Sunday 21 December 2008

Prime Cut (1972)

Starring: Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, Sissy Spacek
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Director: Michael Ritchie
Screenplay: Robert Dillon
Director of Photography: Gene Polito

I popped this one in the VHS player not exactly sure what I was going to get. Probably helped that I was hazy as to the plot outline before I watched it – I was expecting some sort of vaguely Point Blank-style hired-killer thriller – because ‘Prime Cut’ certainly skewed some expectations. This is truly a bizarre movie, and I feel a bit bad spoiling its strangeness by spelling it out below. If you want my advice, watch the film before you read my thoughts. It’s best taken unprepared.

The basic facts, then. We have Lee Marvin as Nick Devlin, a hired gun for the Irish mob. We know they’re Irish because of their names: Shaughnessy, O’ Brien, Devlin. In fact, reading the credits is almost as much fun as watching the film itself – listed are such wonderful-named characters as ‘Weenie’, ‘Mary Ann’, ‘Clarabelle’, ‘Ox-Eye’, ‘Farmer Bob’ and ‘Big Jim’. Mary Ann, as it turns out, is actually the main villain, played as repellent (but oddly charming) by Gene Hackman. Hackman is slightly underused, but is on true grinning, slimy, malevolent form (like Popeye Doyle, but on the wrong side of the law, and nastier). The film’s plot is sketchy enough: Marvin’s Chicago bosses want back their money, which former employee Hackman is swindling off them. Off trots Marvin/Devlin, with a couple of other city gangsters, and the city-boys-in-the-country scenario dutifully unravels itself into a series of well-staged action climaxes (with a white slavery sub-plot thrown in for good measure). The first of the big set-pieces, enlivened by some judiciously used hand-held shots, as well as some panoramic sun-baked vistas, begins at a county fair and soon turns into a fast-paced foot-chase, quickly followed by a menacing stalking-by-combine-harvester (with some nice point-of-view shots of the fleeing victims from between the churning blades). Things continue to build, and, before we know it, the climax has been reached: we start off with a shootout in a field of sunflowers (bizarrely enough), involving much hiding behind high vegetation that’s somewhat reminiscent of scenes from westerns like the Burt Lancaster vehicle ‘Apache’ or Sollimas’ ‘The Big Gundown’; the action then proceeds, via a particular destructive truck, to a large barn (the same place in which we’ve witnessed Hackman and Marvin’s first confrontation, and been introduced to the white slavery racket), where we see plenty more gunfire, and more dodging behind things (hay-bales, this time). A truly odd coda follows (and more on that later). But what to make of it all?

Well, few of its characters are well-drawn– it’s a film of few words, concentrating primarily on the sheer oddity of its premises, and on the action of its set-pieces, for effect. There are many unusual and intriguing touches – the climactic battle takes place while a thunder-storm brews overhead, the ominous thunder rumblings sitting nicely alongside gunshots. Full advantage is taken of the unusual location, with set-pieces in corn and sunflower fields. And some of the other things that fill the film make those elements seem pretty tame!

The 70s being the 70s, there are some political undertones, though these are by no means as obvious or heavy-handed as in some other movies of the time: they seem to arise as a side effect of the film’s general weirdness more than being fore-grounded as major thematic strands. Some sort of American dream is being undercut, though it’s a dream already so bizarre that it’s hard to believe anyone would have bought into it in the first place – the sort of thing Norman Rockwell might have thought up if there had been some handy ’shrooms nearby. Basically, this undercut dream boils down to Hackman’s comments to Marvin about being a ‘true American’, during the portion of the fair scene before the chase begins: we see what this involves as he paternally congratulates young kids, raising them into an atmosphere of acquisitive capitalism (giving one kid first prize for the steer he’s bought along, he hands him a wad of cash and proceeds to take the animal away from him. “But he’s a pet!” “Fatten some more up for me,” Hackman shoots back. The kid cottons on. “Want a goat?”) And of course, as the film progresses, we see what else this American dream involves. Meat-eatin’, gun-totin’, salivatin’ – Hackman and his cohorts (the local law enforcement officers included, or so we might judge from a shot in the fairground chase scene) are pretty much the opposite of Marvin’s debonair gangster (“you eat guts” he says with contempt as he encounters Hackman’s character for the first time in the film. “Sure I do,” comes the reply. “I like ‘em!)

While such subversion was common to most genres at this period, it was something which always been particular prevalent in the western, that form where the founding myths of American cultural dominance where both created, celebrated, and ruthlessly questioned. As Bill Harding argues in his fine book, ‘The Films of Michael Winner’ (track down a copy – currently a mere £0.01 on!): “The Western used to be the staple provider of action; now the urban thriller has taken over, and Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Charles Bronson personify the excitement lacking in contemporary life.” This might not be strictly true – there were still a fair number of westerns being made in the 70s, with such big stars as Bronson, Eastwood, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and the like –(and it wasn’t really until the failure of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ that the death-blow really came). So, at this point in time, westerns were still being made – and good ones at that, mixing their doses of post-Wild Bunch gore and brutality with slightly more complex moral treatments (or, in the case of Michael Winner’s ‘Chato’s Land’, exceedingly problematic ones), as well as much Vietnam-era parallels. In 1972 alone, the year of ‘Prime Cut’, we got ‘The Culpepper Cattle Company,’ a much underrated piece which is probably the best cattle-drive movie ever made, Robert Redford’s mountain-man flick ‘Jeremiah Jonson’, Robert Aldrich’s exploration of atrocities perpetrated both by settlers and native Americans, ‘Ulzana’s Raid’, and the afore-mentioned ‘Chato’s Land’. But, even if I seem to have mentioned Harding’s statement only to knock it down, it does reinforce the point I’m about to make: that ‘Prime Cut’ is, in some ways, a western in gangster dress. The inexorable build-up to a climax of righteous gunfire, the American-Dream-subversion, the idea of outsiders wreaking havoc in a corrupt and hostile community – yup, ‘Prime Cut’ is basically a western.

And it shares some westerns’ idea of violence as being, more often than not, a good thing – or the best solution at the time. Marvin is shown as completely justified in the final action he takes – as with Peckinpah, we relish the climactic confrontation, because the villains are so unbelievably depraved. Think ‘Straw Dogs’ (another western in modern dress), where you’re willing on Dustin Hoffman to dispatch those Cornish yokel nasties in unpleasant ways, just as you’re willing on Marvin to blow away the Aryan/dungaree-wearing/white trash yokels of ‘Prime Cut’. At least it’s not as salacious in its violence as Peckinpah – in fact, the violence is relatively restrained, in terms of actual blood and guts, perhaps more so than it feels, given the film’s lurid (in a deadpan sort of way) atmosphere. (On a side note, one could trace a kind of ‘anti-pastoral’ strain in films from this time – Straw Dogs, Open Season (starring Peter Fonda) and of course Deliverance).

So, redemptive violence: that’s morally dubious reservation number one. Did I mention the exploitation element? The whole white slavery plot element, while not as salaciously handled as might have been, does result in a fair number of nude shots with their fair show of objectification. Sissy Spacek, in her movie debut, is pretty much there to be ogled (by viewer as well as white slavers) – let’s say she plays wide-eyed wonder and infantile trust, with boobs. As with much of the movie, though, this is pushed to the limit – the film tests its own audacity in what could either be a piece of anti-misogynistic self-criticism, a shrug of the shoulders in the face of good taste, or a mixture of the above. Key moments: a pair of scenes set, first of all, in a hotel restaurant, played for laughs as Marvin grins at the old couple disapprovingly eyeing Spacek’s see-through dress, and then back in the upstairs suite, where the naïve orphan reveals how she used to snuggle up to her best pal in a ‘touching’ (literally!) lesbian relationship. It’s so close to male-wish fantasy that it must be taking the piss – musn’t it? (“Say my name.” “Poppy.” “Say it again”. Lee Marvin looks like he wants to burst out laughing, although of course he keeps his cool – impeccably. I don’t think Roger Moore would have been able to).

Indeed, the film does seem to be attempting to make some kind of anti-objectification statement. The title, ‘Prime Cut’ establishes the money/meat link – women as meat, drugged up (just like we shoot up the cows). The aggressive acquisitiveness I mentioned earlier finds a metaphorical parallel in the Hackman crowds desire to consume – cows for meat, women for sexual pleasure. Hackman’s oaf brother is always chewing on something, even attempting to stab Marvin with a (phallic?) sausage as he goes through his death throes. And the drugged-up girls are displayed in enclosures which are later used for pigs. Appropriate enough, then, that Hackman ends up being half-eaten by a pig…

As you might have gathered, animals and meat are the main thematic link in the film, if that’s important. The movie opens with a documentary-style scene following the process of death in a cattle slaughterhouse (though, one might note, without quite the graphic touch one might expect, given the rest of the film – one might contrast it’s tone with the scene in Barbet Schroeder’s ‘Maitresse’ (a very different sort of film) from a few years later, where Gerard Deapardieu’s protagonist witnesses the bloody death of a horse). The ‘Prime Cut’ sequence is more about putting the viewer off, catching, like the film as a whole, a key somewhere between black humour (most overtly stressed later on, with the character of the old woman and her milk tasting at the fair) and face-wrinkling grotesquerie. The whole scene is dogged by this tone, with Lalo Schifrin’s easy-listening strings adding an ironic air as we see the meat being minced up into burgers and strung out into strings of sausages. It could almost be vegetarian propaganda, but little visual hints make it just that little bit weirder and more interesting – as when we catch a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of a pair of naked buttocks in with the doomed cattle, or the shoe that comes out along hunks of meat on a conveyer-belt. So we know what’s in those sausages, as the oaf brother, Weenie, packages them up and sends them off. This idea is at once so absurd that it’s absolutely hilarious, and just about believable enough to be quite shocking. (I guess this blackly comic tone shouldn’t be unexpected, given that the director is Michael Ritchie, whose satirical film ‘The Candidate’, starring Robert Redford, mixed that straight-faced, observational, Altmanesque in-the-middle-of-the-action 70s realism with satirical touches.)

What else can be said about this movie? Well, I identified animals and meat as a crucial element; the most important line of dialogue comes at the end of the final shootout, and it’s between Marvin and Hackman. The latter’s been shot from his rooftop perch and has plummeted down into a pigsty, where the animal occupant has proceeded to chew up his legs. Managing to drag himself out, the dying villain begs a mercy killing, and the ensuing dialogue goes as follows:

Hackman: “Kill me, Nick. Finish me off, Nick. DO IT! You would for a beast.”
Marvin: “You’re a man.”
Hackman: “There’s no difference.”
Marvin: “You’re wrong. There is.”

