How things seem to seem is not enough. We must somehow discover how things really seem!
Well, in the first place, what things?
At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, I stand before Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pedernal—From the Ranch #1. “Look up pedernal,” I write, imagining the unknown word an adjective, though it turns out to be a noun, a name. Pedernal Peak is the New Mexican mesa centered in the painting, brushed in the same soft blue as the sky above. O’Keeffe frames the mountain within what I realize, later, is the near-circular opening of an animal’s pelvic bone, the skeletal element pressed into the foreground and Pedernal in the distance. Though I know this is what O’Keeffe is famous for—bones, and flowers, and the flesh viewers imagine those bones and flowers to represent—it isn’t simply bone I think of, looking too long in a quiet gallery of the MIA. The gap through which the mountain rises glows red instead of white, and I write a cave or rounded window, but it strikes me as an eye socket. The shape of it, the color: I feel I could reach out, removing half the painting like a mask.
This itch swells and settles. I stand before the painting as if inside O’Keeffe’s eye, her pupil. English isn’t the only language in which the word for this central aperture also refers to a person; according to my dictionary, the latter definition—a student, a child—gave rise to the former due to “the miniature reflection of oneself seen by looking closely at another’s eye.” The eye a tiny mirror. Our gazes, catching on each other, form a funhouse hall. I imagine O’Keeffe’s brushstrokes as a socket I can stand behind and find, in her painting, an attempt to render subjectivity whole, from the inside out. Everything we see is framed, if we admit the full periphery. Pedernal shows both the mountain seen and the way she sees it: through an opening, full of light. Of course, my own eyes catch on the walls—the bone, the socket—and the mountain recedes; obsessed with how things seem, I neglect the things themselves. Perhaps O’Keeffe’s genius was she didn’t. “It is my private mountain,” the artist said of the place. “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
Which is a great line, any way you cut it. What have I loved as singularly, as diurnally? My obsessions are not so neat, able to be pinpointed on a map. If I write enough about time or perception or this blinkered, fragile body, will I get to have it, any of it? Will I get to keep it?
I watch Arrival. I watch Melancholia. I watch Palm Springs and Mank and The Forty-Year-Old Version. I watch movies new and not-so-new and occasionally old, those mostly comedies: The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, Kate Hepburn’s accent rattling in my head for a few weeks. Hello, Geooorge. I haven’t been to a movie theater in more than a year (the pandemic), and perhaps this explains my amateur’s determination to turn my couch into an approximation of that space, simultaneously grubby and lush, seedy and sumptuous. My fingers grow buttery from microwaved popcorn and leave prints all over my wineglass. I watch regularly, searchingly, as if somewhere in this sheer accumulation of movies I might find the movies: that prickling sense of possibility rising in my chest as the houselights go down. “Not the artwork itself—even when the artwork is great,” Ben Lerner writes in The Hatred of Poetry, “but the little clearing the theater makes.”
I make my own clearing, my own theater: I lift the dusty DVD player from under a mass of cords, balance it on a stack of books next to the television, and plug it in. The machine is so old (or I so ignorant of its workings) that when I pause Beau Travail to refill my wineglass and dispose of the unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bowl, the screen doesn’t tell me how much running time has elapsed, nor how much remains. The film might go on forever. I might be fine with that. The sense of some vital beginning lingers—a sharpening in my nostrils, a warmth in my ears—even as the ending might arrive at any moment, as rich in its own way as the start: the (imagined) houselights rising, the credits rolling, and I left changed or anguished or confirmed in their lengthening wake. I stay ready. I blink sparingly.
Between these moments of promise and fulfillment, I watch the legionnaires perform their drills like dances under the relentless East African sun. I watch them train for a war or battle or mission that never arrives: they race up and over hurdles, their legs cast out to the side like flags in a strong wind. They scuttle beneath a structure of barbed wire in what we call an army crawl, though they fairly fly; the camera shakes in the face of such terrifying speed, and I tense in fear of a tear in the skin that doesn’t come. Guns drawn, they infiltrate the open floors of an unfinished building. They storm an empty beach. They swim in a turquoise underworld, flippers on their feet and knives in their hands, and I hold my breath, just a little, as if I too were underwater. As if I too were drenched in a beauty that might, at any second, disappear.
“I screwed up from a certain point of view,” says a character, through the ordinary glory of subtitles. “Viewpoints count,” he says. “Angles of attack.”
