“It seems to me what we don’t need now is people that come out waving their hands and claiming they know the Right Way.”
Writing is hard. Somehow what I want to say in this opening sentence, and it’s now my second sentence, escapes me. I had an idea, but it just won’t sit.
Recently I re-watched “Fame”, Alan Parker’s film about a performing arts school in New York. It’s a brightly coloured, pacy affair with a lot of muscle and good looks liberally splashed around the edgy New York streets. There’s a character called Doris who does an audition. You can tell from the inexplicable change in lighting that it won’t be going well. She has in tow a very pushy mum and, in case that doesn’t illustrate her subservient squareness enough, she has a blouse done up past her nose almost. She sings “The Way We Were”, a famous song from a famous film of the same name, she sings it very badly, accompanied by a very bad piano accompaniment recorded on to a cassette by her equally clueless brother. It is supposed to illustrate bad musicianship, and it is pretty terrible. She can’t sing, the brother can’t play, it’s all out of tune and out of sync. It is a disaster. But I keep thinking about it. I want to play it.
My idea was that this scene, on a knife edge between comedy and pathos, unknowingly opens up the song in a way that Barbara Streisand, with all her belting bravura, couldn’t. Where Streisand moves effortlessly through the tune like a hot knife through pink candy floss, Dora’s rendition reminds me of a nature documentary I saw once where a dung beetle keeps trying to push a pile of shit three times its own size, which it has fashioned into a perfect sphere, up a hill, only to watch as it rolls down to the bottom again. Now that’s a song.
It reminds me of Nancarrow. “The Way We Were” came out in 1973. Conlon Nancarrow had, by then, been quietly working on his player piano studies in Mexico for years, beavering away at music that could not be played by humans. The player piano removes the need for a performer, it is a machine; human beings were not up to playing his music. His studies are supposed to, in other words, go beyond what a performer could do. And yet, the effect of them is somehow to sound like three kids playing at once, randomly doodling catchy melodies without a care in the world and without any consideration of what the other is doing. A nice illusion.
So I go back to it, back to Dora’s audition, I find it on YouTube here . And it doesn’t really sound like any of these things. I remembered it like that, not because it has those qualities, but because I do. In reality, the girl can’t sing, and to find her direction in life she must first (spoiler alert) escape her domineering mother and start taking her clothes off in a nightclub, thus releasing her sexuality and her real calling, which turns out to be acting.
Films, music, art, politics. They transmit messages, and depending on what we are set to receive, we hear what we want to hear, regardless of what might be called “facts”. William Carlos Williams once described the idea of a poem as a “machine made of words”; substitute images, sounds, shapes, movement for words, and I think it’s a good description of any other art form. Politics might even be called a “machine made of statements”. Statements are often summaries of devilishly complex situations, so it’s good to go back and check the facts before letting your imagination running away with them. With machines, perhaps watching the whirring of the wheels for the fun of it is the best use of them.
I have been thinking about a new version of “Fame”, set not in a performing arts school but in a chess club. A somewhat more introverted setting which could preserve the elements of social realism, racism, illiteracy and poverty, sex, neurosis, class and coloured gym wear. Sexual tensions would simmer in the background, there would be arcs, characters would learn things, hopes and dreams would be dashed and fulfilled in equal measure. Ups and downs would be described in unflinching detail. Basically, it would be like the original but with less noise, some peace and quiet. We all need that.
But even that is not true, not for everyone. Some people just work and work and get better and better, faster and faster, the noise of progress in their ears. So around we go again. With every sentence, an anti-sentence. Rather than come to a conclusion, I have just had to leave it all lying here in pieces, which Doris I’m sure would understand . Writing is hard.
I’m going to live forever.
I’m going to learn how to fly.
I feel it coming together.