Alan Watts: Reanimated by filmmaker son

02/09/2012

In the opening scene of Why Not Now?, a new documentary about the life of Alan Watts, the middle-aged philosopher, wearing a mane of silver facial hair and strands of beads around a brown tunic, begins a direct address to the viewer.

“Welcome to my home,” he says, appearing in one corner of the screen as the rest is filled by a menagerie of nostalgic nautical images. “We’re aboard the ferryboat Vallejo, which is tied up at the north end of Sausalito, close to San Francisco. And this is where I live. And you may think this place is rather weird, but that’s because I’ve always loved weird things.”

As his voice continues Watts’ likeness fades from view entirely, replaced by grainy monochrome footage of the iconic boat. “I remember when I was a little boy, people used to say to me: ‘Alan, you’re so weird. Why can’t you be like other people?’ Well I thought that was just plain dull, like having the same thing for dinner every day. And as is well said: Variety is the spice of life.”

It is also a useful starting point for a biographical documentary. The film, created and co-produced by Watts’ eldest son Mark, remains engaging as it navigates the philosopher’s illustrious life in large part because of a clever juxtaposition of very different media. The younger Watts alternates old, often black and white footage of his father with slideshow-like stills and new color animation; the result is a dynamic, multidimensional quality for a film that could easily have fallen into the soporific with less original treatment.

In particular, it’s the animation—which features work from “The Simpsons” cartoonist Eddie Rosas as well as exhilarating aerial views of local landscapes based on Japanese-style woodblock prints by West Marin artist Tom Killion—that is fundamental to the visual component of the documentary.

“The theory behind this film is it’s an animator’s approach to biography,” Mark said in an interview at the comfortable Inverness ridge home of Sausalito Film Festival co-founder Allison Faust.   

“The way an animator thinks is, ‘How would I animate this in order to make it a more effective storytelling?’ What you quickly find is if you are too literal it’s boring, and if it has no association then it really doesn’t work as filmmaking. But there’s a lot of in-between ground—at its best what happens is the visual is amplifying the meaning of the audio and the audio is amplifying the meaning of the visual, so you get something that’s more than the sum of its parts. And that’s when it really starts to click.”

Indeed, some of the film’s most impactful moments occur when the visual elements are simplest. As the film chronicles Watts’ exploration of Zen Buddhism in Japan, the philosopher is shown meditating in lotus position on a rock beside a stream, eyes closed and perfectly still. Several seconds follow of close-up video images of a moving stream, rust-colored leaves floating atop its clear surface. 

“It is absolutely fundamental in Buddhism to allow oneself to flow with the stream of life,” Watts begins. “Really there is no way for preventing it, and trying to prevent it is like trying to swim against an overwhelmingly powerful current. That way one drowns. But by flowing with it, one ceases to waste energy resisting it and all that energy is available as new energy for creative work in art and life.”

For its part the film does well to flow with the current of its narrative—to stay out of the way so that the content of Watts’ audio recordings can be absorbed without undue cinematic distraction. The plotline is straightforward and narrow and the animation style is simple and communicative. But perhaps most important, it is Alan Watts’ own magnetic voice that serves as the film’s lone human narration. 

After having written a more conventional documentary, with a third-person narration and multiple contributing perspectives, Mark felt his father’s voice “was literally being crowded out. I looked at the script at one point and out of 60 pages he was less than ten pages. And I said to myself, ‘You know, this is great, but I don’t want to do this. Let’s just throw it out and have some fun.’”

Alan Watts was born in London in 1915 and died in his cabin on Mount Tamalpais in 1973. After moving to the United States in 1938—first to New York, then eventually to San Francisco—he was instrumental in popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, where he evolved into something of a countercultural icon.

He lectured and wrote extensively—The Way of Zen, On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and Psychotherapy East and West were all bestsellers—and also gained a loyal following through his regular KPFA radio broadcasts.

For son Mark—who was behind the camera for what became the film’s opening scene on the Vallejo—Why Not Now? is the culmination of decades of immersion in his father’s work. The fourth of Alan’s seven children, Mark first became interested in his father’s philosophy when he was handed a copy of On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are at age 15.

After years of no contact between father and son the book sparked a reunification, and Mark soon began filming the recordings of Alan that were originally intended for distribution as an alternative to speaking engagements.

Mark was 20 when his father died, and he quickly assumed the role of curator for the vast amount of material Alan had left behind. Now in his late 50s, he has spent much of his life in this role. He has created electronic university courses and managed radio broadcasts from his father’s audio recordings, edited and published his father’s posthumous books, and, in the last five years or so, started a podcast and smartphone app.

Beginning in the late 90s, Hollywood producers interested in making a dramatic film about Alan’s life began approaching Mark. After rejecting several offers, he eventually decided to make a film in conjunction with actor Noah Wyle; when that effort fell through, Watts, galvanized by the commercial success of documentaries at the time, started working on what would become Why Not Now?.

Having dedicated so much of his own life to curating his father’s work, it’s not surprising that Mark seems to have internalized, as though by osmosis, many of his father’s experiences. When the gregarious filmmaker dives into telling or retelling a story from Alan’s life—something he does often and with great enthusiasm—he recounts details and conversations as if he himself were Alan. And when he begins explaining Alan’s ecological worldview, one of the philosopher’s most important legacies, it’s difficult to discern where the father’s words end and the son’s begin. 

“He says the problem is that thoughts are linear and so we’re using a one-track system to try and interpret a million-track universe, and it’s too simple and unsophisticated for the job. So to the extent that we think we’re going to figure it out we’re deluding ourselves. We’re not going to figure it out. We have to come to the alarming conclusion that it’s more intelligent than we are.

“At the end of the day that is the Taoist perspective. We are part of nature but we are not the kings of nature. We are not its crowning achievement. We are not intelligent enough to be able to control and direct it. And that the things we do to alter the course of nature can have very unexpected long-term results.”

 

“Why Not Now?” will premiere at the Dance Palace Community Center at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 17. Tickets are $12, $10 for seniors, and $6 for teens and kids.