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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis, dir. The Coen Brothers (Studiocanal)

July 2014

If I tell you that this is a film about Bob Dylan, that might arouse your interest. But if I tell you that the actor who plays Bob Dylan only appears at the very end of the film, in profile and only for about ten seconds, you might decide not to bother watching it. Please don’t be put off. This is an intriguing study of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, just about the time that Robert Zimmerman hit town. It invites you to speculate about the many singers who got left behind once the famous second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, had been released to universal acclaim.

In fact, the cinematography of Inside Llewyn Davis seems deliberately to evoke that famous photo on the Freewheelin’ cover, in which the young Dylan is seen mooching along a snowy street in the Village with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. The images or New York in the film are similarly bleak and sombre, with our hero Llewyn wandering desperately around trying to get a break in his singing career.

Dylan himself was to sing, once well-established that ‘there’s no success like failure’, while conceding paradoxically that ‘failure’s no success at all’. Well, Dylan certainly succeeded, but many of his Greenwich Village friends failed, at least by comparison. I can’t help thinking of Phil Ochs, tortured by alcoholism and depression, who wrote such timeless gems as ‘There But For Fortune’, but who was driven to suicide without having gained his due recognition.

Who, though, did the Coen Brothers actually have in mind as the real-life source for the role of Llewyn Davis? The consensus seems to be that they were thinking of Dave Van Ronk, who selflessly encouraged the young Dylan, only to see his protégé attain heights he himself could never dream of. There’s a famous story about Van Ronk recording the folk-blues classic ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, only for Dylan to imitate him, including it on his own first album – with the Dylan version completely overshadowing that of Van Ronk.

So here is a film about the time and place which allowed Zimmerman to become Dylan. We could go on forever looking for various parallels between roles played here and actual folksingers of the day, but it is worth pointing out that the characters Jim and Jean sound very much like Peter, Paul and Mary – even singing a song they made famous, ‘Five Hundred Miles’. Given Llewyn’s love-hate relationship with them, they and he look at times as though they do indeed comprise a trio, just like PP&M.

Perhaps I’m being fanciful here, but I do think that there are scenes in the film that are meant to indicate the desperate struggle that folk artists had to endure in trying to make their names in that specific moment in the history of popular music. For instance, Llewyn suffers the ultimate humiliation when he performs a song for a cynical promoter called Bud Grossman – surely based on Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman? – only to be informed curtly: ‘I don’t see any money in it.’

But rest assured, you don’t need to be old enough to remember the early 60s folk boom, nor do you need to be schooled in the machinations of the pop industry, to appreciate this sad, but often amusing, study in failure. Special credit must go to the actor who plays Llewyn, namely Oscar Isaac, whose alternating moods of gloom, discontent and outrage are conveyed with great subtlety, and whose singing performances sound searchingly authentic.

So even if Dylan hardly appears in Inside Llewyn Davis, you will find this account of the time just before he made it enormously helpful in understanding his significance. But if you’re not a Dylan devotee – and believe it or not, I’ve met people who say they simply don’t ‘get’ him! – you will still learn a great deal about making music, about human vulnerability and about the remorseless nature of the fame game.

Laurence Coupe

The Singer, the Song … and the Guru

The Singer, the Song … and the Guru

March 2014

Have you ever felt the need to completely change your perspective on life? If so, you’re in good company. Here I’d like to reflect on some of the popular songwriters who have publicly done so.

The classic example is Bob Dylan, who in 1979 released his uncompromising album Slow Train Coming. An educated Jewish songwriter who had always quoted from both the Old and New Testaments in his songs, he now went all the way and declared himself a follower of Jesus. In one track he resolves publicly that he is ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’, which means that he will ‘stop being influenced by fools’ – referring to secular sophisticates who think they’re too smart to believe in a Messiah. In later decades, Dylan’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity (if that’s what it was) mellowed into a wonderfully sombre spirituality: still faithful to the idea of God but much more open-ended in its notion of what a religious way of life actually involves.

