Saturday, May 28, 2016

Kind of Cool

Two jazz trumpet players, Miles Davis and Chet Baker, are back in the news due to the release of two biopics: Miles Ahead, about Davis, was written, directed and stars Don Cheadle; Born to Be Blue, about Baker, was written and directed by Robert Budreau and stars Ethan Hawke. Neither film inspired much enthusiasm from critics, except perhaps the dredging up of a tired argument in which the trumpeters themselves were not involved, a sort of East Coast-West Coast musical rivalry. While both musicians received high praise from their contemporaries, there was a great deal of rather silly controversy over which one was the more deserving of praise. Their careers had their ups and downs, and both films concentrate on the downs - the source of most of the interesting drama in these musicians' lives.

I have been a jazz lover for about as long as I can remember - before I even knew what it was. When I was ten, I was sitting in the back seat of a car and a pretty sixteen year old blonde in the front seat turned around and looked at me. I was a cute kid, but painfully shy. There was music playing on the radio, probably rock music, and she asked me, "What kind of music do you like?" Without stopping to think of an answer, I blurted out "Jazz!" The girl tilted her head in amazement, smiled a curious smile, and said, "Jazz?!?"

I didn't know it then, but jazz was the greatest musical idiom of the 20th century. Some of the greatest jazz musicians were playing then. It was 1966, and post-bop was the latest permutation of jazz. Listening to some of it now, it sounds as edgy and bold as it did then - more so, since jazz has slipped into ossification since then, like it had nowhere else to go. I think it has to do with the fact that jazz is more about musicians than it is about music. And when the mass audience, which had never really embraced jazz as its own, turned its back on jazz in the late 60s, turning instead to funk and psychedelic rock, those jazz musicians who had survived the 60s tried to stay alive by changing styles, modes, and mixing jazz with other forms. The results sound terrible today precisely because of its impurity - music that can't make up its mind what it wants to be.

A jazz musician isn't just an interpretive artist, like an actor who has to follow a script, or a classical musician a score. When a jazz musician takes the stage, he may begin with the familiar notes of a standard like "My Funny Valentine," but from the initial notes of the melody he can go wherever his mood or his frame of mind may take him, to a destination that he may not even have glimpsed when he started. He has the freedom and the power to be both interpreter and creator, making something out of thin air in front of his audience. On their best recordings, such musicians wrote their own songs, used a handful of notes they assembled in the morning as a jumping off point for their rapturous improvisations in the evening. One such jazz artist was Miles Davis, who originated a minimalist, clean - "cool" - musical style that attracted listeners because it lacked the overwhelming busyness of bop, the sometimes bewildering multiple layers of notes piled on notes that characterized the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. As much as Davis was famous for ushering in the cool era of jazz, there were many imitators, and none of the imitators was as successful - more successful even than Davis - as Chet Baker.

There had always been great jazz musicians who were white. Jazz is an idiom - not a form unto itself, but a kind of dialect. It was the opposite of parochial, as the success of jazz everywhere in the world proved; it was universal. White artists, however (especially in America), had an advantage over their black fellow musicians that was unfair. Because jazz was largely played by black musicians, the discriminatory laws in America that deliberately isolated black people from white society made it difficult for black jazz musicians to perform wherever they wished. The Swing Era was the closest that jazz came to being American Popular Music. But it did so because of predominantly white bandleaders like Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, and Artie Shaw.

The postwar era ushered in great changes. How could anything, least of all music, fail to reflect the enormous experience of a world war? There was a need and an appetite for something new, even revolutionary. But as much as musicians and listeners were ready for change, conservative forces in society wanted things to return to the way they were before the war, especially in the Deep South. Too often, black jazz musicians touring the South found themselves playing in clubs on one side of the tracks only to learn that they had to sleep and eat on the other.

Chet Baker was different, and not just because he was white. He and his fellow musicians, which included the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, were practitioners of the "West Coast Cool" bebop sound. Baker had earned chops of his own playing with Charlie Parker in some of Parker's west coast gigs. And Baker could sing, sort of. His vocals were actually alot like his trumpet style - spare, reedy, unforced, and rather bland. But he was popular, and his striking (white) looks landed him Downbeat's Trumpeter of the Year award in 1953 and 1954 when more talented (black) trumpeters were struggling. They knew - and deep down, so did Baker - that his popularity had little to do with his playing.

