TECHNIQUE, AN EVENT IN THE WORLD

 

 “The true mystery of the world is the visible …”
The Picture of Dorian Gray

I.

Droop-eyed, arms asprawl, Robert Mitchum sinks into cadmium bolsters. His head lists to one shoulder. It’s the posture of contemplation, but also of sunbathing.

II.

“Here’s how I see it,” he deadpans, half-asleep on late-night TV. “Acting’s like burglary — pays pretty good, but don’t get caught doin’ it.”

Was it Mitchum? With slightly adjusted intonation, slightly different wording, it might have been Cary Grant: orthogonal, dapper, inspecting his cuticles. Or Robert Mitchum paraphrasing Cary Grant? Dick Cavett paraphrasing Robert Mitchum paraphrasing Cary Grant?

Spencer Tracy?

It’s one of many Hollywood quips that however true (or plausible in theory) never seem to get quoted without fresh — and completely spurious — attribution. That it’s possible, for example, to sleep your way only as far as the middle seems to have been cracked by at least fifteen different bottle-blondes in their fizzling decades. If we think, er, Sharon Stone? — that’s because we weren’t around when Joan Blondell or Jean Harlow or Veronica Lake took credit first. Or for that matter third or ninth or fourteenth.

As to the gag about acting, whoever did or didn’t say it, the idea — I believe I understand this correctly — is that, by lazy consensus if not serious analysis, we prefer to define artistic technique as its disappearance.1 Can you see it? Then it’s not technique. It’s the opposite. Perhaps worth noting is that the gag itself is acting: it sounds like something scripted — even rehearsed — prior to public utterance, prior to its being passed off as un-rehearsed.

III.

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Escaping Criticism, Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

Traditionally the charm of trompe-l’œil has derived from its slightly disobedient — or teasing — quality of unseriousness. Bordering on the disreputable, it’s an art form that depends on our willingness to be fooled and, more importantly, on our taking pleasure in this as it occurs. If we’re to appreciate such works, they can’t con us completely; only almost. We delight in their pretense of dimensionality because that dimensionality is playful, rather than because it is virtual. This is no less true of, say, Borromini’s forced perspective in the Palazzo Spada than of Kurt Wenner’s amusing chalk drawings, in which chasms seem to open up in city sidewalks. Our response registers as a smile. We smile even at Hans Holbein’s spooky anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors. It may not be the greatest skull in the history of painting but it is the coolest one, disappearing and re-materializing, like a hologram, as our viewing angle shifts. 

Or consider an old bromide about magic: knowing that a trick is a trick — that it isn’t really happening, nor could — is exactly what makes the trick persuasive. Similarly, any assertion that technique exists as a function of its absence, its vanishing, indeed tantalizes in the fluster of the moment. (Madam — yes, you in the fourth row … ) It’s a stunt. We know it’s a stunt. But like all casuistry the conceit both pleases and irks. Slippery as a principle, and at the same time giving the effect of one, it glibly evades our best attempts to understand why — both why it works and why it doesn’t. Suspension of disbelief, we feel, is somehow warranted by our inability to define or interpret that sneakiness — as if our ineptitude were at fault. Then again, Porphyry’s Rational Animal being somewhat less rational than promised, we often accord to mystery a higher status than to evidence.

Is there any reason to complicate this? Surprise is always compelling: by definition we’re never ready for it.

IV.

For all its wily diversion — its entertainment value — Mitchum’s epigram flies in the face of many observations we make about technique every day that are just that: observations. Which, needless to say, means we’re looking at something. But especially that we’re seeing something. Whatever this “something” consists in, or of, it hasn’t disappeared. Of course there’s another problem with casuistry: almost before our astonished guffaws fade off, an equally appealing argument can be summoned to support some diametrical counter-position.

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Farrell and Mr B

In the most obvious sense, we might — we will — praise a dancer like Suzanne Farrell on the basis of artistry that was, notably in her case, very visible. On many occasions choreographer George Balanchine, whose last obsessional Galatea she was, or Stradivarius as he preferred, pretty much copped to this aloud, identifying Farrell’s whopping Fourth — the depth of which was not only paraded before us but could have been measured with a yardstick — as launchpad for her legendary warp-speed, nearly toppling pirouettes. It was also the visible feature of them to which Mr B would have drawn our attention (while offering, doubtless, some typically2 gnomic aside: “Forget pirouette! We want beginnink of pirouette!”). From the first moment she used that skill in performance, critics were all over it: Look how big! If it departed from — some would say debased — traditional Beauchamp positions and Cecchetti method, this was a departure neither denied nor masked. In a way, we credit the technique of dancers like Farrell precisely because we can see it.

V.

Same might be said, too, of athletes, who normally acquire connotations of artistry only in the florid longueurs of play-by-play hacks. In JFK rugs. If it’s fine to rhapsodize about a Pelé, a Serena Williams, a Dick Weber, a Michael Jordan, this is because hyperbolic praise strikes us as proportionate to the competitive dominance of such figures. Like Farrell, Jordan — to draw on that last example — was in his prime a near-caricature of physical exploit. Now that he’s left the game, what do we remember? Not the ball swishing cleanly through the net time after time, the scoring bit. Once those shots had left Jordan’s hand, they looked no different from millions of other field goals, executed by thousands of other, long forgotten players. From point-of-release a basketball — in its arcing trajectory through empty air — is just an object in motion, subject to mechanical laws of inertia, gravity, friction, hysteresis, etc. Instead what sticks with us is whatever had happened immediately before that point, or up to that point. We’re left with an imprint, seared into the prestriate cortex, of a manifest being: shape, motion, precision of anatomy; somewhat resembling and at the same time debunking our own sublunary lumpishness. It’s the technique. 

VI.

And it’s a quality of technique that — not so different from the magic trick, not so different from the trompe-l’œil — proposes a deception that isn’t quite deceiving. They sweat. They grunt. They fall down a lot — a lot — these titans of our thundering arenas. And they sulk, slapping their heads when the little men with whistles, who are actually in control, lurch toward them in clompy black shoes. “Foul!” the crowd roars, here and now. So it’s Planet Earth, sure, but not the one that gets shouldered clear of some fiery comet hurtling in from Proxima Centauri. It’s this one, the worst of all the planets, Lemmy Caution cautioned. The planet of bouncing balls, of metal hoops.

VII.

A more beguiling point of inquiry, it seems to me, is whether technique gets declared up front — that is, acknowledged at a surface-level of expression — or suppressed (either self-consciously or accidentally) in a way that invites our suspicion. Not whether it vanishes. Speaking off the cuff recently, painter and critic Walter Robinson — known to most, or none or few, for his lovely, tetchy putdown zombie formalism — alludes to this distinction, evidently favoring (or at least validating) the non-vanishing alternative.

If you look at paintings in a museum, nine out of ten look like the artist was just magic. But every once in a while you see [one] — Matisse is my favorite example — where it looks like they are having a lot of trouble. A lot of times in a Matisse you can see it’s been worked out. It looks awkward even though it looks fabulous.

Robinson is saying (or may be saying — I trust I’m not putting words in his mouth) that the flaw, the visible struggle, proves intrinsic to the beauty of the finished work. A Matisse evinces, and more specifically retains traces of, the very act of problem-solving from which it resulted. Robinson doesn’t comment on intentionality. Was Matisse himself aware of what he was revealing? Was it deliberate or was it accidental? Surely the answer is yes.

