This is the first installment of a new, currently untitled column where Phoenix New Times culture editor Doug Markowitz writes about whatever's on his mind. If you would like to suggest a name for the column, contact the writer on Twitter @DougMarkowitz.
For me, music has always been a way to tell my own history. I can think of a song, and it reminds me of a time in my life when I was sad, or happy, or going through a change. Nothing is so deeply connected to memory and feeling as a tune one forgets about for years that suddenly comes back to you.
My parents, who were in town this weekend, don’t particularly care about music. It wasn’t really around the house when I was growing up, and if I were to self-analyze, I would say the absence drew me closer to music and made me want to make it part of my career.
Still, when I took them to the Musical Instrument Museum (the best place in the Valley if you want to kill a day and/or you have visitors to show around), they gazed attentively at the videos of Native American tribal dances, and oo-ed and aah-ed at the ouds in the Middle East gallery. My dad, who has an acerbic sense of humor, got to needle me a little by saying he thought everything in Asia sounded the same, even though Europe has at least five different orchestral displays. They seemed to enjoy their musical trip around the world, or so they told me.
This isn’t to say going to the MIM felt like a chore. It’s a great place, one of my favorite spots in the area. But there was another reason I was excited to go there on this specific weekend: I had just seen a film called Cold War. I didn’t know anything about it besides its director, the Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski. I loved his last film, the Oscar-winning Ida, and the new one had just come out on Amazon Prime.
The film is about Pawlikowski’s parents — the main characters are named after them — whose extraordinary, decade-spanning, border-crossing romance he dramatizes, using music to structure the eras of their relationship, beginning in 1949. Wiktor is a pianist and composer putting together a state-sponsored folk music troupe. Zula is a young singer and dancer with a criminal record who cons her way into the group. As the film begins, we see Wiktor and his team traveling around rural Poland, recording the kind of earthy, popular tunes one might see playing on video screens in the MIM: an old man playing a bagpipe here, a little girl singing a love song there.
The troupe develops a high-gloss, sanitized, yet undeniably beautiful and impressive repertoire from these folk songs, somewhat like what Bartok and other Eastern composers did for the music of their homelands. They sing like a cathedral choir and dance like a professional ballet. They’re a hit, and the Polish government will sponsor them, for a price — a few songs about Stalin and the workers added into the show. Even in the Eastern Bloc, there are ways one must sell out.
Amidst this, Zula and Wiktor fall hard in love. They hatch a plan to escape to Paris via Berlin — this is before the Wall — after she tells him she’s had to inform on him to keep her probation. He goes, but for whatever reason — doubt, fear — she doesn’t follow. They seek each other out intermittently over the next few years. In one scene, he appears while watching a performance she gives in Yugoslavia, but the police capture him and dump him on a train midway through the show. As we see her onstage, gazing at his now-empty seat, a look of distraught sadness on her face, the pastoral song she sings — a tale of lovers kept apart, of “Two hearts, four eyes / Crying all day and night” — takes on a deeper resonance.
Eventually, she does make it to Paris, where he moonlights as a club pianist and recruits her to sing the same “Two Hearts, Four Eyes” tune as a jazz number. He has it translated into bad French for a record — it’s her turn to sell out. In one sense, this setting of the song is just as beautiful, yet inauthentic as the choral version — the true original was sung by a peasant girl in an anonymous Polish village — but still, it’s even further from the source. The passion is gone, and soon, so is she.
I am so taken in by the film that, as soon as we get to the MIM the next morning, I let my parents wander through the Europe section while I make a beeline for Poland. The music here is not the same as in the film. It’s extremely corny. I watch the film again that night (you’ve got to love streaming) and realize that the music, as good as it is, isn’t anything but stage dressing. What actually made me love the film was the romance.
After the museum, my parents and I have dinner with relatives in Scottsdale. The elders catch up after years of not having seen each other, and I get to learn how my own parents met, a story I’d never heard in full. They grew up down the street from each other, reconnected after both had gone to school, dated for a while, then marriage, children, and now old age. There’s nothing so dramatic as the film.
As my parents’ flight takes off, I wonder which one of these roads I might travel on, and which one would be more desirable. My parents had an easier time than Pawlikowski’s, but their path was more mundane. In Cold War, there’s more passion, but also more desperation, more pain, and more time apart. Yet I have a feeling this is the better path — at least there’s more of a story in it.