Inside Whales and Lofts, Part 2

Last time I left you with some impressions I got reading a George Orwell essay, but I also came upon a documentary this week on things this project deals with — things that you, welcome reader or artist, may also want to consider in your art or life. That film was The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.*

I had some minor grasp of the loft scene in the ‘70s to early ‘80s, and I figured it might be worth a watch. I got more than I expected, though not quite what I expected. This story is centered in the late 1950’s, a time of tremendous artistic momentum that underpinned much that occurred in the more famous ‘60s later. Oddly the man, Gene Smith, featured in the title isn’t a jazz figure at all, but a photographer who lived in part of a run-down and irregularly converted commercial loft in New York City. Smith gets his name in the title, not only because he’s interesting and because his artistic biography is well-covered in the documentary, but because he had a curious desire at this point in his life to document large portions of his everyday reality via still photos, movies, writing, and copious audio recordings.

This trailer for the film leads with the Jazz, underselling the compelling story about photography it contains.

.

Lofts are often prized by artists, who like a gas are likely to expand to fill any space — and Smith certainly did that. Whenever I pause to consider my own studio space where many of the recordings for this project were done, I am embarrassed by how messy and cluttered it is. Smith matches me in that clutter from what we see, and the documentary would support a viewer who sees obsessive-compulsive elements in Smith. But unlike myself, or the garden-variety hoarder, Smith was a very accomplished black & white photographer in a number of styles. And then, somewhat like me, the clutter didn’t seem to stop Smith’s productivity — or if it did hamper it, his drive to continue to produce art was strong enough to make that issue moot.

I’m unsure how famous Smith is in art photography circles, but the film departs from its Jazz Loft focus to let us know that he was a very effective war photographer during WWII, one who was seriously wounded in the Pacific theater of that war. He worked for the large format magazines and photo services of the day as a photographer, with enough pull and force of personality to be allowed to create multipage photo essays he selected and laid out for publication himself. By the time of the Jazz Loft he seems to have been doing a lot of street photography, often shooting out of his window at the day to day people who had no sense they were being photographed.**

Even if, like me, you are not au fait with photography and photographers, it’s likely you know at least one or two of Smith’s photos. He’s the guy who shot the famous Harry Truman holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. And when I saw a print of another photo just pinned up somewhere off to the side in the clutter of his workspace early in the film, I wondered if he’s responsible for another image that I knew: the emotionally resonant “A Walk to the Paradise Garden”  photo. If you watch the film you’ll get more context for that photo.

So, is there Jazz in this film called The Jazz Loft?   Yes. The late ‘50s were a time when a great many magnificent Jazz records were made, and when high-quality live Jazz performance was still commercially viable. The NYC area was a center of both of those things. The Jazz Loft was apparently like some places I know from my youth just slightly later, it was an open scene, and folks just wandered in and out of some of the loft, including a number of musicians who used it as a place to workshop or jam for their own enjoyment. From Smith’s documentation, it was a somewhat integrated scene at the loft, but predominantly white.*** This may be secondary to the man who apparently owned the loft (he’s said to have been Smith’s landlord during the film) Hall Overton. Overton was a figure unknown to me who was active in what in that era was known as “Third Stream.” Third Stream was an effort to combine composed concert music, often with orchestral instruments, with Jazz. Many, but not all, of the proponents of Third Stream were white musicians crossing over from modern “classical music.” I don’t want to over-simplify this, but while some Afro-Americans coming from a jazz background were interested in such a fusion and contributed significantly, Black Jazz musicians were also involved heavily at that moment in trying to keep Jazz culturally and commercially relevant to their Afro-American peers (“Hard Bop” and “Soul Jazz”) and with the more spiritual and political Black Arts movement.

The film eventually gets to concentrate on Overton for a while, and he’s as interesting as Smith, particularly for someone like myself who’s interested in Jazz and composition. If he sounds like something you’d like to nerd over for a while, I can recommend this lengthy and detailed article by Jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson on Overton, but if you’re trying to finish a translation and eventual musical piece using words by Rimbaud, I’d suggest you don’t click on that link.

