Sunday, July 31, 2005

Miroslav Tichý


This past month, the first ever exhibition of seventy-nine year old Moravian recluse Miroslav Tichý commenced at the Kunsthaus Zurich, thrusting a major new voice (in terms of the collective consciousness, at least) into the international art spotlight. For anyone interested in this "dissident" and "hermit" -- he spent eight years in Communist prisons and clinics for his nonconformity before building a camera out of trash as per his epic poverty -- let me commend Modern Painters' characteristically informative piece. (Though to read the piece in its entirety it is unfortunately necessary to purchase the publication; then again it is the best arts journal going, so just buy it!) I will also use the opportunity of this introduction to post photos on Tativille for the first time, which is perhaps not the best idea given his nude female subjects. Still, with the physical deterioration that he allows his images to suffer, there is an undeniable sense of the transience of physical beauty included in these exceptionally elegiac works. Their subject matter thus is not the nude figure alone -- thereby portending something other than pornography -- but rather beauty's passage, consequently reminding us all of life's evanescence. This is dimly-recalled eroticism, somehow closer to memory (making it all the more wistful) than it is to photographic reality. Take a look and see if you agree:



Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Limitations of Brilliance, Better than Perfection: The Conformist and Au hasard Balthazar

As with few other films, I envy the newcomer as I envy David Niven for having made love to Merle Oberon; that Bertolucci's masterpiece -- made when he was all of 29 -- will be the most revelatory experience a fortunate pilgrim will have in a theater this year is a foregone conclusion.

-Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice

Exactly. Then again, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970, Italy) may have something else in store for its more seasoned admirers: incipient indifference (albeit on the smallest of scales). Lucky for Bernardo, few spectators fall into this latter category. For reasons unknown, given especially the film's lyrical immediacy, The Conformist continues to be available only on an out-of-print, dubbed VHS format. Doing its best to rectify this grave want, the Film Forum will be screening Bertolucci's opus now through August 11th. And as Michael Atkinson notes, few films this year will be able to rival its potential impact.

From the flashing neon of the opening credits, The Conformist is awash in visual ideas. Or more precisely, so begins its rolodex of unforgettable images. Indeed, there is no final rule for Bertolucci and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's visual strategy other than that will it lean heavily on the indelible -- be it a whitewashed roof-top asylum, Jean-Louis Trintignant walking alongside a vintage automobile in a canted composition, fallen leaves swept up by a sudden gust, the beautiful Stefania Sandrelli dancing with the even more gorgeous Dominique Sanda, or the latter pounding on Trintignant's automobile window as he looks on impassively, The Conformist is the sum of its visual highlights.

It is also, of course, a parable about fascism, as is confirmed first by its literal-minded title. Then again, The Conformist is a film where everything is made clear, abundantly, whether by a score that highlights significant moments with a bull-horn's subtlety, or in a narrative that never allows its viewer to escape from its Marxist cum Freudian interpretative framework -- right up to a final plot twist straight out of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life. To be sure, The Conformist is a work of boundless talent, but it is also a film of limited mystery, born of the unrelenting certainty beget by Bertolucci's youthful brilliance. Even at its most formally unconventional -- i.e. its temporal leap-frogging -- Bertolucci psychologizes his character's actions (and inactions) so assiduously that there is no mistaking his intentions: a fascist is built according to the measure of his desire for an illusory normalcy corresponding to a supposed cultural normativity, full stop. Though The Conformist may resemble at first truly challenging film art, the clarity of this discourse as well as the directness of its pleasure argue otherwise. This is a work of simplicity, however ambitious, whose first taste will always be its sweetest. With that said, its sumptuousness is not to be missed.