It’s a neat punch-line, Marvin’s laconic delivery contributing, as elsewhere in the film, to the aura of tough guy cool which made his ‘Point Blank’ performance such a hit (the natty clothes help too. Check out those white loafers!) In fact, it’s almost the sort of morbid joke James Bond might have made after polishing off a villain. But at the same time, it is pretty much a straight didactic moment – as much as anything in the film can be said to be at all didactic. One review I’ve read even calls it a ‘humanistic’ moral – not the sort of thing you expect in the nihilistic climate of 70s film-making. Yes, our heroes may be gangsters, who are probably fairly unsavoury characters in themselves, but they stop short at white slavery, where women are treated as animals (sold in pig-pens, no less). You can shoot a man, but at least give him the dignity of a graceful stunt fall death. And be nice to those innocent-looking girl-children. Men are not animals, and that’s where all the problems arise. The villains see women as so much bestial flesh, and turn men into sausages: if they just had a little more respect for the human body, things would be a lot smoother.

It is, I guess, a ‘moral’ that befits the film’s sheer strangeness. And I hardly think it’s meant to be taken in entirely as po-faced a manner as my extrapolation above. After all, Prime Cut’s ‘messages’ tend to be a little more mixed than all that. On the one hand, the film trades off the ruthless, ‘Point Blank’ Marvin persona, but on the other, it softens that by his feelings towards Spacek and the orphans (mostly just paternal, it seems). At the end of the film, he is entirely the benevolent protector: accompanied by those of his men who’ve survived, he takes Spacek to the orphanage where the girls are groomed for the white slavery racket, and frees them. The last shot shows said liberated orphans running off into the fields, gambolling like lambs (and bringing to mind Spacek’s line, earlier in the film, about being let out into nature in the summer). Over it all runs a jolly Lalo Schifrin cue with prominent whistling (spaghetti western Morricone with the sting taken out, you might say). My first impulse is to see it as conformist drivel, but it’s pretty hard to feel that way if you think about it all.

To explain why, one final detour is needed. Film-wise, in the 70s, cynicism and nihilism tended to be the order of the day – more often than not, you had to let your main characters die in the final reel. Take ‘Easy Rider’ (OK, it was made in ’69, but you get the picture): Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper couldn’t just ride off into the sunset. Why? Well, I think there was still some sense that the anti-heroes needed to be ‘punished’. Yes, this was the New Hollywood, with renegade young film-makers given free rein to do whatever the hell they wanted (I’ve read ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’), but I have a feeling that the subversion was still being kept in check – just a little. It was all very well for Eastwood to happily count out the loot at the end of ‘For a Few Dollars More’, and American audiences lapped that up as much as anyone else, but those who controlled the picture-making industry in the US of A seem to have figured that, while they could exploit this new market for anti-heroism, they had to add in a touch, however slight, of moral finger-wagging, which somehow ‘justified’ it all. ‘FAFDM’, after all, was made by those degenerate (and Catholic) Europeans…So ‘Easy Rider’ opens with a similar illicit deal (money for dope, rather than dead bodies) but ends with the bikers getting their ‘just deserts’. Of course, the film-makers themselves weren’t intending this sort of cautionary tale element – it was more part of the film’s myth-making project (would Shane have seemed so iconic if he hadn’t been dying when he rode off on that horse?), in which drug-dealing bikers were the new cowboy heroes, sharing in their western predecessors’ freewheeling spirit and disregard for the rules of oh-so-barbarous ‘civilisation.’ Fonda and Hopper’s death at the hands of rednecks (like Nicholson’s earlier in the movie), is their comment on the often destructive clash between 50s and 60s values, between generations, between different philosophies and ways of living, as well as on the failure of the American dream (new or old) – “we blew it.” But at the same time it could be use to dull the subversive impact of the film as a whole, bookending it with a cautionary note. Don’t try this at home, kids – you’ll only get blown off the road with a shotgun, even if the Byrds are singing you a dinky little ballad (“all he wanted was to be free – and that’s the way it turned out to be”.)

How does that relate to ‘Prime Cut’? Well, the movie’s ending is a parody of the idealised, Norman Rockwell dungarees and cattle-ranchin’, country-livin’ world that the film has turned on its head throughout, as well as being a piss-take of the whole idea of the happy ending – but, like the man/beast dialogue discussed above, it’s also meant to be taken at least half-seriously. And in that way it’s more unnerving than any of those nihilistic, ‘Easy Rider’-style endings where the (anti)hero bites the dust. Both subverting and conforming to the anti-clichés of the 70s American thriller, it’s illustrative of a time when you often just didn’t know what the hell you were supposed to think about what you were saying – and in many ways, that’s the beauty of it. I’m not meaning to suggest that it’s a completely morally relative film, but its moral uncertainty certainly is a key part of its overall beguiling strangeness. It’s true to say that they just don’t make ’em like this anymore – and it’s hard to believe that they ever did.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Unfolding King Lear: A Model Performance

Jeremy Hardingham, Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio ('the black box'), Faculty of English, Cambridge. 14th November 2008.

Rarely can I say that I have felt such impact from a piece of theatre. Hardingham rips out lines and phrases from Shakespeare’s play, adds in his own, puns desperately and viciously and fixatedly on like-sounding words, seemingly an act of mutilation comparable to the eye-gouged Gloucester’s agony. It all takes place in the ‘black box’ of the Judith E. Wilson drama studio, buried away beneath the Cambridge English Faculty. This Friday, afternoon the audience is small; just two rows of chairs, brought forward right to the front of the ‘stage’. The floor is covered in tarpaulin (black, of course), while a table is laden with miscellaneous props (though ‘props’ is the wrong word to use – Hardingham made them feel just as much actors in the drama as himself), and an audio system is used to produce various sound effects and fragments of music. Black-suited musician Jonathan Styles sits on a high stool, his face hidden by his copy of the script, his sung/ guttural-soft whisper emerging eerily and unexpectedly at various points. A diagram hidden away in the wall depicts the structure of the vocal cords. Hardingham himself moves with difficulty in the cluttered space, ceding an element of control as he appears to blunder round, tripping and stumbling – his use of the props is improvised, and there is a real element of danger. When he hammers a nail into his sleeve, or clambers on a chair while attached by a rope to the ceiling high above, things could easily go wrong. There is too much writing about ‘brave’ performances, but if that adjective can have any meaning in terms of a piece of theatre, it is here.

Another over-used word, but I truly felt shattered, just as Hardingham seemed to simultaneously shatter and coalesce into figures/ personas/ disembodied/ screaming ghosts articulating pain as abstract - yet intensely felt and physical. Physicality rather than any ‘transcendent’ aestheticization, the aesthetic as truly relevant to the body and its horror and desperation for glimpses of hope (hearing the sea - or thinking that one does so). All this added to by Styles' voice and clarinet as the disembodied absence of Hardingham’s enactments.

The piece begins mute, Hardingham’s mouth black-taped over, the persona of the sad-clown-king acknowledging the applause he has created for himself through the audio system, bowing to the silent and still audience. It ends mute as well, all the spoken enactment the impossibility of communication communicating itself, Beckett’s paradox. And that is true communication, no shit being shovelled and your being forced to swallow, not that travestied communion. Visual sonics, sonic visuals: his costume’s layers were gradually divested as the performance went on, though he always carried around his neck a wooden board on which he occasionally chalked a tally of the Acts, and against which a pair of scissors on a string clanked with what came to seem like the knolling of a funeral bell.

The awful series of catastrophes that end the play retained the original Shakespearian language almost complete; horror upon horror. But it was already past that stage of ‘what fresh hell is this?’, stretched out on the rack for longer than can be born. Longing for release, knowing that it will come and that longing will seem petty, selfish, unengaged. Disengage.

It was a harrowing enough experience to be an audience member, but what it must have taken from the performer, what he gave to it is truly inspiring. Ingesting salt and what appeared to be putty, smearing and clambering, spitting out shards of Shakespeare, shards of a broken bottle once more shattering, bleeding underfoot but carrying on. It may be hard to look at 'Lear' the same way again.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Change we Can Believe In?

Hate to be a damp squib, but...

I can't say I'm over the moon. I was more than a little spooked by the prospect that McCain could get in - well, more than that, that Palin could get in. I had visions of McCain stepping up to make his victory speech, clutching at his chest, collapsing to the ground...Doesn't bear thinking about really, and that worst-case scenario is now safely out of our minds. But in all the euphoria, I wonder how much 'change' Obama really will bring? He may mean well, he may desire to bring change (hell, Blair and Bush thought they were doing God's will!), but such high hopes and the realities are sure to be a long way apart. Concessions will be made, the real power will probably lie behind a team of backers and moneymen with their own interests to pursue. I disagreed with the way Obama voted on the bailout, and that doesn't fill me with hope for his economic policies. I'm not sure about his foreign policy either - yes, troops from Iraq, but US presence in Afghanistan is regarded as beyond criticism, and what would he do about Iran when pushed?

Incidentally, I don't know how the Green Party expected to get very far when their website was down just a few hours before the elections. Which is a real damn shame; people whose view, I think, if they stopped to think, would be a lot closer to the Greens than to Obama's, have been swayed by the rhetoric, the hype, the hope - perhapos most of all, the idea that an African-American could actually become president (which will, of course, allow people to say that all's well with the world, look what progress we have made, a black man sits in the White House, racism is over!). Not really too much change to believe on, on that evidence.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Cannibal Holocaust: A Review

'Cannibal Holocaust' - the very title screams excess and exploitation, and normally I'd steer a mile away from that sort of thing (I'd rather not have to watch a film that exists solely to show extreme cruelty), but the film's reputation, and the fact that I'd previously written essays about it (without ever watching it) made me think that I should probably get round to giving it a go. Ninety minutes later, I emerged from the experience, challenged, provoked, disgusted and somewhat perplexed. I'll try to pick through my thoughts below.

I won't bother summarising the plot - you can find plenty of other synopses on the internet - although I suppose it's worthwhile noting that it actually does have a plot, and quite a lot of dialogue. In fact, it sets itself up as something of a social critique (though it's unclear how far director Ruggero Deodoto actually bought into this), rather than a brainless gore-fest.

I think you have to see the film very much a product of its time (though with the rise into the mainstream of increasingly gory horror/exploitation movies like 'Hostel' and 'Saw', there has been something of a return to that typically 1970s combination of explicit violence and some sort of twisted moral thinking that hovers between the perverse and "hm, maybe they've got a point there"). So: the 70s, as every one knows, were a time of film-making excess (or boundary pushing, whatever you want to call it), and 'Cannibal Holocaust' is probably the most notorious horror/exploitation film from that period (it was made in 1979 and released in 1980).

