Friday, January 31, 2014

Philip und Johnny und Franz

It's my birthday today. It's also the birthday of Johnny Rotten from 70s British punk band, The Sex Pistols. And Franz Schubert was born on this day, too. It's a measure of how old I am, or am becoming, that I saw Mr. Rotten and his fellow musical scamps performing in a filthy club in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1977, when I was 15 years old. They were on the same bill as The Damned and another group whose name I can't remember. I was thrilled at the time by the loudness of the music, the absolute magnetism of Johnny Rotten, the pogo-ing throng occupying most of the dance floor (I was too timid to join in, and stood pressed against one of the side walls). I also remember that people were spitting so much at the performers -- considered a form of applause -- that they stopped the gig at one point to allow time for the guitarist to kick a few people in the front row, very hard, almost like a karate kick. This didn't seem to diminish the kicked people's enjoyment one little bit. The club had a very low ceiling, maybe only two feet above the Sex Pistols' heads, and I remember that all the sweat from the closely packed bodies in the room condensed on the ceiling and dripped back down onto performers and audience alike.

I imagine that the performing conditions for Franz Schubert in the salons of early nineteenth century Vienna were rather different. The music of The Sex Pistols and Schubert is about as far apart on the spectrum as you can go, too, without one or the other falling off the end of the chart. Yet that's the length of the line that I've travelled in my musical taste, too. If I heard "God Save the Queen" or "Anarchy in the UK" again, it would instantly bring back memories of my teenage years, but it's 'written down music' that I listen to almost exclusively these days. That's a phrase used by a college friend of mine who is a pianist and piano teacher: 'written down music', instead of 'classical music'. Probably for a few reasons: strictly speaking, the Classical period of so-called classical music ended more or less in the decade after Schubert's early death; and the phrase 'classical music' has so many cultural and social meanings, many of which get in the way of actually listening to the sounds.

Anyway, that's the music that I get most sustained pleasure from these days. But I've only recently come to like Schubert in more than just a superficial way. It's impossible to dislike Schubert, of course, because of the "endless melody", the simplicity of his songs, the attention to sonorities as much as harmony (the sounds the music makes, as opposed to the direction it takes). I've always liked listening to certain songs, piano sonatas, chamber music by Schubert, but it always seemed lighter than the Big Three of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. In the last few years, though, I've realized that there's more to it than pretty noises. I can't make a completely music-based argument for this, because I don't read a musical score that well, so this is more an argument based on feeling. But when I listen to some of his last music, like the B flat piano sonata, I hear something that sounds like melancholy mixed in with all that beauty. Schubert's music almost always sounds like singing, whether it's for voice or an instrument: someone singing for the moment, because they've had a sudden thought, or seen a beautiful thing, or because they're happy to be alive. Yet I also picture someone sitting at a piano, improvising these endless patterns of music out of the sheer joy of playing, and also being aware that none of this beauty can last forever, that the music has to stop at some point. In the Winterreise song cycle, Schubert expressly deals with coldness, loss, and death, but there are intimations of these things in his 'brighter' music too. Think of it this way: we expect that someone who is preoccupied with tragedy and the greatest contrast of existence (like Beethoven) to be turned into a sober human being. But think, too, about how someone who is dedicated to nothing but beauty feels when he realizes that it will all be taken away from him in the end. It's a smaller moment of self-realization than the sturm und drang of existence in a Fifth Symphony, but it's a completely human moment, too. This is the thorn in the rose of Schubert's music, I think: the sting, the thing that pierces even as it mesmerizes us.

Returning to the birthday thoughts: it often amuses me when Americans (as they do) say about dead people that, for example, "Today is Franz Schubert's birthday." I mean, dead people can't have birthdays, can they? They can have anniversaries of the day of their birth, but they can't have a birthday, with cake and candles and cards, and friends writing birthday wishes on Facebook. Yet maybe there is something to this quaint American custom. In a sense, they're treating the dead person as if they were still alive, as if they were still present, at least in our lives. So I'll wish the very much alive John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) a Happy Birthday:

And our absent friend Franz Schubert a gl├╝cklich geburtstags:

And may all our birthdays be filled with cake and music.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

