Friday, January 15, 2010

safety in the cinema

A little while ago, we had David Thomson visit the bookstore to talk about his new book, The Moment of Psycho (complete with unsettling subtitle: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder). I didn't actually hear very much of his talk because I was busy with various bookstore things, but I heard him begin by presenting the idea of "safety in the cinema."

Are we safe when we go to the cinema? Are we safe when we settle down into those plush folding seats and lean back in climate-controlled darkness? Are we safe when the screen lights up and the music begins and we are transported to somewhere definitively not where we started out?

No, David Thomson says.

No! I say.

And then several days went by and several things happened and I was very sad. I kept thinking, am I safe? And then I thought about it some more, and I had to ask myself, would I want to be? When I am sad, do I want to see things, hear things, read things, think things that only comfort me? Will having my world flattened out, simplified, and filtered make me feel any better? No, it won't. I tried it recently. It makes me feel like I'm playing with paper dolls, or a garden made out of spun sugar. None of it lasts, and if it rains, everything is going to collapse into mush and melt away, leaving you with nothing but pale and dirty water.

The thing about art (and when I say art, I mean it as a clumsy stand in for telling stories, listening to music, dancing in the rain, looking at a painting in a museum, taking photographs, going to the cinema... all of that, on both sides) is that it puts extra folds into my life. When I was very young, I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. There's an illustration in there that tries to explain how you could fold together space and time to travel long distances through both in a moment. An ant crawls along a length of fabric stretched between two hands. The hands fold the fabric together and the ant steps from one finger to the next, skipping all the fabric in between.

Art does the opposite. It makes folds and pleats in my life, but they aren't shortcuts. They're richly textured, absurdly embroidered, swags of knotted and tangled and snarled and dirty things. They give me the luxury of time outside of my mundane routine to examine things I don't quite understand. They rip off the confines of all those silly excuses I make up for myself to stay inside where everything is safe.

I don't want everything to be safe, not in art at least. Otherwise there's no point to it. Otherwise it's just stuff, this comforting, safe stuff that says nothing, that gives nothing, that has absolutely nothing in it at all.

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