Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Carlos Santana: Sensual Spirituality of a Monk

Image Courtesy BBC
Carlos Santana understands the utility of a little bit of sin in life. He had the opportunity to experience sacred and profane early in his life. He was initiated in music via violin, which he played in the church. Later, when he shifted to guitar, he was playing in strip clubs of Mexican border town of Tijuana. His spirituality has rightly been called his muse and the supreme achievement of his spirituality has been to harness the sensual to the service of music. Music for him is something that changes people’s molecular structure. One note and it changes the way people feel.

Coming back to the sacred and profane, he once told Rolling Stone that in church you play the music in a certain way, “people just fold their hands and go wherever they go; when you work in a strip joint, you play music in a certain way, and it’s like watching a black panther when it’s in heat.” For him “the halo and the horns are the same thing… it is ok to be spiritually horny – that is what creative genius is really about”. He says “I’m curious about how to penetrate inside the note. I want to utilize sound, resonance, vibration bring people closer to their own heart”. Obviously, we are dealing with a flower child of 60’s, out to transform fear on this planet into light and love. In him, for a change we find a person, a musician who has learnt to utilize the excesses of his era and profession to enhance his creativity. He endures, as he knows how to “upgrade his software into something more illuminating.” Above all he learnt the difference between getting loaded and getting high well in time when his contemporaries were self-destructing themselves all around him on drugs. He may have looked like a relic in early 90’s but his forte spirituality and sensuality never went out of style and he stays popular across generations.

Invitation to have good time

Rock as a music form, had energy, anguish and a level of beautiful noise that has sustained it over the ages. Blues tradition brought in a soul and Jazz a whimsy that became a rollicking lilting element in somewhat harsh landscape of rock. There were attempts to bring in rhythmic vitality of African, Latin and Indian music. As those were the time when giants decided to descend on planet earth in bunches, many good attempts were made. Leading lights like Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Laughlin of Mahavishnu and Bob Marley did a fairly good job of bringing these sounds from far away lands and joyous sensibilities that pulsated in these music traditions. However, somehow, all that never came together in a sustained and sustainable manner. These efforts never could shed their exotic feel. It was left to Carlos Santana to close the loop through his cosmopolitan sensibilities rooted in exuberant Latin rhythm.

Carlos Santana is the central force of his band called, well, Santana. Bill Graham was an early promoter who mentored the young band. He has the best explanation about why Santana succeeded as opposed to somewhat vapid and ghettoised earlier efforts. I will quote at length. Bill Graham says “What impressed me is that it was an attempt at fusing rock and Afro and Latino and getting a rhythmic sensuous sound into rock, which I’ve always thought it lacked in many cases.” Graham goes on to lay down the sensuality of early Santana which holds real even today. “What it is, is an earthy street thing when it really gets up-tempo. You want to move and it’s physical. I like dancing together. And Latin music — part of Latin music for me always — was I would hold a woman, and I would touch her body, and we would sweat, and it’s all of that … very sensual, very sensuous.” Santana has evolved and got enriched by collaboration with varied and younger sounds. This exuberant sensuality remains.

Black Magic Woman, an early hit, starts with a gripping cord on key board and soon Carlos takes over with his silken guitar licks and takes the music to a different level. Percussions create a trance and very soon the song becomes voodoo dance of seduction and abandon of love. The number can rouse a stadium even today after more than forty years. A truly timeless classic.

Carlos Santana echoes Bill Graham when he talks about the ‘Smooth’ perhaps his most famous Latin single. Santana explained in an interview, “When people hear ‘Smooth,’ it’s boogie,” Santana says. “It’s an invitation to have a good time. Like Little Richard used to say: It’s Friday night, I got a little bit of money, I did my homework, and it’s OK to rub closely with Sally or Sue; she gave me that look like it’s OK. I brushed my teeth, and I got deodorant. I got her going. It’s cool. Certain songs – ‘Smooth,’ ‘Oye Como Va,’ ‘Guantanamera,’ ‘La Bamba,’ the ‘Macarena,’ ‘Louie Louie’ – that’s what these songs are for.”