The emotional/ psychological vein it taps into, though, was common to films with much bigger budgets, and bigger stars: gritty, unflinching looks at the cruelties men are capable of, like the films of Michael Winner, boasted actors like Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance and Charles Bronson, and were fairly popular at the box-office. We might think of example such as the opening rape scene in 'Death Wish', or, more relevant to 'Holocaust', the western 'Chato's Land,' in which Charles Bronson's near-silent, Vietcong-like Indian warrior, Chato, slowly picks off a posse, mostly consisting of caricatured rednecks.

There are no heroes in 'Chato' - Bronson's actions are pretty barbaric (there's an unforgettable image where the penultimate posse member is shot, and falls face down into a campfire, and another when the final member is driven back into the desert to die by Chato), though the white man's are even worse. This raises an issue of moral compromise which Winner seems to have ducked out of somewhat - at times he seems to be actually advocating the sort of revenge that Chato takes, seeing it as justified because the posse have raped and murdered his family, and are racist bastards. Similarly, in 'Death Wish', Bronson's vigilante actions are celebrated (when the law fails - and, by extension, in Chato, the 'laws' of 'civilised' behaviour - you have to take matters into your own hands, and act with the sort of violence and cruelty equal to that dished out to you). Perhaps this is unfair to Winner - maybe he is taking no moral stand, showing both parties as equally vile, and presenting a completely nihilistic vision. But it's deeply unclear, and, while such uncertainty accounts for the film's unprecedented power, their deeply unpleasant, 'impure' feel, it seems somehow reprehensible (if no less reprehensible than Hollywood's increasingly overt glorification of violence, if it's to save cute little kiddies and is done by your favourite action heroes).

So to 'Cannibal Holocaust'. Like ‘Chato’s Land’, its plot involves the intrusion of evil white men into the territory of natives who prove to be just as brutal in retaliating to the atrocities committed by said white men, and like ‘Chato’s Land’, it presents somewhat confused moral messages. Even more than ‘Chato’, it could be described as a deeply misanthropic film, and, if anything, its targets appear even more confused. As another review I've read has noted, it sets up its crew of film-makers pretty much as straw men (while it may be true that news-crews exaggerate, manipulate, distort, etc, I find it unlikely that they'd go as far as to massacre pretty much a whole village)and thus muddies the message. Furthermore, while the anthropologist, Prof. Monroe, becomes the jaded voice of reason later in the film, earlier, he's not exactly a pillar of virtue, shooting several members of one tribe in cold blood so as to gain the trust of another tribe. The idea that 'Holocaust' is attacking the 'Mondo' films (some of which actually did stage shocking events) is rendered unlikely by the fact that, with its attempt at verité-realism, it comes across as a Mondo film itself –at least, in the final, 'documentary' section. (Incidentally, this 'film-within-a-film'/ 'real documentary footage' effect is nicely done, at a time when such tricks weren't common, as they are now (Blair Witch and all its spin-offs), and as indicated by the fact that people at the time thought this was a real snuff film.)

In making this film, it seems, Deodato deliberately plays up and questions his own role as exploitation film-maker (though by doing so he unwittingly undermines himself as well). When, in the penultimate scene, the TV executive orders the footage to be burned, one wonders if this was not the very same attitude held by those who tried to censor Deodato's work. For a film that exists seemingly to confront (and arguably, to exploit) the depths of human depravity, cruelty and violence, the Professor's stance (wanting to suppress the footage) seems protectionist, censorial. Surely it would make more sense to expose the film-makers for who they were (as is Deodato and the script's intention)? After all, their earlier documentary 'The Road to Hell' has been shown to have been faked, to some extent, yet people will believe it be real - would it not make more sense to expose the film-makers (and by extension, the culture of exploitative reporting that they embody)?

Furthermore, Deodato's attitude to the native tribes is confused. We're supposed to sympathise, or at least, to understand, the actions they take towards the film-crew, to see them as justified; while they react with initial suspicion towards Monroe, it never looks like they're actually going to eat him, but the massacre in a hut pushes them over the edge. Yet what to make of the native 'savagery'? In one (infamous) scene, the crew come across a naked woman, impaled on a pole. Alan smirks, seems to be enjoying the spectacle, but is then told 'you're on camera' and immediately changes to a face of concern, pronouncing that this is the result of some barabric sexual ritual, from a people who hold virginity as almost sacred (earlier on, in the film's first truly shocking scene, we've seen a native murder an adulterous woman by sexually mutilating her). Obviously, this is supposed to be yet another example of the thrill-seeking filmmakers' callousness and exploitativeness, but at the same time, it's unclear what moral attitude is being taken vis-a-vis the natives' 'uncivilised' practices. True, the girl may have been killed in this way because she has been raped by the film-makers in the preceding scene (although it's unclear whether it's the same girl), and the tribe's attitude to sexual 'impurity' demands such a grisly response, but that doesn't make the actual act of execution any easier to stomach.

And of course, there are the scenes of animal cruelty. We see a muskrat have it's throat slit, and hear its screams of agony. Is this supposed to be just a fact of life - look, meat-eaters, this is the suffering animals go through to get you your meat - or just another cheap trick? Monroe shows a little distaste, but doesn't seem too concerned. The disembowelling of the turtle is shocking (you see its legs move even as its insides are being cut out), an effect enhanced by the score, but would it be appear any more palatable (excuse the pun) if it was done with care, rather than lip-smacking relish? It seems ironic that Deodato condemns his characters for filming the turtle-killing (as indicated by the ominous and queasy strings that blare up on the soundtrack), yet is at the same time filming this staged event himself, for the purposes of his own film.

At one point, a TV executive tells Monroe "Today people want sensationalism; the more you rape their senses the happier they are" (of course, she hasn't seen the actual footage at this stage of the movie). I don't think anyone could come away from 'Holocaust' feeling happy, although they might well feel that their sense have been ‘raped.’ By pushing things just that little bit further, the film does succeed to some extent in exposing and challenging our attitudes towards extreme violence. It is strange how we find something like 'Holocaust' shocking and deserving of censorship ("ban this sick filth", as the Daily Mail might put it), but have become immune to the horrors and deprivations we see daily on our news screens. Our morality is very perverted if can react with absolute horror and outrage to fictional gore but, when confronted with real-life events such as those in Darfur, can switch on the auto-pilot response of "oh, isn't it awful, but we can't do anything, that's just the way life is"? Of course, Deodato IS exploiting his violence, just as his fictional film-makers are, and I suppose one could argue that the film's value lies as much in the issues that he DIDN'T intend to raise as the ones that he did. In that sense, it goes beyond (or below) being art - its value lies, not in its quality (though I didn't find the acting too bad, there are moments where one feels that things are about to tip over into porno, or worse) - but in the issues it raises, however it raises them. If there was ever a film that deserved the title 'thought-provoking', Cannibal Holocaust is that film.


You can download the soundtrack here: Riz Ortolani's music is pretty effective, on the whole, though I’m not really sure that it works too well away from the film. Even in the film, it sounds a little dodgy – for example, the groan-worthy easy listening cue which plays over the title credits, and which steers things towards 70s porno when Monroe bathes naked in the river (the film's one concession to an idea of an unspoilt idyll, free from the trappings and repressions of modern life - "to be like them, naked and unfettered as Adam" as he puts it in the voiceover) – although it admittedly has some impact when played ironically over the village massacre, or at the climactic dismemberment of the film-crew. Meanwhile, the 'horror' theme, with its wrenching, mournful strings, is suitably disturbing, even without Deodato’s graphic images to accompany it (though the synth percussion effects are a little dated).


J.G. Ballard on Mondo films:
Wikipedia on Mondo films:
A review of ‘Chato’s Land’:
A review of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’:
Another review:
And another:
And another!
Review of the recent DVD release:

Finally, 'The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media’, a 1984 book edited by Martin Barker, has a chapter on ‘Holocaust’, and discussions of other controversial exploitation/horror films from the 70s and 80s. If you want to acquaint yourself with the sort of issues surrounding these films (and it is a fascinating area of debate) without actually having to watch them, it’s a good place to start, though it might be a little hard to get hold of.

Friday 24 October 2008

A Power Stronger Than Itself

This review of George E. Lewis' book A Power Than Stronger Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music first appeared in Issue 2 of eartrip magazine. To access the full magazine, go to http://eartripmagazine. To order the book from The University of Chicago Press, go to metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=236682.

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an organisation of some importance: even its detractors must acknowledge the validity of that statement. Over the years, its ranks have included Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Amina Claudine Myers, Fred Anderson, Leroy Jenkins, John Stubblefield, Pete Cosey, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill – and those are just some of the best-known. Yet, despite documentation and coverage in recordings, journalistic and scholarly articles, and references in academic books, ‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is the first full-length study of its kind, written by an AACM member who also happens to be a fine academic writer, and who has meticulously researched both the specific and wider contexts of the AACM’s genesis, from the background of economic depression in 1930s Chicago to the present day situation.

‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is much than just a historical curiosity; in fact, I’d argue that it is one of the most important books about jazz ever written, and is worthy of the attention of anyone who claims to be serious about the music. Lewis is an academic who actually says something through the complexity of his discourse, and is not a vacuous or pretentious name-dropper (his relation of Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali to what he's talking about is very much to the point and not put in for some intellectual brownie points). I feel this important to assert because of the rather snobby dismissals I've read in various publications, which, dare I say it, come from exactly the sort of views he critiques in the book. A black musician talking about jazz in academic terms? That’s not his place – he must be doing something wrong.

This review can only claim to cover a small number of the issues addressed by Lewis; there’s simply no way that I can write about everything that I had jotted down as an area of immediate interest when reading through for the first time. So, where to begin? Let’s dive straight into controversy…

The issue of race will undoubtedly be raised, with the AACM criticised as an exclusive black-only club. In chapter 6, Lewis brings to light the case of Gordon Emanuel, a vibes player who was the organisation’s only white member (though he regarded himself as essentially black, being the adopted brother of bassist Bob Cranshaw and living in the South Side’s black ghetto). Growing pressures from black nationalists in the group eventually forced a meeting, in which Emanuel was voted out of the organisation. This will provide plenty of ammunition for those who want to argue that AACM members, in combating the detrimental effects of anti-black racism, turned the racism back on white people; indeed, at the time, Leslie Rout argued that the incident showed how, “in the final analysis, all white men are enemies [to the AACM].” Amina Myers, who has the advantage over Rout of an insider’s perspective, admits that “I was one of the ones that was against having somebody white in the organisation. Whites were always having something. They always run everything, come in and take over our stuff, but this was something black we had created, something of our own, and we should keep it black.” Such a mentality was something that Myers had in common with Malcolm X, and those he influenced. Well-meaning whites often did more harm than good; this was about black self-determination, and there was no problem with whites as such, but the process of explicit co-operation could only come about once the generally racist conditions of America had changed to a significant extent.

