Bully Talk

On Comfort, Cinema, and Looking Into the Sun

Leaf Sketch, by Alison Lee Chapman, 2022.

Classroom chairs, particularly those intended for small children, are made from hard plastic and steel. They are cold to the touch and leave empty air where the lower back would otherwise lean. The child can squirm, shifting its weight periodically. The child can also cross and uncross its legs or pitch forward onto its plastic desk. If the child remains motionless, it risks total numbness in the extremities preceded by a complicated prickling sensation in the feet and legs. The chairs are armless and keep the child exposed on all sides. There is nowhere for the child’s head and neck to rest. Sleep and feelings of privacy are unlikely to visit the child.

The child might be soothed by a wiggle, a bloom of daydreams, or a window that shows weather and tree parts. But it is more likely that the teacher’s voice, regardless of whether or not it is revered, is what lures the child away from the body and its protests. If nothing else, the student hears the varied sound of dispensed information: The language of earth science differs from the language of a spelling lesson just as the grammar of multiplication tables differs from the grammar of American history. The child is perpetually subsumed in the modulating sound of teaching, and this sound rescues the child from its chair.

Church pews partake in a similar design logic. The typical pew assigns eighteen inches of solid oak to each worshipper. The back and buttocks are relieved only by ritual, by timed kneeling and standing for the duration of a service. Such furniture seemingly owes its continuance to tradition alone. The worshipper, like his seat, is to adhere not to modernity and its fads but to the fixed and the tried.

Still, the body that stations itself over that solid oak is subjected to the probability of discomfort. Should that discomfort result in boredom or in woolgathering, the cadence of faith becomes a composite theme, a melody that scores one’s most animal and most private genres of thought. Distraction, in this context, is a bodily experience punctuated and arranged by the rhythm of the congregation, by the sermon and the hymnbook.

The drone of sore flanks, the occlusion of blood flow at the ankles and knees can be distracted from but never fully attended to or alleviated. Language, whether it is sung or spoken, is cold pressed into a medicine. It is available to the worshipper’s quiet means of domination in that it can be memorized, forgotten, repeated, and misquoted. Were it not for the hostile pew, the Hail Mary and the Our Father would do little but interrupt petty thought. Away from the pew or up from the knees, these prayers would be sentences which only serve to distract the worshipper from other sentences, leaving the business of the body alone and unchaperoned.

Orchestrations of physical discomfort are most successful in spaces where a heightened attention to language is both required and unwarranted. These are places of need which can be distinguished from places of utility and places of entertainment. They are visited for reasons outside of pleasure-seeking, and they do not necessarily service those who enter. Their functionality is either minimal or unquantifiable. When we are seated in these spaces, language presents itself as a technology that might relieve us of what’s physical, returning us to higher orders of thought, to reason and epiphany. We can feel ourselves exit the scrimmage of the body and go upwards.

My interest in church pews and classroom chairs only came about when going to the movies no longer helped me. Movie theaters were, in my estimation, similar to church halls and classrooms. They were places of ritual and etiquette that I visited out of need. They have offered me no discernible benefit and have served no unambiguous function. They were not the places of entertainment that they had once been. Entertainment now happened best at home where there is good enough darkness, a pause button, and a large, bright, servile screen.

I didn’t go to the movies to escape a line of thought or to hide from whatever had been asked of me in the daylight. I went because something in my week or month had made me rigid, unreceptive to the things I needed to feel curious about. For mysterious, protoreligious reasons, seeing a movie used to interrupt the calcification, making people, love, and work strange to me again. I needed to be startled every so often—to have my hackles raised in a safe, populated kennel.

The trouble began like so: I had gone to see a competent movie. It had pretty cinematography and an unlikely cast. The movie took place as scheduled, and I exited the theater with an opinion and little else.   

My mistake had been minor. I had dressed warmly, warmer than I ever liked to dress. A wind chill had dropped the ambient temperature well below freezing, and I had decided to wear a second pair of pants and a second coat. The doubling up had circumstantially concealed the fact that theaters tend to condition their air moronically. I was accustomed to shivering through runtimes, suffering the climate control because I couldn’t bring myself to dress accordingly. I didn’t shiver at all that day. I was comfortable in my assigned velour seat, and the movie couldn’t begin operating on me as a result. 

Supreme comfort is something that most contemporary theaters tout. Their competitor is each potential ticket holder’s living room, kitchen, and bathroom. The big franchises have long worried that the motivation to leave one’s private theater in order to attend a costly public theater is puttering out. There are, of course, popcorn addicts and traditionalists to pick over. But amenities like heated reclining chairs and table service have become a top priority when it comes to how movie theaters sell themselves. It seems that most cinemas have tired of remarking upon how impossibly large their screens are and how sensational their surround sound is, even though this is what we go for in the end.

