Sunday, September 15, 2013

Michael Thelwell's "The Harder They Come"

In the 40th anniversary year of Perry Hensell's remarkable film--the first full-length feature ever made in Jamaica, the one that launched the astonishing riches of Jamaican syncretic music upon the world, the one that captured in remarkable verite techniques the based-in-fact but still archetypal story of the singer/gunman/Robin Hood character Ivanhoe "Rhygin" Martin--I have to give a shout-out to Michael Thelwell's remarkable novelization of the film.

Usually novelizations of existing films are just another way of merchandising the electronic media: I think of the execrable Rat Patrol novelizations I engulfed avidly at age 8, or the endless stream of Star Trek / Star Wars spin-offs, or the not-very-much better redrilling of the dry holes of the Bond or Zelazny "brands" long after their originators have passed on.

But what Thelwell has done is much different, much deeper, and still one of the best portraits of the roots of ska and reggae and of Rastafarianism I've ever encountered. Still assign it in my "Musics of the African Diaspora" seminar because, even if it is "fiction", it conveys the truth of those experiences more deeply, profoundly and truthfully than any ethnography of the region I've ever read. What Thelwell did, quite consciously and intentionally, was not to "novelize" the screenplay of the film--as is the usual, mundane practice--but rather to imagine the folk-story and ghetto myths upon which such a film might have been made. It's the same kind of thing that Peter Jackson et al did with The Hobbit. The originating book is a kid's book, but his mandate (no doubt economic) was to expand it into a tale that could sustain 2 or more feature-length films. So what they did, quite intentionally (and, I think, effectively), was to imagine that the children's book which Tolkien authored was in fact a "children's version" of a much more intense folk-tale of heroic grandeur. In this respect--whether Tolkien intended this or not--Jackson and crew are also able to draw upon the depth and richness of the world that Tolkien created in the Silmarillion. He wasn't a very competent storyteller, but (as the Bassanda experiment makes clear) there is a tremendous and engaging creative energy to be accessed by imagining, or recreating, a world.

That's what Thelwell does in The Harder They Come: he provides a nuanced, detailed, and rich back-story for Ivanhoe/Rhygin as Jimmy Cliff portrayed him in the film, but also a meditation on urbanization, the loss of home, modernization in Caribbean creole contexts, the roots of Rastafari (the way in which Thelwell compresses about 100 years of evolving Jamaican syncretic religion into one parade witnessed by Ivanhoe is a tour de force), the relationship between spirituality, ganja, and crime. It's a remarkable, virtuoso novelistic performance, and it accomplishes the remarkable trick of making the film deeper, more resonant, more profound.

Big ups to Ras Michael. Respect!

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