Often, the inspiration for a new sense of direction is a particular movement, and with it a particular guru, or spiritual guide. Perhaps the most obvious example is George Harrison’s first solo album All Things Must Pass (1970), inspired by Harrison’s embrace of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Though Harrison had initially become interested in Eastern spirituality by way of the ‘transcendental meditation’ taught to him and the other Beatles by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, he had come to feel that he needed to commit himself to a specific religious movement, focussed on a particular deity: in this case the Hindu god Vishnu, incarnated as Krishna. We learn from one track on the album that regularly ‘chanting the name of the lord’ is the way to become spiritually ‘free’. Most famous, though, is the song ‘My Sweet Lord’, a hymn of praise to Krishna which also manages to appeal to Christians by alternating the refrain ‘Hare Krishna’ with ‘Hallelujah’.

By contrast, when Pete Townshend wrote Tommy (1969), the Who’s most famous ‘rock opera’, his target was false religious cults. The hero, a ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ who becomes a ‘pinball wizard’, finds himself worshipped by people desperate for some meaning and security in their lives. Townshend is clearly satirising the whole business of guru-promotion. We need to bear in mind, though, that it is only because Townsend had dedicated himself to following the spiritual path outlined by an Indian guru, Meher Baba, that he felt it absolutely necessary to expose the false versions of religious philosophy by contrast with Baba’s own vow of silence, which precluded any chance of his becoming the focus of false expectations.

Sometimes, though, it’s the false expectations that the guru himself can dispel. I’m thinking of the album by Joni Mitchell, Hejira (1976), and in particular the key song ‘Refuge of the Roads’. Mitchell had recently visited the Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and briefly experienced a state of selflessness, thanks to his advice to live in the moment and see the divine in everything she experienced.  She recalls: ‘I sat before his sanity / I was holding back from crying / He saw my complications / And he mirrored me back simplified.’ His message was threefold: ‘Heart and humour and humility’.  Mitchell charts how she then trusted to ‘the refuge of the roads’, and experienced ‘radiant happiness’ as she travelled – until, that is, she forgot his advice: ‘I started analyzing / And I brought on my old ways.’ In documenting her failure, though, she only endorses the wisdom of Trungpa.

Of course, we do not expect songwriters to follow the same spiritual path forever, once they’ve declared their affiliation to a system of belief. Of those mentioned, only Harrison may be seen as totally consistent, espousing Krishna Consciousness right through to his death in 2001. His case forms a contrast with his fellow-Beatle John Lennon who, in the very same year as All Things Must Pass, released Plastic Ono Band, which articulated his disillusionment with the Beatles, with the sixties counterculture, with drugs … and even with religion itself, as a form of delusion. Thus, in the song ‘God’ Lennon declares the idea of a deity to be merely ‘a concept by which we measure our pain’. Again, in ‘I Found Out’ he asserts the importance of coming to terms with one’s own humanity instead of looking to others for answers: ‘I seen through junkies, I been through it all / I seen religion from Jesus to Paul / Don’t let them fool you with dope and cocaine / No one can harm you, feel your own pain.’

This is a challenging album, full of savage irony (does ‘Paul’ refer to a certain Paul McCartney, to St Paul, or to both?), but I wonder if it entirely evades the model we’ve been following. It was composed and recorded by Lennon immediately after undergoing ‘primal scream’ therapy, in which he had been encouraged to regress emotionally, re-experiencing the trauma of birth and early childhood, under the guidance of the radical psychotherapist Arthur Janov. As such, Plastic Ono Band might be seen as an extended testimony to the philosophy of Janov, who had told him that religion was ‘legalised madness’: that he had to accept material reality, and to understand the source of his ‘pain’, without recourse to any spiritual dimension. It just goes to show how hard it is to follow a new path without also following a guru, even if his message is anti-guru.

It may be a sign of age, but it does seem to me that it is the songwriters of ‘the great tradition’ of popular music (those coming to prominence in the 1960s) that had the courage to change their worldview so drastically and so publicly, running the inevitable risk of ridicule. Besides them, the contemporary music scene looks dreadfully dull and bland, does it not? Or perhaps I’m too stuck in the past, and need to ‘change my way of thinking’ myself!

Laurence Coupe

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse, dir. Bela Tarr (Artificial Eye)

January 2014

Do forgive me, but I’ve chosen to review a new-to-DVD film that brings us back down to earth after all the jollity of Christmas. You can rely on the Hungarian director Bela Tarr to do just that. I mean that literally, as The Turin Horse is a masterpiece that makes you reflect on what life is like for those forced to eek out the barest of livings on the land. Nor is that all it does: the story told is also about a growing realisation that the end of time is at hand. So forget the festive fun and prepare to have a life-changing experience.

