Monday, August 20, 2007


I've been having a wonderful email discussion with my younger brother, Nathan

He was complaining about modern musical styles generally as well as trying to convince me of the importance of Synchronicity by The Police. He made some excellent points about interesting musical choices that they made.

I said that I think a whole lot of what's wrong with all of these musical genres and any number of sub-genres is lack of outside influence.

Imagine Mr. Rock & Roll Dude decides he wants to start a Rock & Roll band. He knows the popular Rock & Roll bands of the day and a small handful of the pre-canonized Rock & Roll bands from the 1970's. He knows a small number of individual blues songs, but little about the catalogs of songs that would have influenced the bands he loves. He knows the basic greatest hits of Johnny Cash and possibly one other country artist. He probably can't name a gospel song. He doesn't know much jazz or anything in particular about how it's played.

Because he has this tiny little understanding of music, his only way to approach the melody or rhythm is the same way he heard in that same small group of people. He neither instinctively comes to experiment with different approaches nor comes to a thought-out decision that another approach might make his performance more interesting.

It seems from what I've read and heard over the years that more specific sub-genres of music seem to have substantially more of that kind of tunnel vision approach. Rappers listen to rap and a small number of R&B artists that are direct antecedents to rap. Heavy metal guys listen to other metal and certain kind of classical.

But, of course, Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, etc. or Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, etc. didn't come from that limited an approach. They all knew music.

And even when you look at simpler music, the early Rock & Roll and R & B performers of the '50s and '60s, the majority came out of a background of knowing blues, country, gospel, jazz, etc.

Of course, that's what all three members of The Police brought to the group, and even more, they brought distinct strengths that the others didn't have as much, so that collectively their instincts and influences stretched a good long way out from the specific motif they were working with, which allowed them to play more interestingly within that motif. The same thing that's true of Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Nirvana or what have you. Frankly, nearly anyone who made compelling music over the course of some amount of time.

I think the same is true of movies.

Action movies are being made by people whose experience doesn't extend past Die Hard in any significant manner.

I discussed "torture porn", as it were, with my friend Jo.

Now, I'm uncomfortable with the blanket dismissal of these movies. I think the movies that open the trend were made by people who were attempting, arguably succeeding, in doing something more interesting or entertaining than easy shocks. Unfortunately, like all trends, they're taken over entirely by marketing departments and desperate young moviemakers desperate to jump on a trend to get attention.

And too many of these young moviemakers don't know how to give bigger and better shocks any way except ratcheting the extremity or at least attempting to. Despite the fact that the video revolution has created the ability for aspiring moviemakers to see movies from all through time, but the evidence suggests most are still focusing their attentions on the works that don't extend back further than the works of David Fincher, aside from a kind of greatest hits package.

If one wants to understand shocks, they should have a thorough knowledge of what has come before. Having a rich knowledge of Hitchcock, knowing the various movies produced by Val Lewton, seeing the Hammer movies, understanding Bava. But even past that, the rich darkness of Welles, the shattering emptiness of Bergman, etc. These are the kinds of things a person should be able draw from in order to make decisions that aren't mere second-generation copies of recent movies.

Think of what a horror director whose favorite movie is Tales of Hoffman might make...

Not that I'm trying to suggest one should see and recognize what works in the new. I'm a huge fan of art moving forward to fresh and exciting places.

Going back to The Police, however, you can see that they were also excited by the new sounds going on in punk rock, reggae, etc., but their understanding of jazz, R&B and early Rock & Roll is what made them able make something that was new and exciting at the time rather than simply a cheap and boring imitation of other British Punk bands or white reggae artists.


Jeremy Richey said...

I totally agree and found this a fascinating post. There is a real tendency, especially among younger fans, to not look back and to not genre hop at all. If they like heavy metal, they wouldn't think of listening to country. If they like gore movies, they wouldn't think of watching a classic musical. I find this limited way of approaching art to be extremely sad and frustrating.

The career of Elvis Costello is a perfect example of just how much criticism an artist can get for stretching out and exploring. The fact that his embracing of country, classical, jazz and pop in addition to his basic rock roots has continually been looked upon as some weird betrayel which is incredibly hypocritical to me. I find artists who refuse to grow, change or search to be the ones truly betraying their audience.

On the film front, when a young guy like Eli Roth goes out of his way to mention a Bresson film then I want to applaud. Here's a guy who very much wants to be a Horror film director but he is obviously willing to watch and learn from different things totally unrelated to the genre. This is something that is more and more getting lost in younger filmmakers and indeed audience members.

