Playing Pärt

Playing Pärt

Playing Pärt

Directed and filmed by Dorian Supin
Release date: October 12, 2012

In 2011, the Old Town Music School of Collegium Educationis Revaliae and the International Arvo Pärt Centre put on a student concert of Pärt’s music at St Michael’s Church in Tallinn. Playing Pärt documents both this historic performance and the rehearsals leading up to it, supplemented by interviews with the composer and his wife, Nora.

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Said concert is a charming, in-depth survey of Pärt’s legacy, and of the beauty that gives it resonance. Many pieces on the program will be familiar to ECM listeners: organ works Trivium and Pari Intervallo (the latter arranged here for four guitars), Da Pacem Domine (arranged for four recorders), and the solemn Für Alina are standouts among them. Spiegel im Spiegel, for its balance of tension and prayer, is another. Throughout, a quiet respect prevails by way of a “local” feeling that cannot be replicated in the international concert hall. These melodies, however familiar, paint even more direct lines to the heart when so endearingly performed. Like fragrances in sound, they waft through the senses, following ancient channels of memory even while forging new ones.

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Delightful surprises abound. First and foremost are “The Cycle of Four Easy Dances,” from the 1959 collection Music for Children’s Theatre, including the rarely heard “Butterflies” and the evocative “Dance of the Ducklings,” replete with dissonant splashes of webbed feet. Just as alluring is “I’m Already Big,” a children’s song composed when Pärt was a student. The focus on youth feels as poignant as it does inevitable, and makes indelible impressions in such choral settings as Veni Creator (a 2006 commission from the German Bishops’ Conference), Bogoróditse Djévo (a 1990 commission from Cambridge King’s College Choir, based on a Church Slavonic hymn to the Virgin Mary), and Vater Unser (composed in 2005 and based on a German translation of the Lord’s Prayer), for which the composer at the piano accompanies a quartet of singers.

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Other highlights are Ukuaru Waltz, originally composed for the film Ukauru (1973, dir. Leid Laius) and performed on two chromatic kannels (plucked zithers), the aleatoric Diagramme (Pärt’s opus 11), and Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, a solo piano piece composed in 1977 while daughter Ariina was recovering from an appendix operation. Trepidations and hope of light breathe through every note.

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Yet it’s in the rehearsals where Pärt’s humilities come out in full attendance. More than providing insight into the mind of a world-renowned composer, they reveal the soul of a man whose entire concept of art is nothing without faith in eternity. He understands the quality of sound, and the beauty of it being played with heart. If anything, and for that very reason, he’s more demanding of the children’s pieces, which in all their etudinal simplicity allow the interpreter’s soul to resound. During a rehearsal of “Butterflies,” for instance, he says, “It’s essential for the music to have some kind of secret. That’s the case of the butterfly as well. It’s a mysterious creature.” For him, the rudiment is sacred.

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His music has materiality, and he treats it accordingly. Whether stressing the positions of a pianist’s hands while playing Für Alina or chiding himself for inclusion of inappropriate dynamics in the original score to “Dance of the Ducklings” (upon hearing which, he exclaims, “A beautiful piece. Did I compose it?”), he upholds the value of any given moment to shape something unexpected, personal, and true.

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We encounter echoes of this philosophy in his conversations with Nora. In these, the subject of the interpreter is a red thread, pulling at questions of authority versus idiosyncrasy, and concluding that one must be both strong and gentle in order to play music with genuine feeling. “It has to be born in the soul of the interpreter,” he says, for in the body thereof is something concrete and in the metaphysical thereof is something ineffable. “The composer,” he goes on to say, “can learn a lot from the interpreter.” Most musicians, Nora agrees, are unresponsive to this suggestion. It’s like trying to explain how the sun shines. Hardship, Pärt adds, helps people understand this. Children notice it, too. Hence, the concert. They are straightforward, avers Nora, whereas professionals are contending with “a thousand different traditions.” Innocence allows performers to take notes seriously. She further likens music to the optical effect of two binocular images merging into one, a simile I would extend to the listener’s relationship to what’s being heard. Countless motifs out there are waiting to blend into our own. Let this film be a reminder of our openness to the spiritually healthiest ones.

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Heinz Bütler / Manfred Eicher: Holozän

Holozän

Heinz Bütler
Manfred Eicher
Holozän

Heinz Bütler and Manfred Eicher
With Erland Josephson as Herr Geiser, Sophie Duez as Corinne, and Elevezia Barzan as Eine alte Frau
Music by J. S. Bach, Béla Bartók, Jan Garbarek, Paul Hindemith, Keith Jarrett, and Dimitri Shostakovich
Premiered in August of 1992 at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize
Produced by filmedition suhrkamp
Release date: October 30, 2009

Man alone is familiar with disasters, should he survive these; nature knows no disasters.

Based on Max Frisch’s 1979 short story, “The Man in the Holocene,” Holozän is among the most poignant studies of solitude committed to celluloid. Manfred Eicher’s only foray into filmmaking put the ECM Records producer in collaboration with director Heinz Bütler. Eicher co-wrote script and compiled the music for this experience, the rewards of which are manifold.

It comes as no surprise that Bütler studied languages and has a degree in translation and interpreting, for his directorial style is a master class in inflections and retellings. We see it in the opening shot of water as strains of Bach waft through the air. The juxtaposition is more than coincidental; it’s inevitable, for the music of Bach is equally timeless, as much a repository for chronologies as the oceans themselves. We’re then faced with the Ticino mountains, their skin a yielding sponge for sunrays. It’s as if the landscape has been folded in half, the crease between them an uneven horizon.

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Such quietude makes for artful contrast, and expresses the balancing act of life between sinking and floating. The low strings that follow with their grave tone seem to dig a grave in and of themselves: a pit of darkness wherein all beginnings must end. Herr Geiser (Erland Josephson) walks into his house, as if the mist congregated and pinched him out of ether. The interior walls are a gallery of curios: fragments of text, pictures torn from natural and unnatural histories alike.

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Although his name connotes a geyser, nothing could be further from his temperament. He cuts up encyclopedias and history books, saving some and burning others in a fireplace, speaking more through the rasp of scissors on paper than the push of lips over esophageal air. He contemplates the emptiness of that which has been committed to external memory, piecing together a new narrative via pre-established ones. A thunder storm rumbles outside his window as he shifts through their psychological echoes.

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That very sound hints at one of the film’s leitmotifs: namely, water in various states of unrest. Whether hanging like a curtain, collected in stagnant pools, or covering roads and less manicured paths, it’s both comfort and threat. For indeed, while he has taken refuge from that storm, the deeper one raging inside has real power to thrash him.

