Tag Archives: film review

The Interrupted Nocturne

     If Roberto Benigni’s name has become synonymous with the Holocaust comedy, perhaps Roman Polanski should get credit for making the first real Holocaust musical—Springtime for Hitler notwithstanding.

But if The Pianist (2002) is indeed a musical—and let us imagine for the sake of argument that it is—then it is a queer sort of musical: a musical of suspended performances, of music displaced and deferred; a musical where the absence of music is as significant as its presence.

The Pianist opens with a partial rendition of Chopin’s C# minor Nocturne (opus posthumous). We hear it over grainy images of Warsaw in 1939, the eve of the Nazi invasion. The music soon reveals itself to be a radio performance by renowned Chopin interpreter and Polish State Radio house pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoir the film is based. As the bombing begins, Szpilman, though a little shaken, refuses to stop playing. But after the frightened sound engineers flee, an explosion blows out the windows of the studio, and he is forced to follow them. We will wait more than two hours—six years of narrative time—for that nocturne to resume.

The interrupted nocturne forms one template for the way diegetic music is used in the film. After the Jews are herded into the ghetto, Szpilman turns to playing piano in the ghetto café. At one point, a well-dressed man at a nearby table asks him to pause in order to better hear the coins he tosses onto the tabletop, listening for which are counterfeit. The request is graciously made, but Szpilman is clearly exasperated. In a later scene, street musicians are forced to perform for Nazi soldiers, and the bystanders, many of them famished and exhausted, are forced to dance—until the traffic they have been waiting on finishes passing, the gates open, and the grotesque carnival is abruptly halted.

By the time Szpilman escapes the ghetto, his family has been sent to the camps, and the only remaining piano—the one in the café—stands silent, abandoned. Playing it is out of the question; instead, he will hide beneath the riser on which it stands until the immediate threat of Nazi violence has passed.

Once Szpilman’s Warsaw city odyssey begins, the trope of interrupted music is replaced by a slightly different one, of music displaced, deferred in space rather than in time. Wherever Szpilman is, music isn’t—or, if music is, it is imaginary. The Bach cello prelude, performed by Dorota, the woman Wladyslaw still loves but who is now married, unattainable, overheard from another room, and then glimpsed through a half-open door. The piano he hears tinkling away in the apartment next door to his first safehouse. The music he hears in his head, that ideal space where the Nazis can’t go, when he opens the lid of the piano in the second safehouse, positions his hands over the keyboard … and then the sweeping Grand Polonaise swells on the soundtrack, audible only to Szpilman and to us as he moves his fingers above the keys, his face beaming. After this second apartment is destroyed in the Warsaw uprising, Szpilman hides in the bombed-out hospital across the street. Starving, freezing, he plays an imaginary keyboard, humming his music quietly to himself. No more Grand Polonaise, and no more soundtrack. The man is almost defeated; the music is almost gone.

As for nondiegetic music, its infrequency—the occasional, restrained use of orchestral music; the lonely clarinet melody that punctuates some of the most tragic moments in the film (such as when Szpilman escapes the trains to the camps to find the ghetto deserted and pillaged)—makes it that much more poignant when it does appear, and the silences between that much more significant. (In the documentary included on the DVD, the set designer describes the filmmakers’ efforts to wash out the color as the story gets bleaker. This “visual silence” is analogous to the disappearance of music, as well as suggesting the moral silence of the Holocaust.)

So what happens to music deferred? It explodes, of course—in this case, in the climactic (if abridged) performance of Chopin’s G minor Ballade for Hosenfeld, the German officer who discovers Szpilman scrounging for food in a ruined home after the Nazis have leveled the city.* It’s a moment of catharsis hardly equaled in cinema, a spiritual homecoming that signals the film’s approaching resolution more clearly than either the German defeat or Szpilman’s rescue by Soviet troops. At that moment, we know the nocturne will resume, closing the six-year wound of the Holocaust, ending the long night suspended between broken night-songs.