For a few hours, the domination of massive sound and massive image are played against perfect comfort and darkness, and the goliath, without our disappointment, routinely loses out to comfort. This is perhaps because our movies tend to participate in our contentment by way of principle and form. They follow unmistakable narrative patterns, scoring neatly choregraphed violence to music that we recognize reflexively. They present our actors to us in roles they’ve been publicly groomed for. They copy themselves compulsively until there is pleasure in detecting what is derivative of what. They are cool customers of candied dialogue, softcore pornography, and giddy allegory. There is very often a lesson, and it is very often stated outright by a supporting character. The jump cuts are causal and pristine. The gore is plainly realistic. The guts, superb. The blood, correct. In short, most movies bully us to take a hit of a substance we’re grossly tolerant of. We play the part of someone who has succumbed to force, but feel very little in the way of paranoia or recalibration.   

This sort of pessimism around major motion pictures isn’t something I’m able to peddle for very long. The form, even at its most dangerous and abused, is one that I feel protective of. I owe any resilience I have to it, and it has often rescued me in the same way that the pew rescues the prayer. The movies that have done this work for me are the ones that have spoiled my comfort. They are disturbing not in their subject matter but in their way and tone.

I once saw a movie about a lobotomist who liked to have his picture taken. He took a tour of sorts, stopping in alpine American towns to womanize and separate brain tissue.

The young man who took photographs for the lobotomist had a muscled face. This characteristic remained even after he became the lobotomist’s patient. The young man awoke from his operation with blackened eyes, swollen from the concise trauma. But his brow was still thick with feeling. The young man was of small stature, but he hulked in each frame like a doll in another, smaller doll’s house and clothes.

There was an exit sign that hung by the trunk of the screen. It glowed the proper red—a hygienic, suspecting color. I watched the sign as much as I watched Rick Alverson’s movie. Not because I was bored or affronted, but because I knew to look for illuminated green or red letters in the event of an emergency. I knew to glance upwards and approach the letters without reading them. However melodramatic my impulse, it made bodily sense. Something in the theater was profoundly wrong. The wrongness had no smell or heat.

I’ve since described The Mountain as the only movie I’ve ever attempted to leave. Although the attempt only involved a shift in my gaze, it’s true that the urge to flee passed through a deeply dug set of synapses saved for fires and other nonnegotiable threats. The menace that encouraged me to locate the sign didn’t come from the lobotomist or from the images of anesthetized women with orbitoclasts embedded in their eye sockets. It came from Alverson’s starched symmetry and from the Martian cold of an America I suspected but never felt.

The film’s cold could not have accommodated a story with a clipped, gratifying gait. There was blank, woolen time. There were stiff and still bodies. The bodies had always been wherever they were found. And they were like furniture in that they had been made and lived over. The bodies were preciously arranged inside of moistureless, leveled architectures. Alverson never allows these shadowboxed scenes to produce beauty or real balance. The exacting composition is only out to signal to the spectator that she is encountering artifice. The patterns are too obtrusive, and the color scheme, too creamed. Alverson humanely alerts her to the production of a reality—an activity which is bound to make danger and do harm.

There is a shot in this film of two metal folding chairs. The chairs are empty. They face each other but are not aligned. Were bodies to occupy the chairs you would see the entire front of one body and the entire back of the other. The bodies would share the same picture plane in such a way that one body appears to be a miniature.

Near the end of the movie, the lobotomist and the young photographer sit in these chairs. The photographer plays the miniature. He is being interviewed because it’s possible that his mind has been lost. He is asked about his perceptions of reality. His answers are short and unguarded. Moments before, the young photographer had smashed a set of wooden waiting chairs in a fit of lucidity and imitation. He had seen a male patient beg to be released and had chosen to mimic the patient, crying out the same words at the same pitch. A single staging of what he had been made to witness results in his total assimilation. Once his designated seat is destroyed, there is nothing to separate the young photographer from the lobotomist’s medical theater. And so he is given the split mind of the production, watching forever from inside.

Similar metal folding chairs appear in Alverson’s earlier films. As do pews. Reverent and irreverent bodies find their seats. Most often there is a grieving man at the center. He is a performer or an impersonator or a foreigner. He tries to heal himself through sanctioned means. He exercises in isolation, goes to work, or makes himself responsible to something weaker and more stricken. These characters, no matter how much they travel, are firmly seated in their identities—identities which are male, obstructed, and subsisting on blunt, liturgical repetitions. These men have a punished appearance, and they are sat down apart from the others like sentenced children.

It’s possible that Alverson makes movies for the spectator that is wary of their chair, suspicious of the motivations behind its design and feel. Why should it hold me this way and not that way? What does it make secret to me; what does it make acute?