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He is losing his memory, and collects things as if the words of others might be pieced together to mimic his own. He finds companionship in the vestigial, but seeks encounters insofar as he is able to from his melancholy perch.

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The landscape harbors quiet menace in the eyes of this man, who looks with binoculars to be closer to it without actually being so. Even when a salamander wanders in from the rain, Geiser puts a magnifying glass up to it. The limpid gaze of this animal is the film’s only direct regard of the viewer, and shows the rudiments of Geiser’s intermediary technologies in making sense of nature.

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He studies a map, knowing he’ll never place his feet along its paths, and at one point must open the balcony door and shout his name into the mist, lest he forget it. In response, the mist enters the room in confirmation of his flesh.

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Fatigued by the cold, damp air, and by the menial chores demanding his attention, he creates others of circular purpose. He builds a house out of crackers, even as he eats its raw materials, destroying while creating, as if turning away from God’s generative almightiness. His almost-perverse interest in the journals of Sir Robert Scott of the British Antarctic Expedition, who along with his men died close to a supply depot when insurmountable weather prevented them from reaching it, betrays a butter-knifed masochism. He falls to the floor as images of natural disaster flicker on his TV, aware that the world might tear him apart at any moment. He exerts himself, doing exercises and limber moves, proving he still has a flicker of youth, but this only depresses him more. Physical memory, it seems, isn’t the same as mental.

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That said, there are two other people in the film: an old woman who prays through her rosary, and Geiser’s daughter Corinne. We see the latter driving up the mountain with Keith Jarrett’s music as her fuel. The mountain looms in her window. Upon arrival, she sifts through his things in his absence, as he is climbing. She reads the words on his wall to glue his memory, and with it lights a shriveled torch in her own. She watches the mist. Meanwhile, her father is alone in the wilderness, alive with strains of Jan Garbarek. He wanders at night with a flashlight, seeing only the details of his focus as all else recesses into darkness.

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Corinne reads from the same expedition journal. The end cannot be far. She fears for him. He falls asleep in a dilapidated building, only to awake at daybreak to find it was an old stone church. With a Paul Hindemith solo viola sonata brushing under her feet, Corinne talks with the old woman to find out where he went. He starts to make his way back, but stays to ponder among the rocks.

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Eicher’s indebtedness to Andrei Tarkovsky is indelible in almost every frame of Holozän, and it’s by no coincidence that Josephson made The Sacrificewith the Russian director. And not only for the mist, cautious regard of faces, and slow pacing, but also for the ambience. One can almost hearthe mist, leaves, and air. The creak of footsteps, click of stone against stone, whispers of water in various collective states: these are a language of foley, of the interim. A space where space itself is a soul turned inside out.

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Jean-Luc Godard / Anne-Marie Miéville: Four Short Films (ECM Cinema)

Four Short Films

Jean-Luc Godard
Anne-Marie Miéville
Four Short Films

Produced and edited by Manfred Eicher
Editorial assistance: Sophie Schricker
Release date: April 24, 2006

“Culture is the rule, art is the exception.”

Jean-Luc Godard’s relationship with ECM Records and its producer, Manfred Eicher, seems as inevitable as the output of both artists is prolific. Eicher understands that the relationship between sound and image is at its most beautiful when contrapuntal, as proven by his own foray into filmmaking when he co-directed and -wrote the film Holozän with Heinz Bütler in 1992, to say little of his meticulous attention to album art and presentation. Godard, for his part, practically invented the cinematic language with which he is so often associated. Said language has always been as much about the ears as the eyes, and has intensified as his awareness of ECM has grown. Godard, on Eicher: “Every time he sends us music we have the impression this is somebody who is giving us something to listen to, sound from a place which comes from the same family as the place to which one should go. He is in a world which is not the same as ours but is on friendly terms with ours. And he says with his music: Carry on living, carry on working!”

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And carry on he does in this lovingly packaged DVD, for which Eicher has assembled a selection of Godard’s collaborations with Anne-Marie Miéville. The latter’s genius was already confirmed by her second film, 1985’s Le Livre de Marie (The Book of Mary), which served as prelude for Godard’s excoriating Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary) of the same year. In that pairing, Miéville’s laser focus on intersections of gender, space, and history found a kindred spirit in Godard. It was only a matter of time before the two would mesh their talents.

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De l’origine du XXIe siècle (On the Origin of the Twenty-First Century) was a commission for the opening of the 2000 Cannes Festival. It’s a veritable gymnasium for Godard’s wordplay. His linguistic splits out the ruptures of an intrusive capitalism. We encounter a man playing violin on a country path as Sarah Leonard sings Górecki’s O Domina Nostra, interrupted by a gun shot and a scream. “You don’t wage war against outlaws,” says Miéville. “You exterminate them.” The people are always playing by an instruction manual written on the bodies of those who came before. Images of hanging, death, and torture ensue—not as an extension of shock value but as a critique of the master’s tools.

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“The spirit borrows from matter the perceptions it draws its nourishment from,” our narrator soliloquizes, “and gives them back as movement stamped with freedom.” Indeed, this is the process of speech at work, as words and impulses are scrambled and reshuffled to the tune of editorial improvisation. On that note, there is a haunting sequence in which The Shining’s Danny Torrance rides his tricycle through hallway as Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge plays. The minimal leanings of this music ensure that the threat of death is a coercive tactic to bring about negations on a grander scale. It reminds us that the human is empty without the possibility of destruction. As if to underscore this point, shades of Vietnam, of whispered lives given credence by historical memory, are given a blood transfusion of sound and movement.

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The victory of war is necessarily predicated on defeat, and in these fan-leaves one understands that life is reducible to the spines connecting them. As a boy looks at the tanks outside his train window, on his face is written the enterprise of colonial interpretation, by which lands are divided on a first-come-first-served basis. “The state’s rationale,” we are told, “directly opposes the sovereign value of love,” and in that statement burns a world of understanding. In the boy’s countenance is a capacity for love clipped by passing trees until its edges are as frayed as mortality. The negative spaces between those tendrils is where the musk of reality develops its pungency. In tying the iconic images of cinema with those of history, as funneled through the atrocities of Nazi killings and other warmongerings, Godard and Miéville elucidate the cinematic tendencies of history and the historical tendencies of cinema. These connections are powerful enough to enliven mere numbers flashed on a screen, as intertitles flash years of significance: a dance chart between the frivolity of the West and the death of the East. By the end, Godard has proven that one cannot represent the 20th century without evil.

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“Society makes the body something more than it is, and the soul something less.”

