Feb 242013

My sister just sent me a link to a TED talk.  TED talks are fascinating.  This one describes itself thus:

Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

I think it’s a beautiful idea, one I am inclined to value highly.  I have been a teacher most of my working life – and soon learned to value highly the contribution of students.  Not only in terms of what I asked them to do but – also, and more importantly – in terms of what they learned to ask me to do.

Genius is not the preserve of a man or woman our society determines as being so.  And even if it is, it is only because our society is incapable of perceiving the genius that all of us contain.  Even as we like to focus from a distance on the visibly astonishing, we miss out on the beauty that we exhibit every single day of our lives.  We are clever souls, we human beings.  The virtual democratisation of content we are witnessing this last decade is not primarily a cause of information ills but, rather, a massive release of pent-up generations of humanity unable for so long to visibly express their genius.

And now I have a confession to make.  I haven’t watched the TED talk my sister has sent me as yet.  And I probably won’t.  I really do hope, however, that she doesn’t stop sending them to me.  Today’s post would not have got written if it hadn’t been for her thoughtful including of me in a footnote to a Facebook post.  Although I very rarely watch videos at all, their synopses rapidly read do often spark unfinished and engaging business.

To be honest, I think there’s a reason.  I think I’m a natural reader, not a watcher.  What’s more, I think those who watch are – more often than not (though clearly an exception in the case of my book-loving sister) – natural watchers, not readers.  Which leads me to draw the following conclusion: the old-age battle (or, at least, the sixty-year-old battle) waged between literature and television has subtly restarted since the arrival of the web.  Following on from the middle of the 20th century, our early 21st century online humanity has reasserted a division which should please us enormously.  For between the geniuses of industrialised art and the geniuses of individualised art, we stumble across everything we should admire.  That some of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of tablets and scrolls of yore and that others of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of more oral and theatrical tradition simply underlines the power and strength of them both.

All those centuries ago, we got it right first time.

The instincts to register through writing and speech the thoughts, occurrences and imaginations of a wonderful species were just as accurate and apposite then as they still are these days – continuing as they do to strive and fight their way above the flood waters of passing and irrelevant technologies and discourses.

A reader then, are you?  Or a watcher?  Or a marvellous – highly literate – combination of the two?

Lucky you!

Dec 052010

I don’t know much about Louis Armstrong, though this post, which came my way this evening via Peter, is most illuminating – and, indeed, heartening.  I knew even less about the film “High Society” before I finished watching the DVD about an hour ago.  Wikipedia describes it in the following way:

Opening on July 17, 1956, High Society garnered mixed reviews, often being compared as a lesser offering to the film on which it was based, The Philadelphia Story. Variety noted: “Fortified with a strong Cole Porter score, film is a pleasant romp for cast toppers Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Their impact is almost equally consistent. Although Sinatra has the top pop tune opportunities, the crooner makes his specialties stand up and out on showmanship and delivery, and Kelly impresses as a femme lead.” The New York Times described it as “flimsy as a gossip-columnist’s word,” missing “the snap and the crackle that its un-musical predecessor had.”

At the North American box office, High Society was a success. It was one of the 10 highest grossing films of 1956, with a gross of over $13 million.

A lesser film, eh?  Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong – all facets of a different genius, all glittering magically like the massive diamond ring Kelly wore on her finger.  And then behind the scenes, people like Nelson Riddle making music as pleasurably as the leading characters make love to each other.

Making love in that other sense – that sense of wooing and winning gradually over.

But whilst I could not avoid falling in love with Grace Kelly’s tender beauty, nor refuse to be aware of what the future would bring her, what really captured my heart in this film – this, for me, quite magnificent film – were Louis Armstrong’s brief but pointed interventions.

Seeing him sing was a glorious joy.  It made me want to sing along with him and understand his genius.

I am reminded of a story I told at a dinner party last night.  One summer sports day, I was watching the 800 metres.  Some of my classmates were running in this race – one young girl who I didn’t know also.  The pistol went off and the race started and to all our bewilderment the young girl I’ve just mentioned kicked up to a quite different – a quite unearthly – gear: she streaked ahead of everyone else quite effortlessly, quite beautifully; she clearly came from a different planet.

Our destiny was to struggle and huff and puff.  Hers was to move in what was clearly her element.

MGM may have made a lesser film in “High Society” – but if that is a lesser film, I would be proud to make lesser films for the rest of my life.

Genius is not even.

Society is not homogeneous.

Humans are not perfect.

But Hollywood cinema often became it.

Just one scene to show you what I mean.  Bing Crosby is crooning with Grace Kelly, his recent bride, on his very “yare” yacht “True Love”.  They both sing melodiously together and the cutting is even-handed and unsurprising.  Then, right at the end of the song, he sings the higher notes and she sings the lower notes, and – as this happens – we cut to a shot which frames Crosby at the top of the screen and Kelly at the bottom.

This is so beautifully and unobtrusively done that only the industry of everyday perfection could achieve it.

This, and a thousand other touches in this “lesser” film, make me realise – once again – the grand contribution the United States has made to the art of the 20th century.  This was never a contribution without pain and injustice – but fifty years on such art holds its own only too well.

If only its 21st century legislators and politicians could now show us they were capable of reaching the heights of Hollywood at its best.

In art we have no alternative to be truthful – even when this is the industrial art of the moguls.

It is only in politics – in that of parties and in that of business – that we so gladly take the opportunity to sully the planet time and time again.