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Hallelujah: Why Art Can Help In Contentious Times

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Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, performs Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah.'

Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, performs Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ on Saturday Night Live.


Though I’ve devoted my life to the pursuit, and I honestly never grow tired of doing it or teaching it, I’ll confess that there are passing moments when I wonder: How can I write (or talk, or even think) about art today? What’s the point?

But two things in the last 48 hours have reminded me why those of us who care about music—or film, or painting, or any artistic endeavor—continue to do so, arguably more so than ever when the dark clouds loom.

On Sunday afternoon, I joined some of my most respected colleagues in the Chicago media to remember the late, great Roger Ebert at a panel during the Chicago Book Expo organized by his widow Chaz. We were celebrating Ebert not just as a critic, but as a writer on, as he said in the title of his 2013 memoir, Life Itself. Because Roger of course believed that nothing in life is more important than art (film, in his case; music, in ours), because art encompasses everything about life, love most especially, and life is made immeasurably more meaningful by its presence.

Everyone who read his work on Sunday—Tribune film critic Michael Phillips and columnist Rick Kogan, Roger’s longtime editor at the Sun-Times Laura Emerick, and Pamela Sherrod Anderson—underscored not only his brilliance as a writer and thinker, but the enduring strength of his philosophy. The pieces they read all seemed more timely and important than ever, and arguably in a less heavy-handed way than the essay I chose, a 2008 re-examination of Triumph of the Will.

My selection, I hoped, would not be taken as glib or superficial commentary; I was aiming for something like the incredible multi-layered review Michiko Kakutani wrote for The New York Times in September of the first volume of a new biography, the resonances of which set the journalism world atwitter. Because as I scrolled through my Ebert archives, what struck me about his evisceration of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary was his comparison to another film he loved: Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970). The contrast told you everything you needed to know about both films, Ebert contended, with the former striving to make a demagogue and a massive event seem larger than life and “perfect” in its show of invincibility, and the latter zeroing in on the exact opposite, the humanity of the individuals.

Wadleigh “makes the Port-O-San Man, serving the portable toilets, into a folk hero,” Roger wrote, while Riefenstahl doesn’t even bother to search for human touches, finding only “individuality crushed by the massed conformity.”

My other prod back to the land of the living was the celebration of another true individual upon his death at age 82. I don’t have much to add here about Leonard Cohen—The New York Times and my colleague Greg Kot at The Chicago Tribune both paid worthy homage in their obituaries, and Kot and I are gearing up celebrate the music Sound Opinions-style on next week’s show. We’ll try our best, but it will be difficult indeed to top the cold open of Saturday Night Live last week, as Kate McKinnon performed an excerpt of “Halleluah,” arguably one of the few unequivocally perfect songs in the history of popular music, with gut-wrenching emphasis on the most prescient of Cohen’s many brilliant couplets.

“I did my best, it wasn’t much/I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch/I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you/And even though/It all went wrong/I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

Life goes on, and at its best, art makes it better, always. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast or stream Sound Opinions.

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