Saturday, December 04, 2010

Film Notes: Warming by the Devil's Fire, A Film by Charles Burnett

The film-maker Charles Burnett was caught up in the Great Migration of African-Americans between the segregated South, and the economic and social opportunities of the Northern cities. In fact as a youngster he shuttled between family two places. In his experience the dichotomy between the two places was more than simply geographical, it was social, cultural, musical - and even spiritual. It is this experience and the dilemma's it produced in his young life that Burnett seeks to explore in this film, "Warming by The Devil's Fire" - his contribution to Martin Scorsese's box-set of DVDs exploring The Blues.

The title, 'Warming by The Devil's Fire' refers to the view of his gospel-music-loving family; that The Blues that epitomises the other half of his life is inherently evil; in fact The Devil's music. This conflict between Blues and Gospel, was one of the key issues in defining African-American culture, both sides of WWII. It is also a core issue in the identity of The Blues as a musical and cultural form. This conflict has been fuelled not merely by rational debates about the cultural drivers of secularisation; but also by more sinister theories that the devil himself would dispense Blues-playing abilities in midnight encounters at Crossroads, in exchange for the souls of the Bluesmen themselves.

Burnett opens up this historical and mythical area in this intriguing film. Spliced between an amazing array of classic blues performances from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and others, Burnett tells the story of a young Black boy in the 1950s caught between these two worlds. His family are gospel-music loving respectable church-goers, but the lad is 'kidnapped' by his wild-living uncle 'Buddy' who introduces him to the world of the Blues. This initiation includes the music, the girls, the debauchery, and a curious midnight crossroads encounter - in which the devil fails to show-up, but W.C. Handy makes a sinister appearance.

In his film, the boy called 'Junior', is intrigued by what he sees and learns. Burnett seeks to replicate his own experience of his Blues-loving uncle. Finally he is reconciled with his family, who rescue the young boy from a wild Blues party, for which he is patently too young. While Junior is impressed with the Blues; the surprising redemptive reversal in the final scene, is that Uncle-Buddy ultimately changes sides and becomes a preacher of the gospel.

While the tension between these two sides is described nicely in the film (and the music is brilliant!), the issue isn't adequately analysed at all - which is a disappointment. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly the gospel-music family are absent for most of the film, their music and their voices are not heard. Secondly, unlike other films in this Blues series, there are no 'documentary' style straight-interviews in which opinions are sought. The issues are left dangling. Perhaps the intention is to enhance the sinister mystique which lingers around some aspects of The Blues. In fact it leaves too many questions unanswered. Specifically is there an inherent tension between this musical form and Christian spirituality?

That might sound like an obscure question - but it is important. There are books published which argue that musical forms have fixed social and spiritual meanings. Pop Goes The Gospel is an infamous publication on this line - which supposes an unchanging association between music and its meaning. As such it proposes that white, western, musical forms are inherently more 'Christian'. I profoundly disagree with this perspective, which is bordering on ecclesiastical colonialism. I am convinced that music itself is intrinsically spiritually and morally neutral - and that the meaning attached to the form is socially constructed, and therefore changes according to context. I remember being told that Christians should not listen to jazz. Jazz, it was said, was irredeemably linked to the sexual immorality and drug-abuse of some of its pioneering practitioners. By the time I encountered jazz, its meaning had shifted entirely, and in my context it invoked images of pipe's, slippers, cardigans and old-men using slightly embarrassing words like, "cat" to describe hot players! Blues - may therefore have become adopted as the music of rebellion in a specific context, and gained a dark mythology to accompany that - but to suggest that this means that the music itself is inherently 'of the dark side' in all contexts is barely sustainable.

Sadly, all such questions are missed from the film. If the fictional narrative of the film would have made actual interviews with people, Bluesmen, and/or Gospellers, incongruous then the film would have been immeasurably enriched by having some dialogue between characters with differing views on the matter. As it is, we are left with an unfinished narrative - interspersed with an absolutely stunning soundtrack.

This is a good contribution to Scorsese's series of film exploring The Blues, as the mythology and social meaning of the music, is well-worthy of a film, alongside the others focusing on the African roots of the music, Piano Blues, British Blues and so forth. Wim Wenders contribution has so far been the only weak link in what is proving to be a brilliant series of discs.

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