Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World

We like to call it serendipity, a happy coincidence of our senses, but elevated, you know?  

Okay, so maybe there is a touch of intellectual intent driving the rhythms, orchestrating and controlling the flow that would otherwise be just public frenzy. 

Delayed by the garbage people insist on throwing in my path, I set out this morning to catch up on the accumulated recommendations piling up in the corners of the Computer Turret.  Midway through the sorting process, I came upon this trailer to Bill Morrison's The Miners' Hymns which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in a new section category, Viewpoints, meant to capture the essence of international independent cinema.

It was directed by TFF veteran Bill Morrison, who also gets a writing credit, along with Jóhann Jóhannsson and David Metcalfe.  

{sniff::sniff}  I smell something plural.

You'd have to know my academic history to understand my happiness at the reviews I called up in my search for this works' background -- but I'll spare you that.  Somewhere out there a dissertation director is reaching for Maalox and cursing the interdisciplinary.

First, I found a review for Jóhannsson's score.  The visual element was clearly considered a handy (and gosh-darned impressive) appendage for the music.

Next up was a review by a veteran film festival go-er that wondered much at the skilled manipulation of archived film, all nicely buttressed by an unobtrusive sound track.  Morrison has produced awesome work from such oddities as damaged film stock (Decasia, 2002), so keep an eye out for new trickery hums the hum. The rogue even resorts to enhancing deterioration, quoi!


It's a beautiful conversation.

This is the TFF Guide synopsis:

Filmmaker Bill Morrison is one of the leading international artists working within the genre of found footage filmmaking. In his previous work, like The Highwater Trilogy (TFF '06) and Release (TFF '10), he often uses shots replete with signs of chemical deterioration and decay. He then refashions these images via digital processing techniques into meditations on the fragility of human existence. InThe Miners' Hymns, Morrison shifts his emphasis from decaying footage to stunning black-and-white images that have been preserved in the British National Film Archives. From this raw material, Morrison artfully constructs a story of British coal miners at work below the surface of the earth, together with their vibrant, close-knit community above ground. Morrison intercuts this material with color footage that he himself filmed. These contemporary aerial landscapes of nondescript shopping malls and empty fields of green cover over the now-abandoned collieries situated in Northeast England.  
Morrison's compelling narrative pays tribute, in an emotionally moving and formally elegant fashion, to a vanished era of 20th-century working-class life. An original score by avant-garde Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson enriches this tale with a heartrending, elegiac tone.
While the film may have debuted at Tribeca, the music aired earlier.  With all the baggage of a separate-but-equal world view of the genres, FatCat Records had this to say about Jóhannsson's beautiful work:

Icelandic-born composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s debut album for FatCat’s 130701 imprint, ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ is a brand new film score from a hugely exciting collaborative project based around the weighty subject matter of the ill-fated mining community in North East England. A fine addition to Jóhannsson’s acclaimed release history, the album moves from suitably dark and brooding minimalism to moments of rousing transcendence, and showcases the composer's ability to effortlessly unite the haunting with the beautiful. With the majority of previous 130701 releases based around piano and string recordings, ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ is the first to focus on predominantly brass-based material. 
Originally presented as a live performance at Durham Cathedral over two nights in July 2010, ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ album is the result of a collaboration between Jóhann and highly regarded American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, whose stunning 2002 film ‘Decasia’ (composed from damaged film stock) was described by The Village Voice as “the most widely acclaimed American avant-garde film of the fin-de-siecle”. Says Jóhann of Morrison’s work: “I liked his aesthetic. His work reminded me of the kind of footage I use for my concerts, these abstract, blurry super-8 textures. His films deal with decay and memory, which are themes I work with a lot also, so there was a lot of common ground before we started.”
‘The Miners’ Hymns’ project was initially commissioned for Durham County Council’s 'Brass: Durham International Festival,' which incorporated the Durham Miners' Gala into a programme celebrating the culture of mining and the strong regional tradition of brass bands. Once the biggest trade union festival in Europe, attracting up to a quarter of a million people, the annual Gala continues despite the fact that coal is no longer mined in a county that was built on it.

You must forgive me.  I appreciate conversation, the back-and-forth of things;  I absolutely delight in it.
We often refer to collaboration between artists, and consider the result some kind of easy symbiosis.  