Checking my vision at my last appointment, the eye doctor told me that the tears we cry when upset and the tears produced to blink away dust are different. In fact, there are three categories of human tears: basal (to keep the eye lubricated), reflex (to cleanse it of irritants), and emotional. Each kind of tear is distinct, not merely in its purpose but in the makeup of its chemical composition. Those caused by an excess of feeling contain more of certain hormones that can help reduce pain and stress, and this is why we cry in the first place: to feel better, after feeling otherwise.
Recently, I burst into tears at the saccharine conclusion of a merely decent television show, and my husband comforted me even as he couldn’t help laughing at the disparity between the severity of the cause (minimal) and the extremity of the effect (it took me at least five minutes, maybe ten, to calm down). I laughed too, between disbelieving tears. I would not, if pressed, have said that I felt sad, exactly, but merely overwhelmed with feeling, plain and causeless, a clear varnish with no color to it. When the tears finally stopped, I felt a raw comfort like that of the exhaustion earned by strenuous exercise or a hard day’s work, though I’d done nothing but watch.
Tears bought in a bottle from a pharmacy’s shelves are not so therapeutic, though fake tears have a long, workmanlike history. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder recommends verdigris as an “eye-salve,” for “its caustic property induces watering of the eyes.” Pliny classes this as a medicinal use, but I wonder if the actors of ancient Rome ever ducked behind some scenery for a furtive swipe when they couldn’t squeeze the real stuff from their eyes. Deadly nightshade was once used as a cosmetic, hence its common name of belladonna—beautiful woman. When applied to the eye, belladonna stops the pupil from contracting in proportional response to the light around it. The pupil grows light-drunk, love-struck, enormous—I read that opera singers used to apply belladonna drops to make their eyes shine more fervently under the stage lights.
Makes it hard to see, of course. The pupil, that miniature person, becomes a giant; grasping too hungrily after a dimming light, it lets the sight entire slip away. The tears blurring the singer’s vision are neither wholly natural nor wholly manufactured but an artful mixture: prompted by the belladonna, reflex tears rise to keep the brightness of the stage at bay. The fake makes the real, and the audience weeps happily from the safety of their seats.
I watch Parasite. I watch Tesla. I watch Nomadland and cry when Frances McDormand does, a single slow tear down her taut face. (I’m an easy cry, I should probably say.) I trust it’s real: no verdigris, no belladonna, no eye drops of any kind, no—the tear gleaming on McDormand’s cheek could stand up to chemical testing, I’m sure. Pure emotion, like my own. I wonder what it’s like for actors to drive themselves to tears, take after take, to draw up sorrow like water from a well. Their minds imagine or remember or incite, and their bodies react accordingly, soothing this invented distress with secretions of hormones and salt.
I wonder what this might be like for just a minute before realizing: Don’t I know? Haven’t I done precisely that? The movie has its reasons for heartache, but I’ve overlaid them with my own, unfilmed. (McDormand’s character has lost her husband, and I have recently gained one. I’m away from him when I watch Nomadland, the laptop propped next to me on a double bed in a rented house.) We act, just a little, any time we imagine how it would feel, how we would feel, anytime we say in sympathy I can only imagine and then try to or do, offering real tears in response to an unreal event. Or we say I can’t imagine, I can’t even imagine, though I think what we mean is I won’t or I would rather not, thank you. For even unreal events can cause great pain, and what is the point of suffering such a thing? Such a non-thing?
I don’t mean this rhetorically. What could possibly be the point?
The camera pans across the Badlands, across La Posa Plain, showing the American West at its most breathtaking, its most (I want to say) cinematic—but America can’t help being cinematic, movie-drenched as it is. (Tears are innately cinematic, too. I feel most like a character when I cry.) In this lushly cinematic film, however, director Chloé Zhao has chosen to eschew some of that cinema’s conventions. McDormand plays a character named Fern, but most of the cast is populated by nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves. While largely true to life, those versions occasionally veer: a woman in the movie dies, for example, while the woman playing her lives on. I watch her attend the Oscars.
In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag discusses the work of Robert Bresson, who often used nonprofessional actors in his films. “His idea is for the actors not to act out their lines but simply to say them with as little expression as possible,” Sontag writes. “(To get this effect, Bresson rehearses his actors for several months before shooting begins.)”
Several months! It takes a lot of practice not to act.