It is difficult to imagine a Chopin composition more suited to the moment than the G minor Ballade. It has just the right mix of searching angst and triumphant answer, of defiance and melancholy, and the sort of bold, emphatic finale that Chopin only matched in a couple of his scherzos. The C# minor Nocturne, the piece Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld, would have been far too ruminative for such a moment—the music of a man reminiscing about loss, not one holding on desperately to his humanity. Of course, as long as he was going to deviate from the memoir, Polanski could have chosen the “Revolutionary” etude—that grandiose, martial volley of notes about an older attack on Warsaw, and about the heroic Polish resistance. It would be hard to think of a worse choice. This is not a moment of patriotic resistance and nationalism, but of individual human resilience. (How Polanski to use a cracked version of the etude instead, in The Tenant!) Even the appearance of the “Moonlight” sonata late in the film—played, one supposes, by German officers—sounds weirdly lugubrious measured against the incessant cruelty of the previous two hours. In contrast, the Ballade chafes at the margins of the narrative and the cinematic frame, threatening to spill out of the diegetic world.


I will be chided for calling The Pianist a musical at the beginning of this post, and I admit this was an exaggeration meant to catch your attention—you know, the sorts of shoddy tricks we teach our writing students. But I think there is an element of truth in this assertion, one that, even if we don’t put The Pianist in the same genre as, say, Singin’ in the Rain, does allow us to think about the film differently. When it begins, with the staticky Nocturne, what should be (non-diegetic) title music reveals itself to be a radio transmission of Szpilman’s soon-to-be-interrupted performance. (There are no titles, anyway. They appear at the end, during a live performance of the Grand Polonaise: here, the “walk out of the theater” music is actually the end of the story.) Other times, we are unsure whether the music is “on” or “off” stage—the “Moonlight” sonata, for example—or we hear music on the soundtrack which only Szpilman hears. The displaced music is another example: it is happening in the story, but outside the frame. I think it is partly this blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic music that energizes the Ballade. As in a musical, the performance is at once inside and outside the diegesis: it draws its power from both deferred narrative resolution (the horizontal), and from its status as a musical event independent of the surrounding narrative (the vertical). In fact, these two sources seem to feed each other: the performance is energized by its function as catharsis, while the narrative is energized by the ekphrastic brilliance of the performance.

In this light, the questions, “Could Szpilman really have played that Ballade after all he had endured, and after so long without touching a keyboard?” and “Wouldn’t it make sense for the piano to be out of tune?” are moot. Here we have this hobbling, hollow-eyed tramp licking out dirty pots, a sliver of a human being, a ragdoll, Molloy lost in bombed-out Warsaw. But the moment he sits down at the piano bench and claws out the first climbing octaves of the Ballade, all of this ceases to matter. As in Dreyer’s Ordet, reality is superseded by cinema; the violation of the possible only confirms a new order of (cinematic) reality which does not cancel the reality before it, but rather transforms it, raising it to a higher level.

Maybe it’s that, since by this point in the film there is nothing so terrible we can’t believe it—a child beaten to death trying to crawl under the wall back into the ghetto, an old man thrown from a window in his wheelchair, a young woman shot in the forehead for asking a question—so there is no act of heroism that can seem out of place. In such circumstances, everything about humanity is magnified, the potential for generosity and heroism as much as cruelty.


The Pianist’s use of music and silence should be considered not only in terms of genre, but in terms of Polanski’s oeuvre. About halfway through, the film shifts radically away from the standard visual rhetoric of German cruelty and Jewish suffering (albeit taken to new heights by Polanski’s visceral style), and toward an apartment horror story very much in the vein of Polanski’s trio of great horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). In each case, the overarching atmosphere of dread is underscored through the sounds (and occasionally sights) of other lives impinging on the central character’s: through walls thin enough to see shadows behind, old doors hidden behind bureaus, and the grotesquely-distorting glass of peepholes. Piano music haunts the buildings where each of these three films is set: “Für Elyse” in Rosemary’s Baby; the descending major scale with one dreadfully wrong note played over and over in Repulsion; and the similarly repeated failure to play the opening figure of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude in The Tenant. (N.B.: I was tempted to call this post “Other Pianos, Other Rooms.”) In two of these films, the piano contributes not just to the ambience, but to our appreciation of the protagonists’ increasingly disturbed minds: in Repulsion, the cracked mirror of tonality reflects the oppressive monotony of life for Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a catatonically-repressed hairdresser; in The Tenant, a mangled Chopin etude suggests the Polish emigree’s inability to find place and identity, and his subsequent morbid fascination with the identity of his apartment’s previous tenant. And Rosemary’s Baby? Heard through a wall, even a lullaby can sound sinister … just as a phone conversation, glimpsed through a doorway, the half-seen body the visual analog of a conversation only half-heard, half-understood, becomes, in Polanski’s universe, suspicious.