The same spectatorial arc does not apply to another of this year's resurfaced masterpieces, Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966, France), released last month in the U.S. for the first time ever on home video. If The Conformist orchestrates the making of a fascist in its precise detailing of psychological causes, Au hasard Balthazar seems to encounter its protagonists' unawares, articulating the effects prior to and apart from their causes. In other words, Bresson's film showcases life as we witness life, uninformed of the immediate causes of events. However, it is not simply events or actions that Bresson is portraying in Au hasard Balthazar but rather sin; and consistent with the Christian notion of iniquity, it is not something to judge situationally. There are no causes, no justifications for the transgressions represented on-screen. Moreover, the concept is expressed in purely carnal terms -- sin is a matter of flesh; spirit is absent. (It is also of note that in spite of its coldness, Bresson's is a profoundly sensual film in the most literal of senses.)

Of course, absence is the key to Bresson's aesthetic, whether it is his denial of surface expression which calls attention to interiority through referential absence or in his mise-en-scene with its notoriously shallow focus -- rigorously depicted with a 50mm lens -- and tight, medium close-up framing. Similarly, this same austerity figures in his audio track which is as significant for its silences as it is for its amplified ambient sounds. Each unit of sound and image is a precisely modulated expression of what the director wishes to relay (less any superfluous detail). In this way, Bresson's past as a painter is drawn into particular focus inasmuch as his cinema manifests the same total control over his subject matter, even if there is not a single frame in Au hasard Balthazar that can rival the scores of unforgettable images in The Conformist. Then again, Bresson's film seeks nothing more than the representation of the ethereal in a medium beholden to the material. His is a reproduction of a life unseen. Even so, Bresson's cinema stands above all other's in its equitable presentation of sound and image. Au hasard Balthazar, along with works as A Man Escaped (1956) and the perfect Pickpocket (1959) -- which it nevertheless exceeds by virtue of the concreteness of its metaphor -- represent a cinema that has finally become fully itself (as Marguerite Duras once said), bringing into harmony its audio and visual components for the very first time.

But of course, Au hasard Balthazar is not form alone, but is instead the director's most carefully constructed Christian allegory. To begin with, the film's title character is a donkey -- a creature with its own special relationship to both the nativity and also the crucifixion narrative, named after one of the three wise men. After an idyllic youth spent with children in the French countryside, Balthazar becomes a beast of burden, used and abused by a series of owners. He is both a silent witness to their sin and a carrier of its weight, as when he is used to smuggle goods at night. Yet it is truly the former that best describes the animal's narrative agency: this is a film about the mankind for whose sins Christ died. When finally the animal's life comes to an end, Bresson makes the analogy precise surrounding the creature with sheep. Above all, Au hasard Balthazar is the great Christian allegory of the twentieth century.

Then again, given the director's refusal to explicate psychology in keeping with his programmatic realism, Au hasard Balthazar remains open to those who would deny this reference. By a subtle shift in emphasis, Bresson's film becomes a Marxist critique of capital or proof of God's death provided the picture's unending bleakness. Either way, it is for the audience to interpret, not the artist. Surely, Au hasard Balthazar is not so much reality itself as it is a mirror, calling all spectators to an act of spiritual evaluation -- with a Christ-figure at its core. The truth may be on-screen, as it is in life, but it is no easier to decipher. The depths and mysteries of Au hasard Balthazar are as deep as life itself.

Friday, July 22, 2005

New Film: Last Days, Bad News Bears & Wedding Crashers

Prior to his most recent renaissance -- culminating with the Palme d'Or-winner Elephant (2003) -- audiences could have been forgiven for assuming that Gus Van Sant's best work was behind him. After all, it was Van Sant who was responsible for the middle brow irrelevancy of Good Will Hunting (1997), exactly the sort of work that is mistaken for good by people who don't know anything about movies. What's worse, of course, is that this same film made the career of the pestilent Ben Affleck -- a sin for which no amount of good deeds can atone. If that leaves grace as Van Sant's only option, he got close with Elephant, which demonstrated a love of its adolescent character's otherwise unknown in contemporary cinema.

