January 16, 2006

Thought while watching Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31)

For Christmas or Hanukkah or something, I was gifted a copy of Unseen Cinema, a huge and fantastic DVD collection of rare early experimental films. I’m making my way through it quite slowly – these things want my full attention and I do better when I only watch one at a time, no matter how short. I’m just now getting to the end of the first of 7 discs. I’ll probably talk here about each disc as a whole or maybe the whole collection or something. At some point.

Anyway, the final film on the first disc is Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31), by Henwar Rodakiewicz, a completely silent 54 minute study of rippling water, rising smoke, rustling leaves, and the like. In looking up online info about some of the other films on the disc, I had come across some complaints about how tedious and painfully boring this film was, and I was, frankly, nervous. I put it on just now pretty much only because I feel obligated to the set as a whole, and committed myself only to sitting through the first of the three “movements” of which the film is composed.

To my surprise I found myself deeply enjoying it. The rippling water isn’t just any footage of rippling water – it’s been shot and edited with an artist’s loving eye. The film isn’t simply about movement in nature; it’s about the specific kinds and features of natural movement that draw in one’s attention. It manages to highlight and cast in art that certain rich, blank quality that makes something like the waves striking the sand so involving. If you have ever found yourself transfixed by the way water runs over a rock, this is a gold mine. Oddly enough, I mean that seriously.

The people who complained that the film was horrible must either have been in an unreceptive mood or else just not the sort of people who are as easily compelled by abstract patterns as I am. And this brings me to the titular thought of this post. The film is called Portrait of a Young Man and a prefatory onscreen note explains why:

As our understanding and sympathy for the things about us must reveal our character, so this is an endeavor to portray a certain young man in the terms of the things he likes and his manner of liking them: the sea, leaves, clouds, smoke, machinery, sunlight, the interplay of forms and rythms [sic], but above all — the sea

Watching the film and observing that, indeed, the focus was not merely on these sorts of forms and rhythms but on their capacity to captivate a certain kind of attention, I was impressed by the fact that the artistic goal above, which had sounded a bit indulgent and potentially flaky, had been pursued with such integrity. Watching these forms shift and shimmer, and knowing that the real goal was to portray the attention that was focussed on these things, I thought, “I suppose I’m exactly the sort of ‘certain young man’ of which this film is a portrait – these choices feel familiar to me; this sort of attention is my sort of attention.” My next thought: “Well, that’s too easy – rather than letting the film portray the young man, I’m just assuming that he is me. It’s much more likely that his name is ‘Henwar,’ or perhaps he is a fictional character. Let me try to actually imagine him and see whether he is any way different from me.” And, immediately upon distinguishing myself from this young man, I became thoroughly annoyed with him. He was obviously some sort of self-satisfied Stephen Dedalus type. Some insufferable poet-lad, pleased with himself for musing on nature’s mysteries. Get over yourself, young man!

In other words, I either identified myself as the young man of the film or else had instant disdain for him. Perhaps this has something to do with my own ambivalent feelings toward the poetic mindset, in general, but I don’t think that’s the core of it; enjoying patterns in smoke and water is one of the most truly ego-less things I do, so I really don’t think the answer is that I’m secretly disgusted with myself for being “that type.” I think the problem, actually, was that for all my efforts to be more empathetic in life and art, this film, in using a technique I had never before encountered, was testing an empathy muscle that I have rarely, if ever, exercised.

Most portraits are, of course, external, so I come to terms with the subject of such a portrait just as I would with an actual person. I receive information about a person in a painting just as I receive information about the real world – I see its exterior. Of course, any good painting generally tries to encapsulate other, non-visual kinds of information in a visual form. Empathy might well be called into play. But it will always be on a secondary level, something to be added to the visual.

Then you have first-person writing, which can put you inside the head of a character who is explicitly not you. The experience of making space for this person, learning to play their role as you make your way through their world, and reserving (or at least filing separately) the judgement you would apply to them if they were external to you, requires empathy. First-person writing has undoubtedly improved my social skills and been one of the most important influences on the way I think about other people; one learns to make the self flexible enough to accomodate the thoughts of others.

But the technique of this film lies beyond portrait-via-first-person-thoughts – the only sliver left of the first-person in this film is his attention – his thoughts are unknown to us, and because the editing is abstract and discontinuous, his motivations are not even guessable. All we know is what sorts of things he chooses to look at. We are left either alone or else in the company of a disembodied attention. Finding myself alone, I was pleased to have found a film with which I felt a certain kinship. Finding myself in the company of this rogue attention, I was irritated by the smug ass whom I instantly imagined to be directing it. My capacity for attention-empathy, it appears, is low. If I read a story telling me that someone is watching terrible TV and thinking complex thoughts, I know exactly how to will myself into a generous understanding of that person, even if he is unlike me. But if I am simply shown terrible TV and told that this is what an unnamed person is watching, I tend to assume that he is an idiot.

This sort of benefit-of-the-doubt is actually something very important for me to work on, because it comes up all the time in relation to works of art. It happens all the time that I’ll enjoy some movie but my enjoyment will be hampered by the fact that I can also imagine lots of people enjoying it some wrong way. Likewise, I’m often ready to enjoy some seriously gooey, floral, flighty art in a very sincere way, only to have it ruined for me by the inevitable specter of the Verdurin types whose insipid thoughts seem to be implicit in the mere act of focussing attention on the work. But I must remember that those insipid thoughts are not implicit in the work itself. It took me a long time to build up the strength of focus necessary to enjoy a painting of a beautiful landscape in the same way that I enjoy a beautiful landscape, rather than see it as a tainted artifact of some perfumed art culture. Today, I was enjoying film of swirling water the same way I enjoy swirling water – until I suddenly remembered that the film was actually about the viewer, a guy for whom I have no patience. Time to rectify that, I think.

I’m looking at the title, Portrait of a Young Man, and the young man in my mind is still wearing a scarf and smirking. I’m going to start by trying to get him to take off the scarf.

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