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The original Anthology Film Archives, on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, was designed with high black partitions between each seat, so that viewers could wall themselves in to the screen like anchorites. This was before my era. I do my best without the partitions, with merely a dark theater and a locked-in commitment.

Films that exploit such a devotional contract can take me to a certain height, a height of subjection, such as I felt watching Michael Snow’s 1971 La Région Centrale, at a 2005 screening in Los Angeles. A camera swings around and records a craggy, treeless, and unpeopled landscape in remote northern Quebec. I watched what the camera showed me for three hours and ten minutes, and listened to the whines and beeps, synchronized to the camera’s movements, that are the film’s only soundtrack. From among barren views and mechanical noises I was forced to develop an ad hoc connoisseurship, a method for inhabiting the film, a way to think toward its austerity. If I tried to think away from its menu of rocks and beeps, ingredients served without even a plate—there is no stable horizon line, because the camera can swing in any direction—my distracted states would dissipate. The starkness of the experience was stronger than my drive to daydream. The film insisted on my attention, even if my thoughts were sometimes a tautological reduction, focused as I was on focusing.

When I left the theater, I felt that my mind had been placed in a kiln. Inessential layers had been burned away, and new and lasting glazes baked in. I was changed, or so I propagandize. I can’t say how I was changed, only that duration was the condition for it.

To endure or tolerate or last are all terms that indicate a person withstands some kind of burden to which they have been subjected. It could even be said that I like to be subjected to things. I once walked, under virulent summer sun with no shade or relief, for six hours across a peninsula in the Dominican Republic, while traveling alone. My destination was a waterfall and swimming hole. But swimming and natural beauty were not what motivated me. It was the walk, the granular absorption of a new reality, the way the heat bore down on me and the tempo of change in scenery slowed to the pace of my steps. Human steps dilate the integers of time, time’s “beats.”

Nabokov’s character Van Veen, from Ada, suggests that he is “an epicure of duration,” who “delight[s] sensually in Time.” Veen’s “greatest discovery,” Nabokov later said, was “his perception of Time as the dim hollow between two rhythmic beats . . . not the beats themselves, which only embar Time.” What Nabokov describes in his typically florid style, without naming it, is the fermata. A simple but profound music notation, a fermata on a note or rest stops time between beats, freeing the musician (or conductor) to decide when it ends. On my own fourteen-mile fermata, from the town of Las Terrenas to Salto El Limón, I passed on foot through clusters of modest little houses with tin roofs. I saw people, a woman in hair curlers cooking on charcoal briquettes, and people saw me, the men in faded military uniforms who stopped to offer me a ride in their jeep. I refused their offer, and was abandoned back into my solitary pursuit.

More recently I walked the perimeter of the Rome airport. It was afternoon when I left my airport hotel. My aim was ostensibly to find a restaurant at the mouth of the Fiumicino Canal, where the waters of the Tiber are disgorged into the Tyrrhenian Sea. But in truth, I suspect that my aim was not to get dinner but to yield. I observed huge sections of concrete pipe, pipes that were the height of two-story buildings. Beyond razor wire I passed row after row of fuel tanks, ladders winding up their sides. Next was a phalanx of rusted old boats in dry dock, covered by flapping tarps (a wind was coming up, promising rain). I skirted an abandoned development of some kind, half-built, its windows smashed, wild dogs on its concrete foundation barking at me not to come any closer. When the rain came down, I was on a dark stretch of road next to a park or no-man’s-land. Cars hurtled past, splashing me. A few honked, having interpellated me, optimistically, as open for business (in Europe, prostitution seems to have a more advanced median age). When I finally arrived at the harbor of Fiumicino, rainwater moved over its jetty in thick undulations. I thought about the Roman slaves who may have pulled ships laden with marble up the canal. I thought about the fuel tanks and the wild dogs. I never “used” any of these details. I was engaged in forcing myself to pay attention. The object of attention is less important, in this sort of exercise. The key is that it be something that isn’t intended to be looked at in a sustained way.

