Saturday, February 27, 2016

Word drunk philosophers

The Cultural Logic of
Late Capitalism

Jameson is a Marxist literary critic and it seems he has another goal in addition to discussing the why and the why-not? of a fluid philosophy that seems to undermine any sense of "fixed" areas of knowledge that might otherwise give a culture a sense of itself, an identity, ethos and larger purpose that makes the past acceptable, the future brimming with a promise yet to be fulfilled, an entrenched optimism that makes the present tolerable or, at least, a condition where apathy is the preferred stance; he is intent of maintaining the authority of Marxist methods of discerning the economic superstructure of capitalism and, as well, holding on to the progressive notion that properly executed critiques and political actions based on them will further us along to Marx 's and Engle's prophecy that after the revolution, after the dictatorship of the proletariat has been established and operating for an unspecified amount of time, the State will eventually, naturally wither away , as men and women have, it's assumed, been restored to their natural state before the foul distortion of capital fouled every thing up; that is, we will have become, to paraphrase a famous promise, fishers, and farmers in the morning, poets, musicians, and artists in the afternoons, scholars and philosophers at night. That is to say, we will no longer have occupations, our labor, informing us who we are and destroying our potential of being much more.
This is a key book for those struggling to comprehend the verbal murk that constituted the postmodernist theory, which is a shame because Fredrick Jameson cannot help but add his own murk to this occasionally useful overview of a directionless philosophical inclination. He certainly brings a lot of reading into his digressive discussions and reveals how much the idea of postmodern strategy--Lyotard's notion that the Grand Narrative that unified all accounts of our history, purpose and collective sense of inevitable autonomy over the earth and those outside our culture has been shattered, eroded or made unpersuasive in a century that has known the horrors of 2 world wars and the overwhelming emergence of new technologies and the efforts of populations outside the margins of acceptable culture to claim their rights as humans , first and foremost--has usurped preceding and established ideas in areas of literature, architecture, movies, the arts, philosophy itself.

Free to be you and me, as the philosopher Marlo Thomas would have it, which is essentially the same promise made by libertarians , a cult of free-market zealots who believed that more of us in the culture would be more fully realized examples  of human potential if, quite literally, all trappings of the socialist state were gotten rid of and the conditions of society were laid to the workings of uninhibited capitalism. But here we find something interesting, as both scenarios, the success of the socialist revolution and the replacement of the State with a pure free market , seem modeled after the most basic tenet of Christian theology, that the world will make sense and those who are fully prepared with achieving the best lives they could have when the Savior returns to earth with the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. All three involve better days deferred; all that remains is for us is wait and distract ourselves with work, however, packaged the labor comes to us as. Is that postmodernism? 

Merely noticing the formula for competing Grand Narratives isn't especially new, since there have been critics and theorists in the older modernist wing of social critique who've noticed more similarities than differences in absolute scenarios involving cures for our ills and the sources that make us sick. But that was a matter of one idea trying to bankrupt the other. There are, to be sure, more specific arguments of the differences between modernism and postmodernism, all of them utilizing more opaque language than  my excruciatingly vague rant here, but it would be a safe guess to assert that modernist still had a view of a whole universe and various sorts of slavishly detailed theories to express the causes, conditions, and direction of that unity, and that postmodernism, as a rule, was the kid we all know who could take radios, clocks, computers, bikes and such things apart and have no idea about how to put any of it back together. 

The postmodern inclination undermines the metaphorical structure and linguistic devices philosophies use to make their systems persuasive; Derrida and Baudrillard were smart men with much influence over the Left who had their own discourses that argued that every argument contains the seeds of its own counter-assertion. Jameson doesn't seem to want any of that and proceeds to write as densely as the thinkers he seeks to critique, often times stalling before coming to a major point he seemed to be traveling toward in order to indulge himself with clarifications about terms being used, ideas and artifacts that have been used as examples of opaque references . There is much the notion of the word-drunk in this volume, the idea that Jameson is thinking out loud and that the writing is a species of verbal stream of conscious wherein there is the assumption, an act of faith actually, that the longer the associative chain, the more inclusive the argument the analysis becomes and that in this process there will come the connecting conceit that unifies what might have been mere intellectual drift into a bravura performance. I can't shake the idea that Jameson is stalling here and is, honestly, out of his depth in his discussions that are not directly involved in parsing the creation and use of narrative forms as political tools in a problematic culture. There is value here, though, and I would suggest reading the opening essay, "Culture", where one gets the choicest ideas and insights has in this volume. For the rest, it is a reminder of just how bad a writer Fredric Jameson is.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Talking our way to oblivion