Unlike its horror-film progenitors, the music in The Pianist is neither the reflection of a fractured consciousness nor the sign of an actual, threatening Other (even, I would argue, when the music is played by a likely enemy). It is rather the only solace the protagonist knows in the suffocating terror of occupied Warsaw. The trajectory of the film is not the slow dissolution of the walls of consciousness which keep the threatening Other (real or imagined) at bay, but the struggle to survive in silence—the physical, emotional, even moral silence which one internalizes as a survival mechanism—until those walls can be broken down, and Szpilman can be reunited with his beloved Chopin. Watching The Pianist reminds us just how sparing Polanski’s use of music often is. Many of his films seem to prefer silence; some positively crave it. In Repulsion, for instance, noise, musical or other, is always a violation: buzzers, incessantly ticking clocks, crashing cymbals, and the frenetic jazz that follows Carole around London.

With The Pianist, it’s as though Polanski had finally revealed his childhood experience as a Holocaust survivor to be the trauma underlying so much of his cinema. For forty years it had been displaced onto the apartment buildings of New York, London and Paris … as well as onto the fatalistic narratives set in Los Angeles and Cornwall. In this regard, perhaps the chief irony of the film is that, while the phantom pianist of Polanski’s horror movies has finally stepped out from behind the wall, he finds that he has not brought his music with him.

The Pianist is not the only one of Polanski’s films framed by performances. Death and the Maiden begins with a snippet of the Amadeus Quartet performing the title piece, and closes with a complete performance of the quartet’s first movement. Like The Pianist, the rest of the film is almost entirely music-less. Death and the Maiden and The Pianist are narratives about silence—the ethical silence of sanctioned atrocity; the historical silence of active forgetting; the silence of the victim in the face of state terror. But if Death and the Maiden is a manual for the misappropriation of art in the service of evil, The Pianist never allows music to be so sullied. (But then it’s not a movie about Wagner.)

Who would have thought Polanski would return to Warsaw, the site of the trauma, for a rare “happy” ending, the mighty resolution of the Grand Polonaise, complete with pornographic close-ups of the pianist’s hands? How different from the irresolution of the concluding performance in Death and the Maiden: the power relationships in the positions and the play of glances between torturer, victim, and attorney; the sense that nothing has changed except knowledge, and that knowledge changes nothing. “I want my Schubert back,” says Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) in Death and the Maiden. “My favorite composer.” Does she get him back? More broadly, can art ever be reclaimed from its appropriation by and for terror? I’m not sure. Most of Polanski’s great films end this way: without real cadences. But the The Pianist most certainly restores to Szpilman his Chopin. And ours.


* The Nocturne Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld is a far less technically demanding piece than the Ballade. Szpilman’s memoir also reveals that the piano was indeed out of tune. (My argument notwithstanding, I sincerely doubt Sony would release a soundtrack with either the Ballade or the Nocturne played on an out-of-tune piano.) The question of the historical accuracy of the film’s beginning is less clear, at least to me, sinceI haven’t read the memoir. According to the synopses I looked at (on szpilman.net and, of course, Wikipedia), the C# minor Nocturne was part of the program Szpilman played for the last Polish State Radio broadcast in 1939. However, it is not indicated that the performance was interrupted, or that the station itself was damaged. Rather, it was the power station on which the broadcast depended that was destroyed. Interestingly, in the Wikipedia entry on Szpilman, the film’s dramatization of the event—the station bombed, the performance abandoned in medias res—and Szpilman’s memoir seem to have been conflated.

