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Samson in Old Kentucky

One of the nicest things about that aspect of academic labor called sabbatical is the opportunity to re-connect with intellectual passions abandoned at the gates of the dark, Satanic mills of paper-grading that come to define one’s working life, at least at a community college. For me, this has meant time to go back to reading (among other things) film history, theory, and criticism, and to do so in a less focused, less disciplined way than the tenure-clock crunch of a decade ago had permitted.

Lary May’s The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago UP, 2000) was one of the first texts I pulled off the shelf. Here, May, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, argues against the prevailing view of classic Hollywood as a Frankfurt school-style machine churning out standardized product to “promote the ideals of liberal capitalism and classlessness, […] a false consciousness that took spectators’ attention away from issues of class inequality and cultural experimentation” (258-9). Instead, May proposes a cyclical, consumer-driven model, where “audiences at key historical moments … disrupt the production system and compel studios to alter their films in response to market demand” (260). The “key historical moment” here is the Great Depression, and a good half of May’s study is given over to analyzing how the ’30s created conditions that favored socially progressive narratives: as faith in the virtues of American capitalism reached a nadir, films reflected the new Zeitgeist by portraying a more democratic, cooperative, inclusive, and collectivist vision of the country. These conditions would in turn disappear around the hierarchical, paternalist, and individualist orthodoxy that emerged around World War II and McCarthyism; while the appearance of figures like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando in the early-to-mid ’50s were harbingers of the ruptures of the following decade, when the industry once again found itself on the defensive (see, for example, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls).

Perhaps the chief reason for the disparity between May’s conclusion and the “standard” reading of classic Hollywood is methodology. For the oft-cited Classical Hollywood System, for example, the authors (David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson) examined “over a hundred” films of the period (in their case, 1900-1950)—a drop in the bucket of the total number of films produced in that half-century, and “not strictly a random” drop at that (Bordwell et al., qtd. in May 259). Such a narrow and selective pool, May notes, cannot hope to be representative. May opts instead for a broad examination of plot digests that appeared in the trade publication Motion Picture Herald. This allows him to get a more panoramic view of the period, and quantitatively analyze the rise and fall of particular ideological elements: “Films Featuring Big Business Villains,” “Films Featuring Progressive Reform of Society,” and so on, neatly encapsulated in the line and bar graphs that make up one of the book’s appendices.

If I am (politically speaking) ambivalent about May’s thesis—I am as satisfied to imagine a lost Marxist halcyon in the heart of the Hollywood machine as I am to imagine Tinseltown as a Sherman tank festooned with the skulls of Leftists—I am equally ambivalent about his methodology. Panoramic it is … but also, by necessity, so much the less detail-focused. For, just as one cannot confidently generalize about a historical period from a statistically insignificant and selective pool, so one cannot do any more than a car-window reading of a small percentage of the thousands of films canvassed for The Big Tomorrow. (May lists around 200 titles in his index, the majority of which get a passing mention.) This may be unnecessary to grab hold of the Zeitgeist. But it does make me wonder what got left out. The devil, after all, is in those details.

Not that I was expecting miracles. May himself concedes that “racist imagery, themes of liberal individualism, and backward-looking symbols [continued to] appear in major films” of the period (259-60). That acknowledged, I wondered just how much the progressivism May spotlights would shine through. On which issues might the challenges to mainstream American ideology be most thoroughly and radically expressed? On which would it remain shackled to the existing ideology? And how and where would the challenges as presented be neutralized or otherwise folded back into a narrative supportive of the ideology, as per Bordwell et al.’s thesis? (None of what follows, by the way, is intended to diminish May’s overall achievement. The Big Tomorrow is essential reading for anyone interested in the connections between twentieth-century American culture and politics. The chapter on the changing architecture of movie theaters alone is worth the whole book.)