W. B. Yeats on John Everett Millais' "Ophelia"

The second in a series of excerpts from writers talking about painters. This is from an essay called "Art and Ideas" (1913). It's drenched in Symbolist era nostalgic Romanticism, but then, it is Yeats, after all:

Two days ago I was at the Tate Gallery to see the early Millais's, and before his Ophelia...I recovered an old emotion. I saw these pictures as I had seen pictures in my childhood. I forgot the art criticism of friends and saw wonderful, sad, happy people, moving through the scenery of my dreams. The painting of the hair, the way it was smoothed from its central parting, something in the oval of the peaceful faces, called up memories of sketches of my father's on the margins of the first Shelley I had read, while the strong colours made me half remember studio conversations, words of Wilson, or of Potter, perhaps, praise of the primary colours, heard, as it may be, as I sat over my toys or a child's story-book.
I have had like admiration many times in the last twenty years, for I have always loved those pictures where I meet persons associated with the poems or religious ideas that have most moved me; but never since my boyhood have I had it without shame, without the certainty that I would hear the cock crow presently. I remembered that as a young man I had read in Schopenhauer that no man--so unworthy a thing is life seen with unbesotted eyes--would live another's life, and had thought I would be content to paint, like Burne-Jones and Morris under Rosetti's rule, the Union at Oxford, to set up there the traditional images most moving to young men while the adventure of uncommitted life can still change all to romance, even though I know that what I painted must fade from the walls.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What I Read Over Christmas

The Christmas and New year period seems to be one of the few times nowadays when I get the chance to read books from beginning to end, one after another. In the last two weeks, I read: a book of short stories by Rob Davidson, The Farther Shore; two novels by Paul Auster, "The Book of Illusions" and "Leviathan"; a novel by Haruki Murakami, "Kafka by the Shore"; and I'm nearly finished a short story collection by Junot Diaz, "This Is How You Lose Her." They are all realist fiction, apart from the Murakami, and they would probably all be considered literary fiction, too, though on reflection I'm not sure if that applies to Paul Auster's novels.

I read a beautiful memoir by Auster last summer, "Winter Journal," and I enjoyed the voice so much that it reminded me I had never read any of his fiction and that I should take steps to rectify the situation. Two novels duly appeared in my Christmas stocking. A slight disappointment followed. I thought they were very fluently written, but I was surprised that the stories were so plot-driven, particularly after the meditative and reflective writing in the memoir. "Leviathan" seems to me to be the better book, though again there was a lot of action coming at the expense of character.

Same thing with Murakami. His short stories are genuinely weird and original, like a combination between Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, and the flat affect of the narrative voice in "Less Than Zero," Bret Easton Ellis' first novel. The novel-length Murakami, however, seems to be toying with the reader's tolerance of coincidence, magical realism, and pages and pages of banal dialogue. There is also a tendency to arrive at Moments Of Great Significance, where the formerly ordinary characters make oracular pronouncements, like they're characters in a Star Trek movie, or The Matrix.

Junot Diaz is great, of course, no problems with him. But I have to say that the writing I enjoyed most, and which took me quite by surprise, was "The Farther Shore" by Rob Davidson. I met him last year, and Patty has been urging me to read the stories ever since. I finally started the collection, thinking I would read a few and come back to the book, and I ended up reading most of them in one sitting. They are very much in the Raymond Carver mold--ordinary lives in which things start bad and get much worse--and that is intended as a compliment and as the strongest possible recommendation that you should buy and read this book. More than one of the stories end in a similar way, with a moment of extreme and shocking violence, and then the story breaks off. It's something that Carver did a lot, this ending of the narrative suddenly, a literary device that also serves the realist principle of conveying the sense of lives interrupted and continuing before and after the telling. But Davidson ups the ante even more, putting the reader in touch with sensations that are more like Jacobean tragedies than the conventional short story.

The stories reminded me of two things I've read about recently: Tolstoy saying (approximately) "Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story"; and Junot Diaz telling young writers to spend the first part of a story building the house, and the second half of the story burning it down. So again, I urge you to seek this collection out. I promise you'll never meet a better literary arsonist.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Why "12 Years A Slave" is like "Schindler's List," but in a crucial way Isn't

From left: Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Chiwetel Ojeifor
It's been three weeks since I saw "12 Years A Slave" by British director Steve McQueen. It's taken me this long to muster the strength to write about my response to it.

