Thursday, April 29, 2004

ELOQUENCE. I've been listening for the three hundredth time or so to Dylan's Slow Train Coming. One might imagine that, with all my harsh words for Jesus freaks, I wouldn't be into it at all. Not so. I have contempt for the idiotic, true, and a lot of Christer blather is worse than idiotic, incoherent, derivative, and absurd, however deeply it is felt.

But I appreciate anything eloquent, and old Bob is crystal clear and compelling in these songs. "How long can you falsify and deny what you feel?" he sings, and I have to listen and nod. "Sheiks walking around like kings," he roars, "wearing gold watches and nose rings/deciding America's future from Amsterdam and Paris," and I have to hear that, too, despite my predilections, so eloquently he does put it.

Dylan has been a star for about forty years. He knows something.

Part of what he knows, being an astute pop critic as well as a pop producer, is that he must help unreceptive listeners like me, too, not just converts, by defusing the political crud that has accrued to much modern J-freak talk ("Karl Marx has got you by the throat, and Henry Kissinger has got you tied into knots"). Note that he isn't betraying his cause here -- only a Ned Flanders would imagine that. He's just hunting where the ducks are. You win followers not by telling them how wrong they are, but how right they might be.

This leads me to one of my longtime semi-guilty pleasures, Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" at the Chicago Sun-Times site.

For a long time I considered Ebert, as Matt Groening did in his "Life in Hell" series, a "TV clown" with "nice sweaters." But Ebert has put in hard work over many years (did you know he co-wrote "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and "The Great Rock-and-Roll Swindle"?). And, unlike some longtime filmdom hangers-on, such as Rex Reed, Ebert has been serious about what he's doing throughout, and whatever you think about his contemporaneous reviews, his devotion to the art of film is obvious in these long essays on those movies that have excited his deepest interest.

Despite his exalted position as the go-to guy for late night talk show hosts seeking a telegenic movie reviewer, Ebert's "Great Movies" list is pretty idiosyncratic. There are expected choices (Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, The Searchers), some more adventuresome ones (JFK, Stroszek, Fall of the House of Usher), and some that seem either premature or plain crack-brained to me (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Body Heat). But Ebert makes a passionate and (that word again) eloquent case for each. He is as diligent about unearthing, unveiling, and explicating what he considers the sublimnities of Alien as of The Bicycle Thief.

Look at some of what he offers in defense of a film I have always liked but never remotely considered "great," Patton:
Scott's performance is not one-level but portrays a many-layered man who desires to appear one-level. Instead of adding tiresome behavioral touches, he allows us small glimpses of what may be going on inside. Having made a fetish of bravery, he obtains a dog that is terrified most of the time, and affectionately drags the cowardly beast wherever he goes...

The most famous scene is the first one, Patton mounting a stage to address his troops from in front of an American flag that fills the huge 70-mm screen. His speech is unapologetically bloodthirsty ("We will cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks"). His uniform and decorations, ribbons and medals, jodhpurs and riding boots and swagger stick fall just a hair short of what Groucho Marx might have worn. Scott's great nose could be the beak of an American Eagle. The closing shot is the other side of the coin, a graying and lonely old man, walking his dog. Even then, we suspect, Patton is acting. But does he know it?
Here Ebert does what critics from the time of Dryden has been supposed to do but only rarely achieve: make us re-examine something with which we have supposed ourselves familiar, to see the deep, deliberate craft and (sometimes) genius of which our pleasure is built. And that makes us more receptive to whatever new pleasures to which he might alert us

I know Ebert is well-publicized, but I have to believe that his staying power as America's favorite film critic is primarily sustained by his actual effort at his real job.

To get back to Christianity again, I have heard many of its advocates refer to Chesterton, for example, as a kind of private totem, not as a subject or even an object that those beyond their own little club might appreciate. I have read Chesterton's Father Brown stories with great pleasure and, as a former Catholic who is still attracted to Christian morality, I should think these guys would want to engage me, either as an apt target for conversion or as a good and intelligent person with whom to discuss the subject. Yet most of what I see from them is insular, self-directed back-patting. They gather in self-selected communities like Crosswalk, where they talk about coverting overseas Muslims while consigning their fellow citizens to hell.

This might also serve as a lesson to Democrats -- one that they are better situated to avail, given their widespread support and genuine connection with possible constituents. The job, as I see it, is not to "energize the base," as the repulsive modern term has it, but to explain the cause to the unconvinced. This does not, as some might think, require dumbing-down or misrepresentation, but unceasing labor at the task of making oneself clear.

This is not about spin -- this is about eloquence. If you believe what you're saying, and have an interest in communicating it to others, your task is not to sugar-coat or misdirect. Leave that wasteful, self-defeating work to the bastards you're running against. Tell the truth and, by assiduous application, make it shine. The victories, as Dylan and Ebert have shown, will come.

No comments:

Post a Comment