The poster-boy for May’s 1930s is Will Rogers, on whom May lavishes a full and fascinating chapter. Rogers is a figure entirely lost, I think, to members of the post-baby boom generations of Americans to which I belong. Perhaps this is because he died in 1935, and never got to start a fast food franchise. Or perhaps the reasons are more political. Rogers, born to mestizo Cherokees in Oolagah, the Indian territory of Oklahoma, was an unabashed progressive and spokesperson for indigenous rights. From a modest beginning in Wild West shows at the turn of the century, the “Cherokee cowboy” climbed the vaudeville circuit to the Ziegfeld follies, and then went on to become one of the most powerful and beloved entertainers in the country—the sort who gave radio addresses listened to by millions of Americans, starred in some of the most popular Hollywood films of the day, and hobnobbed with the likes of FDR (May 24-5). One of his best-known quips, “My ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower—they met the boat” (qtd. in May 13), was actually emblazoned on a mural in the lobby of the Will Rogers theater in Chicago. If this seems incredible today, it is probably because we can no longer conceive of the vast majority of the “average men” Rogers championed recognizing its legitimacy.

Interestingly, biographers have often regarded Rogers as a regressive American mythmaker, one who “helped the nation’s fundamental institutions escape [the Depression] unscathed by the attempts to keep alive the myth and proverbial fantasy of a mobile and classless society” (Bergman, We’re In the Money, qtd. in May 13). May argues that Rogers was far more subversive than his biographers give him credit for. Invoking sociologist Craig Calhoun’s concept of “a radicalism of tradition”—one framed by the “effort to save institutions undermined by an untrammeled market and explotive power relations” (14)—May contends that Rogers “used th[e] backward-looking myth not to promote, but to undermine the status quo” (28). The chief “myth” here is the frontier, the image of the ideal American republic, “free of aristocracy and monopoly” (14). In addition, Rogers drew on Cherokee tradition to invoke a more inclusive vision of this “producers’ democracy” than the inherited Anglo-Saxon fantasy of an exclusively white frontier civilization raised up on land cleared of “savages.”

Based on my own small, biased sample of Rogers movies mentioned in The Big Tomorrow, I can certainly see May’s point, at least where social class is concerned. The pompous wealthy get skewered; the meritorious poor triumph; collective action by diverse characters saves the day. At the same time, it’s difficult not to think how easily these stories, at least considered in such broad strokes, fold back into the mythology of capitalism, which, it seems to me, celebrates democracy and the average man to the same degree that it undermines the one and destroys the livelihood of the other.

On the subject of race, these films, like other films of the period, are more ambivalent.* May hedges more here; he acknowledges that it strains credulity to figure Rogers’s films as progressive on race, given the prevalence of minstrel actors like Stepin Fetchit and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; but he still asserts Rogers’s films “undermined stereotypical goals and purposes, opening the way for alternative race relations” (35). Perhaps the issue is less about race in general than African Americans in particular. For, while it is true that Rogers’s underdog-oriented films would have appealed to the increasingly diverse populations of the cities, it is also true that these groups were paying the “wages of whiteness” as they found their way to the American middle class. The history of African American class mobility is more complicated.

Part of the ambivalence of Rogers’s screen persona vis-à-vis race surely stems from his own conflicted and complex heritage. In the mid-19th century, Cherokees—one-third of whom were of mixed blood—grew cash crops using slaves (May 19-20). Given the American government’s history of Indian relations, and the fact that the Trail of Tears was hardly twenty years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, it is hardly surprising that more than half of Cherokees chose to fight on the side of the Confederacy (20). Will, then, was the product of as contradictory an inheritance as the “Cherokee cowboy” he portrayed. Hence his ease at playing the white southerner or southwestern frontiersman: the captain in Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935), the horse trainer in In Old Kentucky (1935), the title characters in Doctor Bull (1933) and Judge Priest (1934). Though audiences would have been well aware of the “mixed blood” that Rogers often touted in his columns and radio addresses, he could “pass” for white in his screen roles.** Such was hardly an option for Fetchit, Rogers’s sidekick in Steamboat and Priest.