The title of the film is a reference to an incident late in the life of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Having preached a doctrine of ‘will to power’, and having sneered at Christianity for being a ‘slave religion’ which celebrated weakness, he underwent a curious change in 1889. Residing in Turin, he one day saw a coach-driver beating his horse, and immediately intervened, throwing his arms round the neck of the horse and sobbing hysterically. He was then taken away, and ended up in the care of his mother and sister until his death in 1900. This event has always been taken to have triggered Nietzsche’s madness. I like to think of it as the moment in which he became sane: the moment when he realised that a doctrine of dog-eat-dog was soulless, and that compassion for all living creatures, human and non-human, was the only morality that mattered.

It is a horse which one sees first in the film: a tired, dust-covered, drab creature pulling a creaking cart driven by an elderly man. We see it brought home to a windswept, ramshackle farm, then put to rest in a rundown stable. It is the horse to which the film keeps returning. Though we feel sorry for it, we feel sorry also for its owner and for the patient but weary daughter who looks after both of them.

There, then, are our three main characters. Over six ‘chapters’ and two-and-a-half hours we are invited to observe their daily lives, with its humble routines. The old man rises and is helped to dress by his daughter. They eat boiled potatoes with their hands. The horse is taken out, driven out and then brought back home. They eat potatoes again. They drink the rough, cheap, local brandy. They sit quietly for what seems an eternity. All the time, the camera simply rests upon them. In an era which relishes speed and busy-ness, it is wonderfully calming simply to sit and stay with these characters and every detail of their existence.

But what happens? Well, I suppose we could say that life is what happens. Focusing on everyday actions at extraordinary length eventually has the effect of encouraging a kind of meditation in the viewer. Many scenes are like religious paintings. Even when there is movement, the actions seem like gestures towards eternity.

Eventually, though, we sense a change is coming. A neighbour calls requesting a spare bottle of brandy, staying only to warn the old man that the world is undergoing a painful transformation: the old certainties have gone, corruption is rife, and the world is going to ruins. Sure enough, the signs are there in that isolated homestead: the horse refuses to eat or drink, and is obviously too sick to pull the cart; the well on which they rely for water dries up; the daughter reads aloud from a religious text about sin and damnation; the lamps, though full of oil, refuse to light; darkness envelops the home and its surroundings.

This review is not meant as a plot spoiler. Indeed, there is no plot to The Turin Horse in the conventional sense of contemporary cinema. ‘Things get worse and worse, and the end draws near’ hardly suggests a sure-fire blockbuster attraction. But if you want a film that will stay with you for the rest of your life, this is it.

Laurence Coupe

Biophilia

Biophilia by Bjork (Polydor / One Little Indian)

September 2013

I was prompted to write something about this album after I saw a fascinating television documentary recently, called ‘When Bjork Met Attenborough’ (Channel Four, 27-7-13). The programme was partly about the singer’s preparations for the world premiere of the album in 2011, with lots of insights into the new instruments which she and her collaborators had created. Just as interesting, though, were the conversations between the most famous Icelandic pop icon and the esteemed English naturalist. I hadn’t realised how much Sir David reveres her work, and how much attention he has paid to her methods of composition. He praised the mathematical structures of her music, and the way she tried to marry science, nature and song. One of the great moments for me was when he explained that the human larynx is capable of far more than ordinary speech – as witnessed by Bjork’s own remarkable voice – and that it is highly likely that the capacity to produce song must have been a crucial stage in human evolution.

Turning to the title of the album … Have you ever wondered why we enjoy hearing birds singing? Or why we are so moved by the sight of the sun setting over the distant hills? Or why we get better faster when we can see a tree outside the window? According to the biologist Edward O. Wilson, it’s because we have an inborn need for connection with the natural world. The term he uses to describe this phenomenon is ‘biophilia’: love of life, or more specifically love of nature. This may seem rather a bland notion, but what’s interesting about Wilson is that he argues that human beings evolved precisely through understanding and appreciating their natural environment, and through respecting all the wonderful diversity of nature. True, we have since developed in such a way that we have found it possible to do damage to the natural environment, but we suffer if we do – not only physically but also psychologically and spiritually. Today, in the face of the pollution and overpopulation of the planet, it is more than ever important to reaffirm that fundamental bond with the earth, and to relearn ‘biophilia’.

