Obsessions and Lamentations #13 - Calling All Geniuses Edition
You know what we could use? - Some artistic geniuses under the age of 60. Survey the landscape of music, film and literature and show me the people who are not just entertaining you, but are turning your head around, putting you in touch with some deep truths that you had heretofore been ignorant of. Whose work is standing up to intense scrutiny, revealing itself little by little since its many layers are too much to chew in one bite? Let’s take a quick look.
Recently I finished Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, and while it is definitely Pynchon-lite in terms of complexity, it still reminds us of the power of perhaps the most brilliant literary mind of our time. Here he is mostly just having fun, but as usual he ends up implying much more than he says. The result is consistently funny and occasionally moving, leaving you to ponder the “what-might-have-been” as much as the “what-is-and-always-will be”. It sent me back to read another detective novel, one of the first, namely Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Like Pynchon, Dostoevsky’s irrepressible exuberance can be overwhelming. Characters seem to jump off the page and grab you by the throat. The only other living writers I know who can do this consistently are Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy. But Pynchon, Roth and McCarthy are now into their 70s. I’m no omnivore when it comes to new fiction, but I try to keep up with whoever is thrown up as the next big thing. Sure, there are good books being written; Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives was original and alive and David Foster Wallace’s essays were tremendous. But these younger writers are now both dead. Who is going to take their place?
In film, the last decade or so has seen the deaths of some of the last great auteurs of cinema, including Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick. Other certifiably great artists, such as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, are no spring chickens. Sure, I know there’s a bunch of you out there with your hands up waiting to be called on to shout “What about Quentin Tarantino?” Ok, here’s the thing about Tarantino – He is a master craftsman, no doubt about it, and he’s got a great sense of humor with a wonderful eye for the ridiculous. But his films are mostly exercises in glorified superficiality. The same things that put the asses in the seats, the over the top violence, the ironic detachment, the endless homages, are the very things that keep us from caring about his characters or thinking deeply about his themes, which is probably just as well. What significance are we supposed to glean from a team of paramilitary Jews kicking Nazi ass in World War II, when, as I recall, it didn’t really turn out that way? How is viewing the world through the mind of an anal retentive 14 year old boy supposed to help us grasp the inner truths? So I’m still looking for the young filmmaker whose films you absolutely have to see, and not just for laughs and cheap thrills.
In rock and jazz, the few remaining geniuses we have alive, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Sonny Rollins, a few other dodgy counterparts, are mostly at the tail end of their careers as well. A few records in the past 20 years have succeeded in engaging with the world in a unique and powerful way; OK Computer, Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, etc. These works reflected the deep alienation and spiritual isolation of the digital age while somehow transcending it, like many great works of the past. But the music of Radiohead is the product of a band effort, and as such often lacks a unity of vision, not to mention a range of emotional notes outside of fear and despair. Jeff Tweedy is still a gifted songwriter, but he seems less willing these days to tackle anything profound outside of a song here and there. There’s a lot of interesting experimental music out there, but no one is reinventing the wheel. And while I like a good tune as much as the next guy, I’m still looking for someone to speak to us the way Dylan or Lennon did, to make his instrument speak the way Miles did, or to channel his angst the way Cobain did.
I look around and I find good books, good movies, good music. But I’m looking for something great, something real and lasting, something to make my jaw drop, my heart beat and my head reconsider everything I thought I knew. Maybe it’s out there and I’m just missing it, but I doubt it. Perhaps what happened is after Reagan started making financial speculators fabulously wealthy, all the creative geniuses went into inventing derivative securities. After all, you have to be pretty damn clever to rape the economy for 25 years and then convince the taxpayers to bail you out when the whole thing collapses on your head. And to top it off, they turned Manhattan into a luxury yacht and raised the rent on all the misfits who once breathed life into the city, scattering them to the winds to fend for themselves. No more Charlie Parkers, hustling the clubs uptown to get enough scratch to support a young family AND a debilitating heroin habit. It’s a damned shame. Maybe our only hope is for a time when the corporate titans get back on their feet, so that a few of them can become eccentric enough to become benefactors for brilliant artists, expecting no return on investment, like Archbishop Colloredo to a young Mozart. Maybe the lobby of AIG headquarters will be the new Court of Salzburg, its high ceilings reverberating with the strains of a symphony yet unwritten by a prodigy yet unborn. Ah, one can only hope.29 October, 2009 - 19:57 — Alan Shulman