I believe I've reached the limit of being able to tolerate this horrible UX known as Blogger. So here's an essay I wrote on Medium that I quite like about the work of the great British painter (not sure why "British" matters), Phil King. Here you go. Thank's for stopping by.
|Seeing seeing seeing: the camera splays our vision before us, allowing us to see — to see anew.|
Nothing, save for the occasional sexual encounter, entails the intimacy of critique.
To critique something is not, as the popular imagination might have it, an obstacle to living or being present. On the contrary, it is precisely to be present to something — to let something else happen, to follow its contours, to see and taste and consider and enjoy its multiple windings, its folds and modes, its scents and sense.
To critique something is to form what Deleuze and Guattari call a nuptial. In critique, you go together with this thing, entwined. While we tend to imagine critics as standoffish, sitting on the sidelines as life happens proffering quips without sullying themselves, critique in in fact a kind of love.
To clarify, critique or criticism is not judgement or negative assessment. Sure, teenagers and lovers will often yell, Stop criticizing me as they storm out of the room. But what they really mean is stop judging me. Critique, however, is not inherently judgmental. It may fundamentally operate at the level of judgement; critiquing this and not that is judgement. But to critique is not to give a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Critique suspends such gestures for being radically local (my taste) and so, finally, banal. Unless I know you intimately, I don't care whether you like something or not. Your critique of something, however, offers the greatest promise there is: to see something anew. To see something in a way that I could not have seen. Critique is the radical act of multiplying the possibilities of a thing. And, when the critic shares this vision, we readers are in turn opened, multiplied. Reading your critique that opens something else — a dish of food, a book, an idea, a person, a film — I in turn open.
As I said, critique is not without judgement. But this judgement is implicit: if you're critiquing something, you're saying that that thing is worth knowing, crawling into, following, knowing, metabolizing, sensing: loving. A critique is judgment just as introducing a close friend or lover to other friends is: we can safely assume that because you're critiquing it, it is worth our time and energy. By choosing to critique something, a critic tells the wold This is a friend of ours.
This isn't always the case, of course. I once wrote a harshly judgmental critique of Pixar's Wall-E as a guest post on Ryland Knight's great film blog. I don't usually like to spend any energy thinking or writing or talking about things I don't like. As critique is so intimate, I only want to critique things that enthuse me, vitalize me, intrigue me. In the case of "Wall-E," I saw it with my young son and, to make the experience more enjoyable for myself, I leaned in and articulated precisely why I loathed it. I made the best of the situation.
Why'd I then spend the time writing my critique and sharing it? Well, because intimacy and engagement are complex experiences. Sometimes we sleep with or have intense flings with people we don't really like. While the wise thing to do is just to shut it down, at times intimacy with things we don't like is edifying, exciting, engaging at some level.
In any and all cases, though, critique is not judgment. Critique is empirical. To be empirical is to be awash in another thing, to take it up and let it take you up and see what happens, what comes, what new possibilities of life emerge.
I feel like there's a common assumption that cameras, while fun to use out and about with friends, are a layer between you and the world. Stop filming and just live is a common sentiment even as photography is ubiquitous. But I've found that the camera in my pocket is a path to the world, a way of engaging that is deeply intimate. When I take a picture, rather than just seeing the world with all my blindness of assumptions and habit, I see my seeing of the world! Right here on my phone!
After all, most of the time, I'm not really seeing the world. I'm moving through it. The things I see are already known, have already been seen and so are not seen at all — some cars, trees, people, clouds, garbage. It's rare for the world to pop from this background of familiarity to present itself as something, as a force to reckon, as a thing that demands I stop and let myself be reoriented.
And yet we've all had that experience of being stopped in our tracks by an exquisite sky, a huge moon, a streaming sunset, a beautiful person, someone out of control on drugs or madness or life itself. We may even tell others about it: You won't believe what I saw today! Or: Did you see that sky as the storm came in? So, yes, we all know that sometimes, something removes itself from the blurry din of the quotidian to announce itself as something that is so resonant that we tell other people that we saw it. Most of the time, we don't talk about the things we've seen because most of the time we go about half blind. That's not a good or bad thing. It's a matter of fact.
In taking out my phone-camera to photograph something splays the everyday event of my seeing before me. And in so doing, renders my very seeing foreign: the camera moves from my seeing from behind my eyes to the front of my eyes. As I photograph, I move my actual seeing around the world, letting it take up that view, that face, that branch from angles and proximity and freshness my eyes simply can't.
