This is a big moment for Madonna. There is the documentary and the record, but also a dramatic film, Filth and Wisdom,
which she co-wrote, produced, and directed. Madonna’s debut as an auteur The movie, which started as a short and grew into at feature, will be released on iTunes, which, depending how you see the world, is a desperate such or a bold gesture. Its first showing was at the Berlin Film Festival, where it received some snotty reviews (much mocked was a press release in which the names of two of Madonna’s heroes, Godard and Pasolini. were misspelled) and some positive. “Madonna has done herself proud,” James Christopher wrote in The Times of London. “Her film has an artistic ambition that has simply bypassed her husband, the film director Guy Ritchie. She captures that wonderfully accidental nature of luck when people’s lives intersect for a whole swathe of unlikely but cherishable reasons. Alt manesque would be stretching the compliment too far, but Filth and Wisdom shows Madonna has real potential as a director.”
“I’ve been inspired by films since I started dancing, and I’m married to a filmmaker, and I think it was one of my secret desires, but I was afraid to just say, ‘I want to be a director,’ ” she told me. “Butt then one day I said. O.K., stop dreaming and do it. But I didn’t want to do it the Hollywood way, and talk through agents. I decided it all had to be generated by me, so I wrote it.”
She then said, “It was my film school.”
Filth and Wisdom stars Eugene Htitz, the Ukrainian lead singer of the downtown New York gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello, whose vocal style is somewhere between Joe Strummer and Borat. Hutz is lanky and wears an elaborate mustache, and is so charismatic he holds the movie together, almost, while it follows a half-dozen people around London as they search for truth.
“I feel this film was seriously influenced by Godard,” Madonna said. “He’s the one filmmaker I was always inspired by, but I have a lot of other filmmakers I was inspired by, all dead Europeans. I went to the University of Michigan for one year, and fortunately they had a foreign-film cinema, and I discovered it, and I thought I died and went to heaven. I discovered Fellini and Visconti and Pasolini and De Sica and Bunuel.”
The movie is organized around Madonna’s philosophical notions, beliefs she has taken from Kabbalah, which is a Hebrew word for the teaching. Kabbalists believe there were two revelations on Mount Sinai: what God told Moses to write on the tablets, and a secret teaching, what the Infinite whispered to the Finite, which was then passed from father to son. Most celebrity religions, which is what Kabbalah became in L.A., offer distinct levels of understanding – one for the masses, another for the elite – which echoes the existing celebrity worldview: outside or inside, onstage or plunged into darkness. For Madonna, Kabbalah, as taught at the Kabbalah Centre, had the advantage of seeming to reinforce what she already felt to be true: there is no good and evil, no right and wrong. All such distinctions are artificial. “Ultimately everything’s good,” she told me. “Even bad is good, because bad is there to help you resist it. You need to have that resistance to be good, and, let’s face it, the worst things that happen are always the best things that happen. If you look back at your life and say, Well, what did you learn? What happened that changed your life, that made you strong, that made you grow, it’s always things you perceived as bad.
“So is there bad?”
What’s Madonna’s genius?
It’s not her work as a singer, nor as a songwriter, nor as a director, certainly not as an actor, nor as a maker of videos, even if that’s what Norman Mailer said in 1994 in his Esquire interview with Madonna: “She not only made the best music videos of them all, but they transcended personality. She was the premier artist of the music video, and it might be the only new popular art form in American life.”
In the end, Madonna will be remembered as a minter of images. Think back on her career. It’s not songs you remember, or not primarily, nor films, nor videos; it’s the scenes or little tableaux. Madonna is the Joseph Cornell of pop music. You recall her career as a series of lit boxes, face cards in a marked deck: Madonna as a street urchin, in spangles; Madonna as Marilyn, in satin; Madonna as a deflowered virgin, writhing onstage in a wedding dress; Madonna as Saint Francis of Assisi, covered in icons and weeping for fragile things; Madonna on the Cross, like Jesus, but better, because did Jesus ever come down from the Cross to sing a song?