Tuesday, October 28, 2008

László Moholy-Nagy, Tarkovsky, and Learning to See

I remember a conversation I had with my brother in the last months of my first year at college. I asked him if the Spring seemed markedly more stunning that year than in years past and I told him that, to my mind, blues were worlds deeper and reds vastly more red. I told him that things--all of it: a sky, a volvo station wagon, a sock, a donut--they were all coming together more beautifully than they had ever come together before. I remember thinking that the noise of the world was never so loud, so strangely and constantly present and I remember running on a trail through southern Minnesota prairie and being moved to some seriously silly tears thinking, Well, this is it. There is nothing more perfect. I asked my brother kind of self-consciously if it were possible that I was seeing, really seeing for the first time. I think, as remarkable as it sounds, this was true and I think it has a lot to do with watching movies.

I like this quote about László Moholy-Nagy from Michael W. Jennings' introduction to a book of Walter Benjamin's essays:

"For Moholy, the automatism of the camera lens is a crucial prosthesis, an extension of the range and power of the human visual apparatus that alone can reveal to human cognition new relationships between elements of the perceptual world. What Moholy is interested in here is not so much the representation of things as they are, not the true nature of the modern world but instead a harnessing of new media's potential for cognitive and perceptual transformation. Moholy's theories on photography as a technological prosthesis are inseparable from his anthropology; they remain rooted in a call for a continuous recasting of the human cognitive apparatus and the values and behaviors that are based upon it."

Moholy-Nagy was above all concerned with the "necessary relationship between technology, media, and the development of the human sensorium" and considered a work of art "productive" if it combined light, movement, emotions, and images to create a sensory experience that would teach us to see the world in new light. His famous question probably captures all of this best: "Space, time, material--are they one with light?" and it makes perfect sense he would make this piece from 1932 entitled Lightplay:



(For more on László, go ahead and visit with Fiona MacCarthy's article in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/mar/18/art.modernism)

Judging from my first impressions of Malick's The New World--recorded around the same time as my first realizations that I was fundamentally seeing the world differently--I was aware that watching movies was growing my perceptive ability and wreaking some big consequences for my life outside of the cinema and in the world. I wrote:

"Terrence Malick’s movies are meant to be seen on big screens, or maybe in the world all around us—in the sun and sky, in the people you love, and in the moments when our hearts are finally and truly struck. Is such an imposition of Malick’s vision on our daily lives impossible? Just an emotional fantasy of an overzealous moviegoer?"

I've been re-visiting and first-time viewing some Tarkovsky lately, and it feels like a million bucks for the same reasons Moholy-Nagy points out and for the same reasons Malick has had such a paramount impact on my little heart. I watch this stuff and I can feel the world shifting around me, some kind of perceptual tectonics.
Mirror:

Tarkovsky asks me,
What's the sound of rain! What's the sound of fire! How do they exist without their image parts?
What's the stuff of dreams! What's the stuff of life! What's a human being! Could it all be wind?
What does light do to the body! What power lies in water! What will it look and sound and feel like when the world falls apart?
What is 'empty' rendered tangible?
How can a movie be inside the world be inside a movie be inside the world be inside one movie?!

Solaris:

What can time do to our sense of something? Could speeding past the lights in a tunnel be a strip of film writ large? Don't wheels on pavement sound like taking off into outerspace and don't both of these things sound terrifying? Did we build something too harsh for us to live in?

Art teaches us how to perceive the world and this is a very small observation; of course we learn new ways to see, hear, and feel the world until the day we die. But in practice I think this just has to be the most exciting part of being alive.

1 comment:

Ryland Walker Knight said...

martha... just... yes. yes!