Me and Vin Diesel: Some thoughts on "The Fate of the Furious," Marinetti, and Jean-Pierre Melville

Over Easter weekend, The Fate of the Furious, the 8th installment of Vin Diesel's action thriller franchise, took in an estimated $532.5 million dollars world-wide, making it the most successful debut in cinema history. I saw it for free, accompanying a friend who works in the New Yorker fact-checking department. (Yes, the New Yorker checks its film reviews.) Only after we'd seen the film - at which point I was suffering the cinematic equivalent of shell shock - did he confess that he'd asked several colleagues to join him, all of whom had declined. Wisely, perhaps. And yet The Face of the Furious has stayed with me, not because it's a memorable film (virtually everything about it, beginning with the dialogue, is forgettable) but because the experience of the film is so memorable, and so overwhelming, for anyone who lives, as I do, at a remove from what Siegfried Kracauer famously called the "mass ornament."

Let me dispatch with the story before I forget it. Dominic Toretto, aka Dom, the character played by Diesel, has to prevent the accurately named villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) from becoming one-woman nuclear force, but first he has to collaborate with her against his team, which includes his new wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). By appearing to betray his allies, he foils Cipher's plot, saves his marriage, the son he didn't know he had, and of course the free world, while getting into some very elaborate car (and helicopter, and submarine) chases and setting off some amazing explosions, without breaking a sweat. A film critic for the BBC explains the formula: "A lot of what drags movies like The Avengers down is the plot, and Fast & Furious isn't trying to compete with those heavy, convoluted story lines. This is just cars smashing into each other."

Indeed. So what is it about The Fate of the Furious that I found so bracing? The sheer, repellent intensity of it: this is film as spectacle and sensation, so barren of "content," so pure in its formalism, that it feels accidentally avant-garde. The Fate of the Furious is as serious about cars and violence as David Cronenberg's Crash, and, in its cynical fashion, no less self-reflexive. It's just that it celebrates with gladiatorial glee the auto-inflicted violence that Cronenberg transforms into an erotically morbid social critique.

The experience to which The Fate of the Furious subjects us (or hammers us with) was anticipated more than a century ago, by Filippo Tomaso Marinetti in the first Futurist Manifesto. "The beauty of the world," Marinetti wrote, has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath." With "our manifesto of burning and overwhelming violence," he added, "we intend to free this nation from its fetid cancer of professors, archaeologists, tour guides, and antiquarians."

Marinetti wanted to liberate Italy from people like me - the intellectual-professional class loathed by the man in the White House (I don't use the p-word); his politico-aesthetic program would soon propel him into an embrace of Mussolini. Walter Benjamin had the Futurists, and writers like Ernst Junger, in mind when he proposed that one of the distinguishing features of fascism is that it aestheticizes violence. (Communism, he claimed, did the reverse, politicizing aesthetics.) I'm not persuaded that fascism has a monopoly on this practice (I can think of a few left-wing examples), but what I think Benjamin meant - clarity was not among his virtues - was that fascist aesthetics stands on the side of the powerful, and encourages us to take vicarious pleasure in aggression against the weak. In that sense, Pasolini's adaptation of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom,  Salò, whose painfully graphic scenes of fascist violence fill us with horror, is a rigorously anti-fascist film precisely because it is unwatchable.

The Fate of the Furious is too empty-headed to be a properly fascist film, but its speed, intensity and exaltation of winning might have enthralled Marinetti. Its cars resemble his "serpents of explosive breath;" they race so rapidly, and so violently, that they incinerate our - or at least my - capacity for thought.

