Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Film Notes: Whiplash

Several years ago, I asked a Chinese friend why only one of her elite post-doctoral group of pure mathematicians, at her Scottish university, were from the UK. The answer I got was shocking. "I have a daughter in primary school here in Scotland, and you do not understand education here. Most of what my daughter does in school is play; her academic work is constantly interrupted by plays, parties, outings, assemblies; and the school day is so short. In China at that age, I studied maths every day at school. and for many hours before and after school too - here it is all play, play, play!" I recalled this conversation to a friend who at the time was head of one of Scotland's largest primary schools. His answer was telling: "Yes, but have you seen the suicide rate in China?!"

Whiplash is a film about individuals being crushed by the relentless drive for greatness in a particular field. It could have been maths, or sport; but the film is set in the world of competitive jazz - in which the key figure Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) is a drummer. The pressure to become "one of the greats" is certainly an internal drive for Neiman; but is taken from obsession to destructive levels by his teacher, Terence Fletcher (J. K Simmons), whose drive for perfection destroys students. Perhaps worse still, Fletcher seems convinced that the student must be broken repeatedly in order to make him/her push themselves beyond ordinary human limitations. "The two most dangerous words in the English language are, "good job"" he notes; whilst repeatedly recalling the incident when a band leader nearly decapitated a young Charlie Parker with a cymbal, on stage, for a mistake - an experience which proved to the making of him. As such, Fletcher's teaching method not only involved iron discipline and technical excellence, but a form of psychological warfare against his students. Films have occasionally shown army recruits being broken in this way; but rarely with the ferocity which Simmons brings to the part of Terence Fletcher.

The two central performances in Whiplash, are superb. Teller is excellent as the driven, intense, gifted, yet vulnerable young drummer; who learns to confront his demons both inner and external (in the form of his abusive teacher).  Simmons is truly horrific as the dangerously out-of-control Fletcher, who values winning, and perfection above people. Simmons' viscously foul-mouthed, blisteringly intense denunciation of errant students, is like something from the Maoist cultural revolution; it is gruelling watching - but impossible to turn away from. In Fletcher 's world, if he destroys fifty people, but makes one genius, he's a happy man; people are means not ends, in his manic, all-consuming, perfectionism. Like all the best movie villains Simmons/Fletcher is compelling viewing. In one scene (spoiler alert!), Fletcher weeps over the death of a student - a great player who he had 'broken' and made legendary. "He was a beautiful player", laments his teacher. We later discover that the young man had killed himself - the parents blaming Fletcher for the psychological torment he endured at his hands. Yet still, even as Fletcher appears to show some normal human warmth, or even vulnerability his words are chilling. "He was a beautiful player", seems to suggest that Fletcher wept not for the loss of a person; but for the loss of his talent. 

The film leaves us with an ambiguous conclusion; one one hand Nieman finally emerges as a great drummer; and gains the respect of his fellow musicians and his sinister teacher. And we are left with a question mark. Would he have achieved such greatness without Fletcher's psychological battering, or would he have consigned himself to a genial mediocrity? Leaving aside the much-debated issue of whether practice-makes-genius or not; the issue here is - what price is it worth paying for high achievement? Neiman is shown giving up on most aspects of what it means to have a normal balanced life, he has no friends, has given up on sport, and looses his girl in his thirst for perfection. He ends up as a specialist; but with a malformed life. These questions are pertinent in parenting and education. We may not be as extreme as Fletcher; but when is it right to push our kids; and when is it right to let them just meander along contentedly? Are our schools so fearful of the kind of Fletcher-dynamic depicted in Whiplash that they fail to inculcate any kind of love of excellence in our children at all? "Gold-stars all round - and who cares what mark you actually scored?!"

