Saturday, January 8, 2011

Taking Up Arms #1

There are always periods of productivity in past eras that it's easy to get lost in or obsess over. Nostalgia. False memories. Naive desire. When I was just out of school and trying to impress girls, be a better human and read literary heavyweights, I got all excitable about the writers and salons of the 20s in Paris, in London and then in New York. Then, later, as I formed cinema obsessions with neorealism and later, the New Wave, I romanticised both Rome and Paris in the 50s and 60s. I had no interest in the cities, just in the fervour of the period. Later it would be Mexico City and Barcelona in the 70s, or Granada in the 1910s or Manchester in the 80s. It's foolish and absurd when you're a thousand kilometres away and displaced by several decades but wherever there was a cluster of activity - where writers and filmmakers and artists and ex-cons and hustlers and critics and musicians and pretenders gathered and made noise and mess and great, wondrous things - I wanted to be there.

Through all these obsessions I've never been one to obsess over late 60s and 70s New York, even though so many of the musicians and artists and filmmakers I love were shaped by, or part of this era. Just these past days, however, I read Patti Smith's lovesong to Robert Mapplethorpe 'Just Kids' and I think I've found the romantic view of this period that I was looking for. This memoir - a distillation of a period of time in which Smith and Mapplethorpe were finding their shape and life as artists, while deeply in love with each other and their view of the world - is such a beautiful, dense and simple expression of the desire to make, to be, to do. And, through Smith's eyes, it seemed it was everywhere around her.

Perhaps because I've been lost for a while in projects in which individual voices are suspended in honour of the collective, in which the shape and importance of the whole is diminished by a lone voice, it is a beautiful thing to read these voices trying to find the right form for their internal language. It was sometime before Mapplethorpe found his photography, and some time before Patti Smith found her distinctive sound, but all along was the purity of their form and their belief in that. As a writer and poet and artist, Smith took some time to shape her lyrical, poetic rock but when she finally did, this is what she found:
"We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone." (p245)
And only a few pages earlier, while searching for the ghosts of Rimbaud, Smith visits Jim Morrison's recent grave - already showing signs of the graffiti, tributes, mementos, desecrations - and an old French woman calls out to her,
"American! Why do you not honour your poets?"
Perhaps these periods of fervent creativity are romanticised because of the purity of vision expressed by the boldest voices of the time. In this contemporary era, art is above all else, collectible, film, above all, commercial, music, above all, popular. Each of these elements working always to diminish the purity, boldness, concentration of a practitioner trying to find the perfect form for their voice, their vision, their ideas and ideals. It is a romantic view. And it is precisely this romanticism that has been beaten into submission by the devaluing of an individual artist at the same time as individual celebration of sports, celebrity or pop identities has surpassed all previous eras. I don't pretend to have any idea how this happens or why, only that in film at least, to be as arrogant as to position your world view as separate from commercial concerns is a hangable offence. Yet, always it's been those people brave, dumb or stubborn enough to honour these simple yet ephemeral ideals of what it is 'inside' us - the voice, the spirit, the heart, the mind - who make the art that allows us to see differently, to live freely - if only for a moment - and to glimpse more closely the elusive interior.

Since long before I read about Patti Smith, music infused with the spirit of punk is still my only lasting saviour - that can be made amid solitude or poverty or geographic isolation, without tools and resources and connections - and somehow find it's way into peoples hearts if not in to their wallets. If only film could rediscover that spirit.
"We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance and vapid technical complexity."
In 'Just Kids' Smith honours poets that I had never previously been interested in, she makes them live in a way that is thrilling and idealistic and romantic and a perfect antidote and an anti-manifesto to the creative cynicism that pervades our era.

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