The thing that made Elvis (Presley and Costello), The Stones, Dylan, Lou Reed and so on so great is their willingness to love and learn from so many different genres...likewise when watching any of the true great film masters we can see them calling back to not just their particular genre but many if not all genres. A great Hitchcock film can be a thriller, comedy, horror and heavy drama at the same time.
People who are afraid to step out of their very safe boundaries are very rarely true quote the first Elvis, "I don't sound like nobody" and that definately came out of his willingness to listen to everybody...
Great post Neil.

Drewbacca said...

While I see what you're saying and where you're going, I have to disagree a tad.

I believe that a young musician who is influenced by newer artists isn't necessarily cheating himself or isn't diverse enough. If he grew up with J Cash, Beach Boys and Alabama (because that's what his folks listened to - i.e. me), then got into Junior High and listened to Motley Crue and Cinderella, then went through high school marching band but on the side listened to Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes and The Replacements, that's a whole lot of influence there.

By the time he hits college and starts a band, not only are his influences from the bands and artists named above, but all the artists that influenced those bands right?

So if I start making films out of college with my only influence being George Lucas, by default I'm actually influnced by Kurosawa as well; even if it is unknowingly so.

Furthermore, I think that you're not giving young film makers and musicians enough credit. I'm sure that most of them (who went through some sort of film school) are true cinemaniacs. Tarantino is a great example. If you sat down and talked with him, he's seen just about everything. Arguably more in the 60s and 70 exploitation pictures, but he knows the back log of cinema pretty well; even if it doesn't show in something like Kill Bill.

I read this blog from time to time and really enjoy it. But I seem to always get the feeling that for you, if it's new, it's bad. I'm sure PT Anderson, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Danny Boyle, Jeunet, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Sofia Coppola, The Coens, Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Greengrass and a whole slew of other relative new comers to film making have seen plenty of films "pre Die Hard or David Fincher."

You are right that there is most certainly something to be said of great artists of the past and the vast, vast amount of cinema that can now be seen by this younger generation that someone of say, Scorsese or Coppola's time was not able to see. And yes, we have the Michael Bays and John Woos out there that make the same movie every day. But I really think they are the exception, not the rule - at least with the films I see anyway.

must. sleep. now.

~Andrew James

Neil Sarver said...

Jeremy, thank you for your comment. The Police would not have been my example, but were the subject of my conversation, as they're apparently my brother's current IT band, which is cool, they certainly work in the example. Elvis Costello is a more likely choice for me to have made, especially in how his explorations have affected his audience, but more how all of them have made his music so much more, for me, interesting.

Drewbacca, thank you for your thoughts.

I'm sorry if I come across a "nothing new is good" or worth watching. I watch a whole lot of new movies and find a great deal of them worth watching... just watched Vacancy and found it quite entertaining. I thought Inland Empire was brilliant. Night at the Museum was pleasantly amusing. Lonely Hearts and Everything's Gone Green were both worth watching. Heck, I actually liked Pathfinder quite a bit.

It's just that only a few of these things interest me enough to write about. Although I still intend a comparison between 300 and Pathfinder, which seem never to be compared yet have a remakable amount in common. And Inland Empire seems almost too much to attempt writing about it, although I intend to try soon.

I'm not sure how Terry Gilliam, whose first feature as a director was in 1975 (his first feature as a solo director is still 1977) got on the list of "relative newcomers". I'm not even sure about The Coen Brothers (1984) or Tim Burton (1985) got there either.

Let's be honest, though, however you slice it nor whatever one's opinions of the specific movies of the moviemakers you list, they remain the exception. Is that new? No, as Theodore Sturgeon taught us, 90% of everything is crud. As it goes, crud is more often forgotten than the other 10%, so the days before always seem a bit less cruddy than they were.

That said, we live in a culture that now worships competence as a goal worthy of asperation. Look at Tim Burton himself. He had quite an interesting career, taking what seemed to be interesting risks and making bold stylistic choices right through Ed Wood a celebration of a man who, according to legend and Burton's movie, threw aside caution and concern over trivialities such as competence in search of greatness. After the commercial failure of that movie, however, Burton's own choices have become increasingly safe and focused on competence over reaching for greatness. I frankly find it one of the saddest and most pathetic careers in movie history... although that ties in with my age and connection to his work related to that.

Ultimately, it's not the age of Kurosawa's work that makes it important to the hypothetical young moviemaker's atistic grasp, it's span. Sure, he's gaining some of Kurosawa's touches, as well as other moviemakers who clearly influenced Lucas, but by only being influenced by Lucas, it has no span, it's a very limited and limiting base of inspiration.

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