Rather than offer a track-by-track analysis, I’d simply like to indicate what it’s like to encounter this extraordinary musical event. We know what a crystal looks like, but what does it sound like? Can we hear the motion of the planets, the changing of the seasons? Bjork thinks we can. Granted, when you play the first track of Biophilia you might think you are entering into a whole new soundscape; but despite all the invention and experimentation, the harmony of the spheres soon makes itself felt. If I wanted to convert someone to Bjork’s enterprise, however, I’d probably advise them to start with track 3, ‘Crystalline’, or with track 4, ‘Cosmogony’, or perhaps with track 9, ‘Mutual Core’. Even if the very prefix ‘techno’ brings you out in a rash, here is new technology put at the service of a genuinely liberating music, which opens your eyes / ears / mind to the miracle of nature.

If pressed, I’d say that ‘Cosmogony’ is the ‘best tune’. It sounds like a new kind of hymn, identifying the sacred entirely with the earthly. It outlines various half-remembered stories of how the universe came into being, with each creation myth being echoed by the beautifully simple refrain: ‘heaven, heaven’s bodies / whirl around me / make me wonder.’ It is that sense of wonder that informs this whole masterpiece.

By way of a postscript, we might mention something Wilson himself has noticed about our current way of living. Far too many children, he says, are suffering not only from ‘attention deficit disorder’ but also from what he calls ‘nature deficit disorder’. (We should note that the term is not his, however: it was coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods.) They need to be encouraged to spend time in the natural world, and to develop their own affinity with it. Bjork seems to understand this: hence she’s sponsored an educational programme in her native land – a biophilia project – which helps children engage with music, with science and with the earth so that they see how everything is connected. The album itself certainly encourages a childlike sense of wonder in all those listeners, of whatever age, who are prepared to give it a go.

Laurence Coupe

Au Hasard Balthazar

Au Hasard Balthazar, dir. Robert Bresson (Artificial Eye reissue)

June 2013

If I tell you that this film was made in 1966 by a Catholic director, that it is in French with subtitles, that it is in black and white, that it tells the story of a humble donkey from birth to death, and that it’s the sort of film which demands repeated viewing (the plot being less important than the presentation), you might decide to give it a miss. But let me add that it is frequently voted by film devotees and critics alike as one of the best ten films ever made, and that it makes you reconsider not only how we view and treat animals, but how we relate to the world we live in.

In the first, idyllic sequence, we see the baby donkey, born on a farm, being adopted by Marie, the daughter of a schoolteacher. She and Jacques, the son of the farmer, decide to baptise him ‘Balthazar’. Apart from the fact that that name has Biblical connotations (he was one of the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus), there is the suggestion that the donkey has now been given a proper identity – a soul, perhaps?

Most of the film from then on concerns Balthazar growing up and being put to hard, unremitting work. If the first sequence showed us an earthly paradise, we have now entered the wilderness of this world. With the death of his daughter, the farmer loses interest in the farm, and Marie’s father takes it over. Balthazar is sold into a life of toil, neglect and cruelty: he works intermittently for a baker, for a corn merchant and for the owner of a circus, and at one point is appropriated by an alcoholic tramp, who mistreats him as badly as do all the rest.

As Marie matures, she grows less and less concerned for Balthazar’s fate. This is due to the influence of Gerard, the leader of a rural gang. If we’ve been in the Garden of Eden and are now wandering through the wilderness, he takes the role of the tempting serpent. He represents the ‘Fall’. Marie is besotted by him, but he exploits and abuses her. Thus her role as victim parallels that of Balthazar, whose task is simply to endure all the torments that are inflicted on him.

Gerard it is who is responsible for the donkey’s death. ‘Borrowing’ him for a smuggling trip, and pursued by the police, he abandons the animal after it has been shot. In the final sequence, we see Balthazar the next day making his painful way into a field full of sheep, where he dies. This is one of the most celebrated sequences in cinematic history.

We’ve already noted that the donkey’s name has Biblical connotations; we’ve already mentioned Eden and the Fall. With the film’s close, we might say that Balthazar takes on a role reminiscent of Jesus, the sacrificial victim who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey prior to his arrest and crucifixion, and who is called paradoxically both ‘lamb’ and ‘shepherd’. The film takes the form of religious parable.

