The Transcendent Quality of Music

I have remarked before that 12 Years a Slave is one of the best movies that I have seen in awhile.  It is not only expertly crafted and conveys its central story with incredible emotional impact, but it also has lots of ideas and themes permeating its margins.  There is a scene in the movie that is of true power where the slaves on the plantation sing Roll Jordan Roll.  This comes at a particularly harrowing point in the movie.  In this scene, especially in the context of the movie, one is made to feel how music allows one to transcend suffering to a degree.  It does not negate suffering, but simply allows one to carry on in the face of it.  Music is not only a source of joy, but also, like all good art should do, allows one to spiritually transcend the human mud of life.  It can allow one to exorcise those emotions that would otherwise tear them apart from the inside.

12 Years a Slave Review

12-years-slave-poster

12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power.  It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time.  Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does.  This is not a film that gets by on good intentions.  It is a tour de force for all involved.

The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North.  He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses.  It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell.  We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.

I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter.  There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results.  Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us.  In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.

The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master.  The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit.  The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story.  There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes.  There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing.  For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth.  And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head.  The score is almost minimal.  Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on.  Often films will try to manipulate you with their score.  I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.

Every actor in this film brings their A game.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face.  Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature.   Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.

This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy.  Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history.  This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors.  It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world.  In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists.  He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.

Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history.  I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time.  He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped.  Children!  And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.

When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront.  Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible.  Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion.  Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.

This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion.  The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring.  Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.

If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table.  However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present.  While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface.  I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.

Marina Abramovic: the Artist is Present Review

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Tonight I stumbled upon the documentary Marina Abramovic:  The Artist is Present.  Marina Abramovic is a performance artist.  I admit to knowing nothing about performance art before watching this film.  I’m always looking for some new world to dive into and explore, and the movie looked interesting, so I tried it.

Abramovic is a performance artist that uses her own body as the basis for her art.  Early in her career she, and her then partner, run naked into each other to communicate issues with male and female relationships.  She gives an audience different instruments, some of which, like a gun, can harm her, to demonstrate how easy a crowd, when given permission, can cross the line into immorality.

When the movie began I thought I was in for something that was a real life Christopher Guest movie.  The beginning of the film, and certain other moments throughout, seem to feature people that are not aware of their own absurdity.  There are definitely certain characters in the art world that seem as if they came out of a spoof.  Also, if I were to tell you that someone carved a pentagram into their stomach as part of a performance piece, I’m sure the reactions would be varied, and many of them not favorable.

However, as the movie progresses, there seem to be more and more moments of transcendent beauty.  But one of the things I loved so much about the film is that although it slowly makes you appreciate what you are seeing more and more as the film progresses, it never forces its viewpoint upon you.  Like great art it never tells you what to think, but just asks you to think.  When the film is over you still might view some or even all of it as absurd, but the film implies that any reaction to art that is an emotional feeling is valid.

The movie centers on Abramovic’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  In it she is debuting one new piece.  The entire time the exhibit is open she will sit mostly still in a chair while visitors to the exhibit sit across from her.  Some of you upon reading this may think, “That isn’t art.”  But by the time you finish watching the film you may think otherwise.  It makes you think about time and how hard it is to do nothing in the modern world.  She somehow uses stillness and quiet to demonstrate an emotional power.  There is a certain Zen like quality to it.  She treats everyone that sits before her as someone of worth and therefor communicates the idea that all have value.

The film also shows behind the scenes clips of her getting ready for this retrospective and shows how much work goes into it.  While getting lost in a performance or a piece of art at a museum, it is easy to forget about the real physical labor that often goes into creation.

I think this movie, like Abramovic’s work, will get a wide range of responses.  However, I think most will find it captivating in one way or another.  I myself feel pregnant with ideas after having seen it.  I find it liberating to see something that is complex.  I’m not even sure what I think about Abramovic and her work, but I know that I will not stop thinking about it for days.  That in itself is a victory for any artist.

David Lowery On the Immorality of Stealing Music

“Congratulations!, your generation is the first in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo, freak musicians!” – David Lowery

David Lowery is in the band Cracker and also teaches business at the University of Georgia.  I just recently read a letter about about him that was sent to me by ASCAP.  (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers)

Afterwards, I found the following letter by him that is absolutely amazing:

Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered

I’m sure some of you have already seen this.  If you haven’t, it is worth checking out whether or not you are in the music business.  He not only gets at what is wrong in the music business right now, but also sheds light on some of the immorality that is in our general culture when it comes to doing right by artists.  I would also say that these issues that affect artists are also part of our bigger problem of capitalism run amuck.

A sample from the letter:

The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hudreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.) By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.

This is an astounding piece of work.  He lays it all out in a way that is not only thorough, but also put in terms simple enough that pretty much anyone can understand.  A highly recommended read.

Work

Andy was a Catholic, the ethic ran through his bones
He lived alone with his mother, collecting gossip and toys
Every Sunday when he went to Church
He’d kneel in his pew and say, “It’s just work,
all that matters is work.”