 Image courtesy YouTube
Santana as an elderly statesman of   Woodstock generation, retains a bracing forthrightness harking back to the times when giving good time to a woman was not considered so politically sensitive. At fourteen he was playing in strip clubs of Tijuana and was learning to play guitar in a way, as he accepted later, with a serene equanimity, so that women’s nipples would go hard. This feat apart, Carlos has displayed an old fashioned respect for women, a respect that, on a deeper analysis, is far more meaningful than the politically correct platitudes.  Women are not only a source of his creativity but also a touchstone of his creative output. In an interview Santana said, “women are really supremely important for musicians. We all learn from how they walk, how they talk. It’s not politically correct today, but in the old days, in the Sixties, if somebody was an incredible musician, you’d say, ‘He’s a bitch,’ and if he was an incredible musician but he has a lot of class and style, then you’d say, ‘Oh, he’s a lady.'” One needs to cut him some slack on PC front and understand from where the sentiment is coming. Apart from the appreciation of women, he is really elated when his music gets feminine validation. He explains his impact “when I move around in the music, is to make sure that the bass, drums and keyboards are on the one. That creates the trance, the spell. And it makes women go absolutely wild.” His friend, sometime Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden, made Santana write a guajira (a style of Cuban music, song or dance). That’s how he explained the form in the presence of the guitar maestro. “Guajira is the most effective way to, excuse the expression, penetrate a woman’s heart and then they remember the whole glory of being a female and start dancing a certain way, It’s the most tried, true and tested frequency that makes women open up like a flower.”  Basically, for Santana, music needs to celebrate womanhood. Some sentences may appear tasteless to the ear in 2019 but no doubt, the explanations are coming from a place of respect, appreciation and love. 

School of Hard Knocks

Born in 1947 in born in Jalisco, Mexico, Carlos Santana had a musical upbringing as his father was a mariachi violinist. Young Carlos joined his father in the street playing for small change. His first instrument was violin. This beginning is often seen as the cause of his sustained long notes. He played violin in the church choir also. Very soon he shifted to guitar. He told in an interview that even in those early days “I had my ear on Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, on B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. There was nothing plastic about those guys. They went deep, and each note carried something important. I knew, from a long time ago, the difference between notes and life. I’d rather play life than notes.” Another early school was the rough-and-tumble of Tijuana. There, an adolescent Carlos starting getting work in shady night clubs playing from four in the afternoon until six in the morning, one hour on, then one hour off, while the strippers stripped. This was a tough life but the young musician was content. He resisted his mother’s determined efforts to migrate to the USA. Finally, the family moved to San Francisco's Spanish-speaking Mission district in 1961.

 Image courtesy Biography
Carlos got a fertile environment in 60s Bay Area. Psychedelic underground and anti-Vietnam war protest on the social political front and new trends in the field of music were the suitable diet for the raw talent that was Carlos Santana. With organist Gregg Rolie he assemble the first Santana band. They were lucky to catch the eye of Bill Graham, helped their appearance at many important venues, most notably, Fillmore West concert hall and 1969 Woodstock. Graham ensured that they figured in the film and the album made on the iconic Woodstock event arguably the condensed crystallization of the spirit of 60s.

Guardian writes, “Carlos's earliest musical idols had been bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, but he began to listen to a more diverse palette of sounds. To the basic rock and blues base, Santana added Latin rhythms and the freer shapes of modern jazz, absorbed from records like John Coltrane's My Favourite Things and Miles Davis's rock-jazz fusion, Bitches Brew. Santana's first albums - up to and including the fourth, the complex, jazz-inflected Caravanserai of 1972 - were some of the most original and powerful of their time.”  A consistent performer, in a career spanning half a century, , Santana has sold more than 100 million records and has carved a unique niche for himself. As  2014 release of Corazón, was received success, Santana surpassed the Rolling Stones and is one of only two music acts in Billboard history to score at least one Top Ten album for six consecutive decades from the 1960s on.