In this case, the camera is not a layer between me and the world. It's not an obstacle to living life. On the contrary, the camera removes the film my eyes, allowing me see something with startling intimacy, my lens running its lengths, shifting perspectives, first here then there, as I move about seeking the best way to see the thing. That's what taking pictures asks of us: What is the best way to see? The camera removes seeing from the realm of habit and makes it an event that seeks the best of itself. (Is best the best word? No, in that there is no absolute. I use best here in the colloquial sense.)
Such is critique: it's a mode of photography. When we critique something — a book, film, chair — we take it up, frame it, and repeat it. When we critique something, that something makes an impression on us and we, in turn, make an impression on it.
Which is why we should all be discerning when it comes to doing critique. You don't want to be so intimate with something that drains your energy, your vitality, that doesn't infuse you. Imagine reading the work of a writer you hate and spending years not just reading the work but thinking about it, letting it play across your mind and life, trying to articulate its ways of going, its sense. You'd have to dwell in something that saps you — which is masochistic.
When I taught — at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute — I only taught books, essays, films, music that I enjoyed living with and so wanted my students to enjoy living with. I never put one thing on the syllabus that I didn't think was great and capable of recreating the reader in the very act of critique. I couldn't imagine teaching an essay that I thought was terrible. Eeesh! That'd just be cruel — to me and them.
As I've said, this doesn't mean that I have to like all these texts. I once had a former MFA student ask me to write about his work for a gallery show. He invited me to his studio and said, I know you don't really like my work. But I'd like your take on it. And he was right: I didn't particularly like his work. But I thoroughly enjoyed sitting with it, digesting it, making sense of it, and finally writing my critique of it — a critique absent any thumbs up or down. Someone else might love it, love hanging it on their walls, but not be able or not want to critique it. Critique is love but not all love is critical.
Critique seeks to infuse the world with the new. Despite its reputation, critique is essentially creative. Just as a painter isn't copying the landscape but creating it anew, the critic sees the painting of the landscape anew.
And, if nothing else, critique is generous. Rather than standing back from the world, critics throw themselves into the mix. All critique is, at some point, gonzo.
No doubt, not all love and immersion in something is critique. Sometimes, we just want to be enraptured without organizing that rapture, without contemplating it, without talking about it. That's a beautiful experience — and generous with the thing at hand.
But critique does something else. It lets itself be taken up and then seeks to show both that thing and the world precisely how it is so amazing. Critique, then, not only sees the world anew: it invites the world to do so, as well.
In my lifetime, there is no contest about who has dominated quality television — programs that push the medium, that reinvent what TV can be, shows that have a shelf life beyond the buzz and first viewing: HBO. For me, it started with The Larry Sanders Show which premiered in 1992. Since then, consider the shows it has helped create and bring to the world:
- Oz, Six Feet Under, Carnivale, and Big Love — all of which, even with their flaws, reveled in complexity of story and character and humor
- A series of David Milch series which introduced a level of writing that TV may never see again including the draw dropping visual and literary prowess of Deadwood along with the short-lived but ambitious John from Cincinnati and the Michael Mann co-created, Luck
- The Leftovers, an often overlooked mini-masterpiece of beauty, pathos, and madness (which I wrote about here >)
- The Sopranos — about which it is difficult not to wax on with its baseline complexity, the devastating acting of both James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, the impossible commixture of sentiment and comedy
- All the great David Simon programs from the revolutionary The Wire to Treme, The Deuce, Generation Kill, and others — all of which operate with a basic respect for the intelligence of the audience as Simon refuses exposition, thrusting us into stories mid-stream as characters toss about obscure jargon that is never explained
- Enlightened, the Laura Dern vehicle driven by the devilish intelligence of Mike White, a show that enjoys a voice you can never place, somewhere between satire, melodrama, and sitcom — an HBO signature
- Sex and the City — say what you will, the show remains brilliant in its form and use of conceptual personae
- The over the top brilliance of writing, character, production, and definition of a zeitgeist, Girls
- Curb Your Enthusiasm which, alas, is one of the few things in the public eye that makes me feel less alone in this world — and that ups the ante on the ground altering Seinfeld
- Veep! What is there to say? The velocity, complexity, and depth of its humor is self-evident — and showcases the astounding genius of Julia-Louise Dreyfus in a way that is simply unparalleled.
- Silicon Valley, Tenacious D, Bored to Death, and High Maintenance (more about that in a moment), to name a few of its sparkling comedies, each proffering a rarely seen sophistication in both form and content
I mean c'mon: That is a ridiculous list for one network to produce! And what makes it so striking is a conspicuous through line that shows a method at work: an unabashed, even aggressive, demand for complexity that is based in a respect for its audience and a deep understanding of the multiple and ever moving contours of life and television.