Central to the almost unbearable dynamic of this film is the way that the master propels the apprentice towards perfection under the constant threat of rejection. Being the 'core player' in the music school's prestige band was an honour entirely at the disposal of Fletcher; expulsion from the band something he could execute on a whim. The film depicts the pursuit of perfection as the ideal of greatness and significance; but it also depicts the self-destructive fear of rejection as the necessary stimulus for its achievement. This seems to leave us in an impossible dilemma in that either greatness doesn't matter on one hand, or that people don't, on the other. This is a remarkable example of un-Grace! Relationships which are founded on the concept of grace, (rather than accomplishments) work in exactly the opposite way to the dynamic between Fletcher and Nieman. In grace-founded relationships, (be they human-human, or Divine-human), the pursuit of greatness, is predicated upon the foundation of compete acceptance of the person; and a mutual striving towards the good. The force that propels the student (or disciple) forward, is not the fear of rejection and humiliation from behind (as with Fletcher); but forward towards a beautiful conclusion; be it anything from creativity to Christlikeness (as with God). Grace is the very idea that meticulously high standards and goals are not to be lowered, but that people are to be loved and valued even while those high standards are being worked towards. The fear of rejection is not the great stimulus to progress; but the grasping of a magnificent vision is. 

Whiplash is finally a great film which is well worth discussing. The plot is intriguing, the dialogue alarming, and the acting intense and frightening. Allegedly based on the author's real experiences at a leading American musical college; it demonstrates the nature of abuse power-relationships, where the people are forgotten in the pursuit of some goal or accomplishment. Simmons' searing portrayal of Fletcher will remain the most poignant memory of Whiplash, and a sinister reminder of how ugly humanity looks when we use people to serve things, rather than things to serve people.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kinnoull (yet!) Again

Click to enlarge....

Film Notes: Harlem Street Singer - The Rev Gary Davis

Harlem Street Singer is a 2013 documentary film about the life of Blues guitar legend, Rev "Blind" Gary Davis. Davis (1896-1972), was by anyone's estimation an extraordinary man, who lived a quite remarkable life - one which is well worth celebrating with a film like this. While there is extensive archive footage of Davis used throughout the film; the bulk of the material is contemporary interviews, performances and anecdotes about the man from the generation of younger folk, blues and gospel players who Davis knew, taught and inspired.

Davis was a hugely innovative and talented, self-taught guitarist, whose large and powerful hands attacked the strings and frets with percussive force, as he ranged through folk, blues, jazz, gospel, rag-time and spirituals. In his early years in Durham, N. Carolina, he played in bands, and would perform different styles of music, to suit the range of audiences who would pay him. With employment opportunities being limited by both his skin colour and disability, Davis became an adept performer, earning his way by pleasing audiences of whatever type; playing spirituals for funerals or entertaining the workers, farmers and traders who gathered at Durham's huge tobacco warehouses.

A significant change occurred in 1937, when Davis attended a Christian revival meeting. Here he committed his life to God's work, was ordained as an evangelist; and restricted his repertoire almost exclusively to spiritual music. The mid-century 'great-migration' of African Americans from the 'Jim Crow' (segregated) States of the old Confederate South, to the North was an acceleration of a movement that had begun as a trickle of people in 'the underground railroad', and become a mass-movement a hundred years later. This movement of people was driven by negative forces in the South (segregation, discrimination, physical threat, judicial persecution, economic exploitation, and fear); and by the positive fact that after WWII opportunities for Black folks in the North were beginning to open up. Davis was swept up in this movement, which tended to move people along long-established railroad routes; and he found himself in Harlem, New York - living in dreadful conditions and earning his living playing guitar on New York's streets.

In New York, Davis' exceptional playing gained him a considerable reputation, and lead to a secondary career as a guitar teacher. A remarkable number of young guitar players sought Davis out, and studied under him - and it is these guys who made this DVD possible. People as well known as Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Jorma Kaukonon (Jefferson Airplane), John Hammond, as well as a host of folksters like David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, and Woody Mann, talk candidly about days spent studying guitar at Davis' flat. Alongside Davis and his long-suffering wife, Annie, players like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Brownie McGhee would appear and jam. A massive breakthrough for Davis came when Peter, Paul and Mary covered one of his songs which generated his first reliable income and enabled him to buy a small house. This house became a musical centre, and the place from which Davis would set out across the city to gig, busk, and preach. 

