Doing one thing over and over

In their quest for perfection, some film directors put their actors through a cosmic test of patience. David Fincher, best known for his Oscar-winning The Social Network, shot the opening scene of that picture 99 times. It’s not a record — that honour goes to Stanley Kubrick, who logged 148 takes of a scene from The Shining — but it puts Fincher atop the pile of persnickety directors presently working.

If you’re an actor in a David Fincher movie, you wake up thinking, This is gonna be a lonnng day. And there’s every chance you’ll be spending it like an insane gardener mowing the same patch of grass. “Usually by Take 17 the earnestness is gone,” Fincher told the New York Times, explaining his theory that brute repetition shaves off the artifice of “acting,” until a hank of raw nerve endings is all that’s left. By then, as the sun dips below the horizon, you, the actor, have come to a new understanding of the character. You’ve gone past memorizing the script, gone past even knowing your own name. But the words coming out of your mouth are alive.

A whole day is a long time to do the same thing over and over.

Sometimes, though, that’s what it takes.

We were on the archery range the other day (Lila shoots competitively) and the example of Korean national women’s team came up. It often does when Lila’s coach wants to impress upon her the value of deliberate practice —and the volume of it that you need, in this sport, to achieve the required consistency.

Atop world archery there’s Korea, followed by … everybody else. In a recent competition, the Korean women’s world champion put three arrows into a space the size of a loonie from sixty metres. If a Korean archer bags a gold medal at the Olympics they receive a monthly salary for life, plus enormous national respect. Those are the stakes. It helps explain why young Korean archers angling for the national team routinely shoot 400 to 500 arrows a day, and sometimes as many as 1000. Shooting 1,000 arrows in a day is a feat of almost unimaginable stamina and mental focus. Coaches use mirrors and video replays to correct posture, bring the shooting form a smidgen closer to repeatable perfection, and lock it down. If you’re a Korean archer, every day’s a Big Day, and it’s pretty much an exact replica of yesterday.

The American indie rock band The National once spent a day, in a gallery in Queens, NY, playing one of their songs “approximately 108 times” in a row (the official counter lost count). It was an experiment in what the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who had invited them, calls “endurance art.” The idea was to “explore the potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound,” Kjartansson said. The song was “Sorrow,” and it’s frankly a bringdown to hear even once. “Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won,” the boys sang, over and over again. At one point they tried to take a snack break on the fly and ended up singing with their mouths full.

Six hours in, frontman Matt Berninger, exhausted, was overcome by “a wave of deep feeling” that reduced him to tears. Gradually, the musicians began to lose their voices. The crowd kept dancing, buoying their spirits. “By the end,” one band member would later note, “it didn’t feel like we were playing the same song.” What started off as a concept flirting with pretentiousness became an unexpectedly, intensely personal, life-changing experiment. Guitarist Aaron Dessner called it “one of the most incredible experiences we’ve all had together.” Berninger framed it up as the most relaxing day he’d had in months, since he “only had to think about one thing.”

The writer and futurist Kevin Kelly talks about how, as a young man, all he did, pretty much all day long, was read books Around a book and a half a day, on average. It changed his brain in a way he could almost detect. He could almost feel the synapse associations blooming, branching, like the tendrils of a plant nosing into every tiny crevasse of his wetware. “You begin to think that the authors are all talking to each other…. It’s impossible, but you have this sense of this all knitting together.” That’s cool. If you stare at the night sky long enough, you almost can’t not see constellations.

Repetition, pushed to its limits, takes something familiar and, by rolling and re-rolling the dough, transforms it into something unfamiliar. Thus does a simple chain of words – say, Ribbono shel Olom or La ilaha illallah– become a prayer. “Something happens to those discrete words that are generated in the brain and exit the mouth,” said the journalist Eric Weiner, who investigated the chants of various faiths for his book Man Seeks God. “They become … a necklace of sound that reverberates through the body, and out into the universe.” Through repetition, a simple, humble action is transfigured into something holy.

I happen to have two close friends who have made epic treks a big part of their lives’ Third Acts. A step is just a step; a hundred thousand of them — whether toward Mecca, or the Santiago de Compostela, or the 88 temples of the Shikoku Trail in Japan — is a pilgrimage. My friends are pilgrims now, experts in the art of raising a tiny dust cloud from their shoes, over and over. Born again, day after day after day.

“Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint,” writes the English-lit scholar Edward Mendelson. “Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.”

I’m thinking of all this right now because I have a Big Day planned that I’m a little bit worried about: Big Unicycle Day. I can’t ride a unicycle. The goal is to try to learn over the course of a single day – partly as a test to see whether (or how much) the physical-skills learning curve flattens for the slightly older man. “Prepare to fail,” says just about every unicyclist I know. Whatever the outcome, it’s going to involve mind-numbing repetition of the same micro- physical move, from dawn to dusk, until I get it. Or I don’t.

It ought to be an interesting day, on balance.

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