Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" is about a jazzman, but it's not really about jazz -- it's about work, about being so wrapped up in your career that you don't have space for relationships and you can't see where you're headed. It's a less passionate and angry film than Lee's previous work, "Do the Right Thing," and less inspired, too. It's his fourth feature but suffers a little from the "second-novel syndrome," the pressure on an artist to follow up a great triumph. But it's a logical film to come at this point in Lee's career, since it's about the time and career pressures on a young artist.
The movie stars Denzel Washington as a trumpet player with the evocative name of Bleek. He leads a successful jazz group, but sometimes seems distracted and unhappy, maybe because he never really wanted to be a musician, maybe because he hasn't grown up enough to find himself. The movie gives us some insights into those possibilities in a prologue that shows Bleek as a young boy, growing up on a middle-class Brooklyn street, being forced by his mother to practice his trumpet while the neighborhood kids stand on the sidewalk and taunt him because he can't come out and play softball. "Let the boy be a boy," Bleek's father says, but the mother will have none of it. There won't be any softball until he finishes his scales.
We flash forward to Bleek as a successful jazzman. As played by Washington, he is handsome, assured, and a dedicated ladies' man. There are two women in his life: Clarke Bentancourt (Cynda Williams), as sleek as her name, a seductive songstress; and Indigo Downes (Joie Lee), sometimes as blue as her name, less glamorous but steadier and more emotionally healthy. Bleek desires both of them and has enough time for neither, and eventually gets himself into one of those situations where they both show up at the night club on the same evening wearing the same red dresses -- identical gifts from Bleek.
The band is on the brink of breaking out big, but needs better leadership than it gets from Bleek and his childhood friend and manager, Giant (Spike Lee). Giant is a compulsive gambler who is hopelessly incompetent to guide anyone's career, but through some sort of perverse logic Bleek is loyal to him instead of to the friends who would really help him. That leads into physical and professional tragedy.
The middle sections of the movie take place in a world of jazz clubs and dressing rooms, stage door entrances, bars, coffee shops and apartments -- urban New York at night. There is a lot of music in the film, provided both by Bill Lee's score and by the Bleek group, which has been dubbed by the Branford Marsalis Quartet. The music is sensuous big-city jazz from around midnight, swirling through cigarette smoke and perfume and the musty smell of a saloon, and it's good to listen to. On stage, Washington looks at home with his horn, and Wesley Snipes is also strong as Shadow, and saxophone player who likes to hog the solos.
Backstage in the dressing room, in scenes that feel improvised, the musicians argue about the band, its leadership, its direction, and even the romantic preferences of its members. One sideman has a white girl friend, and the others argue the pros and cons of that until he tells them it's none of their business. In this film, as in Lee's three earlier films, questions involving race are a good deal more sophisticated and complicated than the simplistic formulas from earlier decades.
At the center of everything stands Bleek, who in some ways resembles the heroine of Lee's first film, "She's Gotta Have It." That was about a woman who kept three guys on the line because she didn't want any one of them to feel he possessed her. This time, it's Bleek who tries to juggle the two women -- but he's representing irresponsibility, not independence. And there's a suggestion of a theme from "School Daze," in which Lee examined subtle value systems within the black community, based on the relative lightness of skin tone: Clarke has "whiter" features than Indigo, and that may go into Bleek's emotional quandary, too. Clarke represents a superficial ideal of beauty as portrayed in the media, even though the darker Indigo is clearly the woman he should choose.
Lee has said he doesn't do "push-button" movies, and indeed "Mo' Better Blues" completely avoids the central cliche in almost all musical biopics. After Bleek gets into real trouble and can't play for a year, he walks into a night club to make his comeback, and we settle back for the obligatory scene in which he makes his triumphant return. But that's not the way things work out.
Lee avoids the usual formulas in that scene only to surprise us again, with an epilogue which mirrors the prologue. This time, though, some years have passed, and it's Bleek's own son who is practicing the trumpet. The symmetry of this ending feels awkward, especially since there seems to be an act missing -- how did Bleek get from where he was, to where he is in the final scene?
"Mo' Better Blues" is not a supremely confident film like "Do the Right Thing," which never took a wrong step. There are scenes that seem incompletely thought-out, improvised dialog that sounds more like improvisation than dialog, and those strange narrative bookends at the top and bottom of the movie. But the film has a beauty, grace and energy all the same. Washington has been seen mostly in heavy dramatic roles ("Glory," "Cry Freedom"), and here, as in "The Mighty Quinn," shows that he is gifted at comedy and romance. Cynda Williams, in her first film, is a luminous discovery; she has a presence that seems to occupy the screen by divine right. Joie Lee, in her most important role, isn't supposed to be as flashy but succeeds in the challenge of drawing our sympathy away from the sexpot and toward the more substantial woman. And I liked Spike Lee's acting, too: He has a kind of off-center, driving energy that makes you into an accomplice even when he's marching straight for trouble. "Mo' Better Blues" is not a great film, but it's an interesting one, which is almost as rare.
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Sunday, December 02, 2007
Mo’ Better Blues, An Old Commentary
Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/02/07 at 09:03 AM
Note: I wrote this some years ago at the suggestion of a well-known scholar. It turned out that he wasn’t interested in publishing it, so I shelved it—in part because it wasn’t at all clear to me just where I could publish it. I suppose that, these days, there are a number of suitable venues. But I can’t think of any better venue than The Valve. So here it is . . . .
After emancipation . . . all those people who had been slaves, they needed the music more than ever now; it was like they were trying to find out in this music what they were supposed to do with this freedom: playing the music and listening to it—waiting for it to express what they needed to learn, once they had learned it wasn’t just white people the music had to reach to, nor even to their own people, but straight out to life and to what a man does with his life when it finally is his.
—Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle
Musically speaking, the cool period always reminded me of white people’s music. There was no guts in that music, not much rhythm either. They never sweated on the stand… This music, jazz, is guts. You’re supposed to sweat in your balls in this music. I guess the idea was not to get "savage" with it, biting, like we were.
-- Dizzy Gillespie, to BE or not . . . to BOP
[Duke Ellington] quite obviously has converted more of the actual texture and vitality of American life into first-rate universally appealing music than anybody else.
-- Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues
Spike Lee’sMo’ Better Blues occupies a portentious moment in the cultural life of these United States of the blues. It is about an African-American art form, jazz, which has been so influential that it defined two periods in American cultural history—the Jazz Age and the Swing Era—and is constructed in a medium, motion pictures, which has, through most of its history, confined African Americans to marginal roles. The popular image of the jazz musician has been dominated by European-American mythologizing. In Mo’ Better Blues Spike Lee has set out to reclaim the image of jazz and its musicians for his own culture.
It is difficult to tell whether or not he has succeeded. It is easy to replace a screen full of white faces with a screen full of black ones, but the story they ennact seems to be cut from the same Hollywood cloth. However satisfying it may be to see black jazz musicians enact their lives in relationships with other people of color, it is a rather superficial satisfaction if those relationships are negotiated according to the rules of the same old social contract. If African-American culture is essentially the same as European-American culture, then that superficial satisfaction is the only satisfaction to be had. In that case, there is only one story of the jazz musician, the one we’ve been seeing for decades, and it makes little substantial difference whether it is told by an African American or a European American and whether or not the actors and actresses are white or black.
But, if that were true, then, for example, there would be no significant difference between jazz music and classical music. There is, however, an enormous difference between them, a difference so great that it alone is enough to suggest that African Americans and European Americans are culturally different.1 Further, the tremendous influence which jazz has had in both American and world musical culture suggests that, whatever jazz is, it speaks profoundly to deep human needs and aspirations. Thus the attempt to restore the jazz musician, and jazz music, to a black mythology cannot be a simple matter of replacing white faces with black. Much more is at stake. There is a different culture, different values, to be realized.
If we are to understand the conflicting forces at work in this film—jazz itself versus the Hollywood version—then we must first take a look at the psycho-dynamics of the cultural milieu in which it exists. In order to see what Spike Lee was trying to do, we must first understand what has been done, and needs to be undone. Thus I want to take a brief look at the psychodynamics of racism before I turn to the Mo’ Better Blues.
There is a curious and disappointing passage in Chapter 9, "Revolution," of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Dusk of Dawn (1940, reprinted in Huggins, ed. 1986, pp. 770 - 771). Du Bois says: "My own study of psychology under William James had predated the Freudian era, but it had prepared me for it. I now began to realize that in the fight against racial prejudice, we were not facing simply the rational, conscious determination of white folk to oppress us; we were facing age-long complexes sunk now largely to unconscious habit and irrational urge..." And that was it. He acknowledged the relevance of psychoanalytic thought, but did not use it in developing an analysis of racism. Subsequent intellectuals haven’t done a great deal to write the discourse Du Bois only implied. Economics has become a routine intellectual instrument in the examination of racism, but psychoanalysis has not.
Still, enough has been done to serve our purposes. Freud argued that, in general, much behavior is driven by unconscious desires. Moving beyond the individual psyche, he argued, perhaps most explicitly in Civilization and Its Discontents, that Western civilization is built on a foundation of emotional repression. Racism is a culture-wide manifestation of that repression. The basic point is simple: many of the characteristics racists have attributed to blacks are simply the repressed contents of their own hearts and minds which they have projected onto the objects of their racism. In particular, the heightened sexual desire and potency, and the greater emotionality, with which whites have plagued blacks has more to do with white neurosis than it does with black behavior.
In an essay originally published in 1947, Talcott Parsons (1964, pp. 298-322) explored the dynamics of aggression, arguing that Western society is so structured that aggressive impulses are often generated in situations where they cannot be directly expressed, creating a need for ethnic and national Others who can be scapegoated. Calvin Hernton explored the sexual dynamics of racism in a study originally published in 1965 (and reprinted in 1988). Erik Erikson made a general theoretical statement in the final chapter of his Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968). And Joel Williamson (1984) has taken this psychological line in an examination of the lynchings which once plagued this country, especially in the two decades straddling the turn of the century. The thrust of these studies is the same: racists are punishing others for their own sins. Western civilization has not created adequate means for directly incorporating the full range of human emotion into its cultural practices. Consequently, it has been forced into racism as a one means of dealing with the resulting repression and self-hatred.
However, if the lynching is the archtypal scene of racist violence, there is a different archtypal scene, one quite different from lynching and more directly applicable to an essay which is working its way towards Mo’ Better Blues. Consider those night clubs, such as the Cotton Club, where the performers were black but the clientele was exclusively white. Why were all those white people listening to black music? The question is not a new one, and the answer is obvious (in the same way that the applicability of Freud to racism is so obvious that it has been little discussed). European Americans have liked African American music because it has expressive powers which are lacking in European and European-American music. In particular, African-American music is comfortable with sexuality, while European music is not.
Thus, while the Cotton Club, which I take as figure for the role of jazz in the white world, is ostensibly a place of entertainment, it also functions on a deeper level as a school, a school in which the teachers are black and the students are white. What are the students learning? They are learning a cultural stylization of emotion which is more adequate to their needs than the one they learned are home, in school, or in church. Where the lyncher, and his descendents, is desperately trying to preserve the restrictiveness of his culture, the white jazz fan, and his descendents, is trying to break free from that restrictiveness.note:2
The dominant image of the jazz musician serves the needs of this dynamic. While the white fan esteems jazz and its musicians, this esteem necessarily misreads its objects. For, as Amiri Baraka (then writing as LeRoi Jones, 1963) has observed, while the white jazz afficionado is rebelling against his own culture, the black jazz musician is not necessarily rebelling against his culture. On the contrary, the jazz musician is articulating the innermost dynamics of his culture. His culture and the white fan’s culture are not the same, though both exist in the same society.
