"Metaphors for art as an activity tend to center upon a particular place, where a heightened sense of presence can manifest itself."
— Harold Bloom, "A Map of Misreading"
"Shepp's is a precarious style; his balance of elements is fragile."
— John Litweiler, "The Freedom Principle"
|All eyes on peril: British soldiers watch the skies while awaiting evacuation.|
"...no one could produce first-hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that; he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast."
— Franz Kafka, "The Hunger Artist"
Within two days this week, unplanned encounters with two works of art got me wondering how we take them in when the process feels similar to how we might describe a mesmerizing speaker: that we were "hanging on his [her] every word" — that uncanny absorption of cumulative detail that's unquestioning and fully committed from start to finish.
What can account for thorough immersion in a work of art, with no flagging of interest, or without even a fleeting notion of any analysis or second thoughts about the experience until afterward? What spellbound me through nearly back-to-back experiences of the movie "Dunkirk" and a jazz track hidden in a recorded CD anthology I took off a shelf at home on a whim?
Sometimes thorough immersion stems from the creative artist's apparent decision to fuse subject matter and treatment, to minimize contrast, even to risk wearying the attention and eventually "losing" the receiver. Such a work of art's strength paradoxically has to emerge from its chosen limitations, its flirtation with imaginative weakness, even stasis.
How does this happen? It starts with the artistic address to our attention being daringly focused, edge-to-edge like an Abstract Expressionist canvas, concentrated on providing one overwhelming impression. It doesn't leave any gaps for us to fill in or places to seek relief or catch our breath.
|Cover art of 1978 recording: Archie Shepp and Dollar Brand|
Built into most artistic products is the notion that some variety or respite from the dominant material or style keeps the alertness level high. Providing contrast weighs into an artist's sense of duty toward the experience he intends to turn into a work of art. We associate artistic significance with shifts of perspective that throw its main argument into high relief.
But that's not the way of Christopher Nolan in his cinematic treatment of the daring evacuation of thousands of British soldiers to safety from a beleaguered enclave in Dunkirk, France, in 1940.
And it's not the way of saxophonist Archie Shepp, together with the South African pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), recorded in Japan in 1978, playing a song by Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron called "Left Alone."
Neither one is startlingly long for its genre, so I'm not finding it remarkable that works of these respective lengths (1 hour, 46 minutes for "Dunkirk"; 7 minutes, 50 seconds for "Left Alone") exerted such a relentless hold on me.
Nolan has been acclaimed for his war-movie innovations in making the ordinariness of fear and self-preservation surmount the engagement in conflict for which soldiers are trained. The historic situation makes such a choice almost the only option; the task then is to fill out the "trap" scenario with imagery — visual and auditory — and the often improvised dealing with the unbearably tense situation. The RAF pilots attempt to beat back German attacks in the sky; that's contrasted with the valiantly manned little boats assembled to cross the English Channel and load up soldiers for removal to safety back home. The scenario is completed with focus on the waiting soldiers, sometimes moved to undertake desperate measures, like the small group that waits, hidden, for the tide to take a stranded ship out into the water.
Nolan intercuts among the arenas of action abruptly, with the effect of blending the three planes of action into one story of desperation and heroism. Knitting everything together is an overwhelming parade of war sounds and sights. "A heightened sense of presence" in a particular place quickly overwhelms the viewer. An ambush on deserted town streets opens the film. It is hardly an introduction; the fury of movement and the shattering gunfire noise plunge the viewer into 100 minutes of barely varied chaos.
Similarly, Shepp and Brand discard the introductory phrases with which jazzmen often open their interpretation of ballads, as slow, lyrical songs are called. They plunge right into the tune, and never waver from repeating or paraphrasing it. Brand's musical background and influences from his native South Africa lend a thoughtfulness to his interpretations that American musicians access with difficulty. Shepp, well past his most revolutionary playing by the time he recorded "Left Alone" in 1978, was able to assemble almost achingly vulnerable ballad interpretations out of what seem to be fragments — until you recognize how well they cohere. Litweiler's assessment of Shepp's "fragility" can seem negative until the listener realizes, taking "Left Alone" as a test case, that such a quality is a settled stance that over time emerges as an assertion of strength. The saxophonist maintains it in tandem with the pianist, who even in his solo hardly departs from the laconic understatement of his duo playing.
Similarly, though no one can mistake Nolan's virtuosity for fragility, the filmmaker focuses on warfare from the ground up, never leaving the emotional effect of being under deadly assault and constantly doubtful of survival. He practically wallows in obsession with this theme. "The balance of elements" that Litweiler cites in Shepp's style is also fundamental to Nolan's filmmaking. The balance is daringly sustained by never varying much from the sensory overload of "Dunkirk"'s storytelling. Any variation, even a rare suggestion of calm, is shot through with the impact of this overload. One of the private boats rescues a shell-shocked sailor; the psychologically fraught passenger immediately lends Bloom's "heightened sense of presence" to how we process Dunkirk, a "particular place" we are meant to associate with noisy horror and death. We want to escape on a visceral level, yet the movie unfailingly draws us in and holds us there, just as surely as the modest vessel carries the eventually menacing sailor to the French shore to carry out its mission.
The most moving of these counter-chaos touches comes toward the end, as the film returns again and again to the slow noiseless gliding of an RAF Spitfire, out of fuel, onto the beach at Dunkirk and the pilot's inevitable capture. The silence of this downward flight is deafening, less a contrast to than a confirmation of war's maelstrom of destruction. Similarly, the spaces that Brand and Shepp leave in their account of "Left Alone" help define their concentration on the melody. Splashes of ornamentation, sudden accents, and great interval leaps somehow reinforce their steady focus on the song's pathos.
Finding pleasure in art is an unassailable benefit of experiencing it. But it is never the whole story. The more a work fascinates us, the more we may realize the uncomfortable distance between ourselves and the artist. When a work won't let go of its initial grab for our attention, but uses it to exert a total grip to the very end, we may be tempted to ask with irritation: "Impressive — but can't you give us something else too?"
With Nolan's "Dunkirk" and Shepp/Brand's "Left Alone," we are retrospectively lost in admiration that the obsessive style is not abandoned. In the film, for instance, there is at the end no cutaway to Churchill's rallying speech about "fighting them on the beaches," etc. — no actor plays Churchill in cameo, no voiceover intrudes. Instead, on a train heading home, one of the rescued soldiers reads to a comrade part of the speech from a newspaper. Similarly, there is no climax in "Left Alone" — a hint of an ascending cry from Shepp's horn quickly subsides. The duo eases ever so slightly, and the pianist rounds everything off, with unresolved harmonies that are neither a fade-out nor an expressive compromise, but rather a seal on an extraordinary vision.
In Franz Kafka's great story "The Hunger Artist," the interest of the audience in the sustained public fast of the title character inevitably is fed by the hope to catch him cheating. Spectators' admiration is corrupted by their expectation of being fooled. Of art that has the ability to focus so much more than life, we may wonder: Do you really mean this? Why aren't you interested in variety? When you narrow your focus so, are you perhaps imaginatively impoverished?
But the well-fed, uncaged audience can never be as focused as the confined hunger artist. That is why complete satisfaction in his/her achievement is reserved for the artist. It seems unfair, but where mastery is involved, such satisfaction is what allows artists to double down on their material. As Kafka suggests just after the sentence I quote above, the payoff even makes their self-imposed limitations feel easy to them. Such uncanny confidence — a surprising level of comfort — can be transferable, however briefly, to us.