At the end of 2015, New York Magazine asked more than 100 content creators to identify their favorite work from the year. Among television performances, more people picked Carrie Coon in “The Leftovers” than anyone else. It was only 8 percent of them, but given the vast modern TV landscape, that’s actually pretty impressive.
And it has to do with stillness, with what Coon does when she’s not doing anything. Some actors act with their eyes. Coon, as Nora, doesn’t even do that. It’s more like the cliche about jazz. It’s the notes she’s not playing and the way she manages to suggest that those notes are being played somewhere else.
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18
Is stillness in vogue or am I just noticing it? “Spotlight” is a movie composed of stillnesses, especially those of Michael Keaton, John Slattery and, of course, Liev Schreiber, a Yo-Yo Ma on the instrument of stillness. In “The Flick,” a Pulitzer Prize winning play running at the Barrow Street Theater in New York, the stillness comes from the production, not the actors. “The Flick” is long (more than three hours) and quiet, full of intentional longueurs in which low-paid movie theater workers sweep up popcorn while getting ready to say something. Some people can’t stand it. I loved it.
Even Matthew McConaughey, an actor once known for hyper-caffeination, reinvented himself as Rust Cohle, an ex-detective slowing himself down to hear the deepest vibrations of the universe.
My own life is touched these days by the example of the Rev. Nancy Butler, pastor of the church I attend. Nancy has ALS, a disease of unchosen stillness. Last week she wrote to me about its consolations:
I have also noticed a modicum of moral progress in myself 🙂 My life has slowed down so much I am more aware of my shortcomings. My life has slowed down so much I can actually behave differently. I make choices to live more simply. I pay more attention people around me. I try to let go of my plans and roll with it. I muster up the courage to speak up for myself …Yesterday, I watched the dark clouds roll by, revealing blinding sunlight. It reminded me that our troubles are temporary and if we persevere in faith, we will be blinded by God’s glory.
This connects back to “The Leftovers,” a series about the human race grappling with the theologically ambiguous disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population. It’s an event that science is helpless to explain and that government is almost comically unable to address meaningfully. The series asks all of its characters, “What else have you got?” Fixing her eyes on what is unseen, Coon’s Nora seems like the person with the most compelling set of answers.