But am I being a film snob? How do the pleasures of "The Fate and the Furious" - and clearly a great many people do find the film pleasurable - differ from the magnificent films of Jean-Pierre Melville, which will soon be the subject of a retrospective at Film Forum? Don't try and convince me that we watch Melville's films, which I adore, for their insights into crime, or the French Resistance, or masculine solitude, or loyalty, which, intriguing though they sometimes are, aren't original to him. No, we watch them because the great director in the Stetson hat was a cinematic painter of cars, the criminals and police who drive them, and the less travelled zones of Paris, where his Studio Jenner was located. What mesmerizes us in Melville's work is the poetry of movement, the slow, ruminative and patient choreography of robbery, murder and car chases. The Fate of the Furious works a different kind of hypnosis with similar materials. It may be a product of the Culture Industry, but it crashed into me in ways I can't deny. Just don't make me watch it again. 


Double Bass X 2: William Parker and Stefano Scodanibbio in Italy

In 1981, Patrick Süskind wrote "The Double Bass," an hour and a half monologue by a musician condemned to the background - of the orchestra, even of life - by his chosen instrument. Süskind's double bassist reminds us that he plays the "bottom E," the deepest instrument in the orchestra, but the only composers who've written for it are obscure, and there are only two pieces for double bass and soprano, so he's not about to perform any duets with the mezzo soprano he fancies. He's essential to the orchestra, but standing so far in the back that hardly anyone remembers he's there.

I love the double bass, but Süskind exaggerates only a little its paradoxical condition of indispensability and marginality. Even in jazz, where the bass enjoys a more prominent role in the rhythm section, not many double bassists achieve stardom as leaders. Not even names like Jimmy Blanton, Percy Heath, Wilbur Ware, Scott LaFaro, Richard Davis, David Izenzon, Sirone and Mark Dresser are likely to ring a bell with people outside jazz. Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Christian McBride and Esperanza Spalding are the exceptions to the rule.

One of the more striking albums I've heard recently is "William Parker e Stefano Scodanibbio Duo Bass Duo," an improvised duet between two of the greatest bassists of our time. If you were to write a history of free jazz since the late 1960s, one of its threads would surely be the bassist William Parker, a composer, bandleader and artistic community leader who has also been a sideman in groups led by David S. Ware, Cecil Taylor, Frank Lowe, Matthew Shipp, Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Roscoe Mitchell, Bill Dixon, Don Cherry, Billy Bang, and many others. As Mark Dresser writes in his liner notes, Parker is perhaps "the most in demand and profound bassist in Free Jazz history." The Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, who died in 2012 at just 55, worked closely with the composers Giacinto Scelsi and Luciano Berio (who authorized Scodannibio's edition of the Berio "Sequenza XIVb, originally composed for cello). He composed some impressive string quartets for the Arditti String Quartet, and also performed solo as an improvising composer; one of his most memorable pieces is an eerie, patiently throbbing piece called "The Voyage That Never Ends." Nearly 20 years ago I heard Scodanibbio give a haunting recital at a New York art gallery, performing John Cage's "Ryoanji" and a piece by Terry Riley, who was in the audience. Riley was full of beatific smiles that evening, as I recall - his music was in very good hands.

The Parker and Scodanibbio duo was recorded live in Udine in 2008, three years after they met at a music festival in Canada and Scodanibbio suggested they perform as a duo. "Nothing was said," Parker says, "the first sound broke the silence and the music spoke for itself."

It still does, and AUM-Fidelity is to be commended for releasing this not very commercial, but historically very important, project. There aren't many duo bass albums:  among the few are Dave Holland and Barre Phillips's 1971 recording for ECM, "Music from Two Basses;" "Shut You Mouth," by Slam Stewart and Major Holley; and "Mark Brothers," by Mark Dresser and Mark Helias. Parker and Scodannibio come from different musical worlds and have very distinctive styles, but they also have much in common. Scodannibio was trained in classical new music, but was very much at ease in improvising contexts; Parker is a jazz bassist in the line of Wilbur Ware, but has always embraced far-flung musical languages. Both men excel at both pizzicato and arco, and both have the ability to generate great waves of sound. (As Dresser writes, "together they project a musicality bigger than the two individuals.") As they weave in and out of each other's lines, they increasingly converge to the point where it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish them: the point where a unified force field of the double-bass forms, and fills the room with its inescapable presence.

You can read more about it here:

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