by Jack Bastock
Here is your life. First, select all the action. When you were the center of attention. When you were in a fast-moving vehicle, or flew. When you fucked and it felt good. When you were in a fight. When you fired a gun. When you had to run. When your life was in danger. When you fell in love. When you cried. When you died.
Hold on to these. Meanwhile, take a pinch of all that is slow, or quiet. The sleep and the wandering. The menial work, the workouts. The chores and errands. When you were alone, or waiting. Sprinkle this between the action—mostly at the start, or in the happy ending.
Now, hold up your event-filled life and make it look bolder. Zoom in on all the faces, as if you were leaning in to kiss them. Slap on filters and make colors tone-rich. Click your fingers to make all the people otherworldly beautiful. Give them clothes to wear that blow in the wind. Make their every step, their very posture, seem as studied as an arabesque.
Now put it all together. No breaks or pauses. Here’s some extra life, too, to splice into yours: a fight against evil, and any day that one person saved the day.
Turn the volume up on every noise of importance: a heart-breaking cry, a voice of joy or sadness. Sync every scene to music, with a variable tempo suitable to how you’re feeling.
Notice how you’ve sped up the passage of time, so that an hour goes by in a minute, and a day in an hour. A life in a moment.
Play this new life everywhere: on walls, on-screen, in your hands and pockets. Get attached. Watch to feel awe. Watch to see beauty. Watch to feel fear, sadness, lust, or devotion.
And for the rest of your days let the whole lives of others flash before your eyes.
* * *
Take the vision I have given you above, and tell me what your life has become.
The medium to which I find myself most exposed—and that most affects my body—is audio-video. Learn = video. Reminisce = video. Share art = video. Catwalk, theater, market, stage = = = = video. To be clear: this is not a complaint. I show myself larger-and-louder-than-life stories in order to live. My point is that when I say “video,” I really mean all of the above. All the videos, for all the reasons they’re screened.
Cut to a shot of a brightly lit phone screen. Cut to a montage of other screens: an open laptop, a drive-in cinema, TVs stacked in store windows, etc. DAVID FOSTER WALLACE (VOICEOVER): “My real dependence is on the fantasies and the images that enable them, and thus on any technology that can make images both available and fantastic. Make no mistake: we are dependent on image-technology; and the better the tech, the harder we’re hooked.”
Image, yes, but don’t forget audio.
Music brings me to tears both more easily and more frequently than any unscored moment of my “real” life. More and more easily than any birth, death, or put-down; more and more easily than any breakup/breakdown I’ve seen or gone through.
I cherish the hour or so after a movie, when the story spills and spreads like a vapor from the exit to the cinema. The city is shaken up, in a post-filmic daze; the bokeh glow of streetlights and the crowds and the storm clouds as vivid, for a time, as the frames of the screening/saga/show that had me hooked. The cars and the passersby hold an intrigue well in excess of an evening commute, or a casual rendezvous. Before, their velocities were explained away by capitalism or the urban traffic grid. But now they are the dramatis personae, and the fast pace of the city is an effect of the editing.
Tell me, when will I be rescued from the top of that tower, by a stud-savior played by Zachary Quinto? Will there be a disaster in which I’ll play my part as hero? Will I have a place— indeed a role—not here in the street but in the epic twenty-four-frames-per-second cosmos?
I catch my hair blowing in the reflection of a storefront window, or the mirror of a parked car, and I am suddenly standing on a windy cliff face, high above a valley where a battle still rages.
Holding the rim of my umbrella at the level of my eyes, I seem to line it up with the horizon of Beyoncé’s hat brim in Formation.
The long thin water bottle in my one hand is a scepter; the bag in my other is the orb. Queen Elizabeth/Cate Blanchett is Queen, but we are all three of us in full coronation regalia.
Cut to the inside of an office. David Shields sits in an armchair, where he faces the camera. Books line the shelves in the background. SHIELDS: “Movies are the synthetic injection of these feelings [of love and survival]: the whole world comes into focus and seems alluring and dangerous; our lives, which aren’t lived on the grand scale, are lived on the grand scale. Give me the heated-up myth, each of us practically prays to the screen: make life seem coherent and big and free of my qualifying consciousness.”
Yes, but—I am as much moved by (music) videos that don’t always have stories, plots, or characters. What gets me going is the ear-eye spectacle: the sparks of a bonfire, the meteor shower in the sky.
In the street I hear no cars that rattle or whine, but only those that purr. For that is how the vehicles sound in the twenty-third century, courtesy of the foley sounds for the sci-fi films that are my favorite flavor.
In the street I hear a low, loud bellow in the distance, and it is a reminder that danger could be anywhere, that threats worse than Tripods could be hidden in real cities, where a rather different War of the Worlds is ongoing.
