Rack focus

There’s a term in cinema for a technique in which the filmmaker changes the camera’s focus during a shot, drawing the viewer’s attention first to one part of the frame, then to another.

Rack focus exploits the human desire for clarity and for certainty;   our eyes go unerringly to what we can most clearly see and identify.  It’s powerful because it explicitly sharpens our attention on a particular object, while at the same time implicitly reminding us of what we may not be seeing.

You might become absorbed by the house finch, for instance, and not really notice the black-headed grosbeak.  Or the other way around:

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To a certain extent, the object of our focus is organically determined;  like other animals, humans evolved to pay attention to novelty, because “different” could well mean “dangerous.” But unlike other animals,  humans also tend to see most clearly what matches their preconceptions:  Time after time, figuratively as well as literally,  we find what we’re looking for — what affirms our beliefs — while often remaining blind to what does not.

The other afternoon, I spooked something in my yard:  an impression of flight, of an object falling through air.   It wasn’t until I looked at the Siberian elm towering over the back fence that I saw the hawk in the branches. And then, what it had dropped when I surprised it.


And the pile of feathers where it had been eating its prey.


I thought then of the dead animal,  identified by its pink legs as a Eurasian collared dove. They frequent my feeders year-round,  large birds notable for their graceful visage and clumsy flight. And I was sad, contemplating the violence that ended such a harmless life.


But then I shifted my focus to the hawk.  I see them only occasionally, magnificent predators who, no less than the doves, need to eat.  A couple of winters ago, a sharp-shinned hawk was forced down by a blizzard and sat on my fence for a long while, lifting one foot and then the other into its feathery breast, trying to stay warm.

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I am inclined always to see sorrow first;  I am keen to the presence of suffering. But I am slowly learning to appreciate as well the beauty that is ever in the frame, awaiting my attention.

I am learning by heart a poem by Jack Gilbert, writing so transcendent it approaches prayer. I offer it to you now as it came to me, a reminder that what we see depends greatly on where we choose to focus.  And that — even in the ruthless furnace of this world — there is always beauty, always gladness.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies 
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before dawn would not 
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future,  smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.  There is laughter
everyday in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.


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