Seeing Things

December 1, 2015 — One of the great myths of our time concerns the promise of a global vision, of seeing things with the power, distance, and clarity of an all-encompassing vantage point, what Donna ...

December 1, 2015 — One of the great myths of our time concerns the promise of a global vision, of seeing things with the power, distance, and clarity of an all-encompassing vantage point, what Donna Haraway once called “the god trick.”1 It is no surprise that the first photographs to give this kind of perspective on the Earth as a whole, taken by the astronauts of the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, were met with such wildly utopian enthusiasm.

This is how the Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweikart put it, recalling how Earth looked on the long spacewalk he took in 1969: “There you are. Hundreds of people killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take a person in each hand, and say, ‘Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?”2

These new images of the Earth as a fragile ball sailing through the black void of space gave tremendous impetus to the Western environmental movements of that time; indeed, as the historian Robert Poole has suggested, the Apollo 17 photograph of the Earth as a small blue marble may well be the most widely reproduced image in human history.

The redemptive potential of these images has since proved illusory, and our world remains caught in the same impasses they were enlisted to break. Still, though, the questions remain: What kind of perspective will human beings need to grapple with the perils of this Anthropocene? Do we need more of the lucid vision of daylight or the imaginative powers of some other kind of dream? What will it take to nurture and sustain this kind of vision?

So much seems to turn, both ethically and politically, on the cultivation of new forms of perspective—on learning to see beyond the conceits of human agency and its sometimes-murderous consequences. Say we hope to find new ways of reconciling human aims and intentions with the precarious vitality of this globe on which we find ourselves; there is no better way to do this than to examine how such accommodations with the world are put into practice—in the making of, say, a modern human artifact as powerful and complex as cinema.

Cinema offers a way “to carry perception into things,” as Gilles Deleuze put it, “to put perception into matter.”3 This potential is a promise realized most fully when we approach cinema as something more than an archive of finished forms and tales. With this ecology of cinema, I try to put the medium back into the world, back into the environment from which it arises, the web of relations through which it grows.

Cinematography is known in the Tamil cinema of south India as olippathivu, literally an impression or recording of light. The term itself is highly suggestive: cameramen work to capture something already in motion, light that comes from somewhere else. In mythological and devotional films, rays of light are sometimes depicted as streaming from the eyes of gods and goddesses.4 Whether or not they attribute its power to such divine origins, cameramen work with light as a potent substance: flowing, leaking, seeping, spilling, always edging beyond their control.

In this cinematic milieu, studio floors are scarce, sets costly to build, electrical lights expensive to rent and staff. Most shots begin with the light available in a given environment, to be filled, bounced, filtered, or reflected as possible and necessary. Control is a persistent concern. More than anywhere else in a film production, the fortunes of the camera crew depend upon the vagaries of natural elements. Day by day, countless moments pass as camera assistants gaze into the sky with polarized eyepieces, waiting for clouds to open into some degree or quality of light.

Cameraman Nirav Shah was someone I knew quite well, as he’d shot several of the films that I’d been shadowing over the past few years. We first met in 2007, when he was shooting Vishnu Vardhan’s Billa in Malaysia. On my first day with them, a fierce rainstorm suddenly engulfed the Buddhist temple complex where they were working. They waited at first for the storm to pass, then decided to improvise a few shots of the heroine practicing T’ai Chi against the driving rain and mist.

“In Hollywood,” Nirav speculated, “they get their own sun if they want. They’ve got the time, the expertise, the money.” Circumstances here demanded accommodation to light and environment, “a little bit of control, and a lot of acceptance.”

I learned more about this attitude one sunny day a couple of years later. We were standing on the marshy fringes of Puzhal Lake, north of Chennai, where he was shooting for a spoof film called Tamil Padam. They’d just staged an altercation on the edge of the water, a crane-mounted camera gliding in low over its glistening surface. Equipment and crew were all perched in ankle-deep water because their cables could extend no farther.

Nirav rehearsed the swooping movement of the crane’s rig with his own extended arm and hand. He called for a polarizing filter to deepen the clear sky’s blue and to cut its reflection on the lake. He noticed a fallen tree trunk and had it planted vertically to break up the wide openness of the space. And then, on one of their longest takes, a crow came sailing through the frame. “Super,” the cameraman said to the director. “It’s come together beautifully. Even that crow came in.”

