Saturday, November 3, 2012

Patterns, and Authenticity

Another birthday, and I’m stuck away from home on account of Hurricane Sandy. Not that Marcia’s folks in Virginia aren’t great hosts, but I miss our own home and hearth (even if the latter hasn’t seen a fire for 15 years!) in New Jersey (Not to worry; the house came through fine, it was just dark and chilly after the power went down Monday night.). As I was working on this post, we got word that power is back up at home, at least in our neighborhood. We’ll heading back tomorrow, but that’s a day after my birthday.

So here’s my 71st birthday post. I have a subject that’s been bugging me for years. It has to do with knowing things without knowing how we know them. Like, I’m sure you can tell the difference between a waltz and a tango, but if you aren’t musically trained, as I am not, you can’t explain just what that is. You’d be even harder put to try to explain the difference between a traditional Strauss waltz like “An Artist’s Life” (which I first heard as a child, when it was the theme of a TV show where Jon Gnagy gave art lessons):

And a post-Strauss era variation like Aram Khachaturian’s “Masquerade” waltz:

There’s an element of irony or nostalgia for a more innocent time, I think, in the latter, but how is that expressed in musical terms? There seems to be a similar contrast between a classic tango, Gerardo Matos Rodríguez’ “La Cumparsita:”

And Angelo Badalamenti’s “Kiss All Around It” for Jane Campion’s film Holy Smoke:

It’s a matter of pattern recognition; we can sense the musical patterns of the waltz and the tango, and variations of them. But it becomes more subtle with some patterns. Consider Miklos Rozsa, who scored a number of movies like The Thief of Bagdad, Spellbound and Quo Vadis. From his name, if you know anything about ethnic names, you know he was Hungarian. That didn’t show up in his movie music, but it is obvious (to me, at least) in his concert music, like his Violin Concerto, composed for Jascha Heifetz (Link here doesn't work ditectly, but you can copy the URL to Google and it should play):

I hadn’t even known about his classical music until a couple of years ago. But the thing is, if I’d heard this piece without knowing its composer, I would have recognized it as Hungarian immediately. That’s because I had known the music of Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok for decades. Can you sense the kinship Rozsa’s piece has to Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3?

Somebody with musical training could explain it all very easily. It’s only my ignorance that prevents me from doing so. But in other contexts, there are terms we understand, or seem to understand, without reference to standard definitions. Take words like “stylish,” “heart” and “class” as applied to the arts – including film, some examples of which I want to look at here.

Someone of my acquaintance, just who I can’t remember for sure, once described one of the short films in a series called The Hire as “stylish.” The Hire was produced by BMW as a showcase for its cars, and starred Clive Owen as the Driver, a free-lance agent who took on (usually) dangerous missions. The films were not advertorials or infomercials; they were intense short stories. They’re still available on YouTube, and below I offer links to four of the best (the directors’ names are in parentheses) – “Ambush” (John Frankenheimer), “The Follow” (Wong Kar-wai), “Ticker” (Joe Carnahan), “Hostage” (John Woo):

But what’s “stylish” about these films? Online dictionaries aren’t much help. Merriam Webster defines the word as “conforming to the current fashion; modish.” Google has two definitions: “1. Having or displaying a good sense of style: ‘these are elegant and stylish performances.’ 2. Fashionably elegant.” These come closer to the meaning my acquaintance had in mind, and what has long been my own sense of the term. When we admire a woman’s choice of dress as “stylish,” we surely don’t mean that she is a mere fashion slave. I find most popular fashions silly, even ugly; and yet once in a while in a department store I’ll see a gown that has that elusive sense of style – simple but elegant. And that’s what the BMW films have: a sense of style, or rather senses of style – you can see how each of the directors has put his own stamps on his work, even working within the limitations of what seems at first a pure action format. That’s “stylish” in the best sense.

Chances are that few of you have heard of Ted Kotcheff, although he is executive producer of the Law and Order franchise. Fewer still are likely to be familiar with The   Winter People, his 1989 romantic drama. And the official trailer, while accurate in the narrow sense, is misleading in a broader sense.

The Wikipedia entry offers a few more details:

Wayland Jackson, a widower with a young daughter, moves to a small, impoverished mountain village in North Carolina, circa 1934. They are taken in by Collie Wright, a single mother, and she and Wayland soon fall in love.

