Reverent Attention

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall May 6, 2008 at 5:10AM

Free associating from classical music to totalitarianism to foreign film and back again.
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Free associating from classical music to totalitarianism to foreign film and back again.

My favorite music right now consists of two records by Nico Muhly, two records to which I simply can't stop listening; Speaks Volumes, which has been the soundtrack for my working and thinking and relaxing and dreaming for the past three months and Muhly's score for George Ratliff's Joshua, an amazing piece of film music. Muhly's new record, Mother Tongue, is coming out soon (you can listen to a preview of the album here) and the Mrs. and I will be attending his concert on Thursday night at Merkin Hall. I am more than a little excited.


Nico Muhly's It Goes Without Saying

I was reading Muhly's blog and saw his link to a review of a recent book by New Yorker Magazine music critic Alex Ross called The Rest Is Noise which has just shot to the top of my personal must-read list; I am a huge sucker for Modernism, for nineteenth-century ideas flowering into twentieth century abstraction and modernity and Ross' book seems to hit the sweet spot for me. Blah blah blah. Anyway, reading Muhly's link to Ian Bostridge's review of Ross' book in The Times Of London (oh, internet, how I love you), I was struck dumb by couple of Bostridge's sentences, ideas which have been the backbone of my own thinking about cinema, serious cinema, these past few weeks. They read:

"On the gramophone, the radio, television and, subliminally and hence more powerfully, through the movies, the classical sound in all its variants...has insinuated itself into the culture at large. Never before have so many people listened to, or liked, so-called classical music. Yet this extraordinary triumph has culminated in a malaise, a feeling, widespread in the musical profession and elsewhere, that classical music is in crisis and that things have never been so bad. Classical music feels abandoned, left behind as history has moved on, sulking in its tent as the real cultural action happens somewhere else."

If you replace "classical music" with "foreign and independent film", I think this idea captures the elegiac feeling I had stepping into my own little cathedral, Film Forum, for the first time since returning from my five-month sojourn to Florida. My personal love of Film Forum is well documented on this blog, and this weekend I went to take in Cristi Puiu's Stuff and Dough, only my second movie since coming home. The theater was about half full which, given the circumstances and the fact that this was the second week of the film's run, seemed fair enough. But the thing that struck me most about the screening (aside from the film itself, which I really enjoyed) was the presence of a collective reverent attention, a phrase I have been using quite a bit lately in describing my ideal cinematic environment and one that I found, word for word, in Bostridge's review:

"If we were to ask why, at the opening of the twentieth century, and through the horrors of its first five decades, classical music retained such importance, the answer would have to be: Germany. Classical music, music which was more than entertainment, music which demanded reverent attention, and which even made metaphysical claims, was written into the very DNA of German culture."

Of course, Bostridge is describing the cultural conditions that enabled the simultaneous rise of totalitarianism, Modernism and Expressionism, an almost incomprehensible tension which I have always found to be a source of personal fascination and empathy; I draw a parallel between the period of creativity between the 1920's and 30's and the 1990's and the 2000's. Not that the conditions are the same, but that the outcomes are similar for artists (despite the relatively antithetical state of the relationship between the political environment and the arts); Whereas the arts held such a sway over the previous era that leaders purged or venerated them in equal excess depending on their utility to the dominant ideology, today the arts are commercialized to the point where they are venerated or ignored (a crucial distinction) depending on their monetary or commercial value to their owners. The main difference? Instead of ridiculing and murdering artists that don't serve our purposes ala Hitler or Stalin, we simply refuse to take them seriously at all; That with which we don't identify, we ridicule (an ancient tactic) or ignore. But is my wish for seriousness a double-eged sword? Is longing for "more than entertainment... reverent attention (and)...metaphysical claims" a sign of something almost totalitarian in me? Why do I want the world to see as I see?