This then is the situation Spike Lee faced when he made Mo’ Better Blues. In particular, he was working in the wake of two movies, both of which were acclaimed, at least by some, for finally giving us an adequate cinematic representation of jazz culture. I am talking, of course, of Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, and Clint Eastwood’s Bird. Both pictures have their virtues (among others, Dexter Gordon in the first, Bird’s music in the other), but both pictures are gloomy and depressing studies of black victims doomed in a white society. Whatever the truth of this view, it is not a view which gives any insight into how or why this magnificient music came to be. The culture which created the music is, as always, invisible. In these films, which were very much on Spike Lee’s mind as he made Mo’ Better, the music exists as an object of white desire and an occasion for white guilt. The joy that animated the stage of the Cotton Club has been replaced by the grimness hanging in the air after a lynching.
Let’s move into an examination of Mo’ Better Blues by considering a statement by Branford Marsalis, the saxophone player whose playing has been featured in the sound tracks of a number of Lee’s movies, including Mo’ Better: "People are convinced that jazz is just some magic thing that happens with Negroes. We just wake up with horns in our mouths. But to play what we play, you have to be a supreme musician. The art form requires . . . the discipline of a classical musician." This statement, which is quoted in Lee’s book about Mo’ Better Blues (Lee and Jones 1990, p. 185), captures one of the white misconceptions which Lee intended to counter in his movie, a misconception, incidentally, which is brilliantly elaborated in Julio Cortazar’s (1968) story of "The Pursuer."
It is a misconception which is one of favorite the themes of racism, Natural Rhythm. Scott Brown, in his book on the pianist James P. Johnson (1986: p. 83) tells how musicians in the Clef Club, which served as a booking agency for black musicians in the New York area early in the century, would memorize their music so that they could play their "society" engagements without having to read music. These musicians were well-schooled and capable of reading music, but their white clients expected them to be illiterate. Thus, had they read music on the job, it would have threatened their employer’s conception of them and thereby threatened their jobs. The same conception is embodied in a cartoon which Lincoln Collier reproduced in his biography of Louis Armstrong (Collier 1983, between pp. 214 and 215). The cartoon originally appeared in 1931 and has four panels, the first showing the infant Louis in the cradle. In the second panel Louis proclaims "I’se goin’ play de trumpet"; in the third panel his father is buying him a trumpet. And in the fourth panel we see young Louis, trumpet in hand, about to play a note which is written as a high B-flat. As any trumpet player will tell you, this note is difficult to reach, requiring several years of embouchure development before it is within range, and several years beyond that before it is within comfortable range. The cartoon clearly depicts a case of Natural Rhythm.
Jazz is no more, or less, natural than any other music. It reflects culturally patterned stylization, to borrow a word from Albert Murray (1976), and its musicians must have considerable discipline and experience to execute its patterns with appropriate conviction—something which, incidentally, Phyllis Rose (1989) properly emphasized in her admirable biography of Josephine Baker, the dancer and singer. Spike Lee goes to considerable trouble in Mo’ Better Blues to thematize the importance of discipline in the life of his protagonist, Bleek Gilliam.
The movie’s opening scene shows discipline at work. Young Bleek is practicing the trumpet when his friends come by and ask him to come out to play. He wants to, but his mother insists that he practice. His father was initially inclined to let Bleek out, but ends up backing his wife on this and so, much against his will, Bleek continues to practice. The opening scene is about discipline working against natural impulse.
A bit further on we have another scene which emphasizes discipline. We are now in the present and we see the adult Bleek practicing in his loft in the early afternoon. He is interrupted by Clarke Betancourt, one of his two lovers. He berates her about showing up when he’s scheduled to practice ( Lee and Jones 1990: p. 230): "How many times do I have to tell you I have a certain amount of hours allotted to practice daily? You know my program, yet you consistently overlook it." The discipline which his mother had imposed on him is now a part of his personality. Bleek Gilliam works at his music. Other scenes pick up this theme; in one we see Bleek writing music as he ignores Clarke; in another we see the band rehearsing.
The point, that Bleek Gilliam is a disciplined musician, is a simple and obvious one, made with simple and obvious scenes. But, because it contradicts the basic stereotype of the jazz musician as a child of Natural Rhythm, it is very important. Bleek Gilliam wasn’t born to jazz. He had to work for his music. He had to discipline himself to its rhythms and forms.
The type of jazz Lee chose as Bleek Gilliam’s style underscores this point. He is a "neo-traditionalist," to use Spike Lee’s term. He is a contemporary player whose music is rooted in and derived from older jazz idioms, like the real-life musicians who actually play the music of the fictional Bleek Quintet (the Branford Marsalis quartet, plus Terrance Blanchard on trumpet). In this case, the idiom is the hard-bop and modal jazz music of the early and middle sixties—Miles Davis before he went electric, John Coltrane before he went totally "outside." Unlike Bird, both the real musician and Clint Eastwood’s representation of him, Bleek Gilliam is not trying to create a new style. Rather, he is consciously and deliberately investigating an older style.
This is, of course, standard practice in classical music. Much to the dismay of at least some critics and musicians, most performances of classical music do not feature contemporary works. They feature works from a standard repertoire of mostly Nineteenth Century compositions. Neo-traditionalist jazz musicians are in the process of "classicizing" their music and thereby asserting that it has a past which is worthy of being preserved in the present. The music isn’t some natural flowing forth, it is a cultural artifact. By making Bleek Gilliam a classicist of black music, and by emphasizing his discipline, Spike Lee wrenches him free of the racist stereotype of Natural Rhythm, which denies blacks the capacity for significant cultural achievement and thereby reserves culture for whites.