a play by Tom Stoppard

The neat trick with Stoppard's play is how he places  the most subsidiary characters in Shakespeare's play  "Hamlet" in the foreground and relegating the famous narrative--the Prince of Denmark taking his cue from a ghost and investigating the death of his father and, in time, plotting to expose the killer and take revenge in ways too clever to be wholly successfully in the world as it's constituted-- into mere background noise. There has been sufficient commentary over the decades, perhaps the centuries , as to what the actual relationship of Rosencrantz and Guilderstern was to the the troubled Prince Hamlet, a question worth pondering and certainly one that provides endless gristle for the industry that produces Shakespeare criticism. Tellingly, Shakespeare was mum on the subject , since in his day there was little in the way of poets and playwrights furnishing their own comments and critical apparatus to consider the work. I suspect he hadn't given it much thought and considered them strawmen who's purpose , who's function was to basically emerge, say their lines and then recede, their dialogue, such as it was, functioning to move the action along. 

To a certain degree, the theorizing over  Rosencrantz and Guilderstern has been a learned indulgence, a species of balderdash. Fun, but the speculation is poetry of a sort, a wandering in intangibles, intriguing but finally inconclusive. Tom Stoppard , though, decides not to theorize but to use his imagination instead, investigating the quality of existence R and G have when they are not in the presence and command of Hamlet, Polonious or Gertrude. With the famed play reduced to background bustle that emerges to the forefront only occasionally, R & G are basically amnesiacs barely aware of who they are and where they are and what they are doing. Clever with words, free associating as a means of constructing their own narrative line, this pair  are conspicuously modeled after the tramps  Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". In the Beckett, the two hobos find themselves on a road they cannot name in a life they cannot remember, trying to recollect their names, where they were, where they are going , prating on as they await the arrival of someone named Godot , who would make everything clear and provide a direction for the indigents.

Godot , though, does not come, and  Vladimir and Estragon remain as the play closes, defined, if that's the word, by their rudimentary role, to wait for someone or something to clear up the confusion, to reveal something large. Smart folks have long guessed that Godot represents God or Jesus or something other religious construction; Beckett, though, refrained from debating the existence or non-existence of a deity and instead gave us a grim metaphor of modern existence, civilizations reduced to rote practice, routines, conventional thinking, a horror of unacceptable repetition that we are forced to reenact however much our backs , feet and souls ache, with the promise of deliverance deferred and filed away with a legacy of other cliches and tropes that no longer sparkle. It's an existential hell; all we know of the world's condition is the perpetual waiting. Stoppard takes it a little further, with the two aimless, talkative, amnesiac Rosencrantz and Guilderstern given momentary purpose in world that suddenly  has a place for them when the original "Hamlet"play intervenes in the pair's procrastinating dither. As Hamlet and others take the foreground, the dialogue switches to Shakespeare's original dialogue; queried and instructed by their superiors, R and G respond as the Bard originally had them, and then are left alone , again, to their own devices, slumping shoulders again, back to pondering and wondering without end who they are and how they got there and what it is they are supposed to be doing.

 A life guided by the enlivening elements of philosophical certainty or religious fervor exists for others, a privileged crown in the background operating in narratives of their own invention , scheming . plotting and lusting to reasoning that is entirely self-serving.  What one can do with this is fascinating, endlessly so, and one needn't think too hard before coming up with an analog for which Stoppard's absurdist plot is a keen metaphor: think of millions of Americans obsessed with the fictionalized , extra-curricular  skulduggery witnessed on professional wrestling programs. Witness the arguments of a very few mostly white politicians about principles that are essentially bankrupt virtues but which still excite an agitated electorate that knows only frustration and and the return of conveniently hazy "good old days".  The theme is waiting for someone or something to arrive that will clean up the obscuring mess we've made of our associated cosmologies. The uniform experience is the waiting,the waiting, the waiting. "Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead" leaves you with this feeling, that bit of uncertainty that makes you question even the ham sandwich you might be raising to your mouth. 

