I have been distracted these last few days, so I am only just getting around to writing about this past Saturday night’s Dinner and a Doc, which is a bit unfortunate, because it was a memorable evening, even if partly for the wrong reasons.
The first of these wrong reasons was a slew of cancellations. Some people were away because of March Break, others were ill, others had commitments, and so the only visitors who were added to the not inconsiderable population of our own home was a couple who had not been able to join us for Dinner and a Doc in almost a year. I was not too distraught. My intention has always been to show films that I would like to see anyway, and to watch them whether anyone joins me or not, and besides, I have often found that fewer people mean better conversation, especially when I have not had a chance to really converse with these people in some time, and especially when they have brought a nice bottle of wine.
The second of the unfortunate reasons was that, about halfway through the screening of the film, Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club, the couple who had come were called away by a minor family emergency, leaving just my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law, and me. Though we enjoy each other’s company, it was not exactly how we had expected the evening to unfold.
Fortunately, there were also many good reasons that the night was memorable, not least among them being the Smoked Beer and Cheddar Cheese Soup that I made, and the homemade bread and cinnamon buns that my mother baked to accompany it. The soup was not universally acclaimed, some finding the smoky taste a little overwhelming, but I enjoyed it very much, perhaps as much as any soup I have ever made. The opinion on the baking, however, was undivided. Loaves of whole grain bread and cinnamon buns filled with cranberries, both fresh from the oven, almost always produce a consensus of opinion, at least in my experience.
The film itself was also memorable, of course. Having heard so much about it, I was worried that it might not match my expectations, but I was not disappointed. The music is what it is: vital and marvellous, even for me, though Latin music is not at all a part of my regular listening. It is the musicians, however, who make the film compelling. Wenders arranges them in the homes and the streets and the buildings of their city and allows them to reminisce about their lives, causing their stories and their personalities to carry the narrative weight of the film, and creating the sense that the music is merely symbolic of the people who have spent their lives creating it.
I think that Wenders reinforces this idea that it is the musicians rather than the music who are the focus of the film by portraying the Amsterdam concert in black and white. Wenders had used black and white footage symbolically in at least one earlier film, Wings of Desire, a drama in which an angel decides to give up immortality and become human so that he can be with the woman he has come to love. Scenes from the angelic perspective are all shot in black and white in this film, while scenes from the human perspective are all in colour, representing the lack of feeling and emotion that is the cost of the angels’ immortality.
Considering this earlier usage of black and white film, I think that Wenders might be making a similar symbolic gesture in Buena Vista Social Club, keeping the footage of the concert in black and white to represent how it lacks the human life and vitality of the footage that is taken of the musicians in their own city and in their own homes. That the final Carnegie Hall concert is shown in colour might argue against this thesis, and while it might be that the black and white footage is merely intended to visually remind us of the fifties, the period when the Buena Vista Social Club was alive and active, I would argue that the effect of this footage is to mark a difference between when the musicians are on the stage and when they are in their homes. In the light of Wings of Desire, the black and white scenes seem to say, yes, you can have these wonderful musicians come and perform for you, but only at the price of removing them from the lives, and the emotions, and the contexts that make them who they are.
In this way, the film calls into question the act of going to the concert, at least insofar as this act is understood as a way to see musicians “live and in person”. In other words, it raises the problems of performance and identity, and it seems to argue that a meeting in the home is more live and in person than a concert in a hall. The film itself, however, is obviously as much a performance as a concert, and it is perhaps illusory to think that it offers any greater degree of intimacy than a music hall, but the subjects of the film make it difficult to maintain this kind of scepticism. However much they may be performing for the camera, however much Wenders may be arranging and prompting and editing their performances, there are moments when they seem to somehow emerge from the film and approach the audience.
Perhaps this is the reason that the final concert is shown in colour. Perhaps this is Wenders’ own concession that, however much media might distort their subjects, there are moments when the people themselves transcend the medium and come forth to us. Whatever the case, it is in this coming forth that the film finds itself. It is in the lives and persons of the musicians that it becomes what it is.