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The Bondage of Bad Taste & the Bottom Line

Rather than heading south with the droves of springbreak-bound students fleeing the endless winter of Upstate New York, I spent a couple hours last week in a local venue at least somewhat warmer than my frigid and drafty house: the last remaining downtown moviehouse, a place called Cinemapolis. For decades this outfit inhabited a low-ceiled basement in the center of Ithaca, New York, and had several screens in an old bowling alley a mile to the north, at the end of the residential blocks of the old, pre-sprawl city.

But a few years back Cinemapolis moved into a new building adjacent to its former subterranean setting; the bowling alley is now a yoga studio. As a not-for-profit endeavor Cinemapolis sought community support for its more spacious and modern theater. Inside, bronze plaques sprinkled throughout commemorate the many donations received. The most memorable of these, at least if you happen to be male, is above one of the urinals given by the late Cornell professor of economics, Alfred Kahn. His professional life was dedicated to deregulation (most famously, as head of the Civil Aeronautics Board) and defending the free market. A gregarious fellow, Fred was gifted with a magnificent baritone voice, and always had a glint in his eye and a mischievous grin on his face. An avid Savoyard, he is still remembered fondly in town for his role as the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe back in the 1970s (before my time here), prior to his stint in Washington as Jimmy Carter’s inflation czar. Among the pleasant sensations associated with a visit to Fred’s Cinemapolis urinal is the feeling that you’re peeing on neo-liberalism.

Having flushed away momentarily the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher, both indebted to Fred’s deregulating fervor and theories, I headed for my movie, 12 Years a Slave. Fred died in 2010, but were he still around he surely would have seen many economic lessons in the film.

The thriving capitalist North, with its flourishing civil society in which both black and white people freely moved (at least according to the movie), contrasts with the pathological brutality and cancerous sadism of slavery. The skills of the abducted freeman, Solomon Northup, upon whose 1853 memoir the film is based, helped build canals in the North and thereby contributed to economic and social progress. The un-navigable bayous of Louisiana, where Northup finds himself, are a symbol not only of slavery, but also of economic stagnation. Northup even uses his know-how to help his first owner — a marginally more humane planter, played by Benedict Cumberbatch — develop these waterways. Neo-liberalism would see in the movie a testament to the superiority — in both economic and moral terms — of free labor of slave labor, the free market over the slave market.

A hilarious portrait of Fred fully sprawled horizontally adorns the seminar room he gave in Cornell’s music building. As a life-long music lover he would have certainly been moved by the central role given this art in 12 Years a Slave. Who cannot but be gripped by the film’s powerful scene of spiritual singing around the new grave of a slave who has died in the fields, literally worked to death. Northup, played by Chiwetelu Ejiofor, does not join this communal song at first, as if to do so would be an admission of his slavehood and his induction into a culture and worldview so foreign to his own as a once-free Northerner. When he eventually does lend his own voice to the spiritual, it is with furious and resonant resentment. Northup will draw on the power of this music, bitter and consoling, but will not let it distract from the wrong done to him with promises of the supposedly better life to come.

Northup himself was an avid and able violinist: any leisure hours he enjoyed as a boy were devoted, he wrote in his memoir, either to his books or to his violin, the “ruling passion of his youth.” Indeed, it is his love of the instrument that leads to his kidnapping by a pair of conmen. They convince Northup to join them for a short trip to the nation’s capital to provide music for their circus. Music proves Northup’s unexpected ticket to slavery.

But it is also the violin that provides him with the solace that sustains him through his long years as a slave:

“Alas! Had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage … It was my companion — the friend of my bosom — triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad … Often at, midnight, when sleep had fled affrighted from the cabin, and my soul was disturbed and troubled with the contemplation of my fate, it would sing me a song of peace. On holy Sabbath days, when an hour or two of leisure was allowed, it would accompany me to some quiet place on the bayou bank, and, lifting up its voice, discourse kindly and pleasantly indeed.”

The violin also brings to Northrup a small income as his abilities become known in the region. He plays for dances and other social gatherings, and is allowed to keep the proceeds for his personal use. Musical talent meshes with entrepreneurial initiative even in the crushing context of slavery.

The film’s director, Steve McQueen, devotes much screen time to music in its various forms of distraction and despair. Included among these are Northup’s discovery of the vestiges of native music in a backwoods encampment he visits during leisure hours not devoted to his own violin. Along a creek he finds a “remnant of the Chickasaws or Chickopees”; these are “a rude but harmless people, [who] enjoyed their wild mode of life.” Northup’s own description of their music might sound condescending towards its apparent lack of variety, but one can also sense a real appreciation of their culture:

“The entire carcass of a deer was roasting before a large fire, which threw its light a long distance among the trees under which they were assembled. When they had formed in a ring, men and squaws alternately, a sort of Indian fiddle set up an indescribable tune. It was a continuous, melancholy kind of wavy sound, with the slightest possible variation. At the first note, if indeed there was more than one note in the whole tune, they circled around, trotting after each other, and giving utterance to a guttural, sing-song noise, equally as nondescript as the music of the fiddle.”

Northup is riveted by the display of music and dance. Music becomes a symbol, indeed an expression of the Indians’ plight, just as it is of the black slaves. To his credit, McQueen even allows space for a depiction — albeit an exoticizingly surreal one — of the natives’ music-making.

It is therefore a surprising and nearly fatal error on McQueen’s part to have Northup destroy his violin in a moment of hopelessness. There is no sign of this in the book and it fundamentally contradicts Northup’s own character. This overly dramatic, and utterly unconvincing, act of destruction is pure Hollywood gimmickry, a Romantic sort of exaggeration like that found infamously in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story, Councilor Krespel, about a violin-wrecking nutcase. In indulging in this kitschy nonsense, McQueen forfeits much of his effort spent in incorporating Northup’s musical worldview into the movie as whole.

Such tomfoolery should have never made its way onto the screen. If any violins should have been destroyed, it should have been those belonging to the studio musicians employed to record Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. Rumor has it that the Hollywood heavyweight composer was brought in by the film’s producers (of which McQueen was one of several) at the last minute. Zimmer’s task was clearly to provide a salve for slavery’s lash and the relentless on-screen sorrow. Zimmer cranked out the product he gets the big bucks for: portentous prayers, foreboding shadows, and earnest counterpoint that slowly bludgeon the viewer into never forgetting he should be taking in the moral message. More important still, Zimmer’s score softens the violence and dolor of the movie itself: soundtrack sermonizing becomes a palliative for the harder truths the film tries to get at.

But it’s the producers’ money and they — and the market — will ultimately decide what their movie sounds like. Here again the lesson of the Cinemapolis urinal is instructive. While Fred Kahn was a crusader for market forces, he also believed that a “mixed system” in which regulation and deregulation coexisted and were opportunistically exploited by the powerful was “the worst of all possible worlds.” Awash in state subsidies, the film industry can get away with providing a noxious soundtrack for an important movie. But the market is not the answer. One would like to think that a nationally funded cinema would be able to afford more courage, and thereby escape the bondage of bad taste and the bottom line.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at

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