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Like its predecessor, The Old Place examines the role of art in history, only this time in still rather than moving images. Says Michael Althen of this piece, commissioned by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1999, “[T]he aim is not to give an overview of art history but to cut a path through the forest by asking how art relates to reality and its horrors.” Throughout its mid-length duration, reflections on art and its traces cross swords with future-oriented impulses. The questions it poses are not meant to be answered, but taken as wholesale embodiments of cultural memory, which tends to account for reality via myths and legends. As in the opening image of a monkey dangling from a tree, it is dependent on the presence of gravity to give hierarchical sensibilities a grounding from which to suspend our inhibitions.

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Against a musical collage drawn from pigments mixed by Tomasz Stanko, David Darling/Ketil Bjørnstad, Keith Jarrett, Federico Mompou, Dimitri Shostakovich, and more, the role of text functions more greatly in this film than in its predecessor. Recognizing these snippets from the ECM catalogue provides a fleshly satisfaction, and lends new interpretations to their already-deep entrenchment in the bodies of those who create and consume them. In their usage is a coded message, which tells us that choosing materials is choosing mortalities. As if to say that agreement with the self is far more important than with the world, for only the self receives recognition in return for inviting interpretation, and touches upon the web of human activity by its remnants alone.

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Crimes against humanity cannot be art because they shed light on darkness. It is the same with cinema: both are speaking the same language of death. The will to flight is humanity’s default setting, yet impossible to achieve, because creation has its hold on us so much so that we can only mock its divinity with illusions of our own. Image-based mediums render escape impossible because they are the undeniable incarnation of our fixation with darkness. As Godard puts it, “Maybe we’re the ghosts of people taken away when everybody vanished.” In that thought experiment is expressed the vagueness of expression, despite the explicitness of its products. In this respect, art and cinema equally tread the border zones of silence.

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“Art is normally not something to be touched, but regarded at a respectable distance, protected by law.”

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Moments can only be objects in art: paintings, sculptures, film stills. And as Godard and Miéville peek through the cinematic portal, we are reminded that construction is sovereign in both realms. The problem of progress, then, is not a lack of paths but of homes to return to. A paucity of materials, if you will, resulting from a ban on exploration. To be consciously alive is to articulate one’s vibrations in some form of impulsive communication, and shifts of color may be defined only in a realm of light and movement. Movement is essential in the artist’s brush, in transporting the work and giving it illusory stasis on a museum wall. The religiosity of painting is a means of asserting that humanity has a right to continue.

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“In a plane, you never see the whole sky.”

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Liberté et Patrie (Freedom and Fatherland), a commission for the 2002 Swiss Expo, was rarely seen until its release here on DVD. Something of a companion piece to the previous, it’s yet another dance between content and form, where liberty isn’t so much an illusion as it is hope for illusion. In this instance, the string quartets of Beethoven figure heavily, and with good reason: for the stereotypically tortured composer’s soul was swimming in contradictions. In this combination, we find that the boldest art can live without the rest of us to validate it. As war and technology flicker across the eyes like fire slashing through celluloid, we find ourselves as spectators making pathological errors of liberty in order to parse shadow from freedom. Whereas liberty is stationary, the film seems to claim, freedom is itinerant. This casts a fishing line back to the idea of movement as expressed in the previous film, and puts a finger on the pulse that animates these filmmakers in their walk with life.

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“Representations depend on will.”

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Je vous salue, Sarajevo (Hail Sarajevo) is a morsel of history in and of itself. Made in 1993, when the Bosnian War was at its apex, it compresses untold hours of action into two minutes. Arvo Pärt’s Silhouans Song lends it urgency, a feeling of searching and never finding a clue toward uncovering the heart of atrocity. “In a sense, fear is the daughter of God,” says Godard, “redeemed on Good Friday night.” With that theme, he personifies fear as an intercessor between reality and fantasy. By looking at a single photograph of the war, building it organ by organ, he shows that the purpose of art is to express the death of exception, the organizing principle behind torture and rule. Flesh can never be a canvas when its display is only for the wickedness of ephemeral violence.

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“I’ve seen so many people live so badly, and so many die so well.”

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In addition to musical allusions, these films include quotations from Godard’s own films, including À bout de souffle (Breathless), Passion, and others. And Miéville’s own Le Livre de Marie gets a nod as a reflection of a brush poised before an already-bloodied canvas. Another layer is added by the fact that certain ECM covers have also been drawn from these films. The result is a multisensory conversation. And while these are non-narrative pieces, they are heavy with stories. Cinema is the knife that cuts through reality with fantasy, and fantasy with reality.

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These films comprise a haunting yawn into the great goodnight, each the crater of a meteor falling in slow motion before the dawn of an era comes to a close as extinction squeezes the land dry of its most formidable juices. A cup brimming with blood in our own image.

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Ramòn Giger: Karma Shadub

Karma Shadub Poster

My first encounter with the music of Paul Giger was on his ECM debut, Chartres. Guided only by the album’s cover, which at first seemed an ancient petroglyph before I knew it to be the map of the eponymous cathedral’s labyrinth, my teenage brain swam with visions of some worldly phantom trekking with his violin across oceans and continents, drawing out music from the living rock. It was only when ECM released a follow-up solo album, Schattenwelt, that I knew Giger to be flesh and blood, as the booklet revealed a photo of him at last. And yet, cloaked in the shadows of his music, it was easy to nourish my young impressions of what and who he was. How rare it is, then, that we get to see the hearts behind the skins of those we think we know through their art. Paul’s son Ramòn enables just such a glimpse in his 2013 documentary, Karma Shadub.

On surface, the film walks us through a mounting of its title piece (which first appeared on Alpstein) at Switzerland’s Abbey of Saint Gall. But this veneer bends the light to reveal a motive of emotional healing and conversation, becoming as it does a catalyst for sometimes-painful excavations of childhood, abandonment, and creation. This is not a film about music, but about where music comes from and how its progenitors live and act on either side of their art.

Karma Shadub was written for Ramòn around the time he was born as a celebration of life. In the context of that same child’s documentary statement all these years later, it serves as a looking glass into an uncertain past. The performance itself involves dancers, who under the choreographic direction of Marco Santi realize the corporeality of Paul’s music. The dancers also sing, mirroring the dialogic searching of the son, whose wondering and wandering of what might have been bleeds into the yet to be. Ramòn himself experiences a range of emotions when hearing the piece now: a binary star of pain and passion.

“When he asked me to make a film about this performance and the piece he had written for me,” says the filmmaker early on, “that was the moment I realized that I no longer know who he is.”

Ramòn, who calls Paul by his first name, seeks a relationship with this distant man—one who, much like the artist I’d imagined, takes pride in solitude. Ever his father’s son, Ramòn has taken on an artistic worldview. Yet where his father paints in sound, as director Ramòn does so in light. Before this he made made two documentaries as cameraman, the first being the portrait of a young autistic man and his relationship with the social worker who has become something of a father figure. A sign of things to come.