Silent Movie

Over the last intersession I had a chance to read Robert Spadoni’s Uncanny Bodies (U California, 2007). The book examines, as its subtitle says, “the coming of sound film and the origins of the horror genre,” with particular attention to the reception of Dracula and Frankenstein in the context of Hollywood’s transition to sound (1927-31). For Spadoni, the uncanniness of Dracula—and by extension Dracula’s early popularity and prestige, which seem inexplicable today—was partly attributable to the uncanniness of the speaking figure itself in early sound film: “figures now [circa 1930] seemed more vivid and animated, and yet … [they] could seem distinctly less alive than before” (22). Conversely, Whale’s mute Monster was a throwback to silent film, which had already begun to seem alien to audiences habituating themselves to sound. The nascent horror film genre capitalized on this dialectic of spectatorship as its conventions began to solidify, “convert[ing] a fleeting reception phenomenon into the solid basis for an enduring genre practice” (7).

As interesting to me as the overall argument and imaginative close-readings, however, are some of the tidbits Spadoni includes about how the transition to sound was perceived. Here is one: in the early ‘30s, “nondiegetic music was not yet a norm of Hollywood sound cinema. There was disagreement as to how much, if any, nondiegetic music a film should contain. Some believed that music would annoy viewers who were trying to listen to dialogue; others worried that viewers would be wondering where the music was coming from. Still others feared that viewers would find incidental diegetic noises distracting, as well. As a result, dialogue scenes sometimes played out against inordinately quiet backgrounds” (22).

As I noted in an earlier post, I spent much of my last filmgoing year and a half watching silent movies shown in two series at the Museum of Modern Art: “An Auteurist History of Film” and “Daydreams and Nightmares: Weimar Cinema 1919-1932.” (The Weimar series just ended; the “auteur” series is ongoing, but finished the silent period several months back.) After reading the above passage, I found myself reflecting on some of the uncanny convergcnces between my own experiences watching silent films and those of the original audiences of early sound cinema.

MOMA is probably one of the few places in the world where you can sit in the midst of a near-silent public watching a silent film without accompaniment. Whispering spectators are violently shushed; snoring ones are cudgeled awake. When such a hard-fought silence reigns in the cinema theater, the image can indeed take on an uncanny, ghostly, quasi-theatrical power, akin to Spadoni’s Dracula or Monster. The images transfix us, like daguerreotypes of the newly deceased. And yet, in such a thuggishly quiet environment, where the proverbial dropped pin resonates like a church bell, the spell is easily broken by any noise from the theater: the rustling of those ubiquitous plastic bags; the swishing of latecomers’ hands along the railing as they descend the stairs in near-darkness looking for an open seat. (To this one would have had to add the ka-thunk of chairs every time a spectator left the theater, a dozen or so ka-thunks from every seat, like a spinning saucer coming to rest. Thankfully, when the museum was renovated several years ago, they replaced those seats—yet another annoyance become nostalgic memory.) Finally, during an unaccompanied silent film, one can hear the muted whir of the projector … and even, sometimes, the noise of the projectionist, that phantom figure behind the curtain, himself a sort of absent presence, like the images on the screen. My favorite moment here is when a friend and I went to see October without accompaniment, and we could hear something that we eventually identified as a TV program. It turned out that the projectionist was watching Wheel of Fortune in the booth. Was he aware of the irony?

For most silent films, however, MOMA provides piano accompaniment. Early sound film viewers would not have been unaccustomed to sound itself during a film, but rather (as Spadoni notes) to the question of the source of the sound without the living sound-makers present, just as they questioned where the voices were coming from when the technology was so primitive as to make it seem those voices were coming from anywhere but the actors’ mouths.* Today, the scheme is reversed: having a live pianist in the room is potentially as distracting to the modern viewer unaccustomed to seeing silent films in the theater as the presence of nondiegetic music or poor sound quality for dialogue was for early sound cinema viewers. We have become so accustomed to the “speaking effigies” that live presence/performance during a film has a certain uncanniness about it.

Indeed, a live pianist today can not only disrupt dialogue, but the whole cinematic experience … and to a far greater degree than a badly-scored film. During the recent showing of a restored version of the 1918 J’Accuse, I left the theater after the first hour. It wasn’t the film; it was the piano, which was so overbearing that I couldn’t focus my attention on the action. The same thing can happen, though to a lesser degree, when the pianist makes an obvious error, or seems to play out of synch or out of character with the images on the screen. (I would guess that the prevalence of recorded music, together with the growth of music as a profession, has made us less tolerant of mistakes than early silent film audiences were.) Conversely, like a good score, a good silent film pianist will blend into the movie, clarifying and emphasizing character and conflict, and helping to weld the visual elements together into a whole …  which is sort of ironic, given how much of such accompaniment seems to be a Frankenstein’s Monster of stitched-together pieces of popular songs and romantic melodies.