It's easy today to look back on the era and laugh. But it's also too easy to see Baker's dramatic decline as some kind of tragic fall. The truth is somewhere in between. Baker wasn't the equal of Miles Davis, but neither was he a total joke, as too many observers of late are suggesting. Jokes don't win Downbeat Awards, however racially biased they used to be. People still find something of value in Baker's early recordings, and in his recordings of the 1980s, after he got new dentures and regained his embouchure, even if they're aware of what Miles and Dizzy (and Clifford Brown and Roy Eldridge) were doing at the same moment. Holding all of his advantages against Baker is as unfair as the system that made him popular.

The two biopics Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue concentrate on moments of crisis in the lives of and Davis and Baker. The critics I've read liked neither film, even if Miles Ahead, the film concentrating on Davis, was somewhat better received. The trouble starts when critics measured the success of the films against the worthiness of their subjects. However self-inflicted Baker's problems may have been (both he and Davis were heroin addicts), his life didn't follow the self-destructive curve that some critics would have us believe.

In 2002, a biography of Baker, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, by James Gavin, was published. Among the mostly favorable reviews was one written by David Thomson, a prolific and sometimes observant critic who is clearly more interested in famous subjects like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. As I said of him in a review of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, he is more of a fan than a genuine critic.

The thesis of his review of the Baker biography is that Baker was a bad jazz musician because he was white and because he was strikingly good-looking (which seems to be the only reason why Thomson was attracted by the subject in the first place). He opened his review with the following warning: "If you treasure Chet Baker, if you have all his recordings of "My Funny Valentine" and "Let's Get Lost," and if you revere the desperate effort to hit flat notes, to stretch more paining pauses, to disappear into the ether, then buy this diligent book, but do not read what I have to say about its subject."(1)

I read his review of the book because I was interested in the story of jazz, not necessarily in the story of Chet Baker. Jazz musicians, like blues musicians, often die suddenly or accidentally, and often far too soon. The talent they possess seems to be purchased at the expense of their souls, and a jealous death is always shadowing them, ready to press them for payment.

Evidently, if Chet Baker could've pawned his soul for some heroin, as he often did with his trumpets at his lowest point (he started using in 1957, served time in jail in Europe for drug offenses, and, in 1966, got his teeth knocked out in a drug-related altercation), he would have without a moment's thought. What any of this has to do with his playing is a question worth asking because it doesn't have an easy answer - despite David Thomson's strenuous efforts to convince us of Baker's total unworthiness.

Baker died in a fall from a second storey balcony in 1988. Thomson comments: "Had the man fallen or jumped, or had someone even pushed him? I am inclined to confess that I think it may have been me - I don't want to be unkind, and in this case it was surely mercy if some angel gave the man's frail back a tender, guiding push."

For Thomson, Baker's life story after discovering heroin is so monotonously depressing that he feels sorry for his biographer:
"Baker was out to bring everyone down. It would not surprise me if - just to get through the labor--Gavin needed an hour or so every night listening to something as cleansing, explosive, and hopeful as Louis Armstrong, Lee Morgan, or Clifford Brown, or anyone who knew how to pick up a trumpet and blow, as opposed to using the instrument to enlarge an exquisite, maudlin, and grisly sigh. No, I do not like Chet Baker." I don't know that I like him either, but I can't condemn him simply for not being black or not being Louis Armstrong. Do I condemn Thomson for not being Vernon Young - a fellow Americanized Englishman, but much finer writer and critic?

"Truly I think that the Chet Baker story was, from start to finish, based on his appearance. He was pretty, he was handsome, he was cute." It's possible, all these years since, to separate Chet Baker's trumpet playing from his face - especially since, by the time he was 40, he had entirely lost his looks. And it was his later recordings in the 1980s that critics recognize as examples of his best playing, when he looked like death warmed over, as my father used to say.