He was a lot of things, what I remember most
He’d say, “I’ve got to bring home the bacon, someone’s got to bring home the roast.”
He’d get to the factory early
If you’d ask him he’d tell you straight out
It’s just work, the most important thing is work
No matter what I did it never seemed enough
He said I was lazy, I said I was young
He said, “How many songs did you write?”
I’d written zero, I’d lied and said, “Ten.”
“You won’t be young forever
You should have written fifteen”
It’s work, the most important thing is work
It’s work, the most important thing is work

“You ought to make things big
People like it that way
And the songs with the dirty words – record them that way”
Andy liked to stir up trouble, he was funny that way
He said, “It’s just work, all that matters is work”
Andy sat down to talk one day
He said decide what you want
Do you want to expand your parameters
Or play museums like some dilettante
I fired him on the spot, he got red and called me a rat
It was the worst word that he could think of
And I’ve never seen him like that
It’s just work, I thought he said it’s just work
Work, he said it’s just work

Andy said a lot of things, I stored them all away in my head
Sometimes when I can’t decide what I should do
I think what would Andy have said
He’d probably say you think too much
That’s ’cause there’s work that you don’t want to do
It’s work, the most important thing is work
Work, the most important thing is work

Work by Lou Reed and John Cale.  This song is from the excellent album Songs for Drella.  This is a tribute album the two did for Andy Warhol after Warhol’s death.  Drella was Warhol’s nickname.  It is a combination of Cinderella and Dracula.  The album as a whole is an incredibly powerful work in which the two share their recollections of Warhol and often sing from Warhol’s perspective.  One of the reasons that it is so emotionally moving is that it largely lacks sentimentality.  Warhol is presented as a real human being, faults and all.  One feels as if they are getting a look at the Warhol behind the pop culture figure that he has now become.  Often when someone influential dies mainstream society sands the edges off of them.  The Warhol presented here is actually more interesting here in his full humanity than the Warhol that we often see in TV and films.

I often think of this song because it is about the daily grind to create art.  David Milch talks about how one needs to be, “prepared to be inspired.”  Art is a work of passion, so no I’m not comparing it to digging ditches.  But it does take a certain persistence to create anything.  Warhol created an astonishing amount of work.  To do what he did took a lot of effort.  Because of his public persona it makes it easy to overlook the fact that he put countless hours into his craft.

Great artists like Warhol make creation seem easy.  Behind that fey outer shell was someone who possessed grit and determination.

Small Films

Although I am a giant fan of great pop song craft, lately I have been listening to more dissonant fair like Public Image Ltd. and Rollins Band.  Lately I have been listening to some jams that Rollins Band did with free jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle.  Here is one called Miles Jam #2:

Now I completely understand that there are some people that will just not like this kind of stuff due to the dissonant nature of the music.  I’m sure that there are even some of you out there that will think I can’t possibly enjoy this stuff, that I’m just claiming I like it to be different.  But honestly, I find this kind of stuff beautiful.  (And some of the insane language that Henry Rollins uses I find quite funny in the way that certain parts of Apocalypse Now are funny.)  I feel like when musicians play, that they are creating small films.  Music is really visual to me.

When you go to a movie theater I sometimes want to see different kinds of films.  Sometimes you want to see something that tells a great story.  Sometimes you want to see something that is more surreal and visual.  Sometimes you want to see a comedy and sometimes a horror movie.  Sometimes you want to hear a great three minute pop song and sometimes you want to hear almost thirteen minutes of dissonant metal jazz!  Each kind of music creates different imagery in the imagination.

The only kind of music I don’t like is stuff that just creates vanilla imagery.  There are a lot of modern country songs that are so bland I feel like my brain is being sucked out of my ears by a vacuum.  There is a lot of pop that has been autotuned to where the singers voice has been drained of all personality.  Those kinds of things leave my mind empty.

But really if you try to think of music as being visual, so much more of it will open up to you.  Some people are painting beautiful landscapes with sound and some people are using dark surrealism.  Imagine walking through an art gallery and each kind of music is a different period.  Give it a try.

Protests Erupt Over Opera

The opera The Death of Klinghoffer is causing all kinds of drama in NYC.  I just read the following New York Times article about it:

New York Times The Death of Klinghoffer

If you want to read a basic description of the plot and what people find controversial about it you can find it on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia The Death of Klinghoffer

I am not going to pretend that I understand the opera having not seen or heard it.  I do think Rudy Giuliani is an ambulance chaser, but that can be a conversation for another day.

Here is my question:  When is the last time that a pop song, let alone an opera, started a serious political discussion?  This is what art is supposed to do, to bring up subjects in a way that get people discussing things in a peaceful manner.  The opera may be great or it may be terrible, but it has gotten people talking about an important political topic, one of which there isn’t enough discussion on.  It doesn’t seem as it is, by design, meant to anger or offend people.  It seems like it is the work of a serious artist that is trying to get people to think.

People have the right to peacefully protest anything they want.  If they find the opera offensive it is their right to stand outside and provide people with an alternative viewpoint, as long as they do not threaten or harass those that want to see it.

However, when it comes to art I would rather see a free exchange of ideas.  I would rather see some kind of in depth and honest criticism of the work than a protest.

However, in this case, I think the protestors lose in two ways.  First they are meeting complex ideas with something simple.  Second, they are drawing attention to something that they don’t want people to see.  That never works.  Protests are a a great way to bring attention to things that aren’t receiving enough attention.  Let’s face it, operas have about 0% effect on popular culture in America.  I don’t even know the names of any newer operas other than this one and I listen to a ton of music, including on occasion opera.  Now I am interested in seeing this one at some point just to see what all the racket is about.

I remember when The Passion of the Christ came out.  There was a lot of controversy over that.  I don’t like to let others make up my mind for me, so I went to see a movie that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen, because I wanted to decide for myself what I thought about it.  I did not like the movie, because I thought it dwelled on all the wrong aspects of Jesus, but I was glad I went because it was a large part of the cultural conversation at the time.  In my opinion anything that makes one think is a good thing, even if at the end of the day what you think is that you don’t like it.