Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Violet Hour

Much has been written about the various meanings of the color blue, none as memorable as the recent introduction to the book Blue Nights. There Joan Didion has a lyrical two-page reflection on expectation and anticipation, a kind of timeless waiting, during certain evenings of the year when "you think the end of day will never come."

In certain latitudes, she says, there is a span of time in late May when the long twilight turns blue. The French call it 'l'heure bleue,' the name of my mother's favorite perfume. Didion has seen the blue hour in New York; I can't recall experiencing any such intensely blue twilight. I remember the singer Sissel in her video "Northern Lights" referring to the magical blue hour in Norway, but this seemed to describe something quite different, a winter spectacle of the northern lights.

All of this suggests something a bit mysterious and romantic, a state of mind as much as an actual light. I recall the "violet hour" of T. S. Eliot, which to me means
a time of anxiety, anticipation, even suffering as night brings its terrors to those in the Wasteland of modern civilization. It's the dying of the light and the arrival, finally, of dreaded darkness.

Didion often analyzes anxiety and finds the blue night a useful metaphor for her memoir about the "dwindling of the days" and other recollections of sad beauty.

I was reminded of the blue hour again last night when watching a fine sleeper of a movie by Terence Davies, The Deep Blue Sea, set in foggy London town in 1950when literal blue nights would be impossible. But the somber atmosphere and slow pace of this film capture a sense of dread and depression that is turned into art. It unfolds in soft-focus episodes like impressionist paintings.

Rachel Weisz is the superbly rendered main character in this adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play on an old theme, older than Anna Karenina: a beautiful married woman finds doomed love with a younger man; but in this case, he is immature and incapable of giving her the full love she longs for. Her intense feelings, restricted by social custom in 1950s England, and by her class, take us almost into the realm of melodrama except that the emotions are convincingly real.

The film moves slowly backward and forward in time, aided by the intense violin concerto of Samuel Barber, as an otherwise predictable story becomes an original look at romantic despair. Like the blue hour that almost never seems to end, leading finally to the dying of the light, we watch the drama unfold, knowing that the darkness will eventually descend, the couple must part, and her life will somehow go on even as we are reluctant to have the movie end.

Such works of art interest me because in them we seem to experience moments "in and out of time," in Eliot's words. In reading or watching such fiction, we are aware of the unreality of the artifice but become totally engaged with the story, as our own intense feelings become one with those of the characters. In such cases, we as readers or viewers can enter a timeless present that lasts briefly, then vanishes as soon as the story ends. This, for me, is a spiritual dimension in art that is hard to articulate, and we have to be grateful to gifted filmmakers like Davies for allowing us to experience it.

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