The presence of intertitles adds a whole other interesting wrinkle. A movie pianist has no reason to stop playing during an intertitle; in my experience, they generally play without stopping from the first frame to the last, although they may pause at moments of high tension, often with a staccato burst, to let the action play out unaccompanied. But MOMA also shows a lot of foreign silent films, many of which are without subtitles. Sometimes they will just show the film in its original language without translation. On other occasions, they will have a translator in the cinema with a microphone.**

This creates yet another sonic layer to the “silent” film experience, and a dilemma for the pianist that reminds me once again of those early concerns about sound film: the voice of the interpreter rendering the dialogue or narration of the intertitle competes with the music provided by the live piano. The piano may stop and start, or at least modulate its dynamics, according to whether the translator is reading. This creates an unattractive rhythm, disrupting the ambience of the film, while the wooden, often halting voice of the translator drains the intertitle of the inflections that the viewer’s mind provides upon reading the words. (That said, it is far worse to have an interpreter who tries to read the intertitles dramatically, as I have also experienced.) Once again, the concerns about the “talking” film at the dawn of the sound era are ironically recapitulated in the unsubtitled foreign silent film at the beginning of the twenty-first century: now, it is the dialogue (or narration) that interrupts the music, not the reverse.

* I wonder if this helps account for the seeming abundance of diegetic music in early sound film … and perhaps for the immediate introduction of the musical (apart, that is, from sheer novelty), despite the technological challenges of early sound. A piano accompanying a silent film often plays nondiegetic music and simulates diegetic events: staccato chords for slammed doors and hammer blows, a descending glissando for a collapsing tower, etc. The piano is a whole soundtrack unto itself, confusing and collapsing the diegetic and nondiegetic, “miming” as much as the actors do. Perhaps the diegetic music was there to help fill the void of the suddenly-obvious silence of sound film (e.g., the resident pianist in the Weimar film Farewell (1931), who plays while he converses with the other guests in the boardinghouse where the movie is set), or to provide a clear source for the music. In other words, if there was a fear that early audiences “would not know where the sound was coming from,” but filmmakers wanted to capitalize on “the power of music to make mobile and to vitalize” (Spadoni 23), the presence of the performer on-screen—whether a character who happens to play piano, or a full-fledged musical number—seems a viable way of resolving the problem. As for the early musical: like the piano, the musical seems to be a place where the diegetic and nondiegetic cross over: the music is at one and the same time performed on screen and transcends the narrative moment, enveloping the diegesis in a way that only nondiegetic music can.

** In my understanding, this is not the same as the role of the narrator in the early cinema, who would tell the story of a film without intertitles, whether in English or no. It would be interesting to find out to what degree this practice was used for early foreign silent films, rather than subtitles or replaced intertitles. For an idea of the possible sonic environments of silent cinema, see, for example, Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (Vintage paperback, 1994), pages 16-19 and 86.

Not An Apology

First, a disclaimer: I’m not going to address Rand Paul’s quoting lyrics from “The Spirit of Radio” in his recent primary victory speech.

Five years ago, I don’t think I’d have stood in line for more than an hour to get into a midnight showing of Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, the band bio-doc that premiered (and won the audience award) at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. But there I was, fingers crossed, at one with the marginally functional talking over the noise of their earphones, the jerseyed moms with their teenaged sons lamenting having missed Iron Maiden’s last tour, and the shmooish Gargantua showing off his homemade “Rutsey lives!” T-shirt. (If you don’t know who John Rutsey was, you might want to stop, toggle and Google before reading on.) I have to admit, I felt a little silly. Looking at “them,” I couldn’t quite recognize myself. I guess I’d forgotten what it feels like to be a fan.

I ended up getting an extra ticket off a guy wearing a Signals tour shirt. Of all things, my very first concert. The Garden, 1982. Can’t Fate be just a little subtle? I still have the same shirt, somewhere, faded to the same grey. The sleeves have climbed up my shoulders; the whole shirt throttles me now. As, of course, our past infatuations sometimes may.

