Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] Sistine Chapel, Schindler’s List, Purple Rain

[99 Problems] Sistine Chapel, Schindler’s List, Purple Rain

Originally published on 29 May 2010. I ask you not to judge my 19-year-old opinions too swiftly. Schindler’s List is a film that was once meaningful to me, but is now offensive. However, in respect for my own development and personal evaluation, I find it important to leave these posts as they were originally seen. Consider it an artifact of my personal critical history, not a truth by any means. Someday everything I’m writing now will seem facile, I’m sure.

I’ve always thought it was kind of ridiculous that Prince’s 1984 album Purple Rain was one attacked by Tipper Gore in their pursuit for “Explicit Content” labels. The song in question was “Darling Nikki,” lyrics detailing seduction, prostitution, and some other very mild naughtiness. But if you listen to the whole song, you’ll discover this batty ending sequence of a backwards choir. It’s impossible to understand what they are saying, but if you turn it inside out, it’s a gospel chorus singing “I’m fine, I know the Lord is coming soon.” …what? What a glaring paradox of character. The truth is, that if you really dig into Purple Rain you get a lot more than you bargain for. It is a wholly adventurous foray into the now-popular crossover label. “Computer Blue” was conceived as a 14 minute, multi-movement suite, only to be shortened to make room for another tune. Prince uses songwriting that sprawls all over popular genres from rock to dance to R&B to heavy metal, all the while keeping a consistent aesthetic, color, and strangely loving theology. Prince finds himself at home jumping from ’80’s synth-party verses to Halen-esque guitar solos or blues codas. (“Let’s Go Crazy”)

A quintessential example of the 1980’s in music, Purple Rain is largely ruled by electric instruments. The Linn LM-1 drum machine makes a notable appearance, as do off-white trembling synthesizers, making a question mark out of average major chords. Prince deftly practices reductionism by leaving out the bass line in favor of starkness. (See “When Doves Cry” and most of “Darling Nikki”.) A staple of pop-culture, the chorus in “When Doves Cry” features Prince in a croaky bass then, a couple minutes later, screaming a high A. No, not the tenor money note A, the one above that. A 110. Not kidding. If that wasn’t enough for you, there are finger cymbals (!) in the opening of “Take Me With U.” And while we are talking color, “Computer Blue” can’t go without mention for being packed with perplexing avant-garde transitions and chromaticism.

There is a distinctive mark of compassionate theology in the album. The first song, “Let’s Go Crazy” begins with a eulogy and transitions to a dance number that stands up for freedom against the “de-elevator,” which is very clearly meant to be a metaphor for Satan. Most tracks on Purple Rain are ones of ethics or compassion complete with early text-message spellings in titles and liner notes. (Take Me With U, I Would Die 4 U, copious use of “2”) “I Would Die 4 U” comes across as a 1980’s Sermon On the Mount. It refers to doves, the messiah, sin, and belief and takes its main concept from the beautiful John 15:13. Not to mention that it is packed tight with plagal cadences. “Purple Rain,” the final song, is an homage to gospel music. Listen to the actually living drummer and the organ-ish synth. When that song was released as a single, the B-side was a track called “God”, containing overt references to stories in Genesis.

As pleasant as it was to listen to Purple Rain all day, God himself balanced things out by having me watch Schindler’s List, possibly the most unforgiving and brutal example of popular cinema. Spielberg himself couldn’t stand to watch the filming of some scenes. I will not be posting links to any clips. The movie is about epic personal struggle. It is about compassion. It is about electricity and color.

The film is bookended by the only two uses of color in the picture outside of the famous girl’s red coat. Spielberg has said that the red coat symbolized the Holocaust ignorance of many nations during WWII. It acts as much more than that. The use of color, or no color, in the movie is key. It’s presence on the little girl brings forward the message of personal experience. The sheer enormity of the Jewish extermination is practically impossible for us to fathom. However, through sparse use of comedy, color, intimate death sequences, and names, we become attached to the horror. The black and white format also lends itself to the documentary effect. The lack of color along with shaking cameras has an electrifying period effect. As does the sometime use of German or Polish.

The most electric part of the film is the lead acting by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley. Any time a combination of these three actors get together, energy bursts from the screen. Neeson plays Schindler, who, practicing a loving theology, shepherds some Jews to safety. His kindness is masked by fiscal resolve, his journey from businessman to messiah, while coming across as vaguely unlikely and not so definite, cloaked in money and fine cuff-links. Goeth, a Nazi official in charge of thousands of Jews, is portrayed with absolute brutality by Fiennes. His stare is devoid of life, but charged with electricity. He is a miserable man, insecure,  intelligent, and a paradox. He embodies our common conception of the psychotic Nazi. When he pairs up with Neeson – personality fireworks. It has the same energy as the Michelangelo (keep reading), except one man is sucking the life out of the other. Also there is this gripping scene where Goeth reaches his finger out at the mirror to himself, exactly as in The creation of Adam, and continues to renounce his feigned decency and shoot the little kid he had just reprieved.

Schindler’s List is a true epic, deserving of the term. About 3.3 hours long, it contains more images of suffering and hardship than most of us see in our lives. It is a sprawling work of fast-paced camera shots, misery, and redemption. In the end, it is the compassion of man, the messiah-like shepherding, and the essence of survival that withstand struggle.

Another epic production of redemption is Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Michelangelo, like Schindler, was a man of the New Testament. He was given almost complete control of the theology in his work, but chose to depict images from the Old Testament, particularly Genesis, in his pursuit to portray humanity’s need for salvation through God offered by Jesus.

With nearly every color available and every sensitivity known to the Renaissance mind, Michelangelo single-handedly created a sprawling work of genius. In the center row, there are 9 scenes from Genesis, moving from “In the beginning…” to Noah’s drunkenness. Surrounding some portions are male nudes, enigmatic, though thought to be angels. Around the outside are images of Jesus’ ancestry and the prophets who predicted His coming. Michelangelo’s depiction of Jonah is the peak of artistic illusion. On a surface sloping forward, he shows the prophet leaning back. …what?

While almost wholly Old Testament in design, the main idea is redemption and compassion – a loving theology. The ceiling clearly illustrates the fall of humanity from God’s grace, but not without resolve. The final frame of the fresco details Noah in his drunkenness. His sons are quick to cover him and his sins while a man labors outside. The worker illuminates mans duty after original sin while redemption and love prevail through the will of the sons. (See New Testament)

This detail of The creation of Adam is so firmly impressed on our culture that only Mona Lisa matches it in popularity. There is a reason. Everything about this work is electrifying. God’s firm, hyper-human right hand sends a charge of life into Adam’s limp, fated wrist. The inches between their fingers, devoid of color, are the most exciting part of the work. The bodies are broad, anatomically profound, and sprawling – highly characteristic of Michelangelo.

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