The thing about this DVD is not just that it is a good story; nor that it is full of wonderful music. The most special thing about it is the massive love and affection with which it is made. The players who talk about Davis talk about him with a huge amount of love, respect and joy- he was clearly a father-figure to many of them. Long after some of the details of Davis life story, or the details of the 1965 festival footage of Davis, have faded in my memory - I will remember the genuine love so many people had for The Reverend Gary Davis. 

Davis was a huge talent, a hard man, a genuine eccentric (beware of a blind man who is ready to fire a pistol!), recordings of whose spiritual music still moves the soul to this day. This DVD is a charming labour of love, which is both highly educational in its content, and utterly captivating in its tone. And don't miss the DVD extras either - 'Wavy Gravy' will make you laugh and laugh!

Book Notes: The Gospel According to The Blues by Gary W. Burnett

When I opened a Christmas parcel and found, "The Gospel According to The Blues" by Gary Burnett inside, I was delighted. Here, two of my great loves and interests, Christian theology and Blues music meet together in one of my other great pleasures - reading books! I have far too many books about both of these subjects, on the one hand, commentaries, systematics, and topical monographs; on the other, (along with Blues CD's and DVDs), several books about The Blues in general (notably Paul Oliver and Robert Palmer), and several great biographies of various Bluesmen and women. Apart from James Cone's Spirituals and The Blues, and Stephen Nichols, Getting The Blues, I have not read a huge amount that combines both of these fascinations together, or seeks to explore the many aspects of the interactions between the two of them. The supposed dichotomy between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' exists nowhere more strongly than in the literature surrounding the Blues and the Gospel. Burnett's huge knowledge of both contemporary Christian theology, and the history of Blues makes his thoughtful contribution to this area, a most welcome addition to the genre.

One of the great strengths of this volume is Burnett's sketching in of the historical background from within which Blues emerged. His pithy, and well-researched summary of the main themes in African American post-bellum life is really excellent. Particularly illuminating (and I suspect, little-known), was his explanation of the systems by which Black Americans were exploited, long after Lincoln's emancipation proclamation became the thirteenth amendment. His explanation of the role of lynching in the South during 'redemption' is good; but it was his writing about the abuses of the legal system and the existence of neo-slavery at places such as Parchman Farm, that were especially illuminating.

Burnett clearly loves The Blues, and has a great knowledge of the genre, from its earliest manifestations amongst slave-songs, work-songs and amongst field-hollers, through its gestation in the Delta between the wars, its popularisation and the great female blues singers of the 20s, through the Northern migrations and electrification of the Blues after WWII and on to the present day. The 'listening guides' at the end of each chapter are really great too, much of the stuff listed is available online and can be enjoyed alongside the book.

Burnett's book is theologically intriguing too. His basic thesis is that the age-old supposed tension between the Blues and The Gospel is mistaken. Following James Cone, Burnett sees the Blues as African-American assertions of their essential humanity in the face of a de-humanising world. He regards the tension between the two as echoing a muddled vision of the gospel of Christ, which is a 'soul-only', escape-from-the-world, heavenly orientated faith, which is both hyper-individualistic and ignores the synoptic gospels, and only focuses on Romans and Galatians for its inspiration. If one starts, not with a gospel which seeks to liberate individuals from the world, but of God bringing his Kingdom to earth through Christ's life, death and resurrection; then the Gospel and the Blues might not be identical - but are at least facing in the same direction. That is to say - they both affirm the dignity of all people, and long for a better world, and inherently protest against present realities. In this Burnett clearly has been immersed in the writings of NT Wright who has rightly placed the "on earth as it is in heaven", dynamic back at the heart of New Testament faith - from where it should never have been jettisoned.