A couple of hours later I left the theater walking on air, wondering why I’d ever questioned coming out in the first place. I had happily regressed, submitted myself to fandom; and as I crossed the Village, I carried the words and images and music wrapped about me like a blanket and a dare. I was acting like a recent convert; I wanted to stop at the nearest bar, order a beer, and share The Good News with the nearest drunk. But in reality I’d only been reminded of something: the undeniable truth that Rush is—I blush as I write the next few words—my favorite band.

I’ve always disliked the idea that one “grows out” of certain bands or kinds of music. You grow out of clothes, shoes, maybe allergies and political ideologies. But music? I don’t think so. At least, not in the same way you do shoes, etc. There are certainly some exceptions that prove the rule. (Styx, maybe.) But overall, this sort of willed obsolescence strikes me as immature as the opposite extreme: to wallow in nostalgia, to become the subject and victim of one’s youthful infatuations. Even today, when diversity and inclusiveness are supposed to define what it means to be a “cultured” person, there’s a regrettable tendency to equate taste with the sheer quantity of music one finds unpalatable. In this regard, “growing out of” something becomes the chief indicator of cultural maturity; for what more powerful way to demonstrate a ruthlessly narrow taste than to disparage what you once loved?

Most music grows with you, if you’ll let it. It’s much more rewarding, I think, to hear the old music in the contexts and perspectives of an ever-widening listening palette. That doesn’t mean you keep listening to the old stuff with the intensity or abandon you once did; you may hardly listen to it at all. But why not let your old favorites grate on your ears, and let that song you always found dull or troubling suddenly shine with a new light? In the end, all listening is an act of excavation (even if the archaelogical metaphor is complicated by the fluidity of the medium).

I suppose that after a certain time we should put away childish things, but where music is concerned I refuse to do so. Maybe music is itself a childish thing?

I digress this way with Rush in mind because, ever since I was in college, if I mentioned to someone that Rush was my favorite band, I always got a variation of the same response: I used to like them. I went through that phase, too. Which meant: You’ll get over it. Someday you’ll grow up. Or just: I’m sorry. It’s the sort of thing religious people used to say to me when I mentioned that I hadn’t found Jesus and wasn’t really looking, either. In the late ‘80s, growing out of Rush amounted almost to a rite of passage: not to do so was the cultural equivalent of ending up delivering Domino’s Pizza. In fact, the whole idea of having a “favorite band” smacks of a deranged naivete. They really go hand in hand: Rush (ugh!) is my favorite band (hurl!). Anyway, if this was the response I got when I was in my twenties, I can only imagine what most people my age would say to me today. I may as well just crawl into a hole with my “Rutsey Lives!” T-shirt, conduct mock interviews at home with life-size cut-outs of the band, like Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy. Maybe I should have nailed a FANS ONLY sign to the head of this post.

Much of this perception has to do with Rush’s longstanding lack of acceptance by the rock critical establishment. In fact, if Beyond the Lighted Stage has a theme, it’s vindication: the sense that we, the fans, were “right all along”; at last, Rush have claimed their rightful place in rock history as one of “the greats.” Rush, it seems, was always condemned to be the band the hip don’t like, but that influenced all the bands the hip do. For the fan—that is, for me—one of the best parts of the movie was listening to testimonies by all these musicians from bands I never cared for, many of which were critically acclaimed, about how important and lasting an influence Rush’s music was for them. I left the theater on a self-righteous high.

It cuts both ways, though: Rush was listening to all those bands that were critically embraced through the late ‘70s and ‘80s, bands like The Police and The Talking Heads, and reshaping their sound according to what they heard. Once upon a time I could not understand how critics’ ears could be so tin (“oído de lata”) as to not hear that. I have a better idea today. Here is a band that in no way fit the image of rock-n-roll bad boys, and whose drummer-lyricist was (deep breath) a libertarian. In terms of the former offense, there’s none of the expected angry young Liebstod, none of the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old bullshit to milk over five or six reunion tours. Honestly, I always found this refreshing. Growing up, I was a bit too straight-and-narrow for rock-n-roll, and Rush told me that was okay. God forbid they sing about things besides smoking pot (which they do with great verve in “A Passage to Bangkok”), like honesty (ugh!) or integrity (hurl!).

