Some of the works of art that have impacted and influenced me the most are ones that represent significant and worthwhile risks, choices by their creators and artists that were both surprising and potentially career-damaging and yet that they took anyway because they needed to and it was (to them, but to my mind as well) the right thing to do. I’m intentionally not including on the following list those works in this category about which I’ve already blogged here, which would include a lot of the literary ones I’ve focused on: Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition, Penn Warren’s Who Speaks, and others. So here, in no particular order, are five others, risky and very rewarding works that have contributed a lot to my identity in one way or another:
1) Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982): In 1980, Springsteen released the very successful double album The River, including his first top-ten single, “Hungry Heart,” and lots of other radio-friendly, arena-ready rock tunes as well. And then Ronald Reagan was elected and the recession of the late 70s deepened and Springsteen began to see and read about sides of America that demanded a very different kind of song. So he wrote and recorded an album full of them—by himself, without accompaniment from the E Streeters who had made the prior album and tour so huge, with pretty much no songs that could bring an arena to anything other than tears. It’s a dark, demanding, challenging, decidedly un-fun record. And one of the best and most important, and most American, albums I know.
2) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Body” (2001): Buffy was a lot more complex and serious from the get-go than its name suggested, but there’s no question that creator Joss Whedon and his compatriots racheted up the emotional and thematic stakes significantly in the fifth and sixth seasons, as Buffy grew from a high school girl to a young woman in every sense. But nothing could prepare us loyal viewers for this late-season-five episode, which focuses on the very sudden and tragic death of Buffy’s mother and the meanings of that loss for all of the show’s main characters. It’s as powerful and compelling an hour of television as I’ve ever seen, and made clear to me just how much works of popular entertainment can also speak to the most profound and significant human themes.
3) John Sayles, Men with Guns (1997): I’ll admit that I was initially pretty disappointed in this film—it was released only a year or so after Lone Star, my favorite Sayles film and probably my favorite movie period, and it most definitely represented a departure from that movie in just about every respect. Yet with a second viewing and an ability to separate it from that prior film, I’ve come to realize how much this film’s risks—Sayles filmed it entirely on location in Mexico, in Spanish with subtitles, using almost entirely Mexican actors—were both absolutely necessary (as he seeks to tell a deeply Mexican story here) and amazingly successful at immersing us in the film’s world. And once we’re there, we find characters and relationships and themes that are, while again very much connected to the nation in which they’re set, able to speak to some of our own abiding identities and concerns and conflicts as well.
4) Steve Earle, “John Walker’s Blues” (2002): Country-rock singer-songwriter Earle had been a musical (and actual) rebel for most of his career, but it was with 2002’s Jerusalem that he began to move into the more full-fletched political radicalism that has defined much of his career since. Yet the most risky song on that album is one that eschews overt political statements in favor of simply narrating, in a minimalist first-person voice, the life and perspective of John Walker Lindh, better known as the “American Taliban.” In a moment when all of the emotions of 9/11 and its aftermath were still driving America’s conversations and consciousness (not that they’ve stopped doing so, but they were never more heightened than in 2002), Earle dared to imagine who this young man might be and what he might have to say. And did I mention that the chorus is partly in Arabic, quoting from the Koran? And that the song ends with a Muslim call to prayer?
5) OPEN: I know you’ve got some good options for this space, folks. What works of art have impressed you with their meaningful and rewarding risk-takings?
More tomorrow, the next work in progress post.
PS. Four links to start with:
1) Great live version of the title track of Nebraska: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TS28SrKEL68
2) The riveting, one-take first scene from “The Body”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8lKEckx4yE
3) An interview with Sayles about Men: http://www.salon.com/entertainment/int/1998/03/13int.html
4) Album version of “John Walker’s”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISFNTRaXRiI
5) OPEN: Again, mention your selections in comments and I’ll add ‘em here!
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