Thursday, August 6, 2009

Seeing the Details

365: Sun Mirror

"Happiness and the Brain"--that was the topic of some expert's talk on the radio, which I caught about seven minutes of, midstream. We misjudge (over or under) how happy or unhappy something will make us, he said, because we don't take details into account. Like the Buddhist saying I like so much--we don't take into account that after the ecstasy, there's the laundry. Or that after the tragedy, there's still satisfaction in watering our houseplants or clipping our toenails.

I don't know what this guy's point was because I didn't listen that long, but of course it's a good thing our brains don't notice all the details. Noticing all the details is a diagnosable problem. (I think it's one of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders--when you can't get past the minute details of things.)

Sitting here on the deck this morning, I don't need to spend brain energy on noticing exactly how many cherry tomatoes are ripening on the potted plant next to me (eight semi-ripe ones and a bunch of greenies, as it happens) or what the neighbors' names are (since I'm only housesitting here one more week).

The Test Pattern
How much incoming info we can handle varies. After my mother died, I felt desperate for nothing else to happen, and for a good long while, nothing did. Or, rather, looking back, plenty did, but my brain didn't register it. That's a great thing, that our brains can smooth over details.

But on the other hand, I know my brain can get so lazy it starts to look like a test pattern. It registers just a few tidy, predicable patterns. My brain kind of likes that, for a while, but eventually it dissolves into the gray static of depression.

For a few years after my mother's death, I just stayed with the base test pattern.
I wasn't happy. I wasn't unhappy.
I didn't create anything original. Art, I mean. Art is all about the details. You can't write a sentence or draw a line without your brain having to pay attention to a million details. The more personal the material, the more the brain has to pay attention to itself, the life and the body it is in. That's what I didn't want to attend to.

The guidelines of the geography books I was working on limited my choices, and that was great. I had to make all kinds of intellectual choices, of course--how to describe the role of Libya's Gaddafi, for instance, since he has no official title, just honorifics like Brotherly Leader. That was very involving all right, and personal in many ways: facts don't exist in a vacuum--you have to interpret them. I had to pay attention to details too, if nothing else to details such as where the the goes in the sentences I wrote. But it didn't involve paying close attention to emotional details. It didn't involve free-form creation out of my own self.

Generating Original Patterns

In the past few years, I've started to make my own stuff again. A couple years ago, I sent out handmade holiday cards for the first time in years, like I always used to. This blog is personal work, when I pay attention. Figuring out why I like Star Trek was all about paying attention to my personal history. And then, filmmaking...

Listening to the radio talk on happiness, I snorted at the idea that our brains don't pay attention to details, because lately it feels like I've done nothing but. Normally I coast along as much as anybody, of course, but for the last couple week I've been living in two houses where I have to think about where the light switches and the forks are and, much more importantly, I've been actively working on my film.
Filmmaking is all about creating something out of nothing, and that's all detail work. (Is that why the world has so much fuzz around the edges? God slacked off on some of the details? The details are a pain, and they're time consuming. No wonder the brain wants to skip them.)

One glove? Or two?

The Remorse of Orestes (left) by Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862

Some of the actors in Orestes and the Fly have been very detail oriented, thinking methodically and carefully about what we're creating. Others are improvisational and slapdash, let the details fall where they may. I love working with both types. Ideally a film crew would be made up of a range of types.

I'm much more the latter type--I set up a loose structure and then I improvise within it. I count on the fact that patterns form themselves and our brains naturally assign meaning to them.
I do pay attention as much as I can, but I'm not the most gifted person in tasks like paying close attention to continuity. For instance, filming Orestes this past weekend, I had him wear one red velvet glove (symbolizing the curse of the House of Atreus, which he took on when he murdered his mother, Clytemnestra).

When I went home and started editing old footage, I saw that last fall I'd filmed Orestes's mother and father each with two red gloves after they'd killed a family member. I'd forgotten that. One glove on Orestes's knife-hand had just felt right, and I hadn't bothered to check.

So. What now?
Refilm that detail? Or assign new meaning to it?
Certainly the second one is physically far easier, but you can't cheat. The detail has to be able to bear the meaning assigned it. If it can't the whole pattern will fall apart.

I thought for a while, and here's the thing:
Orestes is pushed into murder by his sister, Electra. I'd even filmed her literally physically pushing him down the sidewalk. The other velvet glove properly belongs to her, because she inherits the curse and the guilt too. That's why Orestes wears only one.
And that's a true fact. As of now.

Do I need to show Electra wearing the other one? (Easy enough to shoot.) Naw. If people even notice the detail, they can figure it out for themselves. Or not. There's a funny pleasure the brain gets in noticing when other people get the details wrong. Either way, it'll be OK.


Annika said...

As always, there's so much thought-provoking stuff here. Your thoughts bump into my thoughts and propel them in all directions, like a table full of billiard balls.
(Maybe I should delete that incredibly clumsy analogy. No, I'll leave it in, because the image is true.)
One of them is how several of the most widely known ideals of Buddhism actually count as, or become, disorders or disabilities when they're not achieved through conscious practice, but are part of how a person's brain is wired. The attention to detail is one of them.

The glove glitch is like the Klingon glitch in Star Trek, isn't it? A lot of the most long-lived Star Trek discussions revolve around continuity errors and things that seemed a good idea at the time and were shot presumably without too much analyzing. To the interested viewer, everything takes on meaning - I'm sure that people who watch Orestes and the Fly will be able to come up with a variety of ingenious explanations for such an obviously symbolic thing...

fresca said...

Hi, Annika!
I like your billiard ball analogy--it's like a picture of a brain, with all the messages zooming about.

Good point, the ideals of Buddhism--and Christianity--can be disordered, or even monstrous, if they're isolated, out of context.
For instance, I know so many people who were taught that "sin" = "you're bad",
not "sin" = "you're human, and here are a bunch of skills and tools other humans came up with to discern what it means to be human and how to practice doing it well."
Of course, that second teaching requires a lot more skill and insight, so it's not surprising it gets overlooked...

"To the interested viewer, everything takes on meaning"--- yeah, we really, really see that at work in Star Trek! The glove glitch IS like the Klingons! Or like the gold uniform Uhura wears early on.

Remember when the Deep Space 9 crew goes back into "The Trouble with Tribbles" (I think that's when), someone asks Worf why the old Klingons didn't have wrinkly foreheads, and he says, "We do not speak of it."
Great answer for what was just a budget decision or a continuity error or whatever. Now it's history. And secret, at that, which is fun too.