VIII.

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K. Amis, P. Larkin

In the early 60s, Philip Larkin wrote3 to Kingsley Amis complaining of — among many other complaints that adduced mainly to entrenched cheapness — his frustration with a pair of rhyme words in a poem he had been working on. The poem was “An Arundel Tomb,” which concludes The Whitsun Weddings, published in 1964. In the finished version, the faulty rhyme remains:

They would not guess how early in
Their supine, stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage …

It’s the roughness of that voyage/damage combination, which truth be told is no rougher than hundreds of other garden-variety slant, poor, and homophonic rhymes encountered in his work. He seems to have been fine with, say, the long/prolong pairing — called “identicals” in the parlance of the racket — that appears in the previous sestain. It’s almost as if, consciously or unconsciously, Larkin were going on record here, falsely humbling himself in order to misdirect any notion on the part of future commentators that his apparent prosodic clunkiness was — on the contrary — deeply calculated for rhetorical effect. (By the 1950s, when free verse and more intuitive modes of composition started to push strict, formal technique into the shadows, no English-speaking poet who continued to compose in the traditional received meters — look at any Paris Review interview of Merrill or Hill or Auden or Wilbur or Kavanagh or Wright or Snodgrass or Roethke or Muldoon — avoided being cornered on that very topic. Except Larkin, that is, for whom it rarely came up at all.) And while I’m happy to grant him the benefit of “unconsciously,” either way it’s technique of a rather tricked-out kind. Contrived to look like unconcern for the pedantic, this and other seeming errors — along with the canned provincialism — serve his interest in making sure that no one could later fault him for being partial to structural principles over tone and content.

IX.

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The Earl and Countess …

Larkin came to prominence in a backlash against Anglo-modernism — particularly against cryptic polymaths like Pound, Joyce, and Eliot, and to a slighter degree even Auden and Beckett, whom increasingly no one but scholars and academic critics could comprehend. (An “old tin can,” Larkin sneered of Eliot to his friend Bruce Montgomery.4) After abandoning his first calling to fiction — and the particularly wonderful Jill, which scored barely ripple let alone useful income — he struck pay dirt fairly quickly with his poems, gaining a large rank-and-file following, immense for a poet, in part because his voice reminded that public of their own voices, those of a post-Blitz middle-class of shopkeepers and civil servants whose last poet of national consent (and whose slim volumes they might have purchased ceremonially at W.H. Smith for the night table) would have been … who? — one of the Alfs, maybe, Tennyson or Housman. Or one of the Johnnys — Betjeman, Masefield. So he’s cleaving to the old forms, often to the tetrameters of hymnal and jumprope jingle, but letting them creak a bit and wobble. He wants you to know that they’re rickety, barely holding together — like England itself.

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Larkin’ with the females: Jacket photo for “Trouble at Willow Gables.”

Yet if Larkin’s poems seem mincing and characteristically unadorned, fragile almost rather than robust, shouldn’t we remind ourselves that appearances can be deceiving, indeed almost always are? Reluctant milquetoast on the jacket flap, bigoted and smutty (not to say chronically ambitious) in the actual life, Larkin made a performance of his entire existence. Even the final exile to Hull, self-denying and administrative, feels a little stagey — perhaps more so for being barely off the drizzly, gerontic map of his past: reared in dreary Coventry, he then — after three “blacked-out and butterless” wartime years at Oxford — decamped in turn to dreary Wellington, dreary Leicester, and dreary Belfast. (His dig-in at Hull was itself threatened only by a brief flirtation, hastily quashed, with Reading. Not quite dreary enough, presumably.) Harder still to hang with his what-you-see-is-what-you-get when factoring in some early transgressive side-work as Miss Coleman, his Blyton-like YA lesbian doppelgänger. He himself provides plenty of tip-offs. “Here endeth,” one speaker declaims from the pulpit of an empty church, only to undercut that bombast — before the echoes have quite petered out — by worrying, pretending to worry, that he may have said it too loudly. But make no mistake, it’s the timbre, it’s the “hectoring” to which he refers a line or two earlier, that he’s calling into question, not the doomsaying per se.

Bit of a ruse, then, the fumbled rhyme? We’re being distracted. The illusionist has drawn our attention to the opposite hand.5 And the effect of that ruse is its looking like sloppiness, or like a minor form of bad luck. Technique masquerading as its obverse. It gives the impression that the poet finally just gave up trying to fix the problem, because what needed saying — and what he meant to convey as sentiment — took primacy over conventional musical elements, such as might have been privileged by earlier generations of British verse. What we can’t say is that it’s an invisible effect.

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The opposite hand. (Guess what the other one says.)

X.

On a similar basis I once tried, in days of misspent yore, to make a case for John Donne’s having been, spiritually if not chronologically, Larkin’s closest progenitor in English verse. Evidence for this admittedly farfetched argument — no heuristic of the implausible having set in at seventeen or eighteen — would have been extracted from poems like “The Flea,”6 about which my tutor at the time had commented, giving me the idea, “Look, the whole thing seems to have been constructed out of three fucking words: the verb to be, plus a couple of determiners, that and this.” He was being facetious — barely.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is …

It’s a frantic shrillness for which we might fault the poet, had it occurred in his sermons, or in an apostrophic lyric — among the Holy Sonnets, for instance — rather than, as here, in the mode of dramatic monologue. But of course “frantic” is exactly what Donne’s speaker is: getting nowhere and running out of thrashing room. He sounds that way, with all that hammy pseudo-legalistic niggling, because Donne wants him to. It’s a seduction — of someone whose resistance doesn’t look like faltering any time soon — that smacks of pleading. Because “The Flea” must be taken in (by us) as a snapshot of that transitory moment, the guy appears to be — and this is after all the whole point — making it up as he goes. His motile diction is like a riff: desperate, ululant, collapsing behind him. That pose of improvisation, of gangling spontaneity, seems to me part and parcel of what makes Donne so much richer a poet, especially of the carpe diem, than his “metaphysical” buddies.) Donne’s trick is to give an impression of near-panic, but also to leave us, his readers, feeling as if we have arrived a little late to the peephole. We’re catching Donne’s frustrated alter-ego in a shift of strategy. No more mister cuddly! No more sensitive 90s-guy! Not least because, well, it’s 1633.7

Almost categorically, what we’re hearing, reading, can’t seem labored over or polished, and certainly not edited after the fact. Clutching wildly for one barely convincing legitimization after another, he’s starting to sputter. Smooth-talk of the orthodox sort (“Had we but world enough and time …”8) could never have conveyed such urgency, his seeming to bash through his arguments at a pace equal with, or rather slightly ahead of, ours. If as readers we’re given the impression of lagging behind, then readers shouldn’t be confused with audience. (Nor is what we’re doing reading, really, by any commonsense definition of that word. It’s more akin to gasping, gagging. Try saying “The Flea” out loud: spondaic substitutions sit like bricks on the windpipe; mouthfuls of bunched-up fricatives, sibilants, and glottalizations make it difficult to breathe, let alone enunciate.)