From the filmmakers’ perspective, this may have proved a hard pill to swallow. How do you make a rock documentary without the de rigeur trashed hotel rooms, drug overdoses and messy breakups? How do you make a compelling story out of an uneventfully happy marriage? With the exception of Neil Peart’s tragic losses of his wife and daughter in the late ‘90s, there’s not much of a human interest angle to work with. As Lee and Lifeson say tipsily over the closing credits, the problem with the movie is that people will find out they’re actually boring. But then they’re so endearingly boring, so goofy and un-coiffed, that we tend to forget this. It may be the fan in me talking, but I can’t imagine that others wouldn’t find this refreshing, too—among other things, that being a rock musician, like any other musician, is a profession and not (necessarily) a lifestyle.

It’s the second issue, however—Peart’s libertarianism, and the way his politics are reflected in the band’s lyrics—that maybe best explains the critical cold shoulder. That I understand this today is in no way thanks to Beyond the Lighted Stage. The movie never asks why Rush was disparaged; it simply takes critical non-acceptance at face value, as an obstacle to be overcome in rock-Bildungsroman fashion. Given that this is the only real engine for the narrative, I’m surprised it wasn’t milked more heavily. I’m not saying the movie had to be “political.” I can’t think of a worse angle than, say, the “Reaganite ‘80s” explain the ascendency of Rush, or some other such reductive crap. But some measure of context—interviews with dissenting critics, say, rather than just a few blurbed reviews—would have helped to tease out the knotty relationships between music, commerce and ideology that are certainly part of the Rush story, if by no means all of it, and to balance the intimate portraits that are the movie’s strength. It’s as if the filmmakers felt they had to adopt the band’s ideology in order to portray them. (If one wants to understand why Rush can be so easily adopted by the likes of a Rand Paul, one should begin here: not with Peart’s libertarianism per se, but with the trope of the lone underdog struggling against some collective social evil (Big Government, Beltway Insiders, The Liberal Media, what have you), displaced onto aesthetics, emptied of all context, so that it takes on the crystalline purity of a myth.) According to this reading, critical dislike for Rush was always about something other than the music, and bashing the music was an excuse for bashing the politics. Then again, most of said critics would probably argue that the music and the politics are inseparable: Rush are a sort of Canadian Leni Riefenstahl, belting out anthems to the triumph of the will; if one admired them, one was ipso facto a creeping fascist as well. (For an insightful analysis of the band’s critical reception and of the fan culture of progressive rock, see Durrell Bowman’s “Let Them All Make Their Own Music” in Progressive Rock Reconsidered.) Then again, I would argue that if we have to look to popular music to validate our political philosophies, we’re in a whole heap of trouble, regardless of whether one ends up a Joplin-inspired flower child or an Objectivist convert via the gospel of Neil Peart.

I want to suggest something unorthodox for the orthdox rock critic and the orthodox Rush fan alike: do Rush without the words. I’m sure I was prejudiced by growing up listening to classical music, and it’s one reason I landed so hard on jazz in my twenties; but I’ve always preferred rock that doesn’t depend much on lyrics. True, I did know a lot of the words, particularly where Rush was concerned, and they certainly articulated and flattered the more romantic-individualist strains of my nascent political personality. But I also seemed to have had a penchant for making up my own versions of songs without bothering to check them against the record sleeves. (Apparently this is the case for rock fans all over the non-English-speaking world: they will phonetically know every “word” of a band’s songs, but have no idea what they’re singing.) And even when I did know the words, I confess I didn’t think about them all that hard. The sound of Lee’s voice, the sounds of the words themselves, the way the words were sung—all these things were more important than any meaning they were supposed to convey.

This means I didn’t run out and buy The Fountainhead after discovering 2112. At that point I was reading Stephen King and Fangoria and finding Billy Budd and Portrait of the Artist painfully dull (it probably shows). A friend of mine, the bass player in my high school band and another rabid Rush fan, read Anthem. I can’t remember what he thought of it, and I didn’t borrow it. My single exposure to Ayn Rand’s writing wouldn’t come until ten years later. I was on a packed bus in Buenos Aires, reading over someone’s shoulder. (Come to think of it, that’s how I learned about Beyond the Lighted Stage, too.) The book was in English. I read a page or two, and thought it was some of the clunkiest, most godawful prose I’d ever read. It was a big book, too, and I thought, If this is an English language learner, I should do them a favor and advise them to find a less painful primer.

