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Entries in punch-drunk love (1)

Thursday
Mar032011

In Which I Wanna Live In Los Angeles But Not The One In Los Angeles

Hamlet Extreme

by MOLLY LAMBERT

Los Angeles is a city of extremes. I will not argue with you that Beverly Hills is one of the worst places on earth (see also: Fifth Avenue, Dubai) and that conspicuous displays of the worst extremes of capitalism make me want to go back to college and curl up in a ball on a common room couch (I kind of want to do this anyway). And I am definitely not arguing that the extremity of poverty and crime in some other parts of LA is part of its charm, because certainly I don't think it's very charming to those residents. Just that Los Angeles is very extreme, in a number of ways. And it tends towards entropy. 

And so when articles turn up online claiming that LA has the rudest people in the country I shrug, because I know that it's not really true. I mean it's definitely kind of true. All the clichés about agents and producers are true. All the Beverly Hills housewives are just as vain and tucked and terrifying as they seem on TV. But that is a tiny portion of Los Angeles, and one of the greatest things about Los Angeles is that no one part represents any other part. Every house is a different architectural style.

There is nothing worse than bad art but there is nothing better than good art. Bad art is the most embarrassing thing to witness, good art among the most sublime. It is only because art has this ability to arouse embarrassment in you that it can also arouse admiration. A mediocre artwork inspires no true feeling in its audience.

I often become obsessed with a bad song on the radio and then spend a lot of time trying to discern what makes me consider it bad; why it is capable of creating such strong feeling in me, why I have such a clear feeling about the direction of its quality.  

Sometimes really terrible songs that get played a lot in the public sphere eventually gain meaning because you associate them so strongly with certain places or time periods. So your feelings about the song are really about a personal experience of a song, which can elevate a bad song to sentimental or a good song to indelible. 

One of those OK Cupid internal metric blog posts demonstrated that people whose appearance was divisive inspired more fervent messaging than people who were merely attractive or unattractive. One person's dream is another's worst nightmare. This makes sense in terms of a larger argument about extremes. If you are predisposed to liking something, you will be drawn to the most extreme version of it. 

Extremity is dangerous, and danger is linked closely to excitement. Anything some people feel strongly negative about is going to be a fetish for someone else, often a fetish for the person who feels strongly negative about it. Fantasy is not real life.

One set of preferences is never better than another. People answer Fuck Marry Kills very differently, and all answers are equally valid. Eugenics and appearance fascism depend on the conceptual lie that there is one ideal kind of beauty, but there is no one universal ideal, just endless ideals and anti-ideals. The ideal kind of beauty is variety. 

There is literally nothing worse than bad theater (maybe bad stand-up or improv comedy) but when theater accomplishes its goals it is one of the most transcendent experiences life permits (West Side Story). Films allow audiences to have theatrical experiences without the embarrassment of watching the actors potentially fail onstage.

But it is the potential embarrassment, the possibility that something will go wrong, the "liveness" itself, that makes theater more charged than film. Watching an entertaining film, the audience will gasp or cheer together and individually find satisfaction in the collective expression of a crowd. It is especially pronounced during horror movies. 

In a live setting, a show with a live audience and a live performer, collective expression turns into cathartic group release. Any kind of coordinated simultaneous experience is theatrical; sports, concerts, church, class. You are channelling something bigger.

Shakespeare remains eternally popular because of the quality of the work, and Hamlet remains the sort of platonic ideal of an artistic expression. It is a perfect standalone text, but when it is staged correctly it conducts automatic feeling in the audience.

Reading Hamlet is conducting this feeling in yourself, but to see Hamlet staged well is to have this feeling conducted in you, to feel yourself played the way an instrument is played. If you believe in the performance, you will feel the emotions rise up in you on command and it is remarkably easy to feel like they are coming directly from God. 

There Will Be Blood is an extended meditation on this idea, and it sounds like PTA's now dead Scientology movie would have been further exploration. Paul Thomas Anderson is obsessed with charismatic performance. It turns up constantly in his work; Dirk Diggler, Tom Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey, the phone sex in Punch-Drunk Love.

Punch-Drunk Love is about learning to channel your own internal charismatic performance, and Adam Sandler is so effective because his basic screen persona is the id attempting to escape its repression by the self. Boogie Nights is about the filming of sex, a process that transforms a real experience into a fantasy, an impossible ideal.

Christopher Nolan also gets into this in The Prestige and somewhat in Inception (*nc*p*i*n). Where does this desire come from, to orchestrate feeling in others, in strangers? How real can it be when the trick is so obviously out on the table?

If a lapdance makes you have an orgasm, does it matter that the stripper doesn't really like you at all, she just wants your money? If an illusion creates the correct reaction, does it matter how much artifice and fakery went into creating it? Does any artifice and fakery automatically become genuine the moment it provokes a genuine reaction? 

Can't artifice be genuine to begin with? The alternative assumes there is such a thing as an authentic pure object, but there is no such thing. Isn't acknowledging the importance and value of artifice a way of demonstrating that there is no such thing as true authenticity? That the only true authenticity is authenticity of feeling, and if you perform authentically it does not make it inauthentic that you are performing?

Like any magic trick, you have to buy into the illusion for it to work. If you no longer believe the preacher they will have no effect on you. If you come in predisposed to hate something, you might still hate it. But I have noticed lately a sort of public enjoyment in stoking early backlash to its furthest possible extreme and then conquering it.

That James Cameron relished detraction of Avatar, and David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin took enjoyment from getting hazed by the internet generation about making a Facebook movie with Justin Timberlake because it made it all the more impressive and satisfying when they pulled it off. There is well-earned smugness in the execution of the best sequences in both. Because they were right and we were fools to doubt them.

Because they took skeptics and converted them into believers. Because everyone loves a good trick. Because we all anticipated in advance an artwork's potential to be embarrassing and then it laughed at us with art. "I told you, I know what I'm doing."

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find How To Be A Woman In Any Boys Club here, Speak Now here, and East End Boys and West End Girls here. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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