For three-hundred years, with the exception of a couple of mini-revivals, Donne’s so-called “persona poems” were dismissed or regarded as mere novelty for their crabbed, hyperbatonic, half-garbled syntax. Lest we forget, our beloved Johnsonian coinage metaphysical, now universal taxonomy for the style, was meant as a blistering critique. “[S]uch verses,” Johnson claimed, recoiling in Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), “… stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.” Eventually clearer minds prevailed, when particularly Eliot in the 1920s — and then, a little later, Helen Gardner, Leavis, Kermode, et al — started to send out rescue squads. Maybe, they seemed to suggest, he was doing it on purpose: manipulating technique to create a new effect.9

XI.

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The Blair Witch Project, 1999

Donne’s innovation — along with its thankfully temporary repudiation — reminds us of other, similar innovations that, initially, have fooled us a little too well. By “us” I don’t mean you and me but parochial critics. And amateur pundits. And cockroaches. Hard to believe now, getting on twenty years hence, but the contrived “found footage” of The Blair Witch Project (1999) prompted raging discussions on the internet — the net, as it was dashingly known back then, in pre-troll e-Paradise — over its authenticity. For some (including me, I’m ashamed to admit, shuddering in the dark one rainy evening of our recent fin-de-siecle) its technique managed — not perfectly, not forever — to evade detection. At the time of its release, it had an impact on audiences not unlike that of the Lumières’ locomotive in L’Arrivée d’un Train: something approaching hysteria. In both cases, more than a few people believed what they were seeing was real. By legend, urban legend if not verifiable fact, the older film — older by more than a hundred years — caused theater-goers to bolt terrified from the theater.

The Blair Witch Project was hardly the first production to be shot with a controlling compositional premise of retrieved artifact. One obvious antecedent, and its most infamous, would be Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Frankly, it beggars belief that Deodato’s retrieved raw footage — or faux-retrieved, faux-raw — could really have fooled anyone,due to its being imbedded within a patently staged and woodenly acted narrational device: media execs from Pan American Broadcasting System, wearing suits that might have been bummed off the cast of Mannix, fret about distributing their ill-gotten documentary. (By the same token, few works of High Lit’s complementary sub-genre, rediscovered fictional texts, have fooled their readers either — not least because in almost every instance a known author’s legal name had appeared prominently on the cover. Nabokov’s poioumenon Pale Fire comes to mind. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” And Candide, at first jokingly passed off as a translation from the German of one Docteur Ralph, and in whose pockets — following his death — additional sections were supposed to have been found, was never seriously disputed to be Voltaire’s, despite the satirist’s fairly theatrical protests to the contrary. Even the bogus “fragments” of Either-Or, officially published under the name of their purported discoverer Victor Eremita, got pegged almost at once as the work of Kierkegaard, who — true to form — couldn’t resist a smirky giveaway: the pseudonym means “victorious hermit.”) Personally, I wouldn’t be inclined to rate Cannibal Holocaust innovative in any case. At most it presents a distinct refinement — if “refinement” is the right word for its accurate mise-en-scène of dismemberment and anthropophagy — within an ongoing craze of the period, the Italian cannibal genre from which it directly emerged (as well as, by extension, the cult Mondo “shockumentaries” of the late 1950s and early 60s).

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Either-Or, by Victor, I mean Søren, Kierkegaard

What looks different, and to my eye specifically innovative, about The Blair Witch Project is its being, as far as I can determine, the first work of found footage cinema from which its creators attempted, by design, to eliminate all telltale production values. Particularly the post-production kind. (Or nearly eliminate them: I have a hunch that its chamfered, pre-Academy Ratio formatting, which illogically frames both Heather’s 4:3 camcorder selfies and her crew’s 16mm analog footage, must be a matte effect, edited into the final 35mm print afterward. Other commentators have lately complained, too, that the jiggly title cards with which the film begins appear contrived, although that may have a lot to do with endless copycatting since the movie’s release. If the jiggling is obvious to me now, this didn’t register at all when first I watched it in a theater.) The Blair Witch Project was notable also for having strategically positioned that cinema experience within a preconceived web-searchable backstory, establishing a local paranormal legend so efficiently that avowals of ignorance, not to say petulant denials, from genuine citizens of Burkittsville — a real place in rural Maryland — served only to confirm the veracity of the tale. Perhaps the nicest touch of all is that no poltergeist, no supernatural demon, appears on screen at any point. Hypothetical spectral presences may — or may not — be inferred from ambiguous twig effigies knotted to branches, dorky pebble installations, and a few distant crackling noises that could just as easily have been made by foraging raccoons as by prowling ghouls. We in the audience get our proper “objective correlative” through a gradual accumulation of orienteering fuck-ups that cause our heroes to behave with ever-compounding paranoia. When their footage terminates inexplicably, that mystery — an unsolved disappearance of three film students — achieves what Eliot, then endorsing Lady MacBeth’s madness but not Hamlet’s, dubbed “artistic inevitability.”11

Yet the reputation of a movie, like the reputation of a 17th-Century rake, may oscillate, may rise and fall. The farther up, the farther down. The Blair Witch Project looks positively hokey these days. You can see right through the thing. Born Free is scarier. (As in some ways it was all along.) If that calculated technique, once shockingly obscure, has lately surfaced into the light — as inevitably it must — yet we consign to it no saving grace of charm, not even a tacky, trompe-l’oeil charm. If its trickery now feels not only unconvincing but patronizing, gimmicky, surely this is because the film’s success soon engendered an industry of sequels and craven imitators. (And games!) Meanwhile, the taboo kink of Cannibal Holocaust — pure malarkey from the get-go — continues to thrive in the critical discourse. Here perhaps is technique of a different order: pure malarky from the get-go.

XII.

A better example of “fooled us too well” might be the famous iridescence of Monet. Along with his undisguised impasto, which serves an instrumental priority (because it can be slapped onto a canvas quickly enough to record a fleeting circumstance), Monet’s abutting of complementary and near-complementary hues (as against contrasting values) triggers in each viewer an involuntary visual instability. It is the resulting illusory distortion — and not Monet’s draftsmanship, brushwork, or compositional depth, all justly revered — that is responsible for the shimmery vibrance these paintings seem to emit. The effect simulates — reproduces might be a better word — our direct experience of refractive light in the natural world. Yet the innovation is also intrinsic, definitive. Though neuro-chemical in its mechanism, the technique profits by being readily apparent, too, declaring its quality of instantaneity, its seeming to happen exactly now. Like Donne’s persona poems a Monet says something about speed, about time passing before our gaze, and about what specific pressures this exerts upon our awareness — which is different from understanding — of an event in the world.

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Monet, “Route dans la forêt de Fontainebleau,” 1864

I know, I know. It’s with quaint catch-alls and false categories, with nostalgic summations like in-the-world, that we fake ourselves out when an apparent culmination or endpoint — telos, in Aristotle’s terminology — inconveniently reveals not choice, not purpose, not necessity, but contingency: a sequence of more or less arbitrary or even accidental precursors to that moment. By such a breakthrough as Monet’s, experience — or impression, if you prefer, the very concept that Louis Leroy, as if modeling himself on the reactionary Dr Johnson, derided in 1874 — can be favored over interpretation, over narration, and therefore over the merely linear. As with Holbein’s skull, we’re brought into the process. That I think is key: the painting remains incomplete until our presence completes it, our physical, optical union with it, our looking at it. It’s a feedback loop; and whatever beauty — or at least whatever luminescence — resides in a given painting of Monet’s may be attributable partly to a factor of amplification that we supply.

XIII.

