Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Noir Extrême

That's the name of a kind of cookie that has shown up on the shelves of grocery stores. The cookies are pretty good but that name is perfect. And it got me thinking about the willing suspension of disbelief.

That's the  willing suspension of disbelief. Well, not really, no one watching a play about a murder suspends disbelief or else we'd all rush onto the stage to try and prevent it. But there is a kind of enthusiasm, a loss of control required. The Serpentine One once said to me that "seduction is a game you can only play if the thought of losing excites you as much as the thought of winning". A similar approach is required to really get art. You sit down and think, "Okay guys, impress me", but you have to really want to be impressed.

Actually, you need to be prepared to do more than that. You need to be ready to lose control and lose yourself. That's one of the things I love about film noir. There is a moment at the start of even a mediocre noir when I feel it creeping over me like a drug. And I think, "This is what I came for."

This is what people mean when they say something they really like is "like sex". They don't mean it is literally like sex.* But it is like being seduced. This is something like what it feels like for a girl to realize that she has been seduced. And that is a very different feeling from the woman who says to herself, ""I'll go through it because [whatever reason applies today]."  Even going through with it to have pleasure and an orgasm isn't the same as allowing yourself to be seduced.

James Lileks, the first blog I ever read and still one of the best things on the Internet, was not seduced by the last episode of Mad Men. He watched it and liked it and his review shows considerable knowledge of the show but he wasn't seduced. He can be seduced as he shows us when he writes about the music. Here, for example, is the way he talked about the John Barry theme from You Only Live Once that was used in the Mad Men episode:
The bloom of that first chord, the way it settles into the second - wary, resigned, uneasy, but also majestic and remote - is the blueprint for just about everything John Barry would ever do, and when you add the strings playing at the top of their register before it settles into a beat, well.
It's the word "well" that is doing the work here. It doesn't have any actual content. It means something if you know what it feels like but you couldn't explain it to anyone anymore than you could describe turquoise to someone who'd been born blind. That is the way a young woman might say,
He pulled my the panties part way down so the elastic was sitting across my bum and then left me there thinking about it for what seemed like forever and then, instead of taking them off, he pulled them back and came up and kissed me some more and, well.
If you say, "Well what?" in response to either of those you're just telling everyone you don't "get it". Ever! And the choice is up to you. You could respond to either John Barry or the man undressing the girl by saying, "That old trick" and, factually speaking, you'd be right but you'd still be missing something.

Now, here is where it gets really interesting because the next step is to inject morality into the equation. Here it is:
I sat up straight when the opening notes of “You Only Live Twice” started crawling up the scale ...  I thought: they haven’t earned this.
They haven't earned it? It feels absurd but I know the feeling. As I type this, Nat King Cole's version of "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" came on and Nat does earn it. He finds something new in that song that isn't in Crosby's version. His version is wistful and, as the Serpentine One just chimed in, "You think maybe it didn't work out in the long run".

By way of comparison, listen to Nat's version of "When I fall in Love" and I defy you to find another version that finds anything new in it.

At the same time, you can spoil everything by letting morality always trump the seduction. There is a sort of moralistic attitude that comes with wanting to be very much in the world but not of it. You see this in a lot of writing about art, the guy who has acquired an immense amount of knowledge and depth of culture and can write about it but you can tell he just doesn't tingle. His inner girl is long moved into cynical middle age, she can still get wet but she can't, well.

It's telling, and appropriate, that none of these three songs are so incredibly good that they should be sacred. As Lileks correctly says of "You Only Live Twice" a "better singer than Nancy Sinatra might have spoiled it". It's not great art, it's a worthy seduction. If you think you can only be seduced by some guy truly worthy of seducing you, then you can't be seduced at all. You need to be able to sit in the darkness with only the light of the screen and feel a sort of tunnel vision as you get completely absorbed until, well ...

* Great line from the fly-fishing writer John Gierach, "If fly fishing  is really like sex then I am doing one of them wrong."

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