This bit of plotting ramifies. Much of contemporary philosophy is heir to a Romantic tradition which seeks authenticity in unmediated communion with nature—this is the same Romantic tradition which sees various "noble savages" as living in blissful harmony with nature. Spike Lee is, however, seeking authenticity in the rigorous pursuit of culture. Even as philosophers bewail the impossibility of unmediated experience, Spike Lee seeks to celebrate mediating cultural forms. Culture, artifice, discipline, these are not evil; their necessity is not to be decried. To the contrary, it is the source of authentic experience. Just as "bad" means "good" in black vernacular (but only when spoken with the appropriate nuance), so Spike Lee is implicitly reversing the terms of contemporary philosophical debate. Culture isn’t a prision. Mediation isn’t evil. They are necessary for authentic art.
Unfortunately things are not so simple, not so, dare I say it? black and white. The legacy of Western culture is not so casually transcended. There is no doubt that Spike Lee is revising the terms in which jazz and its musicians are to be understood. But this revision has yet other ramifications.
For Bleek’s discipline is closely linked with his self-obsession In fact, it is the vehicle of that obsession. Bleek isn’t master of his discipline. It has mastered him. It isn’t the agent of his will, rather it is a substitute for it. His discipline is a form of dependence, playing the same functional role in this story that substance abuse plays in Clint Eastwood’s Bird, or in the earlier Young Man with a Horn. Where the stereotypical jazz musician destroys himself through drink and/or drugs, Bleek destroys himself through discipline. And so we must move on to another aspect of Lee’s Revised Standard Version of Jazz, his attempt to free Bleek of self-destructiveness.
On this matter we can quote Ernest Dickerson, Lee’s principal cinematographer: "We didn’t want to focus on the self-destructiveness of jazz musicians, like White filmmakers had done in the past," (Lee and Jones 1990: p. 62). Bleek Gilliam isn’t self-destructive in obvious ways; he doesn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. Rather, Lee displaces the stereotypical jazz musician’s self-destructiveness into another character, Bleek’s boyhood friend, Giant. Giant is addicted to gambling. Being addicted to gambling isn’t quite the same as addition to drugs and alcohol—there is no ingestion or injection of foreign substances into the body. But it is addiction, it is a form of dependence. The gambler needs his hit of risk as surely as the addict needs his drug.
Giant is also Bleek’s manager. While the musicians in Bleek’s group insist that Giant is an incompetent manager, Bleek remains committed to him. This commitment eventually costs Bleek his vocation, though it is perhaps stretching things a bit to put the causality so directly.
Giant’s incompetence and Bleek’s blind commitment to him are brought up early, in Bleek’s first scene with Clarke (which we’ve already discussed), where he scolds her for interrupting his practice (Lee and Jones 1990: p. 231):
Clarke: . . . . You don’t know what you want. Make up your mind. Be a man. Don’t be wishy-washy on me.
Bleek: I know what I want. My music! Everything else is secondary.
Clarke: Let me give you a tip. If your music is the be all to end all as you state, to ensure that, you better get rid of Giant as your manager.
Bleek: Clarke, please stay out of my business. Thank you.
Clarke: Are you fucking him, of what? He’s a horrible manager. Everybody can see that but you.
Bleek: Why are you bringing all this confusion into my home?
Note first of all that Clarke isn’t at all impressed with Bleek’s sense of himself, his insistence that music is first. She thinks that he doesn’t really know what he wants, an assertion previously made by Indigo, Bleek’s other lover. Second, she asserts that Giant’s incompetence is common knowledge. Everyone knows it except Bleek and, of course, Giant himself. This and other assertions of Giant’s incompetence are so unequivocal that we have to wonder just why Bleek insists on Giant remaining manager even though it hurts his career. Giant’s incompetence, and Bleek’s loyalty to him, are absolutely central to the movie.
As the movie progresses we see Giant becoming more and more in debt to his bookie. And we learn that this isn’t new behavior; Bleek has, in the past, had to square Giant’s gambling debts in order to save him from "enforcement" proceedings. This time, however, Giant gets too deeply in debt for Bleek to cover for him. Enforcement proceedings escalate from a couple of broken fingers to a much more severe beating, which takes place outside the nightclub where Bleek is performing. When Bleek comes to Giant’s aid, the thugs beat him up as well. Most particularly, they smash his trumpet into his mouth, breaking teeth and injuring his lips, doing so much damage that Bleek’s embouchure (the formation of facial muscles which allows a wind player to get a sound out of his or her instrument) is destroyed. Bleek’s career as a musician is finished, though he does make an attempt to come back.
Thus, while Bleek isn’t addicted to drugs or alcohol he is "addicted" to Giant and this "addiction" destroys his career. Move by move, the course of Bleek’s self-destruction is quite different from the course of (Clint Eastwood’s) Bird’s self-destruction. But the final result is much the same, a musician is destroyed. A dynamic which had been internal to one character in "Bird" has become distributed across two characters in "Mo’ Better Blues." One is reminded of Thomas McFarland’s observation that Shakespeare’s Othello is so vulnerable to Iago’s manipulations that one suspects the two dramatic characters are the embodiements of one personality structure; Iago is just an externalization of Othello’s self-destructiveness (McFarland 1966, p. 72). In a similar way, Bleek and Giant are one. Bleek Gilliam is no more free of addiction and dependence than Bird was.
Spike Lee’s attempt to create a clean-cut, strongly disciplined jazz musician, one free of self-destruction, thus cannot be taken at face value. The cultural logic in force is deeper than Lee’s attempts to revise it. The fact of the matter is, the self-destructiveness of jazz musicians in movies has as much to do with cultural stereotypes of artists as it has to do with the reality of life in the jazz business. And perhaps it is this general cultural attitude to which Spike Lee is objecting, even if his cinematic response disguises the problem without making fundamental changes.