It provokes, it agitates, it haunts you in large and small ways. What are we doing , who are we, how did we come to not remember where we came from?  Stoppard asks the question and convincing responses are not fast in coming.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Brooklyn Dreaming: jazz flutist Lori Bell returns home

 Brooklyn Dreaming--Lori Bell 
In the 1970s and early ’80s I worked at the Summer House Inn in La Jolla as a combination desk clerk, switchboard operator, bell man, reservationist, and whatever odd job that needed to be done that didn’t require driving the company car. It was an okay job, nothing great, but the greatest benefit of working there was that Elario’s, at the time one of the best jazz clubs in Southern California, was perched on 11th floor of the high-rise. It was at Elario’s where I was introduced to the music of Brooklyn native and San Diego resident Lori Bell, a jazz flautist (or flutist?) in live performance. Playing with the very fine pianist Dave McKay and with her own groups, Bell’s flute work was a revelation of sorts. Her tone is firm and she shows a virtuoso’s command of the sounds it produces. Whether digging into the sub-atomic emotions that are the genius of the blues, releasing a torrent of inspired runs on the obstacle course complexities of bop or the nuanced, minor key subtleties of a ballad, Lori Bell played her flute in any fashion she chose.

Delicacy and strength, firm and rhythmic, unfaltering and malleable, hers is a sound with verve and lyricism. That said, Bell has released her ninth studio album, Brooklyn Dreaming, a tribute to her place of birth and where her heart and roots remain. She is joined her by Matt Witek on drums, Tami Hendelman on piano, and Katie Thiroux on bass, an ensemble reveling in what seems like telepathic communication during in both the softer and more dynamic album selections. The album is a tribute to the vital elan of Bell’s fabled native grounds, but over anything else this album’s main attraction are the top shelf performances.

These sessions wails, soars and swings on the good grace of superb musicianship.Noteworthy are the hard-charging interpretations on the twisting turns of Charlie Mingus’ “Nostalgia in Times Square”; brisk, given to fast tempo changes and the odd quirks Mingus is known for in his writing, Bell’s solo is magnificent, building with simple statements and gradually accelerating the speed, upping the ante, and dancing on the edge of the rhythm section’s sublimely kept pace. Bell’s original compositions—“Times Squared,” “Brooklyn Dreaming,” “A Dog on Coney”—provide what we can take as the New York attitude: fast, in-your-face , loquacious, but friendly and swinging. Bell finds the mood, explores the variations, makes it all swing, her notes precise and rounded, fleeting and wild in their spirit. Hendelman’s piano work has that extra-sensory element suggested from before. His chords  chime magically to provide a suitable push and texture to the ensemble, and his solos are rich complements to Bell’s, matching her in stratospheric outlay of ideas but adding his own deft touches. Half chords, short runs, and bell-tone octaves make him the necessary musician to have around. Likewise, the teamwork of the Witek and Thiroux rhythm section move this wonderfully realized session with an ease dually dynamic and apt.

The songs cover a wide swath of styles, and the team is there, keeping the pace lively, varied, soaring. I would ask that the musicians take a bow, one by one, for the fine work they created for this very fine album.

(This review originally appeared in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission.)

Monday, February 15, 2016

DEADPOOL wears you down standard line being used to express love for "Deadpool", the 20th Century Fox adaptation of the Marvel Comics anti-hero is that it's the closest we have come to a live action Bugs Bunny cartoon. Fair enough, since the movie capitalizes massively on the creaky conceit of "breaking the 4th wall", the unspoken barrier which separates the characters on the stage from the audience in the theater. In this scenario, a character turns and speaks directly to the crowd sitting in the dark, commenting on the play itself, implicating the viewers in an implicit conspiracy involving the darker plot machinations that would not be thematically feasible unless the ticket holders were there, eaves dropping and looking in on the lives of those on the stage. Hardly a new technique ,one I encountered in college while attending plays by German/Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who devised his idea of the "alienation effect" and "Epic theater" to provoke the structures of the sort of fiction they use to entertain themselves and , in the process of interrogating the conditions of the genre imperatives that determine outcomes and contain philosophies that encourage passive acceptance of capitalist inevitability, a crowd would be freed of the lies they are told and the conditioning they recieve to accept the world as it is. 

Brecht's goal was revolution , liberation, a post-capitalist society of equal men and women cooperating in a the fleeting idea of a worker's paradise. Not a whole lot of laughter there, but an fascinating theory of how to get audiences bothered by the lack of coin in their collective purse. 'Deadpool" plays for laughs, and there are laughs aplenty ; it's an easily handled device to achieve the "oh wow" effect. It does not, though, warrant extended use. As much as Bugs Bunny spoke to the audience or commented on the fact that he was an animated character in the process of being drawn badly, his cartoons were short adventures in self-reflective avant gard, played for fast laughs, and then done with. "Deadpool" is a full length movie driven by devices rather sufficiently interesting role creations who have at least a modicum of complexity so they might surprise when the plot merits a change of personality. 'Deadpool" has, in turn, a limited set of notes to play. It grates before it's half way through. It's a gimmick that should be used sparingly. 

