The Museum of Doubt

is the title story of a rather good collection by James Meek. It’s a phrase that runs around my head a lot these days. I’m married to a doubter: only a few decades ago, I guess, that would have evoked a scene between a wise old priest and a passionate young intellectual, in which one would confess to the other that he (probably he) had Doubts. About their religious, Christian, probably C or E faith, naturally. These days, no one in this country is expected to be doubt-free about all that. But certainty is still hot property in every other sector of human behaviour. To get on, whether a career or in your social interactions, you must be sure of yourself.

I’m not even a doubter. I just don’t know. It’s not good when two people like me get together. After an initial warm rush to intimacy, recognising that we understand each other’s troubles getting to grips with the world, there is inevitably little to say. We look into each other’s eyes, smile and nod encouragingly, and realise we have nothing more to offer each other.

But what I wanted to talk about was how that affects the work. The Work. (One of the few things I know I liked about art school was learning that I could refer to such a massive range of activity, not to mention inactivity, with that one earthy word. It can either be the finished thing, buffed-up and nicely lit in its gilt frame with a little biographical notice in a tastefully understated font beside it, or it can be an otherwise unremarkable moment that might, maybe, be leading there.) When I was watching Spiritual Voices I thought, “This could do with some editing.” I like long, slow, contemplative films; I don’t see why we should slavishly follow the less-is-more principle and cut away everything inessential; but I think Sokurov is a little self-indulgent here. So, given that this was an observational documentary shot without extra lighting (except when outdoors at night) and so has a lot of murky shots, and that I felt the director had been less than rigorous in his editing, I wondered whether some of the more nicely lit, interestingly textured scenes had been included just because they were the closest this film was ever going to get to eye candy (the Old Master moments in the oil-lamp-lit dinner at night up at the observation post in episode 5, for anyone who’s interested: it seems a bit repetitious of the same scene by daylight earlier in that episode).

Then again, in Sokurov’s shoes, what would I do? I like work that is intellectually and conceptually tight, but, doubting that anyone will find that interesting enough in my work (perhaps not even me), I like to serve up some sensual, emotional, visceral stimulation at the same time. Oooh, that shot looks a bit like a painting! Oooh, look at what he’s doing now! Even, ooooh, that shot could have been in a normal film! And perhaps those moments serve a useful purpose in stirring up the mechanistic unfolding of whatever scheme or structure I think I’m working with; like the catchlight in an eye lifts an otherwise dark-toned portrait, like the sharp fruit cuts through the cheesy coating of the tongue at the end of a meal, like anything that disturbs what you have come to expect brings you back to the present, to what is actually happening, revives you, opens you up. Sounds good. But have I just convinced myself of something because I that moment reminded me of a film I’d rather be making, or might be making instead, or that would make people take me more seriously, and I’ve stuck it in place with special pleading putty?

I just don’t know. I don’t really want to know. I just want it to work for others the way I think it works for me. So they’re not sure either.

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