Other folks who drifted through the Jazz Loft have stories that are told in shorter segments, and I personally like the way the editing and flow of the film allowed the stories to emerge organically, like a good Jazz set. The use of the archival materials (largely from Smith’s posthumous archive) is done very well.

Jazz, “Third Stream,” late ’50 NYC bohemia, and black & white photography are all niche interests. You may need to be interested in at least two of those things to have the highly rewarding experience I had with this documentary. If not, you need to be open to adventure in these areas. No car chases, no who’s sleeping with who dish, no unfolding speculative universe, other than the one that the arts often live in inside everyone else’s: whale’s bellies and lofts.

What did watching The Jazz Loft  bring me? An appreciation of Overton’s efforts, which were largely unsuccessful even within the limited expectations of his niche. In Smith’s story, I found a mirror of my own somewhat obsessive drive to make the elements of this project, and a warning of the possible side-effects of that.****  Recall as I concluded Part 1 of this, that one of my artistic maxims is: All Artists Fail. George Orwell was despairing in 1940 at the batting average of artists seeking to change things in his society, while I’m somewhat heartened that they keep trying. Same box score, just different outlooks. So, Smith succeeded, for a while, and then descended into a state that was productive but not healthy. Overton for all his not-even-a-footnote status in musical history, made an honorable effort. They chose their own adventure, followed its path, saw and felt and knew what they saw.

New Rimbaud here soon, but for today, I’ll leave you with my performance of a quote from an Afro-American writer telling what he saw, felt, and knew about John Coltrane, a piece using a excerpt from LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s liner notes for John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland”  LP. Jones speaks to the balance of that struggle, of Coltrane’s admirable struggle, and how it might reward us to pay attention.

And thanks for your attention. The player gadget for the audio piece is below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

.

*This assumes you are giving evidence by reading and listening here that you care about some less-mainstream things, and worse yet, a variety of them.  “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith”  is available most places you can rent or buy movies on computers, smart TVs, or tablets. There’s also a podcast-series which I have yet to sample.

**It’s apparent that many folks either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were being recorded by Smith either. The general reaction of those interviewed was that Smith was fairly overt about his documenting everything he could figure out how to capture, but other stories have him placing microphones all over the place. In terms of his photography within the loft, he had the advantage of “always being there” so that the people drifting in and out didn’t strike a pose for the camera.

***No, I’m not getting all woke on the people portrayed in this film. Just stating what I noticed that ran counter to my initial expectations of what I’d see in the Jazz milieu, even in the late ‘50s when de jure Jim Crow was still a thing. Indeed, the folks in the center of this film were probably significantly more cross-racial than their general society, and for that matter probably more than I am in this other century. Afro-American Jazz giant Thelonious Monk does have a sizable part in a story of one project workshopped at the Jazz Loft depicted in the film.

****I hope not that more dangerous take-away trope: well, I’m not that  obsessed, or chemically dependent, etc. as that person.

Oscars, then Oscar, during National Poetry Month

I hope to still have at least one more piece ready here this month, but I’ll admit that I waylaid some time yesterday watching the Academy Award “Oscars” while restringing and doing some deferred maintenance on a couple of guitars.

Awards shows — which are of course promotional events regardless of their area of the arts and the event’s prestige or pedigree — seem to be going through a rough patch of late. The Nobel literature prize even got removed for a year, so I’d judge that less prestigious awards stand in greater peril. The question of their value, or even if they have become counterproductive, has become commonplace. The use of these events for airing political and social issue positions is one sore point for some.

Let me not waste too much of your time, but to summarize my belief on that last issue: the whole purpose of art is to share human experiences in a way that nothing else does. How things are run, how we experience that, it just can’t be separated from art, and once that is allowed, the questions about what should change and what should be maintained can’t be fenced off as off-limits. This risks of course that wrong and half-wrong and outright misrepresentation is going to be propagated in shiny works of art. An even more subtle risk is that what will be presented must be simplified in some way, even within arts’ ability to present strange non-binary states. Resulting work can be painful or dreary even for points of view we already agree with — and outright hurtful or disgusting for things we find false. The criticisms are true, but this can’t be avoided if we are to have figurative/narrative art at all.