Rhythm Divine

Even in his early Interviews, Santana Showed signs of deep spirituality. However with success, his spirituality blossomed. It is very easy to be dismissive of his spiritual jargons. However, as you know more about the person, a feeling grows that in Carlos Santana we are dealing with a person who has cracked it. His exotic sounding spiritual paraphernalia is helping him tremendously in staying creative and rooted. Introducing him as one the greatest guitarist of all times, Rolling Stone magazine has summed up saying “Santana has remained a compelling musician with a devotional spirituality fueling his muse.”  In early seventies he and his first wife became follower of the Indian Guru Shri Chinmoy. He was very close to similarly spiritual jazz musicians, including John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. He is deeply grateful for the those years of spiritual guidance when he went by the name ‘Devadip’ the divine  lamp/light, turned vegan and followed monkish discipline. He developed spiritually, however, by 1981, he started outgrowing his guru and embarked on a journey of finding his own way.

Chris Heath did the last cover story of the Rolling Stone Magazine on Carlos Santana. He saw his ‘church’ and talked about his interaction with ‘angles’. He concluded, “I am, by nature, probably more cynical than most, but all I can tell you is that when he talks about this stuff, it doesn’t seem kooky or unhinged or even that spacey. Likewise, in all the time I spend with Carlos Santana, I see no signs that he is unaware of life’s mundane realities.” With his music, his success, his longevity and his serene visage the entire spiritual edifice feels credible. He is acutely aware that people may get uneasy when he goes on spiritual tangent. He is also clear that this unease doesn’t bother him.  He told Heath “My reality is that God speaks to you every day. It is just an inner voice, and you trust it. That voice will never take you to the desert.” He shares that the angles tell him to be gracious, grateful and patient. He lives by what he thinks is his realty and that has held him in good stead. It is pointless to question the physical veracity of his notions. One thing is certain that he is positive, joyful and totally devoid of deceit about his beliefs. That should do.

Carlos Santana is one of the last greats standing and thriving from the creative ferment of a very exciting times. He gives us chance to touch the heady sixties and presents a least destructive but explosively powerful facet of the flower-power days. He cobbled, perhaps, a more illustrious second innings than the original one. His music is based on his raw talent and capability of bringing a delicious chaos together in accessible music. A music that begets joy or, as he says, connects molecules to light. We, mortals, will be best served by being grateful and open to the miracle that is Carlos Santana.

Dhiraj Singh

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Bernardo Bertolucci: Carnal core of Filmmaking

My exposure to Bernardo Bertolucci is restricted to two of his most notorious films - Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers.  I have not seen any other Bertolucci film.  Not even Conformist (supposedly an authentic distillation of essential Bertolucci), Spider’s Stratagem (considered his best by many), Before the Revolution (his first major film) or The Last Emperor (his most astounding Hollywood success).  Now I will not go out and seek these movies.  His recent death led to considerable coverage and tributes (mostly guarded and largely framed by the dominant ‘me too’ sensibility of our time), all this coverage gave some inkling that both The Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers are part of a very strong filmography, which is varied, uneven and has the potential of upturning one’s impression of the auteur.   I don’t want that.  Not now, when he is not there to reclaim any throne from which he may potentially be deposed.

A Chronicler of Sex
On the basis of these two movies, Bertolucci emerges as a prolific chronicler of sex in all its forms, sensuous, therapeutic, communion, a mode of feeling, way of making sense and just simply as lust.  In his films, sex is presented as life affirming force, soul corrosive wound and mostly as sometime gentle – sometime brutal background.  It is not fair or accurate to bracket a force of nature like Bernardo Bertolucci.  However, like Marlon Brando’s character in The Last Tango in Paris and three young characters of The Dreamers, sex can be a vehicle to traverse Bertolucci’s art and life.