But what does it tell us? One point it makes is that to hurt our fellow non-human creatures is to lessen our own humanity. The silent, suffering donkey exposes the aggression and arrogance to which we are all prone. Every time I see this film, I think of St Francis of Assisi, who insisted that Christian charity must extend to animals, and who used to refer fondly to ‘Brother Donkey’.

The other main lesson is conveyed by the cinematic technique of Bresson: it encourages us to contemplate the world we live in, in all its detail and variety. The camera dwells continually on details: a cart’s wheel, a door, a bench, a hand; most of all, the patient, impassive face of the donkey. The director once stated: ‘The supernatural in film is only the real rendered more precise: real things seen close up.’ It is by looking carefully at the world in which Balthazar makes his way that we can learn the lesson of compassion – not by speculating about some far-off heaven.

The unanswered question it leaves us with, of course, is this: what was the meaning of Balthazar’s life? The answer is up to the viewer who is prepared to spare an hour and a half in his inscrutable presence.

Laurence Coupe

The Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band: Original Album Series (Rhino)

March 2013

Can it really be 45 years since I first heard ‘A Very Cellular Song’ and ‘Job’s Tears’ – songs that I must have listened to at least once a month every since, always finding more in them? The Incredible String Band was perhaps the most innovative group to appear in the sixties, and they still sound intriguing and challenging. If they’re new to you, be warned that you have to forget everything you have understood about how popular music is supposed to sound and what it is supposed to talk about. Categorised as ‘psychedelic folk’, the ISB effectively instigated what we now call world music: as such, they did not try and turn Indian, East European, Arabic or Celtic sounds into three-minute hit wonders, but rather allowed their influences lots of room to breathe while they drew on them at daringly experimental length. Similarly, for their lyrics they drew on what we now call world religion: references abound to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist sources, to Christian mysticism and to the ideas of such gurus of their day as Alan Watts and Krishnamurti.

The first album, simply called The Incredible String Band (1966), and featuring Robin Williamson, Mike Heron and Clive Palmer, sounds pretty conventional: staple folk fare. But already the lyrics are getting very interesting indeed. My favourite is Williamson’s ‘October Song’. I love the serenity of this verse: ‘The fallen leaves that jewel the ground / They know the art of dying / And leave with joy their glad gold hearts / In the scarlet shadows lying.’ But I also like the audacity of this: ‘For rulers like to lay down laws / And rebels like to break them / And the poor priests like to walk in chains / And God likes to forsake them.’ As throughout Williamson’s work, the influence of William Blake is felt in those lines.

The second album, the one that for many characterised the ‘summer of love’ of 1967, is called The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion; it is with this that the ‘hippie’ reputation began to grow. Clive Palmer having departed, Williamson and Heron introduced a whole range of new, mainly foreign, instruments, and began to explore the realms of mysticism. Heron invited us to ‘Listen to the song of life’ which ‘gurgles through the timeless glade / In quartertones of lightning’, adding that ‘Its rainbow’s end won’t hold you’. But such cheery speculation was tempered by Williamson’s dark riddling: ‘I am the question that cannot be answered / I am the lover that cannot be lost / Yet small are the gifts of my servant the soldier / For time is my offspring, pray, what is my name?’ The answer – which human beings find it so hard to accept, unlike those graceful leaves mentioned above – is, of course, death. If this was hippie music, it was rather more than a drug-fuelled diversion. However we judge the ISB, it is a very hard phenomenon to pin down.

The third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) is so diverse musically and lyrically that it’s hard to recall that it is the creation of two young Scottish folksingers. Instruments played include guitar, gimbri, whistle, pan pipe, piano, oud, mandolin, sitar, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord and harp. And the words that accompany the weird & wonderful sounds are unforgettable. Here’s a distillation of the story of Eden from the Book of Genesis in terms of the Buddhist teaching of the illusory nature of the ego: ‘Earth water fire and air / Met together in a garden fair / Put in a basket bound with skin / If you answer this riddle / You’ll never begin.’ More playful paradox is offered in another song, which asks us to travel imaginatively to ‘Where the flowers are free and the fishes ask / Ah, what can water be?’

