The Walking Dead of Pop Music

In our culture, so many great pieces of music are buried in the middle of the night, without any fanfare, while meaningless songs of the walking dead haunt our airwaves day after day.  Sometimes when I accidentally catch the radio, it reminds me of the movie Weekend at Bernie’s.  Corpses, dead on arrival, are propped up and paraded around, made to look as if they are alive in some way.  Those parading this music around are salesmen and women, knuckle dusting promotors, and other hucksters of various stripe.  They have skin in the game, and they will make sure something that never was now is, for their benefit, through controlling the means of promotion and distribution.  How many songs on the radio that were nothing but mere product in their time, now are brought around like some puppet king on the backs of slaves and called “classics”?  How many new songs, that blur the lines between pop music and commercial soundtrack, are forced upon the masses until the collective subconscious can’t escape them?

There is no other art form right now where the gap between what is popular and what is great is so far apart.  The chasm is an “ancient ocean wide”.  While the movie industry still rewards many worthy movies, like 12 Years a Slave, that might not have reached a mass audience if those in power didn’t support them, the record companies push those that are slumming it to the top of the hill.  While TV has made audiences fall in love with long complex stories that often reward repeated viewing, the record industry has let the album, music’s greatest form, fall further and further into the abyss.

If I am beating on an ancient drum over and over, out in the wilderness where few can hear me, it is for one reason and one reason only:  These things matter…

The Transcendent Quality of Music

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

Cheating With Strings

I’m watching the movie Amistad for the second night in a row.  I’m only about 90 minutes in, as I fell asleep the first night, and it is pretty slow going.  I can’t really critique a movie that I’ve only seen half of though.  It very well might have an excellent second half.  There have also been movies that I have found slow that come together magnificently in the end.

I think though that a movie’s first goal should be to entertain.  A song’s first goal should be to create great music.  No matter how noble an idea is, it needs to work as art first.  12 Years a Slave is incredible, because it manages to fire on all cylinders.  It is telling a story that needs to be told, but it is telling it in a way that is incredibly emotionally involving.  I think if you want to move minds you need to move the heart first.

Another thing I noticed while watching Amistad is there were several moments in the first half where the music tried to make you feel something that wasn’t earned.  One of the worst movies I have ever seen, Mr. Holland’s Opus, consistently tries to make melodrama mean more than it does by laying on syrupy strings.  In 12 Years a Slave, I am referencing that because I just saw it, the score is almost minimal.  When it does come in it deepens the emotion that you are already feeling because the storytelling and performances are already so powerful.  Too many times movies try to cheat with a score.

Anyway, again, I am not really trying to critique Amistad, because I haven’t finished it yet.  What I have seen isn’t horrible, it’s just merely average.  However, I wanted to touch on the above ideas while they were still fresh.

I never did end up finishing the movie last night as I was extremely tired.  I did find a section towards the middle of the movie highly compelling.  There is a scene that is largely wordless, aside from background dialogue, which documents the horrors on the slave ship.  This segues directly into a slave auction, again with very little foreground dialogue, where we watch dandy whites dressed in light colors bidding on slaves.  That section seemed to convey the whole horror and absurdity of slavery through mere images.  I only wished that what I had seen before that was orchestrated with such expertise.  

12 Years a Slave Review

12-years-slave-poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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