Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Was it a Dream?

I've been reading C. S. Lewis' memoir "Surprised by Joy", and it's got me thinking about Hitchcock and the movie experience in general. Lewis reached an important milestone on his spiritual journey when he read "Space, Time and Deity," which explains S. Alexander's theory of "Enjoyment" and "Contemplation." Essentially, Alexander maintains that one can't Enjoy something and Contemplate it at the same time. Further, he asserts that Enjoyment has nothing to do with pleasure, and that Contemplation has nothing to do with the contemplative life. It's our confusion of these states of being that causes so much trouble. Here's my interpretation of why:

When I desire, say, a milkshake, my thoughts and attentions are directed outward to that beverage. I turn my attention away from my Self. On the other hand, when I contemplate purchasing that milkshake, I am not thinking about the milkshake per se, but of its effect on me – the flavor, texture, coolness, etc. Hence, pleasure is connected to Contemplation, and is directed inward, back to me, away from the milkshake. That's why, as Lewis says, Enjoyment and Contemplation cannot occur at the same time. We can oscillate back and forth between the two, but they cannot coexist.

The mistake that most people make is that we confuse the Contemplation of pleasure with Enjoyment. Lewis compares this with looking at the swell of ocean waves that continue even after the wind has passed. The weather may be calm, but because the water is choppy, we may erroneously conclude that the weather is bad. We are looking at the by-product and confusing it with the activity itself.

This whole process has gotten me thinking about the nature of movies. When I go to movies, I engage in a fantasy. In fact, when the movie calls up feelings that are uncomfortably intense (an increasingly rare phenomenon), I have to remind myself that "it's only a movie." Fantasizing of that caliber doesn't occur as strongly in live theater, for example, because the audience has a direct relationship with the characters – and the actors who portray them. An actor can even "break character" and turn to the audience in an "aside" without interrupting the flow of the play. The audience, in fact, must work to maintain the illusion that the events on stage are real life.

When "Our Town" is performed on a bare stage, and the Stage Manager keeps interrupting the show to provide commentary, we easily step in and out of the fantasy, shifting from Enjoyment to Contemplation. But that doesn't happen at the movies. In a movie house, the audience is mute and passive before the intense mirage of images before it, and it submits to the inexorable "Will" of the film clicking through the projector. By engaging with a projected image in this way, the audience enters a state of fantasy (Alexander's "Enjoyment" phase), and that whirling strip of celluloid doesn't let up even for a moment to allow for Contemplation. (This why Alfred Hitchcock's cameos are so interesting: they "pinch" the audience for a moment, allowing us a breath of Contemplation, reminding us that "it's only a movie." I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Hitch had read Alexander's theories.)

The problem here is that movies, unlike plays, are not a real experience. By comparison, when stage actors kiss, they're REALLY kissing. But when two characters kiss in a movie, what we experience is flickering light patterns that look like kissing. (The actors who performed the kiss might now be dead.) It isn't a real experience. It's just a movie. But the audience responds as if it IS real, and is thus as deluded as a hallucinating acid freak. Or in a dream. Film circumvents the Contemplation phase, which normally acts as abulwark against such delusions. (Maybe that's why childhood is considered to be just such a time of bliss – because children don't have the capacity for contemplation that adults have they have a period of uninterrupted Enjoyment. They don't even have a concept of "it's just a movie.")

When people talk about being fully "Present," or in "The Moment," I think they're trying to express that state wherein Contemplative pleasure is displaced by a connectedness to an other thing - Enjoyment. It is literally an "asensual" experience. It defies interpretation because it is opposed to Contemplation. It just IS. As a drummer, I sometimes have that experience when I'm in a solid groove with a band. Others get it by meditating. It's occurs when I'm running on all eight cylinders. The song seems to go on forever. I forget all about myself, the beat, the trumpet player who cut into my solo last night, etc. The music flows right through you, and you're scarcely aware of it. In a single moment it's over, and all you can do is grin like a dope. It's a hit-or-miss phenomenon that musicians often describe as a gift.

It's a feeling of connectedness that Abraham Maslow calls a "peak experience", and that C. S. Lewis calls "Joy". If I understand them correctly, Ken Mogg (and others) call it "at-onceness". Hitchcock tried to achieve it with "pure film."

But here's the rub. Maslow warned against seeking peak experiences through artificial means, such as drugs or sex, for these lead to selfish pursuit of these experiences – the opposite of outward-directed at-onceness. Film, by virtue of its artificiality, could be added to that list of ersatz experiences. (I'm thinking of "chick flick", "feel good" and other movie types that are as tailored for sensory manipulation as designer drugs. Just as Hitch foresaw.) Audiences buy into the movie as if it were real. But they are deluded. I think Hitchcock was keenly aware of the delusional nature of film, and he constantly played on it - sometimes compassionately, sometimes sadistically. I'm thinking of the movie theater scenes in "Sabotage", in which the audience gazes at the screen with deer-in-the-headlights raptness. Even Mrs. Verloc disengages from Contemplation over the loss of her brother to join in the mass delusion.

"Was it real, Johnnie? Or was it a dream?"

Joel Gunz

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