Carlo Rotella, Charles Farrell and James Parker
Carlo Rotella: Part of my faith in genre—part of why I find genre fiction more rewarding than literary fiction, and genre movies more rewarding than art movies—is that I believe genre is a deep well of language and gesture and other moves that allow you to express just about anything. So, to follow James’s model, an idea or an emotion in the universe is trying to express itself, and somebody figures out a way to make a Western or a romcom or a barroom weeper or a landscape painting or whatever so that idea can express itself. I think that’s more likely than someone invents some new form so that idea can express itself. We’ve got these tools, and the resources that the genre brings you are deeper than the resources that almost any single author could bring, especially to figuring out some totally new form in order to express her feelings. The question is whether we need somebody sitting down at the piano and doing something nobody’s ever done before—that’s one model—or can we go back to genre to get the equipment to open a portal for an idea that’s floating around in the ether, waiting to be born? Or does going back to the genre well inhibit the ability to say something new? What’s that idea’s or that feeling’s path to being born? Somebody has to make up a new way of doing things, or somebody can take some way we’ve already got that’s supple and flexible and deep, and use it to give this idea a pathway to enter the world.
James Parker: One ultimate problem with making it new is that it may be completely unrecognizable. It would have no context if it was truly, genuinely, mind-shatteringly new. And you wouldn’t be able to digest it at all.
CR: But that might be the purest expression of this idea that’s looking for a way to be born, right?
JP: In the Book of Job there’s this terrible bet between God and the devil. God is basically boasting: Look at Job, look at this great guy! He’s the best man, he thinks I’m fantastic! And the devil says, Well, I bet if you treat him badly enough he’ll curse you to your face. And God goes, Ah, you try. So the devil goes and afflicts him, and his children die, he gets open sores, sits in a dung hill, his wife is disgusted by him, and finally he curses the day he was born, he curses the whole of his existence. And God’s response is shockingly new. God’s response is just to stand on the effects pedal and shout at Job, Did you do this? Why were you . . . ? [incomprehensible noise]. Mind-shattering. There’s not a moral to it. There’s no theory to it. It’s pure, unmitigated experience. That current is always coming at us in one way or another. So how do we manage it? That’s the impulse to make it new itself.
CR: When Charles says, We have to think of a new way to do this, I hear [incomprehensible noise that God made]. And my instinct is to go in the opposite direction, more like, Which of our preexisting Lego pieces can I use to fit together to make this thing that wants to be made?
Charles Farrell: Well, I think that innovators always make obsolete their own creation. To me, if something is stated once, the only way you can use it at that point is to add it to language. But it cannot be recreated. It has no value if it’s recreated. So, if you can do it, you’ve done nothing. If you can technically improve on it, you’ve got nothing. You’re missing the point.
CR: So what would be getting the point?
CF: There are two ways, I think, to get the point. One is that you understand that this is now part of language—this we can use. So you’ve extended your vocabulary. That’s fair; it’s workable. And then there’s also the message. What is this person trying to tell me? And how can I incorporate what I’m being told? And this is separate from technique. And again, that’s something that goes on, that doesn’t stop.
CR: Okay, I can see that that’s the way John Coltrane, for instance, worked on a lot of people in other art forms. A lot of writers said, I listened to Coltrane and I realized you could touch on that same message, that set of meanings, as a writer. You see what I’m saying? They’re trying to make portable the meaning of the technical innovation, not just trying to find a writerly analogue for the musical breakthrough.
JP: They’re trying to assimilate the existential stamp. [James would like the record to show that he now has no idea what he meant by this.]
CR: Whatever that is, that feeling, I think you could also get there with words. So, what happens when that thing that is new, that molten stuff, finds its way down into genre, either by finding its way into preexisting genres or by way of a new genre, which is essentially created in its image? Can it still mean what it meant, and then can it also be available to others, if it finds its way into genre?
CF: It can. But the established form that it finds its way into probably won’t carry the same meaning.
CR: So if jazz guys are listening to Coltrane, and trying to incorporate some of his moves into their fairly genre-bound work, isn’t that following the spirit of the innovation? Rather than just trying to copy it?
CF: What you ask there is: Can we extend the original impulse at all?
CR: Can we take the new stuff and incorporate it into our idea of playing it right? I write profiles for magazines, and let’s say I read a work of fiction that tells me something I didn’t know, changes how I think about writing. And I think, Can I do some of that in the profiles I write? And I turn this into a craft problem that I can solve. Maybe I need a new kind of lead or something. It’s like I’ve heard Coltrane and, even though I play this other kind of music, can I do something so that some of whatever’s trying to express itself through Coltrane expresses itself through what I do, even though what I do is play it right in some other form? I think that happens all the time. People who are much more bound by genre, more bound by a canon and an orthodoxy, hear something and it blows their mind, and they say, I’d like to do some of that somehow. Like, I write country songs, but I heard whoever—Joni Mitchell, say—and now I want to somehow get some of that feeling. How do we fit that into our dynamic?
