May 04, 2020 08:59 am
In Baltimore’s American Museum of Visionary Art I once saw a video about the soul. It’s called “Where the Smiling Ends,” and it’s about seven minutes long. It made me realize something about human beings that I have never forgotten.
No one paid any attention to filmmaker Andi Olsen when she positioned her camera in front of the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome. She was just one person among thousands who visited the fountain that day and took photos. Probably few people lingered long enough after having had their own presence there memorialized to notice how one woman came and stayed.
All around the fountain people positioned themselves—singly, in pairs, in family groups—and brought up their smiles. That is what you do when you are before a camera; everyone knows that. You demonstrate your gladness to be where you are and with the people you’re with. The photographers aimed, focused, clicked, and the moment belonged to the posterity of albums all over the world. Someone had been to Trevi Fountain and here was the evidence to prove it. The subject of Olsen’s video, however, was not the smiling face of a particular loved one. What she was interested in was what happened to all those people right after the camera was lowered.
Set to the music of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” the short black-and-white video shows in slow motion how one posed face after another releases the enthusiasm they have ratcheted up for the camera. At first, the vanishing of the smile strikes the viewer as little more than an individual quirk. But as the video spools on, something more becomes evident. Olsen has offered her viewers an intimate glimpse into that instant in which authenticity fills the space carved out by public expectation. Over and over again, the falling of the smile reveals each face dissolving into its own private and unfulfilled world. Husbands and wives, teenagers, lovers, grandparents, friends—one after another, they stop smiling, and what replaces the smile is the person we are when we assume we are safely unwitnessed. When the smile fades, it is often with a bow of the head, as if the very effort of manufacturing that expression was tiring. These faces, supposedly unobserved, settle into their private wells of sorrow, envy, boredom, resignation, and relief. The people in Olsen’s film were saying something much different from what they assumed their photos would later say. They weren’t saying, “This is me in front of Trevi Fountain!” They were saying, “I stood in front of Trevi Fountain, and now I must go home knowing it has fixed absolutely nothing in my life.”
I stood there in the museum and watched this film three times. And when I turned away, it was as if I could see in every person I encountered that place where the smiling ends. I saw that they had struggled, that on this particular day, when hundreds of people would pass them by as if they hardly existed, there was something each was worried about. I saw that they loved and that sometimes love hurt. That they couldn’t help feeling that if just one particular thing would go their way—a job, a new beloved, a raise—then everything would be so much better. I fell in love with all of them. Andi Olsen reminds us of how quickly, if we pay attention, we can catch a glimpse of the soul of people.
What I’m reading
I finally finished The Forsyte Saga and so missed all those characters that I caught up on magazine articles for a couple of days before picking up another book. I’d bought Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody at a local used bookstore several months ago, and it seemed like just the antidote to the Forsytes: from Victorian England to Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, from upper class to working class, from a male-dominated world to a woman making her independent way in the world. Here’s what O’Faolain has to say about reading:
“I would prefer to read something I don’t enjoy than do almost anything else. I like the act of reading in itself. Following the line of something—not just the story but the rhythm, the tone, the feel of what has accumulated from before and what is beginning to impend—becoming surefooted on the high-wire of the author’s intention. I liked everything to do with English as a school subject.”
Yes! Me too!
My savory moment occurred a few days ago. We woke up to see about six inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground. “At least we don’t have to shovel the driveway,” I said to Andy, “since we can’t go anywhere.” Much of the snow had melted by afternoon, and I went outside. I wanted to check on the daffodils that I’d planted in the meadow and on the trail leading to it when we first bought our house 32 years ago. Daffodils are my favorite flower, and I was sad to see them all bent over, their yellow blossoms pressed to the ground by snow, the green stalks flattened. I set to work liberating each daffodil everywhere I found them. Finally, my gloves soaked, I picked a bunch of them and walked back to the house. I realized I had never before picked daffodils after freeing them from snow. They have survived beautifully and continue to bloom.
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"It’s a great vision that Trebbe Johnson is sending out into the world, and it is very much her own. The great central truth of what she is doing is the very hard lesson for all of us in our lives, and yet it is our blessing."
—W.S. Merwin, Former Poet Laureate of the United States