“Place can only be understood over time,” the filmmaker James Benning has said. “That is . . . place is a function of time.” When his film Ruhr had its Los Angeles premiere in 2010, Benning introduced it by warning us that the second half was a single take that would last sixty minutes. For that static sixty-minute shot, lit by late-day sun, we see the upper half of the cooling tower of a German coke plant, which emits steam every so often. I knew, as I observed the light changing, that a huge white volley of billowing steam would be expressed from the baffles in the tower at regulated intervals, but anticipating those events became the narrative of not just that sixty-minute shot but my own narrativized time. The anticipation of this dramatic expression of steam from the vents was also a metaphor: I was waiting for release from the hollow between time’s beats. My time, the external time outside the film, and the time inside the film, the cooling tower and its periodic activation, had merged.

A film that achieves a similar merging, and in the most humble and charming manner, is Melting, by Benning’s contemporary Thom Andersen, in which a strawberry sundae drips and collapses over a chthonic six minutes. Most films, in contrast, temporarily obscure real time behind their own fictional time. We escape our time into theirs. This has merits, of course, and some films seem almost to open onto absolute time, a bank vault of everlastingness in which the characters are eternally acting out the drama. Lana Turner is always sobbing at Juanita Moore’s bedside. Janet Leigh is turning her face and neck toward the shower spray. Paul Newman is parking his Cadillac on Patricia Neal’s flower bed. Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present, by the mysterious structural filmmaker George Landow, who later adopted the name Owen Land and, as I recall, happened to be in the audience the night I saw La Région Centrale, seems to allude playfully to filmic eternity, as we see overexposed images and a voice intones “oh God” over and over.

The entrancing conceit of Christian Marclay’s The Clock is that he montages scenes from classic films that impose the absolute time of drama or melodrama, but in sequences where a clock or watch shows the time, or someone announces the time, and the time inside the film is the same as it is for the viewers in a theater watching The Clock. Screenings were scheduled so that the video montage was synchronized with “real” time, taking viewers out of the film with each strike of a clock, but then putting them back in the film, whose propulsion is the promise of the next clockface, which will then eject them back into their own reality once more. This goes on for twenty-four hours. I stayed for eight, like a workday, and then went home to cook dinner, and knew that in The Clock, people inside the succession of montaged scenes were also having dinner, or otherwise occupying the early-evening hours.

The films of Béla Tarr allow the viewer to feel time in a more subtle and mysterious way, not as a gag, but as renditions of infinity. The bar scene in Tarr’s Sátántangó, in which people dance in a drunken stupor and one man balances bread on his face as an accordion squeezes a repeating melody in a minor key, seems to constitute a godless or “bad” infinity, a vacuum in which Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence and Pete falls off (who is left?). It’s no accident that Estike, the young girl who watches this scene from outside the bar, in the cold and dark, decides to kill herself, and thereby put a stop to things. Sátántangó is seven hours and nineteen minutes long, but it is easier to watch than La Région Centrale. Events occur—Estike wrestles with and poisons a cat in a punishing sequence of love and abuse, horses skitter across an abandoned town square, people are manipulated by a Svengali who appeals to their craven need for approval, an alcoholic “doctor” transfers brandy from a jug to a decanter to a glass. In addition to offering a gripping if ambiguous storyline, each scene is full of such intricate visual detail that I’m never turned back on myself, focused on trying to focus. In all of Tarr’s films, it is the sense of inexorable toil, of pointless or cruel repetition, for the people inside the movies, that forces a reckoning with time, and not the viewer’s own distraction or boredom that produces this effect.

Susan Sontag said she would happily see Sátántangó every year of her life. It’s a bit of a silly flex to say that. It’s, Seven hours? Pff, ain’t nothin’ to me. But I’m guilty of striving for such endurance and have seen it twice in the past three years, most recently at a June screening in L.A., where Béla Tarr came onstage for a post-film interview. That he had a cool person’s affect and wore skinny jeans was slightly unnerving, because his coolness, for me, is in the art he makes, and so I didn’t expect him to also look cool, which can be a sign someone isn’t really that cool, and instead concerned with seeming so. Following the Q and A session, some in the audience stayed—after at least nine hours in the theater—for yet another Tarr screening, suggesting that coolness was not in affect but in who was training to win the masochism olympics (I wasn’t). The artist Stephen Prina used to show very long films to his students at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, and when the film ended he would ask who was ready to see it again, and everyone, wanting to please him, would raise their hand, and they would all settle in for a repeat screening—or so the story goes.

