Tonight, I went to see what turned out to be a mediocre documentary called Blues Divas at a movie theater. The movie was part of the program for the local independent film festival, so the audience had to endure spiels for money and self-congratulatory speeches before the movie. Just before all the humdrum, however, there was an inspired grace note that made everything worthwhile.
I walked into the auditorium to the sound of a snapping snare drum and slinky, sliding harmonica. Sure enough, right below the screen, there was a live blues quartet playing. Lucille and the Delta Tornados, to be precise. Lucille couldn’t really sing—her voice is thin and her enunciation is too practiced for this music—but she played a mean slide guitar. The bassist, in dreads and a glittery black blouse, bounced along beside her, eyes closed in satisfaction or exhaustion. The harp player was excellent, and he sang with a commanding growl. The drummer was having a ball.
And I was standing there, buttered popcorn in hand. The auditorium is half-full with middle-aged white women quietly tapping their feet and young hipsters poring over the film program. The one black woman in the audience was hollering and clapping her hands, as joyful as the black folks “onstage.”
The whole thing made me think of the beginning of a Terry Teachout essay on playwright David Ives: “Every work of art is a world unto itself, governed by its own rigorous laws. Usually these laws are familiar ones (gravity) or simulations of familiar ones (perspective). When they’re wholly unfamiliar, you get atonal music or Finnegans Wake. But what happens when all the laws are familiar, save one? Then you’ve wandered into the parallel universe of surrealism.”
But now, typing the quote, which I only half-remembered during at the theater, I’m thinking that the whole thing—a random blues band playing in a regular movie theater full of cultured scenesters who aren’t dancing—wouldn’t be so odd for a moviegoer in the 1910s or 1920s. Silent films featured live musical accompaniment, and vaudeville performance was at one time expected before the movie started. (This makes sense: Movies were often shown in vaudeville theaters, and starred ex-vaudeville actors.) The one law that got broken tonight—no live music of any kind before or after the movie—wouldn’t have been in place 90 years ago. Beyond the fact that the room was desegregated, the whole scene wouldn’t have been surreal at all to Buster Keaton or his fans. Times change.
Indeed, they do. I can’t get away from the Michael Jackson trial, no matter how hard I try. Leaving aside the whole question of whether the Moonwalker is a pedophile, let’s at least acknowledge how strange he should be to us. Twenty years ago, his skin tone was a deep, luxuriant brown, and he sported a nice Jheri Curl. (A decade before that, it was a ‘fro.) He was recognizably human-looking. Now, he’s an albino freakshow. Although nobody considers the man normal, he’s a punchline more than anything else—nothing to be alarmed by, or freaked out about. That same 1920s moviegoer who took loud music at the movies so nonchalantly would be horrified by the spectacle of Jackson, not least of which the fact that he seems to have literally passed from black to white. He’d fit right into Un Chien Andalou. But we take him for granted.
Surreality is at my fingertips—just turn on the daily news—but I only felt it recently at a performance of the most natural, downhome, emotive music available in my state. How weird is that?