It was raining. My family had joined our dad on his annual business trip. This year, 2012, it was in Lake Placid, New Jersey. On the walls of the antique-looking Palace Theatre, along Lake Placid’s small streets, a poster for The Avengers galvanized me. Already, I had caught the buzz. I realized with most of the world that The Avengers was more than a hit. It was cinematic history—the iceberg that would sink Titanic from second to third among the highest-grossing movies of all time. But more importantly The Avengers made real a boyish dream I didn’t know I had or that I didn’t believe was possible: superheroes from separate worlds sharing one movie. And tonight, it was raining, so my family made its way to the faded-yellow-lights of the Palace Theatre and joined the tens-of-millions who that year experienced The Avengers.
After that night I anxiously measured time by the space in between installments of The Marvel Cinematic Universe. September and October weren’t months, they were a test of patience until the next Thor movie, or Captain America: Winter Soldier, or Guardians of the Galaxy. I spent these periods analyzing set-photos and reading fan-theories like a new convert devours the scriptures of his religion. And I wasn’t alone—I shared this fandom with millions of others.
How does your position in the present affect your memory of the past? This question must weigh heavily on the mind of any person writing their autobiography. Doubtless, our values in the present predicate how we assess our childhood, our adolescence, and afterwards. But the subjectivity inherent to the autobiography is not a problem for the genre. Rather, the autobiography’s subjective quality is precisely what makes the genre worth reading. It means something unique to hear a person tell their own story. Three such stories are The Confessions of St. Augustine, Thomas Merton’s memoir Seven Story Mountain, and Terrence Malick’s semi-autobiographical film Tree of Life.
Because these works are about spiritual conversions, the authors’ perceptions of their pasts are affected even more by the authors’ identities in their present. The individual described at the start of each book or depicted on film is a radically different person from the author or filmmaker who is writing.
July 2004: I am nine years old, alone in the loft of a beach house somewhere in Cape May. It is the slow, muted afternoon of a family vacation—I imagine the rest of my family scattered throughout the house, my grandmother just below, eyes half-closed in front of a TV playing The Young and the Restless. The sun seems to come falling in through the semicircular window, and I feel big and alone and powerful in this room of light and dust. The TV is on, the volume low and the voices like whispers as I look through a telescope in the corner of the room. Because I can’t properly close one eye at a time, and because of the afternoon light, I find nothing of interest through the telescope except the shadow of my own eyelid blurred with the rough outline of the sun.
I find myself standing in front of the television, drawn in by the sound of someone saying “50,000 dead and up to a million homeless.” It is a PBS special about the devastation a future hurricane could bring to New Orleans. A city official walks through the French Quarter with the program’s host, armed with a surveyor’s pole. He extends the pole up to twenty-two feet, the camera pulling back to emphasize the pair’s smallness next to it. If Hurricane Ivan had made a direct hit earlier that year, the official explains, the city would have flooded as high as the pole. “We’re swimming here,” he says, “We’re like fish. If we’re alive.”
A novice touches the face of Christ with a paintbrush, intently adding the last drops of pigment to the wooden statue. Dutifully, she and three other women carry the Christ on their shoulders, through a chicken coop, and then outside. With some effort they balance the figure on a pedestal in the convent courtyard. Then they pray.
Pawel Pawlikowski communicates a palpable sense of fragility in this opening scene of his film Ida. The director lets us know that what we hold closest, what we believe is most real, is precarious. Our identities — the beliefs we hold about our past and our future — can, with the slightest push in the right place, collapse around us.
“I stand upon my desk to remind [myself] that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” – John Keating, Dead Poets Society
We human beings are creatures of rhythm and contrast, but we think statically.
We are used to questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What do you do?” as if one thing will become the answer for perpetuity. This type of thinking shapes, and is shaped, by static images of who we are. But these static images don’t fit our real lives. At least they shouldn’t.
Silence is all we dread.
There’s Ransom in a Voice—
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.
— Emily Dickinson
I once had a professor who described Emily Dickinson’s poems as diamonds— like great amounts of life’s raw materials formed into something dense and beautiful. It is precisely that quality of density that allows us to dwell among just four short lines of her craft, still discovering new meanings, new questions, new possibilities, and always sensing that what we hold is, like a diamond, a rare and precious thing.
Silence is not the non-existence of sound; it is rather both its absence and potential. That’s the logic underpinning the sense of a “pregnant pause” and the absurdity of the “silence of outer space.” Sound cannot exist in a vacuum, so it is meaningless to call outer space silent in a way that it is not meaningless to call it dark. Pauses can be pregnant only because they could ultimately bear sounds.
Music seems to depend on sound. Even when we imagine music silently, the mind’s attention may turn to a fantasy of sound that, as it were, verges on sounding and only happens to remain silent. Yet the silences within sounding music — those pregnant pauses framed by sound, like the one after the oboe solo has trailed off in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the grand pause before the shocking C-minor tutti in the first movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony — hint to us that music might exist without sound. “The music is in the silences,” runs a familiar platitude. But if this is true, then it must imply that there can be music made of neither sound nor silence: an ineffable music of “pure” meaning.
“Because the human being is able to speak, the ability to be silent is an art, and a great art precisely because this advantage of his so easily tempts him.” – Søren Kierkegaard
Wind howls incessantly. Birds chirp and crow in dialogue. Trees continuously creak. Slowly the camera advances, gazing upward toward a small white protestant church. This is how Paul Schrader opens his latest film First Reformed.
A story of unrelenting despair, First Reformed was among the most chilling and challenging films I saw last year. The themes of the movie span hope and depression, the sacred and the mundane. Shrader’s film indicts the condition of the modern church, its corporate structures, its political affiliations, and its disregard for the natural environment. But at its heart First Reformed is about one person struggling to see God in a valley of darkness.
“Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large—and, preferably, illustrated—edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen…” – C. S. Lewis
An existential irony exists today, in which we have been insulated from our world by noise. Because our senses are constantly bombarded, we must tune down our sensitivity to the world in order to cope with it all. The loudest, most urgent noises make it through, and we process them, often according to priority of urgency. The net effect is to silence our ears to the rest of the world and its subtleties.
I needn’t delve into the many well-documented repercussions of this chronic clamor on our psyches. We know most of them only too well. But I will mention one lesser-known one, and that is the effect on our relationship to art.
If art were a car, it would run on attention—deep, high-octane attention.