CF: I think they’re doing something new if they’re doing that. Again, they’re taking vocabulary—
CR: That’s what I’m saying. They’re turning it into language—
CF: And they’re doing something new. Take Chris Whitley. You know Chris Whitley? Okay, Chris Whitley doing blues. Great guitarist, great vocalist. I think he’s doing something new, although he’s deeply indebted to the blues language that has existed for a hundred years.
JP: The market is worth thinking about.
CR: Yes, it’s a crucial part of the historical conditions component. Take film, which costs so much money to make. I think that’s why I treasure crazy-ass, badly made Hollywood films. I mean, I am happy to enjoy a smoothly executed Michael Curtiz movie, the genius of the Hollywood system and all that, but I like a crazy-ass bad movie just as much or more.
JP: How’d they manage to do this?
CR: Yeah, how’d they manage to get that past the gatekeepers? Stiff dialogue, weirdly improvised dialogue, bad special effects—often, that’s the best part of the whole thing for me. And there’s nothing more dispiriting than a well-wrought action movie. Say, John Wick 3. Suicidally depressing.
JP: What stops that from being enjoyable as genre? Can you not appreciate it as They’ve done this thing exactly right?
CR: That’s a good question because it challenges me to be systematic and not just dislike one thing and like another. Part of the answer is that I don’t think much of the way they do it right. I think the action’s boring and unimaginative and cruel for one thing, whereas if I see a Hong Kong movie that cost 1/100th to make but Yuen Woo-ping choreographed the action, I’m like, Oh, they really did that right. That was very satisfying, and kind of formally joyous.
CF: Is it possible that with a movie like John Wick, that’s done right—I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know—the market demands for what would be considered done right are so vulgar and so horrifying that doing it right, doing a big-budget film right, requires so many terrible things that you’re going to make a horrible movie.
CR: That might well be one of the secret code items I’m looking for. The more money it takes to do that thing, the more money riding on doing it right, the more I tend to value doing it wrong. So, I really like it in big-time professional team sports when somebody does it wrong, when somebody’s freaky and weird and they just play the game wrong, because I’m so tired of the well-funded, well-wrought normal way of doing things. Whereas that band playing at the Station Inn, we’re at the far edge of the market, way down there. They just need forty people to show up and pay a cover charge.
JP: So okay, who are you making it new or playing it right for? If you’re making it new in front of forty thousand people, that’s quite something.
CF: You know, to play it right at that really highly monetized level, you’re answerable to so many people by the time it’s done right that it’s almost impossible to make something of value.
CR: Of value by what standard?
JP: If you’re playing it right in front of forty thousand people, you’re just behaving yourself.
CR: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
JP: It’s a bad thing, I think.
CR: I’m okay with behaving myself.
CF: It depends who’s asking you to behave yourself. If the industry’s asking you to behave yourself, and you’re behaving yourself—
CR: A fair point. That would gall me. But I don’t think of it in terms of the size of audience; I think about it in terms of how much money it costs. The more money it costs, the more dispiriting I am likely to find doing it right, basically. And the cheaper it is, the more satisfying I find doing it right. I find it stirring if a bunch of amateur musicians get together at somebody’s house and manage to play a Bakersfield tune.
CF: Me, too.
CR: That pushes all necessary buttons for me. I recognize that there are endless inconsistencies in how that works for me. I mean, for instance, being satisfied by a Western done right but having no use for an action movie done right, even though action movies clearly descend from Westerns. Or enjoying Michael Curtiz’s version of top-dollar Hollywood style but not Michael Bay’s. Or being equally bummed out by competent action movies that cost a zillion dollars to produce and competent literary novels that cost almost nothing at all to produce. Or loving the competent literary novels of previous eras but not the present. All that opens me to the charge that there’s no system to my thinking on this subject other than perverse personal inclination, or that the system’s so arcane and complex that it’s a mystery to me and anyone else who tries to figure it out. I wonder if everybody’s like that, or it’s just me.
Charles Farrell has spent his professional life moving between music and boxing, with occasional detours. His book (Lowlife): A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, and The Mob, will be published in July, 2020.
James Parker is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the editor of The Pilgrim, a literary magazine from the homeless community of downtown Boston.
Carlo Rotella‘s latest book is The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood. He is a professor of English at Boston College.