Thursday, November 27, 2014


by Steven Boone

The press conference comic relief in the James Brown bioflick GET ON UP made me think of a passage in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), in which philosopher Robert Pirsig, a WHITE American of Swedish and German descent, is trying to define his Metaphysics of Quality without defining it. Madness. Referring to his former self (pre-electroconvulsive therapy) in the third person the way, say, a Soul music superstar might, he recalls a pivotal encounter with some real cool BLACKS:

"Squareness. That's the look. That sums it. Squareness. When you subtract quality you get squareness. Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.

Some artist friends with whom he had once traveled across the United States came to mind. They were Negroes, who had always been complaining about just this Qualitylessness he was describing. Square. That was their word for it. Way back long ago before the mass media had picked it up and given it national white usage they had called all that intellectual stuff square and had wanted nothing to do with it. And there had been a fantastic mismeshing of conversations and attitudes between him and them because he was such a prime example of the squareness they were talking about. The more he had tried to pin them down on what they were talking about the vaguer they had gotten.

Now with this Quality he seemed to say the same thing and talk as vaguely as they did, even though what he talked about was as hard and clear and solid as any rationally defined entity he'd ever dealt with. Quality. That's what they'd been talking about all the time. ``Man, will you just please, kindly dig it,'' he remembered one of them saying, ``and hold up on all those wonderful seven-dollar questions? If you got to ask what is it all the time, you'll never get time to know.'' Soul. Quality. The same?"

Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, GET ON UP sorts through one brilliant man's memories, triumphs and traumas. Unlike Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, GET ON UP can't quite catch the groove. Zen's beautiful prose, for all its nerdy tangents, embodies soul; Tate Taylor's James Brown movie, despite its ultramagnetic star, only reaches it when the music is playing. Its flow of images is network-TV square.

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