None of this was planned in advance, Nirav confessed when they broke for lunch. He hadn’t even seen the place until that morning, and had to guess what equipment he might need for the day. “It’s an Indian way of accepting what is there in front of you,” he reflected, as we picked our way along the low grass on the edge of the lake. “We are reacting to the moment, reacting to the location, reacting to the light. … Everything is working out on its own.”

For the cameraman, this approach was “a spiritual thing,” brought on by the exigencies of filmmaking. “The film industry does that to you,” he said. “Day by day, you live in the moment. You develop a Zen-like attitude.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by Zen, and nor, perhaps, was he. Still, I knew that diverse strands of Indian religion and philosophy had long taken knowledge of the world to demand a certain kind of vision. In Indian Buddhist literature, the mind is described as essentially luminous by nature, its ordinary obstructions and afflictions susceptible to the piercing light of wisdom.5 Nirav himself spoke of seeing past obstacles, working with a more expansive awareness of what was present.

“This doesn’t happen every day,” he admitted. Nor was he always as pleased with what happened as he had been that morning. These were lessons that had come with time. “You reach a point where you can’t crib anymore. Then you say ‘Fuck it! I just want to be happy about what I’m doing.”

That afternoon at Puzhal Lake, he and the others worked as long as they could, until a sudden downpour forced an abrupt end to the shoot.

Over the years in which this book has taken shape, I’ve been thinking a lot about cinema but also about the inclinations that we bring to such fields of vision as scholars and critics. We encounter powerful images and we try to look behind them. We find reveries and we want to dispel them. We meet with mythic figures and we cut them down to size. Things seem to leap and tilt vertiginously, so we put them back in place. Irony is the prevailing mood of the human sciences. Yes but no, not really, not quite.

Perhaps, as public citizens, we owe it to others to point out what they themselves fail to see, in the world at large and the circumstances of their lives. But there is something to be said as well for another kind of perspective on the world, neither global nor transcendental, a vantage point more deeply implicated in the force and momentum of what we encounter and engage.

Consider this reflection by Walter Benjamin: “Just as a child learns to grasp by stretching out his hand for the moon as it would for a ball, so humanity, in its efforts at innervation, sets its sights as much on presently still utopian goals as on goals within reach.”6

With this bygone term from neurophysiology, innervation, Benjamin had in mind an antidote to the numbing shock of technological modernity and its sensory overload. And this kind of therapy depended upon the workings of what he called the “mimetic” faculty: the capacity to see correspondences between distant things, such as between a ball and the moon—or even, perhaps, between the Earth and a marble.

What is important about this kind of vision, Miriam Hansen emphasizes, is that it brings into play an unexpected kinship between objects and observers; here is a way of looking out at the world “from the inside of things” rather than gazing upon them from a distance, in the manner that a child may reach out for the moon as though it were a ball already at hand.7 For Benjamin, children see like cinema sees, an essential complicity, for hope for the future can be grasped only through the wonder of such perspective.

This building is like so many others popping up around Chennai these days, a concrete block surfaced with dark, mirrored glass. Navigate past the security desk on the lobby floor, convince someone to swipe one of the key cards required to set foot into the digital labs upstairs, and you will find yourself in a 21st-century edition of the European Wunderkammer, a contemporary cabinet of wonders packed with curious interminglings of nature and artifice.

Look closely at the banks of screens. On one monitor, Salman Khan swings an invisible sword. On another screen nearby, the dimples are disappearing from Deepika Padukone’s smile. You can see the Tamil actor Jeeva here, not single or doubled but in fact quintupled, five Jeevas playing five instruments side by side. Nearby, Bugs Bunny is getting some cosmetic surgery on his ears. Technological marvels all, conjured up by computer-generated imagery, or CGI.

The company is EFX, its motto “Magic in Motion.” Most visual effects work in India happens in such labs, this one located on the sprawling campus of Prasad Studios. Companies like EFX are part of a global supply chain of outsourced digital effects. Scattered throughout the lab on any given day are images subcontracted from American, East Asian, and other overseas film productions. Domestic clients, meanwhile, mostly fall back on EFX for routine needs like wire removal: erasing the rigs and cables, that is, with which battling heroes like Karthi Sivakumar fly through the air.