Both Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers are sexually explicit movies.  Amount of nudity and sex is extremely high and both movies were rated accordingly.  Last Tango brought judicial proceedings and conviction for indecency.  Many countries can’t allow the films under their current rating system even today.  However, that is the failure of the certification/rating system, not of Bertolucci.  He has demonstrated now sex can be used as a theme or core of a story and not merely as a prop.  It is this use of sex as a key to an emotionally (in case of Tango) and culturally (in case of The Dreamers) rich terrain that separates Bertolucci's depiction of sex from the traditional practices.

Sex has been used as an escape in movies - titillating filler, a shocker, an embellishment, a token of audacity or just as a signal of a life style.  Many times, it has been used as an indicator of happy or perverse relationship.  In most such instances, it is short-lived on screen and is used to establish a scene or a character.  With Bertolucci, sex is the core theme, the main subject.  He is not shy to make sex the chief mode of communication, feeling and even evaluation.  In the two movies, it gets integral to core themes.  If Tango is a movie about grief, it is equally about sex.  The same goes for the Dreamers where sex is as pervasive as politics, youth and movies.  It is almost always there on the screen.  Eroticism or violence have been chief sexual byproducts on screen.  With Bertolucci, as with Freud (Bertolucci was a keen student of Freud), sex is capable of expressing life itself.
A Worthy Pioneer of the Carnal filmmaking
Bertolucci is very well placed to be a pioneer for emotionally and culturally complex sex movies.  He has a painterly aesthetics and his scenes are never less than beautiful.  He is capable of creating beauty on screen with the least of fuss.  Give him a theme and he will bring out the psychological essence and core of its inner beauty – a mark of a gifted film maker.  China showed great astuteness, when Bertolucci was given unprecedented access to shoot in the Forbidden City for the Last Emperor.  He simply was the best candidate to bring out historical grandeur, present symbolism along with an unbiased portrayal of the brutal transition from monarchy to communism for the last Emperor.

Both Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers are primarily apartment movies.  Bertolucci and his famed cinematographers have weaved music of visuals in a closed space.  Topography of rooms, bodies of the protagonist, lights and beauty are used skilfully in the service of the themes.  Making the sun drenched apartment in the Last Tango in Paris such a joyless place and the cramped bathroom in the Dreamers a place of youthful energy are cases in point.

 An Accomplished scene maker, who is clued in the psychological essence of the plot, Bertolucci is so very well suited to delve into the sensuality, lyricism and abyss of sexual desire. He goes for pure and distilled essence of his chosen emotion. When he goes for depiction of sex it is there without any adornment of phoniness.

Another qualification for such a precarious undertaking is fine tuned realism.  Filming sex often (not always) would require avoiding voyeurism, unnecessary heightening of emotions and will need an unblinking gaze.  Having said that, overall frame work of the art should not be abandoned at any time.  Degradation into documentary realism is the death of sex film, kind for which Bertolucci was striving.  Even a whiff of biology class documentary, or pornographic heightening of glee will kill the genre before it even starts to breath.  Bertolucci’s primary achievements is to find a fine blend of art and realism.  Art cannot be willed into existence without completing the steps of achieving it.  Artifice, with its artificiality and guile is needed.  Andy Warhol made seven hour movies just by putting people in front of a camera without any script or preparation.  Whereas, his painting or silk screens etc. are art forms as they shifted key parameter of artistry from representation to presentation.  However, films are different ball game and his antics in the area remain dubious.

Coming back to Bertolucci, he never compromises with the artifice of his lush movie making.  He is out to touch your heart with an elaborate stratagem of beauty and a despair, which is achieved through abundance rather than minimalism.