This self-destructiveness is simply part of our essentially Romantic conception of the artist. Self-destructiveness isn’t an affliction which Hollywood has concocted specifically to slander black musicians. Hollywood is perfectly happy to present us with self-destructive white musicians. Thus, in his recent movie The Doors, Oliver Stone depicts lead singer Jim Morrison as being a monster of adolescent mysticism and chemically mediated self-destruction; next to him Eastwood’s Bird is almost a model of middle-class propriety.
Nor is this treatement confined to musicians. Would Hollywood have been so interested in Van Gogh if he hadn’t sliced his ear off? (And, is it any accident that the paintings of this most romantically destructive of artists have, in recent years, brought higher prices than those of any other artist?) Jazz musicians are worthy of Hollywood treatment precisely because some of them have been flamboyantly self-destructive and therefore can be easily assimilated to extant stereotypes of artists.
This conception of the artist became firmly fixed in the Western imagination with Goethe’s publication of The Sufferings of Young Werther in 1774. To be sure, Werther wasn’t an artist in the sense of being vocationally dedicated to art, though he liked to paint and sketch. And his self-destructiveness wasn’t manifested in substance abuse or gambling. Rather, he was a love-addict who committed suicide because he would never be able to have the woman he loved; she was married to another. He serves as an archetype for the artist because he was a man of intense feeling who was alienated from his society. As such, he proclaimed that "I have been drunk more than once, my passions have never been far from madness, and I regret neither; for, at my own level, I have come to appreciate why all extraordinary people who have achieved something great, something apparently impossible, have been inevitably decried by society as drunkards or madmen" (Goethe, translated by Steinhauer, 1970, p. 33).
It is thus easy for us to think of artists as at least eccentric, if not always crazy. Thus, in his very influential Silence (1961, p. 127), the avant-garde composer John Cage approvingly quotes Rilke’s remark that he had no interest in being psychoanalyzed because "I’m sure they would remove my devils, but I fear they would offend my angels." That is, madness is not just something which afflicts artists, among others, but rather it is the source of their creativity.
The trope of the rebellious artist, defiantly drunk with feeling, is a vehicle through which Western culture reminds itself of the affective life it has foresworn. The artist feels what we cannot. Through identifying with him we get access to those emotions which we must otherwise hold in check. When the artist self-destructs we are reminded that emotion is dangerous. And we are thus returned to our ordinary mode of emotional repression.
The self-destructiveness of our artists is simply the price they pay for their intense feeling. As long as we believe that they must pay that price, we are willing to accept our less intense, but safer, lives. We accept our repression because we believe it to be the only way to a secure life. We cannot tolerate the possibility that a life of strong feeling is not self-destructive but, on the contrary, is deeply creative, nurturing, and sustaining. It is thus no accident that the artists in our movies, and novels and plays, generally die. That is the only way we can tolerate them. The idea of a mentally balanced artist, whether painter, dancer, jazz musician, etc., doesn’t make sense. Most of us would not be prepared to recognize such a person as a real artist. Western culture’s emotional repression is thus no more hospitable to its own artists than it is to blacks. It must scapegoat both.
Thus when Spike Lee set out to create a jazz hero who isn’t self-destructive, he was dealing with a cultural dynamic which has been central to Western imaginative life for at least two centuries. By dealing with the issue of the artist’s self-destructiveness in a context where he could convincingly frame it in ethnic terms—attempting to cleanse the image of the jazz musician from white prejudice—Lee tricked himself into accepting a superficially different version of the same old tension between Western civilization and its discontent with emotional vitality. The surface (discipline in Lee’s version, drugs and/or alcohol in the standard Hollywood version) is different, but the result is the same—destruction—implying that the underlying cultural psychodynamics are the sameas well. The jazz musician is thus condemned in both the white and in Lee’s black mythology.
What’s the point of reclaiming the jazz artist from white fictions if black fictions aren’t any more hospitible to him? Yes, it is comforting, for a change, to see black jazz musicians interacting in a black community—as various people assert in Lee’s book about Mo Better Blues—but Bleek Gilliam retains his life only at the cost of losing his art.
I don’t in fact think Mo’ Better Blues is quite as bleak as I’ve been implying. But, we’re going to have to look at different issues if we’re to have any chance of getting Mr. Lee out of the doghouse, or, to be more precise, to understand the exit strategy he has mapped out, if not executed. We need to examine Mo Better Blues as a movie, not about a jazz musician, but as a movie about a man trying to figure out what role women are to play in his life. For this is, in fact, what drives the movie’s plot.
You don’t have to examine Mo’ Better Blues very closely to realize that relatively few of the moves in its plot depend directly on Bleek Gilliam’s occupation as a jazz musician. This is not a movie about his struggle for recognition, or his quest for a musical style, or the hazzards of fame and fortune. When the movie opens Bleek is a recognized artist, people line up around the block to hear him play. His style is established. The plot is driven by Bleek’s relationships with Indigo and Clark and by his relationship with his business partner, Giant.
So, let’s forget about jazz and see what Lee is saying about his relationships with women. Lee notes that he didn’t want to make a (standard) film about a man torn between a "good" woman and a "bad" woman (Lee and Jones 1990: pp. 43-44), as, for example, "Young Man with a Horn" had Kirk Douglas torn between Doris Day (the good woman) and Lauren Bacall (the bad woman). In such stories the good woman is an asexual saint while the bad woman is a seductively sexual sinner. These are stories about the split image of women which Freud (in, for example, "A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men") diagnosed and which has been explored extensively since then. The good woman is a stand-in for the asexual mother while the bad woman is the sexual temptress who tries to take the man away from his mother.
Bleek Gilliam’s two women are both sexual creatures. Are they both bad women? Or has Lee really managed to transcend the split image of women?
