by carl wilson

Encounters at the Edge of Possibility


I don't want to add too much to the verbiage of the past day - I did enough of that on Facebook. Obama chose wisely by going short, recognizing that the potency of the lived moment was, to some degree, beyond words. He could have stuck with a haiku. ("Dad was refused lunch/ Now his son is president/ Childish things, farewell.") Musically, John Williams could have been far worse - there was dissonance! Yo Yo Ma looked so "Yo yo yo!" - and Aretha's artistry overcame the weakness of her aging instrument unforgettably. (I was nervous for her.)

Two or three times I heard TV and radio commentators mis-speaking and claiming Aretha sang "America the Beautiful" rather than "My Country Tis of Thee." One could riff on that mistake for a while, but at the least it seems like a real deafness to how much she was reworking it as a freedom song, referencing Martin Luther King Jr's use of it in the Dream speech (a speech I was glad Obama avoided echoing in his address, especially after Feinstein and Warren [ugh] both did it), as well as Obama's past references to it and most of all Marion Anderson's singing it at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her do so at their indoor gathering. It felt like the broadcasters were confusing Aretha with Ray Charles - "oh, some soul singer does a jazzy version of a patriotic song."

Elizabeth Alexander's poem was unfortunately more prosaic than both Obama's prose and Joseph Lowery's funk, and made worse by her "poetry voice" delivery. But the occasional-poem commission is a tough gig. She should have read something already composed that would be appropriate - the way Robert Frost spontaneously, instinctively did in 1961, switching from his poem for JFK in midstream to "The Gift Outright."

Later in the night, tired of cable coverage but not of reality, I watched Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, his doc about scientist-travelers in Antarctica. Besides how much it put the day into perspective (oh yeah, extinction of the human race, right), and how humbling it was, a few further observations: First, the under-ice calls of seals sound like Pink Floyd (as one researcher observed) and like trance techno, not like an animal; anyone into sound should see it for that reason alone. Second, I had no idea that Henry Kaiser, the California-based improv/blues/world/rock guitarist, was also an expert cold-sea diver - he produced the documentary and is fleetingly seen playing music with one of the scientists, but is otherwise way in the background; I knew that he was a world traveller but this is a new angle.

Third and most of all, though, Herzog keeps putting intrusive atmospheric electronic and choral music on the underseas and volcanic-chamber sequences, which really detracted from a film where the most compelling aural aspect is the notion of silence. As a visual person, he might not have realized how invasive it would be for people who are more led by their ears - I could barely see the jellyfish and weird mollusks and ice-shelf footage for all the Bulgarian Choir noise. Eventually I started turning the music down to almost-inaudible so I could finally appreciate the visuals. It felt like a case-study problem in sensory-intensity diversity. It's an extreme case but I started to wonder if it indicated a basic paradox in soundtrack reception.

All that said it's a great film. Just ease the sound down in between the interviews and voiceovers.

And O, it was a blissful day. Big embraces to our American cousins.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 21 at 2:48 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



And oh, yes, that Alexander poem was unfortunate, though I thought Jon Stewart and other's attacks on it were lousy and cheap.

I've been proselytizing on behalf of this poem Derek Walcott wrote just after the election. You can see him read it (in a pleasingly non "poetry" voice) at

Derek Walcott
Forty Acres
Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving —
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked
forty acres wide, of crows with predictable omens
that the young ploughman ignores for his unforgotten
cotton-haired ancestors, while lined on one branch, is
a tense
court of bespectacled owls and, on the field’s
receding rim —
a gesticulating scarecrow stamping with rage at him.
The small plough continues on this lined page
beyond the moaning ground, the lynching tree, the tornado’s
black vengeance,
and the young ploughman feels the change in his veins,
heart, muscles, tendons,
till the land lies open like a flag as dawn’s sure
light streaks the field and furrows wait for the sower.

Posted by jks on January 23, 2009 3:17 PM



I adored the Bulgarian choir noise you complain about, gave me excellent shivers. I think the choir makes some sense--filling that terrible silence is in line with Herzog's interesting distrust, almost a wonder bordering on disgust, for the natural world. His use of music always seems a bit hit and miss, though. I thought the score to Grizzly Man was pretty bad, actually, and the "making of" doc. is really cool, but also shows that Herzog turned some rather interesting ideas from some incredible musicians into some fairly boring music. But then again, whatever, far as I'm concerned Werner Herzog is allowed to do whatever he pleases. Long may he film.

Posted by jks on January 23, 2009 2:59 PM



I too was blissed out by the inauguration of Barack Obama (surprizingly, not everyone who watched feels the same). Was delighted with the fabulous women, starting with Michelle Obama, then Diane Feinstein who was masterful in her role, and Aretha Franklin's great jazz version of an old "chestntut". Agree that the poem was a bit dry but hey, Barack's message expressed both pragmatism and inspiration so it may have been fitting to be prosaic. Was struck by the uniformly white faces of the powerful people who walked down the hall and onto the steps; not until the Obama group was there a different face. It is about time! The speech of course, was the highlight; each word, phrase and innuendo gladdened my heart. Noted that "nonbelievers" actually exist! Finally, I loved the "benediction" by Rev. Lowery - he almost stole the show, and his humour was much needed.

Spectacle and inspiration, balanced by a message of good sense, and are just what we, not just Americans needed.

Posted by Colette Wilson on January 22, 2009 11:19 AM



My fave Herzog doc is one about music, actually. In Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995), he explores a haunted Italian village in search of the crazed but brilliant Renaissance composer/nobleman, Carlo Gesualdo. Weird events ensue in and around the crumbling ruins of his castle, some probably staged, others probably not. And over all of it, Herzog blares Gesualdo's dissonant, beautiful, almost Schoenbergian harmonies. Definitely see it if you haven't already.


Posted by marco on January 21, 2009 10:14 PM



Herzog has a habit of filling these intensely silent environments with gushes of sound. See Fata Morgana (1971) which is entirely composed of tracking shots of the Sahara Desert, accompanied with choral music and texts form the Mayan Popul Vuh. He called the film "a documentary shot by extraterrestrials from the Andromeda Nebula, and left behind." Supposedly the film was originally intended to be have a sci-fi narrative. (It's a bit of a blue print for his later Lessons of Darkness.)

He does a much better job with silence in the doc he made about Russian Orthodox mysticism, Bells from the Deep.

BTW, Kaiser also did the music for Grizzly Man. On the DVD there's a pretty interesting making-of doc about the soundtrack.

Posted by Christopher Frey on January 21, 2009 11:08 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson