By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2014
As per their custom, come the end of the year, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott - chief film critics of
respected US daily newspaper The New York Times - have written pieces dealing
with the "state of the art", their favourite movies of the year, all within a more general cultural framework.
it's true that both critics usually write acute, perceptive articles well worth
readers' attention, I found the ones they wrote this year to be particularly stimulating.
Both appeared on December 11, 2013, under the titles The Festival World, And
What's Beyond (the one by Dargis), and Feasts For The
Eyes, 1,001 Nights' Worth (the one by Scott). (Those who are interested can
also check The Big Picture Strikes Back, a long piece written by Scott which
appeared in The New York Times magazine, on November 25, 2013.)
both those pieces deserve to be read in full. Here I'll quote from the Scott
piece, as I believe this excerpt to be relevant for what I'm gonna discuss in a moment.
Anyone who laments the death or decrepitude of movies just isn't paying
attention. (...) The art of cinema is thriving. (...) The movie business has
always been rough, of course, but at present there seems to be a growing disjunction
- a chasm, really - between the quality of the work being produced and the
intensity of its reception. (...) There are many reasons this is so. (...) But
(...) let me be blunt. The problem is you. A vital art form requires an engaged
- which is to say a skeptical and demanding as well as enthusiastic - audience
to ensure its economic viability and encourage its aesthetic development."
The first time I read about David Mamet's work was at the time when his
play Speed-the-Plow was about to be staged. It was the end of the eighties, and
the name of the magazine in which that long feature article appeared was
Interview (to be more precise: Andy Warhol's Interview). It wasn't that
difficult to guess that the main reason the play was getting a substantial
amount of attention was the fact that this was Madonna's debut as a theatre
actress. Whatever the reason, it was thanks to that article that, a few years
later - when Mamet's play Oleanna was so widely
discussed, also thanks to the fact that audiences regularly, loudly, and
heatedly took the part of one or the other of the play's main characters
(something which also regularly happened later, in the theaters of the United
Kingdom, where Mamet's play was staged under the direction of Harold Pinter) -
Mamet's name was not unknown to me.
And it was
precisely the audience reaction to that play that made me think, for the first
time in ages, that maybe theater could still be regarded as a contemporary,
vital, art form, which could still talk to our present age.
only amounts to a minimum, thanks to the Internet and the fact of theater
coverage on such newspapers as The New York Times nowadays being available to
me, today my knowledge of theater is not at below zero level, as it was in the
So I have
one question: When we think about theater, do we still think about it as being
a contemporary, vital, art form? To formulate my question a bit differently:
Suppose you were asked to mention a contemporary art form that's vital today,
would your answer be "theater!"?
As I argued at length in my editorial titled Ten Years - the piece I
wrote to celebrate Clouds and Clocks's tenth
anniversary - for some time now, come year's end, and the moment to decide what
kind of year it was when it comes to music, I have noticed that I'm quite
incredulous seeing how mediocre, half-baked, and unambitious was the majority
of the stuff I had access to. It goes without saying that there are still a few
beautiful albums released, some of which even make skillful use of this or that
musical language. There's always an unpleasant feeling lurking in the shadows,
though, like when you know in your heart that something is seriously wrong. And
it all becomes clear the moment when old, fine music from way back - the most
recent example being the re-release program of all things Zappa in 2012 - is
played side-by-side with all those new releases.
become darker and darker every day. Suppose we know for a fact that Henry Cow's
historical debut album, Legend, was recorded in the course of three weeks. Some
could say that one only needs money to cover three weeks in the studio, which
is admittedly no big deal. What is not said - and nowadays, maybe, not even
fully understood - is that before those three weeks there were decades of hard
work and effort spent. Decades when musicians studied their instruments,
mastered them, discovered and invented playing techniques, developed a personal
language when it comes to composition, and finally created a "group
sound" that was original and impossible to mistake. Seriously now: How
many groups you see that make you think these goals are within their reach?
