Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Shining Simplicity"

You see these singing talent shows on network TV, or, as I do, you pass them by, looking for a program not premised on shattering ordinary Americans’ hopes and dreams.

“You have an unlimited future as a singer… until the next round when there’s somebody better than you and then you’re back to your dreary, miserable life.”

I am not personally enamored of such (bloodless but, to me, lacerating) gladiatorial entertainment, although their success in the ratings suggests millions of other viewers are.  Maybe it’s about watching obscure, talented people getting their “Big Chance.”  Or maybe it’s witnessing people’s lifelong ambitions getting trampled in the dust and being happy and relieved it’s not them.  Too cynical?  Sometimes, I have trouble delineating the border. 

Anyway… and my apologies if it was…

As I momentarily land on those shows, I invariably hear what I identify as a singing style popularized by… well, the quintessential version of that style of singing is the gut-wrenching Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” showstopper from Dreamgirls.

Loud.  Technically formidable.  And prodigiously histrionic.

It’s not that I dislike that approach.  Like everything else, if successfully executed, I’m there.  The thing is, the contestants performing in that style – pouring out their hearts, straddling three-and-a-half octaves – it’s like nuclear missiles – they are literally impossible to withstand.

What bugs me is the prevailing certainty in our culture that “bigger” is inevitably “better.”  Quiet and evocative?  Not a chance.  At least not in the “Singing Contest” arena.   Think about it.  Would James Taylor ever have found victory on The Voice?

“I’m not trying to jerk your chain here, Jimmy, but if you wanna make it in this business you’re going to have to stop singing like you’re performing a one-man concert for yourself in your bedroom.  Let it out, man!”

I don’t know, maybe that’s just my aesthetical preference – disarmingly skillful over glitzily bombastic.  The eye-popping “Big Rock” is impressive.  But give me the small, perfectly cut diamond.

You want to hear an embarrassing confession?  When I was a kid – seven or eight years old – my “fantasy” nickname for myself was “Ever-Single.”

(My face just turned red.  That has, until now, remained a deep-down personal secret.)

My youthful imaginary hero – surrogate for me – was a ballplayer, renowned and respected, not for slamming prodigious “moon shots” out of the ballpark but as an unstoppable “Hitting Machine”, cracking sharply-stroked “singles” in every direction on the field.  00

Every time I came up to the plate. 

My base knocks never once cleared the fences.  But I batted an unprecedentedly perfect “1,000” for my career.

Maybe that’s why I warm to unpretentious but impeccably executed little movies like Fatima (2015, although I just saw it last week.)

A divorced housecleaner mother, transplanted from Algeria to France, drives herself tirelessly, to provide for her overstressed “Med”-school student older daughter and a rebellious teenaged daughter who berates her mother mercilessly for wearing a headscarf, speaking minimal French and scouring other people’s toilets for a living.

That’s it.  That’s the whole movie. 

A frumpy, middle-aged leading lady with uneven teeth.  Where would you see that in an American movie?  Other than Meryl Streep during “Oscars Season.” 

And they’d be prosthetic teeth!

And she’d get nominated for wearing them!

When does simplicity get its deserved “moment in the sun”?  In this country?  Never.  I have nothing inherently against “blockbusters.”  (Notwithstanding my youthful “Ever-Single” proclivities.)  It’s – like with those TV singing contests – the “obligatory necessity” I object to. 

The incessant bombardment by these (comparative) “home runs” becomes annoyingly tiresome after a while.  I can’t help wondering, what films of gentle charm and natural beauty are, because of the “blockbusters”, crowded out of the marketplace?  (Or never ordered in the first place.)

Fatima’s climactic scene finds the older daughter, gathered with dozens of her classmates, scanning the alphabetically-arranged list of names and accompanying exam grades posted on a bulletin board in the Medical School hallway, ultimately discovering that she passed. 

The film’s coda-like conclusion shows the indefatigable mother back in the Medical School hallway.  A small but shamefully jaded part of me anticipated a possible last-minute “reversal”, where she discovers the daughter actually failed her exam but had pretended she hadn’t, sparing her heavily invested mother the devastating letdown.

Nope, she passed. 

The film concludes “undramatically” – the mother, alone in the hallway, “kvelling” quietly at her girl’s admirable achievement.

The screen goes black.

Leaving at least one audience member “kvelling” quietly as well.

(Note:  Why did I give away the ending?  I probably shouldn’t have, in the unlikelihood of Fatima playing at a cinema near you.  My only excuse is that the essential charm of the movie – which I encourage you to experience – is its pervasive honesty, verisimilitude and simplicity, depending minimally if at all on its ultimate conclusion.

Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have given away the ending.)

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