Conflicting Pleasures: Intense vs Sustained, Distilled vs Contextualized

poco blue pen
Happiness and pleasure, it seems, come in two flavours. There’s the intense, short-term, euphoric, non-enduring type — dopamine and adrenaline coursing through our veins, producing brief moments of ecstasy. And then there’s the enduring, mellow, less acute type — perhaps linked more to endorphins, fatigue, aesthetic response. The former is distilled, instant gratification; the latter takes time and requires an appreciation of context before it can be delivered, but it lasts, and its impact on us lasts longer, too.

In our modern attention-deficit society, the pendulum has swung towards the former. You see it in what we watch, what we read, what we do — we’re willing to sacrifice understanding and sustainability for the quick fix of immediate, acute, escapist pleasure. We would be healthier, and happier, I would argue, if we could strike a better balance between the two, both of which have a place and a value in our lives:

  • We can love the bold simplicity of line drawings like the ones above, yet also appreciate the complex mastery of a great oil painting, a work that takes study to understand and which conveys something new and profound every time we look at it.
  • We can love a one-liner joke, and also a story that may take two hours to tell properly, unfolding with twists and turns that require sustained attention and concentration.
  • We can love a cartoon that makes a compelling point in four panels and thirty seconds, and also a funny book that takes ten hours to read or a clever movie that takes two hours to watch.
  • We can love (and sing to ourselves ad nauseum until we finally wear it out) the clever chorus of a pop song, and also enjoy the brilliant composition of a symphony that takes an evening to listen to and a lifetime to fully appreciate.
  • We can love the ‘aha! moment’ that often comes from meeting someone new (thanks Marty Avery for the one you gave me yesterday!), and also the full, rambling conversation, full of insights, probes, discoveries and halting learnings.
  • We can love the stirring, aching brief passage of exceptional poetry or prose, and also the intricately crafted, patiently-evolving, context-rich novel.
  • We can love the quickie (what we used to call the ‘zipless fuck’), and also the hours-long foreplay that builds and warms and stays in your blood for days.
  • We can find bliss in that magic, startling quick moment of falling in love, and also in the lifelong ever-changing journey of making love last.
  • We can thrill to the astonishing taste of a raspberry, covered in dew, picked right off the vine, and also the lovingly-crafted three hour, six-course meal that builds level by level like a brilliantly-designed house.

The first group of pleasures, the intense, distilled ones, are wow! experiences, with an exclamation mark. The second, the sustained, contextualized ones, are mmmmm… experiences, with an ellipsis, extending them quietly and indefinitely out.

We need them both. We get too little of both. We too often try to make a surfeit of wow! experiences substitute for an inadequacy of mmmmm… experiences. It’s part of the tragedy of undervaluing our time, and squandering it on the urgent instead of the important.

As a consequences of the dramatic Let-Self-Change process I’m going through, I’m taking the time, making the time, for more pleasures of both flavours, but especially the latter, the enduring pleasures that change us, make us more profoundly happy and human.

But for those who prefer their pleasures intense and distilled, here’s a challenge to go along with my earlier ‘greatest passages’ challenge:

What movie moment, lasting no more than two minutes, affected you the most, in each of the following categories:

  1. Raw visual power — due to special effects
  2. Raw visual power — due to natural scenery
  3. Emotional power — due to the situation/plot
  4. Emotional power — due to one or more extraordinary characters/brilliant acting
  5. Emotional power — due to extraordinary dialogue/writing

This is kind of cheating, I know: Some of these sensational cinematic moments, taken out of the context of the entire film, become quite shallow and meaningless. If you doubt this, try to recall seeing the dramatic highlights of films you haven’t seen on movie award shows — you probably wondered what all the buzz was about.

To get you started, here are one or two of my nominations for each category:

  1. The last two minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey
  2. The pan shot of all the returning penguins from March of the Penguins
  3. The plot turn that is precipitated by a short conversation on the meaning of life by Peter Riegert and Peter Capaldi, two oil company middle-managers walking on the Scottish beach in Local Hero
  4. The moment that Fernandel (in his last film) says goodbye to and sets free his old horse in Heureux Qui Comme Ulysse
  5. The conversation between Jean Reno and Kevin Kline in French Kiss where Reno, in finally shrugging off his pursuit of Kline, personifies the sophisticated French way of thinking; and the hilarious conversation between Art Carney and Chief Dan George while they’re in jail overnight in Harry and Tonto

These are, of course, films with both wow! and mmmmm… pleasures for the viewer. There is such joy in these brief and extraordinary moments of celluloid! Why, in the last two decades, have cinematic moments of such brilliance and beauty been so few and far between?

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5 Responses to Conflicting Pleasures: Intense vs Sustained, Distilled vs Contextualized

  1. Atanu Dey says:

    Thank you. Very thoughtfully written. My choice of a brilliant short excerpt of an emotional moment is from Kurosawa’s Ikiru — where the man sings a dirge sitting in the dark on the swing the night he dies.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    The last 5 – 10 minutes of the film Monsieur Ibrahim are poignant and delicious.

  3. Rachel says:

    You have a fascinating mind and I love your blog. Thank you for posting it.

  4. Daniel R. Foley says:

    You’re thinking. Here is something to add: the best movie released so far this year. I think it’s A HOUSE OF SAND, which few know. The story of three generations of Brazilian women living in a desert. A mini-masterpiece in the tradition of Antonioni (spelling) waiting to be discovered by the cognoscente.dan foley

  5. Alvin says:

    1) The last 2 minutes of Superman Returns where he soars into the sky.2) In Brokeback Mountain, when the famous ‘I wish I knew how to quit you’ line was said. The mountain backdrop was simply breathtaking.3) The collapse of Sauron’s tower in The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King. Finally, after monumental struggles (spanning 3 movies!), triumph!4) Can I cheat and say the scene in Spiderman 2 where he stops the train from de-railing, and in the process gets his mask ripped off, but everyone who sees his real face tells him it’s alright and they will keep his secret for him?5) That scene in Before Sunset where Ethan Hawke & Julie Delphy are talking in the car and they finally open up and share their emotions after 10 years.

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