Ballade Blogging, Part 2: Sublimation and the Sublime

[posted March 10, 2012, at 9:33pm] ~ Series Archive

I finally saw The Tree of Life two nights ago and found it an overpowering experience - enough so that I watched it again last night. I'm not particularly interested in the kind of analysis and puzzle-solving that seems to attend most discussions of this film. (I'm also no cinephile, so I don't know enough about Terrance Malick or his place in cinema history to make informed comparisons to other such films - if there are any other such films!) For me, watching it was about as close as I can imagine to experiencing a film like I would a symphony or other mostly abstract musical form, and my desire to see it again right away was mostly about getting back into the world it summons.

Of course, The Tree of Life is full of music, mostly music familiar to me from the classical tradition, and its screenplay has fewer words than the average opera, so in some respects it plays like a big concert with stunning visuals, but I think the "music" of the visuals is what affected me the most. By "music of the visuals," I mean that the succession of images was compelling in the same way the succession of notes in a symphony is compelling - not because they tell me a story, but because they are fully engaging in their own right. But I'm not really prepared to offer much detail about why Malick's visions affected me this way.*

On the other hand, I'm always ready to talk about music - in this case, not so much the bits of Mahler, Smetana, Respighi, Gorecki, Tavener, etc. that serve as soundtrack (though the question of using such music in fragments is worth exploring another day), but the music dear to Mr. O'Brien (played by Brad Pitt), the severe, disillusioned father in the "story." There may not be a lot of conventional plot in The Tree of Life, but we learn a lot about Mr. O'Brien through his relationship to music. Maybe I should be insulted that this cold, sometimes cruel man is most at peace when playing Mozart at the piano, Bach at the organ, or Brahms on the record player, but I think it exposes some important truths about how classical music so often functions.

Yes, these scenes are intended on some level to remind us that Mr. O'Brien, who has a pedestrian job in some sort of factory, never fulfilled his own dream of becoming a great musician, so there's some nostalgia and regret mixed in - and music happens to be a wonderful vehicle for indulging in nostalgia and regret - but we also see that this man who has trouble with human connections can find great pleasure when lost in music. We see this as he's playing the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and his son Jack sits nearby, possibly to turn pages, maybe just to listen, but essentially just looking at the organist, perhaps wondering why his father can't connect with him the way he does with a keyboard. In another scene, just as Mrs. O'Brien has started bragging about a success Jack had in school, the father cuts her off to point out a particularly thrilling passage from the finale of Brahms' fourth symphony that's been playing on the stereo as dinner music. We also see Mr. O'Brien in a happier moment connecting with the more sensitive middle son who's trying to work out Couperin's Mysterious barricades on the guitar in imitation of his father's piano playing.

Now, I'm not saying all "classical music" is the same (it's a pretty big umbrella), but a Bach fugue, a Brahms' symphonic movement in the form of a chaconne, and Couperin's intricately textured chains of suspensions all represent music at its most structured - they provide a nice cool surface under and through which powerful emotions can be contained and released. It could be tempting to see this as a negative portrayal of classical music - if the father really has genuine emotions, shouldn't he be wailing away at the blues or at least singing opera? But the classical music experience is often about exploring tremendous depths of feeling in a carefully structured way. I must have written this about The Rite of Spring at least a dozen times, the fact that we usually experience its primitive wildness via a highly trained and rigorously coordinated group of musicians in formal dress.

It sometimes seems that classical music types want to run from this stereotype as much as possible. “No, we’re not repressed; our music was written and is performed by vibrant people about everyday feelings and emotions. People didn’t always sit quietly and reverently while listening to Mozart; that’s just a modern affectation. Please don’t think we’re repressed!” Well, OK, maybe “repressed” is a little strong (maybe?), but there is a kind of sublimation that’s often going on, even if only because so much discipline, patience and control is needed to execute the notes. The words sublime and sublimation are awfully close, after all.