This box set gives us five albums in all, but I should point out that the final two were originally issued, in the same year as Daughter, under the quirky title of Wee Tam and the Big Huge. (I understand that this makes perfect sense if you come from Scotland!) Two examples of ‘incredible’ songs might be given by way of conclusion. Heron’s ‘Douglas Traherne Harding’ is a meditation on nature and spirit, drawing on the teachings of Jesus (‘If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light’) and on the work of two neglected mystics: Thomas Traherne (‘You’ll never enjoy the world aright … till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars’) and Douglas Harding (author of On Having No Head, an account of how he woke up to the beauty of creation and found he had lost his sense of self). In Williamson’s ‘The Circle Is Unbroken’, his riposte to that old, other-worldly hymn ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’, he declares that ‘Seasons they change but with gaze unchanging’, and offers the following invitation: ‘Come let us build the ship of the future / In an ancient pattern that journeys far / Come let us set sail for the always island / Through seas of leaving to the summer stars.’ Four-and-a-half decades on, that still sounds good to me!

Laurence Coupe

Tempest

Tempest by Bob Dylan (Columbia)

October 2012

In my experience people either ‘get’ Bob Dylan or they don’t. If they do, they become obsessive, even fanatical. I don’t come across many people who say they really like ‘When The Ship Comes In’ but see no point in exploring his work further. For the real ‘Bobhead’, it’s necessary not only to immerse oneself in the complete recordings, but also to follow Dylan’s hints, and explore the two influences that are most important to him: religion and ‘roots’ music. For Dylan these are complementary. He has famously declared: ‘Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs … I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back towards those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing “I Saw The Light”.’

These new songs of Dylan’s may not convert many listeners to his kind of belief, but they will certainly grab their attention and, having done so, remind them that death, disaster and damnation are themes that are worth pondering. Dylan’s voice, which always sounded a lot older than he was, has now matured into a hypnotic growl which holds you from first note to last.

Musically this is probably Dylan’s most interesting album since Time Out Of Mind. I couldn’t begin to list all the genres which he explores and expands, but I fancy that the catchy opening track ‘Duquesne Whistle’ is in part his homage to a now-neglected branch of country music known as ‘western swing’. Again, ‘Scarlet Town’ has a tune based on the traditional English folksong ‘Barbara Allen’, while the title track, ‘Tempest’, owes a great deal to the Carter Family’s song on the same subject, ‘The Titanic’. No doubt some will accuse Dylan of plagiarism. But that is to miss the point. He is honouring ‘those old songs’; he is keeping them alive; he is drawing on their past to help us face our present.

Nor should we overlook the literary allusions, which with Dylan have always intermingled with the musical. ‘Scarlet Town’ contains whole lines from various poems by the mid-19th-century American poet (and famous opponent of slavery) John Greenleaf Whittier. In the final song, Dylan’s elegy for his friend John Lennon, ‘Roll On John’, he quotes the earlier English poet William Blake (‘Tyger tyger burning bright’). Whittier, Blake and Dylan speak to us – all three – as contemporaries. This is how poets have been entering into dialogue with their predecessors for centuries.

After all, when it comes to the religious themes, we would be disappointed if Dylan didn’t quote scripture. He’s been doing so since his very first songs, and that’s entirely appropriate for a bard whose vision has been consistently apocalyptic. For Dylan, the end is always nigh. Here the very title of ‘Narrow Way’ suggests the Gospels: ‘For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matthew 7.14). Less specifically, mention of the ‘desert’ in the first line of the same song evokes the world of the wandering Hebrews in the Book of Exodus. ‘Roll On John’ contains many New Testament echoes, most notably in the refrain ‘Shine your light’, which can’t help but remind us of ‘Let your light … shine before men’ (Matthew 5.16). Again, ‘Pay In Blood’ seems to be an ironic reversal of the idea of Christ as the innocent scapegoat: its angry, bitter refrain from a man bent on revenge, ‘I pay in blood but not my own’, forces you to decide where you yourself stand. Fifty years after his first album, Dylan is still challenging our complacency and bringing tradition bang up to date.

Laurence Coupe

The Tree of Life & Melancholia

The Tree of Life, dir. Terence Malick (20th Century Fox) & Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier (Artificial Eye)

May 2012

Now that these two marvellous films are available on DVD, we can see that they form a perfect pair, balancing each other almost exactly. The Tree of Life is about wondering how everything began; Melancholia is about getting ready for the end.