As both creator and a subject of the present film, Ramòn must confront a unique sort of exhaustion. Accustomed to teasing out the inner lives of his subjects, he was less prepared than he realized to do the same for himself. “I felt somewhat cruel, always demanding and taking from other lives, using them as the foundation of my work,” he humbly admits to me in an interview. “It’s different from music, where you have to dig inside yourself to create something.”

And dig Paul certainly did throughout Ramòn’s formative years, during which the father was often away for private excavations, though not without sending tapes from his travels. One of these, recorded at Chartres and including violin and ambient sounds of the garden, depicts a father reaching for proximity in defiance of physical separation. A beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but one that sits complexly with its recipient. As a leitmotif of the film, the tape is at once an expression of paternal love and obfuscation of its lucidity. The process seems emblematic of Paul: speaking volumes by not being there, and leaving just as much open to interpretation when present. It’s a dynamic mirrored in Ramòn’s attempts to elicit information from his father about the unknowns of his upbringing, which tend to reveal themselves more through silence than obvious articulation.

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Where Ramòn wants this to be an honest and personal project, Paul fears being used for something that he cannot stand up to. In their constant state of negotiation, the two manage to tap out a fairly reflective surface from unrefined metal as they forge an alloy of their own. Just as the violin is at once a part of Paul and its own entity, so too does Ramòn resound through their interactions. The son feels he is not being understood by his father—left out, so to speak, of the latter’s creative equation—even as he becomes more aware than ever about his own character by way of not being acknowledged. None of which is to suggest that the film is a challenge or accusation. It raises uncertainties out of genuine hope for their resolution.

Because his conversations with Paul are touch and go, Ramòn turns to his biological mother for solace (Paul is remarried). Despite the separation, she recalls those early years with a certain fondness, and the smile that holds her face indicates the steadfastness of a mature heart that has no time to dwell on ifs. But her son, like the viewer, is still grappling with images versus realities.

Of both, the camera offers plenty by directing strict aesthetic attention to surroundings. Indeed, the film is not only about people, but also about places. Ramòn recalls a rural, almost utopian, upbringing, as confirmed by a visit to his childhood home. Such snippets of nature add to the feeling that both father and son have walked their own paths and are now seeking intersections.

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Camerawork and editing are significant enough to warrant symbolic interpretation. We get many shots, for instance, of Paul’s back, as if Ramòn were always trying to catch up to the man he follows. This yields another parallel, when Paul says, characterizing his struggles with the violin, “Where you try to undertake something real, that’s where life is happening.”

In this film, life is happening everywhere. In the music, both on and off the screen. In the solace of cathedral’s, both literal and metaphorical. And in the gift of seeing a world-class artist as a human being, knowing he is subject to the same complications as the rest of us.

Karma Shadub is available to watch on Vimeo demand here. Read on below for the rest of my interview with the director.

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Tyran Grillo: One of the greatest values of watching Karma Shadub was how it made me think of myself as a parent. It was a reminder to treat my son’s childhood with even greater importance.

Ramòn Giger: People have experienced this film in very personal ways. Despite being just a very small story between me and my father, the feedback I’ve gotten has been massively varied. Some perceive it as you do, while others feel offended by it, but it always connects to the personal experiences of viewers in one way or another.

TG: The first scene, featuring you and a reticent Paul at the kitchen table, sticks out in my mind. The tension is real and relatable.

RG: He was very scared at first. Just as you had an experience of Paul’s music before you had a picture, his profession and what he does feed off a strong, mystical image. I now understand what he was afraid of. Having dedicated his entire life to achieving a perfect sound on this little instrument, he felt threatened by the mistakes I might expose.

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TG: What was it like watching the film together?

RG: We watched a rough cut at some point. He also attended a few premieres with me. It was quite an emotional re-confrontation, which wasn’t easy for us.

TG: Have things changed in any significant way since the film?

RG: The changes weren’t as I expected them to be. I had more expectations of revealing secrets or having this total opening of my father toward me. After 50 hours of just talking about things in front of a camera, I realized in the end that I was the one creating distance in the relationship. I needed to act but not expect him to do something about it.

TG: You still have those cassette tapes he made for you. Do you remember how you felt at the time when you received them?

RG: I know that I loved them, and that I listened to them a lot. I can’t really tell how I felt back then; only as I perceive them today. I feel a lot of effort from his side, a need of being close to me and trying to give me a piece of himself while being away, but also a strangeness in how he talks to me. I also have the feeling that he doesn’t really take me seriously. So I guess, just as with the music, it’s different things at the same time. Being a father myself now, I’m more relaxed about it, because I know it’s okay to make mistakes and not be perfect about everything. My experience with Paul was not that he was away, but that he couldn’t admit that not everything was perfect, which used to confuse me as a child. I’ve grown up believing it’s important to make mistakes as a parent.

TG: Do you feel more empathy for Paul, now that you are a father yourself?

RG: It was my decision to leave this point open in the film, but in life we certainly got to a point where we feel much closer to each other than before.

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Ramòn concludes our interview by telling me that Paul is someone who “lives fully in this world,” but we can also see the world living fully in him—which is to say, as an internal storm of contradictions. And maybe that’s all human beings, even at their best, can be.

Karma Shadub is available to either rent or download on Vimeo here.

The Unruly Mystic: Saint Hildegard of Bingen

In her lucid biography of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), author Fiona Maddocks calls the 12th-century German abbess not a, but the woman of her age. Assertion of the definite article would seem to mirror transformations undergone by so many of Hildegard’s followers, who in becoming aware of the sheer breadth of her insights have found themselves crawling out of indefinite shows and into affirmative light. Such was the case with filmmaker Michael Conti, whose own existential crisis brought him into communion with Saint Hildegard’s calling, visions, and prescriptions. One of those prescriptions was music, the art by which so many first came to speak her name when a slew of recordings flooded the early music market in the mid-1990s. Yet her ear for sonic devotions was but one of many gifts, for not only did she immerse herself in divine liturgies and holy works, but also learned to read and paint, skills passed on to her by an anchoress at her abbey.

And what, you might ask, led a 21st-century American to the accomplishments of a 12th-century prophetess? Conti explains:

“My initial transformation occurred in 1983, when I first caught a whiff of the creative potential found in Barcelona at that time. Being there gave me confidence to pursue a life of creativity when I went to Hollywood after graduation. Little did I know that Hollywood would be kryptonite to my desire to be truly creative in my own way. When I encountered Saint Hildegard’s spirit during a retreat to Germany in 2013, I rediscovered that deep, sweet connection again and had an awakening to her as my Patron Saint of Creativity.”