Every outfit should aspire to snakehood, seen for what it is only when it is moving. Kimono robes that trail like capes; jackets with bulky trims that jiggle; ponchos that drape all over (and must be cast up, like a toga, should the wearer need their hands or fingers); long, long parkas that fan out at the brim-base, where they twist with my every step.
Something must be playing at all times, unless it is raining (loudly) outside. My earbuds are a vital organ. My speakers are an external appendage. They pump anything and everything—from a white noise loop while I sleep to a 350-beats-per-minute psychedelic trance track. But they must be on all the alone-time, for every length of alone time.
E.g., I’ve racked up one hundred-plus plays of Yoncé’s Irreplaceable, in as many three-minute gaps between *when I’m finished getting ready* and *when I am actually ready to leave my room, thanks*.
For there is a void and I have seen/heard it. It’s the black hole that opens when a long-form video ends—when the credits have rolled, and the speakers click off—leaving only my bedroom and the sudden darkness. Cue Disturbia by Rihanna. I’m on edge but should I really be surprised? What is turned up must surely turn down.
Listen, I get it. Earbuds turned up this much, for this long, will eventually deafen me. But the music-feels are proportionate to the volume. And, as with drink, so with audio: sobriety is a trade-off between the goodnow and the badlater.
SHIELDS: “Two questions constantly occur to me: what would this look like filmed? what would the soundtrack be?” It’s true that I am recording what I see, from the lenses of my eyes, and the boom mic of my ears, onto my episodic memory. But here’s the thing: any moment that I think would shoot well—any moment that is motion-picture perfect—is also more profound. More captivating.
Cut to a busy street in Melbourne, where I am flâneuring. ME (VOICEOVER): “When I walk, I put the world in motion. My body is a camera on a dolly, and what I see I see in a tracking shot. My head turns and my eyes follow, panning all the way to one side and across the street.”
Let it all be videographic. The scattering of light by my lashes is really a lens fare. A person seen up close is also in a close-up. The crowds in a busy street are extras on a set. My eyes pin to a fixed point, and my attentional spotlight spreads: we have ourselves a wide angle.
Life, art, art, life. But it’s not just my ears and eyes that are artful. It’s also my ego. I say this because when I have this experience, my body is frequently the thing that is in focus. I am what I am also recording.
And so it is practically impossible for me to dawdle in public. I may be en route to the market for bananas, but my stride says I am late for a meeting with the president.
But then is “walking” the right word? In its place I would put “strutting” or “prancing” if those words weren’t also pejorative. Alternatively: racing.
I am always overtaking others. I jaywalk, too, at every opportunity. I bend slightly forward, crane my neck, turn to face the car queue or green/yellow/red light that is my cue to break ranks and continue. I hardly wait for the traffic to stop or go before I step out from the curb to cross—I am going so fast, and I get so close, at times, that if the cars were to brake, it would be a literal case of hit and run … only that the running came first, and I hit the car.
I am secretly thrilled when a car cuts across me at a crossing. I look dead ahead and step after it, as if nothing had happened. So far so good. I walk away unharmed but also elated: a close call with a car shall be no less seamless (stylized? stunt-like?).
Long steps. Head high. Arms straight, swimming wide. Face frozen in a blank expression. The hallmarks of a long, pseudo-dramatic character entrance, or an ungainly runway roll. Not just the pace of pop song ensembles, but also the mannerisms of those featured in them.
When my creative nonfiction class is asked to write a second short piece on “an object of deep personal significance,” I immediately think of my body. When I realize I’ve been writing that piece all along, I turn instead to something from my wardrobe. Tentative title, “Spectacle,” but
my shades are no mere prop
The product type is
(AR from the
we’ve got something in common:
every day is ugly,
to naked eye
and eyeglass alike.
It’s too bright
We want our sight
on the fly
in a darkroom;
amber tint or
And mirrors, mirrors
A mirror on the front, reflective coat
to make eye contact
A mirror on the rear, reverse side
to reflect my eyes
on my eyesight.
We’re nose-to-nose, my glasses and I.
Pupil and iris enlarged
in Blade Runner
Our retina dilemma:
What makes a human
“Who do you think you are?”
say the eyes of the guy who sees
me wearing sunglasses sans
Sol, indoors or
But we’re not hiding anything.
We’re partners in vision and
if we’re gonna split, there’d better be a
slow-mo shot of me
slipping off my specs
and a damned good reason.
That actors still “play a part” on talk shows and interviews is, somehow, a revelation to me. Their body language, and the cadence of their voice, and the words that are scripted, and the wardrobe assigned, and the makeup added, and the style in which the whole of it is filmed/edited/broadcast. They are charged for the screen, in the trappings of a fiction. MCLUHAN: “The medium is [still] the message.”
