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Looker Looking

June 9, 2021

In the face the Other expresses her eminence, the dimension of height and divinity from which she descends.      

—Emmanuel Levinas, almost


Years ago I was in the habit of keeping all four CD’s of the Faces box set, Five Guys Walk Into A Bar, loaded into the CD player of my car. That was before the stereo decided to stop being the faithful replicator of the work of others and instead strike out on its own as a solo experimental act, creating a harsh unstoppable full-volume blare of off-white noise any time the car’s electrical system was on. Eventually this became too much and I had to kill it, unscrewing the stereo from the dash and finding the right power connection to pull out, silencing it forever. But before that I had an extravagance of Faces on deck, and one night when I forgot to lock my car, the person who liked to steal CD’s from the cars parked behind our house did so from mine, and along with three or four actual CD’s he, in his stealthy haste (or possibly she in hers), took the empty case of the Faces set, which was worthless to the thief but some small loss to me, and when it came time to finally eject those CD’s before pulling the plug on the CD player, well, they had no home to go to, and who knows where they are now.

But this post is not about those Faces.

At the beginning of the pandemic it occured to me that it might be a bad thing to go for days on end without seeing any other people at all. To see little of other people was something to which I was fairly accustomed; that was mere unhappiness. But complete and prolonged isolation might have more severe consequences. So I thought about trying one of Seth Roberts’ techniques.

Seth Roberts was an eccentric psychology professor with a passion for self-experimentation. He worked on lifehacks before that was a term, the quantified self before that was a thing. He is best known for his Shangri-La Diet, which involves ingesting a daily dose of flavorless calories that, the theory has it, gets the body to gradually lower its weight set-point. There is also an option called crazy spicing, which is as it seems. Many people have reported great results with the Shangri-La Diet, others not. Roberts also found ways to cure his acne and his insomnia, and did a lot of self-experimentation with the effects of omega-3’s. He was unorthodox but not a crank, a useful challenger to conventional science, and I found a lot of value in reading his blog. He died of heart disease at the age of sixty, which is sad for anyone but a particular misfortune for a health guru who made his body his laboratory.

The technique I thought of was one he used against depression. Roberts discovered that his mood improved if he looked at faces in the morning, right after waking up. Living alone he did not have the option of the real, but found that an image could do the job. It’s been years since I read about this but I think that method he ultimately settled on, as a matter of convenience, was looking at himself in the mirror for a prolonged period of time. I was not going to do that. But I thought that I should find some faces to look at, to get me through this thing. And so I thought of Andy Warhol’s screen tests.

Back in 2010 the musical duo Dean & Britta, formerly of Luna, recorded music to go along with thirteen of Andy Warhol’s screen tests from the mid-Sixties. I saw the resulting video, 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, streaming on Netflix and it deeply impressed me. The music is fine but the screen tests themselves, consisting of various scenesters looking into or around the camera for several minutes on end, struck me as the best things that Warhol ever did. I suppose this would mean more coming from somebody who generally liked his art. I tend to be indifferent. But not to these simple films of faces. They have power. Lou Reed is one of the subjects and he hides behind his shades and a bottle of Coke—Lou was smart and would not be caught—but everyone else ends up simply there, beheld. The screen tests are exercises in perfect sincerity coming straight out of a whirlwind of desperate artifice. You could do a complete reappraisal of the whole of Warhol’s career through the perspective of the tests.

Unfortunately the DVD of 13 Most Beautiful… is out of print and unavailable at any reasonable price. Nor is it available online in in its entirety, although I found some of the tests from it on YouTube, such as one of Edie Sedgwick, achingly young, beautiful, uncertain and—as we know—doomed. I am not sure what effect it would have on my mental health to stare at Edie every day after waking up. I did not try the experiment.

I survived, spring became summer, summer became fall, just as they had before. One day I was looking through the library of the streaming service Mubi. Mubi used to operate according to a simple plan: every day one new movie would become available and it would stay in their collection for exactly thirty days. But it has moved away from that elegant severity, and now it operates in a more standard way, with a poorly organized back catalog of films that they keep around for an indeterminate time. So I was browsing through what they had and found Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, a movie I had seen before and realized would be perfect for the Seth Roberts faces treatment.

Kiarostami shot Shirin in his home, using a few chairs, black curtains, lights, and a camera. He brought in a great many actresses, some very well known in Iran, and one—Juliette Binoche, who happened to be in the neighborhood—well known around the world. He shot them as if there were in a movie theater, directing their gaze and reactions, illuminating them with flickering lights. He occasionally placed a man in the background of a shot but reserved his close-ups exclusively for women. After building this collection of shots he moved on to the next part of the film, the soundtrack. He chose a classic Persian poem and adapted it into a cheesy melodrama, and then recorded the audio of it in a studio. Editing sound and picture together he created a movie of women watching a movie, watching a movie that did not exist. That is all there is to it.

The really unfortunate thing about Shirin is that there is no English audio for it. Unless you know Farsi you have to read subtitles to understand what is going on in the unseen film, and that means the fundamental structural division between eye and ear collapses. I feel that this is a real diminishment of the experience. Nonetheless it is well worth seeing, if only for the pleasure of gazing at the faces of so many beautiful Persian women (the director has a clear bias towards beauty). I cannot think of any other movie like it, though I did have a somewhat similar expierence many years ago. I was with a few female friends watching a movie. They all took seats on a futon on the floor, but there was no room for me so I sat on the only chair in the room, which a gave me a view of the girls but not of the televison screen. So I watched the movie by watching their reactions to it, just as in Shirin, and it was fun, and really quite moving. The title of the movie they had put on was Splendor in the Ass, which I suppose was an homage to the 1961 Elia Kazan picture, as well as to the joys of anal lovemaking.

Shirin seemed like a perfect vehicle for the face cure. So one day last fall upon waking up I put my laptop on top of my lap, bringing it close to get the faces looming large—strong medicine—and spent about half an hour looking at those women looking. And how could I say it did not do me some good? It was a nice way to spend the time. But I never did it again; it did not become a regimen of self-care. A lack of self-discipline really, I just didn’t bother, but I may as well go ahead and pretend to have made a principled rejection of such vulgar self-help, instrumentalism, and attempted trickery of my own poor honest innocent old brain. To say that I shall never again look at a face, or any other human part, in person or by image, for merely medical purposes, except upon grave emergency. And to place a quote from Levinas, the most celebrated and holy of all face philosophers, at the top of this post as sign of my depth and solemnity, though changing a he to a she as a matter of preference and as a tribute to the splendid women of Iran, and Juliette Binoche.

I survived my pandemic experience without incident. No mental health issues to speak of, just a complete waste of a year of my life. Just one year closer to death with nothing to show for it. Just blank time permanently unspooled and irretrievable. But if you have not been so lucky and are suffering from a persistent mood disorder, you might consider Seth Roberts’ method. And regardless of that, how happy or hurt, anyone can enjoy these works of Warhol and Kiarostami, for both men knew how to capture a gaze, and had absolutely no time for ugly people.

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