Monday, January 26, 2009

The unrevolutionary "Revolutionary Road"

Yesterday afternoon I went to see "Revolutionary Road" at the Chase. For those of you who have seen it, you know this film packs quite a punch, but I left the theater feeling absolutely stunned. I heard some others walking out mumbling things like "well that was depressing," but I honestly just did not know what to say about it...I had no words to express how it made me feel.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to figure it out, and I came to the conclusion that the best way to describe this film's message is by using the phrase which the two main characters coin to describe their lives; they say their existence is filled with "hopeless emptiness." And when those credits started to roll across the screen, I was overcome, and I walked slowly back to my car feeling hopelessly empty. Even though this movie is set in the 50s, it loses absolutely no relevance in today's society.

There was a lot to appreciate in this film; the acting was very good- Kate might even win an Oscar- and the supporting cast was full of memorable characters. The cinematography was also very fine. It was fun to see Leo and Kate together again in a movie. But overall, I would hesitate to recommend this film to anyone. In my opinion, America is already full of enough "hopeless emptiness."
I read an article the other day by Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, entitled "On the Uses of a Liberal Education As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students." In it, Edmundson describes the current generation (my generation) of students as having a predominantly cynical outlook on life, and I will tell you that one of the ties that holds my group of friends together is our cynicism. We are part of a society in which it's not cool to be happy. It's not cool to be in love anymore. It's cool to be dysfunctional and "depressed," and to pop pills.
As testament to this fact, last year my single friends and I threw an "Anti-Valentine's Day" Party, and to make matters worse, the only friend I have who was in a stable, long-term relationship at the time preferred to spend the night at our Anti-Valentine's Day party rather than with her boyfriend, who happily went out to bars with his other single friends.
When we see PDA we glare and scoff. "Sex and the City," the young, single female's bible, has an episode called "The Ick-Factor," a phrase that the girls come up with to describe romantic gestures made by male suitors, and I will whole-heartedly align myself with all of these sentiments; there's nothing that will get my eyes rollin faster than a googly couple. But I'm starting to think that this is a problem because I genuinely have no interest in being in a serious, committed relationship. I am the product of one disastrous relationship- my parents have a failed marriage- I have too many friends with divorced parents, and too many jaded girlfriends. Then, as bitter icing on the lemon cake, movies like "Revolutionary Road" come along and validate all of my fears. I can't get over my cynicism by thinking that the situations that made me like I am are personal and unlikely when society is telling me that they are common to many.

This movie might win best picture, or score some Oscars for its actors, but I for one could do without it. I have enough "hopeless emptiness," thank you, and it's called real life.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Something slightly legitimate that I wrote for a class.