In his latest, Last Days, as much a biopic of the late Kurt Cobain's final moments as Elephant was a picture about Columbine -- that is in everything but name -- Van Sant again tackles adolescence: in this case of the prolonged variety, the twenty-something rock star. As his drug-addled subjects, Blake (the Cobain character played by Michael Pitt) and his hangers-on, drift through a dilapidated Pacific Northwest mansion, which organically showcases the same deterioration as befell Blake's psyche in these "last days," Van Sant portrays lives lacking the emotional compass required for self-preservation. Yet unlike his beautiful, awkward, and in the case of his killers, tragically-misguided teenagers in Elephant, there is nothing but ugliness on display in Last Days. However romantic the character of Blake may be, beauty is not part of the calculus; the universality of Elephant has been replaced with the particularity of Blake, which indeed mediates the discursive power of his tragic end. To have compassion for the characters in Elephant is to draw on our own recollections of our teenage years. To watch Blake and his live-in guests idyll is to witness something to which the majority of viewers cannot relate out of their own experience. At best, pity ensues; at worst, disgust. In either case this is no replacement for a compassion compelled by understanding.

Though Last Days does not therefore equal Elephant in its emotional scope, it does rival the prior work in its aesthetic ambitions. Here, again Van Sant fragments time, replacing an exact inscription of the final 90-plus minutes of his life with a dispersed impression of these "last days." Dispersed, that is, as other characters float in and out of the narrative in order to give shape to his isolation -- gestures of help and abandonment are combined to instantiate Blake's final fate.

Of course, Richard Linklater took the opposite approach in his wonderful Before Sunset (2004), where the duration of the story is replicated in a near facsimile to real time. No similar ambition, however, is on display in his latest, Bad News Bears, a remake of the classic ESPN Classic, The Bad News Bears (1976). While this does not preclude the film from possessing substantial value -- School of Rock (2003) is not exactly ambitious, and yet it remains eminently entertaining -- Bad News Bears is slight nevertheless. Rewritten by the same pair who scripted Bad Santa (2003, Terry Zwigoff) and starring that film's vile Kris Kringle, Billy Bob Thorton, clearly Bad News Bears was conceived as an update of the earlier Bears with a shade of the Zwigoff film. However, Linklater's Bears can not match the unrelenting vulgarity of the Santa picture, which in its sustained lack of propriety achieved its own form integrity and demonstrated a clear (if decidedly bleak) world view. The film's mitigation, in this respect, is in part a function of its PG-13 rating. Likewise, Linklater's own political correctness softens the work's vulgarity: sure we laugh at the wheel chaired-character zipping out to play right field, but Linklater does allow him to make a key out. And of course the pitching sensation is female -- perhaps progressive pre Title-IX, but now, such a characterization is nothing more than comfortably liberal.

David Dobkin's Wedding Crashers is anything but. In this Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn vehicle, women are gullible, if not down-right stupid. This is not a film that proceeds according to the Prizzi's Honor or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels cliché, where it might seem that the men are in control, but where it is genuinely the female characters who are orchestrating events. Here, these "wedding crashers" breathlessly manipulate women through the most-transparently phony gimmicks one could possibly imagine; and even, for instance, when the Gloria character shows herself to be a bit wiser than she first appears, she still falls for Vaughn's B.S.

If this makes Wedding Crashers sound unduly reactionary, the fact is that the picture's impolitic qualities make it a renunciation of contemporary cultural values. The fact is that what's good for the goose has long not been good for the gander. Wedding Crashers is the sort of politically-incorrect work that restores the equation (though admittedly there is a limit to such a renewed equality, provided that it depends on the inferiority of one of the two genders). Still, this is a film whose comedy succeeds because it s taboo. And like Bad Santa before it, Wedding Crashers similarly sustains an integrity of impropriety -- the funeral crasher who appears may be a scumbag, but he's also a genius.

