The holocaust is an easy lay. From Art Spiegelman's MAUS (the only comic book ever to win the Pulitzer) to Jonathan Safron Foer's recent bestselling debut novel Everything Is Illuminated to last year's Academy Award-bedecked film "The Pianist", the systematic murder of millions of human beings always seems to do boffo box office.
Enter John Zorn. In 1992 the great man recorded Kristallnacht, an extended suite of seven short compositions linked by the theme of the destruction (and eventual rebuilding) of Jewish life during and after the National Socialist scourge. Zorn's piece is by turns lilting and unlistenable, reverent and jarringly pomo, giving vent to the composer's obviously strong emotions regarding this greatest of all 20th century crimes.
Upon relistening to this opus eleven years later a question arose of its own accord in my mind: is this here Kristallnacht the serious and important work of a mature composer? Or is it more like a downtown equivalent of Schindler's List, just another Jewish baby-boomer's well-intentioned miscegenation of facile craftsmanship with unassailable, emotionally loaded material?
I'll admit that I find it more than a little disingenuous when a fimmaker brings a bag of well-honed popcorn-movie editing tricks to bear on concentration camp atrocities, tricks that had their proving ground in the rendering of shark hunts, extra-terrestrial resurrections and dinosaur chases. In such escapist fodder, it can be argued that the viewer becomes a willing victim of benign artistic sadism, allowing his or herself to be jerked around and manipulated by tropes and imagery designed for no other purpose than to forcibly yank visceral reactions from viewers.
This seems well and good.
What rankles me is that when applied to more serious subject matter, these cynical cinematic parlor games risk trivializing the very lives and struggles they seek to avenge or lionize. Likewise, the sadism risks becoming less benign as the filmmaker attempts (thankfully in vain) to wreak a movie equivalent of Nazi atrocities upon the passive audience.
John Zorn is plainly no stranger to artistic sadism. And while his milieu, audience and bag of tricks are all on a minuscule scale compared to those at the disposal of a Hollywood director, my reaction upon revisiting Kristallnacht was not far from the one engendered by "Schindler's List". For instance, at eleven-plus minutes, the longest track on Kristallnacht is "Never Again." This piece, according to an almost unreadably tiny composer's note on the CD release, "contains high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing and beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches and ringing in the ears." It goes on to state that "prolonged or repeated listening is not advisable as it may result in temporary or permanent ear damage."
Here Zorn goes as far as to implicitly (unconsciously, even?) posit himself as a sort of musical Mengele, performing ostensibly irreversible sonic experiments on his sophisticated audience, a majority of whom presumably feel the same way about Nazi atrocities as the composer. On "Never Again", Zorn seems to blithely apply the tricks and tropes he learned from hanging around the fun-loving late-'80s Japanese noise-rock scene to evoke the attempted violent extermination of European Jewry. Unflinching aesthetic candor or misguided sonic brutality? You be the judge.
Of course any criticism of Zorn's (or Spielberg's) work in this area will inevitably be met with cries of sacrilege. I mean, only a deeply cynical misanthrope (or David fucking Duke himself) could find fault with material rooted in the unimaginable agony and loss of The Holocaust, right? There is no socially acceptable reaction to this area of artistic expression other than hushed awe. And even if one finds the work itself offensive or manipulative or ham-fisted, it is inadvisable to express such opinions for fear of being branded insensitive. Or worse.
So, yeah, Kristallnacht is, like, a masterpiece.
Comments and Feedback: