If you were to see the floor of my home office right now, you’d learn a lot about me.
I start this inventory every year after Christmas. I aim to file all loose papers, throw out expired coupons, finish and send letters that I left half-written, organize souvenirs and conference packets and travel papers that I tossed aside and forgot about. I always begin with zeal, driven by a desire to start the New Year with a clean slate. But I never finish the job. Why? The answer is discouraging. I lose my enthusiasm for the future as I stare into the disorder of the past. And the mess of my life stares back at me, saying “What are you going to do about it?”
Things means things. That’s what my high school poetry teacher used to say as I blinked at seemingly unrelated elements of a poem. Now I know what he means. The details of our lives, however arbitrary, will talk with one another if they are set side by side. And they will reveal patterns, obsessions, fears, and priorities.
Case in point: my favorite movie of 2016: Cameraperson, a documentary by Kirsten Johnson.
A lot of you will probably stop reading right there: A documentary? You don’t go to the movies for a report, right? You want to be caught up in a visionary work of imagination.
Well, “documentary” isn’t the best word for Cameraperson. It’s more like a mystery or a puzzle. Johnson, a cinematographer who has worked on some of the most provocative documentaries of the last 25 years, has cleaned up the cutting room floor and selected excerpts for an exhibition: fragments from between the scenes that “mattered,” throwaway segments of interviews, and excerpts from her own home movies.
She takes these “deleted scenes” and casts them like tea leaves across the big screen. A boxer, before and after an important fight in Brooklyn. A toddler who picks up an axe. A flash drive—buried, secrets and all, inside an active cement mixer. A newborn baby gasping for breath that might not be enough. An interview with a Bosnian counselor for rape victims; another, with a filmmaker full of unresolved rage toward her mother. A candid conversation with Johnson’s own mother, who is vanishing into an Alzheimer’s fog.
And she asks us to pay attention.
While at first these moments seem arbitrary and unrelated, they eventually reveal (for those with eyes to see) profound relationships. Edited by Nels Bangerter and David Teague, this is poetic cinema par excellence. It’s a war photographer's alternative to the whimsy of Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Little by little, we begin to understand what interests Johnson, what amazes her, what terrifies her, what leaves deep and smoldering scars.
Don’t miss the importance of this: Her personal exhibitions include a handwritten page from her childhood declaring the goodness of God, and shots of young girls in Colorado Springs dressed as the Bride of Christ, juxtaposed with shots of people in prayer in parts of the world routinely scarred by hatred, poverty, and violence.
“Show me your online history, your gas mileage, your receipts, a transcript of all you’ve done and said on a given day,” writes David Dark, “and we might begin to assemble a rough picture of your religious identity or, more generally, the witness that is and will have been your one wild and precious life. We’re never not broadcasting, testifying, worshipping, and making plain our core commitments.”