This is perhaps the point at which one could be expected to veer in either of two directions: toward Auerbach’s canonical dualism — the messy, slobbery naturalism of the Old Testament in confrontation with Homer’s modular clarity — or to something closer to a reciprocal tension illuminated by Roland Barthes. “Literary realism,” Barthes says, “has always presented itself as a certain way of copying reality [his italics]. As if reality were on one side and language on the other.”12 And a few pages later he asks, “What do things signify, what does the world signify?” He further submits that literature, all literature, is precisely this question. (I’ll trust that his discursive category — literature — can be understood as a metonym for art in general.) But he hasn’t quite finished. A sneaky resolution follows, or a synthesis you could say, proposed with typically Heraclitean concision: “… literature is this question minus its answer [again, his italics].” Barthes’s own sleight-of-hand somehow draws our rapt gaze, or mine, to the word “question.” In fact it is with the subordinate clause “minus its answer” that he games us: by itself the work is indecisive, unfinished.

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Landau, Lifshitz, Quantum Mechanics: Non-relativistic theory (Institute of Physical Problems, USSR Academy of Sciences), 2nd Edition, Pergamon Press 1965

Or veer yet again? This time away from familiar avenues of disquisition, away from literary — aesthetic — theory altogether. Could one, inching uncomfortably close to Richard Feynman’s idea of “cargo cult science,” seek more prescient analogies outside the narrow, traditional scope of the intellectual entertainments? (Cargo cult science was his shaming pigeonhole for, as it were, talking the quantum talk without walking it.) Observation Effect, for example? — an attempt to account for, or acknowledge, changes to a state or wave or system caused by the action of observing it? (That’s after all not so fantastic a departure from our extenuating notion of the unreliable narrator.) Or Heisenberg’s almost serially misrepresented Uncertainty Principle, which, among other things, decouples quantum superposition from the rectilinear feel-good simplicities of classical Newtonian determinism? (Surely this would further loosen the ecstatic death grip of teleology on everything we attempt to say about ourselves: to measure the speed or distance of a leap of faith is to presume less and less about either the faith or the jumper.) One could. And having so inched, could one mention also, not scornfully but in good humor, that Dr Feynman, a theoretical physicist by training, drew his analogy — referring to the very specific ethnologic category of Cargo Cults — from cultural anthropology, a field in which he possessed no expertise whatsoever? The descriptive tool he used, his mimetic figure of speech, was itself a form of cargo cult science: trundling the observations and imperatives of one discipline to those of another. Was the irony lost on him? (I would say so.)

Getting back to my point: what might have been, in an earlier period or painted by a different hand, just one more picture of haystacks, of poplars, of waterlilies, is instead a picture of seeing haystacks, poplars, waterlilies. With Donne, too, our seeing is part of the finished work. We’re eavesdroppers, voyeurs.”13 His interlocutor, this woman we can neither name nor hear, whose presence strictly speaking we can at best infer — she is his audience. And she, whoever “she” is, either will or will not fall for his hectic, pushy, a fortiori reasoning. (My guess is that the reasoning as such could be of little consequence. Hasn’t she clearly got the upper hand already? Seeming to ignore his nutty line of argument, she squashes the very bug that has inspired it, killing the argument at the same time. For us as for them, the more important question is, does she want him enough to shag him off the books, so to speak? And if so, is his expression of ardor — his promise of erotic energy — sufficient to her14 standards?) 

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Paula Modersohn-Becker, “Reclining Mother and Child,” 1906

This might be a good place — too late, as usual — for a disclosure. Or disclaimer. I can’t stand Monet. I suppose I could have made the same point, give or take, with a painter I like more, whose innovations intrigue me to a greater extent. But which? Balthus? Klee? Modersohn-Becker? Perhaps de Chirico — think of those two distinct vanishing points in Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. Are we here or are we there? Once again, the answer must be yes.

XIV.

“Cadmium isn’t a color,” a friend emailed. “It’s a metallic element. Atomic number 48. Cd is the shorthand symbol. Chemically, it’s affiliated with zinc (Zn) and mercury (Hg), also in Group 12 of the Periodic Table. Compounds of cadmium are used in yellow, orange, and red pigments, for example in paints and dyes. So where you mention those pillows that Robert Mitchum is sprawling on, from your description those could be any of several colors.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I thumbed back to him. “I owned a black-and-white television back then. Even if cadmium were a specific color, I could only have been imagining that, inventing that.”

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Keats, painted by William Hilton

Later, in some kind of parallel internal commentary, I couldn’t help wondering if John Keats had actually elected, strategically, to let stand that famous Cortez reference — historically inaccurate as well as misspelled — in his second best-known sonnet, or simply couldn’t be bothered about the error. Moorgate’s favorite tortured soul was no fool. And given the company he kept, Keats couldn’t have got far without being reminded that Balboa, in fact, and not Hernán Cortés, had been the first European to see the Pacific Ocean, looking down at it from a mountain range along the Chucunaque River in the autumn of 1513.

XV.

The face before us — belonging to silent matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine — scarcely moves. Minute shadow details, subtly shifting across its features, confirm that what we are looking at is not a still photograph. In 1918 Soviet director Lev Kuleshov made an expository short, splicing together bits of scrap footage left from one of the actor’s Tsarist-era films. (Mosjoukine’s production company had pulled up stakes and fled to Crimea at the beginning the Revolution.) In his re-assemblage Kuleshov demonstrates, rather successfully, that much — not all but a great deal of — cinematic performance, what we think of as acting, is little more than a special effect created through deft editing.

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Ivan Mosjoukine

His proof is a sequence of intercuts that alternate between a single close-up of the main character (Mosjoukine) and several interpolated, loosely related scenes to which, we’re given to understand, this character would be privy. The emotional nature of those various secondary scenes causes us to interpret the main character’s demeanor and state of mind accordingly. Nowadays such an arrangement of intercuts is referred to as a Kuleshov Effect. Conjoined with a shot of a child lying dead in her casket Mosjoukine’s expressions come across as somber, fatalistic, contemplative. Following another cut, to a woman lolling on a sofa, those same facial expressions — in fact from the same reduplicated segment of film! — seem dreamy, perhaps lustful. Both Welles and Hitchcock, among others, have commented insightfully on the psychologic power of the trick.

This sort of manipulative editing, or its methodical promise in advance of shooting, accounts for why Hitchcock is often said to have created nearly finished performances in storyboarding, before actors were even hired. (In Truffaut’s prodding interviews with him Hitchcock sounds quite brazen about it. His confidence in pure technique, detached from human improvisation, never really wavers; over and over, here and elsewhere, he reiterates the position: no concern whatsoever for what the actors might feel about their roles and absolute faith in the primacy of the audience, in our response to what is being delivered from the screen to our retinas, our ear drums. He was working on The Birds at the time; we know now, of course, from Tippi Hedren herself, that Hitchcock directed her — as well as every other actor — like a mannequin. Later, she was diplomatic. “He’ll listen but he has a definite plan in mind.”15) I’ve seen Kuleshov’s little demo dozens of times, never failing to feel swayed. His assistant V.I. Pudovkin reported that their test audiences went nuts for the classically-trained Mosjoukine’s dramatic technique. Technique is indeed what they were responding to. Only it was Kulechov’s, not the actor’s. 

XVI.