Take two programs that began life elsewhere, High Maintenance and The Leftovers. High Maintenance was a web series of short, punchy episodes that highlighted quirk and a cool set up — a guy delivering pot to funky New Yorkers. Once HBO got their hands on it, they turned it into experimental cinema, as quirk and story took a distinct backseat to affect and visual beauty. They did the same thing with The Leftovers: they started with the source material, a book, that they then blew wide open into sprawling, epic, poetic beauty and madness. As Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers, writes, "It's been an amazing experience working on the show, watching The Leftovers expand beyond the boundaries of the novel. The show's becoming increasingly rich and deep and wild over the years — it's starting to make my book feel like an acorn that's blossomed into a huge and majestic oak tree."
How often does that happen? Isn't it almost always the other way around — filmmakers take novels and reduce their complexity? Not in the hands of HBO during its great run.
Consider the programming of HBO's would-be rival, Showtime. A show like Dexter is high concept, for sure, but in execution the show runners reduce complexity as they flesh the concept out. For the most part, the characters in the show who aren't Dexter are cardboard or just plain old banal. The same goes for Showtime's Weeds — another high concept that, in execution, gets less complex. Compare it to HBO's The Wire in which every single character, regardless of how short their screen time, is an inflection point of note — a rich life.
When I was a blossoming late teen in college, I stumbled on a record label called 4AD. It was my first awareness that among all the artists, there was another force at work: the label. Of course, usually a label has little discernment other than a profit motive. 4AD was clearly of another nature. From a quick review of bands they release, you can see taste at work — from Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil, and Dead Can Dance through to the Pixies, Throwing Muses, and The Breeders to today's Deerhunter, Big Thief, and Purity Ring. When I'd be perusing albums back in the day, if I saw the 4AD logo, I was inclined to give it a shot because I trusted their taste.
HBO has been just such a label for television programs. They no doubt produce some crappy movies and sensationalist documentaries (it was not surprising that, for a bit, they partnered with Vice). But when it came to TV shows, they were consistently great. They invested time and money into creating shows that are astoundingly complex, that demand a lot of the audience, that are not for casual watching. Even a less financially expensive show such as Veep operates with a tone of such subtlety, multivalences, and a baseline complexity. It's never that VP Meyers is incompetent or cruel or stupid or even just ambitious even if, at times, she is all of those things. Where Veep could easily have become slapstick or the banal satire of, say, Prime's Boys, it instead dances and plays as it moves between and among humor, pathos, satire, slapstick, and insight.
And then there was the straight up financial investment. During its first few seasons, an episode of Game of Thrones averaged six million dollars; in the final season, that average was 15 million. And while there are plenty of possible critiques of the show, the fact is Game of Thrones remains not only outrageously beautiful but, as was the HBO imperative, the show is downright labyrinthine in its plot as it presents a wealth of characters rife with complexity.
But all that is gone now. HBO has changed its model, phasing out HBO proper and launching HBO Max in its stead. This is a new business model. The HBO of old was a premier cable add on that had a small rotation of hit movies alongside its ever growing and startling original catalogue. You got HBO to watch The Sopranos or Curb or Game of Thrones. Not anymore. HBO Max is designed to compete with all the other streaming services, leveraging its Warner Brothers catalogue (WB owns HBO) so now rather than just HBO's unique shows, you get a back catalogue of all kinds of things — including the forever addictively vapid Friends.
That could be great — HBO's TV with Warner's movies. But that's not what HBO Max offers. We've witnessed a fundamental shift in business model and hence production. The once great label no longer seeks to create unique programs with long shelf lives that watchers will pay for. Now it's incentivized to create quick and easy programs while buying up popular shows from elsewhere to keep its audience paying that monthly subscription.
Look at what Netflix creates — nicely produced shows with moments of grace, such as Sex Education or The End of the Fucking World, but that are fundamentally driven to distract people from their miserable lives. Those shows are driven by plot: you don't watch for the characters or insight into life but to find out what happens next, an effective yet easy and finally unsavory tactic. Because once you know what happened, its value is gone. It's disposable TV.