Cut to a living room at night. DFW flicks through the channels on his TV set. WALLACE: “These persons behind the glass—persons who are often the most colorful, attractive, animated, alive people in our daily experience—are also oblivious to the fact that they are watched. … Plus the idea that the single biggest part of real watch-ableness is seeming to be unaware that there’s any watching going on. Acting natural. The persons [we] study, feel for, feel through most intently are, by virtue of a genius for feigned unselfconsciousness, fit to stand people’s gazes.”
Show me this cracked, inadequate reflection; the fracture in a self that is always already on the verge of breaking. It’s worth the risk; for in the place of comparing, I will sub-in becoming. Call it what you will: a parkour of performativity, an L.A. aesthetic of social agency. Think of how empowering this can be, for someone who has had to grapple with the gaze of others for their safety and survival.
Cut to a clip from PARIS IS BURNING: “When you’re gay you monitor everything you do. You monitor how you look, how you dress, how you talk, how you act. Did they see me? What did they think of me?” Now at last I will signal immunity to the scorn of any stare.
Obviously not every femme-identifying person has/must/should dress or behave like a diva. But in the culture that was handed to me, it was the female sex (there being no talk of gender) that could be decked out, dolled-and-done-up in ways that were—still are—frankly dangerous for the “boys.”
What I wanted as a garçon: hair that could be grown, styled, and swished to and fro; the faces done up to exageisherate expression; a head adorned with hoops; curves that sway; the twirl of skirts; the flow of summer dresses, of chiffon shirts. Heels that would make every step a step in a dance, set to a clip-clop beat that is paired with the jingle of bling.
Cut to Shields’ office, sun-drenched in the late afternoon light. SHIELDS: “I wanted the camera to find in me, and love me for, qualities that I don’t and couldn’t possibly possess.” ME: But are these really limits of class, or gender, or even status? Videos are but eyes and ears; their bodies, our bodies. As Wilde said, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” Why not both? I’ll do what I must for the wear: steal, cut, stitch, genderfuck. Then I’ll move as I please for the be.
He tilts his head to whip his hair back and forth, but his hair is too short to be flicked. He rocks his butt and shakes his hips, though he has neither. He puts one foot in front of the other and listens for the clap of a half-inch heel on the sole of his unisex dress shoes (while, privately, he is stepping deftly in six-inch stilettos).
WILLI NINJA IN PARIS IS BURNING, re: the style of dance he perfected in the Harlem ballrooms of the ’80s: “The name was taken from the magazine Vogue because some of the movements of the dance are also the same as the poses inside the magazine. … [It] takes from the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. It also takes from some forms of gymnastics—they both strive for perfect lines in the body” (my emphasis).
I insist on holding my bag in my hand, and not on my back or my shoulder (where it simply would not sway). I put the other hand in my pocket, or I cradle a counterweight (two paperbacks, an aging Mac) in my opposite elbow crease—whatever gives my long/straight bag arm more of that oh-so-important swing.
Cut to a café where Susan Sontag is seated at a table, reading from an article she has written. She pauses. Looks up. SONTAG: “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Certain other clothes I love for the way they frame the shapes and movements of my body. The oversized coats that encase my torso; stiff shells through which my arms, neck, and legs will poke, seeming both softer and nimbler. The thick black boots that give my every step the weight of ink striking paper. The short shorts and the skinny jeans in which I can more or less be seen walking naked.
What do we mean, for instance, when we say that smoking cigarettes looks/sounds “cool”? Lips pursed. An angle in the arm. An O or a V formed by the fingers. Smoke blowing where it shouldn’t. The sizzle at the tip, and a face lit up by fire.
I chew gum slowly, with my mouth slightly open. In the streets, I take large, juicy bites from the apple that I am assiduously eating on the go. Here is my body, I seem to want to say (and show and feel), having as good or intense a time as the ones projected on me. Throbbing, frolicking; suggestive, sensual; indifferent to any risks in the pursuit of carnal pleasure.
In the café where SONTAG is still reading: “It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.”
Fidget. Stretch neck. Flare nostrils. Cock head and split lips. Part hair, re-re-reapply lip balm. Here are my front teeth and the tip of my tongue between them. Here is my hair, and my hands that are fixing it. Here are the backs of my hands, my fingers flexed, my skin. Here are my palms, my fingers curled and my nails. Here are my eyes that are shut, and my chest rising with my breath.
For I have not come from the streets. It was the screen that sent me, the screen where there was dancing, fighting, rooting, shooting, and riding deep into the night.
Cut to a studio where we are watching an actor audition for a role, with the judges seated at a table. A close-up on their face as they read out a passage of writing by BAUDELAIRE: “The idea of beauty that man creates for himself affects his whole attire, ruffles or stiffens his coat, gives curves or straight lines to his gestures and even, in process of time, subtly penetrates the very features of his face.”
Once, while talking/face-expressing, I felt that Meryl Streep’s features had been laid on top of mine; but it was not the first time this had happened, and hers is not the only on-screen face in which my body has cast itself.
The voice and the limbs can be seen and heard, all right; but there is no light, or sound, emitted by the brain. So I narrow my eyes, furrow my brow and turn my gaze down, to one side. An amateur attempt at what is faced everyday—with more skill, and a larger store of gestures—by actors onstage or in front of cameras.
Cut to a clip from “How Does an Editor Think and Feel?” TONY ZHOU: “[It’s] all about the eyes. … Moments when I can see a change in the actor’s eyes, like when he’s making a decision. It tells us, without words, what he’s thinking.”
Likewise chin-stroking, gazing at the sea or the moon or quivering my lower lip and jaw, in a move that smacks of Toby Ziegler’s signature tic in The West Wing. The eyes stare straight ahead, the head is still, but the lips and chin are trembling. So: his mind is turning over while he keeps his mouth shut. To keep the peace with his colleagues. The habit, as well, of stopping mid-speech to chuckle at something that is apparently so silly it has left him/me speechless. Boy oh boy were Schiff’s shticks catchy.
The walk-and-talk shot popularized by Sorkin’s show is no mere cine technique to me. Now every path or stretch of road has the hermeneutic floor plan of a hall in the White House.
Which is not to say that these experiences are at all conscious. The videos have long since settled in my nether-mind. I do not play them back. There are no originals, only copies. And ultimately it is not the image but the music on my earbuds that is conducting.
Cut to a clip from Def Poetry Jam, S04E04. KEVIN COVAL (QTING. AFRIKA BAMBAATAA): “When you hear the break beat, you let your god-self get loose.”
Rhythm. I set my steps to land in time with the 4/4 signature. At a turning point in the song—a shift in tempo, a solo vocal; the kick-in or the breakdown of a beat—I shift my gaze, raise my head, move, breathe. No battery? No worries. There’s always the song that’s struck in my head.
It’s tempting to call this “posing” or “acting,” but that risks trespassing on the very real and consummate art of poseurs and actors. Better terms: attitude, attention, and perception.
Having my voice recorded or my pic/video taken feels rather like being forced to confess something. A lens in the real world ruptures what was before a continuum, with art at one end—and me at the other. It is akin to the kick made famous by Nolan’s Inception, a redoubling of the difference between “ordinary” life and extraordinary screen. It does not break the fourth wall. It breaks down all four walls.
What I want to say is equal parts vital and pedestrian. It has to do with thrift stores, quiet nights, low stakes, nobodies, and, yes, this phrase in which I have inscribed them. My body makes of these things events: scenes, shots, acciones.
BAUDELAIRE: “The specific beauty of the dandy consists particularly in that cold exterior resulting from the unshakeable determination to remain unmoved; one is reminded of a latent fire, whose existence is merely suspected, and which, if it wanted to, but it does not, could burst forth in all its brightness.”
* * *
Now take down the life you made earlier. Undo every effect: color, camera, mix, music. Let time slow to its sober self. Let all the sound drain, leaving only your breath, the beat of your heart and the echo of your feet on the cool bathroom tiles.
Blink and see the world with only your eyes. Turn the taps and hear the water crash to the floor. Let a song spring to mind, and hum the words of the first verse.
Step in the shower. Begin to sing, and be sure to mean it. Feel the water shoot from top to toe. Watch it spill off your skin according to the angle of your body beneath it; now slow and heavy; now fast and light in a spray. See the room fill with steam, as you sway your shoulders and tip your head from side to side.
Shut your eyes. Raise your voice above the water and watch how you flicker on the screen of your mind, pleading to the stars in the rain.
Baudelaire, Charles; trans. P.E. Charvet. The Painter of Modern Life. Penguin Books. 2010.
Def Poetry Jam. Season 4, episode 4. Home Box Office (HBO). 2006. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9CZtqwV3G0>
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press. 1962.
Paris Is Burning. Miramax Films. 1991.
Shields, David. Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. The University of Wisconsin Press. 1996.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’” in Against Interpretation. Picador. 1966.
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Little, Brown and Company. 1997.
Zhou, Tony. How Does an Editor Think and Feel?. Vimeo. 2016. <https://vimeo.com/166319350>
Jack Bastock is queer and does not eat animals. He studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne and teaches English as an additional language. Jack lives in Melbourne/Naarm with friends, and on the internet with you.