Myers admits that she has since changed her views – and they were undoubtedly very much of their time (though that shouldn’t diminish their validity at that moment in history). Today, she believes that “music is open, and that’s what I look at now. There’s got to be a spiritual quality, regardless of what the color is.” I tend to sympathise with the thought-currents that led to Emanuel’s expulsion, if not the expulsion itself – but they are undoubtedly problematic, and many in the organisation at the time did not share them to such an extreme extent.

One might also note that, despite the very heavy focus on racial injustice, there was often a strongly sexist element to male-female relationships in the free jazz world, with the woman expected to be the supportive home-maker who was there for her man while he went out on his musical explorations (see the relevant chapter in Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious as Your Life’). Of course, as a blanket statement, this is entirely inaccurate – think of Sam and Beatrice Rivers’ Studio RivBea, Ornette Coleman’s marriage to poet Jayne Cortez, or the relationship between Sonny and Linda Sharrock – but there is still an element of truth to the accusations of sexism. In a valuable sub-section of chapter eleven, entitled ‘Leading the Third Wave: The New Women of the AACM’, Lewis discusses the issue of gender politics. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Maia recounts how she asked Phil Cohran: “When we as black people reach utopia, reach this point that we’re reaching for, is that when you’re going to deal with this issue that we have between men and women? Because the black revolution is more about the revolution of black men. The problems that exist between men and women existed before racism came about.” There’s a slight confusion as to whether the AACM membership was predominantly male because of residual sexism from certain quarters, or whether the situation was more complicated. Maia suggests that the problem was not so much deliberate exclusion as a (perhaps inaccurate) perception of the AACM as what Douglas Ewart calls “a man’s club.” “The revolution was about black men. Nobody meant women any harm. But if you don’t have on a fire suit, you ain’t gonna go into no fire. It may have been open to women, but if it is not inviting to women, women are not going to come.” So, it was clearly important that artists like Maia, Nicole Mitchelle and Shanta Nurullah began to form all-female groups, to highlight female creativity, and the validity of female contributions to black experimental music.

As indicated by such a discussion, nobody is claiming that the AACM is perfect, least of all Lewis; what makes it such an important organisation is that its members acknowledge areas of complexity or disagreement, and seek to work through these. Such an attitude that was there from the start, as made clear by the transcription of the very first AACM meetings, from May 1965, in chapter four, ‘Founding the Collective.’ A major virtue of the book, then, is that it is not sanitised; that it shows the contradictions and struggles of the organisation, at the same time as the way that it remained, as the title puts it, 'a power stronger than itself', representing something much bigger than the Chicago jazz scene, and providing a model for all such initiatives. This is what is overlooked by those who criticise the October Revolution in Jazz, the Jazz Composers’ Guild, or the AACM, by those who argue that the ideals of self-determination and creative autonomy shared by these bodies are laudable but inevitably fail. The AACM was not intended to be the solution to everyone’s problems, but was firmly rooted in the realities of a specific socio-economic, musical and racial situation, and was therefore in a good position to make an impact (on a local level, and perhaps further, as with the migration to New York). Thanks to Lewis, this is now clearer than ever; that should silence those who claim that he lavishing a disproportionate amount of attention to the AACM.

The issues of race and gender are clearly of importance, then: also crucial to Lewis’ investigations is the economic side of things. An academic not mentioned in the book, but relevant to the argument, is Ian Anderson, whose essay ‘Jazz outside the Marketplace’ contains an analysis of free jazz’s growing reconciliation to capitalism, through funding and grants from banks and institutions, that may prove depressing reading to those who associated the music with radical political hopes. This would seem to fit with the standard narrative, to which there may be some truth , which would place the trend identified by Anderson alongside the failure of post-’68 activism, as evidence of the decline of the left. However, pessimism, leading on to capitulation, and, ultimately conformity, are what brought about this change in the first place, and to react in the same way is not the answer.

For, what Lewis’ book offers, beyond informative and (generally) rigorous scholarship, is hope. Lewis shows how (predominantly black) self-organisation and self-promotion could provide a viable alternative to commercialisation, line-toeing and subservience to the greedy, exploitative machinations of big-time club-owners, promoters, and record company bosses. The AACM was not primarily a for-profit organisation –members contributed funds to keep things afloat at first, even if payments were not always diligently kept up, and proceeds from concerts were plunged into further musical developments and, importantly, educational and social projects. Thus, while the AACM was in the service of the art foremost, the art was intimately linked to the life. “My youngest son’s wife called me,” Jodie Christian recalls. “She said, do you know any place where they give piano lessons? I thought, the AACM, that’s what they do. If that ever dies, then the AACM dies. That’s what’s holding it together. That, to me, is the backbone of the AACM.” (P.506) One cannot understand the music without a knowledge of the socio-economic and racial conditions of Chicago (or, for that matter, America as a whole), and one gains a deeper appreciation of the AACM project if one realises its political significance, rather than simply seeing it as ‘interesting’ music. ‘Interesting’ music is what divorces the experimental tradition from a wider audience, creating an ivory-tower elite (most notably in the classical music world) which the free jazz musicians sought to combat from the outset (Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ provides further evidence of such ambitions).

Yes, perhaps some of the participants have gained (even courted) the support of the 'establishment' (George Lewis' own work at IRCAM, for instance, although that was a slightly strange episode, and one he felt somewhat uncomfortable with, I believe) - but, as Lewis argues, quite persuasively I think, the 'establishment' (the sort of 'high culture' institutions that Anderson argues have come to support free jazz) tended to (and still does tend to) look down on the music. As many, many people will tell you, it is still a struggling music – consider the state of free improvisation in the UK (the closure of one the major venues, the Red Rose; the cutting of funding for the LMC; and the post-Thatcherite bureaucratic muddle that complicates things still further). I think it’s more the case that that a few token 'progressives’ and 'radicals, get establishment support, as a means for the capitalist hierarchy to appear 'progressive' and 'liberal', at the same time as denting the subversive force of the art they have ‘embraced.’ When trumpeter Bill Dixon was featured on a BBC Radio 3 programme devoted to ‘new music’, for instance, his work was treated with a marked lack of respect, in comparison to the numerous classical composers that the programme features, week in, week out. Underlying it all, I’m afraid to say, is a residual racism that is all the more pernicious for being unconscious. If Dixon, one of the most important instrumentalists and composers of the past forty years, is characterised as “mad,” there’s not much hope for the free music project being taken seriously.

I mentioned the danger of elitism for (predominantly white, classical) experimental music, and there are those who criticise black experimental music in a similar manner, as elitist and inherently anti-popular. These charges are not hard to repudiate, and the connection between the black avant-garde and popular music should not need too much defending – Amiri Baraka had always maintained that Albert Ayler and James Brown were equally important as figures of black self-consciousness and self-expression (see his essay ‘The Changing Same’), and Lewis provides a corroborating anecdote about Henry Threadgill playing “free” in evangelical meetings (pp.75-6). Yet the other attack, often from critics with a black power agenda, like Baraka or Stanley Crouch, needs addressing – that connections with European classical music (Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and George Lewis with Cage, Stockhausen and IRCAM) are betrayals of blackness, ‘whitening’ the music and rendering it impotent, effectively obscuring and ignoring a part of one’s identity as an African-American by moving away from one’s heritage. This leads Baraka to claim that he would prefer to listen to the hegemonic comfort of Wynton Marsalis’ revivalism than to Lester Bowie or Henry Threadgill (though he believes that they too should have “regular stages” (p.444)). Lewis’ book is crucial in this respect, showing how misguided such criticisms are, and how the AACM’s avant-garde approach actually stays truer to heritage than Marsalis’ more overt engagements with black tradition. Maybe the Lincoln centre ‘jazz neo-conservatism’ is on its way out by now, though Stanley Crouch is still yelling out its propaganda at the top of his voice – still, for those taken with its proclamations, it might be helpful to consider this: who would berate contemporary rock musicians for not sounding like Hendrix, or contemporary composers for not sounding like Vivaldi?

Lewis, then, persuasively shows how much criticism of the work of black experimentalists, from both black and white critics, is based on outmoded principles and simplistic assumptions that might have people up in arms if applied to white composers - hence the famous 'anti-jazz' slur on Coltrane, and the assumption that one must be in the tradition (this mysterious, single tradition, always prefixed by the definite article) or one is nothing, and hence the straitjacketing of people to fit rules that you yourself have artificially imposed onto them. I don’t have the space to go into it here, but there are some crucial passages in which he argues that the annecdotalism of (predominantly white) 1950s and 60s jazz criticism (such as Leonard Feather’s ‘Blindfold Tests’) deliberately stirred up antagonism, and opened up a false and unnecessary chasm between traditional musicians and experimentalists, as well as creating a simplified and distorted climate, ill-suited for the reception of music (like the AACM’s) that went beyond a certain level of complexity, that went outside the bounds of certain fairly strict parameters.

In conclusion, then, Lewis has much say that is relevant and of interest, in relation to perceptions of music, and ways of avoiding the capitalist norm (communal, self organisation, art and mastery of a craft valued over 'product' and the market). Most relevant is his penetrating analysis of the still-present subtle and perhaps unconscious racial discrimination that exists when talking about this music: put the black man in his place, don't let him mix his entertaining jazz with serious music of any kind - hence the criticism of Braxton for taking an interest in Stockhausen. There are numerous thought-provoking passages which really do change one's perceptions of things might have just taken for granted – but I’ll leave individual readers to discover these for themselves.

In the end, despite compromises that may have had to be made (the move to New York, while creatively fruitful), and difficulties overcome. As attested to by the work of Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, and Lewis himself, these artists are still as creative as ever, and, even if some have moved beyond the AACM, they retain its ethos in all their activities. The younger generation is thriving too, and is in a reciprocal relationship with the older generation of pioneers, as seen in such examples as the collaboration between Matana Roberts and Fred Anderson on her album ‘The Chicago Project’ (reviewed elsewhere in this issue).

Characterising all these diverse activities is a strongly-held belief in the power of music as a force for good – not in a vague utopian sense, but as something that can have a real and positive impact on the lives of human beings. As Nicole Mitchell puts it, “we take for granted the power of what music really is. It’s not about trying to make a few dollars at some concert. It’s not about, do we have a crowd, or do I have an image, or have I, quote-unquote, made it.” (p.512) What it is about is the substance of this book.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Pharoah Sanders - Tauhid (1967)

Pharoah Sanders - alto & tenor sax, piccolo, voice
Sonny Sharrock - guitar
Dave Burrell - piano
Henry Grimes - bass
Roger Blank - drums
Nat Bettis - percussion

Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio, Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey, 15/11/1966.