One scene in the movie shows Bleek in bed with one, then with the other. We see two different encounters which have been edited into one to make the point that, on some level, Bleek doesn’t differentiate between these women. Not only are both women sexual, but Bleek goes to some pains to make the point that his relationship with each is basically sexual, not "love," whatever love is. Bleek is skeptical about love. "Pop Top 40 R ‘n’ B Urban Contemporary Easy Listening Funk Love," a quasi-rap musical pastiche with spoken lyrics, is the liveliest musical set piece in the film and it has Bleek speaking lyrics which satirize popular music’s enchantment with one-and-only-forever romantic love. Bleek will have nothing to do with "love" and makes it clear to both women that his music comes first. It is obvious that his career, music, is playing the role of the saintly good woman. Just as Bleek’s self-destructiveness has been displaced onto Giant, so his allegiance to the maternal good woman has been displaced onto his career.
This takes us back to the opening scene of the film, in which the discipline imposed on Bleek is imposed by his mother. Bleek’s artistic discipline is an internalization of his mother, making his allegiance to his art an allegiance to this internalized mother. The activity though which Bleek takes a public role in his community, playing jazz, is at the same time an activity which binds him to his childhood and to his internalized mother. Thus his musical success seems to require that he avoid relationships with women which could destroy the psychological basis of his musical discipline.
Bleek is not free of the conflict which derives from the split image of women. Despite Lee’s attempt to transcend it, the psychological dynamic behind the good woman/bad woman story is strong in "Mo’ Better Blues," only it’s surface form is changed. Both of Bleek’s women are bad women, women who threaten to distract him from his true love, the good woman jazz. Oddly enough, his proficiency in jazz is part of what attracts these women to him.
So, where are we? The artistic self-discipline which marks Spike Lee’s black view of the jazz musician turns out to be a form of psychological dependence which keeps Bleek psychologically tied to his childhood. A premise (the authenticity of disciplined experience) which seemed to have the latent power to free us from a mistaken search for unmediated experience now seems to be a defense against a failure to differentiate the self from one’s mother. Lee knows that Bleek is self-centered, that is part of the story he set out to tell (Lee and Jones 1990, pp 41-42), but he doesn’t seem to realize that this also undermines his desire to free Bleek of self-destructiveness. If we can show that Bleek’s blindness to Giant’s managerial ineptness, which blindness leads Bleek to his artistic death, is just another aspect of his self-obsession, then the solipcistic circle is complete and Bleek is as enclosed in Cartesian isolation as any white intellectual. But the argument that Giant and Bleek are aspects of one personality gives us this one for nothing. Bleek remains psychologically anchored in his childhood, to his mother’s discipline, to his childhood friend, and is unable to establish commited contact with other adults. He is confined to the orbit of his own psyche.
Giant is passive in the face of an inner demand for the thrill of gambling; Bleek is passive in the face of an inner demand to play the trumpet. Giant bends the world to the needs of his gambling and Bleek bends it to the needs of his art. Both of these fictions collapse in the same act of violence at the hands of the bookie’s thugs. This act of violence is the dramatic climax of the movie. In the wake of this moment Bleek is forced to assume a new identity as the movie moves into its second, redemptive, phase. Bleek finds that identity in marriage to Indigo and in their son, who is learning the trumpet. Bleek is thus saved, but his art is behind him.
The depiction of this marriage is, unfortunately, the least satisfactory and least plausible section of the film. As a coherent dramatic statement, the film ended with Bleek’s failed comeback when he sat-in with Shadow (his former sax player) and Clarke in the Dizzy club—the club’s name is an obvious reference to Dizzy Gillespie, jazz’s last elder statesman and trumpet-playing counterpart to Bird, who did have a club named after him, Birdland. His subsequent marriage and child are not very plausible. He proposes marriage to Indigo in the very terms which he had rejected and satirized in "Pop Top 40." Now that he cannot be a musician, he changes his mind about one-and-only-forever love. Now he wants/needs a woman to save him. And the woman accepts him. But Bleek hasn’t grown and deepened in any obvious way; he has just transferred his dependence from his career to a wife. Which is to say, simply, that Spike Lee hasn’t quite figured out how to resolve these problems.
But he does give some indication of how he wants the matter resolved. To see this we have to examine the final scene of the movie. It parallels the first scene quite closely, so closely that any difference is thereby foregrounded. That difference, we can only assume, is what has been gained by the events of the picture.
Thus, in the final scene, a young boy is practicing his trumpet when his young friends come after him to join them in play. To emphasize the parallel with the opening scene, Lee uses the same child actors. In the final scene, as one would expect, Bleek is the father and his son, Miles (named after Miles Davis?), is the boy. But where young Bleek had been forced to continue practicing, young Miles is allowed out (at Bleek’s urging) after a little sermon on the importance of practicing. Bleek, we are to infer, doesn’t want to impose the inflexible discipline on his son that his mother had imposed on him. Young Miles will not, we are to presume, grow up in the crippled way that Bleek did.
By staging the final scene in this way Lee is asserting that Bleek has gained a measure of flexibility and insight, that he has grown though his experience. That is, he is asserting something which he hasn’t, in fact, shown. Mo’ Better Blues happens in two distinct phases. One runs from the beginning up through Bleek’s failed come-back at the Dizzy club. The other runs from Bleek’s proposal to the end. The only thing which binds these two together is Lee’s cinematic assertion that the second is the logical continuation of the first. But, whereas the moves in the first phase are carefully plotted, with plausible causal links between the actions and reactions of the various characters, the moves in the second phase are not carefully plotted, they are only asserted, with a great deal of dramatic weight falling on a montage sequence set to the music of John Coltrane. And the transition between the first and the second phase is similarly implausible. It is clear that what Lee wants to say requires these two phases, otherwise he wouldn’t have made the movie this way. It is also clear that Lee hasn’t yet been able to establish a coherent framework in which to make this statement.
