When a documentary unwittingly documents itself
May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
The BBC documentary on Chopin’s women is a telling document. It is studiously lower-middle-class brow: its heroes are ugly, fat, tattoed, badly dressed, and seriously underskilled (respectively) pianist and soprano: they are intended to be “folks like us”, I suppose, an indication of where the program is aimed.
(Anyone absent a decade — perhaps returning from a trip to Mars — would also judge, by the general unkempt appearance of all — the bum clothes, the unwashed hair, that the program was aimed at… clochards. Something very sick is happening to the general European dress code).
The program’s central message is that the two heroes of the program love Chopin’s music (subtext: and therefore you, bums, too, can love Chopin). Unfortunately, the awful performances served by the heroes fail to show why anyone should: therefore, an explanation is necessary. The one offered is the usual: Chopin’s music expresses deep feelings – as if it were not Chopin’s music but his feelings that mattered.
(Folks, these are not tears; these are notes).
The overarching theme (and the theme of the title) concerns itself with Chopin’s sex-life, and, principally the question whether or not Chopin had, in his last year, a fling with a Scots soprano. (Great! He did one of us!) Some Scandinavian couple has devoted their retirement to proving that he did.
(How academic of them! Why not try to prove, while we’re at it, that he suffered from a corn in 1847, too?)
In any case, their arguments are based on a misunderstanding: in Polish (and French) to say “I fall upon my knees before you” is gallant, not sexual.
Incidentally, the question did they have sex dominates much biographical writing, from Wittgenstein to Gould: but what can possibly be the attraction of the topic? It ought to be self-evident (if you think about it) that the great have sex just as the humble do. And therefore this is precisely not what makes them great. And therefore: are we interested in their greatness, or — something else?
(“That was a nice concert”. “Yes. I especially liked the composer’s socks.”)
Besides, can the greatness of Chopin really lie in his ability to stir the emotions of people like the heroes of the program? Surely, the greatness of music must in some way relate to its interactions with our minds — so perhaps yes, but if so, then — gasp — what a paradox, Bertie!
An embarrassingly bad program, then, but deserves attention for two reasons:
First, because it instances the direction public broadcasting is taking everywhere in the world: downhill, quarter-brow. Far from educating tastes, from setting a higher bar, from challenging its audience by doing harder, more demanding programs than are otherwise available, it is — courting it by trying to make itself more broadly accessible: dumbifying, falling in down. The NPR has ever been quarter-brow. The CBC now is. The BBC, too. The Polish and French Radio still stand, but — how much longer? Is it not obvious to the decision-makers that this sort of public broadcasting needs not exist; and that the course is therefore suicidal?
Second, because it illustrates the point I have argued for years: the high and the vulgar do not mix. Any attempt to bring the high low, to the people, as the phrase has it, ends up diluting it: precisely that which makes the high high is lost and the vulgar still don’t like it anyway. And not surprisingly: vulgarized high-brow is counterfeit and the plebs, though it may be poor, is not dumb.