What I just said doesn't necessarily entail that we can't expect
something of great value to be released in the foreseeable future - nor the
current "business scenario" when it comes to all things digital makes
it impossible for some to survive, and even thrive.
aforementioned economic conditions have to take their toll, creating tunnels
with no exit. As somebody said to me just the other day, today nobody finds it
strange to pay ten euros for a beer, while for the majority the idea of paying
ten euros for a CD is simply absurd. Then there are the most recent
consequences of multitasking, with people gladly staying in the street talking
and drinking, while musicians who play in those pubs and clubs all face an
There was a
time when astute commentators argued that musicians had to earn their living
playing live and selling t-shirts, since getting money from the sale of CDs was
by now a thing of the past. Which is precisely what happened in the case of,
say, The Rolling Stones. What about those other groups? And what happens when
the attending audience is so thin - and, more important, when their presence is
so aleatory - that buying gas to play a concert
beyond a radius of 150 km. doesn't make sense for a group? "There's always
the Internet, and streaming", sure. To sell what?
situation looks especially devastating when it comes to jazz, a scenario where
meager sales had for a long time now been regularly augmented by those
highly-celebrated "European concerts" which, one way or another, were
customarily funded by public money. But with subsidizes now on the wane,
thinning concert audiences, and CD sales at an all-time low? Lately I've
noticed an increasing number of projects being financed thanks to such
mechanisms as Kickstarter, and of course I greatly
prize the chance for artists to receive money this way in order to fund their
projects. Then, when the CD goes on sale...?
My line of reasoning assumes something as being true: the continual
decrease in quality of the majority of new music releases.
I have to
admit that reading magazines, both print and online, one gets the impression
that today's music panorama sees an unprecedented flowering of prized
creativity. It goes without saying that, should music magazines declare that
when it comes to quality things are far from rosy and that the majority of new
releases they review are, to put it kindly, well below par, a revolt of angry
advertisers would make them quickly reconsider the fact.
such as this the trick is to only deal with the present, dealing with
"today's best only" being the best tactic by far. Which is a strategy
that's consonant with one's employing young, unskilled contributors of
"highly selective" knowledge, who get low pay, who find it extremely
logical not to compare new stuff to old stuff whose very existence they ignore.
When it comes to adults, they can always "pretend".
the whole matter of criteria for judging quality, of course.
"Weighing" something means comparing it to a "measuring
unit" of some sort, but if the "measure" we assume as being
adequate is "how much fun one is having", then everything that makes
one pass their time is OK. The amount of "subjective satisfaction"
then becomes the only "meter", which merely becomes a function of
one's taste just like it happens when it comes to food or the colour of wallpaper one chooses for one's home.
comes to the issue of "taste" there's another aspect which is also
quite serious, which deserves to be discussed separately.
The fact of one appreciating something while comparing it to other items,
while taking its "construction" into consideration, can also be
treated as being, "in the end", simply "a matter of taste".
obvious that this kind of "preference" cannot be placed inside a
"means-end" relationship like, say, getting medicine x as the best
way to treat disease y.
But it's at
our peril that we forget that arguing in public one's "preference"
through rational discourse is very different from stating one's preferences as
being only an aspect of taste, so placing them way beyond any chance of
modern ways of consumption increasingly presents themselves as pure consumer
whims, a road at the end of which we can see the complete disappearing of all
critical faculties - something that the "like it"/"do not like
it" feedback required by modern social platforms does nothing to
Though I'm quite aware of the risk of losing those few readers who have
bothered to read me this far, in closing I have to add one more reason of
dissatisfaction when it comes to things I listen to.
already mentioned those items called "depth" and "newness",
I'll have to add a quality which at first sight will look paradoxical:
Alas, as a
boomer, I, too, believe that the only success worth aiming for is one on a
"Beatles"-scale. Where the ingenuity of one's ideas, when popular on
a mass scale, can only "double its value".
of one's reason, of course - it will be interesting to read what Robert Christgau will have to say on this, and on related matters,
if, as I've been told, "The Dean of the American Rock Critics" is
currently writing a book of memoirs.
are the type of matters that may appear as being quite abstract - here maybe
the "three divisions" concept by Robert Fripp can be of help, third division being the avant-garde, arts-and-craft,
exploration of Frippetronics, second division being
the dignified dimension of The League Of Gentlemen - "but you won't change
the world" - first division being of course King Crimson.
I have to
admit it's quite paradoxical to lament the absence of a group from the
"first division" when it's clear that nowadays we can't even afford
an "experimentation for the happy few" sector that's surviving, if
not exactly thriving.
Right now, and I mean now, everybody is called to do their part.
© Beppe Colli 2014
CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 1, 2014