It's a work;  It's work, a separate third [fourth fifth sixth] creation, with requirements.

The music, in this case, was written before Morrison began the choice and assemblage of film footage.  He set the images "to" the music and then forwarded these esquisses to the composer who sketched and fiddled with them, and so on, playing the evocative tensions of sight and sound.  Process! Juicy process! 

True enough, far too many collaborations come to nothing more than a substantial sandwich, the process mostly trims and chops, academic draconian measures and sleights of hand.  The assemblage is lent heft and anchored by the insertion of a third bun, say -- the fancified architecture of a Big Mac.  Or the whole is brought to manageable submission by the steady coercive force of a "panini" press. 

It's still a sandwich. 

Trust me. I lived for decades on a subsistence diet of julienned ephemera, frenched histories, and matchsticks of reconstituted discursive crudités. Under the interrogator's prop of a hanging naked light bulb, I *made* those recalcitrant deaf-mute genres talk, God damn it.

The cure for my thick and smarmy goings-on?  The work, itself.  I've lost the reference but someone rightly introduced it as an homage -- not to music about, text on, or film of, but to the miner's of North East England, and to North East England, itself.

So.  Right.  {a::little::embarrassed::half-swallowed::cough::action}

Here's a trailer to The Miners' Hymns, featuring The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Two Years Ago Today: How I introduced a NYT editorial by comparing President Obama to Gustave Flaubert

Good evening, Dear Readers. How are you? If you are politically progressive and passionate about our various social dialogues, you are likely tired, hot, and your brain may actually hurt -- despite assurances of that impossibility.

If you shake your head, wondering if it will ever end, I've the answer you seek: No. It will never ever end!

Here's a piece whose frenzy I cannot even now calm enough to edit -- published two years ago today. This is what some of us were talking about at the end of July/beginning of August 2009.

One day we will dance to new tunes -- no chorus of agreement, but jazzed impromptu pieces of elevated discourse. I promise.  For now, cool your neck with a bag of frozen peas and put your feet up.


I spent a fair piece this afternoon writing an introduction to a New York Times editorial. [If you search for "fair piece," alone, on Google, you end up staring at articles and blog posts about Sarah Palin and the piece about her in Vanity Fair. Couch it as a "southernism," though, and you'll get the usual definition of "a long distance." I use it, however, to mean "a good portion of."]

The editorial was by Bob Herbert, and entitled "Anger has its place."

You can stop laughing now, because after about three hours of writing, I figured out that Bob Herbert, of the New York Times editorial board, has no need of me or my introduction to his editorial.

It just resonated with me and I wanted to shake and shiver, in hearty resonation, in return.

Resonate, as a verb without object: to reinforce oscillations because the natural frequency of the device is the same as the frequency of the source.

I suppose that if someone were to beg, I would publish my introduction to Bob Herbert's editorial. It has to do with how I think President Obama is displaying flaubertian tendencies.

I should be more precise about the Obama to which I refer. It is the Obama addressing the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. but not the Obama who said that the Cambridge Police Department "acted stupidly." No, I mean the one who came later, who was apologetic over his language, and to whom Herbert is responding when he writes:

The president of the United States has suggested that we use this flare-up as a “teachable moment,” but so far exactly the wrong lessons are being drawn from it — especially for black people. The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill.

I have nothing but contempt for that message.

The call to "chill" went out in various forms, and not just on that highfalutin' level, nor restricted to some African-American conversation. As I noted in my unpublished introduction to the above:

I've been tongue-tied ever since President Obama backed off from his comments about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. Not at peace, not relaxed, no! I've been in a kind of Knot Frenzy.

Even the wise old leftists hanging out on Margaret and Helen's front porch (drinking the hard lemonade) felt obliged to shush people talking about the Cambridge professor's run-in with the law -- because it was detracting from the national dialogue about health care reform.

Some part of me wanted to remind everyone of Obama's promise to treat us, the citizenry of the United States of America, as adults, presumably able to think about, and discuss, more than one pressing issue at a time.

Another part of me apparently wanted to blather on about Gustave Flaubert.

[And in other news, the old women on the porch proceeded to call La Bonne et Belle Bianca Castafiore a TROLL: See Gramiam's comment on July 21, 2009 at 1:10 PM. After much weeping and gnashing of teeth (at least she *has* teeth), The Castafiore let them have it. She wrote: "I am not a troll!"

Chill, indeed. I think not!]

The President should have let his comment stand. Or maybe, better that he should have sharpened his point, because, yes, I guess "stupidly" was not le mot juste.*

*There should be the clangclangclang of the trolley in the background, not just the quiet introit of a lousy asterisk: There, there. That was the precise moment when my mind was hijacked by the thought of the nineteenth-century novelist, Gustave Flaubert. Why? Because it is to him that I attribute le mot juste, or, more correctly, le seul mot juste. Whether the attribution is more than just some excuse made by my subconscious, I cannot say. It's not like Flaubert is the author of the phrase. Someone somewhere (all right, it is Richard Goodman, in The soul of creative writing) notes that he also says "le mot propre," but that "that didn't seem to catch on."

Not a troll. And not running loose entirely without a clue, either.

Imagine Flaubert writing the scene -- Gates and Crowley would be forever dancing their dance, trapped in the imperfect. Gates would forever tell us what was happening to black men in America, forever ask the question that we all assume, each in our telling way, to be either figurative or literal: Is this how you treat a black man in America?

Drop the -ons from the nous form of the present indicative, and add -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez,

Flaubert would not let the narrative advance. Who knew that Obama had flaubertian tendencies? Or perhaps teachable moments are best preserved in amber, frozen in resin? What, so we can teach them, learn them, again? It's a decidedly pessimistic view.

I have never before used the word flaubertian, and particularly not as an intrusion into a discussion of racial disparity. Still, I was shocked at the discussion I found in the "ask the teacher" section of an ESL forum. Philipgary71 kicked the session off by asking, "Looking to see how 'Flaubertian' can be used in a sentence... I was asked about the usage of Flaubertian in a sentence. I have no idea how to give meaning to the above save for the fact that Gustave Flaubert may very well be associated with describing a situation as 'Flaubertian.' Would that mean 'flowery'. 'romantic', 'convoluted'? Any ideas? Thanks." That was on 21-Oct-2005, at the ungodly hour of 04:58.

If I want to be precise.

Like how Herbert found that "[t]he 911 call came in at about 12:45 on the afternoon of July 16 and, as The Times has reported, Mr. Gates was arrested, cuffed and about to be led off to jail by 12:51." L'heure juste.

But it wasn't quite what Philipgary71 meant to say, so he said, again on 21-Oct-2005, with the added wisdom of 21 minutes, at 05:19: "I am lookiing to see how 'Flaubertian' can be used in a setence. The only thing I can come up with is Gustav Flaubert's writing and how that would describe a feeling....Would that be flowery. romantic, gothic; or, any other ideas you can come up with?? Thanks."

Convoluted has become gothic, a brilliant evolution. Spelling has fallen by the wayside. And style is distilled to how a feeling might be described. As if Gustave Flaubert were a man of sentiment, as if the preeminence he granted to style were grounded in feeling, in his particular experience of sentience! (Of course, he was, and it is, but try telling him that!)

The Bovary bored Flaubert. He said, plainly enough, that it was a book "about nothing," that held together "only by the force of style." Do you remember Emma spinning and twirling as she waltzed and waltzed? Flaubert set her movement in eternity; He wrote her and her story in an unending flow of sliding and gliding in 3/4 time. That's what Proust so admired.

But really? More importantly? His style was the centrifugal force that kept the illusion going, that made the country ball even possible. That which is flaubertian is what keeps Madame Bovary from becoming the work of a dilettante.

His contempt for his characters is perfect. They are stupid, caught in, and not even struggling against, the web of his style. Sympathy and cruelty, perfect neutrality.

There it is again. Oh, the pure heft of my subconscious! There's some pretty doggone fine work that goes on in my brain.

Yes, I am mad enough at Obama to villainize him as sharing the genius of Gustave Flaubert, who -- brilliant on a dare -- turned substance into style.

It's the [old] tease that neutrality, perfected, ought to be the goal, the altar against which we can finally lean, and rest.

I have nothing but contempt for that message.
Take it away, Bob Herbert.