glory.

The screening was, in and of itself, a unique experience. It was a festive atmosphere at the remarkable Paramount Theater of the Arts in downtown Oakland, CA. There were three intermissions, including a two hour dinner break, during which one could appreciate the decor, purchase memorabilia from the souvenir shop or head to the bar for a Napoleon cocktail.

After this remarkable experience, one has to wonder if we have lost something of the grandeur of the past in our fast-paced modern society, in the rush to get ahead in our lives and to claw our way to the top of the heap. Experiencing a record of history in this unique format — getting a historical perspective on human concerns from the past — makes you reflect on the human condition in the present day and wonder what we have lost over time. In a sense, this entire festival was a celebration of the recovery of a lost heritage, a lost past — the film at the center of the event being, itself, a restoration of a work from the dustheap of history to the status of a recognized cinematic masterpiece. As such, it is emblematic of our need to reconnect with a forgotten past and restore it to its forgotten glory.

Hopefully, this Renaissance spirit will continue and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will host many more such spectacular events in the future!

Meanwhile, do check out Horizon Cybermedia‘s ongoing series of web videos, Exploration with Uday Gunjikar.

Wishing you the very best,
Uday Gunjikar
Founder and CEO,
Horizon Cybermedia, Inc.