Over the holidays I parsed through a lot of film lists—particularly those incorporating the terms “best,” “film,” and “music,”—and film synopses. I was looking for the perfect fit (the perfect picture, you could say) to round out this year’s Ethics Film Series. The title, “Sound Beliefs: Music, Ethics, Identity,” plays with the idea that music can act as a space and as an action at and through which identity is contested, exchanged, and upheld.
But let me back up: One night recently, I found myself watching Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. I’ve been aware of the film for many years now, and aware that I’ve wanted to see it for just about as long. It took scrolling through a Criterion Collection thematic list—“Great Soundtracks”—to bring the film back into my consciousness. And now that it’s there, I can’t remove it—a thumping inkblot, raw and terrifying in its prescience. Lee’s neighborhood street in Bed-Stuy feels microcosmic: a full-spectrum look at the issues that recur for us 25 years later: racism, ignorance, gentrification, violence, competition, pride. (If you’ve seen the film and can identify the climax, you know exactly what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, there’s a particular sequence of scenes involving police brutality and a community response that mirrors events of late, and for which “intense” and “uncanny” feel like trite comparative classifiers). Something similar can be said, I think, about the image we glean of Olympia, Washington and the Pacific Northwest through Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, which profiles the musician Kathleen Hanna and her band, Bikini Kill. In Olympia in 1990 Hanna and her bandmates were working on a zine, also called Bikini Kill, about feminism and punk rock; at their shows Hanna would exclaim, “girls to the front!” as an affront to male-dominated music culture. 24 years later, some things have changed, some more ostensibly than others. Watching Lee’s and Anderson’s films felt at times like a punch in the gut and a call to call out the broken-record tendencies of our present times.
I wanted to talk and show films about music this year in part because I wanted to piggyback on last year’s theme, “The South,” by choosing a topic that feels—to me, at least—both tactile and deeply complex. I make this statement as someone with no formal training in music, but as someone who has approached music more or less formally, at different times, through literary study, arts journalism, and dance. And I make it as someone who often feels most present when immersed in live art. Throughout the almost six years that I’ve inhabited Duke and Durham, I’ve found safe and elated spaces in live music events, somewhere in the feedback loop between performer and audience, and increasingly in the space where that distinction is tested and blurred. (See a post I wrote around this time last year about another music-related film, Inside Llewyn Davis). I’ve also been in musical spaces where I feel uncomfortable, as a woman; others where I notice, and then can’t stop noticing, that most people in the audience share my skin color. These are not, at least at face-value, condemnations, but they are realizations that happened because I was there in the first place. And I was there presumably because I liked, or thought I’d like, the music.
And yet I frequently find myself in musical spaces where I’m unfamiliar with the language in which the lyrics are voiced, or unfamiliar with the musical language itself, and find myself moving and compelled nonetheless. I use the phrase “find myself” here intentionally because I think the physical response is subterranean and visceral. I start to envision a feedback loop between emotional affect and the structure of sound: it’s fuzzy, and almost wacky, but there’s a pulse there.
I imbue art, and in this case music, with a hopefulness for a better world, and that hopefulness probably looks like a fusion of Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language and Radio Raheem’s iconic Love/Hate speech in Do the Right Thing. In other words, like music and like art, it’s not static; it’s nuanced, and tends toward the full-spectrum, so it’s not often easily digestible.
In a similar way, selecting the “perfect picture” or the perfect film series isn’t possible, exactly, but I’ve chosen four films that look to complicate these themes, to place us in, at once, the collective and the individual and idiosyncratic. I hope they offer a spectrum of sound and stories.