The difficulty I found in Burnett's otherwise enchanting book is that I felt he pressed some of 'New Perspective on Paul' type ideas a little too far; certainly in ways which detracted from the the overall thesis of the book. Perhaps not exploring his own personal theological idiosyncrasies in such detail would have given the book a broader appeal to Christians of various stripes. I wasn't sure that getting involved in the spat between Piper/Luther and Wright on justification by faith alone, was useful here; and it did take the book into confusing and complex territory. By attacking Piper, and asserting that a Pelagian reading of Matthew 25 was the centre of the gospel message, while also seeking to affirm Paul's message of grace and forgiveness, I was left slightly puzzled by what Burnett actually meant by 'the gospel'. While Piper represents one extreme, in terms of seeking to hammer down every loose end, flatten every paradox and reorder scriptural narratives into lists of eternal propositions; Burnett is possibly at the other extreme. Like reading Wright for long periods of time, the reader can be forgiven for thinking that the word 'gospel', is a fish too slippery to actually grasp! This is a shame; as the main thrust of the book is just great.

However one frames and understands the gospel, (and I would have more sympathy with Luther than Burnett does!), there is no doubt that the pursuit of justice is an essential, non-negotiable part of what it means to be a Christian. Equally, much of the Blues is a response to injustice; and Burnett tells the stories of several of the Blues players who lived in an unjust world and railed against it, such as Big Bill Broonzy's "Starvation Blues". It was said that Rev "Blind" Gary Davis in his blues sang of a better world to come; and central to the gospel is that this faith is not mere optimism, but personal faith in Jesus Christ who made it possible; is even now working it out, and who will bring it to pass.

From that main-theme, Burnett branches out in various directions in his explorations of The Blues and The Bible; with differing results. When he takes us to imagining Blind Willie Johnson dying alone in his burnt out house, rasping and growling his gospel-blues songs of irrepressible faith in God, it gives great force to his reminder that Christians are called to live as members of God's Kingdom, and give to the poor. Tellingly, Burnett also contrasts the joyous faith of many destitute Bluesmen, with the anxious consumerism that characterises life in the early 21st Century West. His reflections on banking, finance, economics and justice are short, shocking and stirring stuff. His explorations of Jesus' teaching on non-violence in the Sermon on The Mount, I thought mis-fired; as they were over-reliant on Walter Wink's eisegesis. I suspect that just too much was being read into some of the statements there.

I was, of course, interested in how Burnett would handle the "evil Blues", and the whole crossroads phenomenon, which has to be addressed in a book like this. His treatment is generally helpful (debunking myths, and subsuming the sinister-propaganda associated with Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw and co, beneath his humanity-affirming and Kingdom-of-God building narrative); although why he needed to go into slightly esoteric territory of discussing a non-personal devil, other than his own theological hobby-horse, I didn't get. What perhaps I was hoping for was a book which took the reality of evil more seriously, but applied the redemptive narrative of the gospel to music. We know that Bluesmen like Son House, and Lemon Jefferson alternated between gospel and blues; but that is a very secular/sacred divided model: what would redemption of the Blues look like? I would be interested to read more on this angle on the old debate.

One does not have to agree with every sentence in a book to gain a huge amount from it (nor do I suspect that Burnett would demand that the reader does agree with him on every point!). Finally, this book re-fired my love of The Blues, and embedded the cries for justice contained within it, more firmly into my understanding of my calling as a Christian. For that I am most grateful.

Some useful links:
Gary Burnett's excellent blog "Down at The Crossroads: Where The Blues and Faith Meet"  is here
The issues of slavery, forced labour, and justice raised in the book are being addressed at IJM: click here
The Gospel According to the Blues is available online here
I get a weekly dose of Blues and Gospel from a radio show called "The Gospel Blues Train with Lins Honeyman", click here to listen anytime.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Film Notes: Amour

WARNING - this review contains major plot spoilers!

