A Series of Moments, Frozen in Time
Why is it that I find it so hard to make good videos? Is it because I’m bad at telling stories?
Over the break, I set a task to myself to try to “do” more video. I have for a long time had a decent camera that also shot movies, but I have never found myself able to produce anything that I liked. Why is that, I thought? What is it that I lack, that prevents me from being able to communicate in this medium?
I love taking photographs. I find that going for a walk around town with my camera, alone, lets me settle into something like a contemplative mood, where after a while I am able to notice moments and capture them. I’m nothing approaching a good photographer, but I find the practice of photography to be really good for me. It puts me in a different frame of mind for an afternoon.
Moving pictures, however, have rarely worked for me. Even with mobile phones sporting increasingly impressive capabilities for videography, I’m almost always taking still shots. Maybe it’s for lack of trying, I thought to myself. So I went out a few times to try to push myself out of my comfort zone.
End result: gigabytes of useless footage.
My friend Ani tried to be helpful. “What’s the story you’re trying to tell? Once you’ve figured that out, it’ll get better. Do an establishing shot, then a medium shot, then a close-up. Give the viewer a sense of place, and then close in on what you’re trying to say.” I then spent a few hours on YouTube, looking for more advice. This clip from Film Riot was particularly enlightening—explaining that scenes are best thought of as sentences, with shots as words, and the editing of footage being most akin to writing. That all felt encouraging: I can write, so maybe I just have to learn how to “write” differently.
But the problem, it began to dawn on me, is that though I often write, I rarely tell stories—at least not on the individual human level. It’s just not how I’m wired up, or what I’ve ever been drawn to. I’ll often try to trace the history of an idea—a kind of story, I suppose. Or as I do here at Wisdom of Crowds, I’ll recount my internal mental meanderings—a kind of narrative as well. But I’m not drawn to the individual—to his hopes, relationships, disappointments. It’s why I don’t read much current fiction, and why the great “television revolution” has almost completely passed me by. Maybe the moving picture is not my medium after all.
As I thought about it more, I started to hone in on what most attracted me in art. I remember in college really struggling with defining what the term itself meant—”art”. I had exhausting debates with my art historian friends well into the night. I didn’t make any headway until a semester-long seminar on Immanuel Kant introduced the term “the sublime” to me. The term boils down to something being awesome in the traditional sense of the word: literally inspiring awe. Kant described it as the thrilling feeling you get when your reason is unable to fully process some experience. Edmund Burke, I would later learn, described the sublime as imparting a sense of “astonishment” in those that behold it. Both philosophers connected the sensation with a kind of exhilarating fear—a fear borne of seeing something overwhelming, huge. I experience it most frequently as becoming excited at the recognition how insignificant you are compared to the infinite scope of something.
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I’ve certainly felt that when watching movies, I thought. Indeed, it’s what attracts me to a movie much more than any element of human drama, character development, and relatability. It’s what makes a movie more than a mere story.
The other day, I was talking to my parents about the new Martin McDonagh film, The Banshees of Inisherin, which we had just watched together. They were laughing about how it’s very much a “me” kind of movie—dark and pessimistic. They were right, of course: I was transfixed. But not by the darkness and pessimism as such.
The plot centers upon two lifelong friends living on a remote Irish island during the Irish Civil War. One day, one of the two decides he no longer wants to be friends with the other. There are reasons for the decision, but they don’t fully add up—neither for the spurned friend, nor for the audience. It soon becomes clear that this is as much about stubborn will as anything else. Soon the hateful logic of events takes over. Without spoiling much, the gruesome acts of willful self-mutilation that are at the center of the film leave you absolutely dumbfounded. By the end, it becomes clear that the break-up is a stand-in for civil war more generally.
The film is wonderfully acted—Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson really make the characters come alive. But as compelling as the performances are, it’s not a film about individual stories. It’s not even about sorrow or loss, or coping. It’s about how the logic of enmity plays out, and how it creates irreconcilable differences. “Some things there’s no moving on from,” Colin Farrell’s character says at the very end. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
The sublime experience, then, is not that the film is pessimistic, but that it succeeds in convincingly conjuring up forces far bigger than any individual, than any character. Like I said, it’s the feeling of the scale of it all. That’s what left me astonished—what makes the film an achievement.
I love taking photographs. Early advice you might get as a photographer is to look for stories to try to communicate to the audience. I’ve always found this advice perplexing. For me, photography at its best just faces the viewer with a frozen moment in time. I suppose that it’s this frozenness that most easily nudges me towards the sublime, towards awe. If the photographer has done a good job, you as the audience lose yourself in the image. You interpret it, you enjoy the sliver of experience, and it reminds you of things you yourself may have seen. But at the same time, you are reminded of its impermanence, its contingency. Its very resonance with your own experience reminds you that your own life is but a series of moments frozen in time.
Taking photographs is to me less about documenting my own moments, and certainly not about telling any story. Instead, I do it to remind myself that these moments exist, and that they are fleeting. After a week of trying, it’s clear to me that I am properly illiterate when it comes to “writing” in moving images. Maybe that can change with practice. But I suppose the thing I’ve learned in chewing over my failures and setbacks is that maybe one doesn’t need to write a story to write well.
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