By and large these are Rogers formula films as May defines it. In Judge Priest, for example, young lovers divided by social class (Priest’s nephew Jerome (‘Rome), a newly-minted lawyer, and the beautiful but unsuitably orphaned “girl next door,” Ellie May) suffer at the hands of pompous aristocratic elites from the “best families” (Priest’s sister Caroline, a Daughter of the Confederacy; senator and prosecutor Horace Maydew, who May helpfully notes looks like Herbert Hoover). Rogers, as a beneficent widower, spends the movie playing matchmaker, working to heal a divided community, humorously throwing wrenches into the gears of privilege, and generally manipulating town affairs with Dickensian aplomb. When, at the film’s conclusion, defendant Bob Gillis is revealed to be not just a former chain-gang member, but also a hero of the Confederacy and Ellie May’s father (who has also secretly been supporting her education), the marriage is suddenly sanctioned—and Caroline, the main impediment to the union, descends on the girl with the words, “Can’t you see this child needs a mother?” So opposites are joined, balance restored, “alliances forged across groups” (33): genteel and working-class, dispossessed daughter of the Confederacy and Northern-trained lawyer, city and country.

Unlike Steamboat, however, in Priest race is difficult to ignore. Set in 1890, an apparently better, vanished time in the border state of Kentucky, it is a full-tilt sentimentalization of the Old South. Priest mourns for his dead wife and children; and given that he sees the former in a vision in full antebellum regalia, himself in an officer’s uniform, and that his deceased son is named Robert E. (Lee, that is, whose image graces the back wall of the courtroom), it is difficult not to see them as stand-ins for the Old South as a whole. (That the gilding is coming off their picture is a more ambiguous signifier.) In fact, the entirety of the narrative revolves around the War: from the chorus of cuddly Confederate veterans full of romantic pride in the Lost Cause—and for some of whom the war isn’t ended, let alone lost—to the veterans’ benefit that serves as the movie’s centerpiece, to the Memorial Day parade that ends it, Priest marching right out in front with the Stars and Bars waving over his head.

Not that Judge Priest is devoid of irony. Clearly, Caroline Priest and Horace Maydew are the main targets of the film; Priest’s slouch and stutter are their dramatic antithesis. But the vets, the “average men” of Rogers’s pantheon, are mostly buffoons—cuddly ones, but buffoons nonetheless. Nor does Priest himself, credited with being an exemplar of “tolerance and wisdom,” escape ridicule. He first appears in the pre-credit sequence hidden behind the funny papers, which he only lowers to bang his gavel and call order at the camera (settling, we assume, spectators talking or finding their seats). Later in the film, Priest scares off a potential competitor (the sleazy town barber) for Ellie May’s hand by hiding behind the bushes and faking a conversation between himself and Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) to make it seem the girl’s father is coming after the barber with a gun. While the captions “clarify” this as Priest alternating between “imitating Jeff” and using his “normal voice,” the latter is hardly normal: his caricatured “judge” is closer to Maydew’s voice than his own.

Of course, the humor about Priest and the “average men” of the jury is a good deal gentler than that used to skewer the local aristocracy: the funny papers, the spittoon, the practical joke, these are peccadilloes that presumably mirror the film audience’s. And that’s the point: insofar as Judge Priest grazes the myth of the Old South, or at least Old Kentucky, it does so, it seems, only to more firmly entrench it.

Like Caroline and the Maydews, Fetchit’s Jeff Pointdexter is the butt of almost every scene where he appears. Mumbling, bumbling, lazy and thieving, he effectively condenses every negative stereotype about blacks into a single screen persona, as Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro so powerfully reminds us. But there is an ambivalence about Fetchit here, too—and it’s not just that his brilliant physical comedy shines through the degrading persona. In the opening scene of the film, for example, Jeff is on trial for chicken stealing. While the prosecutor drones and Priest reads the comics, he sleeps. When the judge’s turn comes, Priest reminds the jury of veterans that they have stolen food before—during the war, when a corrupt officer denied them their provisions. Later in the scene, when Jeff mentions that he had been fishing, Priest invites him up to the bench. Fetchit tells him how he catches the biggest catfish; the scene fades to a bucolic image of Priest and Jeff walking off to go fishing together.

Clearly, Jeff as much as Priest is being used here to satirize Maydew, and the way the scene ends suggests an affinity beyond the bluster of the courtroom. But in his brief analysis of the film, May overstates the case when he claims that the judge’s “appeal to common oppression persuades the jury to let the black ‘criminal’ go free” (37). The jury of vets is in disarray, arguing (with Priest as well) about the finer points of battles, and whether there are even any fish in “Sleepy River” at all. It might be intuited that said jury is persuaded; but it is more their dysfunction that predominates than any argument about “common oppression.”

