Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The phantasm of linearity

It is sometimes said of Duke Ellington’s genius at composition and arrangement that he could “play his band like an instrument”. The appropriateness of this metaphor can only be gauged with experience, on hearing Ellington’s most shining pieces lushly interweave the breathtaking complexity of Bach with the riotous exuberance and carnal vivacity of early 20th century New Orleans. Ellington, along with Louis Armstrong, laid out the domain of jazz at its infancy, and gave it the form that dominates vast swathes of improvisational music to this day.

It took an iconoclast to strip this definition down to its barest bones. Working in isolation, misunderstood for large parts of his early career, Thelonious Monk demonstrated what it meant to pick a melodic line, play a variation and a half on it, flip it over, twist it beyond recognition, and then, with a half step, arrive right back at the original as if stepping through a magic lens of music. His protégé John Coltrane busted this simplicity into the voids of formlessness, and Ornette Coleman then showed what it meant to be truly free. With free jazz we knew – linearity was good, but it was only one dimension.

Music has progressed even further since then. Hancock and Shorter, the giants of our age, have become adept at playing both sides of the divide – flipping like card sharps between the heads of the melody and the pointed tails of musical quasi-anarchy. My first live exposure to this magic was a few years ago, at the encore of an already-perfect concert: Hancock, Shorter, Holland, and Blade. The band kicked up Footprints. And barely before my joy at hearing the theme had kicked in, they were playing with the tune like putty, teasing, twisting, and stretching it till I was convinced I was hearing the aural equivalent of a photographic negative of one of my all-time favorite tunes. It really was an experience beyond words.

Similar feelings rose to the surface last night as I sat transfixed before I’m Not There – the film that has been called a biopic, for want of a better word, about Bob Dylan. It is hardly that. The film takes the life, the music, and the myth of Dylan as its theme, the starting melody, as it were. It then holds up six, or seven, or whatever, lenses to this melody – think of these as members of Ellington’s orchestra. Each of these has a role to play, in that it provides its own particular peculiar distortion of the life, the music, and the myth. Hence we have the little Black juvenile runaway who calls himself Woody Guthrie, trading repartee with hobos in boxcars and licks with Richie Havens on a front porch, sitting with flowers by the deathbed of the one he named himself after. We have the outlaw Billy The Kid, elder statesman and yes, fugitive from Pat Garrett, pleading with Mrs. Henry and fighting to save the town of Riddle from the highway, yes, a highway, that must plow through its innards devastating the magical world of circus troupes, ostriches, and giraffes that inhabit it. We have the sullen young interviewee called Rimbaud, who mumbles crypticisms through the haze of cigarette smoke. We have the rebel from 1966 who gives the finger to the folk movement along with its greatest icon, his lover, and trips around England calling the Rolling Stones a groovy cover band and, buffooning around with Allen Ginsberg, yells at Jesus to “play your early stuff”.

Most devastatingly, we have the closest depiction of the “real” Dylan through the lens of the life of the actor who plays the character of Dylan in the movie within the movie; named, tellingly, Robbie. From documentary style interviews with his early superstar folk singing mentor and lover through a painstaking depiction of his relationship with his artist wife, a mélange of Suze Rotolo and Sara Lowndes, and their eventual break-up to the score of Idiot Wind, it’s all there in allegory. The one that got closest to the real him was the one that only had to pretend to be him.

The soundtrack of the film is stunning. Yes, there are extended sequences given over to the originals, where you can hear Idiot Wind, Hattie Carroll, One More Cup of Coffee, and Sara, lose yourself in the words, and reinterpret them in the context of the visuals. There is an ear-ravaging rendition of Maggie’s Farm at the Newport Folk fest and a surreal quasi-literal MTV video of Ballad of a Thin Man complete with the naked man and freaks and geeks. There are mind-blowing covers – Marcus Carl Franklin’s rendition of When My Ship Comes In is transfixing in the dual power of the lyrics and the realization that the delivery is by an eleven-year old; and Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, dresses as a sad clown and gives full weight to Going To Acapulco in one of the most hypnotic sequences I have ever seen. The rendition has stuck in my head, I woke up this morning with it swirling round my brain. And even where there is no song, there are allusions in the dialog. Some of it is clever; “The sun isn’t yellow, it’s chicken” comes across as particularly apposite in the midst of a drunk party sequence. Other times it’s scattered across the screen like so many herrings of various hues, for you to chase at your wont; comforting in the thought that they will appear anew on second and third viewings.

And the acting. It has been said that Cate Blanchett steals the show in her persona as the young rebel. Indeed, she is outstanding. There may sometimes be a fine line between acting and mimicry, and perhaps she went back and forth between the two, but for the vast majority of the only-forty minutes that she was on screen, she was compelling. I stand in awe of the imagination that conceived her in this role. However, magnificent as her performance was, there were others that drew blood as well. Julianne Moore was totally Joan Baez, Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale as their different Dylanavatars, Heath Ledger as Robbie, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire, all draw you in to the film entrancing you with the play of their various lenses. The underlying theme is one that we know -- the play on it, the stretching, flipping, twisting, and distorting of it is captivating: "fantastic", in every sense of the word.