Wayland is a clockmaker whose ambition is to build one for the center of town. His life and Collie's, however, are threatened by family members from the evil Campbell clan, one of whom is the father of Collie's baby and intent on getting his child back in any way, even if it means murdering the couple. Cole Campbell is found dead, and his relatives demand that Wayland and Collie be held responsible and give up the child.

A review by at puts more stress on the dual nature of the story:

With his clock making skill, Russell's character is able to bring hope to the town by restoring the clock in the church steeple. The restoration of the clock, like the relationship that develops between the Russell and Mc Gillis characters, bring light to an otherwise dark world with little hope.

Exactly. The Winter People is a movie with heart. But what is “heart?” It isn’t the kind of sloppy sentimentality some might mean by it. I think it has to do with the hearts of the characters being true, and their true hearts guiding their actions. Wayland has a sense of mission, and a true sense of decency. Collie is no stereotypical “fallen woman,” but one of the most truly decent women you’ll ever see on screen. As for other inhabitants of the Appalachian community, another review by Connie of Albany, Georgia, disputes those who might think their characterization is over the top:

Perhaps when some see the performances as cheesy or over acted they've never actually met any mountain folk, and thusly are insistent that the histrionics are over played. If you have been to the mountains and can feel the spirit of them then I think you will love this picture. It is about the give and take, the act of forgiveness and of course true love.

Some of Kotcheff’s other work shares that kind of heart. Although he may still be best known for First Blood, which unleashed Rambo on the world, he had nothing to do with Sylvester Stallone’s sequel. Instead, he made Uncommon Valor, which starts with the very same premise of Americans having been left behind in Vietnam – but instead makes an intelligent and even moving story out of it. Perhaps even more surprising is “Weekend Pass,” an episode he did for Red Shoe Diaries – a short-lived series devoted to soft-core erotica aimed at women’s tastes, or at least what the producers thought were women’s tastes. Kotcheff’s episode, involving a military woman who finds love on leave, was the only one I ever saw that was about heart rather than tease.

What was 1965 important for? One thing was Diana Rigg’s first appearance as Emma Peel on The Avengers. She changed the way millions of men thought about women, and she did it with class (copying and pasting the link into Google Search still works despite the YouTube ban):

Class? No, we’re not talking Marxism here. And by “class,” we surely don’t mean the kind of class consciousness the British aristocracy once prided itself on. Jane Austen wrote a lot about people of that class, and made it clear that she thought a lot of them didn’t have any.

“Showing stylish excellence” is one of Google’s definitions of “class” as an adjective; one of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the noun is “the best of its kind,” but when we use “class” in reference to a phenomenon like Emma Peel, it’s more like the state of showing stylish excellence. And it can show itself in unexpected places. We’ve had a spate of superhero movies in the last few years, and some have been good, like The Dark Knight. But superheroine movies have generally been duds – for that very lack of class. One exception is only a partial one: Scarlett Johansson’s brief turns as The Black Widow, as in this montage from Iron Man 2:

It’s like Emma Peel reborn. Sure, she’s sexy as all get-out, but she’s no bimbo, not even a Bond girl. She can kick ass, but she isn’t just an ass-kicker. She has self-confidence and a sense of her own worth, but she is never vain or boastful. She’s got class.

It occurs to me that “stylish,” “heart” and “class” as used here, and as I believe they are understood by a number of you reading this, are all aspects of authenticity. That’s a word which has been much abused by cultural critics, or at least counter-cultural critics, who seem to believe that only anti-social behavior is “authentic.” We have cults devoted to everything from gangsta rap to writers like William S. Burroughs. But we have a crying need for genuine authenticity, an expression of authentic human values, and I think we can find that in some, if far from all (Jersey Shore? Keeping up with the Kardashians? Blecch!) popular culture.

One recent example: The Hunger Games, the book and the movie. It’s a story with style and class and heart. I wish I could find a link to one of the most emotional scenes in Gary Ross’ film adaptation, faithful to Suzanne Collins’ novel, in which the heroine Katniss honors a fallen opponent by laying flowers on her body. That has as much to say as any of the more overt scenes about Katniss’ attitude towards the inhuman games in which she has been forced to fight by a cynical autocracy that relies on them as “entertainment” in much the same way that the Roman emperors used bread and circuses to maintain their power.  Collins and Ross know what authentic humanity is about. We need more of that kind of authenticity in our culture.

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