Admittedly "Deadpool", was clever and had real laughs mixed in with the snarky giggles the producers were going for, but it was tiresome after the half way point. The film, concerning a mercenary/assassin with a heart of gold and a non stop stream of sarcasm is paper-thin with regards to premise. The merc, Wade Wilson, finds out he's in the advance stages of cancer . In a hopeless state and wanting to continue to be with a recently found true love and soul mate, Wilson agrees to undergo a radical therapy by a stranger that will not only cure his cancer but give him meta human powers. The treatment,such as it is, turns out to be torture in actual fact , the point of the injections, incisions and radiations to force him to mutate. Wilson mutates , of course, but he is horribly scarred, his sole consolation being that he has an incredibly advanced healing factor that makes him basically unkillable. It goes without saying that his already solid fighting skills, honed when he was a government -paid agent of black operations, are now off the scale, acrobatic to the degree comic book fans adore. 

Which would be fine, since comic book stories needn't have a Jamesian complexity to be compelling; here , though, we find Deadpool, once in the costume and killing bad guys between wise cracks, dirty puns and silly postures, relies on the old post-modern trick of becoming self-reflective, which is to say that the main character turns to the audience, the masked head bobbing as though on spring with a kink in it, making remarks about the movie he's in, other movies in this version of the Marvel Comics Universe, the cheapness of the studio executives, even remarks about the number of times the "4th wall" has been smashed . Repeat as needed, and repeat as needed in a dizzying reliance of one flashback after another.
To his credit director Tim Miller doesn't lose his place in all the unfolding, but for all the bells, gunshots, explosions and Snyder-style use of quick juxtapositions of slow motion and normal time to accentuate the power of all of those explosions flying glass, beheadings and on-the-beat snarkery coming from Deadpool's sheathed mouth makes you yearn for a movie that didn't think it was so clever. Ryan Reynolds gets his career saved from that looming fate of being known as the actor who destroyed the hip factor in DC's Green Lantern character, although he portrays the hyperactive Wilson with many of the same mannerisms. ticks, bobs, gestures and verbal rhythms. 

The pace of what he delivers is faster, locked to one rapid fire pace; imagine the friends you've actually had who couldn't stand pauses or extended silences in a conversation who just kept on talking beyond interest or actual things to talk about. It's not depth or range we're looking for in Deadpool. It's just that the qualities that make him an appealing comic book anti-hero don't travel very far in a full length feature, at least this one. Deadpool comes up short. Half way through the film , in fact, I couldn't escape the feeling that cast and crew lost enthusiasm for the project but soldiered as dispirited employees do, showing up for the paycheck, not the mission.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A few words for A CONEYLAND ISLAND OF THE MIND Ferlinghetti is in that tradition of the public poet, no less than Vachel Lindsay or the absurdly expansive Whitman; less a man to complain about how the world doesn't fit comfortably around the skin he was born in, or muse long and serially on fragments of memory and half recalled cliches that never crystallize satisfyingly as a perception worth of the claim unique than he his something of a force of personality that refuses introspection and opts instead to verbalize, extol, berate, rant and rave in a lyric vein at once lyric , cranky, ecstatic, lustful and very much in love with the senses that bring him the full force of the beauty and ugliness that is life.Ferlinghetti was not a ruminator, an introvert, a sad soul contemplating many shades of despair particular personality types seem prone to decorate the walls of their interior being with. There is no melancholic wallpaper in the world the poet finds himself in, there is no metaphysics of gloom and regret. Not that Ferlinghetti's poems are bluster or weakly transpired musings on a beauty  obscured urban density; his lines are confident, sure, idiom matching rhythm , not lapsing into a self parody of hip argot except when he deigned to do so. His images are fresh and electric, encompassing emotions and the consequence of things done to seek truth , beauty, a reason to celebrate the fragile miracle that is life.

