Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bag of Bones A Knockin'--Rock Talk As Messy As It Is Necessary

In a recent interview I read of Nigerian singer-songwriter (now rocker) Asa, she said that she picked the name Beautiful Imperfection for her new album because it summed up her ethos.  She'd always had this funny bass-heavy alto that didn't fit in well with her church choir or any other choral group.  And her songwriting, as songwriting can rightfully do, over-reaches as a matter of course.  (Give or take what sounds to me like her musical reinterpretation of Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred," the song "The Way I Feel," which is as close to beautiful perfection as anything I've ever heard.)

That said, I think that sense of high-reaching imperfection is one of the things that connects my love of rock and rap's musical impulses to my love of horror fiction.  To attempt a quote without the transcript before me, I believe Stephen King said that key to his attraction to horror was the understanding that the form was "assaultive" in its nature.  My favorite music tends to share that trait.  It may flub a note; it may veer downright foolish, but it gets your attention, and it's usually throwing down some kind of challenge.  At their best, music and horror fight to change our most fundamental perceptions.

No surprise then, my favorite horror novels and movies teeter on the edge of artistic disaster.  Some do more than teeter--they fall.  Yet worthwhile things happen in that process.  As an example, my great friend Erica and I shared two responses to Stephen King's Bag of Bones.  We both loved it and the ending annoyed the hell out of us.

I thought about Erica, who isn't here to see it, watching director Mick Garris's TV version of Bag of Bones on A&E this week.  I think she'd agree with me that some of the book's finest touches--ghostly rearrangements of refrigerator magnets and unseen presences in quiet, reflective moments--are perhaps impossible to pull off in a movie, and they only worked so well here.  Still Garris (The Stand, Riding the Bullet, Desperation) is about as fearless a King tale interpreter as any there's been, and he manages to capture more of that book's wild (and often chilling) surrealism than seems possible.  Grief has rarely been more palpable; the talking dead have rarely rung so vividly true.

But what matters most to me tonight about the movie version of Bag of Bones is the way it doesn't shy away from the racial and sexual violence at the heart of the story.  Anika Noni Rose turns in a tough, beautiful performance as Sara Tidwell, the blues singer whose brutal rape and murder leads to the curse that fuels the story.  In some ways, it's a thankless role, that of a vengeful spirit, but Rose manages to infuse her performance with a good piece of the hard fought dignity at the heart of the blues.

And that's a crucial piece of our pop culture history we better never forget.  The music that gave birth to virtually every form of popular music we listen to today came at the most brutal price imaginable.  Before the jazz era touched on in Bag of Bones, it came from the brutalization (including, of course, sexual brutalization) of generations of black Americans.  During the jazz era and since, black artists have taken very real risks and paid prices akin to Sara Tidwell's in order to make a living and keep up their spirits and the spirits of those they loved in the process.  When people condemn the violence and sexualized behavior in, particularly, black pop music today, they best not forget the centuries of the white power structure abusing, raping and murdering those blacks still at the bottom of the system of today.  The most "offensive" black artists are typically fashioning some of our most vital art as a response, and anyone from David Banner to Nikki Minaj can say as much (and do).

So Stephen King and Mick Garris both deserve credit for grasping at these skeletons in our closets with what is arguably King's most effective ghost story next to The Shining.  For the last five years, as I've worked on my own ghost story (yes, that's my "novel," and I hope one day you'll see it), I've been haunted by Bag of Bones more than any other book because I have a similar reach in mind, yet...  Neither King or Garris quite pull it off.  The reckoning with such evil is too easy, and the solution to this history of racial violence calls for a messier, ongoing dialogue. 

And that's where the wisdom of Asa's beautiful imperfection serves as a reminder.  Perhaps the most important thing these horror meisters are doing is talking about such issues at all.  Most such stories are going to be flawed, but every word and image toward such ends matters, and matters greatly.