As for his playing, Thomson quotes Art Pepper, a fellow white jazz musician, from his memoir Straight Life (1979):

"Billy Wilson [Pepper's veiled renaming of Baker] plays like he is. When I knew him, when he was young, he was a real warm, sweet, loving person. And he plays just that way. But if you listen to his tone, it never was very strong; it's pretty and kind of cracking. It's weak. And when he was faced with prison--because he got busted for using drugs--he couldn't stand it. He couldn't go because he was afraid, and when they offered him an out by turning over on somebody he couldn't help but do it. He's a weak person. That's the way he plays. That's the way he sounds."

At least Pepper was fair enough to credit Baker's playing with warmth and sweetness. Whether or not his death was suicide, whatever was responsible for Chet Baker's success, it's silly to blame him for it. Was John Coltrane responsible for his early death from cancer? If being a gifted jazz musician carried a curse, how was Baker to blame if his curse came ready-made, as it did for anyone who picked up an instrument and made something out of nothing for whomever was lucky enough to be listening?

(1) "My Unfunny Valentine" by David Thomson, The New Republic, June 17, 2002.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Far from Hardy

Perhaps it's too easy to find in Thomas Hardy's fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, a rebuke to Jane Austen's chronicles of courtship - splendid women absorbed in the puerilities of landing suitable husbands. Hardy's story begins with an independent and courageous young woman, with the usual fantastic Hardy name of Bathsheba Everdene, resisting the proposals of three stalwart men and ends with her eventually marrying all three. Hardy's story ends with one of the men dead (interestingly, the only one who has had sex with Bathsheba), and a second as good as dead - he will hang for the murder of the first. The man she ends up with, a rather stolid shepherd named Gabriel Oak (!), was the first to propose, but it's safe to suppose that she doesn't love him. If Bathsheba can be pinned down to loving any of them, it was the first, the one who seduced her.

After watching the latest of four film adaptations of Hardy's novel, it's tempting to think, comparing it to the expensive and expansive first adaptation, from 1967, "What a falling off was there." Recalling that film, directed by John Schlesinger and photographed by Nicolas Roeg, so many scenes stand out: the sheep dog driving Gabriel Oak's flock off a cliff, Sergeant Troy demonstrating his swordsmanship to Bathsheba, Troy breaking open the coffin of Fanny Robin, the gothic church's rain spout disinterring Fanny's grave, Boldwood's wedding party interrupted. But the simple fact that one recalls only scenes from Schlesinger's film exposes its essential weakness. It isn't a cohesive - or even a coherent - work. Top-heavy with three great actors, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp, perfectly cast, they appear to revolve in the memory around a beautiful nullity - Julie Christie, whose stardom was one of the most baffling flukes of the 1960s. Why she was never expected to act by David Lean and Schlesinger (who was her lover for awhile), is one of film history's greatest mysteries. But the technicolor imagery summoned up by Roeg, who would shortly embark on his own meandering career as director, caught fleeting glimpses of Hardy's fatalistic Wessex tale. Hardy belived so overwhelmingly in the inevitability of disappointment (especially in love) and grief that he could get away with devices like coincidence and foreshadowing, all of it to establish his sense of a powerful Fate ruling the lives of his characters.

In the new movie, there is a much airier feeling, a particularization of detail that has something other than the plot to justify it. The Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg, shows us how people lived in Victorian Dorsetshire, the English county that Hardy redubbed Wessex. The costumes are marvelously explicit. (When I reaquainted myself with the Schlesinger version twenty-five years ago when I was in the Navy, and Terence Stamp walked on in all his dragooned glory, I said, "Now that's a uniform!" A friend corrected me: "No. That's a costume.") The actors don't behave as if they're wearing costumes, but their everyday clothes, which is a subtle but marvelous touch.

Carey Mulligan heads the cast, as she should - since it's Bathsheba's story to tell. She provides this version with a much sturdier center, with her three male swains (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, and Tom Sturridge) providing their parts with supporting substance. But how I missed Bates, Finch, and Stamp in those roles! There are no English actors around today who could properly replace them. Mulligan carries the film well, even if she isn't as superficially toothsome as Julie Christie was in 1967. Vernon Young was right, though, when he pointed out that Christie missed her true calling as a flight attendant (he used the quaint term "stewardess"). Mulligan breathes life, if not fire, into Bathsheba, the same life that Hardy gave her on the printed page.