There is little in the way of introspection, and that, I think, is the secret of his endearing popularity, and why his poems remain readable decades after the Beat craze has passed on into history . These are poems that like a good friend, a very good friend, who talks to you at the bar and pokes you in the shoulder, the man who would not let you get away with lying to yourself, the second opinion you constantly get , like it or not, that is a crude but freshly phrased thing we can call the truth , of a sort. It is , I think, a voice attached to an imagination that realizes that there are not enough years in any lifespan to not live fully , senses engaged with the raw stuff of existence. These poems are jazzy, a crafted idiom that rings with the swinging chain of associations that cut through reams of rhetoric and regulation and get to the pulsing heart of the matter; birth, sex, death, joy, sorrow, glee, calamity. It all hurts, it all brings sensations we don't want, but this is a man who rolls with the punches, knows when to duck, writes as though he's astounded that he's still drawing a breath and walking still without a crutch or cane, that he has a voice to speak words of yet new seductions to come or already underway. It's worth noting that there was a selected poems edition of his work published in the 80s called called Endless Life, which included a section of newer works, including a long piece that served as the collection's title. What interests me isn't so much the the quality of the poem but the concentrated concern it expresses, to stay engaged with the doings of citizens he shares the planet with, to keep doing what a poet should be doing at all times when they choose to poke their muse and write in those irregular line breaks that are most people's idea of what poetry is; even as he ages and friends die and institutions and personalized traditions come to an end, the world goes on with things to do, people to know, controversies to become a part of. The conversation doesn't end until the tongue can no longer flutter about the eyes cannot see and the mind cannot parse. Until then, endless life and more poetry.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Flicks about licks

 (This appeared originally in the February, 2016 of  The San Diego Troubadour. 
 Reposted here with kind permission).

Fans of Hollywood movies concerning the trials and troublesome turns in the lives of gifted musicians, real and imagined, will doubtlessly note a curious habit among many of the movies attempting a cogent blend of music and moving image. What I’m thinking of in particular are those portraits of a singularly brilliant musician, a jazz improviser, who struggles to rise to the top of his game, a savant obsessed by his art at the sacrifice of all other things. Not especially well-read; insecure; socially awkward; manic depressive to a degree; and perhaps bedeviled by drug addiction, alcoholism, or some other inescapable self-destructive impulse, it becomes a story that you can anticipate the progress and resolution of before the second reel.

The musician has a series of good breaks, achieves success in finance and romance, and then, through an unlucky series of bad breaks that result, as often as not, from bad decisions and sheer selfishness, our genius player hits the skids and descends to the gruesome and grimy depths of incomprehensible demoralization. Hitting bottom, perhaps, whatever the reason, but this being the product of Hollywood myth-making, recovery and reconciliation is on the way. Our brilliant player climbs up the mountain a changed man, with humility and gratitude, returned to his art with a greater purpose. A happy ending, a Hollywood ending.
Against my better judgments I’ve watched and re-watched movies concerning daring musicians, both real and fictional, attracted by the assumption that a story about someone capable of making music that forces you to suspend your disbelief and spend time in that enticing sphere of pure joy and elation might be just as exciting as the sounds themselves. But where the music was often the hallowed “sound of surprise” that kept your attention, the tale of the musicians depicted on screen lack any such spontaneity. They were a clichéd hodgepodge rarely rising above the level of a soap opera. Where the music was lively, the fictionalized biographies were two-dimensional, utterly flat, and unconvincing in their attempts to move us. Music, something that we consider the invisible but persistent essence that gave life a pulse, a verve, a general massage of the senses, had become something akin to drab and irrelevant wallpaper to a string of clichés, mere cues for ham-faced depictions of convenient emoting. I doubted I was the only one who felt cheated by how Hollywood was treating the creators of vital music.

Young Man with a Horn, a 1951 film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring an unlikely combination of Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Danny Thomas gives us a tale of a deadbeat ne’er-do-well whose life is on a rudderless cruise, unmotivated until the main character, performed by Douglas, discovers that he has a knack for producing wild sounds with a trumpet. As such, he attracts attention, becomes popular, achieves fame and fortune and much acclaim, but he becomes a victim of his own success. Becoming insufferably self-centered and coming under the lash of vicious alcoholism, the young man falls apart. A particular scene highlights the young man, in a wildly melodramatic performance by Douglas, hitting bottom after he tries to play his trumpet and is unable to hit the high notes, producing only a muffled gargle of a sound. He tries several times again to get that golden high note—that piercing, clear sound at the highest end of the register that had been his trademark—but again there’s nothing but glottal choking.

Kirk Douglas, who always seemed to me to be on the verge of nervous collapse, is especially overheated in this sequence, collapsing in a slew of tears and whimpers, a man utterly defeated and hitting bottom. It comes down to the convenient solution of a good woman’s love and dedication and a humbling of oneself to the source of true happiness, the sharing of a musical gift for the joy of others rather than his own personal gain, which retrieves this sorry musician from the trash can of life. It is a cozy, comforting resolution to a life’s dilemma and utterly unsatisfying. The glory of improvisation was reduced to an analog for the young man’s egotism and self-seeking. I watched the film a number times for matters of pure style and to appreciate how splendidly unreal Kirk Douglas’ vein-popping histrionics were, but it was not about the music, it was merely an excuse for a morality tale whose insights were, at heart, pedestrian.