Conti’s connection between, if not equation of, mysticism and creativity is a leitmotif throughout his documentary, The Unruly Mystic. Fueled by his overseas revival and addressing the lack of Hildegard depictions in film, The Unruly Mystic puts forward the notion that mysticism is one true path to awakening of religion and culture. It’s an idea that will be familiar to any Jungian, but also one echoed by the film’s many passionate figures, each of whom brings an idiosyncratic perspective to the Hildegard ethos. Actor and singer Linn Maxwell, who has created a one-woman show of Hildegard’s musical life, calls her the “saint of creativity” and stresses the demanding nature of her songs. Also featured is Dietburg Spohr, whose bold interpretation of Hildegard’s morality play, the Ordo Virtutum was released in 2013 on ECM Records. She stresses the fact that Hildegard’s music was largely ignored, and that we simply don’t know how or where it was performed. What we can surmise is that, as something heard and transcribed through the spirit, music was her worship. This, Spohr reminds us, is what gives value as a composer, beyond whose commercial image we must look beyond in order to see innovation and longevity of purpose.

That we still have Hildegard’s music with us at all is a miracle in and of itself, and something of a recent wonder, more known as she has been for her many books, written by way of dictation to a monk (its own form of musical transmission). Among their ranging topics, and most famously of all, she left record of her divine visions. If the music was an expression of what she heard, then the writing was an expression of what was shown to her. Whether for fear of not being believed, or simply due to the intimacy of these revelations, Hildegard chose to keep them to herself for years, openly sharing them only in her prime.

“To be a superstar in the Middle Ages meant to excel in holiness,” says Dr. Beverly Rienzle of the Harvard Divinity School, also interviewed by Conti, and a superstar Hildegard certainly was. In addition to her creative pursuits, she founded two monasteries and even had a healing ministry. Her interest in medicine was erudite and held authority by its connections to the energies of elements, animals, and nature at large. Although current medical science would likely dismiss many of Hildegard’s claims, their innovation and timely importance are undeniable. The creation of goodness—for her a God-given responsibility—was ongoing, and fed into a personal mission of hope. Dr. Wighard Strehlow, interviewed at great length, speaks highly of the health benefits predicted in her work, which through his efforts eight centuries later have entered a phase of rediscovery. Hildegard was one of the first true (western) practitioners of holistic healing on record and was an advocate for “greening” the world long before it was ecologically fashionable to be one.

It’s important to realize that, contrary to popular use, the word “mystic” isn’t used here to connote the esoteric supernaturalia of an impenetrable soul. In Conti’s words:

“I use the word to emphasize we are all open to the possibility of awakening. It is not something owned by a few but should be democratic in nature. We tend to ‘pedestalize’ our ‘actor’ heroes in movies, sports, and arts. This limits ourselves through comparison. If we accept that being a ‘mystic’ is available to everyone, I think we have a greater potential for good.”

The film makes it a point to stress that mystics are the keepers of humanity at its best and most authentic, and that Hildegard’s vision can empower us by dissociating us from our egos. Regarding Hildegard, Conti would like audiences to come away with whatever moves them about her legacy. Whether through creative potential or potential creation, Hildegard has gifted us with more than enough tools to build virtues from scratch. In the end, it’s about understanding our beginnings.

To learn more about The Unruly Mystic, please visit the official website here.

Prashant Bhargava & Vijay Iyer: Radhe Radhe – Rites of Holi (ECM 5507)

Radhe Radhe

Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi

Vijay Iyer composer
Prashant Bhargava film director, editor
Anna George actor
Craig Marsden director of photography
International Contemporary Ensemble
Eric LambLaura Jordan Cocks: flute, alto flute, piccolo
Joshua Rubin: clarinet, bass clarinet
Rebekah Heller: basoon, contrabasoon
Gareth FlowersAmir Elsaffar: trumpet
Jennifer Curtis: violin
Kyle Armbrust: viola
Kivie Cahn-Lipman: cello
Cory Smythe: piano
Ross Karre: percussion
Tyshawn Sorey: percussion, drum set
Adam Sliwinski: conductor
Vijay Iyer: piano, electronics
Soundtrack produced by Vijay Iyer and Manfred Eicher.
Recorded live at Memorial Hall, UNC Chapel Hill, March 26, 2013
Engineer: Frank Martin/Media Production Associates
Live concert sound engineer: Levy Lorenzo
Additional recording at The Bunker Studio, April 20, 2014
Engineer: John Davis
Mixed at Avatar Studios, NYC by James Farber, Vijay Iyer, and Manfred Eicher
Assistant: Aki Nishimura
Additional engineering, editing, and consultation: Liberty Ellman

Bird

Ron Fricke’s 1992 classic Baraka endures as one of the most consummate examples of non-narrative cinema. Its montage of images from around the world was even more eclectic than the soundtrack that went along with it. But despite the many ceremonies, creative arts, and labors that Fricke documented—including death pyres and ritual baths in the river Ganges—he never captured the Hindu religious festival known as Holi. Had he done so, it might have looked something like Radhe Radhe.

Opening Shot

Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava’s ode to this so-called “festival of colors” traces the eight-day celebration back to Mathura, mythic birthplace of the supreme deity Krishna and his lover (in the strongest sense) Radha. Hence the film’s title, a term of praise and greeting often exchanged in the streets of Mathura, where she is believed to be a gateway to true understanding of Krishna. Her power is a central theme, an explosion of devotion far more vivid than the human-made pigment sold on the streets in the weeks leading up to this cathartic event.

Given the film’s subtitle, “Rites of Holi,” and the fact that Holi is practiced in the spring may put one in mind of Igor Stravinsky. This is no coincidence. Although not a direct homage to Stravinsky, Radhe Radhe was the result of a commission for the 100th anniversary of the Russian composer’s Rite of Spring, and one of a dozen projects freshly created in its honor. It is still a ballet of sorts, not least of all for the dialogic contributions of Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. In a manner of speaking, he and Bhargava met halfway—the director boiling down over 30 hours of footage into a 35-minute film and the composer expanding molecular impressions into a fully integrated score—so that the finished product was a narrative duly rendered. Iyer’s task was to match Bhargava’s rhythms, taking the listener through what he calls a “series of energies.”

Crowd 3

Bhargava first gained international attention with his debut feature Patang (The Kite) in 2011. That his roots grabbed their soil in hip-hop and graffiti art should come as no surprise, for his gifts of rhythm, poetry, and color were likeminded in their urban respect. But with Radhe Radhe he went further underground, mining deeper traditions of those same creative registers. The film is, then, as much a musical as it is a visual tour de force, building like a raga to near-ecstatic heights. Indeed, before a single image graces our retinas, Iyer’s pianism sets the stage over a dark title screen. Slight dissonances therein betray something of the chaos about to unfold, but obscure enough of it so that we might experience it anew, even in multiple viewings. Along with the young musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Iyer creates a mood that is beautifully unsettling, and all the more organic for it.