Bertolucci deploys his supreme mastery over his art not to control his actors.  Kindly note this is important to achieve the realism mentioned above.  Total spontaneity of a Warhol or Norman Mailer movies will come out as stranded misfires devoid of the propulsion of beauty and inspiration.  Too controlled, Hitchcokian approach will end up producing pornography in Bertolucci set up.  Bertolucci is conducive for improvisation.  His elaborate artifice does not block discovery.  His script, story board, camera moves, dialogues, actors cue all are planned in great details but always change.  He creates a structure then embarks on a voyage of discovery along with his actors, cinematographers and other crew.  He is guiding the movie and at the same time his actors and crew making him discover the movie.  Something that makes movies the art form that they are.  This mixture of artifice and improvisation is what that saves Bertolucci when he chooses the fraught world of sex films as his métier.

Last Tango in Paris-A Movie Breakthrough

Last Tango in Paris is a controversial and divisive piece of art. Perhaps, in the most famous review ever written, Pauline Kael said “The movie breakthrough has finally come..,it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made…Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that.”  The Last Tango in Paris may not have resulted in the revolution that Kael was hoping but she was, as usual, very perceptive about the merits of the masterpiece.

She has beautifully elaborated on the Bertolucci’s ability to create elaborate structure for improvisation.  “It is not just Brando improvising it is Brando improvising as Paul (his character)… When Brando improvises within Bertolucci’s structure, his full art is realized” Pauline Kael continues “The excitement of Brando’s performance here is in the revelation of how creative screen acting can be……At a more complex level he helps Bertolucci discover the movie in the process of shooting it, and that’s what makes movie making an art.”

Last Tango in Paris is a story of middle aged American Paul in Paris, who is grieving for his wife, who committed suicide on the day we meet him.  He meets a young Parisian girl during an apartment hunting and he forces himself on her and she goes along his overtures on an unadorned, sometimes brutal sexual journey.  Jeanne, the young girl, nonchalantly surrenders to the torrent of raw sexuality that Paul unleashes.  He rents the flat and they meet there for three days.  We get to see their lives separate from each other.  Paul at the hotel that his wife owned, Jeanne with her mother and her insipid film maker fiancé, who is inanely making a film of the days that will eventually lead to their marriage.  In the flat “he pushes his morose, romantic insanity to its limits; he burns through the sickness that his wife’s suicide has brought on.”   Great Roger Ebert hits the nail when he writes “He (Paul) is a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help -- and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality.”

I will continue with the resonating prose of Ebert for some length.  “There is no attempt to heighten the emotions. The sex is joyless and efficient, and beside the point: Whatever the reasons these two people have for what they do with one another, sensual pleasure is not one of them. Brando, who can be the most mannered of actors, is here often affectless. He talks, he observes, he states things. He allows himself bursts of anger and that remarkable outpouring of grief, and then at the end he is wonderful in the way he lets all of the air out of Paul's character by turning commonplace with the speech where he says he likes her. The moment is wonderful because it releases the tension, it shows what was happening in that apartment, and we can feel the difference when it stops."  Commenting on the sex in the movie Ebert wrote “Paul has somehow been so brutalized by life that there are only a few ways he can still feel. Sex is one of them, but only if it is debased and depraved -- because he is so filled with guilt and self-hate that he chooses these most intimate of activities to hurt himself beyond all possibilities of mere thoughts and words.”

The film gets its texture from Bertolucci’s unbiased intelligence, eccentric construction and details of Marlon Brando acting that work as ‘counter balance to Bertolucci’s taste for pure psychological essence’.  Ebert was almost dripping with reverence when he wrote “It's a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?”

Brando and Bertolucci achieved a distillation of characterisation.  Resonance of the characters with the emotions sought to be depicted was so pure that a sublime unity of cinematic soul was achieved. In that moment of pure filmmaking, need for frills and flourishes vanished.  What was happening on the screen was hyper real and yet full of pure art.

Youth, Sex, Movies and Dreams

While Last Tango in Paris dwells on despair and sickening brutality of sex, The Dreamers inhabits the opposing pole.  Here sex is disturbing due to strong incestuous overtones but it is festive and almost celebratory in its impact.  It acts both as a background and a theme.  This is story of American exchange student in Paris in 1968 during the civil unrest that erupted in the wake of government firing of Henri Langlois the founder and director of Cinematheque Francaise. 

