Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paris Blues: The Aesthetic and the Oppressed in 1961

Ever since my daughter, Lila, was born four months ago I've been spending most mornings hanging out with her. She's good company but she sleeps a lot, which has led me — with the assistance of my faithful TiVo — to instigate the "Lila's Sleeping Film Festival," during which I lounge on the sofa sipping coffee and gawking at movies, mostly old ones. Today the featured presentation was Paris Blues, a 1961 flick with Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as American jazz men living in Paris, and Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll as tourists with whom they get involved. It's better than the early luke-warm reviews said it was, and not just because Louis Armstrong cameos and lays down some fine music. It's got a lot to say about the relationship of the aesthetic and the socially and culturally oppressed.

Newman plays Ram Bowen, a slightly too-clever reference to Rimbaud. He's a trombonist and club owner who wants to write ambitious music. Poiter's character is also a musician, and the arranger for his pal Ram Bowen. They hang, they play, they sweat the details of their music. Then some strangers come to town: Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll. Paris Blues actually starts out looking politcally bolder than it turns out to be. At first, it seems that Paul Newman's character is going to hook up with Diahann Carroll, but the inter-racial romance is just a tease: Newman soon pairs off with Joanne Woodward, while Sidney Poitier moves in on the achingly beautiful Carroll. We then get a lot of good jazz, a sub-plot with a gypsy junkie, and some nice montages of romance in Paris. Each of the musicians ends up having to choose between music in Paris and a return to the U.S. with the woman he loves.

What makes Paris Blues interesting are the asymmetries between the two men's dilemmas, asymmetries having everything to do with race. Newman's character faces a well-established choice between art, on the one hand, and love, domesticity, and respectability, on the other. The idea that these are incompatible things dates back to Romanticism: it was in the Romantic era that the idea of the isolated artist, driven by a demon within, came to the fore — in conjunction, one might add, with the disruption of the old aristocratic social order and the system of artistic patronage it supported. We came to the idea of the isolated artist when artists were without a clear social role. I suppose the idea that the artist needs to eschew domesticity in order to single-mindedly pursue art also has something to do with one of the roles art came to play over the course of the nineteenth century, a role once played by religion: the space for the unworldly. I mean, the celibate priest and the isolated hermit are cousins of the garret-dwelling poet and the anti-social genius artist. Each is in some way set apart from the merely worldly. (Was it Matthew Arnold who called art "spilt religion"? There's something to that, or there was in Arnold's time, though I've never liked the phrase: it implies that religion is the proper place for certain sentiments, rather than one place those sentiments happened to have resided. But I digress). (*UPDATE, July 3: Alex Davis writes in from Cork to point out that "spilt religion" is T E Hulme’s phrase, from “Romanticism and Classicism”).

Anyway. Ram Bowen must choose his art or love, in the form of Joanne Woodward, her two kids, and her big house back in small-town America. It's an agonizing choice for him, but he chooses art, saying "I gotta find out how far I can go. And I guess that means alone." The movie doesn't judge his choice: it seems neither good nor bad, but ambiguous. I'm glad for this: too often we see a kind of Bullets Over Broadway or even Mr. Holland's Opus moralism, in which good ole domesticity is, in the end, better than art, which is presented as self-indulgent. I always think of that sort of thing as audience-flattering, which is kind of a sin of cinema.

Poitier's character seems at first to face a similar choice, but race — specifically, the oppressed position of African-Americans, and the challenges they were making to that oppression in 1961 — changes everything. In an instance of psychological skin-privilege, the white guy, Newman, doesn't have to think about his whiteness, but the black guy sure as hell has to think about his blackness. Poitier's character tries hard not to think about race: in fact, he's gone to Paris to avoid thinking about race (or, as he puts it, "to be able to sit down to lunch without getting clubbed"). He's mostly made it work, too: the crowd shots in the jazz club where he plays show an integrated crowd of Caucasians, Arabs, Gypsies, Africans, and others, and Poitier's character almost never encounters any racist sentiment in Paris (significantly, though, at one point a French boy refers to him as "Monsieur Noir," which does indicate that he is perceived as other, even if he is not visibly oppressed). Diahann Carroll's character is having none of this avoidance, though. She insists that Poitier's place is back in the states, with his people, fighting for change. She sees his life in Paris as pure escapism. So while Newman's character is choosing only between art and domesticity, Poitier's character has to choose between art, on the one hand, and a heady cocktail of respectable domesticity (Carroll's character is a schoolteacher and wants six kids), group loyalty, and social reform. He doesn't have the luxury of a mere art/life dichotomy: his dichotomy is art/life-race-reform-justice. The scales tip him toward the latter, and he heads back to the U.S.

It's sort of unusual to find social reform connected with domesticity and fertility and respectability, as they are for Poitier and Carroll. I mean, much of the literature of social change shows us how domesticity and respectability must be sacrificed for The Cause. Here, though, the cause is thoroughly respectable, indicating how, by the early sixites, Civil Rights had become a middle-class cause, and those who objected to it were seen as disreputable slugs. It was, among other things, a bourgeois reform movement at this point.

All this in itself would make for a complex enough pattern: the white guy free to pursue his own lonely genius, the black guy caught in a thicker web of conflicting desires. But there's more! Just as Poitier's oppressed or subaltern position in the race hierarchy complicates matters for him, so also does jazz's oppressed or subaltern position in the midcentury hierarchy of musical genres complicate Newman's situation.

It's easy to forget, from the vantage of postmodernism, how rigid and seemingly permanent the popular-culture/high-culture division once was — my students are often surprised by it when we do the history of literary theory. It's also possible, I suppose, to forget that jazz was, in fact, popular culture. I mean, it's thought of as art-music now, mostly. Anyway, Newman's character wants to become a serious artist, and for him this means winning the recognition of classical music mavens. While the movie takes the side of the oppressed in the race hierarchy, and makes the opposition to that hierarchy look comfortingly domestic and respectable, the movie doesn't question the hierarchy of music at all. When Newman meets with The Great Composer, he's told that he's gifted, and that a record company would be happy to release his music on a jazz album. But if he wants to be truly great — which he may or may not be capable of doing — he's got to ditch jazz and study classical composition, if only to incorporate it into jazz. So Newman's choice isn't just between art and love: it's also between loyalty to his jazz band, and to his own lonely quest for musical greatness. Again, he chooses the lonely genius of art.

In the end, Paris Blues is representative of a very particular moment in cultural history, a moment both radical and conservative. It was the moment when the Civil Rights movement became respectable, but when respectability was conceived as a kind of hetero-normative domesticity; a moment when the Romantic Genius stalked the earth in all his isolated, anti-social splendor, but also a moment when even such geniuses submitted without question to established cultural hierarchies. It couldn't be more 1961.