July’s theme is Point of View, about perspective, empathy, storytelling, and personal histories. In her book I Love Dick, Chris Kraus writes, “Who gets to speak and why? […] is the only question.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about “the danger of the single story”—of trying to represent an entire demographic with one stereotypical narrative. Taking Kraus’s question further, Adichie says, “There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali.’ It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.” In her “Counternarratives” series, the artist Alexandra Bell edits the pages of news publications to expose and correct bias. In discussing media coverage of police brutality against black men, Bell says, “I am really trying to see if I can disrupt subliminal messaging about who should be valued.” The “exceptional immigrant” narrative is intended to debunk stereotypes of immigrants as threatening or lazy, but mistakenly suggests that one must win an Olympic medal or found a successful tech startup in order to be worthy of U.S. residency—in order to be valued.
I like this thing Charlie Kaufman said about his movie Anomalisa, which deals with what it means to see another person through the point-of-view of a not-terribly-sympathetic protagonist in relatively low-stakes circumstances. Michael is a depressed customer service expert doing a speaking gig at an extremely beige hotel. It ends up being a very good arena for getting at a question that should also feel mundane, but can in fact be astronomically hard to grasp.
“To me, Anomalisa is political. In a very small sense. It’s about being able to see other people, and I think so much of what is wrong right now in the world is that people don’t see each other. We literally do not see each other as human beings—as people with fear and desires and longings. And therefore, you’re able to treat other people as objects that you can use to get what you want. It’s a hard thing to do, to see people on a personal scale. It’s a very hard thing. I think if we could do that, we’d make better decisions as societies and individuals, be better and kinder, and just by that alone, the world would be a better place.”
Iris Murdoch wrote, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” acknowledging how elusive clarity of vision can really be and that “true” love should have something to do with, well, truth. At some point you finally look at the people who raised you and see fallible humans. Eventually you must also kill your idols; however, it’s hard not to just keep looking for perfection in new ones. The scariest and best part of that is how it forces you to look at yourself, and to create a value system that can’t be checked against one other perfect, shining example. I don’t think such a person exists.
The way our First Person theme explored what you gain and lose by recording your own life in writing, this month is about capturing other people, too, mainly through photography. I loved this analysis of the meaning/use of photography and cameras in Get Out, and what it means that the character Chris is a photographer:
“When Chris asks, ‘Why us? Why black people?’ Jim scoffs, saying he couldn’t care less what race Chris is. He has loftier, artistic reasons. ‘I want your eyes, man,’ Jim growls, in one of the film’s creepier lines. ‘I want those things you see through.’
It’s a terrifying, revealing exchange in a film rife with terrifying, revealing exchanges. It is also of a piece with Get Out’s broader social commentary, particularly its clear takedown of well-meaning white liberals and those who believe in a post-racial America. So, of course the man who wants to steal Chris’s body from him is not only blind, but also ‘colorblind.’ He comes off as the kind of person who’d say he doesn’t ‘see race’ while caring very little about the wellbeing of black Americans.
But Jim wants something much more existentially fraught than Chris’s artistic sensibility: He wants to possess the particular way that Chris views the world. I want those things you see through. In other words, I want to look at the world through your eyes. He wants to inhabit Chris’s body for what he sees as its superior physical abilities. But it’s hard to believe that Jim wants, or even fully grasps, any of the specific challenges or complexities that come with actually being black. To people like Jim, as Steven Thrasher noted in Esquire, ‘“black muscle” can be useful if separated from its black mind, emotions, and politics.’ And indeed, Get Out is broadly concerned with race and body politics, as others have thoughtfully written about.
Still, over the other bodily senses, vision has long been the most intuitive metaphor for discussing subjective experience. Just as the sense of touch is often evoked to discuss compassion or empathy (‘I feel you’), vision is closely linked to a person’s unique way of knowing the world. [Director Jordan] Peele himself has used the language of sight when discussing how he wanted Get Out to be an inclusive film: “You can ask a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half.” It would seem a more casual word choice if not for how literally Get Out uses vision—via eyes or camera lens—to underscore Chris’s very justified paranoia, discomfort, and fear in response to the story’s white characters. Writing for The New Yorker, Richard Brody argued that, in radically portraying a world seen through a black man’s eyes, Get Out also ‘contains some of the most piercing, painful point-of-view shots in the recent cinema.’”
(Spoiler alert for Get Out!) Allison Williams said that white viewers consistently ask if her character is actually, somehow, a good person deep down, despite all evidence to the contrary:
“They’d say, ‘She was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No! She’s just evil!’ How hard is that to accept? She’s bad! We gave you so many ways to know that she’s bad! She has photos of people whose lives she ended behind her! The minute she can, she hangs them back up on the wall behind her. That’s so crazy! And they’re still like, ‘But maybe she’s also a victim?’ And I’m like, ‘NO! No!’ And I will say, that is one-hundred percent white people who say that to me.”
This article looks more closely at the innate goodness perceived in white women, even one as explicitly cruel as Rose. Sofia Coppola inadvertently examined the way white female fragility can be used to obscure evil in her remake of The Beguiled, not only in its characters but in the absence of another: Coppola chose not to include the black female character who had been present in the book and original film, saying she wanted the movie to be about “gender, not race.” Angelica Jade Bastién writes:
“Coppola has also accidentally created a film that acts as an indictment of the very brand of womanhood she’s been enamored with throughout her career—white, privileged, and unable to see the world beyond their own desires. […] Coppola thought that by removing black characters, she was scrubbing race from the film entirely. But that presumes white isn’t a race that has long been treated as the norm from which all other races deviate. Whatever her intent, The Beguiled is a curious reckoning of the myths of white womanhood — how they use fragility as a shield for deviousness and insulate themselves from the horrors of a world that they too are responsible for.”
The book Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta is about a friendship between two filmmakers and is a wonderful aperture for the ways in which film/photography can stand in as someone’s lens through which they see the world! (OK done.) One of the filmmakers tries to film as honest a portrait of her friend as possible, and it becomes understandably complicated: “Years later she would see that very few relationships of any kind could survive the intensity and complication and power differential of filming a person as themselves.”
“Good Old Neon” by David Foster Wallace is a short story about someone who is so troubled by his inability to stop watching himself that he commits suicide (or that’s what it seems like it’s about for a while; the turns are very special and cracked open my brain). I think a lot about this part just after the narrator says he’s going to describe to the reader what dying felt like:
“The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.”
As he will tell you, though, doors have knobs. They can be opened. Writing fiction is one way. Reading, watching, and listening are others.
Please learn about sending us your reflections on any/all of the above—whether it’s writing, illustration, or photography, but especially photography—at the Submit page. We want to see things from your…point of view! (But actually!)