The student Matthew (Michael Pitt who is devoted to movies and a life of letters and ideas) is invited by the twins, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabella (Eva Green in a stunningly bold debut). His stay with the twin becomes a journey of sexual discovery and how a youthful exploration can shape life.  Mind you, this is not just any youthful exploration. It was unique to be young in 1968 Paris- A heady cocktail of youthful optimism, when a pioneering cinema official could become centre of a genuine public upheaval. 

The three 20 year olds created an idyllic world in their apartment when streets were burning.  Bertolucci’s painterly camera created a beautiful environ supplemented by strikingly beautiful bodies of the young characters.  The youngsters indulged in their passions of ideas, sex and movies with ‘unguarded sincerity’, which in today’s philistine and prosaic time will be easy to ‘patronize or to mock’. 

Best review to The Dreamer came from A.O. Scott of New York Times, who lauded Bertolucci for his refusal to ‘scold and satirize the idealism of an earlier generation’.  Scott wrote ‘Bertolucci revels in their unselfconscious intensity, gazing affectionately at these children, who speak solemnly of ‘Cinema’, who quote Andre Bazin with reverence and for who the movies, far from being an escape from the world, are means to entry into it’.  Wow!

Matthew while maintaining his outsider/observer status goes along with the ideas fuelled kinky psychosexual sadism.  A romantic belief that free sex and great movies will free the mankind is displayed and is accepted by Bertoucci with everyday nonchalant indulgence.   Matthew is intrigued and aroused by Theo and Isabelle’s gothic but posh sensibilities but he is convinced that all that is not for him.  Finally, he did balk at the extremity of their vision and walks in the opposite directions whereas twins rush to embrace the raging revolution. 

Getting back to Scott and main theme of this article.  Scott declares, rightly, that sex in ‘The Dreamers’ is more explicit than Last Tango in Paris.  As opposed to the oppressive and punishing sex of the Last Tango in Paris, The Dreamers is youthful, hence infused with the joy of discovery.  Scott writes, “There is an almost Edenic quality to the nakedness, which is not to say that the film's treatment of sexuality is altogether innocent…But it is hard to imagine a voyeur more benevolent than Mr. Bertolucci, whose eager scrutiny of the eros of the young is.. less a matter of prurience than of an honest, nostalgic appreciation of natural human vitality. And the director, unfailingly generous in his refusal to embarrass his characters, is equally generous in sharing his sensual enthusiasm with the audience.”

In both The Dreamers and last Tango in Paris, we are so enthralled by the atmosphere of the secluded apartments that we stop noticing the oddity, joy and sickness of it all, Bertolucci realizes that and ends his movie with a clear rupture from the idyll to reality.  In Tango, mysterious stranger with raw and honest emotions becomes commonplace with his attempt to interact normally with Jeanne, object of his ravaging sexual therapy of grief.  We are jolted but Bertolucci keeps the pay off intact by killing off Paul in a stunning mesmerizing finale.  Brando, an absorbing study in self degeneration, sealed his place as one of the greatest actors of all times.  Similarly, in The Dreamers, the idyll is broken by arrival of parents of the twin and, more jarringly, by a brick through the glass pane.  Bertolucci manages to jolt us out again from the reverie of sexual discovery and marathon idea sessions.  Pay off doesn’t get sacrificed as ending takes the flow forward and final choices are clearly underlined by the caution and madness that ran all through the movie.

There is no better way of ending this than a quote of Bertolucci used by Peter Travers in his tribute to the auteur in Rolling Stone, “I think – how do I put it? – that the word is texture.  You know, how a movie feels when you hold it in your head and run it through all your life experience.  So there is depth to it.  And politics. And sex. And if you are lucky, may be magic.”  With Bernardo Bertolucci we have been mostly lucky. 

 - Dhiraj Singh