The treadmill, the vacuum potty, the Dobro guitar — these were all known items. What we might not have expected to find aboard Service Mission STS-157, docked at an LEO apogee of 542.70 kilometers, was a tanning bed. And certainly not a Personal Hygiene and Beauty Booth, or PHABB, although to be honest I’m merely speculating based on appearances. Stranded when their orbiter is severely damaged in a collision with high-speed Russian non-recyclables, two perfectly coiffed and beach-ready survivors, astronauts Clooney and Bullock, consider their chances for rescue. Nope and ain’t — as Clooney’s character might have twanged, in that hayseed test-pilot idiolect we’ve come to recognize from decades of space flight telecasts. (To Clooney’s credit, he seems to have copied his inflections from Keith Carradine’s bank robber in Thieves Like Us.) Option number two is to do it themselves, escape to the uninhabited International Space Station, conveniently in orbit within reach16 of their Manned Maneuvering Units. (MMUs in their lingo; jet-packs in ours.)

When Gravity was released in 2013, many reviewers particularly lauded the movie for its convincing realism, for its physical believability. Watching it again at home recently, I was struck by how often that presumed realism had been conveyed through anachronistic camera references. In addition to basic conformity of framing — master, close-up, medium, two-shot, reverse, etc — we get goofy flourishes like chromatic aberration, haloing, diffraction, optical depth-of-field distortion, lens flare, polygonal bokeh artifacts, and the like. All notable for being placed amid, and more or less constitutive of, imagery that had been shot digitally on a soundstage, where actors and props would have been swinging from cables against a green screen, or else artificially animated with software (about eighty percent of it by Cuarón’s reckoning). The guiding premise, I guess, is that we validate sensual experience through — literally through — compound arrays of polished glass and coatings (and their mechanical limitations), while adhering to a strict catechism of compositional precedent. These scenes look real but only if your definition of “real” includes being tethered hundreds of miles above Earth yourself, with a Master Prime™ PL-mount anamorphic lens swapped in for your helmet’s regular visor.17

Verisimilitude — our conviction that we’re immersed in something realistic — has been edited into the film, as a series of special effects that are themselves allusions to known cinema experience. Realism, too, is a kind of narrative and in film never depicts, as you might think, straightforward reality. (I’m tempted to rejigger one word there: change “narrative” to “plot” — the dumbing up of the former strikes me as dishonest. Either way, we’re expected to settle for the reassuring, the uplifting, and if possible the flagrantly lachrymose, into which may be subsumed — that is, hidden, repressed — all manner of absurdity and disenchantment.) A “lifelike” screen world, in other words, isn’t so much a simulation of what we see and hear and touch as a pleasing reiteration of familiar conventions. It’s a code, but it’s our code, and we can decrypt it, because it is our consensual memory that constantly falsifies all evidence of the directly known and the directly lived. 

Even remotely operated, no real scientific instrument, no real science-documenting camera mounted to that space station or to the actual Hubble telescope, could ever have recorded material like Cuarón’s, denoting a shifting perspective and focus and at the same time reconciled against our complacent, happy — and essentially subconscious — checklist of camera placement, tracking, framing, etc. Legitimate, unedited NASA footage looks by contrast bizarrely static: you never forget, especially when human bodies and human voices intrude (“Er, Roger, Houston …”), that you’re watching from a locked-down, disinterested position. However otherworldly, that kind of forensic documentary, completely lacking in what we might call style, is therefore quite dull, dullness itself. (Or dullness of the sublime, rather: fascinating for being excruciating. You find yourself captivated by the ordinariness. Wire cutters like yours. Platitudes like yours. Out-of-tune whistling exactly like yours.) And no such diagnostic format would have permitted me, safe in the prurient void of my living room, to scrutinize Dr Bullock — a very fit-looking brunette often stripped down to tight Gap undies — for shadowy traces of underarm and bikini-line stubble. (Nope and ain’t.) Notwithstanding Tarkovsky’s and Kubrick’s aestheticized nods to banality, science-fiction films don’t resemble real-time footage simply because the latter lacks any means of swaying our opinions, either distancing us or implicating us, according to the instincts of a storyteller. Or illusionist.

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Astronaut Bullock, acting-by-wire

“Les non-dupes errent,” Lacan says. Somewhere, I can’t remember. In Źiźek’s convoluted rendering, which I have in front of me, this comes out as “[T]hose who do not let themselves be caught in the symbolic deception/fiction and continue to believe their eyes are the ones who err most.” Simplified, the un-fooled are mistaken. In press conferences auteur Cuarón made a big deal of having insisted on faithfulness to the absolute silence of space, because of course that’s how it really is — utterly soundless unless you’re indoors, sealed within a pressurized breathable environment. Outside, no antenna blips can be heard, no thumps or hisses or clunks, no doppler whoosh of thrusters. (Perhaps only Cuarón himself can explain how Steven Price’s Oscar-certified Muzak crossed the bleak vacuum of nothingness while avoiding many common pitfalls of physics.) In one scene the awestruck floating tomboy looks away from her pneumatic power ratchet just long enough to admire a view of … whatever it is overhead. The usual brownish landmass of uncertain imperialist hegemony. She then remarks on that putative silence: “Jeez, I could really get used to this.” And it’s among the noisier scenes in the flick. Clooney’s cracker-barrel homilies drone away in her helmet’s audio system, along with the whiny Hank Williams Jr ballad that he’s listening to; this racket then giving way to Maestro Price’s ponderous New Age crescendos. When finally the hoopla falls quiet, we do indeed hear some silence. But by “hear” I mean hear. For in the movies, silence itself turns out to be noise. Cocking a shrewd ear, I picked up the unmistakable foley detail. There, yes: not soundlessness but its representation, in Dolby Atmos — a muffled yet quite audible monotone, not unlike the susurrant purr of air flowing through heating ducts.

Should we feel alarmed by such a discovery? No, but possibly touched by the humor of it. In fact, no mass-market, corporate film is without similar breaches of naturalism (and natural science), all of them paradoxically engineered to reinforce our conviction in the truth of what passes before our earnest gaze. Tense-shifts to the distant past will often be telegraphed with grainy black and white film stock. (Or in most cases nowadays, digitally simulated black and white stock). What could be less naturalistic? The same colors we see around us right now would have imbued the past, both as it happened and in the cortical fictions of recall. Yet this technique is employed specifically in order to keep the narrative timeline convincing for us as passive viewers. Not to make this disingenuous move, not to engage in this kind of low-level manipulation, runs the risk of tipping us off that we’re seeing something fake. Artsier productions, by which I mean not more artful but more pretentious ones, may pull the same trick by desaturating the color palette of “the past,” or more absurdly, muting it with sepia tones. (Stupider still — I wish I could remember where I saw this recently — digitally added projector scratches, dirt flecks, and drop-outs characteristic of dad’s Super-8 home movies.) In all of these instances, reality is configured as an illusion, verifying our experience of previous cinematic deceptions: the past as celluloid deterioration, the past as nostalgic verities gaped at in some moldering photo album. As against what? A commemoration of life, maybe.

XVII.