On one of the monitors at EFX one morning is a guy with thick arms and long stringy hair, hanging from the girders suspended over a small forest stream. “Here’s the original,” Sathya says, pointing at the screen. “Now here’s the output.” When he clicks his mouse, a bridge suddenly appears over those rickety girders and the stream begins to gush with water. “Now that we’ve re-created it, this is what the real bridge looks like,” the demiurge explains modestly.

Sathya is a compositor, charged with layering together visual elements from different sources to create composite yet seamless images. He came to EFX three years back, with a BA in History and a certificate in visual effects from Pentamedia Graphics. “My dream is to work at ILM,” he tells me with a quiet sincerity, invoking the studio—Industrial Light & Magic—founded by George Lucas in California. He talks about a film on the Aztecs that he once did for an American production: they spent 30 times as much on each shot as they typically did here.

His project manager calls out his name from across the room, and Sathya returns to report that another sequence has just arrived for the same film, Mambattiyan. The police officer on his screen now, the one lashed to a tree atop a rocky hill: a flock of eagles must crowd the skies above him, descending one by one to peck him to death. I watch as Sathya blends wisps of cloud into the green matte behind the tree, overlaying a circling pair of eagles into the frame. Then he adds another bird to the image, this one larger, as though approaching the man bound to the tree.

Two days later, the cop remains crucified on Sathya’s screen, still atoning for an offense that no one in the lab can identify. The compositor is listening to the Avatar soundtrack now, wearing earmuffs to defend against the building’s frigid cold. The closest record of a living eagle that the film’s producers provided was an image of a bird grabbing meat from the roof of a tin shed. Sathya has to make it seem as though this animal is lunging instead for the police inspector, but there are problems that this juxtaposition poses: the eagle is grabbing with its feet instead of jabbing with its mouth, and if it were really flying in from the left, it would have to hit the trunk of the tree before reaching the man.

With this as with all else at EFX, the challenge that the compositors face is to work with what is available to them. Sathya creates a dynamic frame to extract the eagle from its original surroundings, pasting it into a shot of this hilltop. He rotates the swooping animal to make the attack seem more plausible, pausing to watch the overlap loop a few times on his monitor. “Kitchikoo, kitchikoo!” I hear him call out quietly, mimicking the raptor on the screen.

“The power of the god that the magician has earned or stolen,” Lee Siegel writes in a study of Indian magic, “is essentially a cosmogonic power.”8 Listening to Avatar, manipulating those talons, making those calls, Sathya seems to be trespassing on the being of that eagle, working through this animal on his monitor. It’s even more than that, though. There is also the sense, in the quiet work of this technician, of laying out the components of a living world.

There are, no doubt, many disenchanting and dispiriting things about the world as we have it now—in laboratories such as this visual effects studio and all such related places that value products at the expense of processes, proprietors at the expense of the countless others who bring their things into being into the first place. In the depths of those mirrored walls on the Prasad Studios campus, I found myself in the company of people robbed of the wonder of what they did, charged with producing effects whose force would be attributed to actors profoundly unlike themselves. Cinema is replete with such sleights of hand. In many ways, its wonders depend upon the illusion that they happen on their own.

In the face of such deceits, we may well be inclined to reveal and demystify, in the name of justice and critique, and rightly so. But to do no more than this is to deny the critical potential of wonder itself, that feeling that “keeps propositions provisional, open-ended, and incomplete,” as Mary-Jane Rubenstein puts it. “Wonder wonders at the strangeness of the most familiar: at that which … still remains indeterminate, unthinkable, and impossible.”9 Wonder, in other words, is a matter of attunement, a way of attending to the tenuous life of possibility in the face of stubborn and dispiriting actuality.

“The child,” Benjamin observed in 1933, “plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher, but also a windmill and a train.”10 If he had composed these thoughts now, in the America of this writing, he would no doubt have added the figure of the pirate to this list.

