BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 19 FEB 15
Featured in
Issue 169

A Knowing Look

The importance of being curious

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 19 FEB 15

Foxcatcher, 2014; Courtesy: Sony Pictures and Entertainment One

Once, I believed writers must be innately curious. But some are interested only in their stories, which might be culled from anyone. Anyone is material.

People do go on – ‘total strangers’ we call them, the odd partner at a dinner party – but through them I’ve learned about the manufacture of paper clips, the discovery of the glue for Post-its, and fears I never had; losing my fingers in a garbage disposal unit, for instance.

Incuriosity is curious. Humans are highly selective about what they want to find out, as if knowing what they need to know. So, a total stranger probably can’t tell them anything. Lack of curiosity protects people from strangeness. To protect themselves also, humans build comfy nests, settle into routines and, if they have them, cocoon with mates. To be safe, couples – married, unmarried, queer, straight – walk in symbiotic lockstep.

Sure, some surprises are awful. The news of death is a grave shock. But, unconsciously, people inure themselves to it by creating situations – war, for example – that depend on it. War, Sigmund Freud explained, placates the death drive.

‘Only in novels does one change condition or become better,’ wrote Albert Camus. When morose and pessimistic about life, I believe Camus was right (though would add ‘uninteresting novels’). ‘Legal’ brutality rampages here; in small and large US cities, police are killing young black men while, of racism and police criminality, many whites speak in platitudes, empty phrases. Platitudes stifle even dim possibilities for change, since change requires, first, self-reflection. Platitudes in novels, shows and movies offer readers and viewers small satisfactions and no surprises. But work that incites doubt, or that is ambiguous, provokes uncertainty and psychic disturbance.

With smart uncertainties, all manner of art stays with me. Joseph Roth’s last novel, The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), follows the only surviving member of the Trotta family from his earlier novel, The Radetzky March (1932), who arrives home in Vienna after fighting in the Great War, during the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Home is an enigma, a city surviving bitter defeat in an incoherent present. Roth relates the disintegration of the nation as a process of loss of identity and power through its distraught fictional characters, who are, as the author himself put it, ‘homesick for the Kaiser’.

Two recent works linger in my mind: Amie Siegel’s Provenance (2013) and Bennett Miller’s movie Foxcatcher (2014). Provenance is an installation comprised of two films and one framed wall piece, recently exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Using pans, tracking shots and ambient sound, Siegel filmed ‘the flow’ of commodities between India and the West. She looked at Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, the model city he was commissioned to design by the Indian government in the 1950s, and its furniture, specially designed by Pierre Jeanneret. In the West, the furniture – especially the chairs, which, in the film, signify the human body – is extremely valuable. The viewer’s realization of how the furniture ‘sits’ or functions in Chandigarh is part of the work, the experience one of the film’s uncertainties. Siegel put this film up for auction at Christie’s, in London, and recorded the raw exchange – the other film in the installation.

Value and values are lived by people, who every day engage with and relate to objects. Siegel’s work is an ethnography of specific objects, for one, by registering their contextual differences. Also, no voice-over tells viewers how to comprehend the flow. Instead, the installation represents the wiliness of value and culture, the ambiguity inside which we make work and exist.

Silence hangs heavy in Foxcatcher. Scant dialogue and long pauses build its hushed track, the sound of repression. This movie, a strange ménage à trois, is based on the life of John E. du Pont, progeny of one of America’s wealthiest families, and his relationship to two brothers, wrestlers. Du Pont wanted the US to win a Gold Medal in wrestling at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and ‘bought’ his wrestling team, bringing them to his great house, Foxcatcher, to train.

This brotherhood does not result in Hollywood bromance. Class and masculinity are at play, with hierarchies resting on wealth and physical strength, power in both senses. The wrestling poses make a choreography, men dancing dominance and submission. Sexuality feels like a stealthy panther about to pounce, insinuating itself, while physicality and violence are simultaneously acted out and suppressed, as sport. Libidinal desire takes a turn for the worst.

Miller directed Foxcatcher with immense curiosity about the story and the men, the camera closely studying the obliquity of their motivations. I was watching, waiting, held in suspense, even though I knew the ending. That seems paradoxical, but memorable art often is.

Lynne Tillman is the author of Mothercare (2022) and numerous other books. The reissue of her 

second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), was published by Peninsula Press in September.