Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Up All Night

"Until you've faced the dawn with sleepless eyes, you don't know what love is." (1)

Just about everyone I know, on hearing the words spoken by Falstaff to his drinking buddy Prince Hal, "we have heard the chimes at midnight", would say, "Big deal!"

Midnight in Shakespeare's day was, with a total absence of public lighting, when going out of doors was ill-advised and travel had to be conducted by the light of torches, a much bigger deal than it is today. Hearing the chimes at 3 or 4 in the morning is not even such a big deal any more. But few people have the stamina, unless their work requires it, to stay up until dawn. It's disturbing to watch the night expire and the new day begin when one has been awake for 24 hours straight. It's one thing to awake to watch the dawn, busying oneself for the labors of the coming day. It's a quite different thing to watch the sun come up after being up all night.

I defined the magic hour last week as the period that lasts only about twenty minutes when the sun sets and the earth is illuminated by light coming from the sky but not from a direct source, eliminating shadows and giving everything a glowing, magic quality.

But there is another magic hour in the day, just before the sun rises and the day, as it were, commences. The light at that hour may be identical to the light after dusk, but because it arrives at the end of the night, bringing warmth rather than removing it, a harbinger of what is to come rather than what is past, its qualities are altogether different.

A number of great films have taken us from dusk til dawn, using the sun's arrival as a climax, or anti-climax, a moment of truth or reckoning, when the dramas that have unfolded achieve some resolution. La Notte, Hiroshima Mon Amour, American Graffiti, Le Jour se lève, La Dolce Vita, Smiles of a Summer Night, Melvin and Howard, Elevator to the Gallows. I will be writing about these films, and others, in the coming weeks.

Vernon Young wrote that "the film is in nothing more wonderful than this: it brings us not simply a world we never made but worlds we would not otherwise glimpse. It compensates us for all those lovely dawns we slept away, the sycamore trees under which we never awakened, the rivers we never crossed, the fugitive friendships that never ripened, the Southwest canyons or Bavarian churches we never reached."(2)

(1) Jazz standard "You Don't Know What Love Is", words and music by Gene De Paul and Don Raye.
(2) Vernon Young, "Our Local Idioms", On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art.

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