It wasn’t just a habit confined to jazz musicians, of course, as we can witness in the classic Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock, released in 1957. This Richard Thorpe-directed effort is one of Elvis’ first films and is something of a guilty pleasure. Released from prison after serving an inexplicably short sentence for manslaughter, Vince Everett, an uneducated hick but oozing with a certain kind of slicked-haired sexuality, comes to the attention of a record promoter due to his knack for singing a tune and strumming a guitar. Fast forward, he gets a contract, has success, and is the heartthrob of a nation of bobby soxers. Vince, though, is uneducated and fantastically insecure, a man who knows not the world nor books but only his sense of not fitting in.

Early in the story line, a female record promoter takes him to a party filled with effete intellectuals smoking pipes and wearing owl frame glasses, drinking high balls, and listening to modern jazz. Introduced as a musician, Vince is asked what he thinks of the discordant, post-bebop jazz that’s been coming from the stereo. Here is Presley’s best bit of acting or of acting naturally; Vince stares at the woman who had asked him the question, baffled by the inscrutable jargon he’d been listening to, his eyes half cast and empty. He feels threatened that he’s being mocked. His response: “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Ashamed, Vince Everett leaves the party abruptly, his head slumped between his shoulder blades.Jailhouse Rock repeats this theme throughout its playing time. With each humiliation and success Vince becomes more self-centered, autocratic, and a real dick. This goes on until such time that at the peak of his success, after reneging on a bargain he made with a cellmate prior to his success, he gets punched in the throat. He cannot breathe, he cannot sing, everything looks like it’s going to hell in a handbasket until—wait for it—Vince realizes that he’s been a bastard and that those around him care for him and want to help him and that he needs to appreciate them and conduct himself as a man among men, not a king among subjects. His voice comes back, his career continues; everyone is happy. Fade to black, cue the commercial.
Jailhouse Rock has its naive virtues despite the hokey incidents that enable the dangerous carnality of rock ‘n’ roll is conquered by the civilizing effects of good manners and right living, as it contains a terrific sequence of Presley performing the title song. Presley is seen less like an intelligent being than as a force of nature. The sequence remains a joy to behold—Elvis on screen before his persona was lobotomized to be something safe, cuddly, cute, and ineffectual. It's worth noting that the sequence was choreographed by Presley, which makes us ponder how diverse a career the singer might have had if the unfortunate Col. Parker had been elsewhere. The film, though, follows the conventional thinking of how a musician’s story ought to be conveyed to the screen: the struggle from humble beginnings and hardships, the rise to the top from hard work, the fall from grace due to character defects or bad habits that reverse a hero’s fortunes, the recovery commencing when the artist admits his faults and is able again to pursue his life and provide the audience with a greeting-card bit of philosophy.

We can go to great lengths to list Hollywood films that show the lives of musicians as tawdry tragedies whereby the gifts that the players have been matched with the character’s genius for getting in their own way. Self-destruction is a default position. A Man Called Adam was released in 1966 and directed by Leo Penn. This brief précis on the IMDb website states: “A famous jazz trumpeter finds he is unable to cope with the problems of everyday life.” 1959’s The Gene Krupa Story from director Don Weiss is based on the true story of the jazz drummer and concentrates on the musician’s career decline from a marijuana bust. Unable to get work because of his drug arrest, he gets the chance to be a guest drummer at another band’s concert. Introduced to the unsuspecting audience, Krupa is mocked by the cynical crowd. Nervous, he flubs the opening of his solo, which draws more jeers and boos. Krupa, though, starts again at the urging of another drummer on the stage, and soon enough Krupa is wailing and flailing in full fury, getting the crowd on his side. Reputation restored, the miracle cure applies again. To say that this was a formula that Hollywood producers stuck to for decades is an understatement; the soap-operafication of musician-themed films influenced the collective opinion of what a performer’s lot is—that of quick riches and sudden tragedy resulting in occasional redemption but, more often, death. It was something akin to a strain of poetry criticism, which implied that poets of the confessional variety, those poets who wrote about embarrassingly personal issues and disorders, had to commit suicide or die in a loathsome manner in order to confirm a person’s bona fides as a poet.

Many earnest conversations about the art and the artist over several decades convinced me that otherwise intelligent people with impressive tastes in writers and music were of the opinion that being creative was nearly the same thing as a death wish. The artist, successful or not, had their narrative already mapped out. It was the fate of the artist, the poet, the bluesman, and the jazz innovator to have their creativity stunted earlier on. This wasn’t, though, a deranged view that floated only among those with high IQs and fancied that they had a grasp of the metaphysical dynamics of tragedy. Rather, the flawed concept spread into the popular culture. What had been a perversion of the romantic view of the gifted artist had become an easy means with which to get a reality TV show on the air.