"What...even those resistant to the new jazz...cannot escape is the emotional energy in the new music. By contrast, nearly every jazz breakthrough in the past has been challenged as being too 'intellectual', too 'European', not 'hot' enough. These days, the opponents of what's happening now seem to be charging that too much emotion is erupting in this music. And that is exploding without form. But too much emotion for whom? And what are the notions of form?"

Nat Hentoff, liner notes to 'Tauhid'

This is not 'Pharoah's First' - that's a strange album on ESP disk, with Mr Sanders trying to uproot himself from a conventional rhythm section, making them sound leaden as he tries to blaze apart their jazz preconceptions - but I guess you could consider it his debut proper, marking a continution of the work with Coltrane, but, perhaps more importantly, a departure into his own way of expressing a spiritual quest (indeed, of enacting it through music). It's important to note that this was actually recorded in 1966, when Sanders was still working with Coltrane, but I think the point still stands.

Over time, it would become more and more obvious that there was less of a sense of struggle, of 'working through' in Sanders' music, than in his mentor's - it was as if he took a step back from the brink on which Coltrane was constantly tetering, instead choosing to locate himself a little further from the edge, with brief forays back to that edge that were conducted almost in nostalgic reminiscence. Though I realise this does injustice to Pharoah's undoubted and utter sincerity, one has to wonder at the musical gap between 'Live in Japan' (1966) and 'Love will Find a Way' (1978). In just over ten years Pharoah's preoccupations have switched from emotion stretched to the limit, outside the confines of traditional modes of jazz expression (or indeed, of almost any pre-existing mode of musical expression at all), to a more easily pre-packaged emotionalism that exists within the admittedly pleasant strictures of 'smooth' strings, finger-popping electric basslines, and creamy backing vocals. His saxophone sound is still undoubtedly there - it's not as if he lost his voice (shoute himself hoarse?!) in whatever process occured in that 12-year period - but it's been reduced in impact. There's less overblowing, and when it does come, it's as an unambiguously joyful sound without the history of struggle behind it that would make it resonante so much more. This reduction of the personal touch at the same time causes the voice to lose its universality, its appeal to the primal instincts, the very roots of humam emotional perception and response/responsiveness to sound.

But at the time 'Tauhid' was released, no one was to know that in ten years they'd be hearing Pharoah playing what essentialy amounts to a slightly classier variant of smooth jazz (OK, they didn't really know what smooth jazz was at all - I suppose the nearest equivalent would be Bobby Hackett's 'muzak' of the 1950s, though that was probably a little more of a niche market than smooth jazz would turn out to be). Pharoah had his reputation (or infamy) as being probably the most 'out there' it got - along with Ayler, let's say, though his own music had been noticeably toned down in those last few years, through collaborations with Mary Maria and Cal Cobbs.

Yet on 'Tauhid' the 'young lion' proved to be, if not quite a vegetarian, less of the marauding predator pulling chunks off jazz's fleshy carcass than might have been expected. In the liner notes, Nat Hentoff stresses the lyricism of what he calls the 'New Jazz', which had previously been far less prominent in Sanders' work (the searching solo that follow Coltrane on 'Peace on Earth' or the Village Vanguard 'Naima' are in marked contrast to Coltrane's own relative calm in stating the melodies, and, notably, Sanders does not play on 'Serenity' from 'Meditations'). While Hentoff puts it that Sanders' range was "continually expanding" (with the increased lyricism presumably evidence of this), in hindsight we can see that this expansion eventually turned into limitation - the interest in beautiful, singable melodies and in African and Indian percussion and instrumentation ended up being little more than an exotic colouring for the comfort of repeating chord alternations, to which the solos on top sometimes seemed even to be subordinated.

Lyricism in 'Tauhid', then: a reviewer on describes the music as "otherworldy but familiar", and notes the paradoxical mixture of the harsh and the gentle for what is ultimately a serene effect. I'd argue that, while things may remain in the realms of paradox here, as Sanders' work became more groove-based, the fearsome overblowing ended up becoming almost (almost) a trick effect with which to spice up otherwise mellow grooves - that complex mixing of emotions, the refusal to be defined, indeed, by terms such as 'harsh' and 'gentle', abandoned for more conventional and repetitive structures and harmonies. It's hard to draw a line marking where exactly this happened - and I do still have a great affection even for Sanders' 'easier' work - but the enjoyment I get from listening to the albums shouldn't blind me to the fact that much of Sanders' work is seriously flawed. (How can this be? If you enjoy it, if it has an effect on you, that should surely be the judge, rather than by some false 'objective standard' of 'musical quality' - right? Well, as you can see, I can formulate my own counter-arguments to what I've just said, and this sort of line of reasoning often comes up when discussing free jazz. But I must admit that, despite the elation and peace I feel when listening to Pharoah on !Impulse!, there is always a slight feeling of disquiet there too - the suspiction that the music *encourages* one to switch off, to let it 'wash over' one as generalised vibe rather than as body-mind engagement / experience - and this is a long way from the *enhanced* consciousness offered by free jazz).

Maybe it's a question of 'Balance', to take the title of one of Sanders' compositions - that you have to take the good with the bad, the rough with the smooth. Thus, 'The Creator has a Master Plan' ends up repeating itself, as does 'Hum-Allah', while 'Izipho Zama' is a little episodic, but 'Live at the East' makes effective use of vocals and 'Enlightenment' is an infectious listen. 'Black Unity' is over-long, but the front-line of Sanders, Gary Bartz and Carlos Garnett ensures a degree of friction, and the double bass-line is indeed hypnotic; the title track of 'Summun Bukmun Umyun' is another so-so African-tinged groover with free patches, but the following 'Let us Go Into the House of the Lord' is genuinely inspired, with some absolutely sublime playing from Cecil McBee (who's turning into one of my favourite bassists at the moment). Let's put that bad/good formulation the other way other way round: while 'To John' on the rare, Japan-only 'Love in Us All' contains some of the most effective 'fire music' Sanders' recorded under his own name (genuine free jazz rather than the hybrid styles he tended to play in at this period), 'Love is Everywhere' takes a small idea, attractive enough in itself, and stretches it to ridiculous lengths. There's only so much chugging piano, willowy soprano sax, and sing-a-long vocals I can take. So, Sanders' legacy is one I have a complex relation to; while I listen to his music a lot (more so than Coltrane these days, though that doesn't mean I think he's 'better' than Trane at all), I still find it very problematic.


(1) 'Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt'

The album opens with a collective meditation. Tympani(?), cymbal smashes, Sharrock's new approach to post-Coltrane ballad guitar, twangy and shuddering, Burrell as chordal colourist - a group *sound* and *feel*, not the soloist as free individual striving to be the lone voice of truth (this sort of collectivisim is perhaps what people disliked so much about late Coltrane - the ensemble passages on 'Ascension', the infamous Philharmonic Hall concert where people expected to see the 'Classic Quartet' and instead got an 11-piece group with the Ayler Brothers, Pharoah, Alice, etc).

A brief Henry Grimes bass solo - again concerned with textures and sounds, with the bass's properties as means of producing sound, with timbre and quality, with woozy arco rather than the melodic, horn-like role of La Faro or Gomez with Bill Evans.

Now Sanders' enters for the first time. His delayed entry could be said to either downplay or enhance the individual leader role I hinted at in the first paragraph: by waiting so long, his entry becomes more expected ("this album is under his name - where is he?"), more hoped for, perhaps - but at the same time the delay is a way of saying "you don't *need* to hear me straightaway - these other guys are important too." Playing piccolo, rather than sax, he vocalises through the instrument while playing, as he does on 'To Be', the flute/piccolo duet with Coltrane on 'Expression'. An 'exotic' and still striking sound, it could have become a novelty effect if Sanders had chosen to over-deploy it, but this and 'To Be' are the only recorded instances, I think. Needless to say, it's effect is a little different to Roland Kirk's use of similar techniques...

Drum ritual, low-toned. Almost nine minutes in, and Grimes is about to solo again - no, instead he locks in and begins to build the famous groove that will underpin the rest of the track (I guess we've reached 'Lower Egypt'). In the 'pre-amble', I hinted at the role this emphasis on the groove played in the diminishing quality of Sanders' music, but this particular groove, as they say, still 'does it for me' every time. In itself, with the emphasis on rhythm (the players' truly functioning as 'rhythm section' here!), this could be seen as part of the 'back to Africa' movement - although (I speak from a position of relative ignorance), with a simplified, totalizing effect that downplays the complexities of actual African tribal music (to me, 'Bailaphone Dance' on 'Thembi' sounds more 'authentic', and certainly freer). Still, Nat Bettis, from the little I managed to find it via an internet search, was an ethnomusicologist, so presumably he wouldn't have been happy slotting in to provide a merely facile sense of exotic colouring.

And *Pharoah's solo*, though brief, has such impact. For reasons of context perhaps: it's the first time he's let rip on sax, indeed, the first time we've heard him play sax at all on the album. Once again, the employment of the delaying/ waiting tactic - "that groove's been going on for *three minutes* now - what the hell is going on?" You're about to find out - Pharoah, first, echoing the groove line, three times playing the riff, then some repeated figure, now a note, first clean, now overblown - then, suddenly, WHAAARGH! WHAAARGH! WHAAARGH! I find it hard to restrain a physical reaction to those overblown whorfs of sound when I hear them. They seem so inevitable, so right - so truly the sound of a man as himself, as one with his instrument, as looking at his true centre, his true self. From the liner notes, his quotes resonate: "I don't really see the horn anymore. I'm trying to see myself. And similarly, as to the sounds I get, it's not that I'm trying to scream on my horn, I'm just trying to put all my feelings into the horn. And when you do that, the ntoes go away[...] Why [do] I want clusters [of notes]? So that I [can] get more feeling, more of me, int oevery note I play. You see, everything you do has to *mean* something, has to be more than just notes. That's behind everything I do - trying to get more ways of getting feeling out."

The subdued vocals that follow, might be a little underwhelming on their own, but are perhaps a necessary coming down, back to earth, back to the groove, to melody, after that solo.