Face 1

The film’s first part, “Adoration,” builds its intimacies one stratum at a time. The stage is set in a misty landscape. We see only details: boatmen preparing for the days’ revelry, a bare back, a glimpse of braided hair. The streets then come to life as food vendors ready their meals and women wash their garments in the river. The soundtrack is restless, anticipatory. A cargo train passes by, as if to underscore the film’s narrative drive. More fragments: a face half-reflected in a mirror, candles burning on an altar, a gossamer veil. As crowds thicken and the dance begins, Iyer’s pianism brightens. Even the birds in the field seem to join in. Flute and brass contrast one another with purpose. Their notes flower and wither, changing focus like the lens that guides them. Strings and percussion add color streamers of their own as the iconic powder hits the air.

Crowd 2

Part 2, “Transcendence,” puts further emphasis on Bhargava’s footage of an imaginary Radha played by actress Anna George. He spins from these scenes, shot in the US and woven throughout the film, a primal and sexual interplay that signals the true emergence of spring. It’s a bold move, as the director himself is first to admit in the DVD’s “Making Of” segment, but he wanted to bring that “everyday magic, that intimacy that we share as people to the narratives of the gods.” He believes that the push and pull of Radha and Krishna exists in all of us, as it does also in the increasingly inseparable relationship between sounds and scenarios. A trumpet, for example, works its melodic overlay during a long shot of Radha’s face, implying an environment far vaster than the immediate contrivance of the studio.

Radha 2

As the cinematography becomes more contemplative, the music subdues itself in solidarity. In the same way that Bhargava seems to have eyes in many places at once and flits between them by changing cognitive channels, so too does Iyer’s complementary switching take every movement into account. A sensual flowering of street noise enters the mix, as if bleeding of its own volition, leaving us wanting to shed our inhibitions and dive into that sea of color.

Dancing 2

In May of 2015, Bhargava died at the age of 42 from cardiac arrest after a history of heart disease. But the tragedy of this death is so graciously balanced by the exuberance of his small yet vivid oeuvre that one can focus on the latter in a state of pure invigoration. In this respect, we do well to read Radhe Radhe in the spirit for which it was made. In a world where the rites of Holi have spread to unlikely corners (I witness its rainbowed aftereffects on my American university campus every year), it’s nice to know that one artist’s vision can bring us anytime to the source with just the press of a PLAY button.

Field

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher

Sounds and Silence

If every film has a soundtrack, does it not stand to reason that every soundtrack has a film? This would seem to be the guiding question behind Sounds and Silence. In this unprecedented DVD release, documentarians Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer set out to capture ECM Records as a living entity in which human labor and ingenuity are the dual heart of musical life. Although billed as a “road movie” and patterned by footage of label founder and producer Manfred Eicher in various states of transport, it is equally concerned with the non-literal paths that have led to the creation, sustenance, and influence of the German imprint and its ongoing permutations. They keyword here is “ongoing,” because Eicher and his trust have only intensified their productivity since 1969, when it all began, to the point of releasing, on average, an album per week.

It is almost inevitable that the film’s opening montage and credit sequence should be accompanied by a recording of Keith Jarrett. The pianist is one of ECM’s brightest stars, but is also committed to the power of simplicity, as demonstrated in his rendition of Georges I. Gurdjieff’s “Reading of Sacred Books.” It is an apt description of the filmmakers’ and their process, tasked as they are with interpreting an archive of such magnitude that not even a collective documentary on each album could hope to articulate it. Rather, they must choose to concentrate on specific times, places, and moods in the hope of tapping into something essential to them all. That being said, when Eicher talks of seeking the luminosity of music, which like a comet’s tail leaves behind a pure trace of its being, and philosophizes that music “has no fixed abode,” we begin to realize that such technology of capture as the camera is forever limited in its relationship to the audio realm. For while images suggest associations by their very existence, sounds thrive on the nourishment of our wildest interpretations. Consequently, this film is not so much a behind-the-scenes manifesto of artistic creation as it is a gentle visualization of ECM’s inner heart and its ripple effect across oceans.

Pärt and Eicher
(Manfred Eicher and Arvo Pärt)

Rehearsals with Estonian composer and New Series darling Arvo Pärt at St. Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn yield the documentary’s first proper footage and serve as touchstones for its narrative arc. They offer a strangely profound glimpse into the countless intangibles that go into any ECM recording, but particularly those in which the composer is present, at once presiding over and deferential to the equally intangible magic of a committed performance. Pärt is every bit the contemplative human being one might expect. He feels music with every fiber of his being, and it’s a gift to witness, if only briefly, his childlike sagacity. His face is a veritable gallery of expressions, each attuned to a change in the score and the possibility of making it grow even further toward an unattainable perfection.

Pärt
(Pärt listens intently as conductor Tõnu Kaljuste’s right hand threads the proverbial needle)

During one such scene, a most touching development occurs when, in mutual happiness, Pärt engages Eicher in a dance. This single gesture reveals something perhaps unexpected in both men: in the composer a feeling of bliss that many of us lose in the name of adulthood, in the producer a love for the simple pleasure of forces aligning in exactly the way he wants. Eicher is indeed a guide of uncompromising integrity, and his smile reveals far more about why he does what he does than the iconic and relatively frequent photos of him hunched over yet another mixing board. True dedication to one’s craft, these images suggest, requires not only a seriousness of heart but also a frivolity of spirit.

Dance
(Eicher and Pärt share a dance to the tune of the latter’s Estonian Lullaby)

Between these signposts, we encounter a train of faces and voices, many perhaps for the first time. Interviews with Pärt and his delightfully honest wife Nora, Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou, Tunisian oudist and composer Anouar Brahem, Italian multi-reedist Gianluigi Trovesi and accordionist Gianni Coscia, Argentine bandoneón master Dino Saluzzi, and Eicher himself help us better understand the inconceivable alignments of fate that sometimes must occur just to bring the right people together, much less allow them the space to create whatever they will create. The bellows of Saluzzi’s lungs, for example, prove just as eloquent as those between his fingers when he shares his history as a musician who shunned the academy in favor of raw expression. In him is revealed an educator’s heart, one that seeks to learn as much as enhance learning in others. Brahem is likewise an articulate soul possessed of a subtle wit. His sensitivity toward political matters only serves to enhance appreciation of his sonic endeavors, which in light of his worldview take on new valences of awareness and pacifism. It’s a joy to watch him alone in his home studio, building his tunes, element by element.

