Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • When Great Works Come from Bad People

    • Posted on Mar 16, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

     Four years ago, I taught a UNI undergraduate film course on Woody Allen’s films.  Students watched, discussed, studied, and wrote essays about Allen’s films ranging from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters to Crimes and Misdemeanors to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. 

    Allen has since made four more films, the most recent of which, Blue Jasmine, garnered an Oscar for best actress for Cate Blanchett. Allen was nominated for his screenplay, as he as been for dozens of other Oscars, winning four. 

    Allen writes, directs, and acted in his films until age took its toll.  He’s still writing and directing a film a year, and has for some forty years. They’re still winning major awards worldwide. 

    In the game of filmmaking, Woody Allen plays in the same league as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, among very few others.   

    Comes now the question:  Should I try to teach his films again, knowing about his

    stepdaughter Dylan’s recent accusations of childhood molestation and betrayal?  In fact, should I stop seeing and studying Allen’s films, many of which sit at the top of my all-time favorites list?  Should I urge a boycott of his films?

    Not an easy question, and it implies an even more difficult question:  Can bad people create good films, or good art of any kind?  Is there a relationship between personal decency and serious artistic creativity?   

    My answers:  Yes and no.  Yes to teaching Allen again, if possible, and no to moral goodness being related to creating great art.

    No matter what we might think about Allen and his stepdaughter’s accusations, his films won’t go away by being ignored.  They deserve attention and serious study, partly because they offer an array of engaging stories about people struggling with real issues that real people confront regularly:  Suicide, infidelity, family dysfunctions, meaningless work, finding joy in a dark world.    

    Does this mean that I condone child sexual abuse?  Of course not. 

    I have read Dylan Farrow’s angry denunciation of Allen as a hypocritical, monstrous child molester who has fooled everyone.  I’ve also read Allen’s reply, in which he cites the court’s investigation that cleared him of all the charges, saying unequivocally that there was no molestation.   

    And in fact, Dylan’s older brother, once estranged from Allen, now insists that Allen is innocent, and insists that their mother’s behavior toward Allen was inexcusable and likely led to Dylan’s accusation.  

    Then last week I watched The Hunt, a powerful Danish film about a small-town teacher who is falsely accused of molestation by a kindergartner, and how quickly his lifelong adult friends turned against him.  Hysteria lurks just around the corner when a child accuses an adult, it seems.   

    Incidentally, a shameful real life example occurred in 1983 in California.  The “McMartin Preschool Incident,” became an interminable criminal trial, ruined several lives, and led to all charges being dropped in 1990.  It’s a case study of the panic and groupthink that can overwhelm otherwise rational people.  

    So I don’t believe Allen is guilty of his stepdaughter’s accusation.  However, even if he were, I would still teach his films.  Unfortunately, great creators feel no obligation to follow the norms and rules of anything but their art. 

    Examples abound, and include terrible behavior by some of the world’s greatest artists.  The list of abhorrent behaviors is long and sordid, the names of artists familiar, and their works still beloved.  Google “bad people, great art” for the sad stories. 

    I wish only honest, morally upright artists created the novels, poems, paintings, music, and films we love and study.  Some do, of course. 

    But whether artists are good people or not seems to make no difference to their ability and desire to create lasting art.  

               

     

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  • In the Company of Virtuoso Musicians

    • Posted on Nov 04, 2013 by Scott Cawelti
    Published in the WATERLOO COURIER on Sunday,  October 27.  It's the culmination of our London trip, really, and explores what happens when gifted people develop their gifts with fierce passion and discipline.    

    For the past three weeks I’ve been surrounded by music and musicians, and it’s been—well, read on.

    By “music and musicians” I mean the highest of high-end virtuoso musicians, principal players in the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic orchestras, among others.   

    Because I’m married to a UNI flutist who’s researching a book on British flautist Geoffrey Gilbert, we’ve been in London interviewing those Gilbert students who are now accomplished concert performers and teachers.  

    Gilbert taught several major flautists in the United Kingdom, including Sir James Galway, William Bennett, Trevor Wye, and Susan Milan, among many others.  We’ve been interviewing them all.      

    I’m here to tell you:  Musicians at the virtuoso level are special people.  Being with them has offered a chance to ponder music and its place in our lives.    

    Having taught music briefly myself, I know a little about how music works.

    Humans seek it, play it, listen to it, yearn for it, use it as therapy, and wish they could play it better. 

    I’ve now become more aware of how music affects those who devote every waking hour to it.  All the musicians we’ve interviewed have done just that from childhood.

    What else makes them special?

    First and foremost, they’re disciplined.   They spend hours in daily practice, and all emphasize the need to love and play their instrument, virtually constantly. It’s not for the uncommitted or lazy.     

    When we arrived at Galway’s hotel suite in Belfast, the first notable object was a music stand with music on it.  He had been practicing that morning, and every morning, beginning with scales and difficult passages.  

    Galway emphasized during his interview that no one wants to listen to musicians who don’t practice daily.  Susan Milan, the first woman principal flutist of the Royal Philharmonic, told us that she spent a full year, seven hours a day, practicing nothing but scales and studies.

    And she loved it.  Every minute of it.   Those are her words. 

    That’s the second trait of accomplished musicians.  They spend their lives in love.  Totally, completely, unequivocally in love.  Not necessarily with a romantic partner and certainly not with themselves.  But with making music.  

    Many are in happy relationships, but their partners have a rival in music.

    All accomplished musicians overcame doubts, complaints, critics, personal hangups, and devoted themselves completely to music, to improving their playing to the point of near-perfection.

    I asked William Bennett, another superstar of the flute world, how he managed to teach nine one-hour master classes in one long day with such high energy.  We visited his master class at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where only the best students get admitted.  Forty students also attended.

    I observed two hours, and his intensity and devotion to each student was beyond admirable.

    Bennett said, “This is a like a vacation from worries for me.  It’s plain fun, all day.”

    He’s about to turn 78, by the way. 

    That’s the third trait of these virtuosos:  Longevity.

    Because these musicians never “work” in the sense of grinding through a day of resenting what they do, they’re often able to carry on for years beyond the norm. 

    Besides Bennett, Sir James Galway may be the best example.  He’s 74, and when we interviewed him he was about to headline the Belfast Music Festival, playing a concerto with the Ulster Chamber Orchestra. 

    Though busy with interviews, rehearsals, master classes, and constant demands on his time, he seemed relaxed and full of good humor.  Clearly he enjoys fame—he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2001--but not nearly as much as he enjoys making music.

    That’s the whole key:  Making music. Nearly everyone I know has made music, or makes music, or wish they had made music.  It seems the very stuff of life, akin to breathing and eating.      

    Virtuoso musicians, by virtue of their talent, practice, and commitment, just have more of it.

    “Music has charms to sooth the savage breast,” wrote William Congreve in 1697, then the striking second line: “To soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.”

    That’s the power of music:  sooth, soften, bend.  

    Now I would add:  Transform.   

    Go comment!
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