by Cherie Spaulding
Editor’s Note: Learning Gravity won the Michigan Prize for best film about or shot in Michigan. Lynch is known for such literary works as The Undertaking. More about him at thomaslynch.com.
Walking down Union Street before show time on Friday I wandered into a downtown antique store for a look at all of the recycled life looming in our town. Before long, I stumbled upon the tackle and tool section and found a treasure–an old fly fishing rod and reel. Silvery-blue, even with a matte finish it sparkled. I had been casually considering a fly rod purchase for some time, so it was a bit of a present to find such a stylish one and light–suitable for a beginner itching to liberate her waders from the unemployment line.
Tied in twine the metallic blue rod and I moseyed up the street to catch the film, Learning Gravity. Hearing the remarks that a woman and a fishing rod receive in the matter of a two block stretch was comical. Though lacking originality with the “catching anything?” inquiry, time and again, I appreciated the willingness of those passing by to acknowledge the absurdity even at the price of my own anonymity. Pleasantly pleased to think my fellow movie goers still had a pulse–still observed their surroundings and embraced the scene with a sense of humor. After all, what value does life have without connection?
Learning Gravity is a documentary film that explores the work of Thomas Lynch, an under-taker in Southern Michigan, who happens to also be a poet and essayist. Lynch descends from an under-taking family and shares the business with many of his relatives, much of his immediate family included. The first time I heard a Thomas Lynch poem, he was being interviewed on an N.P.R segment, five or six years ago. Wintertime had settled upon Traverse and I still recall it was a gray and lonely kind of day. In a strange and magnificent way, however, Lynch’s piece spoke to me, awakening a springtime of thought. Death is not exactly an uplifting topic for many, but I was grateful–in the dead of winter–to be considering the possibilities for rich contemplation in in the heart of a heavy storm.
Quiet contemplation is essentially what Lynch does best. Cathal Black directs the piece, and in his efforts he honors the solitary elements of Lynch’s journey–his quest to consider the value of human life beyond the scope of a last breath. Lynch reacquaints his audience with the cultural importance of honoring the dead, how the act and ceremony of funerals is an act of completing the cycle of the human experience. Of course, he acknowledges that our rituals not intended to aid the dead in their process. Instead, the living are served, supported in their journey through their waking lives. By honoring the dead we pay the greatest homage to life imaginable. Again, what value and meaning would our lives have without the guarantee of mortality?
Though I have seen other documentary pieces about Lynch and his family, in Learning Gravity, Black transforms the meaning of Lynch’s work to its visual form–a medium that is multi-sensory. By bringing Lynch’s poetry to life on the big screen, the film captures an audience beyond the typical scope of the work, and for a guitar-less poet, that is impressive. In Learning Gravity, Lynch’s contemplative work finds new life.
Photo Credits: The sun sets in TCXL by Dagmar Cunningham and Q&A for Thomas Lynch’s Learning Gravity by tcfilmfest (Thom Powers, Director Cathal Black and Thomas Lynch at the Q&A after Learning Gravity.)