With the balanced humility of a spiritual shaman and presentation vibe of Groucho Marx (in the good, hilarious way), Mr. Bennett navigates through our awards ceremony hanging-out conversation with a knowingly insightful precision generally reserved for physics researchers. His self-deprecating self-report would have one believe he rubbish-pailed formal assembly instructions and just sort of threw the movie together with carpenter’s glue and bailing wire. Nothing could be further from accuracy, as it becomes glaringly apparent within the picture’s opening 10 minutes.
Mr. Bennett’s film is a significantly worthwhile addition to advancing a currently-heated national conversation on the efficacy of various out-of-the-box yet potentially pragmatic treatments for altered mental cognition and dementia, perhaps even revising current medical systems’ treatment standards of practice.
Having viewed ALIVE INSIDE at a Park City, Utah Library festival public screening, I happened to be seated next to a group of five clinical music therapists, who were all waxing loquacious prior to the screening, however immediately grew silent within minutes of the opening sequence and remained speechless after the closing title sequence and following audience Q&A. As the room filed out, I asked them about their impression and only one replied with tears in her eyes: “Now I know how to help people find a path to live again.”
As we start our interview, I share with Mr. Bennett my predictive “ah-ha” moments while viewing his film’s festival screening: “I also happened to be sitting next to a woman who was in tears within minutes of that first gentleman (“Henry’s”) “awakening” in the film. I cover movies the dark of theaters with a subtle light on my mobile phone, and this women understandably asked me to please turn it off as she described that it was distracting. Of course I got it and turned it off, and as I did, I became aware that several other surrounding viewers were also crying … there were various gasps of emotion soon echoing around the room, and I discerned with absolute certainty that this was the film that would win this year’s festival Audience Award.” It did.
Mr. Bennett clarifies a source of intrigue for his way into taking on this project with, “The interesting thing for me is that there is no specific place in the brain for music. Basically, we develop music over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, and we’ve cobbled it out of parts of our brain. Music lights up the brain more than any other human stimulus. It’s a sort of holographic construction that basically preserves pathways, when the brain get erased by Alzheimer’s, the pre-frontal cortex which seems to be a nexus for emotion, autobiographical memory, the base of the brain, the deep, reptilian part of our brain … the terrible part of Alzheimer’s is, you lose your short term functionality but not your ability to live, your movement, emotion. It’s amazing to observe how love and music are alive in these people. If you can arouse emotion in them, you can jump start connections that haven’t been used in them in years, and that’s the gift in these people.”
MR: What do you feel may be a principal theme of your film?
MRB: I think what is a unifying thing for us humans is simply ‘awakening.’ It speaks to, a kind of hopelessness that’s rampant in our world right now, and that’s what people respond to, they want to feel so deeply. It’s a profound challenge.”
MR: Your documentary is clearly about a lot … in your own words, what do you feel it’s essentially about?
MRB: It’s essentially about that we’re all vibratory Beings. That we’re more like what String Theory talks about, but what if we take that and put it in sort of a human container?
MR: Right, so in String Theory, we are not merely bouncing off separate Beings but interwoven into all the stuff of everything, yes? So, what would you say happens when people ‘go to sleep’ into dementia?
MRB: Well, when I saw all these older people lined up in these nursing homes, I didn’t really understand what had happened to them. They’d been essentially put inside of a box, pumped with massive amounts of drugs. Their world is telling them they’re not alive, that they’re broken objects, Beings that are functioning badly that need to be fixed. And sadly, they get the message that there’s no space for them to blossom or bloom. Caring people don’t want them to go down hill, we want their brains to be firing massively, and that’s what’s missing in these places. When I went in there and gave them music, I thought it was just the music that was waking them up … and it was, but it was also us coming in there and taking the care to look into their eyes and asked them, ‘hey, you in there, do you have any gifts, are you alive in there?’ and they were like, ‘whoa, nobody’s bothered to ask me any of that in forever.”
MR: Ah yes, so like in physics, there’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal, the idea that light photons or particles alter their representation to us observers once their “intelligence” recognizes that it’s being observed … so, alternates between a singular point or wave as the same entity, which is mind-blowing but a phenomenon actuality.
MRB: Right, so similarly, part of the whole human experience is people trying to find safety. Problem is, you can’t hold ‘flow,’ you can’t put that in a box … but objects you can put in a box, so too often, once you put these (dementia) people in these nursing homes, their flow has to continue but there’s no platform for that expression. In our culture, a lot of people want safety, structure, a place to be, so they agree to settle for allowing themselves to be partially ‘owned’ by exploitative jobs, credit card and lifestyle debt, etc., which is a contemporary form of indentured servitude. If you’re going to really grow and blossom into someone extraordinary, first you sometimes have to experience being a slave to, being externally controlled by something.
MR: So, when these folks withdraw into this form of servitude we’re describing, they’re shut down, but the experience of music offers expansion of consciousness.
MRB: The capacity to put energy into holding pain by people is sadly unnecessary but impressive.
MR: This whim that you and Dan (Cohen, the Social Worker) had to engage with these folks, you could have chosen many different approaches, why music?