One other dimension missing from Vinterberg's film is the music, an absence that would've been welcome since it's so overused in today's films. Craig Armstrong composed a somewhat murky score for the film, along with a quasi-English folk song sung by Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen. But Richard Rodney Bennett supplied the Schlesinger film with a score worthy of Ralph Vaughan Williams, even if the film wasn't quite worthy of it. Vinterberg's choice of the Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen replaced Nicolas Roeg's lugubrious atmospherics with sunny, sharp images in keeping, perhaps, with the Dogme dogma of avoiding photographic effects (filters, underexposure, artificial lighting, etc.). It's an improvement, I think, on the Turneresque look of too many Hardy adaptations.

In keeping with the latest literary adaptations, the new Far from the Madding Crowd is just shy of two hours, which is a serious short-shrifting of the novel's density. The Schlesinger version was a hefty 169 minutes, but few audiences today have the patience for such long-hauls. Which means, of course, that it isn't just their loss but ours, dear reader. Vinterberg's film only managed to scrape in $30.2M worldwide. This time the madding crowd stayed away.

Monday, May 9, 2016

From the Cockpit

As of right now Filipinos, around forty million of them this year, are standing in line outside voting centers all over the Philippine archipelago waiting for their turn to cast their vote for candidates running for president, vice president (an office elected separately from the president), senator, all the way down to municipal mayor. Even if most of the 7,107 islands that constitute the geographical area of the country are uninhabited, the Philippine Committee on Elections (COMELEC) has transported automated voting machines made by a company called Smartmatic to as many populated areas as possible. Starting with the 2010 elections, COMELEC decided to replace the time-consuming manual voting system - in which voters filled out a ballot, folded it and put it into a secured box, and which resulted in a lengthy waiting period while the voting boxes were gathered from far and wide, unlocked, and the ballots counted by an army of volunteers (a process that could take weeks) - with a machine that works like a fax, transmitting every voter form via secure connection to a central receiving station in Manila. Vote tallying is over in a matter of a few days. For some reason, people actually believed that this faster process would prevent, or at least discourage, cheating.

In the past week, Filipinos hung around their barangays waiting for representatives of the candidates who carried lists of registered voters and satchels filled with envelopes. The envelopes contained cash of various denominations, from twenty pesos (45 cents) to one hundred pesos ($2.10). In provincial gubernatorial elections, which can get heated, the money in the envelopes can be as high a one thousand pesos ($21). An average voter, if he was patient, came away with maybe five to ten bucks this past week. It's called vote buying - a quite simple quid pro quo between poor people and the unimaginably rich people who rule them. I have seen it with my own eyes - the bank notes even had the candidate's name on a piece of paper stapled to them.

For a majority of Filipinos, cock-fighting is more than just an unofficial national sport - it's a metaphor of the political process that Filipinos experience. When they vote, it's easy to see their votes as a bet for the cock that they believe will win the fight. What happens after the winning cock/candidate takes office isn't a factor Filipinos consider when they vote. Despite no one ever acting in their interests in the seventy year history of their republic, Filipinos take voting seriously - far more seriously, strangely enough, than Americans - but they don't expect anything in return. For example, the common rationale behind the election of President Benigno Aquino III in 2010 was that he was already rich enough not to feel the need to steal from the people, as every president before him did. Ferdinand Marcos managed to steal billions of dollars (not pesos) from his people before they'd had enough and drove him from power. To our shame, Marcos's personal friend, Ronald Reagan, requisitioned two C-130 transport aircraft to carry the Marcos family, a small retinue of cronies, diaper bags crammed with jewels and gold bars, along with pallets of millions of freshly-minted Philippine peso notes to Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii where he was given asylum (and where he died of cancer a few years later).

