HELLO TO THE OTHER WORLD
(originally published by Bright Wall/Dark Room)
'Witness' was a chunky bright red VHS tape that I wasn't supposed to watch. It was too 'adult' (which in this case translated to boring) and therefore, was not for me. But I also knew that Han Solo/Indiana Jones was in it, and that it essentially took place in my backyard. So it was bookmarked for a later version of me.
I grew up minutes from Amish country, an area mostly situated in and around Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. It's a place I've come to recognize as a beautiful piece of earth, one that I took for granted as a kid when I saw the Amish as merely the weird mysterious occupants of nearby farms and towns. Many years later my parents are still based there, and though some things have faded in and around the area, it still can be counted on for some absolutely stunning sunsets over rolling green landscapes, as well as the occasional horse and buggy ambling down the road.
I'm now in my early 30s, working in Manhattan and living in Brooklyn. I’d like to say that urban living fills the spaces of every waking moment with endless amounts of chaotic fun, but while that’s still true at times, several years in now it’s evolved: work, work on the side, friends, and short-term hermitages lasting from a few hours to a day to stop think and write so that the passion projects don’t fall too far to the wayside.
Once or twice a month though, I make plans to head back home and check in. As the moment to depart draws near, I find that I am unaware of what’s coming, my mind instead still focused on completing tasks: a last-minute assignment, an email, whatever it is that needs immediate attention, as so many things now demand.
But when I get to Penn Station and wait for my train to be called, things start to change. It is a different kind of wait - not the same as eagerly leaning out over the platform to look down the subway tunnel, as if mere impatience can will the thing to arrive. Instead I'm reminded that waiting can have value, that it can be a time where I don't need a countdown at the bottom of the screen telling me how much of this unbearable moment is left, but instead a chance to think about nothing, to just be myself, alive.
This is how it begins for me every time.
After the death of her husband, Rachel (played by Kelly McGillis) and her son Samuel (a young Lukas Haas), are on their way to Baltimore to visit extended family when, while stopped in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, the boy inexplicably witnesses a murder. It's here that they meet John Book (Harrison Ford), the police officer who takes on the case. He soon uncovers some dirty dealings within his department that are tied to the murder, forcing him to go into hiding within the Amish community of the boy and his mother. While there, Book starts to assimilate with their way of life, taking on chores and becoming a surrogate member of the family, while developing a relationship with Rachel. Their connection is of course controversial to the Amish community, and creates the added complexity of a love triangle with Rachel's Amish suitor, Daniel (Alexander Godunov). While the killers’ search for Book’s whereabouts intensifies, he and Rachel must come to terms with their feelings towards each other, the inevitable doom of their bond brought on by their respective cultures.
Weir is the great chameleon of the now defunct mid-range Hollywood film. In the 80s and 90s, the studios were happy because he might give them some Oscar bait, and Weir was happy because he got to do his thing, which is to explore various thematic culture clashes in setups where images trump words. 'Witness' is where this is most evident; a fairly straightforward cop story that holds far greater meaning by taking on pacifism and violence, tradition and change, duty and desire.
Throughout ‘Witness,’ we are in the here and now, and we are also elsewhere, in the past. And it is quite often done with silence. The horse and buggy pressured by modern mechanized traffic. The young Amish boy at the train station staring up at the imposing bronze statue of Michael the Archangel holding up a fallen soldier, foreshadowing events to come. The moment where he recognizes the killer in a photograph, the blocking and shot design of which feels like something Shyamalan has ripped off time and again. The barn-raising montage, where the love triangle between Book, Rachel, and Daniel is put on public display. The car radio playing Sam Cooke’s “What A Wonderful World” while Book leads Rachel into a dance, for her the quintessential American high school moment she never experienced, one that’s quickly interrupted by her reality. The restraint found in the scene where Book encounters Rachel naked in her room during a rainstorm; his voyeuristic gaze matched by her full embrace of the moment. The care with which she removes her bonnet and places it upon the table before running out to Book in the field, a symbolic gesture that both acknowledges her way of life and her own free will at the same time. And the finale itself, again, all accomplished with expressions that tell the story - a move contested by the studio until Weir convinced them that if he'd done his job up to that point, no words would be needed.
The train ride takes me from New York down to Philadelphia, and then over into the area where I was raised - incidentally, the same train route that the Amish mother and son take on their way to Baltimore at the beginning of the film. I always think I'm going to get some reading or rewrites done with all the free time, until I inevitably find myself staring out the large windows watching everything go by, the way I once did as a kid. Some of it ends up on instagram - vistas of blue skies and farmland sit on my profile next to shots of the goings-on in Brooklyn. Someone comments. "Where are you?!"
Along the way, that feeling from the station continues to grow as the scenery changes from the sharp greys of the city to the organic greens and browns of the country. I am transitioning into a different mindset, a slower, more contemplative way of being. I'm sure many can identify when it comes to trips of this kind, though perhaps like me they've mostly kept it to themselves: a product of transit, that sense of being in between moments in life. I now find that going home can hold more than just a feeling of nostalgia. It can generate a greater sense of exploration and discovery as I take in both places and thoughts I’d otherwise never come across.
Watching the scenes of agrarian life with Maurice Jarre's ethereal synth score, I'm struck by a strong sense of comfort at seeing the world I knew as a child as well as an astonishment at the way Weir elicits a surreal otherness from the land, its people, and their ways. Like certain tonal elements in his earlier Australian work 'Picnic At Hanging Rock,' its both beautiful and haunting, serving as an unlikely companion to the more conventional Hollywood plot elements that come into play when the city of Philadelphia and Ford's character enter the picture.
In what is probably my favorite scene, the Amish grandfather sits the young boy down at the table where Book’s gun and bullets are laid out, and the two proceed to discuss violence and the taking of life that the gun represents. It is for me a pinnacle moment, and Weir is fully prepped to tackle what he's been setting up all along between the two conflicting cultures. "What you take into your hands, you take into your heart," the old man tells the boy. It's a message that's especially chilling today given recent events, and for me brings up thoughts of the mass shooting years ago at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster where several children were killed or wounded. Afterwards, in the face of this senseless horror, the Amish families of the victims offered forgiveness to the family of the deceased shooter, the two factions ultimately finding consolation and peace between each other. This kind of reconciliation is almost as difficult to fathom as the violence itself, but it speaks to the depths of love we as humans are capable of reaching at a time when it’s most needed.
There's no doubt the dichotomy of where I grew up and where I am now has become a very strong one. A childhood friend (who also moved on from those early pastoral roots) commented on one of my instagrams, saying "Hello to the other world." She was right to call it that. In some ways it is an entirely different way of life, considered by some to be old-fashioned, out of step with the times. If these two worlds really are the past and the present, then they are tethered by roads, tracks, fiber optics, and our souls.
But it's not really about time travel so much as it is about what we choose to leave behind and what we choose to keep and carry with us into the now. This is the nature of what it is to be a family. My parents gave me a great deal of love in my formative years, and so now I try to return it as best I can in these their later years. Because of it, going home is a healthy, substantial reminder that life is not short (if we're lucky) - it is long and complex and because of this it requires more than just a moment's acknowledgement. Real life is about endurance, patience, and something other than oneself. At least that’s what I’ve come to decide for myself with some time on my hands taking train rides into the country.
I still fall short time and again, when New York fills the hours with activity and noise, but I'm getting better at hanging on to what truly matters. Along the way, I often think of ‘Witness’ whenever I see a horse and buggy or pass a sprawling farm. It’s just an old claim to fame in an otherwise unassuming little corner of the world, but for me it’s a journey worth recalling.