More to the point, Priest’s defense of Jeff is undermined by the narrative: Jeff can’t keep his hands off anything, be it the housekeeper Dilsey’s food, the judge’s raccoon coat, or the bass drum for the Memorial Day parade. The incident with the drum is particularly suggestive, full of subversive potential the movie just can’t cash in on. Though I would love to imagine Jeff sabotaging the Memorial Day parade, and thus the commemoration of the Confederacy (the shot where Fetchit appears with the bass drum directly follows a shot of men arguing that they “can’t have a parade without the drum”), the drum is then used by a group of black musicians to play “Dixie,” just as Priest had asked Jeff to do, and with even more fanfare than he could have expected. Of course, the parade goes on anyway.

The scene where Priest asks Jeff to play “Dixie” is another ambiguous moment, and one that May misrepresents in his text. According to May, Fetchit says that he doesn’t know “Dixie,” but he can play “Marching Through Georgia”: the song, May glosses, that accompanied General Sherman’s pillage of the South (37). Actually, Fetchit says he can play “Dixie” … and he can also play “Marching Through Georgia.” The mixture of deference and defiance is much more consistent with Fetchit’s role throughout the film, obedience spiked with a drop of rebellion, even as, once again, neither character nor narrative can act on it. (It is also much funnier.) Also neglected by May is Priest’s response: “I already saved you from one lynching. You play ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ I’ll join the lynchers.”

The lynching Priest mentions raises another issue. According to May, there should be a scene where Priest rescues Jeff from being lynched, but it was cut from the southern version (37).*** The matter of this missing scene gets knottier, however, as we look more closely at May’s text. May claims that in the censored scene Fetchit “articulates an African American view of history. This happens when the judge asks Fetchit if he can play ‘Dixie’” (37; my emphasis). But the scene where the judge asks Jeff if he can play “Dixie” cannot be the scene where Fetchit “articulates an African American view of history,” at least in the southern version. May’s “this happens” is unclear. Could he mean that Fetchit’s nod to playing “Marching” is his alternative view of history? Perhaps … but that seems to make a mountain out of a molehill. The other possibility is that the version of the film May used (in the Will Rogers Memorial Archives) contains not just a deleted scene, but material rearranged and even re-shot. For only this way can one make sense of May’s point, and even more of what follows. Apparently, a “Southern Lady” complained to Rogers that Priest would “ruin him with the Southern people” because it “portrayed a southern woman entering public life aligned with African Americans. In the past as well as the present, Negroes ‘kept their place as servants’” (38). I have a hard time squaring this criticism with anything that appears in Judge Priest: no Southern woman enters public life in the film; and the “Negroes” don’t just know their place, they positively embrace it. What’s more, one would presume that the “Southern Lady” would have seen the southern cut of the film.

The “Southern Lady” is perhaps indicative of how difficult it is see a film, any film, from the perspective of a different time and culture. While she’s worrying about uppity blacks, one of the few YouTube comments where the film has been made freely available says quite simply what most modern viewers would: “This film is incredibly racist!” Unless the southern version is much more radically altered than just the lynching scene, even in the most generous reading, it is hard to see how Judge Priest “advance[s] … the message” of “bringing black energies and voices into public life” (May 36). There is precious little in the film that suggests anything but a wholehearted embrace of the existing racial order, and never more than the most velvet irony about the War to Save Slavery. By making the chain-gang convict a Confederate hero, the gentility can come under the customary withering scrutiny and fall under the mythical American wheel of merit, progressive reform can be touted (think of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang only a few years earlier), all the while leaving the Cause unscathed … and the virtual re-enslavement of blacks via the chain gang from which Bob Gillis once rode to glory unacknowledged.


By this point, you must be wondering why, on a music blog, I’ve spent so much time talking about movies. Shame on you if you’re not. Not that I haven’t talked about music in film twice before (see “The Interrupted Nocturne,” 12.20.11, and “Silent Movie,” 3.25.11). And I did just mention “Dixie.” So keep your shirt on. This is a long wind(ed)-up, even if I can’t promise the pitch will be all that impressive.