(2) 'Japan'

At just over three minutes, this is quite clearly an 'interlude' between the two long tracks that bookend it. Chugging bells and a stately promenade beat, Grimes mixing things up a little by alternating affirmative on-the-beat plucks with melodic counterpoint that goes in a slightly different direction. Sanders then sings the melody a few times, Grimes takes what I suppose one might call a short solo, then it ends. It's really all about the melody though, which could strike one as gorgeous and elegant, though to me it's alway seemed a little twee, a Hollywoodized idea of Japan rather than the deeper engagement with world musics that Hentoff's liners claim for it.

Sanders' vocal shows him embracing not the need to be 'correct' or 'traditional' (though he claims he was trying to impersonate an amalgamation of various different singers), but to be *yourself*. Certainly a different way of doing that to the 'Lower Egypt' solo, and few will argue that it's as succesful, but it has a pleasing, unaffected simplicity about it. From this track, one could say that Burrell and Sharrock are rather under-used on the record - or that this is just part of the collective conception. Certainly, Grimes is the most prominent solo voice after Sanders, which is somewhat unusual. Pretty much impossible to tell what Burrell's personal voice is from 'Tauhid' (Sharrock has it easier because no one else played the guitar like him, so, even if it's just a few seconds' space he gets, you're going to know it's him!)

(3) (A) 'Aum'

Pharoah had been here before, participating in Coltrane's 'OM' from 1965 (about which, see 'Circling Om', Simon Weill's superb article, available on the All About Jazz website). Things aren't nearly as terrifying here, though this is probably the freest section of the album. Lick-spit-riddling cymbals and hit-hat keep the sound tight, Grimes' immediately perplexing it with fast free walking, Burrell adds boxy ominous chords, then Sanders comes in, sribbling away on alto while Roger Blank switches to the more forceful toms. Off-mike for a moment, we might suppose Pharoah to be in an eye-closed calisthenics of ecstasy; he roils up and down, his tone vocal and gruff (though not as powerful as on tenor). Sawing, see-sawing up and down in motions that lead to a *strain* for volume and air, at the end, of those long notes held before the next darting rally. Highest in the mix behind the sax are the drums - the recording isn't great (they really should release a new mix of the album), but your ear can just about pick up Sonny Sharrock raging behind the Pharoah. Imagine the sonic experience if this had been better recorded! These guys truly had power behind their sound, it was *frightening* to the jazz establishment, to the critics, the guardians of 'good taste' and Jim Crow 'get in line Nigger' custodianship of a music they didn't really understand.

(B) 'Venus'

Sounds like they suddenly turned Sharrock up in the mix because they thought he was going to solo - as it is, Pharoah comes back in almost immediately, on tenor, but we do get to hear a precious few seconds of that guitar squall. Sanders' tone just *radiates* spirituality - later on, perhaps he traded on that a bit too much (by playing even just melodies he could convince), but here the utter sincerity is captivating, the vitality of being and the living of life in sound. Shakers and cymbals, strummed repeated bass notes and finally piano runs that prefigure Lonnie Liston Smith's harp-like arpeggios on 'Hum-Allah'. One might also note that 'Aum/Venus/Capricorn Rising' has the concision 'Hum-Allah' lacks. The three-part structure focusses things, prevents over-reliance on just one groove, one vibe. Sanders' playing of the melody, and variants on it, are the main focus here; either Sharrock's not playing, or he's just really undermiked - I guess guitar in avant-jazz wasn't really too common at the time; maybe producer Bob Theile just didn't know how to deal with it.

(C) 'Capricorn Rising'

'Capricorn Rising' seems to be a variation on the melody of 'Venus', no less sublime. It's as if Pharoah taps into this stream of melody which is that of the universe - he takes a little fragment, puts it in barlines, turns it into a melody of its own - self-sufficient, but part of a greater whole. And I guess that's the essence of jazz improvisation too - endless variation, and sometimes that reality can include what we'd term noise, fearsome sounds of overblown shrieks - all part of Pharoah's 'Journey to the One'. Earth-bound for transcendence, Pharoah's playing here acknowleges difficulty and struggle; indeed, it *incorporates* them into lyricism, rather than retreating into the slightly drippy peace-and-love sentiment, as with 'The Creator Has a Masterplan.'

So, where does that love 'Tauhid' as a whole? Well, it shows that, for all their reputations, free jazzers wrote damn good tunes, often better than the mainstream guys' - check out Frank Wright's 'Kevin My Dear Son' or 'Shouting the Blues' for other examples. It also ends too soon - an incomplete record. Obvious highlights - the 'Lower Egypt' solo, the melodic rhapsody of 'Venus' and 'Capricorn Rising' - remain flashes that never quite develop, and the lack of any real extended free jazz purification /catharsis feels like a missed opportunity (in particular, I can't help wishing we'd heard more of Sonny Sharrock). It was this uncertainty with *form* that was the major problem in Sanders' career, I think - not that I'm suggesting he should have tethered himself down more to the sort of structures/strictures the critics accused him of abandoning, but the solutions he came up with were often rather simplistic, aiming for coherence and instead getting a too broad-brush approach that tended to emphasize mood and vibe over detail and engagement.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Mingus (1968)

Directed by Thomas Reichmann

The jazz film is a funny beast - from the image-heavy retro (or contemporary) cool of 'Round Midnight', to the 'dangerous' edge of the music in 'The Man with the Golden Arm', jazz is often seen as much as lifestyle as music (as the title of a French Archie Shepp film from the 80s has it, "je suis jazz, ce'st ma vie" - "I am jazz, it's my life"). That's in terms of fiction films - the jazz documentary tends to be more prosaic (like much jazz journalism), concerned with annecdotes ("yeah, Miles sure was a great cat...sure was a fine dresser...sure was a fine boxer"), sprinkled with the wisdom of a few experts (musicologists, musicians, etc) who offer some technical analysis (but keep it brief, otherwise people might get lost), and kept lively with short clips of musical performances, thrown in to spice things up (and often to illustrate something of the musicians' life, rather than just as music - the jazz as lifestyle trope, again).

'Mingus', the 58-minute documentary by Thomas Reichman, is a little different: shot in grainy, obsevational, verite-style black-and-white, it makes no claims for its artist in portentous voiceover, and simply watches Mingus one night, at a club with his working group, and one night at his Greenwich Village apartment, awaiting eviction by the City of New York the next morning. Yet, more than many of the other jazz films, with their higher production values and greater scope, it gets to the heart of its subject. The music and the life ARE connected - Mingus' music in all its contradictory beauty and ugliness, like the man, standing out, standing up, iconoclastic, tempermental, but above all human. So here, we see Mingus pick up a rifle ("same gun that killed can buy these for $7") and shoot a hole in the wall. Disturbing? The actions of a disturbed man? Perhaps so - Mingus was going through a rough patch at this point, frustrated by the state of America and by the lack of recognition (outside the jazz world) for his work as composer and musician (not that I'm forgetting his ardent devotee, Gunther Schuller), and hit hard by the death of Eric Dolphy - Sue Mingus relates all this in 'Triumph of the Underdog', the 1997 documentary which utilises some of the choicest moments of this film as short clips. But to dismiss him is just another example of the way that the 'lone but tormented genius' tag is abused so that, in effect, we can dismiss those people we seem to be praising. As Amiri Baraka puts it in his essay 'Cuba Libre', "the rebels among us have become merely people like myself who grow beards and will not participate in politics. Drugs, juvenile delinquency, complete isolation from the vapid mores of the country, a few current ways out." To make Mingus this glamourised 'outsider' figure (in the same way that Clint Eastwood's 'Bird' or Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight' make Charlie Parker and the Dexter Gordon/Bud Powell figures the tragic hero-artist) always risks underplaying their role as social commentators, social critics - Bird through the criticism of his life, the tragic waste of a life and a talent in the drugs and drink which were the outlets on which a society that did not care led him to vent his energy and genius - Mingus through the searing truth of his poetry ("freedom for your mama, freedom for your daddy, but no freedom for me"), his pronouncements, his life and his music.

So, to emphasise the personal quirks that Mingus displays here is to underplay the way it shows his strenghts. Sure, he may shoot a hole in the wall. Sure, he may ramble vaguely about Jews and Kennedy, current affairs on which idly speculates (perhaps when the wine's started to flow a little more freely). But listen to him talk about the racism he encountered in the 'Nordic' countries (Swastikas on Eric Dolphy's door); listen to him accompany himself with falsetto vocals as he plays 'Peggy's Blue Skylight' on a beat-up piano, watched by his 5-year old daughter; listen to one of the many bass solos that pepper the film (Reichmann has a real feel for musical rhythm in his editing, chopping up the performances by Mingus' group in a club and the noodling in the apartment, but not in the haphazard way that jazz documentaries tend to have - the music serves as punctuation, as commentary, as interlude); watch as he goes on a peace march with Sue, while on the audio track he recites "first they came for the Communists...", or visits a diner, again with Sue, while 'Freedom' plays on the soundtrack; listen to him talk about his need for a 'soul-mate', man's need for woman ("I think most men are jealous of women..."). Reichmann's camera seems to just watch - the film's great virtue is its casual style, the way Mingus feels ready to just let spill, to talk, conversationally but with insight, the way that the camera focusses on pertinent details (a 1000 words), like Dannie Richmond's face, in the zone as he drums in the club performances, or, most poignantly, Mingus' bass, left alone on the sidewalk as he's evicted from the apartment in which he was trying to set up an artists' studio/school.

In the end, Mingus fills this documentary. The title is apt - just one word, 'Mingus'. A hero not because he was a romantic outsider (even if he was - a mixture of races and emotions, standing outside, in-between tradition and modernity, etc), but because he was willing to speak up about the injustices of what Baraka calls the "rotting carcass" of society, and was able to translate those feelings (the 'passions of a man') into the most sublime art (as Baraka continues, the "bright flowers" that grow up through the carcass). And by sublime art, I don't just mean what caused poet Jonathan Williams ( to comment: "It is incredible that Mingus can dredge out of the contemporary slough the potency and healing grace of his music." No, I also mean the music of his daily life, creating his life as he lived it; because that's we all do - and in that sense, we are all artists, making sense of what we have, or are given, as we can - picking up what falls into our lap and making do, making new, making mend. One senses that what is seen of Mingus in this film is, perhaps, a performance, and thus I'm on dangerous ground making the kind of claims I've just made, in relation to what I'm about to say: but, performative or not, there's something there as moving and impressive as 'Fables of Faubusu' or 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' or 'Pithecanthropus Erectus' or any of the other masterpieces. So I'll leave things with Mingus, sucking on his unlit pipe, pausing for thought, then beginning, mildly, yet with all the bitternes of an unjust society built up into a burning and passionate intellect: "I pledge allegience to the flag...just for the hell of it" - and, as he potters around the apartment, among all the unpacked possessions ("I've got my life in these boxes"), singing, to himself more than for the camera: "My country 'tis of thee, great land of slavery..."

