Berlin Diary: Sketches of pain

Posted on February 20, 2016


Mapplethorpe. Miles Davis.And an eight-hour epic from Lav Diaz.

A photograph about a man in a polyester suit sounds innocent enough until you see what’s peeking out of the suit. And then it becomes a question not just about evaluating art but also your own response to it. Are you intrigued? Offended? Physically sickened? Turned on? Is it even art? As a historian says, in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, “I was trained in abstract and conceptual art. I knew nothing about…” I can’t print that last word here. Robert Mapplethorpe was a controversial artist, but Mapplethorpe is a flat, by-the-numbers affair – a rather dry account of the man’s muses, his fascination for black males, the obscenity trial around one of his exhibitions. You wish they’d gone… deeper. But I did laugh when one of Mapplethorpe’s friends said she threw away, while moving houses, all the photos he gave her. “No one could say pictures could be worth so much. If I’d known, I’d be in my villa in Tuscany.”

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The makers of Mapplethorpe should have taken a hint from Don Cheadle, who directed Miles Ahead and plays the titular jazz legend. (Though the legend might not have liked that label. “Don’t call my music jazz. It’s social music.”) When a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) puts forth a by-the-numbers question, Davis mocks him. “Don’t be all corny about this shit.” You’re not a newscaster. You’re telling a story. You need attitude. And we cut to… a car chase. Now, that’s attitude – jettisoning the he-was-born-in- and the this-is-when-he-first-picked-up-a-trumpet- in favour of a focused look at a few days during which a studio attempted to get Davis to deliver his session tapes, so they could put a new record out. (It’s 1975. Davis hasn’t played for five years. He’s become, as a character puts it, “jazz’s Howard Hughes.”) Part of the attitude in this “music biopic” is that it’s also an action movie. There are car chases. Bullets.

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Which isn’t to say the usual clichés are absent. We get flashes of the racism Davis faced (even after becoming… MILES DAVIS), his inability to stay faithful to the long-suffering wife he loves, his drug use (and the attendant demons), the downward spiral followed by resurgence. These are to the music-biopic genre what the meet-cute and the last-minute bus/airport/train reunion are to the rom-com. I wish Cheadle had improvised more, that he’d taken to heart Davis’s wisdom: “When you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit.” But the film’s jazzy structure blows away the cobwebs. As much as any fractured-time narrative can be said to be like jazz – owing to the screenplay/editing rhythms that keep coming back to a central riff and then veer off into time-travel tangents – the gorgeous music in Miles Ahead adds to the impression that we are not only hearing jazz, we are also watching it.

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They made an event out of Lav Diaz’s new Filipino movie, Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), which isn’t surprising – it is, after all, eight hours long. An emcee (black suit, bow tie) came on stage and introduced the actors. He then said the film would be played in two halves, with a one-hour intermission, and those leaving the theatre would be given a wristband for re-entry. Only a wristband? No electrolytes? No sunglasses as we step into sunlight again? Watching something like this is like seeing those Mapplethorpe pictures – it’s not just about evaluating art but also your own response to it. Are you intrigued? Bored? How many owl shots do we really need? And do they have to be held for so many seconds? Then there are those stretches where a static camera watches someone perform music, aching songs about love and the Motherland. How many such longueurs does a movie need?

I stayed for about an hour and a half – there were other screenings I wanted to get to, and it didn’t make much sense to devote an entire day to just one movie, even if it is the cinema’s answer to climbing the Everest and then running a marathon at the summit. Lullaby (imagine the jokes waiting to be made about audience members who fall asleep) begins with a man writing to his lover about getting ready to witness Dr. José Rizal’s execution by Spaniards, who ruled the Philippines in the latter part of the nineteenth century. “I will be there to shudder at man’s wickedness,” he writes. “To grieve and weep for our country.” Soon, a young, blind poet named Ramona recites Dr. Rizal’s poem, while other Filipinos are being bought by Spaniards to betray their country. (One of them is literally sleeping with the enemy – the scene takes place in the bedroom, on the bed.) “These are violent times,” a Spaniard says. “Quite often, violence spares no one.” Has there been a generation of humankind that hasn’t heard some version of these words?

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