Popular tunes from the parlor canon weave in and out of Judge Priest. A truncated “Dixie” plays over part of the opening credits; at different moments during the veterans’ benefit, snippets of “Dixie,” “Swanee River,” and “Camptown Races” can be heard in the background. This long sequence, however, opens and closes with two scenes where music is foregrounded: a quartet of black housekeepers singing in harmony. They are led by Priest’s housekeeper Dilsey, played by the wonderful Hattie McDaniel. The quintessential Aunt Jemima, Dilsey rolls her eyes and smiles a lot, and she dotes on the judge, at least when she’s not scowling at Fetchit. And she sings while she goes about her work, improvising verses to the tunes of hymns while she hangs the wash or dusts. Based on this profile, the scene-opening number is pretty much what we would expect: the women sing about Jesus “washing [them] white as snow though [they] be black as tar.”

But it is in the closing scene of the party that something else happens. This scene finds the women on the same porch as at the beginning, cleaning up, we might say, the white folks’ mess. As they work, they sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” It appears that the evening’s spoils are quite extensive: slice after slice of leftover cake, and even what appears to be an entire untouched cake, disappear into the housekeepers’ baskets while they sing. Given that they keep blankets over the salvaged food, and only lift them to show their fellow housekeepers, the sense is that there is something illegitimate about the takeaway: perhaps the sheer quantity is unseemly? (Interestingly, in the previous scene, black children can be seen sitting in and among the baskets.) This feeling is reinforced a few moments later, when Priest joins them: first the sound of his voice, then visually, entering the shot from the right. There is a brief moment of concern among the servants, conveyed by their expressions and gestures. And then Priest points to Rome, who he enabled to escape the clutches of the prosecutor’s daughter, enjoying cake with Ellie May. Dilsey responds by showing him what’s in the basket. His expression suggests a mixture of disapproval and collusion—a wink and a nudge. Just as the servants make off with the cake, so Priest gets away with bringing the class-crossed lovers together. Both are working around (and in Priest’s case stealthily upending) the social hierarchy. Of course, the very fact that he sings with the help at all, that he harmonizes with them (the only white character to do so), re-enforces this sense of solidarity and parallel purpose.

The scene yields yet more interesting possibilities when we consider the choice of song itself. It is the Kentucky state song, though apparently many Kentuckians remain unaware of its history. The lyrics, inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, portray a slave lamenting that they and their fellow slaves are to be sold down the river. It is an “antislavery” song … though one where, considered against the horrors of the sugar plantation, slaveholding Kentucky figures as a sort of paradise of benevolent Christian masters and obedient Christian slaves. (One reason many people today don’t know this is that the word “darkies” in the first verse was changed to “people.” In the film, it is “darkies.”)

Combined with the images, the scene is at once funnier and more ambiguous. Does the largesse of the white masters bespeak the paradise of well-fed servants and the stable social hierarchy of Old Kentucky, when the “tolerance and wisdom” of the common-folk white judge reigned? Or does the fact that the servants are singing an antislavery song—however unjustifiably framed—while making off with the spoils of a party meant to commemorate the war efforts of the slaveholding south trump this? I would tend toward the latter. The song itself cannot help but be ironized by the servants’ actions, undermining its pathos: “Weep no more,” they sing, in counterpoint to sneaking looks at all that cake under the blanket, and to the vision of the young lovers having their cake. When Priest’s voice joins the chorus, it sounds discordant—he hasn’t got their voices, and I’m pretty sure his mouth is full—and so he, too, undermines that Kentucky nostalgia which is the narrative’s main engine. Because this is the only moment in the film where Fetchit appears slightly “out of character” (his physical demeanor is different, his attitude more alert—even if he still reaches for cake and gets his hand slapped), I am tempted to say that in this scene, framed by music, Rogers appears as himself, that is, his public persona, not as the character of Judge Priest, and so is free to ironize more trenchantly the nostalgia and sentimentality on which the film (the lost war) and his character (the lonely widower) are based.