There’s a picture that my son, Karun, drew when he was a little more than three years old. A drawing of several ships, we thought at first, when he brought the picture home one evening from his nursery school. But then he told us that it was just one pirate ship, leaving from home, stopping along the way to do a little fishing, then finally reaching that blue-green ball of treasure in the corner. “That’s the same one and the same one and the same one and the same one,” he told me. “It’s showing how it’s going there, to the treasure.”

A peculiar amalgam of movement and stillness, a moving image—when Karun explained all this to me that evening, I was possessed by the sense that the child had sketched a movie onto that sheet of white paper. There was that series of frames, so much like the nineteenth-century stop-motion chronophotography of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. There were also those shifts in perspective as the ship rounded two bends, from a house with a chimney then along one edge to the top of the sheet. The image makes no sense unless you look with the ship as it moves rather than looking from some fixed point outside the scene.

Karun was born in Baltimore, a city known to the world mostly through a documentary cinema-style television show, The Wire. Fake pirate ships cruise the harbor and crime stories pervade the space of the city, as dystopian as many of the filmic settings in this book. These are realities that, despite our best efforts, seep into the experience of our children. There was that episode around the time that Karun drew this picture, when the road to his nursery school was blocked off one afternoon with helicopters, swat teams, and vivid cinematic drama for what turned out to be no more than a backpack forgotten in a parking lot.

Or what happened here in late April 2015, as this book went to press: a wave of protests and civil unrest in the wake of a brutal death in police custody, with countless observers recalling The Wire, speculating on scenes that resemble and perhaps even owe their genesis to the looting and mayhem of a 2013 Hollywood film, and circulating more heartening images meant to dispel this sense of a fatalistic script come to life.

I can’t say why Karun made that kind of drawing, on that one day a few years back and no other day since. I often wonder, though, about the hope of the journey it sketches, especially when I think of the redemptive powers often granted these days to film and video. Cinematic vision is everywhere now, in this era of YouTube and Google Street View, bodycams and ubiquitous security monitors. While there is much that is troubling in this proliferation of digital eyes and ears, that utopian promise still remains: seeing and experiencing the world from the multifarious standpoint of its things, rather than from a dominating distance.

I think of how my young son plays with little cars, rocks, and plastic animals, how he bends to the ground to look from the heart of wherever those small props are in the world—just like, in fact, the many filmmakers scattered throughout this book. I once asked Karun why he does this, dropping down to play from the vantage point of such little things. “It looks like they’re real,” he told me. “It looks like they’re one of us. It looks like they can talk to us.”

In anthropology, there is a name for this kind of vision, this way of seeing everything around us—whether human or not, organic or not—as potentially a person, as having a point of view that can be occupied and made real. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls it “perspectivism,” a “conception of the world as being composed of a multiplicity of points of view,” perspectives that do something more unsettling than offer many ways of looking at the same essential reality.11 From the standpoint of the Amerindian cosmology where Viveiros de Castro finds this idea at work, “all beings see the world in the same way—what changes is the world that they see.”12 At stake here, in other words, is something profound: the reconstitution of what is real.

In a child at play, in the mythological corpus of the Amazon, in the experience of Tamil cinema or the mode of storytelling through which this book has pursued it—wherever one may find such ideas and practices, what is crucial to grasp is the promise they bear for reconceiving the world at hand, and the possibility of working creatively with this promise.

Looking from the ground, the Earth, the lives of its beings and the potential for change their experience bears—now, more than ever, we need this kind of vision.

From Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation (Duke University Press, 2015) icon

  1. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies, vol. 14 (1988), p. 581.
  2. Robert Poole, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 165–66.
  3. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, translated from the French by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 81.
  4. Rachel Dwyer, Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema (Routledge, 2006).
  5. David McMahan, Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahayana Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 55–82.
  6. Miriam Bratu Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno (University of California Press, 2012), p. 142.
  7. Ibid., p. 155.
  8. Lee Siegel, Net of Magic:Wonders and Deceptions in India (University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 162.
  9. Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 8.
  10. Walter Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” in vol. 2 of Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Gary Smith, and Howard Eiland (Belknap Press, 2005), pp. 720–22.
  11. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cannibal Metaphysics: Amerindian Perspectivism,” Radical Philosophy 182 (2013), p. 23.
  12. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere (Hau Network of Ethnographic Theory, 2012), p. 107.