Sunday, 27 June 2010

Artists crossing mediums

Tom Waits is the guest editor of the July 2010 MOJO music magazine. Many of the issue's features possess a Tom Waits seal of approval: a small picture of a a somewhat vaudevillean Waits, raising his hat to us over his shoulder, surrounded by the words 'Tom Waits Approved and Edited'.

Waits is an artist whom I have long admired, but I've always viewed him from a slight distance. When one of my housemates in a giant student dwelling I lived in a good few years back tried to get me more into Bowie, I joked that there was only room in my life for one weird old musical male at a time (and at that time, the position was most thoroughly filled by Bob Dylan). And looking back on my musical obsessions, this quip actually holds a lot of truth. My major ones tend to run successively rather than simultaneously - with offshoots and sidelines, of course.

Identification as a dimension of one's engagement with art is something that I've taken a long time to come around to. I still disagree with many of the ways in which the phenomenon is conceptualised, but I no longer believe that it can be dispensed with entirely. My engagements with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in particular have crucially involved identification, albeit of two very different sorts.

Which takes me back to Tom Waits. I have never felt quite able to accept the invitation to the particular kind of identification that the Waits persona might be seen to offer. I am neither a great raconteur nor a drinker, so straight away I'm at a disadvantage! I feel as though I can understand and appreciate the appeal and artistry of Waits in a limited way, but I remain on the outside looking in. And whilst I think some art will deliberately strive to keep all its audience in such a position, in the case of Waits this is my particular position and not the only one available. I see that Waits has a brilliant and coherent artistic voice, part of which is a set of vocal chords whose timbre tells as much of a story as any story they tell, but I remain aware that it is not nor ever could be my voice. To which I must immediately add that I don't think for one minute I could 'achieve' the voice of Dylan or Springsteen. What I mean is that I would (do?) elect them to speak on my behalf. They articulate what I believe (and lead me to a greater understanding of what I believe) in a way that Waits does not.

So much by way of introduction (the above is something I've been grappling with for a while as I try to write a book about, amongst other things, how we engage with characters in the Hollywood cinema). What I really want to talk about emerges from the fact that in this particular issue of MOJO, we learn about the art that Waits enjoys: music, but also novels and movies (my three key mediums). Why do the artistic tastes of artists hold such fascination for us? To some readers the answers to this question may seem obvious, but I'd still like to separate them out, and end with a point that I'm particularly interested in.

1. We are interested in the tastes of anyone we respect/love. Love makes us want to understand another better, and respect can make us want to be more like them. Both desires will be fed by immersing ourselves in the culture that has helped to produce the object of our esteem/affection. In the case of an artist, who produces her/his own art, then if we harbour artistic aspirations of our own, then this takes on the specific form of reading what he/she reads to try and be able to write like he/she writes (insert references to other mediums as appropriate).
2. If we enjoy the artworks of a particular artist so much, then pursuing what that artist identifies as informing context is a way of prolonging and extending our contact with the loved object(s).
3. If we wish to understand the artist's work better, the things that the artist is interested in may provide clues or even direct references, indicate abiding concerns, help us to understand the genre the artist is working in better, and so on.

(Before my fourth and more extended point: what did Waits actually choose? The cover CD, compiled by Waits, is like many other MOJO cover CDs in content (and I don't mean that as an insult), and echoes especially many of Bob Dylan's key musical reference points: the Delta blues of Son House, the country music of Hank Williams, the electric blues of Howlin' Wolf. The film picks are solid. I was pleased to see The Night of the Hunter in there, and the inclusion of Wise Blood made me more determined to get around to watching it (John Huston's adaptation of a Flannery O'Connor novel; I want to see if I can write something about Huston's adaptations of female Southern authors - he also adapted Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye). 'All Carl Dreyer films' was an impressive declaration - and Babe: Pig in the City the biggest surprise. Despite being 'Tom Waits Approved and Edited', though, some lazy rhetoric gets in there. We are told, for example, that Leaving Las Vegas's 'tragic denouement is a rumination on an age-old adage: life's too short'. The novels, like the music and film picks, lean heavily towards the American, and suggested a few things I'd like to follow up if I ever find the time, including a Leadbelly biography.)

Reading about Tom Waits's tastes in films and novels also got me thinking again about something that's been on my mind for a while. How well can the art of an artist, and its particular appeals, survive the transition across mediums? I'm sure that there is no general answer to this question, and it would have to be dealt with on a case by case basis (especially given that some artists successfully work in several different mediums - which is not to say that the appeal of their work in each medium is necessarily analogous). In doing so, however, we might discover some general principles.

I have yet to discover much about Bruce Springsteen's taste in movies. I do know a little about things he has read at various points in his career, and this has already led me to read Caril, an account of the Starkweather murders across Nebraska in the 50s. Reading this book, a pleasure in its own right, has filled in a bit of the background context of the album Nebraska for me (and it is also informing context for Malick's film Badlands, based loosely on the Starkweather murders - and Badlands in turn is context for Nebraska; for example, the latter draws images from the former). It also piqued my interest in Flannery O'Connor's output, after I read Springsteen's comment that 'There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a part of the American character that I was interested in writing about ... some sort of meanness'.

How well would Springsteen's tone and rhetoric transfer to the screen? Part of me thinks it might not be a felicitous transportation. To return to Dylan for a moment: I have yet to see a film associated with the man and his work that I have thought an unreserved success. Don't Look Back probably comes the closest, but Masked and Anonymous is meandering and pretentious, and I'm Not There seems to me to suffer from similar problems of diffusion (and I also think of Dylan more as a modernist than a postmodernist, but it's through the latter lens that Haynes's film treats Dylan and his persona(e)). One should never judge films one has not seen, but the prospect of sitting through Renaldo and Clara fills me with dread.

In the case of Dylan, I find that the captivating images, admonishments, phrases and textures of his songs are not served well by a visual medium or by the dramatic modes that one usually finds there. I would never accuse Dylan of indulgence in his musical output, but on the screen that's what I feel one is presented with. (I am prepared to acknowledge that this is partly a result of my being most attuned to and appreciative of dramatic fiction in film.)

Springsteen presents a different problem. The narrative is there, but it's too economical for a feature length narrative fiction film. 'Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote/And for my nineteenth birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat'. The temporal compression and pared-downness of detail is intrinsic to the effectiveness of the song. Linking the events through a rhyme and reporting them all in the space of a few seconds reinforces the idea of a causal relationship (getting your girlfriend pregnant means you must marry and support her - in the world that the song depicts) and of the protagonist's experience of looking back on a series of events that seemed both inescapable in their logic and rapid in their succession. If the narrative were expanded out so that we got a scene of lovemaking, then later a scene of revelation, then a wedding, and so on, the original effect would be lost. (I should add here though that thinking about how Springsteen might or might not transfer to the screen is what led me to articulate this small point about 'The River': like many thought experiments about art, it generates critical insights and helps one to better articulate the effects of the text as it exists.)

Listening to the voices of Springsteen's characters in his songs, I am able to respond to them in the way I intuit the song wants me to. These characters are telling me the stories of their lives. They are narrating and summarising their experiences. But if I had to accompany them for the duration of a dramatic fiction, and see them live their lives rather than just hear them talking about them, would I feel the same way about them?

This will have to remain an open question for now. I will close by saying that George Pelecanos definitely manages to achieve a lot of 'Springsteen moments' on the page in his novels. As for the movies, I think my investigation should begin with Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, the plot of which is extrapolated from the words of Springsteen's 'Highway Patrolman', one of the songs on Nebraska.