There is another possibility for singing together, one deeply connected to the African American song tradition: call and response. This brings me to another key musical moment, the one that made me want to write about this film in the first place. A little context: in the previous scene, Priest, moping on his porch about having been forced to vacate the bench, receives a nighttime visit from the town’s reverend. The latter is just beginning to divulge some great secret with pertinence to the trial when (of course!) we fade to the following morning: a closeup on an envelope with “Justice!” written across it. In the next shot we see Priest bent over a small desk in his foyer, screen right, writing. Dilsey, who we can already hear singing, appears on the left, bustling through, cleaning as she goes. She is not just singing her own pleasure (“happy darkies”), but to cheer up the judge, saying he “needs a toddy” to raise his spirits, improvising words on the melody of a spiritual. Cut to a medium close-up of Priest: without looking up, he chimes in, responding: “Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord!” Dilsey, now in the background, spins around at the sound of his voice, eyes wide. “Tomorrow he’s got to be like Mr Samson,” she sings; and the judge responds: “Saving Daniel [the accused Willis] from the lion’s den.” Dilsey hums the beginning of the verse and repeats the judge’s response: “Saving Daniel from the lion’s den.” “Yes, Lord!” shouts the judge, before returning to the original message: “The Judge sure could use a toddy right now.” “Yes, Judge!” she responds. “Yes, Dilsey!” he responds. And then together: “Soon as I get me some mint.” Dilsey exits; the judge calls Jeff over, and the scene about playing “Dixie” mentioned above ensues.****

What to say about this marvelous scene? There is much less to “read” here, in the traditional sense, than in the scene of the housekeepers singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” True, rather than joining in the singing of a racist state anthem, the judge joins Dilsey in singing a black spiritual. (It reminds me, though it is much less forceful, of that beautiful rhetorical move at the end of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he envisions blacks and whites joining together to sing, not a national anthem or patriotic song, but a black spiritual: everybody, James Baldwin might say, has been freed.) And yet, Dilsey is still the loyal, happy servant, the judge her satisfied master; the words they improvise express their ideal economic arrangement: “Dilsey, one toddy, please!” “Yes, Massa! Comin’ right up!” When Dilsey sings, where is the irony Baldwin heard in the blues? Where the undercurrent of sadness Douglass heard in every slave song? Can the white camera, any more than the white characters, hear them?

All true, all true. And yet.

That they sing this exchange makes it different, makes it more than the dialogue as translated into prose above. To say that the dialogue is musical means in part that form, structure, play a special role in creating meaning. In this regard, the order of the exchange and the repetitions are crucial: Dilsey begins; the judge responds; he joins her on the verses; each responds to the other; they conclude in unison. It is as though, in these few moments’ passage through the partially appropriated spiritual, a more genuine connection had been achieved, even a playful equality (yes/yes; unison). I know, that “as though” is a big fudge. And yet. It’s more even than the form or structure imposed by the musical dialogue; it’s the whole affect of the exchange that charges the scene differently, something we apprehend, as musicologists have recently begun to analyze, on a more physiological, less conscious level. Its power, that is, is more in the character and tenor of the exchange than its content. It is partly the sheer pleasure of hearing the two voices pinging off each other, improvising with each other—indeed, the freshness of this scene might be due to Rogers’s penchant for improvising on the scripts (see May 30), though it’s true the two would have needed at least an impromptu rehearsal to make it work. I should add that, on the judge’s end, it is purely carried by the singing voice: he never even looks up from his writing; only Dilsey’s gestures register the exchange.

In his discussion of the way Rogers’s films challenged racial stereotypes, May analyzes a scene from In Old Kentucky where Rogers, his face blackened by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to help him escape from jail, is forced to tap-dance by the sheriff. May notes that “no doubt white viewers had a laugh seeing Will Rogers recreate their old, demeaning racist stereotype. Yet … audiences [also] saw their populist hero subjected to the same class injustice as that faced daily by blacks” (36). Note here the way reactionary racist imagery and progressive class (and potentially racial) politics are fused in a single complex filmic moment. (No such ambiguity saves a blackfaced John Wayne in a similarly “comic” moment in The Spoilers, and I’m sure the examples could be multiplied.) Perhaps it is this “twofoldedness” I am seeing in the equally musical moments from Judge Priest, where once again music (and gesture, that is, dance) enables a second layer to appear, a constellation of meaning and feeling, over and above the story, over and above the spoken or sung content; one that subverts, either through ironic comment or culturally-proscribed affect. And perhaps, considered more broadly, the idea of performance can help salvage some of the other ironies in Judge Priest. If, as noted above, judge as much as prosecutor are unmasked as social roles, if Rogers can caricature himself as judge as well as Fetchit in dialogue … why not all the social labels that divide and hierarchize, race among them?