Film is extravagantly more expensive to produce than poetry, and by reputation successful people in the movies most visible roles are well-paid for their contribution to that capital-intensive industry. Garden-variety actors, directors, and writers outside of commercial film, who may not share this wealth, rarely get to speak about their beliefs on international live TV shows. Does this make it bad when the wealthier artists speak, or should we have no actors, writers, directors speak at all?

As a change, I enjoyed the trimmed back show, with many fewer in the main room and with little attempt to make it a spectacular variety show. Different compared to the traditional Oscars, but also not revolutionary. It made the show very like most smaller awards shows, the kind us regular poets or writers might attend. I felt there was a substantial emphasis placed on current social discussions, particularly diversity, representation, racism, violence. I’m no expert, but I suspect that may well be, to use the old Hollywood term, “box office poison.” So, if the ratings turn out to be bad, I will not be shocked. Given that I agree with many of the viewpoints expressed or embodied, should I consider that then brave?

Here at my keyboard today, I started to write a further reflection on those elements. Then I decided to drop it. Then I decided to include it again. Then dropped it. I doubt there is any demand for my extended thoughts on these matters.

But it is still #NationalPoetryMonth. Two of the award recipients made poetry a substantial portion of their acceptance speeches. Did anyone else note that?

Chloe Zhao began her speech for Best Director by saying that her father would banter with her when she was a child by reciting parts of the Three Character Classic*  back and forth to each other from memory. She then recited that poetic work’s opening two lines in Chinese and then in English translation. Let me print those two lines here, and also the two that follow, which add additional illumination I think:

“People at birth
Are entirely good
Their natures are similar
But their habits make the difference”

.

The White Hen or was Dick and Jane ghostwritten by W C Williams

William Carlos Williams concision and white chickens meet Confucian respect for elders. Maybe I need to reassess Dick and Jane?

.

The second bit of poetry was both even more subtle and yet striking too in its poetic compression. Although Best Actress winner Frances McDormand opened with a tiny, informal comic aside, I think she intended her entire acceptance speech to be this:

“I have no words, my voice is in my sword!’

The sword is our work.

And I like work.”

I was stunned. First of all, the concision overwhelmed me, but I believe I caught some intense meaning in these 19 syllables making 19 words. The opening line is MacDuff’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That character utters it as he seeks to revenge the killing of his family. In McDormand’s context, I think the Blakean sword here is not a harvester of souls, but the un-resting illumination of our best work.

Your sword is your work. There is joy in that.

No new audio piece today, but since another Oscar appears in it, and it tells of the plague of humanity being seen as nails, and guns the only tool, I’ll give you former movie critic** Carl Sandburg’s “Long Guns”  with a guest appearance by the spirit of Howlin’ Wolf as MacDuff. Player gadget below for some of you, and this highlighted hyperlink will play it if you don’t see that.

.

*Despite developing an attraction for classical Chinese poetry, I didn’t know that work. Zhao’s experience wasn’t unique. I read that it’s long been used as an introductory text for young children. I can only flash back to the Fun with Dick and Jane  readers of my grade school years, which I’m not sure bring as much instructional density.

**No fib. For 8 years he was the film critic for the Chicago Daily News. He wrote hundreds of reviews, interviewed Hollywood figures, and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of a developing art. Someone has collected his film reviews, and here’s Roger Ebert’s review, and another account, and a short discussion on Sandburg and his view of films.

Wild Nights with Emily

I’ve been looking forward to this Emily Dickinson biopic since I first heard of it a few months back. I acknowledge the difficulty of making a film about writers, particularly if the film wants to give due weight to their writing, the least cinematic of art forms—but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

From indications I was expecting Wild Nights with Emily to be irreverent, but I often like some irreverence, even about things I admire. The advance publicity used the hook that it was going to go strong on the theory that Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert were lovers. That’s a legitimate theory, with evidence to support it, but the trailer and the promo clip I saw indicated it was going to be one of those “Hey, famous artists go through all the wacky and awkward stuff we do, especially when they fall in love.”

Does that sort of thing diminish art or the people that make it? We should laugh at both devils and angels some of the time (just not all the time). For an example of literary irreverence that worked for me, I’ll point out Upstart Crow,  a series that turned Shakespeare into something between the Dick Van Dyke Show  and 30 Rock  using a passel of modern critical theories as comic premises.