Amour is a film which leaves an indelible impression upon the viewer. It is a film which provokes discussion amongst those who watch it, and will no doubt continue to divide opinion for years to come. Amour is both a stunningly beautiful and yet ultimately dark film. Unsurprisingly it garnered 2 Baftas and 5 Oscar nominations, and a Cannes Palme D'Or.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuel Riva lead the cast as Georges and Anne Laurent, an elderly French couple, who are both retired music teachers in their late 80s. Their acting is spellbindingly brilliant, and the characters they create in their delivery of a 'difficult' story are both completely convincing, and emotionally engaging. I have seen too many films in which wooden or melodramatic acting has left me disengaged, and disinterested in the fate of the characters. Trintignant and Riva are the opposite of this, as the elderly couple negotiate joy, pain, sorrow, tenderness and rage; they do so, so with such depth and subtlety that I for one couldn't take my eyes off the screen for a second. It is sadly unusual to see elderly people expressing deep affection,
tenderness and love in films. Perhaps Hollywood is especially guilty in this regard; and it takes an Austrian film-maker, working in French to do so. Hollywood tends to think that love is the exclusive preserve of the smooth-skinned and fertile; whereas the real world contains people like Georges and Anne Laurent; life-long lovers and inseparable friends who gently and tenderly help each other with their daily tasks.

The film is brilliantly shot, and virtually every scene takes place in their apartment. The viewer feels completely drawn in to both the characters and the place. The camera's detailed studies of the faces of both Georges and Anne, are hugely impressive; and only add to the power of the performances by Tritignant and Riva.

Central to the story is the stroke suffered by Anne Laurent, in front of her husband. Riva is just superb, in her transmission of the strange combination of physical adjustment, fear, sadness and dignified resilience. Alongside her, Tritignant is wonderful as the husband both sorrowful at his wife's debilitation, but yet stoical in doing everything he can to help her recover as much as is possible. One scene I found especially moving was when George helps Anne with her recovery physio, working to try and coax life and response from her reluctant limbs.

Why then, is this a dark film? The reason is that as the story develops, George receives no help from family, friends, neighbours or the state and as he is left as the sole carer for Anne, and begins to personally unravel. Anne expresses her desire to refuse water and die, but he persists with his dogged caring regime, whilst internally disintegrating, to the point where he slaps his wife and collapses in regret. This emotionally jarring scene rams home the message that as the patient, Anne's physical deterioration is matched by Georges, her carer's, parallel psychological descent.

Finally, in a complex and difficult emotional scene, George grabs a pillow and smothers his wife; scatters her body with flowers and runs away. The viewer is left with a tangled sense of relief that Anne's suffering has come to an end, but horror at the way in which it has occurred; involuntary euthanasia - which is murder. There is also the acute sense that somewhere off-screen, Georges' psychological torment has only just begun.

The film has received differing reviews. While there seems to be unanimity about the undoubted quality of the cinematography and the acting; the film's moral message has caused some consternation because the film seems to be promoting euthanasia as the final act of love: "Amour". The film delivers a mighty amount of angst and emotional recoil from "the slap" scene; but appears to invite the viewer to share in the idea of euthanasia as a 'good ending'.

Margaret Morganroth Gullete, in her insightful review of 'Amour', for The Guardian writes: 

‘One of the implicit convictions of the film is that a carer – even one as assiduous as Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges – will crack under the strain of caring for a stroke victim… yet the circumstances shown in Amour are highly unusual. Money is no object for this couple. The carer has no pressing health issues of his own. He is also a man. And, though highly educated, he is a man who apparently has never received any advice about caregiving.’