Not that my intent is to disparage Alfonso Cuarón’s capabilities as a film maker. He’s obviously some kind of managerial genius. A Hollywood cat with intellect, touch of wit. I’ll admit, even, that I quite liked the two “Mexican films,” as one fawning article labeled Sólo con tu pareja (1991) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001). But I suppose I’d lump Gravity in among the higher forms of trompe l’œil. He’s Holbein redux: court artist, and foreigner at that, hired in by the despots. If Cuarón were to remake — name any classic — The Lady from Shanghai, let’s say, his version could be expected in some respects to improve upon the existing one. Michael O’Hara’s Irish accent might sound Irish, for example. That hansom cab in Central Park would appear to roll, convincingly, through Central Park (as in fact it must have in Welles’s original mile-long tracking shot, detonated later by the idiot Harry Cohn). And Mrs Bannister, safe to assume, would conspire in a scrupulously idiomatic Wu dialect, rather than in that odd Cantonese hybrid no native of Shanghai could readily have understood. We, meantime, his spectators, might come away with some inkling of how Orson and Rita had, late at night and lacking a set of keys, gained entry to Playland’s Hall of Mirrors. Yet if under Cuarón’s direction that story-line would be, one imagines, tightly controlled, subtly expository, precise of cartographic and period detail, we may recall — a little nervously — that Raymond Borde, one of Noir’s first shrewd commentators, wasn’t complaining when he suggested that Welles’s film, the actual Lady from Shanghai, made very little sense. It was high praise. 

XVIII.

When the technology moves ahead, the industry moves on. Forsakes, pick one, the axial jump-cut in favor of, pick one, some cool new multi-camera step-progression, causing the older technique immediately to look both shop-worn and affected. In other words: unrealistic. Once state-of-the-art, such now-abandoned approaches, or largely abandoned, would utterly have bedazzled their antique, bygone audiences. Except that we, unbeknownst to ourselves, are they: in the present, in the particular moment in which we find ourselves, we simply can’t detect what will in turn, a few years from today, look imprecise and inauthentic and creaky. (As creaky as a painted backdrop — chimney pots issuing unmoving ribbons of wood smoke — hung slightly out of focus behind the actors on a rooftop set in Siodmak’s The Killers.) Inured to contemporary VFX and CGI, we regard old-school compositing — split-beam or Schüfftan process or traveling matte or motion-control or what have you — not just old-fashioned but preposterously fake-looking. Fresh out of the can, however, these FX technologies of yesteryear had to have looked fantastic. In 1961, Ray Harryhausen’s ravening, stomping Paracrax (do I have that right?) must have struck audiences as a perfect, terrifying simulation of reality, albeit the prehistoric alternate reality of Mysterious Island. If in that same year we had witnessed Harryhausen’s handmade beast rumbling to life in our neighborhood copse, that thing would totally have fooled us! Newer and more sophisticated effects bewitch us now, and only now, not because they impress us as more naturalistic, but because they are exactly what we expect.

XIX.

“It’s not the truth that matters,” cautions the endlessly conniving jumped-up footman Raunce in Henry Green’s Loving, “It’s what’s believed.” Deceit being, I would say, rule rather than exception, commercial releases — among which I’d include the artisanal sentimentalities of so-called indie movies — offer a non-empirical, humorless pastiche of the real world in the form of normative clichés. (Did you understand that sentence?) Some of these come as shady cultural promotions — pieties that are invoked to distract from mass complicity. (Cops of all races hang out together; landed gentry prove not scabrous morons with brown teeth but tweedy freedom fighters defending the imperiled underclasses while quoting Walter Landor; female pathologists swing both ways, and do so needless to say from somewhere on the spectrum.) Some may be instances of fairly trivial aesthetic conformity. (Hospital staff earn their textbook misandry by being, themselves, neotenous top-models; shafts of dusty light angle through empty warehouses; crime lords, always partial to Rossini, whisper menacingly.) While still others are stylistic tropes, mere technical reiterations. (Jumpy handheld imagery signals uncertain agency; a knockout punch or improbable leap or photo-finish victory — anything sudden in our daily experience — plays out in extreme slow motion; and the beleaguered good guy, scrutinized in a creeping dolly zoom — or, in the hands of the film-school kids, those above-mentioned Kuleshov edits — contemplates a reversal of fate that temporarily stops him from — what else? — chasing the dream.)

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Erik Satie, Francis Picabia, René Clair, Jean Börlin, “Entr’acte” (1924)

Then of course there’s the other kind of dream — the kind you have, rather than the kind you chase. More than anywhere else, it is here that we may see all three types of card-carrying, rule-abiding tedium at once. If a character closes his eyes and drifts off in a Hollywood product, often this scene dissolves into something vaguely kaleidoscopic: a druggy, blurry, warpy palinopsia. With kooky sequences of causality. Or distorted voices. Or echoey sound-effects. (In a different sense Barthes, André Breton, René Clair, Truffaut have variously noted that simply to look at a film, simply to sit down in a darkened theater, means slipping into a state of reverie. Hitchcock amusingly demurs when pushed by Truffaut on the contribution of dreaming to his movies: “Well, maybe day-dreaming.”) But the cinematic dream — any onscreen depiction of the unconscious imagery of sleep, as differentiated both from the oneiric engagement of watching a movie and from, as in Jodorowsky or Buñuel, Surrealist transpositions of a dreamlike graphical vocabulary to the pottering humdrum — presents an uneasy, perhaps irresolvable tension, especially where its director and writer have sought a degree of naturalism. Are we meant to be experiencing this dream, as if from the point of view of the character who’s having it, or are we standing outside, observing?) Our own dreams, on the other hand, being the real un-real things, inevitably startle us for their complete lack of otherworldly confusion while we’re having them. Their uncanniness is a function of being perfect simulations, perfect reproductions of ordinary life — undetectable until we wake.

XX.

In my late teens, thumbing home one evening along the coast, I got a lift in a mid-50s open-top Morgan.18 None too soon. With the sun dropping fast, I was losing hope and scanning around for a hedge or fallen tree to sleep behind. The guy driving the car had started laughing at me — standing there on the shoulder in my torn kit, one knee bloodied — before he’d come to a complete stop. (English brakes of the era being what they were, or weren’t, this took some time.)

And kept on laughing as he cinched my pretzeled bike to his rear luggage rack. I noted, somewhat anxiously, that one of the Morgan’s hubs was missing its iconic two-blade knock-off. A tractor part, some sort of backhoe widget, had been threaded on as a replacement. The gas cap was gone too, and a rag — an old shirt possibly — had been wadded into the hole to plug it. Several inches of fuel-soaked green corduroy were sticking out. Like a candle wick, I thought. Or a fuse. The whole car looked pretty battered, scarcely road-worthy. Hard to know what to say.

“Cool, a classic. Original owner?”

“Won it — Russian Roulette. Just kidding. Belongs to my ex-wife.” (Not kidding, evidently.)

With each gear-change, little blue thunderheads funneled up from its tailpipe. Wind-aided, these fumes briefly overtook us as the Morgan wobbled up to speed. I spotted wedged behind the seats a golf bag, which appeared to contain a full set of clubs. This confused me. The man himself bore none of the typical affectations of the sport — the Izod v-neck, the Ban-Lons, the chunky Rolex. His Titleist ball cap seemed to be the single exception but even that was on backwards. So I asked.

“Oh, those — yeah.” He inhaled deeply from a bent Viceroy, knotting up his face to keep the smoke in.

Turned out he’d briefly held a PGA Tour Card; had, back in the day, eked out a scant living as a tournament pro. “You could make more dough flippin’ burgers, right?” he said, not really asking. “I kinda sucked at golf if I’m honest. But I like to, uh,” — another pause, another long drag — “knock the dust off once in a while. You know how it is.”

