Monday, June 14, 2010

Honesty from Jim Emerson

I haven't been blogging too much lately; really, it hasn't been that I lost interest, just that I've been busy, and some of the things I've been reading/seeing/listening to have been rather long in getting through, so I didn't necessarily have anything to blog about. Just finished The Pickwick Papers, for example, which took me over a month to get through; I'll try to blog it sometime this week, but that sort of explains why I haven't written about books lately...

Anyway, it may seem that I've lost interest once I link to the wonderful essay Jim Emerson has up on his Scanners film blog right now. I don't read a lot of film blogs (and there are a lot of film blogs); I found Emerson's through Ebert's website, and it pretty much fixes me for film commentary beyond simple movie reviews. So I say this without a lot of knowledge to back it up, but I don't think you'll find too many people on the internets writing about culture on a professional level (far above mine) who have the courage to admit what he's almost admitting
here, which is that there can come a point when, no matter how much you love a thing, there can come a point when you lose interest in it; more precisely, when you realize that your love for the thing doesn't necessarily mean you have to be enthusiastic about every new development in the thing.

He's talking about movies (mostly: he has a nice paragraph about music). Here's how he puts it:

So, I guess I can imagine reaching a point when I just say, "Forget it. I'd rather concentrate my energies studying and (re-)discovering great movies that already exist than keep expecting to find something satisfying in next week's mainstream theatrical releases just because they're 'new' products" -- whatever "mainstream" means, if anything, in our increasingly balkanized, niche-ified pop culture landscape. I recognize that, in the late 20th and early 21st century, the chances of me discovering what I'd consider to be a genuinely "new," compelling movie at the multiplex have grown mighty slim.

If you can make generalizations (and I know: you can't) about something as hydraheaded as the internets, it seems to me that the culture commentary thereon is overwhelmingly oriented toward the new. As he seems to be recognizing in his essay, to be interested in film on the internet seems to automatically entail being interested in new films.

But what if you're not? I don't have the heart to read all the comments on Emerson's post, but I can well imagine readers of a certain bent seeing his as the complaint of a cranky old fart (most of Emerson's commenters are fanatically loyal, so I doubt they'll say this), or of an aesthetically complacent, intellectually borderline-incurious traditionalist. None of which he is, of course...

I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is that strikes such a chord in me about this essay. Part of it, I think, is the recognition that as you get old you sometimes lose interest in the new. I almost think it's inevitable. It hasn't happened to me with films - most of my favorite directors are still in their primes, and a lot of my favorite films are from the last twenty years, and if I don't get out to the theater much, I do try to put new things in the Netflix queue when they look interesting, and a fair amount of recent films look interesting to me.

But a cursory reading of this blog should make it clear that it has happened to me with music. I, quite obviously, love music. I mean, I loooooovvvvvvvvveeeeeeee music. Willie Dixon once said, "I never said I was a millionaire, I said I've spent more money than a millionaire" - and I've spent it all on music. But I can't even remember the last new artist I liked well enough to buy a whole CD of (and I still consume most of my music in CD format). The odd Idol post aside, music is essentially over for me.

Why? Reasons both personal and, I begin to suspect, universal. The personal was an unintended separation from contemporary pop at a key time in my youth. I spent two years on a religious mission from age 20 to 22, in a foreign country and under a regime of rules that precluded listening to any non-religious music. I was never solely focused on the present - I developed my fetish for '60s hippie bands as a high school student in the Reagan era - but I was as intensely engaged with new music as most teenagers are right up until this point. Then for two years I dropped out of touch, and missed everything. This was from 1990 to 1992, the beginning of grunge.

This meant that I essentially missed out on the biggest rock development of my generation, and my engagement with contemporary music has never been the same. I tried to play catch-up for a while, but I never really recovered - I felt alienated from most alternative rock in the '90s. Meanwhile, hip hop never appealed to me much, and the one new musical development in the '90s that really did it for me, acid jazz, proved to be mostly a dance-music fad rather than a real revolution. By the time the '00s arrived I'd essentially given up trying to keep up with new music.

For a long time I wrestled with myself over this; I still feel a little guilt over not trying to engage with new music. Not only is there the anxiety over appearing to be an old fart (happens to all of us, both the aging and the anxiety over it), but there's the knowledge that lots of people I know and respect seem to find a great deal to love in new music. But then, almost all those people are much younger than me...

