September 15, 2016
Moments of Uncertainty
Near the very beginning of Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 fantasy dreamscape of humanity and inhumanity, the title character's wife addresses the camera directly. She's staring right at us and asking us why we took her watch. We know, instinctively, that she can't be talking to us, that she must be arguing with someone unseen, but Tarkovsky holds the camera so long on her, and she looks so directly into the lens, that we slowly become unsettled, as if somehow she is meant to be talking to the viewer. It's a long take and the longer it goes on the more certain we are that she is talking to us; it's impossible to have someone look into your eyes for this long and not have that sense.
It's a strange moment in a movie filled with strange moments.
What I particularly like about this shot is how it sets up its echo near the end of the film -- very near the end of the film, perhaps exactly as far from the end as this early scene is from the beginning. We again see this woman, and she again talks directly to the camera. This time, she is speaking explicitly to the viewer. However, because we've been in this position before with this woman, we're guarding against Tarkovsky's tricks and we doubt that she's meant to be talking to us. We are unsettled in a different direction when after a bit of time it becomes abundantly clear that she is talking to the camera, to the audience. And this moment only works and unsettles us because of our bizarre encounter two and a half hours previously.
In a way, he's stripping us of a basic humanity, to engage with a person, to reciprocate the gaze she gives us. We too are changed by this visit to the Zone.
I love, love this film. This is just one moment that I love. It's such a masterful effect that I had to remark on it.
July 28, 2016
This Important Year
I am not an overly political person. I vote, sure, but I've never closely followed local politics. I have mostly only ever had a fairly broad sense of national politics. I have beliefs, and I try to relate those beliefs as best I can at the ballot box, but I've never been what I would call involved. Never donated; got a sense of what was going on mostly from the headlines, listened to NPR. There was even a time for a few years starting in 2002 where as a young father I just avoided the news entirely, for my own sanity.
I pulled the lever in a November when called upon, even once or twice bringing my young sons along to show them I thought that was important. Wore my sticker to work after. But ten minutes in line and two minutes in the booth with an idle background of the news was all I've ever really put in. I didn't see the value. I think that it's fair to say that especially after 2000 I was cynical.
That changed over the last two weeks.
Last week, I watched it all, every minute of hyperbolic vitriol in that convention, much of it in real time, some of it by stitching together YouTube clips the following morning. I watched it even though at times it drove me nearly to panic. I mean that in a specific way -- I felt the prickle on my skin and the pounding of my heart and that weird sensation inside your stomach like something's clawing at it. Classic fight or flight responses, all of them, and I'd stop watching for a while and breathe and get control of myself and my fear and then dive back in¹.
I dove into the news. Newspapers in our country are an embattled institution and at times like these we see just how much we need them. It would be easy to listen to last week's messages and think that America was in dire straits. The news reported on those messages but also picked them apart, and that helped a lot, even as Trump's numbers picked up a convention bounce. Thank you, those of you out there who are doing the journalistic work to make sense of what's going on.
Then this week, things started to turn around for me. I've watched every minute of the Democratic National Convention thus far, and I look forward to tonight as well. I listened to ordinary citizens, made extraordinary in the worst way by events like gun violence or systemic racism or 9/11, endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton. I listened to her strongest competition endorse her. I listened to people who worked in public office alongside her endorse her. I listened to a First Lady as she put into words the things I feel about this country when it is at its best. I've watched that speech three times already and I expect to watch it again.
As an aside, seeing that speech made me think about what a great gift we've been given in the oratorical powers of our sitting President and I went back and watched several of his speeches again, ones I saw when they were given. It was hard to see many of them again, such as the eulogy in Charleston, or for Sandy Hook. I watched again the Speech on Race and the speech in Selma. I watched DNC speeches from 2004 and 2008 and 2012. We have been lucky, given what we have faced, to have a man of his prodigious gifts working in that Oval Office. I'll never forget being in the center of Washington DC the night he was elected and hearing the car horns and the cheering and the excitement on the streets as McCain conceded. You could hear the hope and the excitement.
Back at the DNC this year, I listened to Vice Presidents president, past, and (I hope) future. I listened to Presidents present and past. Bill Clinton described a person who I felt I had never really been allowed to see, both in public and private life, in a speech I've already watched twice. President Obama echoed that so eloquently last night in a speech I expect to watch again. President Obama also elaborated on themes I have heard in his speeches again and again, about the ongoing project that our country and our democracy represent. President Obama gave me hope.
What I saw in these speeches that I don't think I had ever seen before in politics was people. That sounds absurd, of course; politics is made out of people, just three people if you believe the old saw. But for what feels like the first time in a long time I saw people who have devoted their lives to public service. I saw people who have worked hard on my behalf to make the world a better place, however they can see to do so. I saw people with whom I on occasion disagree. I saw people who I think on occasion make mistakes, and big ones. But I can't honestly say I wouldn't make some of those same mistakes under the pressures that they face. I can't honestly say that I can't see how they might make those mistakes. I can forgive them those mistakes because I believe they did the absolute best they could with what was available to them. And I can also consider the perspective that I might be the one in the wrong on these things I would call mistakes².
I've also seen a process that works going on in Philadelphia. I saw a platform shift because of the wishes of a large part of those who voted in the primaries; Bernie Sanders's supporters shifted what planks made up that platform. This is how democracy works! You build consensus. You give and take. You listen. You give a voice to those who disagree with you³.
I've never been much for politics, as I said in the outset. This week I have watched a parade of people who have done more on my behalf in any given year of their public lives than I have done politically in my whole life. Last night I even saw a "little old lady from Ohio," in her words, introduce the President who had motivated her to run for her local school board at the age of 73!
So this morning I've done what I never thought I would do. I volunteered for a Presidential campaign. I signed up on her site, and depending on what I hear back from that I'll get in touch with local organizers. Maryland will go for Hillary Rodham Clinton, but there are important states nearby that I'm happy to call or even drive to. West Virginia, Pennsylvania. I'll do that Election Day if I have to, get my vote cast when the polls open and drive wherever I can be helpful. I'll do whatever I can contribute to make her campaign a successful one.
What it comes down to is this: when November comes around, I want to be able to look my sons in their eyes and be able to tell them I did everything I could. I want this election not to be a near miss in either direction. I want this election to be a landslide repudiation of everything that fear-monger represents. I want Hillary Rodham Clinton in office with a mandate to make change.4 I want a strong message sent from across this country that the politics of lies and fear and cozying up with tyranny and dictatorship have no place in the America I want to live in. And that I want my sons to live in.
I'm with her. Whatever she needs.
¹I was also at times aided in this by things of wonder on the Internet like James Corden singing karaoke in a mini-van with the First Lady, about whom more later.
²This is such a sharp contrast to that blowhard on the other side, by the way. That's a man who never devoted a minute of his life to public service. That's a man who will never admit a mistake, except as a way to tear another person down.
³This is another stark contrast with last week, for what it's worth, where one person stood on the stage and strongly disagreed with that man. He stood out because so many of those who disagreed with that nominee simply stayed home. Including two former Presidents. Including former candidates and nominees. Including even the Republican governor of the state in which the convention was held.
4Bernie supporters: I hear you and I hear your concerns. I agree with many of them and in particular those that made the Democratic platform. Please vote for her in November. Please help us wash away Trump in an absolute tide. And let's keep up the pressure on our government to improve in so many ways afterwards.