Like the other streaming services, HBO Max has launched several original series. They are, to say the least, a disappointment. Take two such shows, Search Party and The Flight Attendant. Neither is terrible. In fact, at times both show glimmers of intelligence and some respect for its audience (especially the early seasons of Search Party as it behaves like a very dark satire and send up of millennials as every character is horrible). But the fact is these shows are throwaways. They are driven by narrative cliffhangers, not by the strength of their characters, acting, writing, production, or intelligence. They seem created for the binge generation as each episode leaves you wanting to know what happens next (or not, I suppose). So rather than spending huge amounts of money to create compelling, sophisticated programs, HBO Max creates disposable programs that people will binge and promptly forget.
This is not just my opinion (although it is also my opinion). I am sure no one at HBO Max believes that The Flight Attendant is great TV that will live on for generations the way The Sopranos, The Wire, or Curb Your Enthusiasm have. I'd say their hearts just aren't in it anymore but it's more than that: they had a heart transplant. And this new heart has one goal: quick, easy, disposable TV that will keep subscribers watching as they scroll Instagram.
As Terrence McKenna argues, television is a powerful drug: "Television is by nature the dominator drug par excellence. Control of content, uniformity of content, repeatability of content make it inevitably a tool of coercion, brainwashing, and manipulation." What McKenna doesn't recognize is what Marshall McLuhan did: an artist operating in a medium has the power to expose and shift the very environment of life, the very terms in which we live. That's what the HBO of old did — created shows that didn't let us go blindly into the abyss. That challenged who we are and what we believe. By refusing to offer reductive exposition, shows like The Sopranos and The Wire incorporate the audience into their very fabric. We, the audience, are a site that holds the complexity.
But this new wave of disposable TV — that may have better production than the sitcoms of old and may enjoy more frank discussions of sex — functions as a drug to calm the masses amid the increasing madness of the day. We all work so much that, come the end of the day, we just want to watch easy TV — and all the better if it compels us to watch the next one, leaving us hanging and wanting more so it feels like we're living — when, in fact, it's a kind of living death. Which is one reason zombies have become such a popular subject: we are becoming-zombie in the very act of watching these programs (and yet AMC's wildly popular zombie vehicle, The Walking Dead, is actually anti-zombie as it proliferates complexity and beauty, waking us up from the dead as we watch; indeed, AMC has been a notable label as it's produced the brilliant Mad Men, the at times sharp Breaking Bad, the smarter Better Call Saul, among others).
I admit that I use TV as just such a drug. I watch mediocre programs that engage me just enough but still let me space out, text my friends, do some online shopping. Deadwood does not let you do that. Nor does The Leftovers or The Wire. Tune out for a bit and you've missed it all — not just because you've missed plot points but because you've missed Ian McShane's impossibly subtle shift in timbre as he utters a seemingly simple please to Trixie that reveals the intricacies of their relationship. In other hands, Ian McShane's Swearengen would just be evil rather than a distinctive mode of frontier ethicist and world builder. In any case, the HBO of old rarely offered exposition. To watch those shows, you had to be engaged. And, in todays frantic world, we often just want to tune out, not tune in.
And so I find HBO's surrender to the will of disposable TV, and its entire business model, upsetting. The shift in logos says it all. The old logo and slogan promised something different, a rupture and reinvention of the very medium itself. The new one just throws colored glitter in our faces.
|Despite playing the guitar for 35 years, I am not a musician. I'm stymied by too many possibilities. |
A musician — an artist — sees limits within that infinite field.
I've been playing guitar since I was 16. I feel like every guy my age, more or less, plays the guitar. What happened to that? Learning the guitar took time: fingers need to be trained to make those chords. And it hurts having skinny steel string dig into your fingertips! How do the kids spend their time now? I suppose they screw around on Logic creating beats. This is not a judgement; it's just an observation.
Anyway, for the most part, I am a terrible guitar player. I can play chords and some scales and, every now and again, I'm inspired to craft a little something. But it doesn't flow out of me the way it does, say, Paul McCartney or Rob Crow — folks who write song and after song as if they had no choice. It doesn't flow out of me like it does for my friend Brian who crafts and lusciously produces ditties across a breadth of styles in his basement studio — all amidst his work and familial duties, no less. These folks think through the world in terms of music. When they look over the landscape of life, they see music, think music, all the shapes and sounds and speeds and possibilities and, from it all, say: Ah, this.
Me, I don't think in terms of music. When I pick up my guitar, I don't see a way through or of or with the world. I see ghosts, cliché, Jimi and Stephen Stills and Black Francis. Which is to say, I see what's been; I don't see what could be. I don't think the world in terms of music, as these units of vibration, rhythm, and affective resonance. When I listen to music, I relentlessly seek new approaches to life and sound that are interesting. But when I sit down to play, I look in the rear view mirror.
