Monday, June 28, 2010

the perceptible form in which the cause of a movement was draped

Weeks before Wednesday (when it was screening) I circled a Todd Browning triple-bill on the calendar, intending to finally see Freaks -- a film I'd heard much about -- and two Lon Chaneys as well, and all in black-and-white, which I love. Why love? Because that colourless world seems stranger and more secretive, more self-contained and isolated, than the coloured one. Coming out of a colour film I walk on into a coloured world, and so there is continuity there, but the boundary between the black and white world and the everyday one is more rigidly drawn -- it ends where the screen ends, it is limited, endangered, and therefore to me it seems precious. There's the shameless bare melodrama of the actors too. The betrayed father in Metropolis grabs at the air and staggers around in anguish while everyone else treats this as an absolutely normal way to behave under the circumstances. Nobody moues and says, "Knock it off, you old ham." They have such a sweet tolerance for this madness. "Camp is a tender feeling," writes Susan Sontag.

There can be beauty in restraint and deprivation (colour-deprivation), as Proust points out in The Guermantes Way, writing about the experience of a sick man who has become deaf:

And for this totally deaf man, since the loss of a sense adds as much beauty to the world as its acquisition, it is with ecstasy that he walks now upon an earth grown almost an Eden, in which sound has not yet been created. The highest waterfalls unfold for his eyes alone their ribbons of crystal, stiller than the glassy sea, like the cascades of Paradise. As sound was for him before his deafness the perceptible form in which the cause of a movement was draped, objects moved without sound seemed to be being moved also without cause; deprived of all resonant quality, they show a spontaneous activity, seem to be alive. They move, halt, become alight of their own accord. Of their own accord they vanish in the air like the winged monsters of prehistoric days. In the solitary and unneighboured home of the deaf man the service which, before his infirmity was complete, was already showing an increased discretion, was being carried on in silence, is now assured him with a sort of surreptitious deftness, by mutes, as at the court of a fairy-tale king. And, as upon the stage, the building on which the deaf man looks from his window -- be it barracks, church, or town hall -- is only so much scenery. If one day it should fall to the ground, it may emit a cloud of dust and leave visible ruins; but, less material even than a palace on the stage, though it has not the same exiguity, it will subside in the magic universe without letting the fall of its heavy blocks of stone tarnish, with anything so vulgar as sound, the chastity of the prevailing silence.

"This's why I like silent films," I thought, reading the book: "All of the people in them seem to have invented a more magical and efficient means of communicating." It wasn't an idea I'd been able to articulate before -- if someone had asked me I might have said, "Well, because it's funny to watch them make mute fish-mouths with their lips like that, it's hilarious watching that old man grab the air." Proust suggests that art can be a conduit, a window, to deeper understanding, or different understanding. The Narrator disregards the value of ordinary scenery until he sees it transformed in the work of Elstir the painter. So, as I read about this "totally deaf man," it occurred me that my ideas about silent films could be crystallised, and that they were perhaps more remarkable than I thought, and the vague itch I felt behind my own simplistic description, "It's funny to watch their lips flap," could be extended and resolved. Books help me to scratch.

But something else. On Wednesday I felt bad-tempered and agitated from morning to evening, these feelings accumulating around the idea of seeing the Todd Browning triple-bill. I don't know if I want to see it, I told M. -- and this felt like a terrible confession, because I'd already let him know that Todd Browning was something I'd been looking forward to. "False advertising," I thought. "I am a false advertisement." So gloomy, gloomy, and fishing around in my mind for an explanation, I lit on Proust again. "Berma -- it is like the Narrator seeing Berma for the first time, anticipating the event that is Berma, and afterwards realising that he spent so much time planning his own reaction to Berma that he didn't really see her at all. I thought I would feel a certain way about ..." Then, "No," I thought, "that doesn't fit" -- and I rattled this around in my head for a while, trying to get my experience to go into this Proust-shaped hole, until M. said that he understood. It's like me and The Dark Knight. He had planned to see Dark Knight for weeks and never got around to it, feeling reluctant every time the opportunity came up, and yet it had seemed like the sort of movie he would want to see, and he appeared to be the kind of person who would see it, in fact they were such a natural fit that his friends kept assuming that he'd already watched the film. What they asked do you think of The Dark Knight? So there are times when every exterior sign and signal can say, Do this, and yet something surfaces and surprises you by saying, No.

And (although I haven't worked it out very much beyond that) he brought me a moment of peace, and I thought, "I wonder if you could have another Lost Time, in which the role played, in Proust's book, by art, would be played by friendship instead, a transformative and clarifying thing?"

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