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On an Animation of a Sentence by Nathan Englander

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by Max Winter
May 13, 2013 8:46 AM
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It seems to me there are several different things going on in Drew Christie's animation of a sentence from the Nathan Englander story “The Reader.” The sentence itself runs as follows:

And with all these headlights floating divided in his rearview mirror, Author can never tell which belong to his reader, which pair is his beacon, a North Star, split, cast back, guiding him on.

Your first question might be, if you haven’t seen one of these brilliant animations literary magazine Electric Literature has been posting for years now, where’s the rest of the story? What are we to do with a single sentence?

That is the question the editors want you to ask: in isolating these sentences in this way, they want to raise the estimation of the individual sentence, to remind us of its part in making a story, or even a novel. They have taken sentences from authors ranging from Jim Shepard to Amy Hempel to Mary Gaitskill to A.M. Homes, paired them with animators, and produced a remarkable series of small films.

The film built around this sentence is fairly simple on its surface, a study in white lines against a black background, all vibrating slightly, partly an effect of the medium, partly an effect of the sentence itself (I'd like to think, though I'm probably wrong). A polar bear stands on top of a rising and descending moon-like (or maybe Earth-like) orb, suggesting… what? The mythic importance of the polar bear for certain cultures? The isolation we all sometimes feel, as if the world were a desert island and we were all standing on it, waiting for a ship? The sense that we are all, somehow, crushed, that we think we are free but we are actually stick beneath the paw of some enormous unseen beast?

The rest of the small film, just under two minutes long, does little to discourage or answer these sorts of questions, and in fact it expands on them. As we move onto the open road, with a seldom-seen driver, all kinds of other concerns begin to crowd in: what is the driver’s destination, or better put, what is the writer’s destination? Should he be concerned that he is being followed—or, conversely, should he be happy that he’s being followed, should he consider it part of the natural way of things? Even the handmade scrawl of the sentence suggests a kind of desperation, or nakedness—which, interestingly, contrasts with the sentence itself, loaded with auspiciousness, with the ambiguity of the idea of a Reader, or a Beacon, or an Author, or the mysteriousness of a light that directs someone from behind. What the filmmaker has taken his cue from is the motion of the sentence: the way it starts with a pair of long, establishing phrases and then slowly breaks apart into smaller phrases which carry more symbolic weight as the sentence progresses.

So: watch it again.

Max Winter is the Managing Editor of Press Play.

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