007 Waiting for the Stranger

On aesthetics and encounters

About twenty-five years ago I first started to think of myself as being more interested in movies than most people around me. A quarter century of cinephilia, or something like it! I’ve thought a bit about this milestone over the past year, though I haven’t done anything special to commemorate it. Probably it only means that I’ve been for twenty-five years an informed initiate, occupying a particular model of paying attention to screens. I have learned some facts, and I’ve seen more “stuff” than the average person, and even seen more stuff than the average cinephile. But it’s not that important.

Watching all these movies, from adolescence onward, I wanted to experience things onscreen I hadn’t seen or heard before. It wasn’t novelty alone, or novelty per se, I was after, though. The shock of watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End for the first time, being so puzzled and stimulated that I had to watch it a second time almost immediately: this represented a kind of unfolding of self that took place by means of aesthetic experience. I was looking for encounters with things that would leave me a different person afterwards. It was OK if I got a little of this quality, or a lot of it, at one time.

Presently, one is likely to hear appreciation of aesthetic objects couched in terms of the consumer “being seen” or “feeling seen,” a complex dynamic which touches on a lot of issues. But at least as important, however less discussed in Current Discourse, is the effort of truly seeing the Other—of, simply, seeing. This other person or other thing can be distant or close, and yet remains hidden from full view. An aesthetic experience, if it’s working right, involves some measure of taking a person “out” of themselves, or at least out of their usual frame. This I believe.

In effect, for me, the structure of art is a lot like waiting for a stranger to arrive. Then, one lives for some time with that stranger.

With movies, or other arts, it’s depressing when tastemakers and gatekeepers simply reinscribe market forces. By this I mean people whose tastes, whose favorites and obsessions, seem primarily reflective of whatever films are getting nice Blu-Ray releases, or 4K restorations, or traveling retrospectives, or screenings at major festivals. It all seems so obviously rooted in economic circulation, and of course that is our reality to an extent. But it doesn’t have to be this way. One’s experiences don’t have to conform to this.

(Look at year in review pieces and lists for various arts. Why do they always start coming out by the end of November? Why do most of them look so similar to one another? We know why.)

There are valid forms of knowledge; there are valid claims that might hold the title, “expertise.” Yet expertise, like good taste, is often a cosmetic gesture and it can act like a shield against the very stuff it claims as its material. Years ago, I saw some online cinephile’s list of the best 20 or 50 “foreign” films—something like that—and literally every title on it was to be found in the Criterion Collection. In some environments, this person was probably seen as a kind of expert film enthusiast. For me, this points to a lack of curiosity and searching, an obedience to what is released and appears to be “relevant.” There are some things we cannot change through individual agency, and some things we can.

The word, release, is related etymologically to the word relax, coming from the Latin relaxare. Relevance, meanwhile, stems from the Latin relevare, related to relief, to something being helpful and which one can depend upon. We want to not to have to work, but instead to be served. It’s completely understandable why we might ease ourselves into this, and accept it. Life tires us. To depend only upon what is released and relevant translates, I think, to a regrettable missed opportunity to actualize important parts of the self. We are passive; we order off a menu we know.

To be surprised, to feel strange, to journey, to live in a moment of risk or surplus: this is what I’m looking for. To search and to be unruled.

For this reason, when I’m talking with other people who are interested in movies, or “culture” (whatever that can mean), I am more interested in those perspectives that ignore received wisdom of releases and relevancy and embrace their own line. I have talked to plenty of nice, smart people who watch mainly new prestige TV, or Criterion selections, or whatever Twitter is talking about; who read mainly New York Times bestsellers; but I rarely feel like there is space in those interactions for the encounters I crave—the encounters I think are worth having because they are not prefabricated. This has nothing to do with “good” or “bad” taste, or highbrow versus lowbrow, or anything like that. Again, I think it comes down to how our selves and our spaces reflect the ability to await the stranger.

It’s not that one can drop out of the dominant system of culture, or escape it; it’s that one can achieve an adequate degree of independence from the attention economy. This is a matter of practical application in a necessarily impure, compromised environment.

I’m illustrating this installment with screengrabs from a pretty good, and certainly winsome movie, Urszula Antoniak’s Dutch-Irish co-production Nothing Personal (2009). Almost nothing about this film makes it “relevant” right now—it’s not even old enough to be a curiosity from the past. It’s a quiet, slightly opaque character piece in which Lotte Verbeek plays a reticent backpacker who encounters Stephen Rea on his little cottage farm. The two develop a relationship for which there is no template and no conventional name. Nothing Personal won prizes at Locarno and received some good reviews. But it’s not a film that is readily discussed, referenced, or listed.

Still, I appreciate this film’s ease with nature, with quiet, with tiredness, with simple satisfactions such as skin contact or eating after feeling very hungry. It encompasses a conversation whose scope is larger than words alone. This is a film that offers modestly to bring you somewhere that you might not have anticipated. In its diegetic aspects as a fiction film, and also in its broader non-place in Discourse, it is the kind of surplus object that invites, but does not demand, our attention.

Les Murray wrote, “Everything except language / knows the meaning of existence.”

So far I’ve focused the newsletter on somewhat loose, abstract commentary about various issues of interest to me, which I’ll continue doing. But in the near future I think I’ll occasionally devote some installments to analysis of a single film or book—maybe a sort of review, or maybe something a little more granular. Just a heads up. And I’ll probably do a year-in-review letter of my own but who knows what it will actually look like?