Anyway, Bostridge again:

"The cultural theory which the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century had inherited from the nineteenth gave artists a dangerous potency, the all too useful capacity to become, in Stalin’s words, 'engineers of human souls'... In any aspirant totalitarian regime, cultural producers like musicians have to be overseen, goaded, persecuted and petted. Hitler’s Germany was different only in that a musical vision of politics was uniquely central to the nightmare that was played out in the Reich between 1933 and 1945. It wasn’t that music was too important not to be politicized, more that politics was music in another form; 'Politics aspired to the condition of music, not vice versa', as Ross puts it."

It is hard not to see the dialectical parallel to a society like ours, a society that has replaced the Germanic seriousness about music and art with the hysterical ridiculousness of television and movie narrative; If the politics of Hitler's Germany "aspired to the condition of music" and Stalin's theory gave artists "a dangerous potency", then the politics of Bush's post-9/11 America, the cultural state of being that surrounds us, is aspiring to the condition of 24 and American Idol, to become a society where adolescent fantasy , wildly inconsistent moral compromise and personal fame and wealth are the foundation of the popular dream. Artistic potency is stripped away entirely, ghettoized as elitist and removed from the collective conversation. Seriousness is seen as the opposite of enjoyable and foreign is the opposite of relevant. Laugh and the world laughs with you, right?

And the burden that we bear because of this? Serious, "reverent attention", free from the distraction of modern electronic connectivity, becomes a luxury, the desire for which is perceived to be symptomatic of elitism. More importantly, cinema, a wildly diverse array of images and ideas, becomes reduced to the same black and white dialectics used to deride it. I am as guilty as anyone of drawing the distinction between foreign or "art-house" cinema and regular-old "pedestrian" movies, and I am also guilty of lumping things together, of offering apologies for lesser films in the hope that a discussion can be undertaken at all. It strikes me now, writing this, that too often the idea of art-house cinema acts as a warehouse that protects certain films from critical and complex examination by contextualizing them with one another; An almost hourly, fluctuating canonization, moving at internet-age speed. I fear that I may have miscalculated; Instead of criticism, I have come to see attention, giving voice to and discussing films that would otherwise be ignored, as a form of insight. In the process, maybe these generalities have become a disservice; Is talking about these films enough? Is loving movies an articulation of anything at all?

And this too becomes a burden, an identity; People like me find themselves defending the cinema in the same way an American abroad catches himself defending the people of the United States from the scrutiny of the reductive, critical natives. Seriousness becomes the definitive quality, the ideas themselves valuable not for the way in which they are articulated per se, but often simply because they are articulated at all. All of which serves to undermine the diversity of the films themselves and restrict the re-development of a serious film culture. And suddenly, I see myself as an actor in the very process I despise; I have started playing their dialectical game. I look through history, at the waxing and waning of cinematic movements and trends, of dominant forms and minor rebellions, and in the end, wonder if any of it is relevant in comparison, say, with the casting of the bell in Andrei Rublev or the finale of Au Hasard Balthazar.

Which brings me back to Film Forum, to Stuff And Dough and my realization that yes, while every film must stand on its own, the environmental superiority of reverent attention, of nothing more than a room full of people who agree to look at a movie and take the experience seriously, is crucial to me. Yes, every idea should be scrutinized on its own, but oh, what a difference this environment can make. Stuff And Dough is a deceptively simple film, but at its heart, it is a flawlessly executed tale about the consequences of moral compromise. Within the framework of this small little story of an illicit errand to Bucharest, Puiu captures the impact that a black market economy and corruption have upon the everyday lives of Romanian people. But seeing the movie at Film Forum really did enhance my ability to take the movie seriously; It was so quiet, each person watching the movie with their full attention, no talking, no cell phones, nothing but people taking in the film and thinking and feeling their way through it. Maybe what I am looking for is not a de facto seriousness in film, but a cultural environment where I am allowed to take film seriously, to enjoy sharing that feeling of "reverent attention." In the absence of such a place and time, maybe my own construction of a warehouse of movies that I love, a personal archive of not only films but cinematic moments and the feelings and thoughts I experience watching and discovering them, is the only way to celebrate my passion for movies. They need my protection and concern, my defense and attention. And while I need to make it the exception and not the rule, maybe sometimes celebration in the face of near-universal indifference is a decent enough gesture; An inward smile on an otherwise empty street.

This article is related to: Music