Music: Sharon Van Etten: Because I Was In Love (2008)
Sometimes it is permissible to sweat the “small stuff,” especially that stuff that registers the insignificant scenic snips in the field that Benjamin termed the “optical unconscious”—the inconspicuous steps of lighting a cigarette—or the speech that says more than what it says. Sweating these things—a metaphor here about not of getting overly worried, but of working-through minor perceptions—takes a certain kind of patience. I’ve been working these last few years to develop this kind of patience, both in critical work and in (inter)personal encounter. I’m noticing both kinds of attention, or attending (because I like the labor implied by the latter term), require a kind of slowing: of pace, of measured reflection, of withholding.
Withholding judgment. I was a teenage policy debater. Learning to undo those habits of judgment has taken some decades. Not that I am discounting debate, or the idea of quick thinking, or the pedagogy of argument. It’s just at this stage of my thinking, of my public scholarship and my personal life, I’m wanting to be more reflective. More speculative. More contemplative.
In my younger years I was the guy who would interrupt you when you were speaking. I was the guy who couldn’t listen because I was thinking too hard about how I would respond. I’m learning to look and listen better. I think, actually, I’m getting better at it.
Buddhism may be in my future. I don’t know, however, if I have that kind of discipline, or if I can extract the ego in a way that is likely required. I don’t want to detach, just think—or reflect—better.
Perhaps age has something to do with it, perhaps the security of a career that seems to be working alright does too. Perhaps a changing body chemistry plays a role (there are changes, in your thirties, a tired cliché but an observation that truly is only reckoned in the body). Maturity is certainly one name for it (whatever that means, exactly).
I’m noticing the small stuff more and more, the work of the eyes of others, their gestures and ticks. The overcompensation of “glitz” and “blitz,” of speed and novelty, seem to mask the slow labors of subtly and the pregnancy of that misplaced period or malapropism. The watery eyes of my dog (which means the mold count is up). The tiny, yellowing leaves of thyme on my patio table that tell me no amount of water can overcome triple-digit temperatures. The cockroach on the lattice jerking about (it doesn’t bother me). A toad croaks. There is a pleasant whatever here, even in the sweltering heat.
I’m no longer as concerned with clean feet when I climb into bed. I never used to go barefoot. Ever. Then I moved to Texas; somehow I became Fred Flintstone. I was Woody Allen in Annie Hall. What happened? Was it the heat?
I went to the US Post Office this morning. I can remember when a visit to this place condemned one to waiting in line for a half-hour. But no one was there today—or rather, only another group of people. The two attendants looked pleased to see someone at the counter. A middle-aged woman who did not speak English was just before me, her preteen daughter translated the transaction from Spanish (they were pursuing a passport). There were two smaller children, about six and eight, around them, clasping about bare, shaved legs. They all wore pastel-colored tank-tops and baby-t’s. And flip-flops. The woman who processed my business was very nice, looked me in the eyes, and wished me a nice day. And I knew from her smile and hand-pat on the counter she meant it. “You too,” I said, and I made sure to smile. I quick connection, but one that wasn’t a mere projection. I sipped my portable coffee mug on the way out. It is a pleasant thing when you can be with others and see them as people, with stories of their own, and lives, and not interact with them as objects. It’s easier to do in a Post Office. It’s much more of a challenge to do that on the highway.
As a teacher, I can tell you this is often the biggest challenge of teaching: seeing your students as people, not objects. You might say the ideological battle in education today is about precisely this. Teachers want to connect to students as human beings, not customers (which is a form of objectification). And this is the ruse of for-profit education: we treat you like human beings, when actually you’re “just a number.” But I digress. And I’m letting digression drive this, so . . . .
Today I screened Fritz Lang’s M in my film theory class, and a student confessed (somewhat sheepishly) he was indifferent. He didn’t understand, he said, why the film was held up as a classic, why it was so influential in the history of film. I explained the juxtaposition of areal shots of policemen meeting and mobsters plotting was a filmic innovation. I explained the murderer’s incessant whistling of “Hall of the Mountain King”—often off screen—was the first known leitmotif in narrative cinema. Small details often convey a lot of information, most of it affectively, I said. (I wanted to talk about the cigar smoke, which floods the film, but I decided that would be a diversion.) Cinema has been mining this language of affect for over a century now, I said. Today Hollywood is more like opera than it was in the Golden Age of cinema. Watching a film from the 1930s takes a different sort of patience; the pace is slow. The dialogue is fast. The cues are often very conspicuous, but sometimes very subtle. M is full of this subtly, I said. David Lynch and other filmmakers continue the tradition, but often in ways that only an expansive knowledge of the history of film can prepare you for (and I don’t have that either, which is why I like to teach film). Good filmmakers seem to sweat the small stuff. Many of us don’t have the patience for it.
I’m getting better.
I’m especially enamored of film sound studies. Attending to film sound takes a special attention. For the final two weeks of my film class, we focus exclusively on this. I think it teaches one a kind of respect for cinematic aesthetics that a focus on the image does not. Chion be praised.
I enjoy the films of Andrei Tarkovsky for these reasons. His films teach me a kind of gentile patience. His soundtracks are sparse and quiet. Shots of grass flowing in creek beds, in both Stalker and Solaris, can appear pretentious and needlessly long. Or, they can say something about “sculpting in time,” as Tarkovsky clearly means to do.
But, you know, an attention to the small stuff for it’s own sake—too much sweating—can go awry: for example, Malik’s Tree of Life. Perhaps that film is a little like this blog at times (certainly this entry). But rest assured, I will not give you 22 paragraphs about evolution that ends in a dinosaur smashing the head of another dinosaur into a creek bed (with flowing grass).
Some dear friends who happen to be talented poets are moving soon. They have taught me, in some ways, to sweat the small stuff. I remember a poetry workshop with Hoa, some years ago, in which she shared a poem she wrote in ten minutes. I don’t think it is published yet, but she was recounting the drudgery of daily life, and one of the lines was about “garlicky fingers.” That image and smell and truth has stuck with me, and the attention she gave it made an impression. We were reading Ted Berrigan for the summer.
Ted Berrigan ultimately killed himself by taking too many diet pills and amphetamines. How could someone so observant of the slow and minute detail, with the unconscious optics of life, how could someone so keen and insightful die so fast? I have trouble reconciling the insight of slow motion with the compulsions and addictions of the body on autopilot and routine.
I notice at the moment Psappho (my cat) is on the patio bench, transfixed on a bug of some sort slowly ambling across the concrete. Jesús, my dog, is settled behind me on a couch cushion I’ve moved to the bench I’m sitting on. I’m smoking a cigar, and I know I shouldn’t be doing that if I want to ensure a long life. But here we are. Patio life. I’m trying to grow into the slow. To sweat the small stuff. It seems to me that’s the right thing to do.
Film, good film, film that plumbs the human condition and makes us think, film that’s not just about turning a buck, but rather about exploiting the medium to contemplate, teaches us something about ourselves. I would not consider myself a film scholar. But every time I teach this class I am reminded of why I am drawn to good filmmaking and thinking about the art-form. It’s not just entertainment. It’s not.