Case in point: the loathsome example of the VH1 cable channel’s show Behind the Music, a reality program that tells the stories of pop and rock musicians, managing to concentrate the artists’ stories into 60 to 90 minutes, featuring the highlights and the low blows, the success, the ego battles, divorces, deaths, lawsuits, renewed success, or the continued lingering in pop culture limbo. The criteria, of course, was to expose the musician’s clay feet and how easily they could be shattered. Old footage, interviews with band members, producers, divorced spouses, and high school friends who wanted something first-hand to report about marginal pop music acts decades beyond their five minutes in the sun pushed the idea that music, above all else, mattered most of all to the background, even out the back and into the alley of anyone’s concern.
Behind the Music spotlighted has-beens from across the pop spectrum, whether it was Madonna, Usher, DMX, Ricky Martin, Donnie and Marie, REM, and KC and the Sunshine Band, the idea being that style of music, choice of dress, sexual preference, and the sort of drugs of you did or didn’t do had no sway over the quality of life you’d have as a musician lucky enough to experience financial success and popularity. It was implied that dark things were going to happen; they were unavoidable. The same demons that visited the fictional young man with a horn pestered the insecure Vince Everett and added a drug charge to Gene Krupa’s resume will indeed visit them with a custom-made batch of tough luck and bad breaks. I sometimes wish that this notion of the genius musician being fated for awful things would have evaporated long ago and that we could henceforth do justice to the artists and the music they create. This is not the case, though; I was just a bit despairing to learn that Behind the Music, which first aired in 1997 and is still on the air, is making a mess of the stories and earning a profit while doing so.

Was there a way around what seemed like an intractable impulse to sensationalize the lives of musicians, real and imagined, when they are brought to the screen, theatre, or television? What if an acclaimed director noted for his counterintuitive approach to assembling a narrative arc in films were to take interest in an actual self-destructive music genius? Wondering how a filmmaker would take on the assignment of making a compelling film of someone whose biography appears to fulfill the clichéd formula and avoid the easy way out of the plot complications is a question worth asking. This is where Clint Eastwood meets Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Much of the inspiration that helped elevate Eastwood’s 1988 Parker biopic, Bird, comes from smart choices in the treatment of the material, with a good amount of the credit going to the Joel Oliansky’s circumspect script. The screenplay doesn’t sensationalize Parker’s weakness for alcohol and heroin. What emerges instead is a fuller picture of a man wrestling with both his virtues and his vices. Eastwood’s direction maintains equipoise, walking the line between the sensational and the sentimental with impressive agility. The final result is both a fitting tribute to and power of Charlie Parker’s talent and a compelling portrait of a gifted man creating something beautiful despite great personal and social hardships. The basic story of Parker is well known: a young black jazz saxophone player makes the rounds and pays dues in myriad jazz circles and societies, finds himself impatient with the way the music had been played from a generation before his, and is eager to find other musicians with whom he can explore new ideas and techniques of improvising, thus creating different kinds of harmony and reconfiguring old song structures to provide a basis for increasingly complex and accelerated methods of soloing. 

He meets like-minded visionaries and, to be sure, a new music—bebop—comes from the combined talents of Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Red Rodney. Quite unlike the host of other jazz-themed movie narratives, Eastwood focuses on Bird with the music in the forefront. This allows the camera to linger a bit on a live performance and present the preternatural fluidity and pace of Parker’s spontaneous compositions to command the audience’s focus. The legendary problems with drug addiction and the consequential inconsistency of Parker’s personal life—missed gigs, infidelities, shirking of obligations to business arrangements and to those closest to him—handily avoid the kind of countdown effect of past biopics that signify the artist’s deteriorating state. Rather, the personal disasters are less a device to forward the plot than they are simply a part of the loosely woven fabric of Charlie Parker’s convoluted life. Parker was a literate man who has blessed a large talent and cursed with large appetites. Forest Whittaker’s performance is a subtle, understanding interpretation of an amiable musician who an intriguing web of contradictions that come undone; charismatic, exasperating, brilliant, and unreliable. What is compelling about Whittaker’s performance and the way Eastwood handled the story is that Parker reminds you of someone most of us know from our own lives, a real person who has the best of intentions but who cannot be depended upon due to problems of drugs or other mental quirks. This Bird is not a cartoon depiction of a smack-crazed hepcat looking for crazy kicks; he is a complex, fully realized character, more human than we’ve ever seen him before. That makes Charlie Parker more relatable and, I think, makes the audience feel the tragedy and loss of drug addiction even more deeply.