MRB: It’s interesting. I was originally hired to make a website for Dan, and I said, well, what he’s doing has to be filmed because it’s so visual. When I filmed the first patient listening to their favorite music and saw them wake up, I literally thought we’d discovered the cure for Alzheimer’s. I just knew that there was no other thing that I could do than to try this once in a lifetime opportunity to expand their consciousness. You see them ‘dead in an expansive desert,’ and then this very inexpensive way to pour this water of life onto these faded flowers, and it’s a phenomenal demonstration of where our foolish minds can take us. I think why people are moved by this movie is that this a metaphor for where we are as a species, that we’ve constructed this desert of the soul and we think that this is our safety, but the truth is, that the result of us moving in this desert is that our souls diminish and become less rather than expand, so as these elders are often described, we become ‘living dead people’ … that is, we’re seeking safety in ways that make us living dead people. We often feel like there’s no other choice, but then when we see the ancient wisdom that’s within us with music, it’s one of our first technologies or languages. Today’s music is homogenized, and auto-tuned, in a well-tempered scale, we lose all the overtones, we’ve created these machine-like songs and lose some of our deeper music which is contained in music.
MR: So, these patients are U.S. North Americans, so what, if anything, is unique to how specifically U.S. music – the Robert Johnson’s, King Oliver’s, Cab Callaway, Delta blues and jazz – that’s so American, emotionally connects with and stirs them?
MRB: Frankly, a lot of that music is sourced from the wisdom of slaves … it’s both a crying of the soul and inspirational in that it’s instructional. Why is it that that’s partly what America spread to the whole world? Anytime primitive magic comes up against delayed gratification, it’s just easier to settle for the immediate gratification primitive magic than to challenge oneself to the maturity of a more seasoned delayed gratification. I mean, think about it, which are some of the most racist companies in the world, are energy companies, which have as their valuation or profitability, is based on their access to reserves inside the earth. Their job is to get those reserves out of the earth, and the problem is that those reserves are apparently five times more than the power necessary to destroy the planet. So we have some of the most powerful entities on earth intent on bringing those resources which will destroy the planet out from within it.
MR: Yep, so ironically, the most powerful energy source known to us is 147 million something kilometers away, our sun …
MRB: … yes, and it’s the source of all energy contained in the planet. So, right now, we have energy companies fighting for the right to drill in these newly-exposed Arctic and Antarctic regions, which are only exposed because of these increasingly suicidal actions fueled by our fossil fuel addictions. It seems, this destructive ‘boxing in’ lunacy is currently unstoppable because these energy companies are literally the most financially powerful entities on the planet, who seem determined to create our inevitable destruction unless something drastically changes. It’s just taking the concept of ownership to its most extreme expression. Again, slavery is extreme ownership … you can say this animal is mine or this part of the earth is mine, and if you can own an animal or oil field, you could also lose your perspective bearings and also own a person. Then, by extension of social pressure, these mindsets can cave to ending people ownership, but then just transfer that way of being into wage slavery, underpaying the value of people’s labor, and now, technology advances are amazing, actually a wild card. In the not-too-distant future, we’re going to be in the zero-work economy … no one will work, everyone will be some kind of expressionist or artist and robots will do all the manual work. The industrial revolution of the 1800’s began the process that took all our ways of working and surviving. 85% of human effort was to provide food, clothing, and shelter, so what’s going to happen in under 100 years when it takes less than 5% of our effort? Technology gives us the tools to make heaven on earth, if you will. The upheaval suffering during this transition – already happening with collective expressions like Occupy Wall Street and N. Carolina’s Moral Mondays – is intense. Conversely, there’s a tribe of us who’ve transcended fear of death, so we’re not desperate to survive.”
MR: In your film, most of those dementia patients had withdrawn and shut down so severely it seemed due to paralysis from extreme fear to the point of panic …
MRB: Yeah, like the ‘Mary Lou’ character, life was so intense and intolerable, that it was too much to handle, she couldn’t process or tolerate functioning socially. Where the beauty was for me with her, was the safety, absolute heartbeat of the flow of music in her …
MR: … yes, what struck me so profoundly about Mary Lou was a sort of haunting elegance and sustained dignity in her energy, even as her clearly high-level intelligence kept her aware of just how tweaked and compromised her mind was getting due to her dementia deterioration.
MRB: Yes, elegance in her, that’s absolutely it, and the way I describe it, the way I guess it make sense to me, is that her mind was erased, but the elegance remained in her body … the remembrance of a life of elegance. She hugged me once, and her hug was so pure and profound, not diminished at all, which struck me as so strange because she was so diminished in most of her other capacities, but she wasn’t diminished at all in her capacity to live within the structure, or container of music. Her elegance was what was so fascinating to me, her genuine authenticity. She didn’t have the capacity to lie, pretend, or fake sincerity. You could even see her in moments trying to appear normal, yet she really couldn’t keep it going very long and quickly grew exhausted. What was left was just this incredible sweetness. What’s so beautiful for me about music, is that it can give people a container for emotional expression.
MR: Well, thank you so much, Michael, for so courageously playing with cinematic fire to bring us this exquisite people-connecting gift of a film document.
MRB: You’ve made it a pleasure and I look forward to seeing what you make of it.