Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer is about a man – a moviegoer – named Binx Bolling who finds himself on a search. A search for what, it is not entirely clear, though the novel ends with Bolling outside a church on Ash Wednesday, wondering about “some dim dazzling trick of grace.”1 It is an existentialist novel filled with despair, finitude, anxiety, and everydayness. But also, lingering further in the background than the title suggests, it is a novel about going to the movies.
I recently decided to become a moviegoer. It was before I read Percy’s Moviegoer and, had I known about Bolling’s rather tortured quest, I’m not sure I would have taken up the endeavor. Or perhaps I would have, for my moviegoing was rather selfishly motivated. I wanted to be in the know of the cultural milieu, to have some fodder for small talk. And I was lonely. So, I made some moviegoing friends and became a moviegoer.
Bolling tells us that he “was quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie,” and biographer Paul Elie tells us this was true of Percy too.2 I like the thought of this great American novelist standing in line to watch a campy Western just as easily as he would watch a high brow French film. It makes me think Percy would have understood the sheer haphazardness of my own venture into moviegoing, guided more than anything by the whims of the student-run theater I frequented. I spent two months watching Clark Gable and Cary Grant in one screwball comedy after another. I watched Barbara Stanwyck play a murderer with a secret (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946) and then a scheming romantic (Ladies of Leisure, 1930) and then a heartbroken mother (Stella Dallas, 1937). I watched 2001: Space Odyssey and David Lynch’s Dune in a historic theater uptown with an organist and a cult following I had previously been unaware of. It snowed as I walked home after Ikiru and I could still hear the remnants of the protagonist's song. “Life is brief,” the captions told us, “Fall in love.”
But I am, if anything, a reader by training. I was taught to pay attention to stable, unmoving words inked in black and white; I knew how to comprehend through underlines and dog-eared pages I could always return back to. In reading, seeing becomes a means to consume written language; attention is useful insofar as it allows me to connect words to sentences and sentences to narratives. I realized early on in my moviegoing experiment that this kind of attention does not always adapt to the expansive, rolling progression of a film. With each scene continually disappearing into the next, I found myself dizzy, even overwhelmed, by the event of seeing a movie. I was unable to talk about the movies I was watching, certainly unable to distill them or extract something from them, but even unable to describe the feeling of watching them. I needed to learn a new way of seeing.
In some of his earliest works, Martin Heidegger makes the distinction between looking about and seeing what appears. The former he associates with a kind of inauthentic curiosity. Pulled from Augustine's Confessions, looking about seeks to satisfy the passions, to see something but it does not matter what.3 Looking about is scrolling through your Instagram feed or Netflix queue, seeking to be entertained by anything, anyone. “Take your fill!” Plato’s Leontius commands his eyes.4 Let your appetites coincide with your vision.
Seeing what appears is something else, for it places the seeing person in the medial role. I cannot make something appear before me to be seen – such is the role of God – but neither should I look about without intention. Rather, I must set myself in a position to let what appears come to me, to let be seen what is to be seen. This is the methodological mark of phenomenology, founded by Heidegger’s teacher, Edmund Husserl. For Heidegger, it is the position of authenticity that allows one to see things as they really are. And the payout of such seeing is something much more than the phenomenon; it is truth, as the Greeks imagined it, aletheia, unconcealment.
According to the phenomenologists, however, this authentic seeing is a rather exceptional state. Husserl speaks of it as akin to a religious conversion, Heidegger as the unsustainable break from our fallenness. It comes to us most often in flashes of chance, haphazardly, even accidentally. We stumble upon paintings, stumble upon vistas, stumble into theaters, and find ourselves unwittingly seeing. We are Paul on the road to Damascus, hell-bent on destruction, breathing threats and accusation, when – bam! – we see. And then we cannot see anything else.
Moviegoing too has a hint of this haphazard seeing. If I am lucky enough to really see something when I watch a film, that thing seems to take up residence within me, whether it be beauty, regret, or angst. It haunts me, long after the credits have rolled. And perhaps, there is an argument to be made for the movie theater as the enactment of a kind of phenomenological reduction, the dimmed lights, silenced phones, and muffled noises positioning one to authentically see. It is a form of intention, of focus, to place yourself at the mercy of a film.
