Saturday, March 25, 2017

Malick's "Song to Song": A Moral Tale for Our Times

Like many, Terrence Malick had me at Days of Heaven, the innovative 1978 film that introduced us to his exceptional visual art. I make a point of seeing most of his movies shortly after they are released. My review of To the Wonder is here: I was excited to see his latest offering, Song to Song, at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis.

One normally associates moralizing with the spoken, not the visual. But Song to Song, a work of many images and few words, is sneakily moralistic. As with most Malick films, the narrative thread is sparse and the meaning of the movie therefore remains wholly obscured until the end. Startling eye candy, at times overlaid with transporting music, initially led me to believe I was simply viewing a large-screen version of Architectural Digest.

As promised, the movie is an exploration of the Austin, Texas music scene and presents cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, Flea, and Patti Smith. The ensemble cast includes Ryan Gosling (BV), Rooney Mara (Faye), Michael Fassbender (Cook), Natalie Portman (Rhonda), Cate Blanchett (Amanda), Holly Hunter (Miranda), and Val Kilmer (Duane)—and other Hollywood stars were left on the cutting room floor. (While the characters' names are perhaps discernible from the script and film, they were hard for me to catch and I’ll just reference the characters by using the actors’ names.)

Given Malick’s proclivities, it was not a surprise that shots within sequences often lasted only seconds and were no doubt shuffled, at times perhaps randomized, before being sewn together. The stunning beauty of nature and man’s ordered world—at one point Fassbender’s character says “it is staged,” or words to that effect—suffuses the film and lulls us into thinking that the movie is headed nowhere. At times I assumed it was just a boring cinematographic tour de force. But evil and misfortune are stealthy and the penalties of sin are not paid at its inception. What are these people doing? They are doing what rock stars, those that leach off of them, and those that hang around them usually do: living haughty lives of sex, drugs, and money, claiming immunity to the gravity of humanness and life.

Natalie Portman’s character, who enters as a svelte waitress, gives in to lust and easy money by taking up with the devilish Fassbender, a musical agent. In getting something for nothing, she in a way embraces her own death. Rooney Mara’s character, who buffets about the same world, meets a different fate. Why? Chance? Perhaps. Or it could be that this work really does have a moralistic engine and the fact that she first earned her way to her station as a receptionist for the Fassbender character, plays a role in the tale. She was not plopped in the mix deus ex machina as Portman’s character was. Or it may simply be that the Mara's character is made of sterner stuff, as her various misadventures seem to show.

The mothers, fathers, wives, and Patti Smith point the moral way. Rooney Mara’s father questions his daughter’s choices in the subtlest and most skillful of manners—skillful because it’s the type of gentle inquiry and guidance that gains purchase only with time. The tenderness she feels for her father is conveyed by one shot where she runs her fingers along a door or window while in her father’s presence. We're being told that the goodness of parental love lies within her and it is perhaps this that prepares her to receive more direct guidance from another source, Patti Smith, who, playing herself, serves as the crucial moral anchor by telling Rooney Mara to fight for what she loves: Gosling. Gosling’s mother sees the dangers of the moneyed world and protects her son. Gosling’s father is not known to the audience before his death, but it is hinted that his pre-mortem guidance plays a role in Gosling’s salvation. Unfortunately, Natalie Portman’s mother questions her daughter’s choices with less success.

Like lightning at a picnic, the tragedy comes as a surprise while everyone is debauching in their usual manner. Honied mushrooms are the leading suspect.

Malick’s usual style, one which uses pictures, not words, improbably accommodates highly moralistic messages about the catalog of human sin:
  • Don’t hang with evil
  • Beauty without spirituality is hollow
  • The rewards of life must be earned
  • Punishment does not always vest at the time of sin
  • Beauty is cunning, baffling, and powerful
  • If something’s so nasty that you have to coat it with honey to make it palatable, it’s bad for you
  • Follow love. Don’t let it go, even if the path is hard.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"Just Kids" -- Just Fantastic

“Just Kids,” Patti Smith’s 2010 National-Book-Award-winning memoir of her early life in New York City and her relationship with famed artist Robert Mapplethorpe, shows Smith to be a writer and storyteller of the highest order. The book succeeds in varied ways: it works as a snapshot of the artist community in the 1960’s and 70’s; as autobiography; as a portrait of the starving young artist; as homage.

The story is an interesting one, describing how Smith, a legend of 70’s punk rock, comes to her chosen medium as a musical artist. The descriptions of her early youth point to a difficult struggle, with poor, but loving parents. Late in the memoir, she discusses going home and mentions that her “father read us Plato”—obviously an interesting untold story there—so her youth must have been blessed with a family that appreciated learning and knowledge. She talks about reading Rimbaud while working in a Philadelphia textbook factory, so again, not a standard trajectory.  She arrives in New York City in 1967 after a stint in college that ends when she gets pregnant. She gives the child up for adoption and reaches the city with not much more than a waitress uniform that her mother has given her—though she promptly abandons the uniform, recognizing that her quest is to be an artist.

Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe is rich and touching. Two young artists meet, form a strong bond, struggle together and apart, and gradually circle in on their chosen m├ętiers. Smith’s discussion of her reaction to Mapplethorpe’s emerging homosexuality is candid and contradictory—she understands and regrets at the same time. She describes a powerful bond with Mapplethorpe, one that survives everything and endures breakups, reunions, love triangles, separations, and growing apart.  