The nineteenth-century American theologian and minister Robert Baird espoused the power of “fixed and continuous attention” to impress upon distractible minds a sustaining belief in God, so that they might “be held to the subject,” and not just for a few hours on Sunday. For Baird, what needed to be combatted was distraction. The solution was the revival meeting, which might last days or weeks, a spiritual fermata, a Béla Tarr film like no other, in which attendees would not be outwardly coerced but would self-coerce under the influence of collective prayer that went on and on.

I learned about Baird’s theory of evangelical revivalism in Thoreau’s Axe, by Caleb Smith, a work structured like a book of devotion, offering twenty-eight “readings” that traverse two centuries of discourse on attention, and how various figures, from poets to preachers to reformers, have attempted to inculcate it, to locate a state of attention, to battle their own distraction, or to encourage (or force) others into a state of submission and self-restraint. Smith is a literature professor at Yale, but he has the deep and natural orientation of a historian, in his approach to archives and strange and curious corners of nineteenth-century American thought. He has also written about the philosophical underpinnings of solitary confinement and the abolitionist John Brown, and he authenticated and edited the diaries of Austin Reed, the earliest known prison memoir of an African-American writer. In all of these works, concerning rebellion, resistance, and reform, surveillance of self and other, there is a consistent theme of the mind and its autonomy.

Baird wanted to improve people’s “mental constitution” through the form of the revival. Perhaps, in walking through Fiumicino or across a sunbaked peninsula, or watching Hungarian actors trudge across a wind-pummeled landscape, I am working on my own mental constitution, employed in an iterative practice of discipline, trying to shape myself. Before I wrote my first novel, after I had quit my job in order to write it, I sat for six-hour stretches, from late afternoon until past dark, watching light change. I wanted to feel time. The best way to feel time is to fill it with nothing. Time is the hard pan underneath distraction. It is felt purely when a person is paying attention.

James Benning’s simple definition of an artist is “someone who pays attention and reports back.” This seems right, regardless of medium: the laws of art are constant. The artist is engaged in heuristics. There is no such thing as a part-time artist, even if some must work at other vocations in order to survive. The life of the artist, in its entirety, is an apprenticeship, in which details that are gathered while paying attention, or learning to pay attention, practicing doing so, might take on the glow of truths that will be reconstituted into art. The artist must waste time (pay attention), and later extract meaning from her wasted time (report back). She understands that, conversely, time not wasted, time spent in pursuit of intellectual knowledge, in which she might plunge herself, offers a form of truth that is merely as it appears, and cannot be cracked open to reveal a hidden meaning, a secret.

I myself have a simple definition of art, if not of the artist. Art is a secret that an artist possesses—something only she knows about the world and has figured out how to share. To be witness to someone else’s secrets makes the world suddenly different than we know it, and through that difference, it becomes more like itself. A novel is an accretion of such secrets, such differences, a form that allows them to appear. But secrets only reveal themselves through paying attention, and not through erudition. They manifest capriciously, when impressions of the physical world become infused with a revelatory meaning.

For Simone Weil, attention was equivalent to prayer. For the nineteenth-century creole mystic Adrien Rouquette, whose practice of “savoir attendre” occupies a section of Thoreau’s Axe, learning to wait means acquiring spiritual transcendence through patience and asceticism. “In French, attendre connotes readiness and care, the responsiveness of an attendant,” Smith writes. For Rouquette, waiting “has nothing to do with idleness or killing time; waiting requires vigilant alertness, an attunement of the self to slow, unfolding processes.”

Rouquette and Thoreau, with whom he corresponded, and many of the other nineteenth-century figures discussed in Smith’s book, were responding to an industrialized world of sped-up time and alienated work. In the past twenty years, the “attention economy” has similarly become a popular discourse in an age of distraction. Smith both acknowledges all this and retrains his own focus on the consistent desire across different eras to hold a thought.

If the figures he writes about are mostly attempting to pay attention to God, the transcendence they want is not so different from the transcendence of art, the attempts of the artist, the writer, to attune herself to impressions and to report back. Learning to wait, to pay attention, is the ethical contract you make with yourself and with your practice, whatever your practice is. It could be God, or art, or both, and either way, there are no shortcuts.

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