Yet I am wary of taking this too far. While I hoped to find in Percy’s novel a kind of phenomenology of moviegoing, I found instead a warning. “Movies are onto the search,” Bolling admits, “but they screw it up.”5 While they gesture at pain, despair, or the feeling of being in a “strange place,” they also must provide some kind of resolution, one that rarely encompasses the complexity of our lives.6 Bolling at times imitates this pseudo-resolution in his encounters with other people. When a woman smiles at him on the bus, Bolling imagines himself already in love with her and feels the gentleness and consideration they could have together “[i]f it were a movie.”7 He flirts with his secretary in the style of Gregory Peck, maintaining “a Gregory Peckish distance,” before having “a Gregorish Peckerish idea” to take her on his business trip.8 The lines between actors and characters and real people all get blurred in this search for resolution. Thus, moviegoing is risky, in part because the movie refuses to stay contained to the boundaries of the theater. It haunts, not just me, but the world I walk in and the people I encounter.
While my evenings were full of Capra, Cuarón, and Kubrick, my days were, of course, still full of books. More specifically, I was in an intellectual sparring match with Emmanuel Levinas over the concept of love. It was an interesting contrast really, for as much as movies were training my eyes to see, Levinas honed my attention on what cannot be seen, like a negative theologian equipped with a phenomenological method. Levinas argues that all ethics stem from the human face. But then he adds: the face is not a phenomenon, “but a trace of itself.”9 It cannot be described or understood. Anytime I look at a human face, I become aware that there is something else in it I do not have access to; all I get is an echo, the feeling that something, someone, has vacated the premises.
In a certain light, this absence of the face looks like an absence of love itself. To speak of “mineness” – my place, my friend, my death, or even my beloved – is to condemn to visible what ought to be invisible, to mistake the face for a phenomenon rather than the absence of it. It is a violation of the ethical command of the other. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas goes so far as to describe the particular love between the lover and the beloved, what he calls eros, as solitary and self-enclosing, a dual egoism. Eros hones in on the face of my beloved; no other can be substituted for her.10 It is a pessimistic, heavily gendered description of love, in which the beloved is always cast as the distressed damsel, beautiful, allusive, infantile, and voiceless. (Movies, of course, are also prone to this. Think, for example, about the portrayal of women in the highly anticipated Oppenheimer.)
If Levinas is right (and I am not convinced he is), what would this mean for my moviegoing endeavor, for these faces of sorrow and fear and anger and, most of all, love that have been piling up around me in these films? The movie is built on the human face, on seeing it and recording it. If making the face visible is what condemns love to egoism, what hope is there for film?
Then I watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Like Levinas, Hitchcock is concerned with the face, being captured by it, unable to look at it, and yet drawn to it all the while. Hitchcock too knows something of the egoism lingering in the desire to know the face of another and the danger this can cause. But it was Scottie/Stewart’s experience of vertigo, standing on the footstool, the top of the building, falling into deep sleep, and ultimately, climbing the bell tower, that made me read Levinas’s account of love differently.
Hitchcock forces on the viewer the experience of vertigo. Scottie stands at an infinite height, the ground refracting again and again below him. The camera shot then changes, and suddenly the viewer too is standing at an infinite height. From this angle, the frightening contradiction of vertigo is on display: on the one hand, it seems that if I fall, I will simply never stop falling, and the ground itself has disappeared. The risk is not in landing on the ground, but in never landing at all, an eternal free-fall. On the other hand, it seems that I am unwittingly at an impossible height and every earth-oriented, dust-born particle in my body screams that I am not safe here, that I must get back down to the ground, no matter the cost. Despite the danger of this implausible height, something in me desires to fall.
Vertigo is also how Levinas describes love, though I did not notice it until Hitchcock showed me. Levinasian love is the realization that the one I love is hidden from me, yes, but in a vertiginous way: the certain ground of who they are must fall away, refract. This leads to all kinds of dangers. Oppressed by a vertiginous love, I am tempted to depersonalize the beloved, to form them in my own image, to make up a ground like an illusion so I don’t have to suffer. And yet this love is also quite dazzling. “Love,” Levinas begrudgingly admits, “abides in a vertigo above a depth of alterity that no signification clarifies any longer.”11 Like the Hebrew love poem Song of Songs whose refrain “I am sick with love” Levinas heavily employs,12 a vertiginous love piles image and analogy on top of analogy and image, all with the understanding that I could never reach the ground of the one who I love. Vertigo is both what holds me hostage and beckons me to surrender. It safeguards love against control.