Sir Peter Hall, the great stage director, has written a wonderful little book, Exposed by the Mask, in which he explores the idea that the forms of theatre are what give it such communicative power, whether it's the literal masks of the Greeks, the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, or the operatic conventions of Mozart. Hall writes:
I am therefore led to believe that performance always has to have the equivalent of a mask in order to transmit an emotion. It must have a mask, even if it is not a literal mask. (p. 25)
and:
Any defined form in the theatre performs as a mask: it releases rather than hides; it enables emotion to be specific rather than generalised. It permits control while it prevents indulgence. Form frees, it does not inhibit. (p. 26)
It's probably not coincidental that this praise for well-tempered artificiality in art comes from a very proper Englishman. Hall even suggests that it's always more powerful to see an actor hold back tears than to have them poured out on the audience, but if that sounds like a "stiff upper lip" attitude that would logically appeal to Mr. O'Brien, it hardly means such power is only available to the repressed. By the way, there are a lot of classical musicians who are pretty shy and introverted; I know because I am one. We may not feel comfortable smashing guitars or weeping openly with Adele-like vocals, but music can still serve to get at something deep inside.

So, finally I come to Chopin's fourth and final ballade, the piece I'm learning and blogging about this week. As with The Tree of Life and its many mysteries, you'll find plenty of people who want to interpret the Chopin ballades to unearth the possible stories that might explain them, but the music connects at a much more visceral, indefinable level; and the F Minor ballade represents, for me, the pinnacle of Chopin's achievement in marrying elegant sophistication of form with unbridled freedom of expression - a marriage which, of course, should be impossible. It's only about ten minutes, but it's also somehow about everything: memory, longing, sorrow, hope, soaring passion and violent desolation. That's why pianists will pour so much hard work into untangling the formal intricacies - in hopes of getting at what's inside. Inside the music and inside of us.

I don't know how repressed Chopin actually was as a person, but I'm probably biased by the amusing, poignant portrait Hugh Grant provides in Impromptu. In this excerpt, Chopin thinks he's alone, playing his first ballade, but it turns out Georges Sand is hiding under the piano. When things are interrupted prematurely [you can skip ahead to 1:50 if you like], we see that she fully gets what his music is getting at, while he is shocked at the brazen invasion of his privacy. He's actually more comfortable lost in his own music, but she makes a completely human connection via that same music.



Later in the film, he confesses to her:
You must think I'm inexperienced, but I assure you, I was baptized... in the brothels of Paris, when I first arrived. But, um... I'm so ill... and I have been for such a long time, and my body is such a great disappointment to me, that I've already said goodbye to it, I'm... not really *in it* any more, I'm just... happier floating about in music. And if I should come back... inside this miserable collection of bones, then I... am afraid that it would probably collapse altogether. Forgive me. I'm ashamed.
Perhaps an exaggerated conception of what the turbucular Chopin came to think of himself, but maybe it says something about what music did for him. This might seem to be another argument for thinking that classical music is about "repression," but I want to suggest that a broad range of people (including the thoroughly unrepressed Mme. Sand) can find essential connections in music that masks itself in elegance and gentility.

At the end of The Tree of Life [this is sort of a SPOILER, although I can't really explain what I'm spoiling], in the midst of images that suggest an end of human suffering and misery, we see a commedia mask sinking into the ocean. There is certainly the suggestion that a time will come when Mr. O'Brien and others are no longer trapped within themselves, hidden behind masks; but maybe we should be glad that, while trapped in this life, the best music has the possibility of reaching those who aren't so easily reached.

* As it happens, this is actually the first movie I've ever watched at home on Blu-ray, so the stunning visuals might have affected me even more since I'd never really seen a TV do anything like this. (We've had an HD TV for about six months; up until now, I'd mostly been impressed by what it does for football.) I do think the fact that Malick's camera is in motion so often has something to do with me seeing "music" in the visual language. The only other film that's really struck me this way is Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, which is possibly my favorite film ever, and which also has a very restless camera (and which also uses music wonderfully, but that's a story for another day).

Magnolia clocks in at more than three hours, and yet time always flies by (or disappears) when I'm watching it. I wouldn't quite say that time flies when watching The Tree of Life. Of course, Magnolia has MUCH more plot than The Tree of Life, and it's filled with dialogue. The scarcity of dialogue in The Tree of Life is surely one reason the visual dimension comes into focus so much. Let's face it, once words start buzzing around, they tend to distract us from the important things.