Plankton In A Drop Of Water

For all that the land­scape is made to seem eter­nal, a back­drop on a stage, the charm of it comes in how it is implic­it­ly in motion. Every piece of it comes from some­where else and is on its way to some­where else: the trees drop­ping their dry organs, cheap brick crack­ing up under­foot, signs from the last elec­tion skat­ing along the ground. In each such case, the pieces of the land­scape drift out of their fat­ed pur­pos­es and go to ground, desert­ers from an army.

The basic notion of objects hav­ing agency, and thus being wor­thy of human respect, seems (appro­pri­ate­ly enough) more live­ly in ret­ro­spect than the spe­cif­ic argu­ments of any of its recent pro­mot­ers. What tend­ed to be the most under­played part of the idea was exact­ly the most pow­er­ful one: while it is worse that arguable that a stone feels, thinks, or intends, it does indeed seem emi­nent­ly sane for a per­son to treat it as though it did. A per­son doing so would be respect­ful, in their own way, of the forces they share the world with; maybe most impor­tant­ly, they would nev­er be alone. They could always look for­ward to an encounter with some­thing with a his­to­ry, not a dead sign for­ev­er speak­ing the same word. 


There is some way out there of mak­ing a land­scape that is not about installing hard forms, hard forms that look as though they should be mov­ing. Such a land­scape would be a cross­roads, the kind you see in one of Man­ny Farber’s paint­ings – where a new tum­ble­weed is always bounc­ing across. 

To imag­ine this as archi­tec­ture – Constant’s, Cedric Price’s, or who­ev­er else’s – destroys the idea before it starts. The ques­tion, then: what means would you use to try to make this land­scape hap­pen? Would it be, at bot­tom, a tech­nique of selec­tive grav­i­ty, to pull in some things and repel oth­ers? In the same way, you might put a treat­ed mesh around a cubic foot of ocean, one that could attract cer­tain crea­tures in and screen oth­ers out; that could make an altered sam­ple of the water around it. 

Such an altered sam­ple would at once have its own charm, and be a means with which to read the more pro­to­typ­i­cal swath of real­i­ty. It would not be a depic­tion of that larg­er set of life; it would move in an anal­o­gous way, just as the motions of any one crea­ture, watched in suf­fi­cient detail, help to explain the motions of any oth­er creature. 

Some plankton.

Since I saw it, I haven’t gone a day with­out think­ing about Nope. Among many oth­er things, it is a great land­scape movie; it makes a clear dis­tinc­tion between the hard fact of land under­neath and the move­able things placed on it, from the cor­rals hold­ing in hors­es, to the grid of tube men that Daniel Kalu­uya and Keke Palmer lay out in their val­ley. The mon­ster sucks in audi­ences; it leaves the seats beneath them emp­ty, untouched. 

Jor­dan Peele’s mon­ster is a cross­roads of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion; it does not map on to any one force in an alle­gor­i­cal way. It acts accord­ing to laws, in this case stu­pid, absurd laws about who gets to look. The sane response is to refuse to look at it at all; the risky response is to find a way to look at it with­out being seen. This basic axiom hav­ing been gen­er­at­ed, we can car­ry it around to com­pare it with the world that we know; it acts as a sort of accel­er­at­ing enzyme, light­ing up an odd set of com­mon­places with pow­er while leav­ing oth­ers untouched. Film, fame, domes­tic animals. 

Or: a tube man picks up con­no­ta­tions of race and class, for all that it is only an inno­cent means to catch the eye. Being that it is a child of the 1990s, and not the 1930s; and that it gets parked out­side pay­day lenders and head shops, and not out­side bar­bers and ice cream shops; know­ing this from every­day expe­ri­ence, any­one is like­ly to read a tube man in the same fash­ion, as hav­ing a stig­ma assigned to it. That stig­ma con­t­a­m­i­nates the tube man’s dance, and makes him alto­geth­er hard­er to look at. (It’s a hard thing that so many things tell you to look and not to look at the same time.)

Peele takes this com­mon­place, clos­es off some paths through it, and opens up oth­ers. The final result is not the film’s cli­mac­tic show­down, but the viewer’s new encoun­ters with tube men out­side in the land­scape after see­ing the movie; expe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent­ly now than they could have been before. What is the inher­ent pow­er of these objects? Not only to draw wrath from above; but, in the end, to match any which way with its view­ers’ own pow­ers of attention. 


(November 2022)