In one of his private tape recordings, Marlon Brando describes movie acting as a contest that should climax in interruption: The actor’s true job is to “stop that movement from the popcorn to the mouth.” The manufactured comfort and privacy of the spectator must somehow be ruptured. Brando says that this is accomplished by the inconceivable delivery of a particular phrase or gesture. The actor’s script, whether it is set in stone or improvised, should be approached as a possible agitator. It is a series of sentences and movements which should be written for spectating bodies that have been lulled by carbs and supreme comfort. The grammar of a movie, as it is executed by actors and light, must generate the discomfort that the cinema cannot afford to take up. That grammar fails or dies if the creature comforts of the spectator are never arrested. The popcorn must momentarily lose its route, so that the body can suddenly locate itself within an absurd ceremony: The body has been walked to a darkened room where it stares at an oppressive, harsh light; the light is noisy and false and crowded by story, by dizzied, flattened faces.

Were I to observe a movie screening in a lab or diorama, I would see people seated below a giant rectangle of light. The people would look into the light until it ceases, then other, less spectacular light would happen, and the people would rise up and disappear. It would look as though man had domesticated the sun and framed it. It would look as though doing so had allowed the seated people to behold it without going blind or mad.

Finding a way to articulate the absurdity of movie-watching is not interesting on its own. But the desire to look up at large, intelligent light is somehow spinal, bred deep enough to seem unthought or insectile. The practice of looking into the sun is, in humans, associated with mania, insanity, and childhood. The momentary blindness, the residual ring of light, the biological unwillingness to widen the eyes all seem to say that there are two suns. There is the beautiful sun that has not been watched or looked at directly. And there is what is called the scrutinized sun. The latter sun is hideous and writhing, while the former sun is happy and full of promises to do with life, growth, truth and so on. George Bataille, the novelist and thinker who first arrived at this double reading of the sun, took issue with all things ascendant and overlit: notions of enlightenment and ethereality, the flight of Icarus, the human head, the elevated importance of reason and spirit, the paternal. A hierarchy where what is highest––on the body or within a culture––is also the worthiest of serious thought was, to Bataille, a convenient and erroneous tyranny at best. The sun, being the most abundant symbol of what such a hierarchy glorifies, provided Bataille an essential irony. The symbol for transcendence was also an unrestrained destructive entity that insisted upon the body by threatening its boundaries. Icarus plummets to his death. The beholder goes blind. The skin burns and peels away.

What’s most relevant, though, is Bataille’s belief that the scrutinized sun—the sun that violates the eye—“has a share in the elaboration or decomposition of forms.” Outside of a literal treatment of this idea, the scrutinized sun is used as a metaphor for an artwork which is not out to generate beauty or pleasure or epiphany. Instead, these artworks concern themselves with thresholds and areas of breakdown or overgrowth. In the case of film, the scrutinized sun appears when a movie is uncomfortably close to itself and most involved in wondering what a movie is and does. These aren’t necessarily metanarratives which at some point expose a film crew or the trappings of a set. These are movies which are most concerned with pressing the form to do the aborting work that Brando, rightly or wrongly, assigned to actors alone. They are potent and unfun to watch in succession. If enjoyment takes place during a viewing, it takes place as a byproduct. These kinds of movies are not necessarily about movie-making. They are about anything. But they are always curious and ambivalent about what they are doing to you. Their interest in you is not related to a desire to successfully carry out a particular effect or thrill, which is to say that they are not trying to take advantage of you. If they are shocking or nauseating, they are so because they have violated an unstated agreement that exists between the theater and the person who has entered it. They feel finished at the close, but do not participate in restoring the comfort they’ve managed to puncture. They leave behind a residue—a film—that the ticketholder must exit with and live behind for some time.

Only the terrific daze that children have when they exit the theater is comparable. The child entered the theater in a mood that was their own. It was an assemblage of the season they found themselves in, the weather, the smells and fabrics of the day. When the child exits the theater, that mood is gone and irretrievable. It has been replaced in a totalizing way by the mood of the movie. It’s an inhabited, besieged feeling. I remember having it after every trip to the movies as a kid. It wouldn’t be right to say that I was disoriented or suddenly unable to make sense of what existed outside of the theater. It was more that I had been impossibly populated by something that had ended and was forever over. It was a melancholic state regardless of whether or not I liked the movie I had been taken to. If I shut my eyes, the movie characters would be there, preserved by what felt like a scarring. It seemed as though the projected light had branded whatever screen laid between the eyelid and the pupil. The lenses of either eye had been disfigured with personages that were trapped somewhere and could not be visited. The wish to see the movie over and over again was not going to be granted, and the mood, however disquieting or hexed, was going to fade and be lost.

When something similar happens in adulthood, it is less of an enchantment and more of a confrontation. There is something disturbing about a movie that is able to separate itself from other movies. When these movies are stumbled upon, there is seemingly no exiting. An opinion cannot materialize quickly enough to protect the viewer, and that childhood evacuation and substitution of mood occurs. There is speechlessness and discomfort. And there is a paranoid suspicion that some remainder of the film now lives lodged between the eye and the world’s textures and tones. It works like a blindness that can only be exchanged for another blindness.

Another film will be necessary. 

Suzie Bovenzi