Living Jazz

My mother is a painter. As a young girl, I frequently crept down the stairs to my basement where she had her studio, and I would perch on the stairs watching her work. I remember watching her hands, the smell of the wood she carved, and the heat from the tiny iron stove. Most of all however, I remember the smooth sounds of jazz music hanging lazily about, lingering in the air. My mother always painted to music, and it was almost always jazz. I remember the sense of calm I felt listening to it, and the feeling of depth it carried. My mother loved Miles Davis. His melancholy, heartfelt jazz was the perfect backdrop for the scene before me. In recent years, I have found jazz to be the perfect soundtrack for many other scenarios in my life. When I think of jazz I picture wine bars with dim lighting and deep conversation in clouds of swirling cigar smoke; I picture leather chairs and mahogany floors. I think of maturation, and heartache, and Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” on NPR. Jazz is a type of music so versatile that it can unobtrusively provide the background music for dinner parties while simultaneously elevating the level of the party to what some might consider “intellectual”. Jazz is that strange guest at the party who no one really knows, but everyone wants to get to know. He leans on the fireplace looking deep in thought, and though he only speaks when spoken to, he has the most interesting things to say.
Jazz arrived on the scene in the early nineteen hundreds. One can hear its influences in the folk songs of England, Scotland, France and Germany. However, it was born under the sign of race, and it is deeply entwined with the history of the African-American people. It is directly linked to the sad beat of the slave ships brought to America from West Africa, to the rhythmic accompaniments of field workers, the spiritual blues of Southern church choirs and chain gangs, and the “gandy-dancers” laying down railroad lines. Obviously these bleak origins help one understand the blues, that heart-wrenching form of jazz where oppression and lost dreams seep out of saxophones and hold pianos in the minor keys. This is the music of rainy days and bad moods and isolation. Blues-jazz is a shoulder to cry on. Knowing its origins helps explain why I get the feeling while listening to the blues that it is actually listening to me. I once had an interaction with a friend where, upon entering my apartment, she remarked “why are you listening to this depressing music?” She was referring to a song off of the John Coltrane Quartet CD I was playing. I explained to her that I was having a bad day. I was feeling lonely and misunderstood. She asked why that would make me want to listen to sad music. “Won’t that just make you feel worse?” She asked. No, it did not. Blues has a remarkably sympathetic quality. It knows your troubles. Blues doesn’t over-power its listener with its own sadness. It accompanies them perfectly. Blues-jazz understands.
There is also the other side of jazz which developed out of the same sad circumstances as the blues, but which was meant to lift people’s spirits instead of sympathize with them. In the late nineteenth century, rag-like rhythms and melodies could be heard in banjo tunes, quadrilles, minstrel songs and marches- dance music with “ragged rhythm”. This style was popularized and made mainstream by musicians like Scott Joplin with his “Maple Leaf Rag”, written in 1899. Ragtime jazz morphed into forms known as stride, be-bop, Dixieland, and perhaps the best known form, swing. This is the jazz I think of when I hear the phrase “The Roaring Twenties”. This era is characterized by musicians like Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong (the man known as “Satchmo”) and “The King”, Duke Ellington. The vocalists of this period had voices like saxophones- women like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. During the twenties, jazz fully emerged in the form of swing and big-band jazz, and it took the country by storm. The music also had a profound influence on radio, movies, literature, and the way people lived their lives. The term “The Jazz Age” implies not just a revolution in music, but also a revolution in the way people acted and thought. By listening to jazz, America started to live jazz; it is a way of life more free from conventions, more upbeat and invigorating.
All of the jazz concerts I have been to have been more like a musical conversation than a show. The band becomes an extension of the singer. The instruments emit human emotions. Together, the musical components create not just a sound but a force to be reckoned with. Jazz performers are more laid back, or so it seems to me. If they sense that the crowd is more into a particular song, they lengthen it out, improvise more, deciding the direction the song will take beat by beat. By playing on the crowd’s emotions, the crowd grows much more invested in what they are witnessing; they are no longer just an audience, they are part of the music. Even if the band is playing a song that the listeners know and like, there is improvising going on, so the crowd can’t really know what to expect. It is in this way that jazz fans throw caution to the wind and just go along with the flow of the music, wherever it might run to. This is the spirit of jazz that I believe caught America by storm during “The Roaring Twenties,” which caused women to hike up their skirts, and made the whole country dance like beings possessed.
When describing jazz, one must speak to the effect jazz has on those around it, which includes not just the audience, but also the performers. My first “jam session” happened several years ago. A musician friend of mine owned a not-so-chic loft in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. The loft was on the top floor of a very old building right next to the EL tracks. His roommates were musicians as well, and due to the overpowering noise generated by the trains passing by day and night, they had to create a room in their apartment insulated from the chaos. They called it “The Womb”. For dramatic effect, the light in this room was generated by a single red bulb. Somehow, in this tiny, closet-sized space, they fit an old upright piano, a full drum set, several electric and acoustic guitars, a few amplifiers, and two standing microphones. As musicians tend to do, we all migrated towards the instruments after dinner. I took my seat at the piano, and we had among us a skilled drummer, a guitarist and a bassist. We all started messing around on our respective instruments, creating a cacophony of sound. I suggested that we try and play a song together, but coming from all different musical backgrounds, we couldn’t come up with any one tune that we all knew how to play, so we decided to just “jam” in the key of G.
I was not as comfortable with the concept of “jamming” as my friends. My training in piano had been almost entirely classical. My musical training involved sitting up straight, playing exactly the right note at the exact second it was supposed to be played. It was very hard for me to wrap my brain around the concepts which are the heart and soul of jamming, like syncopation and improvisation. I knew the notes within each scale by heart, but I had never played them in any form dissimilar to Bach’s “Variations”, as warm-ups before practicing my pieces. Jamming was like teaching my fingers how to move for the first time. I had to take my hands back to the beginning, say good-bye to convention and tradition, and figure out how to play with my instincts instead of my mind. The sounds that I created in the womb were spontaneous and free. This was the first time I had ever just gone nuts on a keyboard. My brain shut off and all that existed were my ears and my hands. The music came pouring out of my finger tips, flying up and down the keyboard, mixing trills and chords and rhythms, and playing off of the other musicians. My notes danced with the notes from the other instruments, and somehow they all came together, and the music was jazz. We switched out of G and into C, F and D, in messy transitions that somehow sounded just fine. I discovered a side of me I didn’t even know existed. When the guitarist suggested we take a break, I looked up to find that three hours had passed, it was one in the morning, and I was covered with sweat and out of breath.
When I left the loft shortly after, ears still buzzing, I stepped out into a changed world. The night was alive around me; the street lights were brighter, and the city was warmly inviting me out into the evening. It was then that I realized for the first time what “The Jazz Age” really meant. It was a revolution in sound that couldn’t help but forge a revolution in thought. Jazz is the most human form of music. It is music anthropomorphized. Jazz musicians give their songs life by playing them and this human life force is so strong that people cannot help but be shaken by it. Jazz shakes us to dance and it shakes us to think, but mostly, it shakes us to feel alive.