Wednesday 20 August 2008

"Caught in Coleman's Spell": Ornette Coleman’s ‘Virgin Beauty’

Ornette Coleman (as, tp, vln) Charles Ellerbee, Bern Nix (g) Jerry Garcia (g -1,6,7) Al MacDowell, Chris Walker (b) Calvin Weston (d) Denardo Coleman (d, key)

1. 3 Wishes
2. Bourgeois Boogie
3. Happy Hour
4. Virgin Beauty
5. Healing The Feeling
6. Singing In The Shower
7. Desert Players
8. Honeymooners
9. Chanting
10. Spelling The Alphabet
11. Unknown Artist

Recorded in New York City, October 1987

I've been seriously digging Ornette Coleman over the past few days. I was on youtube, and, as you do, ended up on a video completely different to that I'd started off with (along the way, I think, I'd be looking at Wayne Shorter's quartet, life-enhancing as ever, and clarinetist Perry Robinson, who's so effective on Henry Grime's recently re-issued 'The Call').

Anyway, there's a bizarre video of Ornette performing a duet with painter/ pianist Mark Kostabi on Kostabi's game-show 'Title This'. I watch it every few weeks, fascinated and perplexed. I still don't feel I can really 'judge' it in a conventional sense. On one level, it's bizarre, absurdly melodramatic, and would probably become unbearable if it lasted for longer than three minutes. But as it is, there's something about it that is enormously compelling. It throws out Coleman's style nakedly; there's no dense three-guitar or three-bass texture, as with Prime Time or Ornette's latest band. Instead, there's just a piano, acting very much in an accompanying role, laying down chords which act as signals for Ornette to let off another intensely human cry or one of those ghostly bebop runs that appear in practically every solo he's ever recorded, most notably on 'Turnaround'.

So, I ended up at this video again - and then went on to some rare solo clips, recorded at the 1972 Berlin Jazz Tage, in which he's on piano (not his most convincing performance - compared to the alto which follows it, it's very heavy-handed and rhythmically lumpen). And then, 'Town Hall 1962', with the superb rhythm section of Moffett and Izenzon - of which a lengthy review will be appearing on Issue 2 of the e-zine I edit, 'eartrip'. And finally, the 1988 Prime Time record, probably best known nowadays for featuring Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on a few tracks, ‘Virgin Beauty’.

It's 'Virgin Beauty' that I'm going to spiel about here. Why? Well, firstly, I can find very little written about it, in comparison to the rest of Ornette’s output, and what there is is mostly negative. The All Music Guide has a typically pithy and rather off-target review which ends up saying something like "messy but rewarding after several listens". 'Messy' is one thing this record is not - despite the crowded texture, it's so clear - in fact, that's probably its greatest achievement (I’ll expand on this later). Meanwhile, Richard Cook and Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide to Jazz call it "dull, MOR funk, in which tougher material is obscured by a clotted rock mix."

OK, so a lot of people seem not to like Prime Time, and I can see why - 'Dancing in Your Head' has never been my favourite, this despite the fact that Ornette's playing is frequently attractive, in a rather more 'down-home' register than usual (as Gary Giddins puts it, "Coleman streams over the backbeat with dynamic certitude, offering one rousing lick after another, almost any one of which would fit the most primitive rural blues setting, or so it seems when one is Caught in Coleman's spell"). Only thing is, that irritating 'Good Life' melody keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box all over the place, and it really gets on my nerves. Miles Davis was utilizing repetitive melodic cells more successfully in his 70s fusion work.

Let’s put that idea on hold, and make way for a slight deviation – I always remember talking to someone about free jazz, and while they enthusiastically expounded the virtues of Albert Ayler, they dismissed Coleman. I think that sort of critical judgment arises from the fact that people approach Ornette’s music from the wrong direction. Thing is, I've never really thought of him as a free jazz musician. Yes, I know he was instrumental in the development of harmonic freedom and a step away from the reliance on chord changes, and yes I know that he made a record actually called 'Free Jazz.' However, I tend to see that particular enterprise as a one-off in his output - and his version of 'energy music' is very different from that put forward in similar large group enterprises, like Coltrane's 'Ascension' or Ayler's 'New York Eye and Ear Control' - less a form of screaming collective catharsis, more a form of (particularly animated) collective conversation. Let's take the example of ‘White Light’, the Jackson Pollock painting on the cover - whereas Coleman's music is the aural equivalent of the delicate dribbles that act like criss-crossing threads over the canvas (the sort of detail you'd notice if you looked at the painting close up), Coltrane's and Ayler's music has the effect of the canvas seen as a whole, in its monumental, overwhelming impact.

How is all this relevant to ‘Virgin Beauty’, and to the caveats I introduced about Prime Time earlier? Well, despite the instrumentation of Prime Time (drum machines, electric guitars, electric basses), and its incorporation of steady backbeats and funk grooves and rhythms, it's never felt like any other kind of jazz fusion to me, just as ‘Free Jazz’ doesn’t feel like any other kind of free jazz. Maybe it's just the unmistakable quality of Ornette's alto playing, but I think that quality is felt in the tunes as well – both in their particular melodic construction and in the texture which surrounds them. In the Pollock painting, each dribble, each ecstatically wavering line, has equal importance – and with Ornette, each instrument is equally important (and yet the music never looses a sense of order, while retaining a spontaneous edge).

Melody is the primary motivating force behind Coleman's work. At times it can sound like everyone is soloing at once: the rhythm section is not a 'rhythm section' as such, if one thinks of the supporting role that phrase tends to connote – yet at the same time it is very much concerned with generating rhythm. Listen to the deep grooves Haden and Blackwell get into on, say, 'Una Muy Bonita' – it’s not too much of a stretch to see this lineage continuing with the funky guitars, bass and drums of Prime Time. While I agree with Brian Olewnick, who finds Deonardo and Weston's playing on ‘Virign Beauty’ rather too staid and stodgy, without Ronald Shannon Jackson’s spark, it’s clearly not the case that Ornette has simply dumbed-down the backdrop – this is tricksy and complex, carefully composed and stitched together. The lines, or repeating cells that each instrument is playing could be the principal melody – it just so happens that they’ve been arranged so that some seem to be in the ‘lead’ and some in ‘supporting roles.’ It’s not just Ornette playing over lazy funk. If you can’t appreciate this, you’re probably doomed never to fully ‘get’ what Prime Time is about.

Again, it’s about approaching things from the wrong angle. One might easily overlook the complex nature of the music - might even see it as rather stiff, and overly arranged, rather than embracing the 'natural technique' that Ornette is seen as embodying (and does, to some extent). To answer this, the comparison I'd make here is actually Don Van Vliet, who's often cited as having been influenced by Coleman (mostly by ignorant rock critics who think that Vliet's untrained saxophone sound-paintings are somehow similar to Coleman's intricately melodic variations). Yet they share a similar approach to ensemble writing - Vliet's more deliberately 'sloppy' and not holding together, Ornette's always slightly 'not right' (most obviously in his treatment of pitch), yet locked-in more tightly. Each instrument plays lines that may go off in very different directions, individually, yet mesh together to create a coherent diversity. From a musician’s viewpoint, it requires great discipline and attentiveness to what's going on around you, and the fact that it's so easy to overlook indicates just how well this particular group of players pull it off.

The relationship between soloist and rhythm section is best illustrated when things almost fall apart, four minutes into 'Borgeois Boogie' - it seems like the track's going to end up with rather a botched conclusion, Ornette rushing to finish the melody so that it fits with the rhythm section, but you realize that this was all part of the plan when the drums carry on, rock-steady, the basses re-enter with that strange shuddering, repeating riff, and Ornette blasts in on trumpet. Well, maybe it’s wasn’t part of the plan – maybe someone did cock up, maybe Ornette did have to play the melody faster than he’d have liked, but that makes things seem that much closer to the edge, that much more exhilarating. And it’s therefore very apt that it’s a trumpet solo that takes things out – there's something incredibly strange about his trumpet playing - it evades being pinned down technically, and while it's less a 'pure sound' tool in his hands than the violin, becoming increasingly melodic as he grew more familiar with it (it's almost 'straight' on 'Chanting'), it still retains its ‘otherness’ to this day.

There’s so much to admire texturally. The double electric bass texture is delicious; I’m a particular admirer of Jamaaladeen Tacuma's sound (check out 'Honeymooners', where he gets a little space to himself). Those sounds are very 80s, but, in Tacuma's hands, they become something to be savoured rather than deplored (I must remember to check out Weston and Tacuma's work with Derek Bailey on 'Mirakle' again). And that thick guitar backdrop is so clear and yet so dense. My only caveat would be the electronic drums and the synths, which thankfully aren't pushed too far up in the mix (on ‘Chanting’, keyboardist Deonardo is playing some rather nice counterpoint to the lovely trumpet melody, but on a tinny sounding instrument that foregrounds the tendency towards sentimentality already latent in the tune).

Jerry Garcia's contributions amount to the textural rather than, as one might expect, the flashily soloistic, and that’s probably a good thing – we avoid the syndrome of the rock-star guest performer doing their thing regardless of what’s going on around them. Coleman is the only soloist here, even playing some unaccompanied alto on the first half of ‘Unknown Artist’ – and Garcia stands out no more and no less than the other guitarists, Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee. He doesn’t even appear on some of the album’s best tracks, such as the brief but strong 'Spelling the Alphabet', which sees the band divided up into three groups who throw bits of the melody at each other before uttering it in thrillingly fast unison, Ornette launching off into between speedy and those long, keening notes over a clattering clangour of the electronic drums, bass-dominated repeat of the melody. He’s also absent on the title track, which is one of the most sublime ballads Coleman's ever laid down. One thing that might not be talked about that much is the use of overdubbing - it's very discreet, but very effective. For instance, during the opener, a single trumpet stab recurs at regular intervals, on the beat, or in the aforementioned ‘Virgin Beauty’, what sounds like a slight-slowed down version of the opening melody, low down in the mix, comes in behind Coleman's solo, about two minutes into the piece (and, a minute later, violin underlies the last rhapsodic breath as the melody sounds out one last time).