In Malick’s film, an apparently idyllic American childhood turns out to be a source of endless pain and regret. The family scene is as follows. The spiritually inclined mother believes that the choice in life is between the way of nature and the way of grace, and she wants her boys to follow the latter. The father, however, wants them to follow neither, but adhere rather to his rigidly orthodox code: conventional, restrictive Christianity fused with aggressive individualism. (Let me pause to say that this part is impressively acted by Brad Pitt.) The boys try and make sense of things, despite the confused messages from their parents, but these years are overshadowed by the death of one of them at the age of 19 as an army recruit – news of this tragedy being delivered by telegram at the start of the film.

Much of the narrative is about looking back to childhood and asking where everything went wrong. But it takes us back much, much further. The mother plants a tree – the tree of life of the film’s title – which invites speculation about the story of the garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis: Adam and Eve were denied access to the tree of life because of their pride. Not only that, but in a stunning sequence lasting over a quarter of an hour, we are transported to the very moment of creation, and then given a guided tour of evolution.

Malick shows us human misery in the context of grand, cosmic processes. That might explain his decision to preface the film with a quotation from another Biblical book, that of Job, which tells the story of a good man whom God allows to be tested by Satan in order to see how strong is his faith. The terrible pains inflicted upon him fail to shake his belief, but Job understandably wants to ask God why he allows so much human suffering. God’s reply is to ask a question in return: ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?  … When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’ In other words: once you’ve understood all the mysteries of the cosmos, you may come back to me and complain about the way you’ve been treated! The film doesn’t necessarily condone this divine rejoinder: it draws on it to help us get outside of our normally limited point of view.

So the film presents us with the way of nature, which it sees as God-given. But what of the way of grace? I won’t spoil the end, but I think I’m right in saying that we are offered a vision of salvation.

On the other hand, Lars von Trier in Melancholia seems to be telling us that what matters is to prepare yourself for the ultimate agony: the destruction of the Earth. If Malick draws on Genesis via Job, von Trier draws on the Book of Revelation. This is an apocalyptic film.

The action takes place in a country house hotel, where a wedding reception is being held. There are family disputes and resentments galore, and repressed rage is evident throughout.  The bride-to-be is riddled with doubts, and suffers from depression. Not only that, but she is obsessed by the idea that a planet, appropriately called Melancholia, is heading towards Earth. So weary is she of life that she almost welcomes the collision. Meanwhile her sister, initially calmly sceptical, is thrown into a state of increasing terror as the film progresses.

In this case, I won’t be spoiling the end by saying, yes, the planet does hit Earth, and yes, everyone is killed. This is made quite clear at the beginning – with the strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde providing an appropriately doom-laden atmosphere. Let me just say that this final sequence is unforgettable as a representation of what it must be like to face destruction.

So if The Tree of Life puts our lives into perspective by reminding us of our origins, Melancholia does the same by asking us how we will conduct ourselves in the face of the conclusion of everything (which may not necessarily come by way of planetary collision, but which will come nonetheless). By sheer synchronicity, Malick and von Trier have produced at the same moment an astounding pair of visionary films.

Laurence Coupe

Old Ideas

Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen (Columbia)

March 2012

It’s an odd title for a ‘pop’ album: almost defiantly un-cool. But what does it mean? On the one hand we might think of Cohen’s age: these are the ‘old ideas’ that might well go through the mind of someone in his late seventies, who has had the extraordinary life that he’s had, and who is facing up to his own mortality. A song called ‘Darkness’ confronts the fact that ‘I got no future / I know my days are few.’ On the other hand ‘old ideas’ could refer to the traditional wisdom which is to be found at the heart of all the major religions. After all, Cohen was raised a Jew, early on developed a fascination with the figure of Jesus, and finally espoused Zen Buddhism.

Is, then, the album’s main theme the need to free oneself of one’s worldly concerns and devote oneself to higher principles? Well, not exactly. In ‘Going Home’, someone called ‘Leonard’ (?!) expresses the desire to write ‘a love song / An anthem of forgiving / A manual for living with defeat / A cry above the suffering / A sacrifice recovering.’ But the other presence in the song – religious master? poetic muse? – does not want to grant his request: ‘I want to make him certain / That he doesn’t have a burden / That he doesn’t need a vision.’