Did I? I nagged him to pull over and show me what he could do — mainly because I assumed he must be winding me up: I knew that no one who’d earned a PGA Card, briefly or otherwise, sucked at golf. If he’d reached that level, then we were talking about skills — even those belonging to the lowliest-ranked player on the circuit — that would never, ever, be seen up-close (much less understood) by pudgy orthodontists at the country club, who really did suck at it.

We stood at the edge of a broad meadow overlooking the ocean, which was about a quarter mile away. Heavy surf mumbled in, out of sight below cliffs. He wormed seven tees into the dirt — “My unlucky number,” he joked — and set atop each a small stone that was roughly the size of a golf ball. Scrounged from the shoulder, these were anything but spherical, let alone worthy of flight. One was not a stone at all but a lump of asphalt that must have crumbled away from the road’s edge. He went to the car and pulled a driver from the bag. On his way back, approaching the nearest tee, he waggled the club’s head back and forth, floppy-wristed, to nail the balance. Then one by one these stones — and one lump — were sent humming into the distance. Seven parabolas of astounding metronomic accuracy. (And to place “accuracy” in context, I was the one calling out the targets, all of them absurd. This cypress branch, that sprig of lupine. Over there, far, far off, some tiny half-buried object flaring in the day’s last tepid beams — a broken bottle, maybe, or a piece of metal? Technically he missed every one of them, by about half an inch.)

Yes. Did know. And was, for reasons of my own, increasingly attuned to the disparities — in biology, discipline, and technique — that normally obtained, no matter what the sport, between professional athletes, vastly remunerated or not, and recreational weekend dreamers. Two different solar systems, really — a hard truth once again affirmed by this shaggy, burnt-out case with his 1-wood, smacking lopsided rocks toward Indochina. Nothing was happening that you couldn’t point at or name. Buffeting wind. Stock-still gaze. A sudden whirl of the shoulders. Seven loud cracks as the club face connected. Everything was right there in front of you, right in front of your eyes. Mystery of the visible.


Note: All of the above — including my working title, which may not yield enough of its intended humor — remains in flux. Rumination is what this is, my ongoing attempt to parse the idea of technique, perhaps to discover if in fact it is an “idea” at all, and not just some nifty-sounding phoneme that fills a gap, connecting one swath of unintelligible gibberish with another. 


  1. And only minutes ago, I heard the actor Rebecca Hall (BBC Film Program, 26 January 2017) advise, “For me it’s not acting, really, unless it completely disappears.”
  2. Not a real quotation, of course, but contrived on the model of many amusing and inscrutable koans of Mr B’s (e.g. “We need two good turns, left and right.” Or, “Dance, don’t pretend to dance.”) that Suki Schorer disclosed in her book, Suki Schorer on Balanchine TechniqueUniversity Press of Florida, 2006
  3. I have failed to track down this letter. Couldn’t find it in Anthony Thwaite’s selection of Larkin’s letters. Nor does it seem to be suggested (indirectly) in Zachary Leader’s gargantuan edition of Kingsley Amis’s correspondence. I’m pretty sure I’m not inventing it. But maybe it wasn’t a letter. Maybe it was an anecdote, recounted by someone who knew them both — Martin Amis, say, in his memoir Experience — that’s the one place I haven’t yet re-checked. If you, dear reader, should happen to stumble upon it, please contact me. In any case, this would be only one of hundreds of similar remarks that Larkin offered a little too willingly, too self-mockingly, about his presumed technical flaws. And while he asked for all kinds of typos to be corrected in proof and in subsequent re-prints, mistakes of this type, though easily fixable, he seemed to prefer to leave as they were.
  4. Another letter I can’t seem to locate. Could the remark have been made instead to his painter friend J.B. Sutton, possibly in the late 40s? Someone would know: I don’t.
  5. In the case of “An Arundel Tomb,” literally opposite. After its publication Larkin was chided by a school teacher in West Sussex for getting the Earl’s wrong hand reaching across to his Countess. The actual stone gisant shows them, as in the photo, holding right hands. Discussing the matter with his editor Anthony Thwaite, Larkin seemed inclined to let the error stand, repurposing this trivial discovery to favor — I would say — his false modesty.)

  6. Interestingly, though neither I nor anyone else — apart from his longtime partner Monica Jones — could have known at the time, Larkin himself remarked on “The Flea” in an unpublished occasional work that he wrote for Jones, called “Poem About Oxford.” Scribbled on the flyleaf of a coffee-table book he’d bought for her at Blackwell’s, rediscovered only several years after his death, this piece* concludes, “… It holds us, like that Fleae we read about/ In the depths of the Second World War.” 

    My novel insight — or novel in my own mind — was that at certain critical, radical transitions a poet (or writer of another kind, artist of another kind) may discover, either on purpose or by fateful accident, a new way of pulling us beneath the layers of technical insulation that build up over time, amid traditions as they settle into patterns of conformity; and that such a breakthrough would mainly take the form of apparent errors — coarseness of style, for example, or formal ineptitude. Or failure, simply, to fall in line with a doctrinaire aesthetics. I saw this as related to, even somehow tied into, the notorious Empsonian ambiguities, as if an eighth or ninth or tenth “type” had still — but for my teenage genius! — to be identified. The innovation would be an effect — less than purely cynical, more than mischievous — in which a voice (or a rhythm or a structural appurtenance) would appear to have distanced itself, ever so slightly, from conventional imperatives. This distancing might bear some of the features of Empson’s “fundamental division in the writer’s mind,” yet the artist would assemble it, purposefully, rather than inadvertently expose it in some guileless lapse of attention. In other words he or she would make the work look like a faltering attempt to play by the rules.

    Again one could appeal to the example of Larkin, who in poem after poem seems to drift unconsciously — seems — between a slangy, off-hand brazenness and something more dignified, more sonorous. It’s as if one of Yeats’s bald, shuffling scholars were editing and annotating lines that had been “rhymed out in love’s despair” by the scholar himself, albeit before the hair had fallen out. And again, “Church Going” could serve as the convenient illustration: its speaker having begun on a casual, almost flippant note (“… some brass and stuff up at the Holy end …”), the poem concludes in pensive reflection, giving way to a formality of diction that verges on the sententious (“A serious house on serious earth it is …”). In Larkin that feature is perhaps rationalized, or reconciled, in his characteristic voltas — shifts of tone bespeaking (literally bespeaking) some abrupt realization, some startling awareness of irony or paradox.

    Three or four years ago, almost every review of Knausgård’s then-breaking My Struggle included, even when highly favorable, a vaguely carping disclaimer about the author’s slackness of style, in which occasional hackneyed expressions seemed to disrupt and undermine his literary intentions. Usually, the accusation was one of imprecision, loss of focus. Fault could be ascribed — often with an air of lofty self-congratulation on the part of the pompous ascriber — to Knausgård’s recklessness, the volatility of his churning through twenty pages of legal pad each day. James Wood, for example, a fine and genial critic whom I would not include among the pompous, joined the fray: “Cliché is not spurned,” he wrote in his New Yorker paean, “falling in love was like being struck by lightning … he was head over heels in love … he was as hungry as a wolf.” Knausgård himself was almost immediately on record as strategically avoiding a “literary” agenda. He wanted language of the kind — or at least resembling the kind — that simply spills out, uncensored by egocentric control: “… something much more organic, not constructed, something that was moving around and could grow.”