In a previous review of a Dylan release, I had called his world “an old familiar place” and had concluded:

this isn’t about the words any more. it isn’t about meaning, or the message. this is about hypnosis. it’s about security… this isn't even about the music any more…this is about an hour long visit to an old friend’s place.

Last night I had that same feeling once again. I watched the film with a friend who has never really heard a single Dylan song in her life. The first thing she said as we came out of the theater was it reminded her of 8 ½. She mentioned the points at which this had struck her -- they were all spot on. We talked a bit about the film, I went over some of the major events in Dylan’s life, and she, with increasing excitement, made the connections with their representations in the film. As I was sitting there replaying the words, scenes, lines, and thoughts, I realized why I had been so in love with this man’s work when I was younger. I used to have the time to lose myself in it. These days I stand back and treat myself to it once in a while. But truly, it is an old, familiar, magical place in which to drown.

And as you lose yourself, all of it washing over you like the water over the young Woody in the movie, if you ever truly loved Dylan, you realize that two hours have passed as has half your life, and you continue to delight in not being there.


Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, "This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem."
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker's bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There's a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what's his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I'm gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell


Blogger Falstaff said...

'I Want You'. You forgot 'I Want You'. Also, that rendition of Tombstone Blues.

11/29/2007 1:54 AM  
Blogger BlogKut said...

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11/29/2007 4:34 AM  
Blogger wildflower seed said...

nice. truly.

cant wait to see this one just for the jim james cover. mmj rocks.

11/29/2007 6:05 AM  
Blogger Space Bar said...

I am very jealous of you guys getting to watch this and Across The Universe. TR, I totally see your point that the way to enjoy this film would be to see it as composition and not as biography - whatever that is in the context of someone as elusive as Dylan.

Falstaff/TR: Mumpsimus's take on the two films makes some interesting points.

Oh, and y'all know my wishlist? Anyone know how to rip DVDs off? Keep me in mind when you do.

11/29/2007 9:16 AM  
Blogger wildflower seed said...

"But truly, it is an old, familiar, magical place in which to drown."

been listening to a 1974 eyes. i know *EXACTLY* what you mean. :)

11/29/2007 11:38 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

true. also visions of johanna.

thank you, but i'll stick with laboring in quiet anonymity.

the bait worked :-D

space bar:
thanks for the link. the description of anthony lane's review as "flatfooted" is a bullseye - i came down on it in a comment over at szerelem's, and this is exactly how i felt.

wfs again:
there's no escaping good taste, is there?!

11/29/2007 12:57 PM  
Blogger km said...

Ah. Sweet.

So ladies and gents - does the search for the Great Musical Biopic continue?

11/29/2007 1:31 PM  
Blogger ??! said...

that must have been some concert. siiiigh...

11/29/2007 9:07 PM  
Blogger km said...

Did I hear someone WFS something about My Morning Jacket? Freaking awesome band.

11/29/2007 11:30 PM  
Blogger Renovatio said...

I've been listening to a lot of Glenn Miller these days, but reading this, I'm tempted to open this 56-86 Dylan scrapbook I've had lying on my bookshelf untouched for the last two years. I've heard all the music, numerous times, read all the articles, seen all the pictures, but I never truly read it.

I've downloaded and been listening to a lot of Glenn Miller's orchestra lately, which largely constitutes swing, but I do remember this Hancock and Shorter concert at Sriram last December, I wasn't particularly riveted.

11/30/2007 2:43 AM  
Blogger Renovatio said...

And I repeated myself there. Whoops

11/30/2007 2:44 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

I must see the movie, though in my part of the world it will have to mean ordering the DVD, I think...

Todd Haynes says he always intended to cast a woman as the pre-1966 Dylan, but was initially not sure who; but after a while Cate Blanchett was the obvious choice. He says (paraphrasing) we're used to the popular image of Dylan now, and can't really appreciate how new, striking, provocative he was at that time; and his form and stage presence were pretty androgynous.

11/30/2007 3:24 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks :-)
how about amadeus?

sure it was. as they say -- go see live music!

km again:
yep, someone's been indoctrinating me.

ouch. glenn miller? that's like the kenny g of the forties.
hancock and shorter are not easy listening -- can be *very* demanding stuff.

thanks for the link. it's a pity you have to buy the dvd to watch this -- not like hk where these things came cheap.

11/30/2007 11:09 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Have you read Chronicles?

11/30/2007 11:48 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

say more.

11/30/2007 9:04 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Kick-ass. The post rises to the level of the subject.


12/05/2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

I have a girl crush on Cate Blanchett. She's the one who can do no wrong. Must watch the film.

12/07/2007 5:12 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

wah! thanks!

and that would be the right thing to do.

12/10/2007 8:37 AM  

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