This situation is not unprecedented in dramatic history. Five-hundred years ago Shakespeare created some plays -- Pericles, Cymbaline, and The Winter’s Tale—that were similarly broken into two phases. Let’s look at one of them and compare it to Mo’ Better Blues. Like Mo’ Better, The Winter’s Tale breaks into two movements. In both cases, the second movement focuses on the offspring of the characters introduced in the first piece.
In Shakespeare’s play the first phase is a tragedy. King Leontes becomes insanely jealous of his wife and, in consequence, acts so as to lose his wife, his son, his daughter Perdita, and his childhood friend, Polixenes. And then, when all this has happened, Leontes learns that his jealousy was unfounded. The second phase is a comedy which picks up sixteen years later. Leontes recovers Perdita, who marries Polixenes’ son, Florizel, thereby restoring his friendship with Polixenes. And, at the very end, Leontes’ is reunited his wife, who wasn’t dead, but only hiding. The ending is a happy one.
This is an implausible and disjointed piece of work and yet, with a bit of sympathy and inspiration, it does work. We must simply assume that, during the sixteen years which we don’t see, Leontes has undergone a transformation which allows him an expansiveness and generosity in the second phase which he didn’t have in the first. Shakespeare has no way of showing this growth in Leontes, so he simply asserts it and gets on with his play.
Both dramas thus have a sense of being cobbled together by two different and not well-coordinated sensibilities. Each begins under the aegis of one sensibility and advances to the point where the protagonist is cut off from society. At this point the other sensibility takes over and shows us a protagonist whose return to society is centered around his child. Leontes finds his daughter and, in marrying her off, gains a son-in-law. Bleek has a son and, through him, regains his attachement to music.
The parallel is not, however, exact. In Shakespeare’s play the two phases are approximately equal in length (the first is, in fact, a bit shorter than the second). In Mo’ Better the second phase is only 10 to, at most, 15 minutes long, with the first movement thus taking up most of the movie. Further, the biggest single part of the second phase is taken up by the montage sequence, showing us courtship, wedding, birth of the child, and scenes from the child’s youngest years. There is no dramatic action in this sequence at all, no cause and effect, just the images of the montage. Finally, there is a crucial difference in emphasis.
In The Winter’s Tale there is no sense at all that the younger generation will escape the problems which splintered the older generation. The issue isn’t raised in any way. But, the whole point of having a second phase in Mo’ Better Blues is to indicate that it will be different with the next generation. Whatever Leontes learned, however he grew, it only allows him to put his own life back together. Whatever Bleek learned, however he matured, it is causing him to raise his son in a different way. Where Bleek was incapable of sharing himself with both his muse and his wife, perhaps his son Miles will not be so constrained. Mo’ Better Blues points to a changed future, but The Winter’s Tale does not. Perhaps Spike Lee knows something that Shakespeare didn’t.
Now we must confront the montage sequence. It takes the Mo’ Better Blues into a different mode of experience. The key to this mode is in the music itself, which is the "Awakening" section from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album. More than any other jazz musician, John Coltrane saw himself as a priest, and his music a communion with the divine. It is quite clear that Spike Lee loves Coltrane’s music deeply. Lee’s comments on A Love Supreme make this explicit (Lee and Jones 1990: p. 42): "It’s a very spiritual work and I used it as inspiration for the film. The love in A Love Supreme goes beyond romantic love. It’s love for God and the human community." Lee’s only resolution to Bleek’s dilemma is love for a supreme being. His vision is thus ultimately sacramental, but he was unable to create a single coherent cinematic form adequate to that vision. Instead, he alludes to it through the music itself and the accompanying montage.
The process which brings Bleek to treat his son with more generosity than he had had for himself, and for others, is a thus sacred one. To depict it Lee had to take his movie into a different filmic mode. That mode is the montage. Causal connections between events are dropped. Bits and pieces move by so swiftly that we don’t have time to ponder their plausibility. We can only accept them and keep on moving as this sacred journey moves us to the final scene, the scene in which Bleek is finally restored to his music through his son.
This montage sequence is not, however, the only manifestation of the sacred in Mo’ Better Blues. Lee had originally wanted to call this movie A Love Supreme, after Coltrane’s album, but was unable to secure Alice Coltrane’s permission to use the name because he was unwilling to eliminate all profanity from the script. The title Lee used actually used derives from another piece of music, one played by the Bleek Quintet to mark Bleek’s loss of both Indigo and Clarke. Earlier in the movie Bleek had explained that "mo’ better" is another term for sexual intercourse. The "Mo’ Better Blues" is thus a tune written to mark Bleek’s loss of sex partners. However, regardless of what its name proclaims, that piece of music is gospel music, not blues. Its chord changes are gospel changes, not blues changes, and its emotional tone is one of the many moods of gospel rather than one of the many moods of the blues. The title music still links the movie to the sacred despite the fact that the title isn’t what Lee had wanted.
Lee’s father wrote the tune under the title "Deep Valley" (Lee and Jones 1990, p. 157), a title which has gospel resonance (though it might have another resonance as well; one of Duke Ellington’s most erotic ballads is called "Warm Valley"). The tune’s gospel roots are quite obvious to anyone familiar with African American musical traditions —I attended one screening of the movie where the audience began rhythmic clapping during this tune, and only this tune, as if they were in church. The title tune, "Mo’ Better Blues", is thus a bridge between the erotic and the sacred.
To use semiotic terms, the title consists of a sequence of signs in which the signifiers are linked by the conventions of the language system to erotic signifieds. However, this set of signs is linked by the supervening convention of the naming relationship to a referent—the song itself—which is not erotic. The referent is sacred. Eroticism has thus become the sign of the sacred. This is the standard stuff of poetry, dreams, and mysticism, but not of exoteric Christianity, not of mainstream Western culture, in which the sacred and the sensual are in opposition.