That book was The Fountainhead, or Atlas Shrugged, I can’t remember which. Rand, anyway. I know it’s churlish of me to judge a writer based on a page of flabby prose. Dreiser (say) worked on a broader canvas, and it only takes a few chapters of cringing before the story sweeps me off my feet. The same is likely true of Rand. Or maybe not. I also know I’m supposed to dislike her ideas, not her prose. Regardless, that was my only direct contact with Rand; otherwise, I have only the hilarious sketch in Tobias Wolff’s Old School and a review in Harper’s of two recent bios to go on. If I had to guess, I’d say that when Peart’s lyrics are good, they’re good in spite of Rand, not because of her. Certainly I don’t need Rand to appreciate or acknowledge the power of those lyrics which still speak to me (a very partial list would include “The Fountain of Lamneth,” “Hemispheres,” “Natural Science,” and “Witch Hunt”). Anyway, who’s to say that Peart, who once described himself as a “left-wing libertarian,” hasn’t “grown out” of Rand, just as I’ve grown into Melville and Joyce? Or that she isn’t as yet a star in his universe, albeit a small, dim one? (In case you’re interested, the only scene in the movie where you can make out what the band is reading shows Lee with The Sound and the Fury, Lifeson with God Is Not Great.)

So … to post or not to post? This will throw a ghastly light over all my previous posts, I’m sure. All trust will be lost (trust is such a fragile thing, and so dearly earned!), all previous thoughts discredited, all endorsements made suspect. It’s a skeleton key for understanding my whole listening past, some vulgar Freudian plot worthy of ‘40s Hollywood, my musical primal scene disseminated throughout the web. I was supposed to get over this. Really. But I keep listening. That’s bad, isn’t it. Is it? I like dinosaurs, too. Sometimes, I watch Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Jesus, Shark Week. That is bad. Should I have said that? Get out your little notepads, all of you. Scribble scribble scribble. Ah, see, I told you, didn’t I? I’m afraid that’s very bad. Ve-ry bad …

I promise my next rock post will not be a confession. But maybe the movie should have been called Out of the Closet instead of Beyond the Lighted Stage.

And since I promised I wouldn’t talk about it, here are the lines Rand Paul quoted: “Glittering prizes and endless compromises/ Shatter the illusion of integrity.” Ah yes, Mr Paul, but those lines are about music, not Washington. It says “music” twice before in the same verse, and the word “radio” is in the title, and words like “studio” and “concert hall” pepper the lyrics, too. In fact, the theme of the struggle between art and commerce wraps around the album; from “Natural Science”: “Art as expression, not as market campaigns/ Will still capture our imaginations.” Not that you can’t take it all metaphorically, of course; but to be honest, I can’t help but hear the “market campaigns” and “the sound of salesmen” in your rhetoric, as much as in the rhetoric of your colleagues across the aisle; and conversely, I can’t help but hear, in “The Spirit of Radio,” in tone, form and content, a partial self-indictment, a tempering of the anger of 2112 into a deliberation on what it means to be professional popular musicians, to be entertainers as much as politicians are … and yet to hold onto the possibility of retaining one’s honesty (ugh!) and integrity (hurl!) in the process—to finding a balance. It’s an idea that returns over and over in the words and music: Hemispheres, Counterparts; art-rock complexity and pop/hard-rock simplicity; their ongoing shuffle on that step between the sublime and the ridiculous.

But I’m as happy to hear you quote it as anybody. It’s a song so fine not even you can diminish it.


If I should apologize for anything, it’s probably the length of this post. Rest dismayed, where Rush is concerned I’m only ever just warming up. And as long as I’m being metacognitive, one other note: this blog as a whole is set up so that I have to approve comments before they appear. This may be wise, since it is open to the internet as a whole, not just CUNY; but I’m going to try to figure out how to set it so that comments appear when they are posted. In case, that is, you ever tried to leave a note and figured the site was busted. By the way, I just read that Paul got the cease & desist letter from the band’s lawyer. Copyright infringement, ya know.