Among the candidates running for president this time is a former mayor of Davao, a sprawling city in the Philippine Wild West (or South) on the island of Mindinao, named Rodrigo Duterte. Since he announced his candidacy, he has become wildly popular among voters, mostly the poor and uneducated, for his tough talk about mass executions for drug dealers. One rumor going around is that he shot and killed his own son when he discovered he was doing drugs - crystal meth, known hereabouts as "shabu." He has been labelled the "Philippne Donald Trump" because of his routine outrageous statements, like wishing he had been the first to have a go at an attractive Australian woman who had been gang-raped and murdered in a Philippine prison. Duterte makes Donald Trump look like Gandhi. Like Trump, however, he is ahead in the polls, and looks like a winner in this cock fight.

Also running, but for Vice President, is Senator BongBong Marcos, the only son of former dictator Ferdinand. He goes by the nickname BongBong, I suppose, because his real name is Ferdinand Jr. He was last polled to be in a dead heat with another candidate. He has been trying to paint a far different picture of his father's presidency since he arrived on the public stage, claiming that Ferdinand was interrupted in his project to transform the Philippines into another Singapore, and that he intends to continue that legacy if he makes it to president. Since Duterte has dictator written all over him, provoking current president Aquino (whose father, by the way, was murdered by Ferdinand - a fact that has never been legally established) to warn Filipinos that Duterte may actually do what he says he will do and throw out the Philippine constitution, Marcos may have to wait his turn to plunder his country.

Philippine politics has always resembled a two-ring circus, with the forces of corruption and the status quo in one ring amassing as much stolen wealth as they can before they get caught, and the forces of reform and fair governance in the other going about the piecemeal and arduous task of holding a window - if not a mirror - up to the antics being carried out in Ring #1 so that everyone can see. The Philippines is just about to conclude a six-year period of economic increase, brought about by Benigno Aquino III, son of the rich and powerful - and long-standing Hacendero - Cojuanco family. Like American president Barack Obama, his term (only one 6-year term) has been spent down in the weeds of governance unknown to ordinary Filipinos. It was uneventful, lacking in drama, boring in Circus Ring #2. Perhaps that was exactly what voters wanted in 2010, after twelve years of corrupt presidents, plunder, impeachments, and stolen elections. But now, evidently, once again they want to see what the first ring will give them - or what they will spectacularly steal.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Look at Me

Nothing demonstrates a society's faith in the rock-bottom decency of human beings than the manner with which it treats its criminals. Of course, the faith of some people in human decency appears to be far greater than that of others.

On April 20, a verdict was returned by the Oslo district court in Norway regarding a case brought against the state by Anders Behring Breivik. As everyone should know by now, Breivik is a Norwegian man who, on July 22, 2011, set off a bomb near a government building in Oslo, killing eight people. After lighting the bomb's fuse inside a parked van, Breivik then proceeded directly to a tiny island called Utøya where the country's ruling Labor Party was sponsoring a youth summer camp. With two guns, a Ruger carbine and a 9mm Glock, and a bag full of ammunition, Breivik strolled around the island for more than an hour, shooting everyone he encountered, often at point blank range, killing sixty-nine. When police finally arrived, he quietly surrendered to them, as if it, too, was a part of his plan. Before leaving his mother's flat on that horrific morning, where he had been living and where he had manufactured the bomb, he emailed a 1,500-word manifesto to a thousand online recipients in which he stated that he wanted his actions to provoke a revolution in Norway, and in every other European country, against immigrants, especially against what he called a "Muslim invasion." He also uploaded a 12-minute video to YouTube declaring the same message.(1)

Almost immediately after being taken into police custody, Breivik began to complain about the most trivial things. Asne Seierstad, in her article in The New Yorker, wrote:

"When his bloodied shoes were put in a plastic bag and he was given slippers, he refused to wear them. 'I don't want to be seen in these; they are riduculous,' he said." (2)

Then Breivik discovered that, during the shootings, he had somehow cut his finger and was bleeding. He remembered that, during the shootings on Utøya, he had been hit in the hand by something - probably a piece of the skull of one of his victims whom he had shot in the head. He continued until his interrogation, when he demanded a bandage. One of the policemen present muttered that he would get "no fucking bandage" from him. So Breivik refused to any more questions until he got a bandaid. Someone got it for him.