Allow me one more dizzying leap, to a time centuries before moving pictures ever crossed the mind: the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory, a masterful preacher, also employs the feeling of vertigo to speak of love, but this time love of the ultimate unseen and unknown, God. In a sermon on the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” he tells his congregants to imagine the sheer face of a cliff, worn down by weather and water, and to ponder the vast distance below. He adjures them to let that dizzying sensation of height – ilingia, vertigo – befall them.13 Thus, he concludes, one begins to understand what “the mind feels when it peers down from the loftiness of the Lord’s saying… upon the infinite depth of thought to which it gives vantage.”14 It is truly a marvelous rhetorical strategy. Even as a reader, I almost unwittingly close my eyes, take a step back. My stomach turns and my heart beats louder. Like Scottie climbing the foot ladder, intent on conquering his “disability”, I too edge closer and closer to the edge, certain in my own blessedness, certain I too could see God, only to be forced back again or risk falling.
Gregory is deeply concerned with what it means to see, because seeing in his telling is linked to possession, to grasping. He shares this with Levinas. Both are concerned with the way that the phenomenon’s legitimacy is placed in the perceiving ego. This gives too much authority to the viewer, gives them license for harm, whether in the horizontal desire to see other persons or in the vertical desire to see God. Seeing becomes an act of inter-relationality; seeing well teaches us to love well. In the experience of vertigo, as in Vertigo, we are learning to see well by learning to see what cannot be seen. In attending to the limits of the perceiving ego, film participates in the contemplation of the unknown.
By the end of the Moviegoer, I am still not sure what Percy thinks about moviegoing. He speaks of the romantic, a young man reading Charterhouse on the Parma on a bus bound for New Orleans, and describes him as “a moviegoer… [who] does not go to movies.”15 Bolling is aware that moviegoing distracts from his search, that the movie itself only approximates the search. He warns against moviegoing’s anonymity - “there is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost.”16 But Bolling does go to the movies, and he does so in a particular way. Rather than slipping anonymously into any old movie theater, he aims to know something of the place, its neighborhood, locale. He greets the owner, by name ideally, and leaves marks on the seats to remember that he was there. He wanders the neighborhood after. Here, it is not the exceptional, otherworldliness of the theater that cultivates seeing, nor is it even the exceptional quality of a film. Instead, it is ordinariness and repetition, something akin to habit. Because moviegoing, like seeing and loving, is a risky endeavor, it requires practice.
So perhaps, not unlike the Moviegoer, I too am not so concerned with moviegoing. I have no endeavors to venture into film criticism or even to help you distinguish what a good or bad film is – there are other, more able moviegoers for that. No, I am just an amateur, a semi-regular attendee at a neighborhood movie theater. And yet: I wonder if Bolling’s moviegoing helped send him on his search, if it better trained his eyes to catch that “trick of grace”on Ash Wednesday. I wonder if Gregory’s congregants felt haunted by his description of vertigo, the way I felt after watching Vertigo. And so, I think I will keep going to movies. I will put my books away for the evening, hand over my seven dollars at the ticket table, find a favorite seat in my local theater. I’ll practice seeing, and I’ll practice falling, and I’ll remember what the Unknown feels like.
Image Attribution: Vertigo, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1958)
- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989), 235.
- Moviegoer, 7. For biographical information, see Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2004)
- Martin Heidegger, Phenomenology of Religious Life, trans. Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei and Matthias Fritsch (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), “Phenomenological Interpretation of Confessions, Book X,” sect. 14a.
- Plato, Republic, trans. Allen Bloom (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1968), 440a.
- Moviegoer, 13.
- Moviegoer, 13.
- Moviegoer, 13.
- Moviegoer, 70-1.
- Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1997), 91.
- See Emmanuel Levinas, “Phenomenology of Eros,” in Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pennsylvania, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969) 256-266.
- Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 266.
- Song of Solomon 2:5.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “Sermon on the Sixth Beatitude,” trans. Joseph W. Trigg, in Theological Anthropology, ed. J. Patout Burns (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 29.
- Gregory of Nyssa, 29.
- Moviegoer, 216.
- Moviegoer, 73.