Home > Uncategorized > [99 Problems] Kandariya, A Love Supreme, Vertigo

[99 Problems] Kandariya, A Love Supreme, Vertigo

Originally published 26 May 2010

On a morning in February 1965, John Coltrane entered the studio with three of his most intensely focused collaborators. A few hours and only a couple takes later, they emerged with A Love Supreme. Immediately celebrated, it was both a commercial and critical success. As spontaneous and ecstatic as its subject, the piece was carefully composed and hosts divine symmetry, but was recorded in a fabulously perplexing period of time. Halfway around the world and about a millennium earlier, an anonymous group of Indian artists constructed, painted, and sculpted a shrine of Kandariya Mahadeva. It features a group of ‘The Heavenly Bands’, hundreds of women lined up in voluptuous beauty. The religious and sexual obsession of this pattern is staggering, barely equalled in the best Gothic cathedrals. Another great masterpiece of obsession lies in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Unarguably a turning point in his career and arguably his greatest achievement, it is a theme and variationson the psychological deterioration of man.

All the arts of medieval India were informed by one constant idea, derived from some very very very very old performance practices – to awaken and reconcile traces of the powerful emotions felt during the consistent rebirth that Hindus and Buddhists believed to have experienced. Rasa is the blissful union with Brahman, the ultimate state of being. The Indians believed that the experience that brings one closest to Rasa is sexual love. This is illuminated most thoroughly in the ecstatic celebration of ‘The Heavenly Bands.’

The eroticism and sexuality of the figures, barely clothed and highly exaggerated, is one of architectural obsession. The figures (all female) form a complex theme and variations in each small section. Especially in the crooks between posts. Check out the several permutations of meditative posture and focus. The rhythm of the work is one of ecstatic love of the divine. The fixation runs so deep that the artists were willing to carve similar figures over and over and over until they ran out of room. Perfection is set aside in favor of pure adoration.

When Coltrane and his crew walked in to record A Love Supreme, they knew exactly what they wanted. The album, only 30-some minutes long, is broken up into four sections. As a whole, it is meant to be an expression of Coltrane’s recent religious reawakening in light of his addictions and a general release of spiritual ecstasy. Beginning with a primordial whack on the tam-tam and major key wigglings that invoke creation itself, the bass then enters with the “A Love Supreme” mantra. Part one under way, Trane plays an inventive but subdued (for him, at least) solo. At both 4:15 and 5:05, he plays the primary 3 note motive in all 12 keys. This is obsession. Also a musical pointing out of God’s omnipotence. Like the solo, there isn’t anywhere He can’t go. The groove loosens and instruments are set aside in favor of a vocal chant of the “Love Supreme” mantra. Part two starts with just as the first ended, with a bass wandering around in double-stops. The Coltrane solo contains several variations on the first theme, as the whole piece develops to suit that characteristic. Tyner plays a ridiculous piano solo here, uninhibited fingers and uninhibited joy. He takes control of the progression, turning a fairly comprehendible chart into a chromatic shower. Echoing that, Coltrane hops in and performs more in line with his later years drinking Ornette Coleman’s kool-aid. The album is reaching a climax.

That climax comes with Part three, one of the most blistering examples of hard bop in recorded history. And one of the most intense expressions of faith known to man. Coltrane’s design of mirror symmetry begins to unfold as he enters with a melody similar in structure and harmonic motion to the first movement – moving angularly around a static focal point. Tyner solos with a rhythmically potent left hand and leaves it to Trane with a magnificently articulated variation on the theme at around 4:15, giving room for one of the great recorded demonstrations of saxophone intellect and filthiness. 6:10 marks one of the great moments in jazz as Mr. Coltrane develops this little motif and somehow manages to formulate a mind-bending crescendo after what seems like a cool off. He rips into a variation of the theme followed by the theme itself. The movement ends just as the second began, enhancing the symmetry. The final movement (titled “Psalm”) is a return to the primal opening. The harmony shifts so little that we are left to hear Trane pray through his instrument, literally. The improvisation is based on a “psalm” that is given in the liner notes of the album. His emulation of human speech is on par with some Verdi recitatives and better than many. I recommend following along with the poetry syllable by syllable. Musically, the pattern is charmingly simple. They follow blue lines and use vibrating and earthy backup textures. The bluesiness is an homage to African-American preachers, like the composers’ grandfathers. In the end, the work is a testament to the simplicity of The End and the Beginning, both. The symmetry and use of theme and variations leaves one in a state of resignation, like many great meditations on infinity.

Vertigo was made in the later half of 1957. Originally deemed so-so, it now ranks as one of the most baller films of ever. The plot is complex and strategically revealing, much due to the masterful pacing of Hitchcock, but it boils down to an exercise in theme and variations and symmetry. It begins with 5 of the most rapturous minutes in cinema. Hitchcock introduces two of his most common devices in the film, extreme close-up and gradual close-up. Also, he states the theme of color shifting and geometry that characterizes psychological fantasy throughout the movie. Check out Bernard Herrmann’s score. Crazy intense, right? It cycles through this nice andante figure and some obsessive double time variant. In fact, this motif doesn’t return until a scene where Madeline is getting her hair dyed about 3/4 of the way through the film. And even then for only about 10 seconds. It involves a close up on the face. Much of the psychological deterioration of Scotty comes from his preoccupation with his disorder (vertigo, if you didn’t catch on) and his self-blame for the lives it ends up costing. Hitchcock simulates this sensation by simultaneously pulling back the camera and zooming in. Beyond description, watch it here.

The theme and variations that echo from art in the previous two cases are established in Vertigo with even more virtuosity. First of all, the film is based on the simple tailing of a female heroine. Hitchcock manages to develop even the driving scenes (you know, the usually lame Seinfeldy green-screen face-shots) into a crescendo of distress. The first “following” is marked by a slight curiosity. The same following scene is repeated with variations 4 times in the next hour. Each time gaining intensity. This motif peaks when the two characters, tailer and tailee, end up in the same car. That sequence involves some serious gradual close-up action, as do most of the remaining scenes with those two characters. Also, Hitchcock uses the theme and variations to toy with mysticism. First introduced in the absolutely perfectly executed Ernie’s scene, the camera develops a murkiness in certain ethereal situations involving psychological confusion or ambiguity. Profiles were his thing. That music is the basic love theme that comes back regularly and obsessively, eventually being perverted into a Wagnerian exercise in chromaticism and diminished chords. One kissing scene toward the end in a hotel room actually being a shameless rip-off of Tristan und Isolde.

I mentioned the symmetry because of this fact alone: Hitchcock takes breaks (or full cuts to black) at almost identical intervals into the film and out of it. He begins with about 35 minutes of straight cinema, and ends with the same amount. Those values get smaller and smaller until in the middle of the picture he uses 3-4 minute scenes for a while. Who thinks of that stuff?

I wish I could talk about this movie forever. Having seen it once before, I would happily claim it as one of my top ten. It is full of totally irrational kissing, Midge (who disappears halfway through the film and has the most awkward relationship ever with Scotty), obsession, angled camera work, gradually darkening lighting (the end is almost invisible), and so many other things I’m not yet able to pin down.

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