Music

Michael Hurley: Blue Hills

This is back porch playing in which the neighbors are not invited to join in, and the fact that these songs were recorded in a studio rather than by Alan Lomax with a wire recorder in a farm field shows the distinctions between what one considers genuine and created forms is invidious at best.


Michael Hurley

Blue Hills

Label: Mississippi
US Release Date: 2010-07-13
UK Release Date: 2010-07-13
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Old man Michael Hurley’s music lies at the intersection of peculiar and primitive. The songs can move at a snail’s pace, and even that description can seem somewhat generous. By most conventional criteria, one would have to say it sucks -- but that is the problem with conventional criteria. As critic Harold Bloom has noted, "All genius, in my judgment, is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary," and while I am wary of calling Hurley a genius, he certainly is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary.

The six songs on his latest 33-minute opus meander down the same slow paths his tunes have taken since his first Folkways release in 1965. He really has not progressed musically, but then again, what would one expect from someone who cranks out tunes in an archaic style on old-fashioned instruments like the pump organ, electric piano, and acoustic guitar that never seem to be quite in tune. The overall effect resembles that of inspired amateurism. There is nothing Hurley does that a person wouldn’t be able to master in just a few hours of practice.

And then there’s his voice. Hurley’s low gurgling rises and falls in tempo and volume without ever changing much, as if he’s singing to himself, even when he’s asking for assistance, as on “Help Me Get Rid of Her -- How Sweet I Roamed”. He hypnotizes the listener through the droning, a consequence increased by the nonsensical nature of the lyrics that are more dada-esque than doggerel. One is never quite sure what Hurley is singing about, even when one understands the words.

Hurley’s weirdness acts as a tonic in an age of spectacle. His music does not say "Look at me!" as much as it causes one to listen carefully and construct the experience for oneself. The three songs that feature his guitar playing (“Shockoe Bottom”, "Meara O’Reilly”, and “Tea”) are as introverted as folk music gets. This is back porch playing in which the neighbors are not invited to join in, and the fact that these songs were recorded in a studio rather than by Alan Lomax with a wire recorder in a farm field shows the distinctions between what one considers genuine and created forms is invidious at best. All music is personal.

When Hurley does howl, yodel, or play with his voice, he does so out of a sense of fun. That’s what keeps Blue Hills from falling into something too private. He may be performing for himself, but he’s aware he has an audience. Hurley is not looking for sympathy, but the strange connections common feelings have when one person shares them with another. Sometimes one wants to laugh at his pain, because Hurley knows hurt can be funny. He’s laughing at himself.

What does it mean when the sound of auto-tuned perfect vocals compressed into MP3 files are more familiar than that of a man’s odd voice nakedly presented? The whole idea of what is real becomes questioned. Hurley’s music may not be the answer for everyone. Heck, he surely knows that. But for some, its authenticity is itself enough.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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