We went to an afternoon gathering in Sebastopol that was a Peacetown event, the first “1st-Sunday Love Fest” event imagined by the Mr. Music Foundation as what I hope will be a long-running series. Food, drink, camaraderie, and music. When we dropped in, the Indigo Jazz Band was filling the space with joyous sounds, and it felt really really good to be in that space and bouncing along. (One of the finest benefits of hip replacement is that eventually you can dance again.)
I marveled at the fact that the majority of people in the room were sitting down. I can’t sit down when things are rocking, just can’t do it. If I can’t stand up because the management would throw me out, I do what I can while nominally seated. I haven’t been ejected yet.
But it put me in mind of an epic concert I went to in New York, nearly twenty years ago, where Brave Combo opened for The Klezmatics at The Bottom Line. Our son Eli was going, and I joined in. I already knew and loved The Klezmatics, but was still ignorant of Brave Combo. Wow.
Brave Combo is completely turbocharged and makes a point of egging folks on, getting them to get up and MOVE. And move they did, copiously, and thereby broke some weird NY licensing law that prohibited such shenanigans in that establishment. I think it had to do, bottom line (pun intended), with wanting the waitresses to hustle drinks as fast as possible to the crowded little tables.
To me, there is something epically weird about hiring a musical group whose essential genius is making it impossible to refrain from dancing, unleash them, and then attempt to stifle the response. It was, actually, kind of hilarious. I have since had the good fortune to see BC in various locations, the most memorable of which (for me) was seeing them in Milwaukee, where they got a whole lotta folks of advanced age up there, polka-ing their asses off, grinning from ear to ear.
And the Klezmatics then came on and made ass-wiggling unavoidable.
Let’s hear it for music that makes you move.
Endings are tricky, whether in real life or in storytelling. In reality, I haven’t been required to cope with the heavy ones—divorce, bankruptcy, the idea of my own death. Shutting down has always been just one part of moving on. In the telling of stories, whether in theatre, movies, fiction, or Krazy Kat cartoons, you craft your own ending: a dubious privilege. Makes me think of the guy trying to choose his best mode of suicide.
Traditional endings had the grace of the ten-days-six-countries guided tour: you knew where you were going, and the fun was in the journey. The marriage, the escape, the cracking the case, the cheering throng—or else the corpse-strewn stage, the desolate ex-lovers, the old man returning to harbor with only the bones of his fish. We’ve taken the ride, and now it’s done. If you don’t like it, blame it on God.
These days we’re on swampier ground. Mixed emotions are nothing new: Shylock tears our hearts while wedding plans go forward. But today, I think, an Ibsen writing A Doll’s House wouldn’t end with Nora slamming the door. We’d see her standing in the hallway wondering what the hell she’d just done, then picking up her valise and starting the walk down the street into the rest of her life—and she wouldn’t have a clue.
Of course, endings have never required a final life’s verdict, a ultimate decision by St. Peter at the Gate. (For that matter, Peter’s powers of judgment, as chronicled in the Gospels, were never too great.) All that’s really needed for a sense of unity is that the “dramatic question” at the outset is answered by the end. Genre fiction—spies, action, romance, etc.—usually still gives us concrete winner-loser endings. Even with moral ambiguity, e.g. LeCarre’s novels, the end is the end is the end. Today, though, in many stories, the dramatic arc goes like a query written in Spanish: an inverted question mark at the start, a question mark at the end.
This comes to mind after seeing Salesman, the beautifully crafted Iranian film that starts with an engaging young couple in the panic of an imminent building collapse, turns painful, flips abruptly, ends with the two staring at each other as makeup is being applied—they’re actors. What’s happened? A serious crack in their bond, paralleling the first crack in their apartment wall.
It’s a beautiful film, and I can’t fault it for moment-by-moment truth. For me, though, something is left incomplete. Perhaps it’s my own life experience mirrored in that ending: preparing to go onstage with your mate in the midst of an unresolved crisis. A snapshot of either of us at that moment would suggest a permanent rupture—My God, it’s come to this!—but it’s never worked that way. We’ve played the show, then worked out stuff if it needs working out, forgotten what needs forgetting. Not remotely a finish.
Story-makers now seem to fear taking the risk of ending a story. Surely we want to be truthful, and of course in reality there’s never an ending—so better, we feel, to make it ambiguous, to make our stories indistinguishable from reality, to deflect attention to the doggie at the fireplug as Nora goes trudging past.
No question that the distinction between news and entertainment, between fiction and reality, is being blurred, but is that a good idea? Surely we want truth at the core, even of our fantasies. Yet I feel only a concrete ending can convey a vision—whether happy, sad, fantastic or realistic—that’s lost if the teller opts to fray the tip of the shoelace. Sometimes—risking yet another mixed metaphor—we need to risk putting our chips on the table.