As I pick up my guitar, I rarely have a vision of what I want from the instrument, the kinds of sounds I want to make, the moods I want to conjure. I noodle and hope something will come, a child-maniac in a sandbox hurling sand every which way because it feels great and because that's the only way I know how to interact with this music and its infinite possibilities. I'm not sure how to shape it, work with it, create new worlds with it. All I know is this sand feels really good running through my fingers. So I keep doing it.
If and when a shape does actually emerge from this play — a lick, a riff, a sonic shape that has mood, texture, and form — I am hard pressed to repeat it. It comes — and then goes even more readily. I have trouble corralling it into a thing, a form of life, of meaning, a discrete unit of affect and vibration. I have trouble finding its internal mechanics, the thing that drives it, animates it, its immanent logic. And so it dissipates, so many grains of sand through my fingers. I can't play it again to give it form: to birth it.
All forms — human bodies, animal bodies, gnats, rocks, gadgets, rivers, molecules and medicines, ideas, sentences, anything that coheres into something, whether visible or invisible — all forms are animated by the miraculous operation of repetition. (Repetition is not a force but is usually a conjunction of myriad forces — gravity, momentum, desire.) That is precisely what a form is (or rather how a form becomes): it's these limits again and again. If you don't repeat its limits, it no longer exists as it; it's now something else. Repetition animates and propels a form to maintain itself as a form and not, say, dissipate into a glorious cosmic fireworks like Oogway upon death. Repetition is the operation that transforms a willy-nilly assemblage into this.
There are all kinds of repetition. Memory, for instance, is the repetition of forms in what seems to be a different form but is nonetheless constitutive of that form (which lets us know that a form has all kinds of modes and limits; when you repeat as my memory, you are a gossamer image; indeed, all forms are images of some sort — Henri Bergson says matter = image — so your repetition as my memory is a mode of the image that is you. The reproduction of images is not a recent invention but is the very stuff of existence). A thing may not exist materially anymore but it persists in the repetition of itself in and with other bodies — recollections, photographs, scars, erosion. In the act of living, we become agents of repetition of other forms. Sometimes, a repetition introduces such a radical mutation that it becomes a new form — from fish to mammal. This is the great game of telephone, the play of memetics, that is life and its relentless becoming. Isn't this the basis of Darwin's evolution, after all — a repetition of forms with difference?
(A word or ten on memory as repetition....Memory is a form of possible new limits being introduced into our ways of going. An asteroid hits a mountain and now that mountain is mountain with crater (as asteroid repeats as crater). If the asteroid were bigger, it might decimate that mountain, transforming it from mountain to crater, making it mountain no more as its limits no longer exist. We are all mountains with craters. And sometimes, after the asteroid hits, we're just crater — or something else entirely.)
As is the way of repetition, evolution is the perpetual introduction of difference of the form — humans get a thumb, a big brain, incorporate the virus of language. The repetition of a form is the introduction of difference (which, as our asteroid taught us, may eradicate the form). Every time Bob Dylan performs "Isis," it's different. If it were the same every time, it wouldn't be repetition: it would be a copy. He could just play the album. As repetition is an operation of bodies in the word, and as body in the world is in flux, repetition is an act of form maintaining its form as it changes. All forms inevitably take on new tics, new materials, new modes — mountains erode, people age. Think of a yourself: you are you over time, sure, but this you is always different. If the difference is so great as to erase your existing limits, you are either dead or born again as a new form.
I suppose a form could be bound by something external such as a soul or Platonic Form, a non-material force that animates this mortal coil but is not of it. In this case, a form is not bound by repetition but by a metaphysic — that is, the thing that makes me me and not, say, an assortment of limbs, veins, and personality tics is my soul. And this soul is not of this world but is divine, external to the particular form of me. One clear advantage of this is that it means that the thing that binds this all together doesn't die when I die — so this form that is me could exist again.
But such an architecture of limits creates a split personality. or even schizophrenia, in which I am bound by something that may very well have motives at odds with my experiences, my pleasures, my desires, my very body. Isn't this the cruelty we portray in our movies as the Church or Family forbids, say, a homosexual romance leaving our horny hero in a state of self loathing? After all, who knows the will of this soul (if it's not of me)? Priests? The government? By saying I am bound by a soul external to me, we invite some uncomfortable politics.
In any case, to repeat something is to say Yes to this and this and No to all that. Repetition is the movement of a form, an act of discernment and selection, as it moves through the world. If I eat granola every morning for breakfast, I am saying Yes to granola and No to croissants, eggs, toast, not to mention fillet mignon, chocolate mousse, dumplings, burritos, and fasting. So it is with art: a musician plays these notes and not those; a painter affirms these shapes and not those; a writer affirms these words, tone, and rhythm and not those. Creation is the affirmation of limits. A heralding of this — and the love to repeat it.
When musicians find something they want to play again, what is that other than radical affirmation, a Yes saying to a form, a declaration of love? This! I like it so much I'm going to play it again! A musician summons a form into the world — a moving form, of course, but that's redundant as everything is always already moving — and, in playing it again, affirms and creates it. Here. This. Hear this.
What is that other than love? Ok, sometimes is compulsion, a weird tic or hiccup. When I pick up my guitar, I inevitably play one of a very small set of licks. It doesn't feel like love as much as it feels like, well, a hiccup — an involuntary repetition that devolves into a copy.
So while not all repetition is love, all love is repetition. Repetition is the heart of love: It says Yes to this...over and over, as time moves and things change...yes...yes to infinity (or until exhaustion, distaste, or a change in circumstance). In the second volume of Either/Or, the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkeegard, assumes the voice of a married judge writing a letter to a young aesthete who beds a series of women. The demand of marriage, this judge argues, is to find the erotic in one's spouse every day — to find it again, anew, each day — rather than finding the new in a different person every day. For Kierkegaard's judge, love — or at least an erotic marriage — lives and dies in the act of repetition. Love is the affirmation of this person, these limits, this way of going.
Love, like repetition, is not general. It is particular: I love this — this person, this tequila, this film. When a musician repeats a line, creates a melody, forges a structured "piece of music," they are not saying Yes to all music, all sound, all melodies, all notes, all harmonies. In repeating this form, they are saying No to most of the world — not as Nay sayers per se but as someone who only has eyes for this.
When I try to write a song, I am immediately and continuously overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of possibilities. Have you ever used a program like GarageBand or Logic? You can choose one of their thousands of beats, use their tools to create your own, or upload an existing beat from elsewhere. How in the world am I suppose to choose? Do I just go with a simple rock 4/4 (which is never a simple decision as there are many simple rock 4/4 beats)? Or do I want something more trip hoppy? Or punk? Or disco? Laid back and super chill? A waltz? A march? Do I speed up the time or slow it down? And that's just for selecting a beat! I haven't even got to writing the damn song with its infinite sprawl of possibility.
When I sit down in front of the blank page of a GarageBand file, I am stymied. I don't see possibilities; I don't see shapes or ideas. I just see choices, too many choices, infinite choices. I may goof around and stumble on a shape I like and will stick with it because, well, what else am I gonna do? And it's fun to stumble on a form and then try to repeat it, to stick to its internal logic, its limits, what it can become, how it goes in the world.
When a musician sits down in front of the same screen, they see forms. Rather than infinite possibilities, they see these possibilities, not the sublimity of all possibilities. No doubt, most musicians most of the time don't know the exact form of the song-to-be. They, too, have to negotiate a morass of possible shapes, moods, and ideas — and these may very well change. "Sympathy for the Devil" started as a folk song. But musicians don't see the possibilities as sublime, as too much: they see what they need to see, even when unsure, even when grasping. Where I consider my musical instruments and see unbound possibilities devoid of discretion, they see limits everywhere — grooves and such. I see every possible way of going. They see different ways of going.
No doubt, many aspiring musicians only see a small set of old ways of going. They can copy a lick, copy a song, but they can't repeat it. To copy is to see the traits and try to replicate them — bend the note here just like Jimi did, pull back like Jimi did. To repeat is to be of the form itself. To dwell, to live through, its internal mechanics. It's not to play act but to become that form. As my basement studio musician friend, Brian, argues Jimi Hendrix doesn't even play an instrument per se. He is the instrument; he becomes guitar or, rather, with a guitar Hendrix becomes pure expression, an unmediated event. To copy is to play an instrument, to play a song. To repeat is to birth a form, to animate the emergence of life itself.
I believe many people experience this sublimity when they sit down to write. The blank page stops them in their tracks in its infinite possibilities. How in the world to begin? That white blank page creates a kind of snow blindness — all the different ways to begin, all the ways to construct a sentence, all the voices and tones one can take at once. How to choose which is right or best? Many, faced with such a daunting choice, revert to cliché. I taught critical writing at UC Berkeley for a decade and it was conspicuous: students would try to sound erudite, copying a mode of expression rather than repeating it. ("Man has long pondered the question of truth" was a common opening line for papers on Nietzsche.)