What stands out most about this music, though, is its sheer sense of fun. Sometimes this means that there’s a tendency towards short, almost throw-away tracks (‘Desert Place’ is almost pop music, or would be if it didn’t feature Ornette’s overdubbed, eastern-flavoured alto/trumpet duet). Yet, most of the time, things come off beautifully. While a title like 'Bourgeois Boogie' might suggest sardonic social comment, even satire, the effect of this track is as intensely joyous as anything Coleman's done. And so, even if, as critic Robert Christgau points out, 'Virgin Beauty' is "the quietest of the Prime Time records--lyrical, sublimely reflective, autumnal at times"; and despite Don Van Vliet's pun on the saxophonist's name as 'Ornate Coldman', such joie-de-vivre shouldn't go unacknowledged. That virgin beauty is still as fresh today as it was twenty years ago.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Peter de Bolla, 'Art Matters' (2003)

Just finished reading Peter de Bolla’s ‘Art Matters’, having been meaning to look at it for several months after it was recommended to me by a tutor at university (who nevertheless had rather disparaging things to say about it). It’s an attempt to analyse the way we experience art (what he calls ‘the aesthetic experience’), through the author’s personal experience of three works (visual, aural, and verbal), out of which he attempts to draw some more general points. So, book-ended by an introductory and a concluding chapter, we are presented with writing on Barnett Newman’s ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, and William Wordsworth’s poem ‘We Are Seven’ (not forgetting an important discussion of British artist Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ in the first and final chapters).

The subject is a tricky, but fascinating and important one. De Bolla knows a lot more about it than me, but he doesn’t flash this knowledge about – there are few footnotes, and the references to critics and thinkers, such as Kant and Hegel, are sparsely spread out and very much to the point when they do appear. That said, one could criticise his style for being overly wordy, even needlessly impenetrable, setting a maze for itself through contorted syntax, nested clauses, and ‘clever’ wordplay. Here is one of the knottiest passages in the book, and the most glaring example of de Bolla’s facetious punning play on language, which I can’t help feeling rather gets in the way of his argument:
Consequently, in attending to something I am in effect making present presence, and in so doing I experience myself as being present to the object of attention…we may inattend to the unattended to, thereby attending to the unintended. In attending to the unintended through inattention, we make what we have previously kept out of attention sit up and attend to us, to our attentive gaze; we ask it to pay attention….An inquiry into inattention must be a call to attention of attention itself.
(Art Matters, pp.62-3)

I realise I may be being a little unfair in the example I’ve chosen, ripped out of context (it comes in the Bach chapter, from the preliminary section where de Bolla is talking about the way we listen to and concentrate on music). But – and this is precisely the main criticism by university tutor made about the book – de Bolla has the chance to articulate and make clear (as far as that is possible) some very complex and perplexing issues, to really grab the subject of aesthetics by the throat and force it to give up some of its secrets. He does this, but at times so obscures what he is doing through the self-consciously flashy manner of doing it. Yes, these are complex issues, I said that it in the previous sentence. But talking about them needn’t necessarily involve such fussy writing – it would still be possible to make them a little clearer, without compromising the meaning.

Another problem might be that de Bolla, while covering a fairly wide spectrum in the aural and verbal works he analyses – a twentieth-century Canadian pianist’s interpretation of an eighteenth-century German keyboard work (with references to twentieth-century American jazz musicians thrown in as well), and a (very late) eighteenth-century English poem – restricts his consideration of visual art to twentieth-century examples. While the canon of western music that is still listened to today is primarily a more recent phenomenon, covering the past three centuries or so, the visual canon as it remains a subject for discussion stretches further back. To talk about Newman, Quinn and the Chapmans is fine – and, indeed, is probably a far more difficult task than talking about more traditional art-works (abstraction is a tricky thing, and de Bolla manages to discuss it in an extremely perceptive manner) – but I did hanker after at least a mention of one of the Great Masters. How would de Bolla’s arguments pan out if he was talking about a work of art that represented something tangible, rather than simply existing in abstraction? I suppose he does this with the Marc Quinn – which is a life-size cast of a human head – but the modernity of that work (the materials used, the acknowledgment of its ephemerality and changing, decaying nature as the blood turns black and decays) still distances it somewhat from the canon.

Criticisms aside, what are the issues that arise during the book’s 150-odd pages. Briefly, I’ll touch on some of them: the more specific ones that arise from de Bolla’s consideration of the three individual works. The Barnett Newman chapter is concerned with serenity, and with scale: to an extant, de Bolla argues, the massive painting scales us, gives us an altered sense of scale and space, alters our sense of existing in its presence and thereby effects our sense of our own presence in relation to this.
Newman’s pictures overtly pose the question of distance; they ask the viewer to scale him- or herself as an act of witnessing the work. This requires the viewer to accept what I have called the necessity of reconciling two competing statements of presence: that made by the image and that announced by the viewer. In the reconciliation of these two positions the distance between viewer and canvas is all but erased, for the optimum point of sight is identical to the space occupied by the image, suggesting that the canvas itself is a part of the picture-seeing mechanism….What I see is seen under the auspices of what the image presents to sight, what it lets me see. Indeed, to put it one way, the pictures itself ‘sees’ me as much as I see it, and this is certainly a function of distance.
(Art Matters, p.51)

After this, Gould/Bach. Music is perhaps the hardest of the arts to talk about, in that there’s nothing really to grasp onto that will provide a method of entry into describing one’s experience of it (unless we’re talking about music with lyrics, I suppose). Works of literature are written in language, which signifies definite meanings (or, at least, which we expect to do so in everyday discourse – though of course poetry plays on and with the ambiguities inherent within words and syntax), and works of visual art more often than not deal with objects that correspond to something we might see in the world around us (as in the case of a still life, a landscape, or a portrait). But music is fundamentally abstract in comparison. Perhaps because of this, de Bolla’s chapter on Glenn Gould’s 1981 performance of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ (which, of course, I’ve written about myself, in a post previously published on this blog), is the weakest of the three considerations of individual works of art. It certainly sees him bring in the most contextual information, relating to Gould’s various idiosyncrasies, and, though I agree with his evaluation of the performance, I feel, far more so than in the other chapters, some rather sharp subjective jolts – ‘that’s just your opinion’; why do you define the state this provokes in you as ‘wonder’?

But moving, on we finally reach what is perhaps the pick of the three essays (saving the best for last): an analysis of Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’ that both is and is not a model exercise in ‘close reading’. De Bolla doesn’t really talk that much about specific linguistic features – his analysis tends to focus instead on the philosophical implications of a particular phrase. Rather than discussing rhyme, or rhythm, or syntax, he’ll worry away at a single line for several pages, talking about naming and numbering and the relation between words and reality, language and experience, a child’s and an adult’s perception of the world, of life and of death. It’s masterful, though not exhaustive (and not intended to be so), and leads on to some of the most important ideas/ conclusions in the book.

‘Thoughts that lie too deep for tears’ is a Wordsworthian phrase de Bolla picks up on, and he makes an important argument about what he thinks an aesthetic experience is not. It is not, as one might generally suppose, of feeling (though this is present, undeniably – de Bolla is, as he readily admits, talking about occasions when he was in a state of being ‘profoundly moved’ by works of art). But that is not the most important thing. The most trivial things can spark off torrents of emotion in different people – what de Bolla is primarily interested in is not the trigger to the individual, subjective emotional response that a work of art might provide, but in the knowledge that the artwork might have – knowledge about itself, about the world, even about the viewer. Seeking out art for solely emotional needs, then, leads to it becoming almost commodified (in de Bolla’s example: I’ll listen to Beethoven’s 3rd piano concert tonight in order to give myself (in order for it to give me) the feeling of elation familiar to me from that work – like an artistic happy pill).

In the final section, de Bolla talks about the aesthetic experience and the problems in defining it, for it is at once subjective yet rooted in the ‘art-ness’ of the work itself, which (as Michael Wood also argues in his ‘Literature and the Taste of Knowledge’), ‘knows’ something (though not in any propositional sense – it doesn’t ‘know’ easily-describable/utterable data). Yet to sense this sense/knowledge, we are still rooted (trapped) in the subjective – we can only perceive the quality inherent in the work of art from our own point of view. No two people can have the same aesthetic experience. It is not reproducible outside of oneself.

Perhaps it’s because of this that de Bolla resorts to using generalised words like ‘wonder’, ‘amazement’ and ‘spell-binding’. Perhaps it’s inevitable, something one just can’t get round once one reaches a certain point in the discussion of art. After all, even the resolutely taciturn Derek Bailey approaches the mystical when he talks about the ‘magical side’ to the sort of interaction encountered in free group improvisation (‘Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music’, p.112). Still, I’m a little sceptical of de Bolla’s resort to the word ‘wonder’ to define the essential quality of the aesthetic experience – at first, it seems a little randomly chosen, though I think he just about justifies its use by the time we reach the book’s conclusion. It’s about acceptance of solitude, arising from the subjective nature of the necessarily individual aesthetic experience, as outlined above – although I can convince someone else of the validity of my own experience, I can never convince them to share exactly the same experience. It’s also about sensing a knowledge that one can never quite grasp – the (great) artwork never quite gives up its secrets, and neither does the human condition, the condition of living in the world, the transience and ignorance of being human. Art helps us to accept this, at the same time as forcing us into thinking about it, exacerbating this thought – it tries to cure the wound it creates (or, at least, the wound it dis(un)covers, brings to light). This fragility, this keen balance, this disturbing quality, is what de Bolla so admires about Marc Quinn’s head-constructed-out-of-frozen-blood sculpture, ‘Self’ – though he carefully distances his appreciation of this work from the simple and short-lived ‘shock’ factor purveyed by artists such as the Chapman brothers, which leaves little of lasting value after the initial startling impact. There is, then, a distance/difference between ‘wonder’ and ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ – the latter being something which must necessarily end far sooner.
Confronted with something new and for which we are unprepared […] we find it very easy to accommodate the new and to render the force of the shock unremarkable. Wordsworth had a good phrase for that which takes a little longer; he called it the ‘shock of mild surprise’, and the milder the surprise, generally speaking, the more enduring the shock…Much contemporary visual art has the capacity to shock in spades: many of the works in the Saatchi Collection displayed at the 1998 Royal Academy ‘Sensation’ show would provide good examples – the sculptures produced by the Chapman brothers that distort the human body and displace the sexual organs come to mind –of how surprise quickly runs out of steam, loses it appeal, fades into the familiarity of being shocked.
(Art Matters, p.142)

It is on the state of wondering fragility, rather than shock, that de Bolla concludes. His is not a perfect book (more criticisms over at, but it is a valuable one, and timely too, in that it is becoming so common to read and hear misunderstanding definitions of the role and nature of art in modern society. Of course, our appreciation of art is to some extent ideologically driven – de Bolla doesn’t deny this, but he allows art its autonomy, its independence – he goes some way towards defining it what makes it art, its reason, mode, and method of existence. In the process he suggests the ways in which it can teach us some valuable lessons – and the most valuable lesson of all is perhaps that these lessons will be lessons in not knowing as much as in knowing.