This set of circumstances, she argues, is rather contrived:

‘Carers are now advised to arrange respite care: to get out, eat properly, enjoy a social life. It's understood that their own health and mental wellbeing is at stake. As well as this, Georges could easily have secured more help from other agencies…  a daughter better educated about disability might have said words of love to her mother, and persuaded her – while it was still possible – to go out for tea, out in her wheelchair, to visit a friend. The family doctor, who makes house calls, could certainly have provided adequate pain medication for Anne; morphine could have eased her passing. Georges had more compassionate alternatives available to him than smothering his wife with a pillow.’
P.J. Saunders goes further, (perhaps his argument is in breach of Godwin's Law),  as he draws a parallel between Amour and the German film Ich klag an, which was used in 1941 as a way of making German public opinion sympathetic to euthanasia, as a prelude to the killing of significant numbers of sick and disabled people. However, one need not draw (or endorse) such an extreme parallel to Amour, to be deeply concerned about the moral undercurrent behind the film.

Finally 'Amour' is a brilliant piece of film-making containing simply stunning acting, but it is harnessed to deliver a dubious moral message. 

Book Notes: Fire In a Canebrake by Laura Wexler

Fire in a Canebrake is a rather odd title for Laura Wexler's narrative reconstruction of a mass lynching of African Americans, at Moore's Ford Bridge, Georgia, in 1946. The title comes from a witness to the events who described the sounds of guns firing as like the crack cane makes when it is burning. The book is first a fascinating account of brutal events, and then follows the trail of the pursuit of justice in their wake.

While there are almost too many books written about the central Civil Rights era to read, Fire In A Canebrake takes the reader back to 1946 - and paints a fascinating picture of race-relations at the end of the Second World War. At this point in history African Americans in the Deep South were not yet openly resisting Jim Crow, and the rigid race/caste system was enforced by the ever-present threats of economic sanction or outright violence. Yet African American veterans, returning from conflict in the Far Eastern or European Theatres, who had fought alongside whites, and spent time in the North; were returning to their share-cropping farms with a new attitude, and restlessness which would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement. When the lynchings at Moore's Ford occurred, the backdrop was an election in which race was a major factor, and the first attempts register black voters in Georgia were being made.

Laura Wexler traces the way in which an altercation between a black share-cropper and a white landlord (with the inevitably strong element of sexual psychology and politics which white supremacists seem peculiarly driven by) led to the mass lynching of two Black couples; George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom. Roger Malcom was bailed from prison by a landlord, and while driving from the prison house to the farm, the mass lynching took place.

Once the story of the ghastly lynching is told; Wexler tells the story of the pursuit of justice. While in several cases, even after many decades, racist killers like Byron de la Beckwith, were convicted. However, despite a State and Federal investigation into what Wexler calls "the last mass lynching in America", no convictions were every made in these murder cases. Wexler's story is that the white population were too loyal to one another to break rank, and were more hostile towards the 'feds' than their local murderers; while the Black folks of Walton and Oconee Counties, were too afraid to speak out about what they knew, for fear of reprisals.

In Wexler's estimation, the national response to these murders is perhaps an indicator of the state of Civil Rights in Georgia in 1946. On one hand, nothing much has changed. Whites were able to murder Black folks with impunity, without consequence, and the law was utterly unable to convict them. Young Emmett Till's murderers were identified in a Mississippi Court after his lynching nine years later; but acquitted by the obligatory white-only jury. Justice in the Georgia of 1946 appears to have been even more corrupt and ineffectual. Yet, things were changing. The national press picked up the this story of a racial crime in rural, remote Northern Georgia and covered the story at length. There was a rising tide of palpable outrage at the shoddy legal outcome: "case-unsolved". In 1946, the pressures that would later explode the old South, were building - but had not yet reached a critical point. Black Lives Matter and in 1946, the nation was only just beginning to grasp that.

While some civil rights murder cases were finally solved many decades after the events; the truth about who brutally killed George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom, has died with their generation. Some fantasists tried to claim they could solve the crime, and came forward as unknown witnesses; but their stories were inconsistent and unreliable.

Ultimately, Fire In a Canebrake, is a grim and tragic story of an unsolved racial quadruple murder. However, what is most fascinating are the repeated insights into the development of race relations in rural Georgia; an under-reported, yet deeply significant period in the unfolding racial drama of The South.