I've been writing concertedly for a long time now; 35 years which, oddly enough, is the same amount of time I've been playing guitar. Except when I sit down in front of a blank word processing doc, I don't see infinite possibilities. I see many possibilities, many ways in, many ways through but, no matter what, I see ways. I see forms, trajectories. I see limits.
Of course, once into the piece of writing, these limits may very well change — open, close, morph, shift direction. But I never find myself blinded by the abundance of it all. I am always choosing from among forms and modes of combination. Like the musician working in GarageBand, I see different ways of going that may change but are rarely washed out by the quantitative abundance of options.
An artist, then, is not one who sees infinite possibilities. On the contrary, an artist sees limits. But despite the familiar way we think of limits, these limits are not constraining. Rather, these limits are the very creation of the world, of a new form, a new way of going, a creation born of love.
In this sense, an artist does see infinite possibility — but the infinite possibility of new forms to exist in general. When artists see the world, they don't assume they're stuck with what is; they assume new forms are always possible. That is precisely what an artist is: a creator of novel forms. But just as they see infinite possibility of new forms in general, they see limits as they create these new forms. Amid the abundant fertility of the world, they see limits everywhere — all these ways of going, all these new forms that can grow, mutate, flourish.
When I taught critical writing to undergrads, I never gave them a blank page and told them to write. That would be absurd. To paraphrase the German philosopher Husserl's claim about consciousness, writing is always writing of something. Even when we did free writing — five minutes without picking their pens up from the page — I provided a prompt, a leaping off point, something to reckon, even if they demolished that prompt. All creation comes from limits. Indeed, to create is to limit. Just as nothing comes from nothing, nothing comes from everything. Something comes from this.
Artists create and, in repetition, affirm limits. They repeat logics and operations that forge and extend these limits, these forms of life. And what is that other than love — a wild unabashed scream of Yes! This! Again!
|Watch the film here > https://vimeo.com/358238055|
One of my favorite sequences in "I Wish You Would," Ryland Walker Knight's short(ish) new and deeply affective film, finds the camera following the lead character, Stanley, as he walks down an Oakland street drinking a case of Pabst. The camera moves with him as if it's there with him — as if, perhaps, we're there with him.
In this sequence, the camera carries on, keeping its pace, making no effort whatsoever to find our leading man. He may be the focus of the film but the camera has a will and way of its own. Soon, Stanley renters the frame and, once again, the camera is tracking with him. At first, I wrote "tracking him" but that's not quite right: he and the camera have their respective paces which mostly coincide — the camera is tracking with him.
And even when the camera is with Stanley, it sees as it sees, light saturating the image, as if the camera is as interested in the sun as it is in Stanley. Such is Stanley: he is alienated from his friends, from what seems to be his girlfriend, from his home (he's been locked out), from himself, and even seemingly from the camera telling his tale.
But this camera that can't quite keep him its sights, that blends him with the sun, may very well be the very thing that sees him best and binds him to the world — perhaps not the social world but to the world in the ultimate sense: to the universe, the cosmos.
When the film opens, the screen is black as we hear what sounds like someone trying to get comfortable in their seat and not succeeding. The first voice we hear reinforces this initial impression: "To begin," says a woman's voice, "just get comfortable." But that is the one thing Stanley can't seem to do — not here, for sure, and not throughout the series of encounters that define the film.
"I want you to close your eyes," she continues and, with that, the black screen goes light and we see Stanley, in and out of blur, negotiating trees and we can't tell: Is he hunter or hunted? In any case, he's not settled. This is not him at home in nature. The screen then turns a reddish orange as if we're looking at the cellular structure of life itself before the camera pans back to reveal it's a flower's pistil — this seething, surging virility of life and a far cry from Stanley at the moment. But the camera is shaky. Like Stanley, we're unsure and yet can see the beauty of life, if only we could hold it in our gaze.
Stanley, we'll learn, is never at home. After being released from an institution, presumably for a psychiatric episode, he returns to his apartment to find he's been locked out, a note attached to his padlocked door reads, "I know you're sick, but you violated our agreement."
Of course he has. Stanley has no real connection to the social world, to friends and family, to the order of things. When he is being released from the clinic, he's handed his phone and immediately tries to make connection and, as he listens to a voicemail from a woman who sounds concerned but distant, the nurse asks, "You got someone coming to pick you up, hun?" That is the question for Stanley that the film at once asks and answers with a decided No, at least not in any any way that matters.
We learn that something happened, some kind of break, that ended with Stanley being arrested and institutionalized. In what may be flashbacks or memories, we see him running frantically towards water — the Bay or lake — where he strips to his underwear and looks about madly, lost. This is not a maniacal episode in which he's too certain of himself. This is a break, a loss of identity, of that scaffold that lets us carry on with our lives.