Whether you've seen it or heard about it, you've probably got an opinion about the story, and possibly about the way the story is told. I'm going to assume that most people reading this accept the truth of the story. But I also suspect that even people of a liberal persuasion (not the sort of people who call the Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression") might hesitate about seeing this film, because of the extremely upsetting depiction of the racial violence. To wit: the kidnapping of a free man, a real person called Solomon Northup, upon whose memoir the film is based; a savage beating on his first night of captivity; a transported slave being knifed to death and tossed into the ocean; grown men, women, and boys routinely being slapped and kicked; families being split up; a lynching where you see the hanged men's feet shaking in their death throes; a slow, almost-lynching torture scene where the central character dangles by his neck for most of a day, his toes only just touching the ground; the rape of a slave girl; and in the most horrifying scene of all, the slave girl being whipped almost to death by Solomon Northup, and Epps the maniacal slave-owner. That last scene in particular exemplifies the method of the film: keeping the camera fixed on the action, not moving a lot (except for one stomach-wrenching pan halfway through the whipping), building up the tension within the scene in an almost forensic way, and above all refusing to flinch from showing the worst sort of people doing the worst sort of things.

As I said, if people feel that they need to steel themselves to see this film, in the knowledge that it is extremely uncomfortable to watch, they are quite right. I think everyone should see it, or at least that its audience should extend beyond the "art house" category that it occupies. But that doesn't mean that someone's hesitation should be dismissed as a lack of moral fibre. In some ways, the film makes demands on the viewer that are not just bound up with the subject matter, but also with the way in which it's made. Steve McQueen is a conceptual artist who makes narrative films that still bear the stamp of art world video making. He made "12 Years A Slave" using only one camera, many of the takes are long, scenes are often framed with central perspective, and shot head on, with minimal camera movement, so that you are able to look longer at faces, objects, landscapes, and action. Many of those technical points are used within "art video" to play against the idea of narrative, which often is difficult to watch because it is tedious. McQueen uses similar techniques in this film to make a narrative that is difficult to watch because there is so little distance between the viewer and the violence.

Here is where I began to think about the comparison with Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Both films tell a story about one of the most horrific acts of mass murder in human history. Both films depict acts so repellent that you almost look away from the screen sometimes. Both films, however, were also made within the world of commercial film-making, with financing, studio backing, and therefore some awareness of selling tickets to a paying audience. In each case, I have no doubt that the writers and director grappled with the problem of how much violence to show to an audience so that it conveys the desired emotions, without descending into the disgusting schlockiness of horror films. Simultaneously, there is the problem of how much you can mitigate that violence without sentimentalizing the story or drawing a veil over the crimes.

In McQueen's case, there is definitely artfulness in the story. Most of the time you don't notice the camera position, framing, lighting, and so on, but it's all there if you look for it. Spielberg is, of course, far more advanced than McQueen in the technical aspect of film making, but the criticism that is often leveled at him when he turns to "serious" subjects is that he can't help sweetening the pill at some point. It's as if he's always afraid of pushing an audience too far in case they walk out of the theatre. Or that in the ends he still wants you to like him as a great director, so you will turn up for his next movie. He largely avoided these compromises in "Schindler's List," though not entirely: for example, during the great sequence showing the clearing of the ghetto, he can't help picking out a little girl from the black and white film by temporarily colouring her coat in a stand-out red. The real difference between "Schindler's List" and "12 Years A Slave"  is underlined by the ending of "Schindler's List." The last shot of Spielberg's film shows some of the surviving people whom Schindler helped save from the Nazis, walking towards camera over a hilltop. At the very least, this seems to be Spielberg emphasizing that there is hope, even after something as awful as the Holocaust.

McQueen, on the other hand, refuses to offer the audience any comfort at all. Solomon Northup may be reunited with his family at the end, but it cannot erase the shame of what came before: the shame that the slave holding class deserves, the shame that the slaves endured, and our shame for being temporary witness to that history. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said: This was a crime committed in broad daylight. And nearly everyone got away with it.

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