Eastwood has shown a genius for the ways the events in his films are paced and how the narrative events are layered over one another with the emphasis, stylistically, is the textures and tone of a story as it’s revealed, not the otherwise pedestrian approach of cause and effect. Mostly, though, it is not a matter for Eastwood to hit all the marks, to land exactly, to mix the parlance and all the chord changes with a metronome’s exactitude. A jazz lover and pianist himself (Eastwood composed the soundtrack for his 2008 film Grand Torino), there is a jazz-time feel to the way the film unfolds. Strategic points of narrative and editing strongly create the sense of a jazz soloist being in the moment, anticipating being on the beat, behind the beat, in front of the beat, and alternating among the three aspects of time-keeping, which reveals what’s occurring in a fuller, richer context. Instead of being just about the skill of the soloist in a clinical display of riffs, we have instead spaces, color, and suggestions of emotions more varied and subtler than mere virtuosity can give us.

Bird, though, is not a perfect film. It contains transitional devices that seem contrived—a flying cymbal somehow became the repeated image that mechanically cued the flashback sequences—but it is a revelation in what good a good filmmaker if there are sufficient levels of empathy with the subject matter and the music that was made. I had hoped in 1988 that Eastwood’s film would raise the bar on future musician-centered movies and that the old way of telling these stories would be cast aside. Audiences love tragedy, though, and the musician-as-fallen-angel paradigm remains with us in force. There is hope, however, a glimmer that the treatment of real musician’s stories can change at least some things.

Ray, the 2004 tour-de-force telling of the story of Ray Charles, deftly directed by Taylor Hackford, highlights a singular performance by Jamie Fox as the blind singer/pianist. Charles, we know, was a man who overcame his adversity—racism, blindness, anxiety, and the like—who went on to have a long and brilliant career. It was a hit, a big one. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for best actor. It seems to me that moviegoers are up for musical heroes on the screen who don’t kill themselves.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

BOWIE: genius as thief

I remember a caffeine-fueled bull session in the Mesa College Cafeteria in the early to mid-Seventies when I offered to Steve Esmedina, a Bowie partisan, that the future Thin White Duke hadn't had an original musical idea so far in his career. Blubbo, his preferred endearment, didn't argue the point, stating smartly that what's fascinating , exciting , worth talking about in hipster circles and beyond was his particular genius as a synthesizer of genres and emerging trends and taking command of the materials like any true artist would, deconstructing, reshaping, fusing styles and sensibilities together into new kinds of sounds, the influences intact and vital-- Broadway musicals, hard rock, funk and disco grooves, experimental electronics, William Burroughs and Bertolt Brecht--while having Bowie's characteristic imprint on it all. My smart ass assertion was false from the start, since what David Bowie was creating fusion music in the truest sense of what "fusion" is, taking different elements together and coming up with something new, previously unseen or unheard. I could go for the obvious Miles Davis comparison that's lurking in the wings of this career praise, but instead I'll stay with the deservedly much-discussed element of style and fashion in the late artist's work and say that he was one of those creatures radiating the personality that could try on any outlandish article of fashion from any designer's rack and wind up owning the style, making it his; something of great value was added when he liked a style and wanted to work with it. 

The famous quote attributed to Ritchie Blackmore about accusations that he stole guitar riffs from black American blues artists that "the amateur borrows, the professional steals" is instructive. The amateur treats what they've borrowed with too much gentleness and respect, as though they might drop the expensive China they've dared lay a finger on. The results are a species of gutless pretentiousness that glutted an awful lot of art rock in the post -Sgt.Pepper years, music by those who hadn't an idea what they were doing nor the imagination (or nerve)  to pretends they did. The thief likes something and just takes it without permission, absorbs into his or her being until it becomes part of their nervous system , adding their own licks, reshuffling the influx of music styles heard , assimilated, until there is a sound where constituent parts of rock drums, jazz keyboards, atonal guitar skronk, horn funk and Euro serial music emerges, a sound that hadn't roamed over the airwaves or blasted the clubs and concert halls of until the moment when the Thief, the absconder of musical forms, decides that he or she is finished in the creation and releases into the world, fresh, loud, moving as no music before it.

This is what Bowie had done, loving art enough to abuse the formalisms that defined the length and limitations of a genre and make them do more than most had assumed possible. We are living in a world of music that has been formed in large measure by Bowie's decades-long search for new music he wanted to work with. This what David Bowie did. His contribution was immense, and his loss is irreplaceable.