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November 15, 2013


I go to a lot of movies, a lot of movies. I usually know a reasonable amount about what I'm going to, but every now and then.... In 2009, I walked into the theater thinking I was going to a film about global water shortages. It was called Thirst, and I was convinced I had read that it was an excellent documentary. Instead it was Park Chan-wook’s film about a priest who volunteers to act as a guinea pig to find a cure for an epidemiological disease. The experiment seems to have miraculously worked until it is clear the infection has taken hold. A tainted blood transfusion saves him, but at the cost of turning him into a vampire with considerable carnal appetites. The movie devolves into gratuitous excess, even for a vampire movie. I like Park’s 2003 Oldboy, but Thirst spirals out of control. Or maybe it's just that if one walks in expecting a documentary, and one gets Park, one's reception is bound to be off.

This year it was a horse of a different color.

I am a fan of concert films, the greatest of all being Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978). The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound (1966), Don't Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), Gimme Shelter, Let It Be, Woodstock (1970), Fillmore (1971), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones (1974), Stop Making Sense (1984), Rattle and Hum (1988), Bridges to Babylon (1998), Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Heart of Gold (2004) and Neil Young: Journeys (2011), I'm Your Man (2005), Shine a Light (2008)....

The list gives a sense of my taste, so I was not prepared to like End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003), Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006), or Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011), but I did. I liked them very much.

So a movie pops up for which there have been no trailers to my knowledge, and all I know is that it is a concert film. It's called One Direction: This Is Us, and I go. I did not know that One Direction is the name of the band, much less what kind of band it is.

As I walk in, I'm a little uncomfortable because the only people there are pre-teen and teen girls. No boys, and the only adults I see are one couple who has brought their three little girls, and a dad who has brought two little girls. And then there is 60-year-old me. I had paid for the ticket, the theater was filling up, so I decided to experience it as a cultural exercise.

For those like myself who have no clue as to who/what One Direction is, it is a British-Irish boy band. Ranging in age from 19-21, they are the brainchild of Simon Cowell, a judge on The X Factor, who, after listening to each lad audition individually, thought to package them as a group. "Package" is the operative word. They are a prepackaged commodity with a prepackaged sound, doing prepackaged choreography on a prepackaged tour. Each is winsome in his own way, but it is all packaging and no substance. The fact that they admit that this is a short chapter in their lives is actually rather endearing, and none is intent on pursuing a lifelong career in music.

I have tried to figure out why there is no  mainstream music being made any more that I have an interest in. GE Focus Forward 3-minute films sometimes precede the trailers at my indie/foreign film theater. One is called "The Auto-Tune Effect." It's about pitch-modulation audio software, which the film describes as the audio equivalent of Photoshop, and if the interviewees are correct, and I have no reason to doubt  them, it is ubiquitous. That may be the answer I've been looking for.

I have a friend who is a committed plein air painter. En plein air means "in the open air" and refers to the practice of painting landscapes outdoors from life. In 1841 a portrait painter, one John Goffe Rand, invented the paint tube. That may not sound like much, but it transformed the way painters work. Before the paint tube, preparing paints meant grinding pigments and mixing them with linseed oil, then hauling the resultant tints around on horseback in pig's bladders. This made painting outside the studio if not prohibitive, cumbersome at the very least. The paint tube changed that. Rather than sketching out of doors, coming back to the (often badly lit) studio, enlarging the sketch in transferring it to canvas, and painting with those painstakingly prepared paints, painters could easily paint outdoors in the open air. This, along with the concurrent development of photography, had much to do with the rise of Impressionism.

With the camera to record representational images and the paint tube providing a convenient means to paint in real time, so to speak, artists began to move away from the subjects of traditional studio painting -- the monumental themes of war, mythology and religion; portraiture as a record of status and position; static still lifes. They began instead to explore scenes of domesticity and urban sights of regular people doing regular things in ordinary places. They could also paint directly from nature, where light changes with moving clouds and the time of day, and breezes flutter leaves and flowers and drying laundry. Suddenly what the artist sees is not static, and that is very much a part of the Impressionist aesthetic. The ideal became spontaneity and an emphasis on the play of light and movement. A studio model cannot sit perfectly still, so even portraits took on a sense of movement in the hands of the Impressionists.

Music needs spontaneity, too. It needs voices that are imperfect and human and individual, not homogeneous and prepackaged. The boys in One Direction seem to be nice, sincere young lads, but just as CGI threatens to ruin the cinema, pitch-modulation software and prepackaged pop idols threaten to ruin music. Not that there won't always be rebels out there, it's just getting harder to hear them through the noise.

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