The wind in the trees: Regimes of attention

“What the modern movie lacks is beauty,” said D.W. Griffith, melancholy at the end of the a long career, “the beauty of the moving wind in the trees.”

At film’s inception, it’s said that viewers didn’t necessarily know where to rest their eyes. Film hadn’t organized itself into the streamlined patterns of cause-and-effect that we recognize as narrative. Why not let the eyes wander to the wind in the trees?

An unspoken truth about early silent film is that it’s really hard for most people to watch for any length of time. At class screenings in grad school, we students would settle in with the best of intentions. But after an hour or so, having exchanged complicit looks, one of us would sidle up to the DVD player and press fast-foward. The damn things are silent, after all. We got the gist, even at double-speed.

The problem is that early silent film counts on a kind of attention that we didn’t have: an open-eyed fascination with the appearance of moving photographic images, and the ability to grasp allusions to any number of turn-of-the-century pop-culture references.

Having watched enough of these films, I can now, with a great deal of concentration, summon up a reverie that I imagine to be like the kind of attention early viewers brought to film. When I can, I do see things that I don’t usually see — my own equivalents of the wind in the trees.

I thought of all this because I’ve been following some of the talk around the blogosphere about concentration in the digital age:

In broad strokes, I agree with Sample. Having now done this digital work a bit, I can promise you that it does indeed require deep focus and intellectual energy. (And, let it be said, I think Olson’s piece is an example of the worst kind of academic concern trolling.)

I like the melancholy Griffith quote, too, though, for its reminder that we’re at a transitional moment in our mode of apprehending the world — far from the first, and assuredly not the last, but an important one. There’s beauty to be found in the new regime of attention (we couldn’t have had Vertigo without narrative), but there was beauty in the last one, too. I know Sample and Davidson would be the first to agree with this; I’m not actually disputing anything they propose.

This is just to say: I was drawn to silent film because its difficulty rewards a viewer with an unfamiliar kind of beauty. I probably won’t stop assigning longer papers and books, not because I think they’ll somehow prepare students better for the workplace or some such nonsense, but because there’s beauty in them, of the kind that comes from immersion in a different regime of attention.

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