It can be hard going, watching a lot of classic Hollywood: the combination of wide-eyed naivete, grotesque racism, and misogyny can really wear you down. I wonder sometimes if the sorts of moments that attracted me to Judge Priest are enough to recuperate a body of filmmaking defined by contrived solutions to entrenched class disparities, thoughtless racism (is there another kind?), and the ability to turn strong women to quivering masses of jelly in under two hours. Moments of formal beauty that crop up in even the most negligible films, where the camera speaks in spite of the story, even perhaps in spite of itself. Moments of inspired performance. Things that can be separated, and held above, the flow of the narrative, and so undermine it, challenge it, put quotations around it, or breathe unexpected, unwarranted life into it. It is not at all surprising to me that music would have a role in constructing some of these transcendent moments. I think, for example, of the way music, or even just sound, irrupts into the realistic fabric of the novels of E.M. Forster, imbuing them with a spectral, irrational power—from the opera that bifurcates Where Angels Fear to Tread, his first and least accomplished novel, to the episode in the Marabar caves in his final, masterful A Passage to India. Where Hollywood is concerned, perhaps we could braid such moments together, and refer to them as an unofficial, secret history. Beauty. Hardly enough to redeem a culture, a nation. But enough to give a little hope.


* To cite one non-Rogers example: it may be true that Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) “challenged miscegenation codes” by having its white sailors intermarry with Polynesian women (93), and that Clark Gable’s “swarthy” features no longer relegated him to playing gangster roles, but rather the pre-eminent cinema hero of the ‘30s, now with a tinge of titillating darkness (83). (This latter point is a good demonstration of how May’s deep knowledge of the period adds brilliant nuances to his discussions.) But how far, finally, is the white men marrying Polynesian women of Bounty from the constitutive white male fantasy of the exotic, erotic other. Melville’s Typee jumps immediately to mind; even in the 1840s, the novel was attacked more for its anti-missionary digressions than its eroticism. (It was also a bestseller.) Needless to say, English women marrying Polynesian men would have presented a different matter entirely. The film is somewhat more suggestive in its treatment of social class, as the mutineers prepare to found a Pacific island utopia at the film’s end.

** I recognize that the question of how Rogers’s ethnicity was perceived and processed by audiences is complex, something I can’t really give justice to here, but I hope that some of the later comments in this post obliquely address this.

*** The Judge Priest page of Turner Classic Movies’ website sheds a contradictory light on the question of the widely available version. According to TCM, the lynching scene was cut from all versions of the release, because the studio felt it didn’t sit well with the tone of the film as a whole. Apparently, the scene included Rogers rescuing a falsely accused Fetchit from lynching, and then an anti-lynching speech by Priest. If this was indeed the only deletion, and the scene remains in the version held at the Will Rogers Memorial Archive, then my comments above remain. I should add that Ford made another film based on the Judge Priest character in 1953, The Sun Shines Bright, in which the issue of lynching is restored to the narrative.

**** Michael Rogin eruditely connects Judge Priest to the minstrel tradition and American history in Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (California UP, 1996). Rogin notes that “Dixie” was once played by black minstrel troupes “to protect them from white violence”; here, it is “enlisted for racial harmony.” The hymn about Daniel in the lion’s den is similarly re-appropriated, with the poor, white Bob Gillis taking the place of the oppressed slave. Given the depth of Rogin’s scholarship, it is all the more remarkable that he misrepresents the musical episodes discussed above: the scene of Priest singing with the housekeepers on the porch and with Dilsey at home are conflated (or Rogin doesn’t care enough to distinguish them), and the call-and-response scene is distorted. I have to acknowledge that Rogin, like May, is working to synthesize many more elements than I could ever hope to, based on a much broader knowledge of the period. He might argue that the mischaracterized and/or elided details are irrelevant to his argument. Indeed, it is impossible to do the intellectual work of synthesis these two scholars do without sacrificing an enormous amount of specificity along the way. And yet … I think a comment of Simon Frith’s from Performing Rites, which I also read recently, is partly applicable to film, and germane to this post: if we are to “understand” music in anything other than the theoretical perspective of key changes and intervals, description is absolutely key.

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.