In my blog of things that influenced my film Beginners; very much inspired by Henry Rollins' radically inclusive, eclectic and informative radio show on KCRW, I've been sharing the many different people/films/poems/cartoons/graphics/songs and more that helped me find my way on the long road to making a feature film. These people and art didn't just influence me; they helped to keep me happy, or at least not depressed, as they became some sort of company on the many long dark nights that you go through when writing and directing.
As I began writing this story, which contains a partial portrait of my father and mother (I like the word "portrait" 'cause that implies how subjective it is -- and "partial" because films are so, so much smaller than life) -- it was very important to me to not fall into some inward-looking self-pity hole. Like many of my heroes (Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, Fellini, Woody Allen from 1977-87, Cat Power, This American Life) I wanted to use some of my family's concrete and specific history and events and feelings to create a story that would reach out to people.
The first reference point that helped me do this was Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," recorded just 10 days before I was born in March 1966. The song features trombone, tuba, piano, bass, drums and tambourine, all marching along a descending blues chord progression. The wobbly beat of the tambourine, punctuated with a lot of hollering (both from the horn/harmonica and from the band) all reminded me of New Orleans funeral marches. Those jubilant songs, played on the return from burial, seemed strangely appropriate in my portrait of both my parents who had passed on, and especially good ambience for my father -- who came out of the closet at the age of 75, and had almost five years filled with a new emotional, personal looseness and embrace I don't think I ever saw in him before.
So I had this energy, this forward motion, this humor with me as I began to write my story. I hoped the performances in my film, the look of the cinematography and the multi-strand structure my writing was taking would reflect what I was getting out of the song, or just be infused with the rowdy looseness one can feel in the recording. Maybe because I started writing just six months after my dad had passed on, but the sound of these people having so much fun stood out to me as radical, almost surreal. As I was talking about the end of a life, and overcoming fears that kept my dad in the closet until my mom passed away, and overcoming all the fears that real new love brings out -- I hoped to not sink under the weight of all that stuff as a writer -- I wanted to be literally accompanied by the wildness, the jubilance, the willingness to engage that I felt in "Rainy Day Women."
A lot of this positivity is just the deep magic trick that the blues does; talking about sadness and aloneness and problems in a way that makes you feel WITH others, makes you feel there is some solace and some way out -- even if that way out is just the creative life of the song. The lyric "I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned" (which led to it being banned as a drug song upon its original release) in my time just became a very simple, dumb, but liberating mantra; so, this story of your dad finally having the bravery to love and desire men, this story of your parents passing away, isn't just your story. And this song, its foundation in not just the notes and chords of New Orleans jazz/blues, but in the culture and history and spirit of that music, which encourages us to experience our sadness and disappointment as an inclusive human right that does not have to be separate from humor, is not separate from some kind of camaraderie, even some kind of creative, ecstatic hollering.
My love for this song prompted me to find out more about how it was made, where it came from. I learned that all that looseness and hollering came from the band that became The Band, just before they went into The Basement Tapes phase -- after so much exposure, hype and touring and after Dylan's motorcycle accident, which led him to try to find a different way of working, a different relationship to his audience and the world of fame -- which Dylan had come to feel was a financial rip-off and an artistic prison. In the wake of all this change, Dylan and The Band retreated to the basement of a pink house and seemingly entertained themselves, with a dog at their feet, and began musically goofing around -- how much can these ambitious, self-conscious artists really goof around, I wonder?
Their retreat from all things modern and contemporary was very much inspired by what Greil Marcus called "the old weird America" that Alan Lomax recorded in his musical history of American roots music -- and which became my next musical stop; a world of music that in so many different ways did not exclude human sadness from the party.
And this music, especially compared to contemporary "popular" music, was filled with concrete and specific historical experiences; Creole, Spanish, the funeral marches, African, Haitian, spirituals, etc. It also was going against the credo that says if you want to communicate to a broad audience, you must somehow generalize your work. It was the specificity of culture and emotion and history (regional in every sense of the word) that made this music all the more catching to me, not more different from me. Its authenticity, while very much "other" than my life and history, made it just kind of undeniable, and very communicable.
So studying "Rainy Day" led me to The Basement Tapes, which led me to Alan Lomax and Greil Marcus' interpretation of Lomax and finally to the amazing Jelly Roll Morton. He's another deep New Orleansian, playing since the beginning of jazz, whose wonderful history was recorded by Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1938 -- where he plays the piano alone and tells his life story, sometimes talking and sometimes singing.
Mr. Jelly Lord weaves in and out of fragments, often much more melodic, and slow, and haunting, than the uptempo drive I associate with Rag piano. I'm so proud and excited that a real historical document like Lomax's 1938 recording of Morton performing "Buddy Bertrand's Blues No. 2" made it onto the soundtrack of Beginners. This song is so warm and strange and warbling, imperfect in the best ways. Once I found it, it became kind of an emotional center for the film for me, taking over from where "Rainy Day Women" left off; a bit more gentle, a bit more romantic, but containing all that history, especially the genius of not disassociating our sadness and our happiness, and finding a way to not feel so all alone when the heavier passages of life come around.
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