At the end of his ten-week trial in 2012, in which there was conflicting psychiatric opinion about his mental state (the court concluded he was not psychotic, although his total lack of remorse clearly showed that he was a sociopath), he was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison, the longest penalty under Norwegian law, but the sentence can be extended indefinitely.

In prison, Brievik was subjected to daily strip-searches, found himself separated from visitors by a glass partition, was prevented from communicating with his followers, and was restricted to solitary confinement for lengthy periods. Breivik complained to prison officials, as well as directly to the press about other things as well, such as having to use a Playstation 2 rather than a Playstation 3, having to drink cold coffee or not having enough butter for his bread, and about the total absence of artworks in the prison. He claimed that the resulting psychological damage made him a fan of a reality television dating show.  

Last year, Breivik filed suit against the state because some of the conditions under which he is obliged to live are, he claimed, a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting "inhumane and degrading treatment". Having to see him again every night on Norwegian television as his case was presented to the court, made the wounds of the families who lost a son or a daughter, a sibling or a friend in the massacre, bleed again. Seeing Breivik obviously relishing the publicity, his taking the stage once again, enraged everyone. Yet the law required that the court hear Breivik's complaints. And last month the court ruled in his favor, agreeing that there was deliberately inhumane and degrading treatment of him, but that some of the terms of his confinement, like his being prevented from communicating with his followers, should continue. And now the state has appealed the court's decision, Breivik will be provided with still more attention from the press, and Norwegians subjected to further outrage.

Some of the most acute minds in Norway have spent the years since the Utøya massacre trying to figure out how Breivik could have brought himself to the point of committing mass murder, and then to have carried it out without the slightest comprehension of wrong-doing. In another New Yorker article, published a year ago, Karl Ove Knausgaard tried to comprehend Breivik. "The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to 'show' us. . . He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me."(3)

If Breivik had committed his massacre in the U.S., it's fairly certain that by now he would be dead. Like Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (an act that Breivik tried to repeat with his Oslo bomb) and who was put to death by lethal injection in 2001, Breivik would have been expeditiously tried by a federal court, convicted, and sentenced to death - all out of consideration to the victims and in the interests of "justice." In Europe, however, capital punishment has long since been abolished. Brevik must spend the rest of his life in prison. The survivors of the massacre and the families of the victims never expected justice, since no matter what they did to Breivik, the seventy-seven dead will never be brought back. The responsibility of the state, therefore, is to keep him in one sort of confinement or other until he, too, is dead.

What is the purpose of incarcerating convicted criminals? My father, after his retirement from the Army, got a job as a guard at a prison in South Carolina, and it gave me a lesson in the confusion Americans evidently had towards prison inmates. Because of his experience with weapons, my father worked in one of the prison towers with a high-powered rifle and instructions to shoot anyone who tried to climb over one of the high fences near the main gate. Since he worked the graveyard shift, I remember he drank alot of coffee and slept all day.

The prison where he worked, down by the Congaree River in Columbia, was officially known as the South Carolina State Penetentiary. Penetentiary is an old word, betraying an old conception of imprisonment that has little meaning any more. It's where "penitents" - confessed sinners - go. The state department was called the Department of Corrections. That prisons "correct" prisoners is a liberal 20th-century idea that is the expression of a different understanding of what happens when someone breaks the law and what society needs to do about them.

Anders Breivik seems determined not to go quietly into the living oblivion that Norwegian law has sought to place him. "Every time his name appears in public," Knausgaard wrote, "he gets what he wants, and becomes who he wants, while those whom he murdered, at whose expense he asserted himself, lost not onky their lives but also their names - we remember his name, but they have become numbers."

(1) Charles Manson believed that the Tate-Labianca murders carried out by members of his "family" would spark a race war.
(2) "Mercy for a Terroist in Norway," The New Yorker, April 25, 2016.
(3) "The Inexplicable: Inside the mind of a mass killer," The New Yorker, May 25, 2015.