The description of the New York City art scene is replete with all the names. But one is never left with the feeling that the work is an exercise in self-glorifying namedropping. Smith did have the relationship with Mapplethorpe; she did have a relationship with Sam Shepard and write a play, "Cowboy Mouth," with him; and she did hang out with Warhol, Joplin, Hendrix, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. This was not someone who was on the outskirts of the social scene and is struggling to come up with anecdotes about the leading artists of the time: they were all around her, particularly during her stay at the famous Chelsea Hotel.

Most interesting to me was the description of how she came to music as her professional medium. Her early years are described as ones bathed in reading, drawing, visual art, and poetry. While Mapplethorpe slowly zeroes in on photography, Smith attends a Jim Morrison concert at which she realizes that she can do what Morrison does on stage. But her youthful connections to music are occult as far as the reader is concerned, and this perhaps adds to one’s wonder that her path leads her to be a musician. It's a public poetry reading she gives with offbeat guitar accompaniment that gets the ball rolling—and it never stops. Her self-discipline is remarkable. Early on she is offered a record deal, but turns it down. This is a mysterious and wise move. She apparently recognizes that her life in art would benefit from more preparation and she shuns an early sell out.

The language of the book is beautiful. Smith speaks with precision and a simplicity of language that is schooled, not naive. The occasional rare or obscure word, always used out of necessity, shows her facility as a writer. Mostly this is a narrative story, a story about her lover and friend Mapplethorpe, so she uses simple language and eschews the highfalutin. Phrases and sentences can be wonderful: “We played similar games, declared the most obscure object treasure, and often puzzled friends and acquaintances by our indefinable devotion.” Or: “I learned from him that contradiction is often the clearest way to truth.” Smith is a skilled writer and storyteller.

This is a touching, lovely remembrance. It is a rewarding read and it further cements by deep admiration for Patti Smith.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ein Mensch on International Women's Day: Patti Smith at Northrop Auditorium -- March 8, 2017

There were two startling things during Patti Smith's Wednesday night concert at the Northrop. The first was that she repeatedly spat on the floor of the stage. The second was that, yes, she really did break guitar strings during the concert's concluding number. While neither of these would have surprised my friend Snag, a Patti Smith devotee, I never really had much of a connection to her music in my youth, so was caught a bit off guard.

Patti Smith Performing "Birdland"
I knew who she was, had heard "Gloria" and "Because the Night," but never understood the encomiums. The fact that the "in set" admired her greatly back then didn't do much for me. But this concert was very interesting on many levels.

In preparation for the concert I had both listened to a 70-minute interview from a 2012 Danish music festival ( and purchased and read "Just Kids," her account of her young life in New York with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. My explorations revealed a centered, likable, and virtuous woman. I was quite surprised to discover that she was incredibly kind, good, well read, and versatile. I had not known that she had won the National Book Award for "Just Kids" and I greatly admired its simple language and skillful storytelling.

So the thing I am struggling with is how a centered philosopher puts on a stage show full of all-consuming passion. I haven't solved this incongruity. Except perhaps to accept that we all have our different sides. I'm a careful professional, but put me on a dance floor and all bets are off--I become utterly carefree. Maybe it's the same thing. The interview above touches on that point at its beginning and Smith quotes Whitman in asserting that we all have many different sides to our personalities.

I've attended many vocal performance of aging performers and Smith's voice was simply the best facsimile of a voice from 40 years ago that I have ever heard. Easily so. She was closely mic'd and for most of the concert I could detect very little difference between her voice on the 1977 version of "Horses" and her voice now. She was particularly strong during the highest-intensity stretches of "Gloria," "Birdland," and "Horses." Her near-manic demeanor during fast parts of "Birdland" and "Horses" was captivating. The voice of this woman in her eighth decade of life is amazing.

Violence Against Guitar Strings
After the songs from the "Horses" album, she also performed songs from her "Easter" album, including, "Ghost Dance," and, predictably, "Because the Night." Prince's "When Doves Cry," was sung at a slow pace. A short false start on "Citizen Ship" gave rise to a tight second take.

The most remarkable thing about Patti Smith the performer is her intensity when she's riffing on her own lyrics. Total immersion. The heat of the hot part of the sun. And this intensity led to a question that popped in my head at the beginning of the last number, "My Generation," as she donned a guitar for the first time: How does the passionate spontaneity inherent in guitar smashing jive with the premeditation necessary to carry it out? At the point she put on the innocent, shiny guitar, I said to myself, "Lord God, please don't allow this marvelous septuagenarian to smash the guitar." Well, she didn't. She manufactured lots of feedback; she broke the strings one by one, tossed them aside; but she avoided any nasty splinters by sparing the guitar. Ultimately, she did not behave, but she tempered her defiance with love--and made a comment to that effect that suggested why it was that the guitar's sentence was commuted.

One sign of good art is that it leaves you with unanswered questions. I left asking myself several: Is the performer's persona real or an illusion? What does it mean to be an aging artist? How do intensity and spontaneity co-exist in performance art? It was an amazing show. Too bad Snag missed it.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.