Trees
(Only light may part shadow)

As we navigate environmental flashes of Eicher’s travels, we follow the producer to Athens for a monumental performance of Karaindrou’s music (of which he shadows a rehearsal with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and violist Kim Kashkashian), a recording session at Studios La Buissonne in southeastern France with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (and the intuition needed to bring out just one muted string hit in post-production), another at Copenhagen’s Sun Studio with Marilyn Mazur, a concert featuring Brahem with pianist François Couturier and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, and mixing Trovesi’s explosive reconstructions of operatic favorites in Bergamo, Italy. Other highlights include footage of said concerts, a brief sojourn to Argentina with Saluzzi and Lechner, some candid moments with the ever-animated Trovesi and his confederate Coscia, and even a peek into ECM’s Munich headquarters, where we see everyday logistics in action, including the meticulous process of selecting album covers.

Cover selection
(Reading between the covers)

In the same way that Eicher seeks to put the listener inside the music, so do the filmmakers try to put us in ECM’s world, and in that spirit we end where we began: with Pärt. Experiencing the consummation of every above-mentioned force is one of the most gratifying passages of the film. The music is the message, because the message exists to be sung.

Pärt rehearsal
(Icons before icons)

ECM’s music has always approached the level of cinema, and so it was only natural that it should be honored in moving pictures. And yet, the end result seems more like the realization of a fantasy than a picture of reality. Throughout the 87-minute duration, the filmmakers make as much as they can out of what little they have. Case in point: Saluzzi and Lechner’s Argentine sojourn. Aside from a hint of social awkwardness, the footage overlaps with another film by co-director Wiedmer (see El Encuentro, also released on an ECM-edition DVD) and is perhaps better saved for that portrait. Its inclusion here feels like recycling and not in the documentary’s best interest.

Another dividing point may be the lack of attention paid to certain other production aspects. Early on in the film, Pärt speaks sagaciously of the recording session as an organism, of which musicians, engineers, and producers are vital organs. And yet, what of those unsung engineers? While of course ECM has none under its employ (they are independent artists working for independent studios), Martin Wieland, Jan Erik Kongshaug, Stephan Schellmann, Peter Laenger, James A. Farber, and, more recently, Stefano Amerio, among others, have all been of vital importance in shaping the label’s distinctive identity. The reality, of course, is that such a film, regardless of maker, can at best only be supplementary and will be of far more interest to the ECM fan than to someone unfamiliar with the label. Nothing can replace the listener. And is that not what Eicher is, above all? Why else would we first encounter him on screen as a man alone with his thoughts, as if listening to the world?

Seated Eicher

And so, it is in the name of listening that I direct your regard to the film’s soundtrack.

ECM_2250_CD

A cover that brings to mind Iro Haarla’s Vespers situates us in a cloud-break with only a snatch of landscape below to indicate the separation of worlds. The composition is emblematic of a label that has always charted indefinable borders between civilization and emptiness, and in so doing has made music seemingly aware of its own mortality. Keith Jarrett’s “Reading of Sacred Books,” written by Georges I. Gurdjieff, asserts nothing but its own lack of assertion. It is instead an expression of transcendence, a confirmation of the energies all around and within us, by which we are able to produce this wonder called music in the first place.

If anything can be said to define ECM’s output, it is memory. Charting that which has already passed in order to open our eyes to that which has yet to come, these musicians have all primed us for the opening of newer doors. This is the spirit of the label: to take the musical moment and craft it into self. Few tracks on this compilation embody this spirit more creatively than “Modul 42” from Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. After gaining access to the recording process in the film, it’s wonderful to encounter the music on its own terms, to look deep into its eyes and know it’s looking back at (and through) us. The sparkling middle passage ushers us into a world hitherto unknown yet undeniably familiar. Anouar Brahem’s “Sur Le Fleuve” is another slice of magic. Featuring the same trio combination of piano, accordion, and oud as recorded in the film, its marriage of instrumental signatures is nothing short of breathtaking. We can take great comfort in this music, for it is our partner.

Dino Saluzzi’s “Tango a mi padre” played as close to breathing as possible by him and Anja Lechner, speaks to another facet of that fascination with memory, which in this piece is so alive that it weeps for itself. We might, then, hear Vicente Greco’s “Ojos Negros” at the same duo’s hands with renewed sense of purpose. That these two bodies traveling through space and time have found themselves somehow joined at the soul, sharing with one another the details of their upbringing and the unknowns of their future, is a miracle. Also miraculous are two selections from Eleni Karaindrou, whose compositional fabric is spun from her “Farewell Theme,” which floats Jan Garbarek’s soulful tone across an ocean’s wave of strings, as Kim Kashkashian’s aquatic tail leaves its marks in the water, and “To Vals Tou Gamou,” in which piano, accordion, and violin dance like pens across paper. We may listen to this music either poignantly or through the lens of a joy that remains somehow clear in the mists of its origin.

The “Arpeggiata addio” by Giovanni G. Kapsberger, as heard on Rolf Lislevan’s Nuove musiche, likewise speaks of the past in the present. In it we can feel the propulsion of life experience by the power of desire. A voice carries us across the threshold of then and now, cradled in hands chapped like old parchment. Fresher inkwells spill their contents across Marilyn Mazur’s whimsical “Creature Walk,” a piece which as we know from the documentary brings a smile even to her face, and Gianluigi Trovesi’s blistering take on “Così, Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini. Although lit by a canonical match, Trovesi’s candle burns like an instrument of restless beauty in the macabre waltz funneling around him.

Arvo Pärt is also represented twice. His Für Lennart in memoriam is an undeniably dense molecule of emotional transfixion, while the postludinal Da Pacem Domine, after a reprise of Jarrett’s Gurjdieff “Reading,” carries us on its feathered back to the edges of sunset, where awaits the discovery of discovery.

How does one sum up ECM Records? Thankfully this is the purpose of neither the documentary nor its soundtrack. Rather, they exist to give us glimpses into the ever-shifting structure of the label’s skeleton. Following Manfred Eicher on these journeys, whether through eyes or ears, you might just find yourself wondering how so much external architecture could arise from music that is immaterial, only to realize that it’s the other way around.

(To hear samples of the soundtrack, click here.)