Perhaps, then, the main ‘idea’ of the album is that we need to go beyond all ‘ideas’, old and new. If so, then that would be in keeping with the Zen which Cohen has adopted. Often referred to as ‘the religion of no religion’, it acknowledges no deity, it refuses to talk about any afterlife, and it tells us that our duty is simply to live in the moment and revere the workings of the natural world. The trouble is that even these challenging principles can themselves become ‘old ideas’. It is then that art has to step in and restore us to the eternal present, beyond any doctrine. Hence we need albums such as this.

Of course, there’s no need to know all about Zen to appreciate what Cohen is doing; as usual, Jesus puts in an appearance, helping us to get our bearings. In ‘Come Healing’, the songwriter draws on the New Testament to celebrate the possibility that we might ‘gather up the brokenness’. For ‘The splinters that you carry / The cross you left behind’ will make possible a ‘penitential hymn’ which allows ‘healing of the spirit’ and ‘healing of the limb’. But note that the healing hymn is a song of this very earth, not of a remote heaven: ‘O longing of the branches / To lift the little bud / O longing of the arteries / To purify the blood …’  Let me invoke here the title of an earlier song of Cohen’s: ‘Here It Is.’

Be reassured: this album isn’t at all forbidding. Listening to that rich, well-worn voice, perfectly matched by the delicately crafted music, is a pleasure in itself – whatever ‘ideas’ you happen to believe in.

Laurence Coupe

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

George Harrison: Living in the Material World, dir. Martin Scorsese (Lionsgate)

November 2011

‘Who’s your favourite Beatle?’ Those of a certain age may recall that that was once the burning question for secondary school pupils everywhere. Reflecting on it now, I suppose I’d try and evade the question by simply saying that the one I increasingly find most interesting is George Harrison. I am pleased to concur in this with the great film director, Martin Scorsese.

The first third or so of Scorsese’s film is a reminder of the Beatles’ rise to fame. It’s a story that’s often been told, but Scorsese has been allowed access to family letters and photographs which give us an intriguing picture of the young Harrison coming to terms with the burden of fame. Also, new interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and others help bring home the quandary posed by being a member of the ‘fab four’.

It’s a quandary that affected Harrison most deeply. While we all know that the group grew tired of performing for fans who would rather scream than listen, we often forget how early on he had become disillusioned with the pop world and with the trappings of celebrity. Crucial here is the meeting in the mid-sixties with Ravi Shankar: not only the most important exponent of Indian classical music in the world but also a man of profound spiritual wisdom. Scorsese conveys how strong was Shankar’s affection for Harrison, whom he regarded as a genuine seeker after enlightenment.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the rest of the film focuses mainly on Harrison’s turn to the East: his efforts to master the sitar under the guidance of Shankar; and his rejection of his childhood Catholicism in favour of Hinduism. Even those who have little interest in the Beatles know about the episode of their trip to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat in Rishikesh in 1967, to perfect their recently acquired skill of ‘transcendental meditation’; and the general consensus is that it was just a passing phase, typical of their restless sensation-seeking. But Harrison stuck with the Maharishi, who comes out of this film rather well. Certainly, it is clear that Harrison, prompted by both him and Shankar, became a serious student of Indian philosophy from then on.

Central to the film is a celebration of the still-impressive album, All Things Must Pass, released in the very year of the break-up of the Beatles (1970). Looking back, it was remarkably brave of Harrison to release an album of sacred music at a time when flower power had turned sour, and the whole idea of an alternative spirituality had become associated with drug abuse.

Not that Scorsese is out to paint Harrison as a saint. Indeed, the singer’s lapse into addiction is addressed head-on. Again, his widow Olivia speaks freely about the difficulty of living with a man who could be both angry and amiable. There’s a whole other story behind her wry recollection of what she used to say to people who asked what was the secret of a long marriage: ‘You don’t get divorced!’

But perhaps there are two sequences that linger most in the mind. The first is the description by Olivia of the near-fatal attack by a deranged intruder at their home in December 1999. It is hard to get out of one’s head the fact that Harrison sought to dissuade his attacker by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, nor that he retained his sense of humour in the aftermath of the intrusion when, being taken to the ambulance by new medic recruits, he enquired of them, ‘So what do you think of the job so far?’

The second is the sequence in which Ringo Starr recalls visiting George in the final weeks of the latter’s life, when he was dying of cancer. I defy anyone not to be moved by this. It’s a fitting end to a documentary which stands up well next to Scorsese’s much-praised celebration of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. Surely these are  the two most important films about popular music ever made …

Laurence Coupe