This link between eroticism and spirituality is deeply embeded in the African-American stylization of experience. Michael Ventura (1987a and 1987b, see also Buerkle and Barker 1973, pp. 3-21) has given a succinct historical account of the route from African religious ceremony through New World voodoo to jazz and on to rock and roll, the point being that there is a comparatively recent historical linkage between African religious practice and African-American musical practice. The erotic expressivness of African-American music isn’t just something projected on to it by repressed European Americans. That eroticism is real. But it doesn’t originate in the bedroom. It originates in a stylization of experience which goes back to West African ritual. This eroticism is part of an African stylization of the sacred.
Thus there is a rich interplay between African American sacred music and various secular forms—blues, rhythm and blues, soul, jazz. Consider, for example, the remark by the great bluesman, B.B. King, that "Gospel singers sing about heavenly bodies and we blues singers sing about earthly ones" (Smith, 1988, p. 149). He clearly differentiates between blues and gospel, but implies that there is an abiding link as well. The outrageous androgynous Richard Penniman (Little Richard) has moved back and forth between preaching the gospel and singing rock and roll, and he’s hardly the only African-American musician/preacher, though he’s the best known (Keil 1966, pp. 43 ff., Lincoln and Mamiya 1990, p. 362). Similarly, Sixties soul, with Aretha Franklin the queen and James Brown the king, is based in gospel music (cf. for example, Peter Guralnick 1986)—a connection made in Robert Townsend’s recent film, The Five Heartbeats, in which one of the musicians is a preacher’s son and another overcomes his self-destructiveness by being born again. Between black popular music (and dance as well), with roots in black religion, and white derivatives from it, much of contemporary America’s stylization of sexuality and secular love is derived from African religious ceremony.
This stylization is based on specific and precise biologically-given patterns for expressing emotion. Manfred Clynes (1977) has investigated the nature of emotional expressiveness and has found basic temporal patterns, pulsations or rhythms, through which we express our feelings. Clynes calls these patterns essentic forms. His investigations have involved people from both Western and non-Western societies and he has found the same patterns in all his subjects. This suggests that the essentic forms are biologically given and not cultural conventions. While the number of essentic forms seems to be open-ended, there are seven basic ones: love, grief, awe (or reverence), joy, anger, hate, and sex. To say that jazz is comfortable with sexuality is simply to say that the essentic form for sexuality appears in jazz performances. And, correlatively, to say that classical music cannot deal with sexuality is to say that the essentic form for sexuality does not often appear in classical music.
While these essentic forms are biologically given, whether or not they are incorporated into music depends on the codes of a culture’s stylization. A culture isn’t obligated to codify our full biological legacy; the exclusion of part of that legacy is, after all, what repression is all about. African America has included sexuality in its musical codes while Europe (and European America) has not, for the most part, done so, at least not without the example and tutelage of African America.
Thus it isn’t at all surprising to find a connection between the sexual and the sacred in Mo’ Better Blues. The fact is, Spike Lee would have had to work hard and self-consciously to avoid the connection. It is deeply part of his cultural heritage, something he is, but which Hollywood can only aspire to, if it can see it at all. It is a connection which is inherent in the music itself, it is part of the jazz metaphysic, the jazz stylization of experience. Jazz is comfortable with sexuality whereas classical music is not. Thus jazz can move between the sacred and the sexual in a way that classical music cannot. The fact that jazz’s sexuality is part of the stereotype doesn’t negate the fact that jazz can be very sexual (among other things).
However, it is only within the music itself that the sacred and the sexual can easily accommodate one another. In the movie’s plot they are in conflict. For Bleek’s conflict between allegiance to the musical profession as a source of identity and his commitment to loving a woman is a conflict between the sacred and the sexual. For Bleek, music is a sacred vocation, a calling—he has a picture of Coltrane, the musician/priest, hanging on his wall. Music gives meaning and structure to his life. It is the source of his being. It is also, as we have seen, the internalized mother. The split conception of women which is at the root of Bleek’s psyche forces the sacred and the sexual to be defined in opposition to one another.
Thus Bleek is caught in a peculiar irony. As he lives, the sacred and the sexual are in conflict. But what he is committed to as a sacred vocation is a form of music in which the sacred and the sexual have free commerce with one another. This irony is not only Bleek’s. It is Spike Lee’s as well.
All art involves the stylization of experience. Such stylizations are hardwon creations of communities and artists working over time. Because African Americans have for so long been denied a significant place in the movie industry, the available cinematic stylizations are mostly European and European-American. That is where Spike Lee has to start. Actually creating an African-American cinema is much more difficult than articulating the need to create that cinema.
What Spike Lee had to work from is a Hollywood stylization of the jazz musician which derives from Romantic mythologizing about The Artist. This mythologizing assumes that strong emotion is outside the pale of civilized possibility. It is something to be admired, and even desired, but only that. It is not something one should be, something one can live. If one cannot live it, then there is no hope of dealing adequately with either the sexual or the sacred, much less in dealing with both. Whatever conflict there is cannot possibly be resoved since the conflicting elements are too dangerous to handle, to touch, to be felt. They can only be repressed. This European-derived stylization of the artist is, of course, put a part of the larger stylization of experience which also includes racism.
In attempting to construct the image of jazz, and its musicians, in the stylizations of a black mythology, Spike Lee committed himself to working against the received conventions. By insisting on one simple truth about jazz, that it is disciplined stylization, Lee began to undermine those Hollywood conventions. But he was unable completely to free himself from the Romantic conventions which determine our vision of the artist and his place in society. Lee’s displacements don’t alter the fact that, at the core, his protagonist is a self-destructive descendent of the Romantic Artist.
But he gave us something more. He suggested that the future can be different, that by changing the way we raise our children, we allow to have a freer world than ours has been, or is. That idea is not a new one. But how often have you seen it dramatized in a movie? Mo’ Better Blues is flawed, but it attempts to indicate a better future. Because of that, it cannot be dismissed.
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