Fifty Shades of Prey

Fifty Shades

On Valentine’s Day, Fifty Shades of Grey hit major theaters like a riding crop. Despite being among the many who abhor the premise of E. L. James’s bestselling novel of abusive male dominance, far be it from me to deny its fans’ fulfillments. But whether you see Shades the book as an abomination to women everywhere or a worthy instruction manual for couples wanting to spice the tepid gumbo of their sex lives, Shades the movie should frighten you. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s anticipated drama draws faithfully enough from its source text, following the sexual awakening of Anastasia “Ana” Steele at the hands of Christian Grey, a billionaire Adonis with a tragic past. Yet where the book is a fantasy crafted by a woman with women in mind, the film has only men and men’s standards in its crosshairs. In confronting viewers with explicit visual suggestions of how one should consume the exploits of characters better left to private imaginations, the film undermines any therapeutic potential they might have held.

For proof, one need only look at the film’s technical grammar. From its overwhelmingly gray palette (how many brain cells got freaky to make that cinematographic decision?) and overt phallic symbols (to wit: Christian’s towering office building and the monogrammed pencils on his desk, subject to the occasional suggestive close-up) to Ana’s incessant lip-biting (I stopped counting at 30 instances) and painless loss of virginity, the film’s pathos lends itself to effortless critique. Shades was filled with laughs—its makers didn’t take the film too seriously—but I’m willing to bet this was a calculated strategy to divert gazes away from the injurious messages at its core. It’s right there in the opening credits, over which Annie Lennox’s retread of “I Put a Spell on You” lays down the line: I put a spell on you because you’re mine. You better stop the things that you do. Christian may not be equipped with magic, but he has the next best thing: capital. During their first interview, Ana is as much attracted to his wealth and power—not to mention the rockin’ bod that seems to hug the skeleton of anyone in Hollywood with a few Benjamins to rub together—as to the broken child cowering beneath it all. Were it not for his rare combination of material assets, Ana would have no interest in Christian. His wealth “justifies” his abusive behavior.

Whatever the reason, a connection is born that neither of them is able to fight. Such is the film’s ridiculous attempt to justify all that follows: both are imperfect souls in a world brimming with them, and it’s all they can do to keep from trying to perfect each other. I get that. But as their relationship develops and the scent of their pheromones becomes too concentrated to sneeze out, a morbid game of give and take begins. Christian bids Ana to sign a detailed sexual contract that outlines his dominance and her submission in kind, while ensuring that love never enters the equation. Beyond the fact that even BDSM advocates have balked at this unrealistic premise (theirs, in fact, has been the most cogent denouncement so far), more troubling symptoms of gender bias lurk within.

Shades is a master class in heterosexism. This is obvious as early as the fateful interview, when Ana asks Christian if he is gay for the sole reason that he never goes out in public with a woman on his arm. In addition to confirming the stereotype that men and women think differently by sheer virtue of their biological divergence and that both must fit into predetermined roles, the question of Christian’s sexuality reinforces the notion that men—straight men—are insensitive by design. This double standard is clearest in the film’s treatment of the body at play. We can set aside the camera’s over-emphasis on Ana’s bare breasts and concealment of Christian’s penis—this is in keeping with the already sexist standards of what is permissible by the MPAA’s R rating. We can even ignore that only the exploits of the film’s most “beautiful” people matter—this despite the fact that on the page Ana’s roommate is described as “gamine and gorgeous,” while Ana struggles with her plain self-image.

What does deserve our attention is that Christian’s feelings matter far more than Ana’s in the film. Regardless of the intensity of any given sex scene, Ana never reaches orgasm on screen. While this might seem a clever way to avoid turning each of their encounters into a money shot, it puts a question mark above the goals of the characters involved. Furthermore, this downplaying of Ana’s pleasure has two unforgivable side effects. First, it brightens the spotlight on Christian’s needs. It’s no coincidence that he obtains the greatest and most obvious pleasure from Ana’s pain, as when he whips her with his belt in response to her demand that he dole out the most extreme punishment of which he’s capable. This incident moves Christian’s infatuation for Ana outside acceptable BDSM terms and into the realm of sexual sadism. Second, it proves that the fantasies put forth by the novel would crumble were they to be fully realized on screen. When he tells Ana, for example, “I don’t make love. I f**k. Hard,” one has to wonder how such a statement could be in any way alluring.

Whatever we may think of Christian’s physical attempts at capturing her for his prey, they’re nothing compared to the verbal tactics fed him by screenwriter Kelly Marcel. By its third iteration, his “It’s the way I am” mantra loses all effectiveness and imbues the proceedings with cheap desperation. The only function of that statement is to pave Ana’s submission as a path to his devotion. Yet the film supports a greater hypocrisy when their conversations turn to a family friend who made Christian his submissive from age 15 to 21. Christian reveals that this relationship was a healthy one for him, insofar as it freed him from the burden of responsibility at an impressionable age, and that they continue to be in regular contact. Ana grows jealous and condemns his “teacher” as a “child abuser,” even as she continues to pine for his increasingly violent affections. In contrast to the young Christian, Ana is inundated with responsibility, as he requires her to follow his every word, down to what she eats and drinks.

Though Shades the book has—affectionately, I might add—been called “mommy porn,” the film is more dangerous than pornography. In no uncertain terms, Hollywood’s capitalization on the book’s film potential is a mirror of the story’s gross sexual politics: a patriarchal moneymaking machine dominating a global market of feminized submissives without consent. Some would point out that, because the film was written and directed by women (even if Marcel’s script was tweaked by action veteran Mark Bomback, best known for The Wolverine), it’s somehow okay. Such an argument, however, smacks of reverse sexism and puts me in mind of Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted but rarely heeded prophecy: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In this case, the master’s tools—be they signs of wealth or the instruments of torture arrayed in Christian’s infamous “Red Room of Pain”—only intensify the questionable nature of his reformation.

None of the above criticism is about me being too cool for the story (and in case you’re wondering, I’ve read it). It’s about the ongoing sickness of equating male domination with female empowerment. Let it be known that at the end of the trilogy Christian admits to Ana holding all the power in their relationship, but that it requires him to speak said power into being before she can claim it for her own. He is the one who defines it. And if self-empowerment can only be had through abusive trust, at what point does real abuse begin? It’s a vague proposition, and one that recalls the kind of rhetoric recently spouted by Utah State Representative Brian Greene, who questioned whether or not sex with an unconscious person counts as rape. As any BDSM practitioner will tell you, trust grows not through blind submission, but in active and mutual participation. It’s about offering, not sacrifice. And if the end result of apparent love is self-gratification through the reinforcement of a dominant male fantasy, then we might as well throw away the last century of feminist progress along with one of Christian’s spent condoms.

All told, my biggest worry is neither that men will think this is what women want nor that women will think this is what they need. It’s that those who identify with neither Christian nor Ana will feel left out of the conversation, and that those who witness this homophobic nightmare will never think to question the outdated gender dichotomy on which its story depends.

If this is what love looks like, then I shudder to think what hate might look like.