Sunday, April 29, 2012

THE SWELL SEASON - FILM REVIEW (2011 - Directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, & Carlo Mirabella-Davis)

The Swell Season is a melancholy and meditative documentary on romance, music and fame. The Swell Season is also the actual name for the folk rock duo, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Their story is a unique one and in telling it, this film allows for both the joyful and the painful. It's bittersweet in a way that is still entrancing. The directors August-Perna, Dapkins and Mirabella-Davis started filming what would turn into the documentary in 2007. When they began filming, they didn't know that Hansard and Irglová's romance was going to die by the time they finished filming in 2010. This makes the film much more personal than you would expect for a documentary about musicians, but it is still respectful and leaves you feeling that both Hansard and Irglová walk out of it wiser and even more capable than before of adding increased depth to their music.

The differences are immediately obvious. He's from Ireland. She's from the Czech Republic. He usually plays an old broken guitar. She usually plays the piano. He enjoys large crowds of fans. She's repulsed by people treating her like a celebrity. His personality is aggressive, passionate and hard-drinking. Her personality is quiet, introspective, and bluntly honest.

They collaborated together to produce the album, Swell Season in 2006. Then, later that year, they starred in a musical film together called Once. It was during the filming that their romance together started, gaining the world spotlight with their song "Falling Slowly" winning the 2007 Oscar for Best Original Song. Their soundtrack for Once was essentially their second album together. Finally, they released their third album, Strict Joy , in 2009. This documentary follows the two of them as they spend most of 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 on tour around the world.

The film is full of evocative and haunting little moments: the two of them sitting around a table full of Hansard's aged drinking buddies while they each take turns singing old traditional Irish folk-ballads ... Irglová reducing an auditorium of thousands to deafening silence by putting her whole heart into a single simple little song with very little accompaniment ... Hansard wandering out into the Irish countryside with his guitar and settling underneath the broken roof of the ruins of an old church during a torrential downpour ... these moments and others quickly win your heart over so that you can't help but be charmed by them both.

It's almost as if Hansard and Irglová are from another time period. Their focus on folk music (even occasionally Hansard's focus on folk-rock music) results in their performances harkening back to the days of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and even to an earlier time where pop celebrity did not drive the appeal of music itself. Not surprisingly, they did a cover song - Dylan's "You Aint Goin' Nowhere" - for the film I'm Not There.

It is a distinctly human trait to love melody and to enjoy listening to song. Music is one of the mysterious blessings that has somehow been bestowed on mankind. And it is difficult to describe the beauty of the voice of someone like Markéta Irglová or the pathos of one of Glen Hansard's street ballads. These two people have created, and are creating, music that expresses their feelings and ideas about the world around them and their experiences in it. And the thing about music is that it's not just the lyrics that express meaning to us, it's the melodies, the little inflections, the heart and spirit behind the songs themselves. Hansard may not be the greatest of songwriters or performers, but the heart that he puts behind his songs is full and strong. Somehow their music has been speaking to countless other people.

But, therein lies the trouble. The fascinating thing about this film is its reflection upon the effects that fame and celebrity have upon Hansard and Irglová's romance, as well as upon their music. One could almost venture the conclusion that the greatest curse that this couple finds itself under is that of living and performing in the modern age - an age where pop culture is supposed to determine the success of a musician. A musician is considered successful if he can obtain celebrity status. This sort of thinking has almost obsessed Glen Hansard. With his poor background and his dropping out of school, he speculates on the idea of being able to escape the soul-crushing life that you're stuck with, begin anew and start a whole other life. He later admits that this is sort of what he actually did.

He and Irglová are suddenly propelled into fame and pop celebrity status with a suddenness that American Idol fans can only dream of. The amazing thing about this couple is they don't really want to be celebrities. While Hansard is able to rest more comfortably within the practical realities of living as a celebrity, he argues with his friends and family that fame doesn't really matter. "Who cares if we won an Oscar?!" he demands when his mother tells him how valuable it is for him to be famous. In the meantime, it quickly becomes evident that the very idea of being a celebrity is revolting to Markéta Irglová. For some reason, one of the things that upsets her the most of all is what she calls "celebrity bullshit." Problems arise when she quickly gets sick of fawning fans constantly acting like her very physical presence is somehow of almost religious import.


"Popular songs grew from a tradition of ballad and folk music, in which an expanding repertoire of favourite tunes and devices formed the foundation of music-making. Until recently the song has been detachable from the performer - a musical entity which makes sense in itself, and which can be internalised and repeated by the listeners, should they have the skill. Of course, there is a whole branch of popular music which is improvisatory. But modern pop songs are not improvised as jazz is improvised, and do not owe their appeal to the kind of spectacular musicianship that we witness in Art Tatum, Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. Modern pop songs are meticulously put together, often by artificial means, so as to be indelibly marked with the trade mark of the group ... The lead singer projects himself and not the melody, emphasising his particular tone, sentiment and gesture. The melodic paucity is partly explained by this. By subtracting the melody, or reducing it to stock phrases that can be reapplied in any context, the singer draws attention to the song's one distinguishing feature, namely himself ...

Hence pop fans find themselves deprived of one of the most important gifts of folk music - the gift of song. It is almost impossible to sing the typical pop-song unaccompanied and still make musical sense. The best you can do is to impersonate the idol during karaoke night at the local pub, when you have the benefit of full instrumental backing, amplification and audience, and can briefly fit yourself into the empty groove where the sacred presence lay ... In effect, we witness a reversal of the old order of performance. Instead of the performer being the means to present the music, which exists independently in the tradition of song, the music has become the means to present the performer."

- Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, pgs. 109-110

As the film continues, you get the bad feeling that the public spotlight is putting Hansard and Irglová in danger. They won an Oscar for a song they created together out of a sheer shared love for musical creativity. They both love old folk songs and are genuinely writing new songs in the folk tradition - creating, in a sense, modern day folk songs. But then, to their initial amazement and apparent good fortune, they are discovered by the rest of the world. Their romance and their story is now idolized by millions. Instead of a passionate street performer, Hansard finds himself to be a celebrity. Instead of seeing her as girl who reveals lovely music to the listener, Irglová finds that perhaps people care less about her music and more about her pop-stardom. The question looms like a dark cloud over them, now that they are famous and now that the media spotlight is focused intently upon them, is their music and their personal relationship with each other going to change?

This is where the documentary's genius shows. While it’s a common theme among celebrity life, the effect that fame and fortune has on the health of romantic relationships is rarely looked at in a light where two people like Hansard and Irglová are this honest. To some people, getting their fifteen minutes of fame is everything. The way you "succeed" today is by becoming popular and famous. While Hansard has worked hard all his life for success, when he is finally given what everyone else around him calls success, he can't help but suspect that something is wrong. Other band members and friends are interviewed and all give their opinion about how hard it is for a young Irglová to have to handle such a heavy public spotlight. But her objections to the spotlight have grounds that go further than her own mere physical discomfort.

You see the difference between the two in even the way the directors are forced to tell this story. Hansard is almost always willing to talk and ruminate about himself to the camera. Irglová's presence on the camera seems to be at a further emotional distance. Her reflections captured on film are more rare. She remains more mysterious than Hansard because the simple fact that they are being followed around, nonstop, by cameras in order to make the documentary in the first place causes her to withdraw. You get the impression that she was never asked if they ought to have made a documentary about them. And while she's flattered by all the attention, she's not going to philosophize to the camera like Hansard does.

"... The music [of a celebrity pop star] is part of the process whereby a human individual or group is totemised. In consequence it has a tendency to lose all musical character. For music, properly constructed, has a life of its own, and is always more interesting than the person who performs it. Much as we may love Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald, we love them for their music - not their music for them.

... The transformation of the pop star into an icon is assisted by the music video. This is perhaps the most important innovation in the sphere of pop since the electric guitar. The video sublimates the star, re-cycles him as image, more effectively than any painted icon of a saint. It is expressly designed for home consumption and brings the sacred presence into the living room. And it completes the demotion of music, which now becomes background, with the pop-star, transfigured into the divine status of the TV advert, occupying the foreground."

- Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, pgs. 110-112

Even as you watch the film you feel the conflict between art and pop culture. You find yourself enchanted by the songs you hear, and you find yourself enchanted by the two stars of the film. But the question arises whether you enjoy the music because of who is playing the music and whether you would still like their music if you didn't know anything about the performers. What makes the film even more interesting is that I found that the answer is yes. I would still love their music even without knowing their story. The music that they make is sort of wonderful all by itself. And this fact rests in a time where mass media culture promotes and popularizes bad music. There are legitimate musical critics today who ask us to make a distinction between good music and pure musical kitsch.

One of these critics is Roger Scruton. In his books, The Aesthetics of Music and Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, Scruton looks at the idea of other musical philosophers who criticize pop culture for fostering a music industry that "exploits the tastes of the simple-minded" and misleads the general public into liking bad music.

In the book, Understanding Music, Scruton posits the idea that "The great days of American popular music may now be past: rock ‘n’ roll changed the Blues from a lyrical confession to a Dionysian display, and the long-term effects are now being felt, not only in America, but all across the world." (pgs. 216-217) In this film, you watch as Hansard and Irglová perform in front of increasingly hysterical crowds. You cringe as different people tell them how incredibly lucky they are. They are, supposedly, living the modern day version of a fairy tale. The songs that they so loved writing have now become overshadowed by their own fame. Their fans are obsessing over everything about them, and their romantic relationship is suddenly a model for thousands of people to fantasize over. The filmmakers can now show us teenagers who pretend to be this couple. Countless fans talk about how much they want to be like them.

But, in the meantime, Hansard and Irglová thought they had something to say. They were expressing themselves with old traditional forms of music that used to speak to people at a deeper level than pop culture. They are artists who suddenly are finding their art transformed into something they never meant it to be. Scruton writes that art "matters because it puts us in touch with what we really are, and enables us to live on that higher plane where freedom and fulfillment are given. But we are surrounded on every side by pseudo-art - by sentimentality, cliche and kitsch. And this psuedo-art ties us to the world of ‘reifications’, in which things with a value are replaced by things with a price, and in which human life loses its worth, to become a thing of repetitive appetite." (pg. 212)

The crushing realization emerges that perhaps Hansard and Irglová are performing their music in a world where they don't belong. Is their pop stardom going to start affecting the very content and style of their music now? Isn't the focus on winning Oscars and making top ranks in the music pop charts going to pressure them into suddenly becoming producers of musical kitsch? Roger Scruton mentions the idea of kitsch quite frequently, and it's for good reason. I don't think the Swell Season's music is musical kitsch, but isn't that just my own personal taste? Scruton explains:

"Hermann Broch has argued that the kitsch object comes about because of the ‘Kitschmensch’ who chooses it. A new human type has emerged, for whom commitment, responsibility, heroism and heartfelt love are all to be avoided, on account of the suffering that they entail. The world of the Kitschmensch is a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting him to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them ... the world of kitsch is a world of trinkets, which we cling to as proof that we can be good without effort and loved without pain. By contrast, every true artistic gesture constitutes an appeal to our higher nature, an attempt to affirm the other realm in which moral and spiritual order prevails." (pgs. 213-214)

Fake and shallow emotions, the cultivation of fantasized dreams that do not reflect reality, the idolization of that which is of no real value ... these are all temptations and pressures that Hansard and Irglová now find themselves facing in the glare of the celebrity spotlight. They still insist on their commitment to their music, but they are also pressured to put on an act. Irglová, especially, finds herself pretending in public to be someone who she really isn't in order to please their fans. How do you still write and sing good music when you are suddenly expected to play an act? How do you distinguish between when your own music is good or bad when everyone else is interested in you as a celebrity and less in the actual quality of the music that you create? They praise and buy your music even if it's bad.

"Distinctions which are forced on us by art, between true sentiment and false, between reality and fantasy, between sincerity and pretence, are down-played in the world of the Kitschmensch." (pg. 214)

"It is only by making discriminations within the realm of popular music that we can encourage young people to recognize the difference between genuine musical sentiment and kitsch, between beauty and ugliness, between the life-affirming and the life-denying, the inspired and the routine ... And once the habit of judgment begins it will amplify its bounds until those who have known nothing but current pop music will be led by critical inquiry to the bright uplands of classical music ..." (pg. 220-221)


"Most vividly, 'The Swell Season' captures the insistent, borderline-disturbing energy of fandom at its most rabid and psychically intrusive. Everywhere Hansard and Irglova go, they're besieged by well-meaning strangers who want an autograph, a picture, a moment, a word. It's exhausting, and it's understandable when the tiny Irglova begins to wobble under the strain.

But it's just as easy to understand that this is what Hansard has struggled and sacrificed his whole life to attain - a reality that "The Swell Season" acknowledges in its affecting final scene at Radio City Music Hall. As difficult as it is to believe that two people can harmonize so well onstage but not off, "The Swell Season" makes a convincing case that endings can be just as full of promise as the most seemingly charmed beginnings."

- Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post

The musical talent of these two is undeniable. Both of them have the ability to lose themselves in their music. When they begin to sing, the joy that they take in singing - a joy they possessed long before they were ever famous - is obvious. In fact, in spite of the pop stardom that has been forced upon them, you get the impression that their love of their music and ability to lose themselves in it is precisely what enables them to go on in spite of everything else. The pop star is full of himself and places the focus on himself during his performance. Hansard and Irglová are now being pressured to the same sort of narcissism. But perhaps their very music is what can save them.

This is part of their magic. Their seeming ability to remain untouched and untarnished by their rise to fame. Their innocence and questioning of expectations is not that of two people who have fantasized about a life of fame. There is a sort of purity to their songs that remains uninfluenced by most of the music the fills the modern airwaves.

Some folk ballads and love songs can retain a power that transcends cultures and time periods. There is a way in which simple melodies speak to the human heart and somehow communicate and reveal the inner life as no other art form can. Whatever this ephemeral quality is, Hansard and Irglová possess it. Her determined insistence to stand apart from the lies and pretenses of pop celebrity culture shows itself in her singing. Hansard's rough background and his scars and regrets from his unbalanced relationship with his father contribute to the haunting outcry in his voice. Their experiences have shaped their music, and their experience with fame and their reactions to it are still shaping their music today. Their music is still distinctively modern. Their repertoire interacts with the indie music scene, and occasionally with the folk-rock and even blues-rock genres. But in spite of their films and in spite of their Oscar, Hansard still remains an Irish street troubadour and Irglová still remains a young singer from a remote Czech village. The line between authenticity and self-parody may be a fine one, but it's a line they are both still clearly aware of.

"Hansard’s heat-and-devastation ebb-and-flow is fully on display on the Van Morrison-like opener, 'Low Rising,' and he is the album’s focal point. Irglova’s backing vocals are essential, however, austere and haunting in contrast to Hansard’s lacerating transparency. When Irglova sings lead on a couple of heart-breakers, 'Fantasy Man' and 'I Have Loved You Wrong,' she brings a mixture of stately dignity and fragile beauty. The lack of melodrama is refreshing, given that many of these songs reflect on the couple’s two-year romance and eventual break-up. Its flickering embers are extinguished on the final song, 'Back Broke,' with Hansard singing barely above a whisper over Irglova’s piano and some Spanish-flavored guitar. If “Once” was an album about falling (slowly) in love, 'Strict Joy' is about the bittersweet aftermath."
- Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune, Review of 'Strict Joy'

The film makes you wonder if it was inevitable, but while their musical style survives the glare of fame, their romance does not. It turns out that, while both of them remain unconventionally separate from the Western idolization of a life of fame, they still reacted to it in fundamentally different ways. As the story, interviews and discussions progress, he reveals that he doesn't believe fame matters. He just doesn't care. He doesn't see why being looked at as a pop star ought to change who you are as a person. He doesn't see how being famous changes anything that really matters. "Who cares?" is, distilled, the attitude he gives off in the film. And if it doesn't really matter, then why not enjoy it while it lasts? She, on the other hand, does believe that it matters. She finds something about celebrity worship repulsive. She thinks being a celebrity matters because she doesn't believe in being a celebrity. All the bombardment and fans and news coverage and cameras has left her unchanged in the conviction that her music is still far more important than herself. The things she is caught saying on the camera reflect the view that there is, essentially, a moral problem with pop celebrity. She cannot enjoy it.

This is the impression I'm left with by the end of the film. Thankfully, the film does not intrude upon them. You do not have to watch their break-up on camera. The arguments that are caught on the documentary makers' cameras are little excerpts that show more a difference in philosophy than any personal antagonism of any sort. Their romance ends, but their friendship and their musical output does not.

Ironically enough, it's almost as if their pop culture popularity has already peaked. Now that they are no longer a couple, they are somehow less interesting to some members of the audience. Both seem to only be still at the beginning of their musical careers, but they've been de-romanticized. The very spotlight that contributed to destroying their romance is now pointing its focus elsewhere. The news coverage has decreased.

While Irglová has said that they will make another album together, they have now each produced separate albums of their own (Anar and Rhythm And Repose). Both albums have songs about grief, breakup and loss.

In fact, what is perhaps most meaningful of all about this entire story, is how both Hansard and Irglová are continuing to do what they love most - create good music. Refusing to be swallowed into the crass sentimentality or mass consumerism that dominates so much of the music industry is rare for anyone who has been propelled to stardom. Their lives, their losses, their struggles, pains, lessons and regrets are all being put to the service of their music. Unlike the pop star, it is their music that is more important than their own selves. To many entertainment magazine readers, idolizing the prospect of being given 15 minutes of fame and living as stars, Hansard and Irglová's appeal had nothing whatsoever to do with their music. Now that the fairy tale romance is broken, they are no longer interesting. But for those of us who have loved their music apart from looking up to them as icons or idols, they are still each a unique treasure in the modern musical world.

Both these two are interested in songs that are quite distinct from musical kitsch. There is nothing in their latest albums that smacks of wallowing in self-pity. And the more they apply the experiences of their lives to the creation of their songs, the better, we can hope, that their songs will still become. That this is precisely what they are doing is all the more reason for us to be thankful.

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