That's where the possibly-universal comes into it. I still pay attention just enough to know what some of the trends are, and what some people see in them (but not enough attention to name names accurately, so I won't), but it's still not enough to actually motivate me to invest in new music. Because a lot of it seems to be retreading stuff I've already been through. Rock music, I realized long ago, is essentially about youth and rebellion, which means that every couple of decades it has to eat itself, kill its parents, forget its past, which of course means it's doomed to repeat it, or if you want to put it more optimistically it's always free to make its own mistakes. So a lot of the gestures in rock I've seen before (and when they seemed fresh to me they were already repetitious to my parents' generation). I can appreciate them, but I don't feel compelled to join them.

And I think this is bound to happen as you get older. You realize, from your own experience, that there really isn't all that much new under the sun, and that in some cases youth is best left to the young. In some fields this isn't a problem; in rock music it is, because the revolutionary
impulse at the heart of rock (and this is true of pop, too, although for a different reason: in pop it's because, after all, presentism is the defining characteristic of pop) means that rock critics skew young (even Christgau, who I confess I never liked, lost his gig in the aughts). If you're a rock fan, you get old, and you either decide that new rock isn't as good as what came before and you get dismissed as an old fart, or you keep trying to stay current and look like an idiot and get dismissed as an old fart anyway.

Of course, none of this matters: unless you have to do this for a living, you should just listen to what you like, and as for people's opinions, it's like Jerry Garcia used to say: fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. But no matter how much we may admire him, few of us can actually be as devil-may-care as the Friend of the Devil himself; I for one will admit that I don't want to get stale, stuck in a rut, old, and that's why I had such anxiety for so long about having given up on new music.

But the thing is, I never gave up on discovering music. And this is an important point in Emerson's essay, too. Like the man says, it doesn't matter how old it is, if you haven't heard it it's new to you. I'm constantly discovering new music - it just happens to be anywhere from thirty to ninety years old most of the time.

I strongly believe that's a valid approach. In other words, I don't criticize those who give up on new music (etc.), but I also think that if you give up discovering new music you're giving up on growing, at least in that particular area. That's why I don't just give up and listen to nothing but Dylan and the Dead - I could probably do that and be happy, but I wouldn't respect myself. So I buy a Lee Morgan cd, and I discover "Mr. Kenyatta," and it makes me glad.

What I don't understand, actually, is why this isn't a more common stance. If I could shift the subtopic to movies for a minute, one of the nice things about living in Cambridge/Somerville was that we had the Brattle right there, a fantastic revival house showing classic movies all the time. I mean, if you cared about movies at all it was heaven to be able to see things like Apocalypse Now, Zabriskie Point, Seven Samurai, Casablanca, and all the rest on the big screen, especially if you were too young to have caught them when they were first in release. And yet the Brattle is always hurting for money. I just can't understand how a major American metro area can support up to a half dozen multiplexes but not a single revival screen.

Why aren't more people interested in old art, is the question. Why does Wikipedia contain more pages about The National than about Sidney Bechet?

...No real point to all this that I've written, obviously. I'm in Japan right now, which always makes me introspective because it's been the site and catalyst for so much of my adulthood; and I'm also jet-lagged, which makes it harder than normal to put two thoughts together coherently. But, if anyone was curious, maybe this post explains why this blog is so scatter-shot. Or maybe it just demonstrates it...

I'll try to write something about something soon. Probably Pickwick.

1 comment:

g dawg said...

Dude, those are sweet sweet words to hear. I don't listen to a lot of 'new' music myself, but I am always discovering stuff that's new to me. Just the other day I got into Os Mutantes, and after that it was Bob Marley, then Lee Scratch Perry... music from a long time ago, but so fresh and beautiful, it almost brings tears to my eyes.
And of course, it's the same for film.
I would go a little further than you in my love for the past though. I can't help but feel that LPs will always sound better than CDs, that anolog is better than digital, and that the warps and the grain of a film or a record, the accidental blurs in a photograph, will always be more exciting, nostalgic, majestic, true, and beautiful than any amount of clarity, pixels, or data cells.
Of course, I loved the action and the special effects in The Matrix, but nothing can ever quite compare to fuzz and the grain of Taxi Driver or Blade Runner? Their whining, off-key soundtracks? Sometimes new things can be very impressive or clever, but suffer in the beauty stakes.
To give an exception, but also a kind of proof of this phenomenon, take Tarantino...
Well, I think I've made my point. Thanks for the interesting read!