    (Or, to move away from literature altogether: many contemporary reviews of A Bout de Souffle noted Godard’s poorly synched post-production dialogue looping, as if this had been a charming accident — an afterthought, a workaround for the noisy motor of his portable Eclair Caméflex. Hadn’t Alexandre Astruc put everyone on alert? “Cinema was in the process of becoming a new means of expression … [‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo,’ published in L`Ecran, on 30 March 1948].” The camera, Astruc insisted, would now be more akin to a pen — stylo — than to, as in the past, an objective scientific instrument, clinical and antiseptic, disconnected from its user’s emotional contamination.)

    Not spurned? The fucker was doing it on purpose! Indeed he had stumbled on a rare discovery, not so different from the central insight of Barthes’s Degré zéro: literary writing, being ornamental, is both a disguise and a mode of separation, so Knausgård implied. He more or less stated this outright in post-publication interviews. Barthes contrasts Queneau’s scruffiness of style with Sartre’s fussy, hieratic, curatorial mode, in which “la liaison ineffable de l’existence” [approximately, “the inarticulable binding force that surges through reality”] is stabilized, locked into position. Valiantly we eliminate clichés, tired figures of speech, striving to make the prose more vibrant, or so we imagine, replacing these with metaphorical contrivances that have never previously circulated in a living, breathing environment. But at a cost that sometimes comes too high: when revelatory impulses, uncontrolled disclosures, are deprived of oxygen they wither, they crumple, unable to emit the slightest sound, the merest wheeze of their own noble gases.

  7. The precise date of composition is unknown. The Songs and Sonnets were published officially in 1633; its contents would have been written well before that and circulated among friends, patrons, and colleagues in hand-written form.
  8. Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress,” c. 1649-1660
  9. cf. “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Arguably Donne’s most famous work, most anthologized, it is often credited for the ingenuity of its extended metaphors — those notorious “metaphysical” conceits that came to define an entire literary sub-genre: elaborate, overwrought comparisons drawn between, on the one hand, specific emotions or values or quotidian experiences and, on the other, mechanisms of science, medicine, and engineering. But the more salient fact of this poem is that the speaker introduces one such analogy (to hammered gold leaf), only to junk it two quatrains later, replacing it with a second (this time to pivoting arms of a geometer’s compass), deployed to prove the opposite hypothesis. We are one soul. No wait, we are two souls! So it’s the desperation that impresses. Not the ingenuity, in other words, but an intensity of feeling driving that ingenuity. Any robustness, or just cleverness, in the arguments themselves — which, frankly, are ridiculous — is beside the point. Or rather, that ridiculousness is meant to be illustrative. A man is grasping at straws, as we say, unmetaphysically. And the poem is about, if it’s “about” anything, a man grasping at straws. What’s it not about is the similarity of gold leaf, or whatever, to interfused souls.
  10. Of course I am aware of the various legal cases mounted against Cannibal Holocaust for its convincing “snuff” factor. That’s a bit different: we’re not required to believe that actual lost reels were recovered, but instead that a real film crew, in the process of creating fake documentary footage, really killed and really mutilated real cast members. (In fact many animals were killed in gruesome ways during shooting — for which the precedent, alas, is classic Hollywood westerns and Sand-and-Sandal epics, in which thousands and thousands of horses and livestock lost their lives or were maimed by trip wires. Only the recent affordability of CGI compositing has caused this incidental carnage finally to drop to very few per year.)
  11. T.S. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems,” The Sacred Wood, (1921). The phrase itself, objective correlative (and the concept), though he made it famous, Eliot lifted without attribution from Washington Allston’s Lectures on Art in 1842
  12. Critical Essays, “The Last Word on Robbe-Grillet?”; Northwesterrn University Press, 197-202
  13. It has been said — though by whom I can’t seem to remember — that a photograph is a picture of the volume of air between the lens and the subject. Something similar is going on in “The Flea.” The poem, printed on the page, is like a record of the space between ourselves (as readers) and the three of them (a blabbering seducer, an unheard mistress, and one tiny hematophagous insect). Speaking of his early passion for cinema, Bernardo Bertolucci — in the voice of his alter-ego Matthew in The Dreamers (2004) — reports that he and his friends would always sit in the first row for a new film so that the images would reach them first. I see this as a corollary to the proposition about photography: the medium is not simply a medium of light but of the distance over which that light travels from reflective surfaces — from building façades, vases, skin, clouds, cinema screens — to our eyes. A corollary and a reversal.
  14. Compare her, this implied companion in “The Flea,” to the woman addressed in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In the latter poem, also a dramatic monologue and a “persona poem,” we’re given no convincing sense of a second player, of another person in the room. Is she real, or just a stock structural element? Unlike Donne’s unseen companion, interrupting and talking back (though out of earshot), Marvell’s gal keeps mum. The speaker merely enumerates vague, not to say abstract, traits, while offering a few predictions about her behavior. He achieves, however, a very high order of phrase-making, much of it in perfectly squared-off couplets, such that subsequent authors of fiction have regularly ransacked the poem for cool titles. But there’s no particular feeling, for us, of something’s being at stake. “To His Coy Mistress” is a dazzling and funny masterpiece. But Marvell might as well be stating a general sexual policy as putting the moves on this object of his affection.
  15. Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: In Darkness and Light, HarperCollins (2003), 621
  16. While technically speaking the Hubble Space Telescope (to which astronauts Clooney and Bullock have docked their soon-to-be ruined Shuttle) and the ISS [International Space Station] both occupy positions in LEO [Low Earth Orbit], the operating altitude of the ISS is much, much lower, at just 375km. Even if there were some way for marooned thespians to solve the complex problems of untethered orbital mechanics, no personal propulsion pack, pumped to its full capacity of twelve kilograms of nitrogen gas, would allow them to reach such a distant target before running out of breathable air. The movie rectifies this impossibility by substituting it with another, though less obvious, one: erroneously locating both orbiting objects at roughly the same altitude to begin with. 
  17. Having received a bit of push-back on that idea, that the screen imagery of Gravity was cinematic rather than realistic, or even naturalistic in Zola’s sense, I’ve decided to include this link to recent NASA footage taken on March 24th, 2017, from the helmet cam (essentially a suped-up GoPro) of ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. If what Pesquet himself experienced would have been somewhat less jerky than this, as well as informed by his own sense of premeditation and anticipation, it leaves an umistakeable impression of ordinariness. That is, you see a transposition of the routine, the quotidian, to a circumstance that perfectly accommodates the routine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBpTZI8ofHU
  18. Morgan? Am I sure? Not an Austin-Healey or an XKE or a Bug-Eye Sprite or an MG? Likewise, that talkshow on which I feel as if I saw Mitchum interviewed in the early 70s — and on which I feel as if he said that thing — could be, as I more or less admit in the anecdote, a phantasmagoric composite memory, with colors where no colors were. I suppose such footage might be possible to track down, on Youtube or some such. I refuse. If you need to know for sure — that it was he, that it was there, that it was then — be my guest. My quite limited negative capability having kicked in some time ago with a wallop, I’ll choose instead darkness and ignorance. 

    *The poem can be seen in the St John’s College annual alumni magazine. Click on TW, 2013, then scroll and scroll and scroll till you reach the inch-thick specs. It’s also available in the 2012 edition of The Complete Poems edited by Archie Burnett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 312-313)


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