the fullness of what we observe

Over the past two weeks, I have continuously asked myself one question: do we meaningfully observe our surroundings or do we mindlessly scan? Of course this question can be extended to most of the senses. For instance, do we hear what we listen to? But for now at least, I will focus on visuals. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes in the voice of the narrator, “I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much” (2.31). To me, this quote signified an important aspect of consciousness and existence. Verbalization of visuals is a key and a distraction to observation. So then maybe our need to verbalize in order to process is what unconsciously holds us back from true sight. I too often find myself, even during a casual stroll, remarking upon everything that I comes within visual perception. I find it actually suffocating that I can’t stop the need to verbalize. I can’t simply see but must translate my sight into language.

Contrastingly, Wim Wender’s “Pina” reverts this process. The dancers in the film translate language into sight. One performer imitates the moon, another visualizes the word ‘happy.’ Upon watching, I found something about the film disturbing. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was that made me uneasy. Simply, I thought the dancers’ movements were too bold, too odd compared to what I was used to. Now I wonder if it was simply the fact that I could see my language rather than read it, or think it even. The film does a wonderful job of diving into the unconventional–exercising our minds in ways we didn’t think could be flexible. Perhaps a bit confusing, then, is whether we associate words with images or images with words. I’d think the first because I found myself at a loss of words while watching “Pina.” Watching the ‘happy’ dance I felt the word but I didn’t think it. Peter Hutton’s “Landscape” evokes similar visually-stimulated emotions. Through his documentary, Hutton portrays the exotic beauty of nature. Exotic because though these clips may not be dissimilar to what we’ve seen before, we actually observe every movement in the film–the crisp flutter of tree leaves, the penetrating sunshine through a mist of clouds, the sparkle of waves. These images, stripped of sound, create an organic perception of nature’s delicacy.

Likewise, “Our Daily Bread” uses the ocular sense to convey a message. However, in this case, we don’t see what we have been looking at day by day. We realize a world that has been hidden from us. Indeed, the word eye-opening is apt in describing the contents of the documentary. In the scene where pigs are hanging, cut open, and further mutilated, the viewer is struck with a look of, at least for me, disgust and disbelief. Thousands of times we read and hear about the conditions in which our food is processed and brought to our table. But the power of sight triumphs all. What we could not imagine before we are able to see now. In my previous response I noted that we better understand humans through visualization. Now I wonder whether it is not necessarily humans but the life that humans have forged that we better understand.

Still, if sight holds so much power, how could we reconstruct a similar atmosphere of a screening of Matt Mahurin’s “I like killing flies” when so much of the film’s character is contained within Kenny’s voice, his speech. I actually went ahead and rewatched this film without any sound. Maybe this would have worked as well if I didn’t remember the distinctness of Kenny’s voice. I saw the restaurant, the food, the family. But so much of the personalities were stripped away. There were no people describing the flavor of the food, there were no audible interactions between customers and chefs, and there were no jokes that left you uncomfortable and giggling. While I admired “Pina”, “Landscape”, and “Our Daily Bread” for their visual artistry, I admired “I like killing flies” for its sound. Perhaps there is a harmony between sound and image or perhaps, just once in awhile, we need to detach ourselves to one and elongate ourselves in one direction to grasp the fullness of what we observe.

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