Wild Night with Emily Poster

What’s with all the black. More Emily Dickinson goth moves?

 

As it turns out, Wild Nights with Emily  didn’t consistently work for me, though I’m glad I saw it and I admire the effort. It’s awkward in ways that alternately charm, puzzle, and just seem off. It tries for a complex structure that jumbles time-lines back and forth and the individual scenes seem very separate. There’s little character development, little sense of change or dynamics of Character A’s actions changing the course of Character B’s life outlook, even in the central love story. We see a scene or two of Susan and Emily falling in love as teenagers, but there’s no attempt to explain why Susan or Emily were attracted to each other instead of someone else, they just are. Nor is this attempted for any of the other relationships—some kind of lust/attraction spark occurs and bang they go off. It’s consistent enough that I think the writer/director Madeleine Olnek is making a point of this. Oddly, these connections go badly for the couples other than Susan and Emily. It’s kind of a bokeh effect thing: our lead couple just want each other, and that sort of works out, and everyone else is just mindlessly and brainlessly lusting.

Indeed, my impression was that the writer/director really was interested in making a point, or series of points. The film isn’t a biographical narrative* or love story or sex-positive comedy or an exploration of creativity, it’s more an illustrated lecture with actors given to illustrate those points. The disconnection of the scenes is just a new slide in the deck being shown. The points are all worthy ones, most of which I’d agree with. Dickinson was a mocker and questioner, not a conventional sentimentalist. No one understood how revolutionary her poetry was. Families are weird, and their secrets show that. The Patriarchy is blind to a whole lot of things.

Some of the scenes work well as illustrations for me. Some don’t. Your mileage may vary. Many scenes use humor to make their point. A couple of the scenes were Dada-weird (e.g. Lavinia and her fake cat). Others are very much “see the broadly underlined point.” Some are emotionally riveting in the same way that actors doing single scene can be as they instantly inhabit a character, but again, the film isn’t really a narrative. Nor does it go out of its way to say “I’m not a narrative” like other attempts to subvert the artist biopic genre like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould  or  I’m Not There.  If you go to see it, go with that expectation and I think you’ll be more primed to absorb what it’s trying to do.

A couple of Olnek’s points I’m less sure of (she may be right, I’m no Dickinson scholar). She seems to be overcorrecting on the Dickinson was a hermit, always sequestered in her room thing. As far as her film shows it, it’s all a misunderstanding, and she just didn’t like Mabel Todd. The impression I get from my Dickinson biography research is that a much more sociable person did become increasingly withdrawn as she aged. And she seems to be saying that Dickinson directly sought publication, only to be rebuffed by the Philistines. Maybe there’s an earlier period I’m unaware of, but the testimony of among others, Susan Gilbert Dickenson herself included, was that the scattered publication of 11 or so poems in her lifetime was largely due to the efforts of others which Dickinson did not encourage.

A few times in the movie they use Dickinson’s poetry, spoken and with subtitles with scenes portraying something they relate to the poems. I’m favorable to that tactic—after all, the Parlando Project is doing that with music instead of film. I think that works in the film. The “Hope’ is a thing with feathers”  and “I died for beauty but was scarce”  examples were particularly memorable for me.

That’s my reaction to the film. I appreciate the effort that went into it, and the task it set out for itself isn’t easy.  Is it the best possible way to spread greater, deeper appreciation of Dickinson? Hell if I know. Worth a try.

 

*Maybe it’s just me, but has anyone done a straightforward Emily Dickinson timeline that says what Emily Dickinson was thought to be doing year to year? A good one would include links to the various theories regarding people that came and went in her life. I find some of this hard to keep straight and the non-linear choice of this movie obviously didn’t aim to help me. For example, the Mabel Todd/Austin Dickinson affair that started in 1882 happened very late in Emily’s life, more than a decade after she’s thought to have written the vast majority of her poems. And the first meeting with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862 was when her amazing productivity was accelerating.

By the way the film’s bokeh effect makes Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson look like comic idiots. Given the heroic things they tried to do in their time, I give them a little more credit than that.