All We Need is Just a Little Patience – ECHOES of the INVISIBLE

Review by William J. Hammon, ActuallyPaid.com

If you’re a fan of the TV show Cosmos, either the original with Carl Sagan or the modern version starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, you’re probably familiar with the idea of the “Cosmic Calendar,” which maps all of time in the known universe, and scales it down to a single Earth calendar year. It’s a wonderful visual concept, as it lays out just how long and vast the scope of time really is, with the Big Bang occurring at midnight on January 1st, and the evolution of the human race as it currently stands only coming into the picture at 11:59pm on December 31st. Yeah, the entirety of our species’ existence accounts for one minute in the eyes of the rest of the universe.

It’s that understanding of the sheer vastness of time and our limited space within it that pervades Steve Elkins’ film, Echoes of the Invisible. Combining absolutely breathtaking cinematography with real-life stories from across a spectrum of human experience, Elkins simultaneously shows just how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things, while also celebrating our place within it.

The key to all of this is the ability to step outside of our normal means of perception, and I don’t mean by taking hallucinogens. While humans are special on this planet as a fully sentient species, for the most part, we tend to limit our perspective to what we can see, hear, and experience in real time. A lot of us cannot conceive of what might have been around before we existed – especially if it’s on a larger scale than a human lifespan – or what might exist long after we’re gone. An incredible degree of patience is required to allow yourself to accept and learn about how much more there is to see beyond the mundane, and to his massive credit, Elkins finds the perfect subjects to illustrate that very point.

The bulk of the film is intercut between four main players, each representing a different aspect of our collective culture. The late Al Arnold was an “ultramarathon” runner, blind from glaucoma, who challenged himself to run the distance of Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney. Rachel Sussman is an artist and photographer who documents the oldest living organisms on Earth, including bacteria over 500,000 years old. Anil Ananthaswamy is a science writer and astronomer who works with deep space telescopes. Paul Salopek is a journalist and foreign correspondent who is, as of this writing, about halfway through his decade-plus journey called the “Out of Eden” walk for National Geographic, tracing the relative path of the first major human migration at the end of the last ice age from Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego in Chile, all of it on foot (except when boats are required to cross bodies of water). Interspersed throughout these stories is a Tibetan monk putting together a sand mandala: a long, intricate piece of artwork made of colored sand that takes months to complete, and is ceremonially destroyed once finished.

Two extremely important goals are accomplished with this setup. First and foremost, these disparate tales and experiences show us that despite all our differences as people, the overall experience is universal and unbiased. Some people find their truth through religion, some through science, still more through lived experience, and others some combination of the three. No one philosophy is endorsed over the other. In fact, Elkins goes to exhaustive lengths to show that no matter the source or motivation, the quest for these big truths is the same for just about everyone, and uses similar methodology, with alterations depending on the individual’s personal sphere. There’s a brilliant section that contrasts hermits and monks who live in cliffside caves and spend their whole lives meditating against a team of scientists using telescopes and other equipment to detect dark matter. Their ideas are about as far apart as possible on the philosophical spectrum, but it’s noteworthy that the one crucial element that both parties need is silence. That commonality and interconnectivity of their respective quests is one of the paramount themes of the film.

The second feat is in the illustration of time itself. The sand mandala is the most direct reference to the idea of impermanence. It’s a key element of the artform, as the meticulous construction of the sand, coupled with the rather swift action of sweeping it all away when complete, is meant to demonstrate the transitory nature of all life for the Buddhist monks who undertake it.

But each of the four main stories also gives us a more profound look into the flow of time in their own way. Arnold nearly died on a previous attempt at his desert run, and when he tried again, legally blind, he had only the blurred impression of the Sun’s light to give him any indication of the flow of time and how susceptible he was to the elements. Sussman’s photos, showing everything from microscopic organisms to millennia old trees, is a capsule of the planet’s life, and a testament to the relativity of how time moves for the rest of the world. Every star chart in existence is a literal form of time travel, as the light we see traveled hundreds, thousands, millions, and BILLIONS of years across the universe in order for us to be able to observe it. When you look at a star, you’re not seeing it as it is now. You’re seeing it as it was when that light was emitted and started traveling across the cosmos. You are literally looking back in time.

And finally, there’s Salopek’s trek. This is a tremendous undertaking, as he’s essentially donating more than 10 years of his life to walking around the world. He was already in his mid-50s when he started, yet he still decided to take this journey, knowing that the elements, disease, and hostile sectors of the human race may end him long before he finishes. He notes that he’s had visas delayed and denied to enter other countries. He’s been arrested and detained several times. He even had to smuggle himself across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia at one point. He meets friendly people, and he meets not-so-friendly people. Some join him for a few miles, others for a few months. He even has plans for a massive reunion when he reaches Chile, approximately 3-4 years from now.

This is the most important depiction of time in the film, because it’s still going. It’s in progress. Every good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Arnold’s tale is an ending, Sussman’s photography is a beginning, and Ananthaswamy’s work represents a continuous circle of beginnings and ends as the universe continues to expand. But Salopek is still in the middle. He’s far from his end and even further from his start, but he’s still going. He’s a real-time demonstration of the patience required to reach that next level of appreciation for our place in the world and the cosmic community. No matter how much we delight at what has already passed or what may come to be, time is still constantly flowing, the journeys are still going, there is always someone or something pushing to the next destination, and it’s crucial to not lose sight of that in our wonder for a nostalgic past or a promising future.

In addition to the thematic beauty of the film, it must be said that the camera work here is absolutely phenomenal. Elkins has already won a cinematography award for this project, and deservedly so. The bright, vivid colors combined with the gritty, highly-detailed environments displayed throughout are simply dazzling. It’s sort of a meta representation of the film’s overarching message that Elkins likely had to wait hours and hours at times for the natural light of a given area to grant him the perfect shot, but he gets it just about every time.

Humanity, at least first world humanity, is constantly in a rush. Between economic demands, entertainment, technology, and the overall fast pace of modern life, it’s no surprise when you see articles about people almost literally working themselves to death well before their time. There’s legitimate value in the idea of slowing down and taking the time to appreciate all that the world has to offer around you. But Echoes of the Invisible takes that idea one step further than simple platitudes or snide comments about people turning off their screens. Steve Elkins makes sure to not only show just how vast and old everything is – along with its inherent beauty – but he takes a very thoughtful approach in showing that no matter what we do, this will all continue in one form or another long after we’re gone, so we might as well learn and appreciate what we can understand while we can. Our time will run out, but time itself won’t (at least not until the heat death of the universe some 100 trillion years from now). This isn’t, “Stop and smell the roses.” It’s more, “The roses are here, there, and everywhere, and no matter what you believe, they’ll still be around when you’re not, so give it a whiff and expand your own horizons in the process.”

Can’t argue with that.

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