His return to the social upon his release doesn't fare well. The man who does indeed pick him up — a former teacher? an uncle? — is concerned but detached. "Do nothing," he tells Stanley before driving off. After Stanley enters his apartment to find his room padlocked, he goes to a café where what seems to be his girlfriend works. She, too, is concerned — but annoyed above all. Their connection is tenuous at best. Utterly at a lost amid the social, Stanley lunges over the counter for a kiss. She is horrified. "Oh god, Stan....no...Jesus...no. What was that?" "I don't know," he replies.
His lack of social connection is devastating. All Stanley wants is connection. To feel at home. But everywhere he turns, he's met with the ornaments of care, with frustration, with cliché. He can't get what he wants. And he doesn't seem capable of asking for it. The title resounds in this absence: I wish you would love me, kiss me, hold me, care for me.
Walking from a cemetery after drinking his Pabst, he finally has an encounter that feels real: he's mugged at gun point. After the mugger takes his phone — Stanley's last vestige of connection — the mugger demands Stanley's wallet. Which, alas, he doesn't have. This provokes the mugger and, in turn, Stanley grabs the gun and puts it to his forehead, muttering with intensity, "I wish you would." That is all he can ask for: death.
After having his phone stolen, he proceeds to Oakland's great Grand Lake Cinema. His friend, the manager, greets him — but, once again, Stanley meets nothing but condescension, the facade of care. "You been drinking?" his supposed friend asks smelling the beer on Stanley, nothing but judgement in his voice. Stanley tells him he's been robbed. Call the police, his friend tells him. Why? wonders Stanley. His friend responds as if Stanley's an idiot, "To catch the person who robbed you. That's what cops do. They catch people who commit crimes."
This long exchange with the theater manager is a difficult scene to watch. The gap between these two friends is infinite and they both know it. But what makes it worse is the manager plays friend to a t — except he won't let Stanley stay with him. He offers platitudes instead. "You can't drink," he tells Stanley. "Has she [your therapist] said anything about taking it one day at a time?" To which Stanley replies, "They all do." Cliché is not care. Cliché, as Stanley knows too well, is a living death.
But the manager does unwittingly provide Stanley the help he need: he lets him into an auditorium to watch a film. We don't learn which one because it doesn't matter. What matters is cinema which is premised on being alone in the dark in order to be fully sated.
This is Stanley's salvation. The camera stays on him as he watches the unnamed film and, for the first and only time, we see him relax, smile, breathe. It made me think of "Hannah and Her Sisters" when Woody Allen, after his botched suicide attempt, wanders the streets of New York until he finds himself in a movie theater watching the Marx Brothers and, watching the absurdity on screen, finds peace.
But, for Stanley, it's not what's on screen that matters: it's the screen itself. It's cinema itself. It's cinema seeing; it's kino-eye. A camera is beautifully, refreshingly stupid. It offers a seeing and act of being seen that is infinitely generous, free of any judgement or even the possibility of judgement. Where Stanley's friends see and judge in the same gesture, the camera only sees — and lets you see in your solitude. In fact, it's a very condition of cinema: solitude and darkness.
Through the film, we see Stanley meditate. These meditations are not the stillness we associate with meditation. For Stanley, meditation is a movie. But not a narrative movie; not a story. His meditations are films of the kino-eye — no judgement, no categorization, just a wash of affect, ambience, even if there's dread involved now and again. For Stanley, salvation is not through other people. It's through cinema; it's through a seeing that is free of what Nietzsche would call the all too human. This is salvation through kino-eye, through cinema-seeing.
"I Wish You Would" is a beautiful, moving film of alienation made by a noted film writer turned filmmaker. It made me think of Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" — Barry happens to be a producer of "I Wish You Would" — and its portrayal of vulnerability. And this film, if nothing else, is a portrait of vulnerability. But whereas the character in "Moonlight" is saved by the touch of another man, Stanley is saved by cinema — by a camera that doesn't mind if he drifts out of frame, a camera that's always on and welcomes him back just as he is, drunk and lost or not.
And such, precisely, is this film: it's a performative salvation. Here, and perhaps here alone, Stanley is loved by a camera that, even if he drifts out of frame, will welcome him back, no questions asked. And even bathe him in sunlight.
Behold This Non-Fungible Vagina (NFV), or The Multiple Event of Emergent Particularity in the Digital Age
Check out this nutty essay on this NFT/NFV that I wrote on Medium
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