Wedding Crashers similarly succeeds because of the charisma and likeability of its leads, Wilson and Vaughn. Amiable without being admirable, like their characters, they give off the impression of being the life of the party, generous with everyone, even if they have less than laudable ends. Excuse the expression, but these are two guys who can really shoot the shit, and come on, who doesn't like that? They're guy's guys, who are as comfortable in a pick-up football game as they are in their ill-gotten moments of intimacy. In a society that has effectively rid itself of masculinity, there is something deeply satisfying about seeing characters like this on-screen. Sometimes sensitivity is gratuitous. Sometimes what is called for is a good punch in the face. Sometimes you just have to call somebody a "pussy."

Monday, July 11, 2005

Television is not an art

Television is not an art. Television is a medium that engages in the broadcast of art -- in addition to that of journalism, sporting events, and other forms of entertainment -- but it is not an art form in its own right. What semantic difference does this make? It makes some.

First, it must be acknowledged that cinema which is broadcast on television is still cinema. If one was to watch The Bridges of Madison County on television with commercials, as I did for the time, one is still watching Clint Eastwood's work of art, even if the experience of the film is somewhat amended by the particularities of its mode of broadcast. The same is true for any experience other than its projection in 35, even if VHS or especially DVD closer approximates the intended circumstances of its screening. Assuming that it is not recut -- which is characteristic for the pay channels even if it is not the norm elsewhere -- Eastwood's ideas and their implementation are the same; he photographs the same subjects, cuts in the same places, etc. The work is the same discursively as well as ontologically; that is, the four fundamental elements of the medium remain unchanged on the small screen -- which is to say, it is (or can be) the same representation of space, time, light, and sound.

All of this is to say that cinema can exist on television, which surely is the first place that many of us have seen certain motion pictures, be it through broadcast or more often perhaps, home video. Moreover, works like Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982) and Dekalog (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989) were themselves intended for television broadcast, with abridged formats that would be released theatrically. Few would deny their status as works of cinema, largely one supposes because of their authorship.

Which brings me to an important point: if film is a medium of director's (and theatre, of actor's) then I think we can say that television belongs to writer's. In the parlance of the medium (as in 'of broadcast,' rather than as an art form) the creator of the program -- David Chase with The Sopranos, Alan Ball with Six Feet Under -- is more often than not a writer, who continues to work in this capacity, to varying degrees, as the program continues. This is not to say that a director is always invisible in television broadcasting, but rather that as a default, he or she is. Television style tends to be invisible, and when it is not, a matter for replication from one work to the next. The mise-en-scene is not the thing with television, it is the story and characters.

Stepping back for a moment, this divide between film and television is artificial, admittedly. The basic ontology of a television program is the same as that of a motion picture -- with or without the commercials. (If Russian Ark were the rule rather than the exception, I might pause for reflection; as it is however, the dictates of the commercial break do little to effect its ontology, even though it does influence its narrative arc, which is a subset of its temporal dimension.) When a program does not have commercials, as with BBC programming or HBO, the question is null anyways.

Which brings one back to the essential difference between television and theatrical/home video cinema: the circumstances of its production. Television, because of the amount to be shot, whether its six, twelve, or twenty-two episodes, demands a different speed of production -- and of course, allows the writer far more space to develop characters and various storylines. How many great novels can you think of, after all, which you read in 105 minutes? This same 105 minutes, however, gives the director more problems to resolve than he or she needs: the performances, the blocking, the lighting, the camera movements, the cutting, the soundtrack, et al. Robert Bresson made all of fourteen films in forty years -- including the unmatched Pickpocket which clocks in at a lean 75 -- and still, his corpus rates among the greatest of anyone ever to work in the art form. The Simpsons is on season seventeen, Law & Order, number sixteen (in the first of five incarnations to date).

Naturally, then, television's shooting style lends itself towards a mass-production approach, curiously similar to that of the early studio system. And like the heyday of the studios, television has shown itself to be more than adept in the production of tele-visual pleasures. Consider the abundance of highly-involving programs to appear on American in television in just the past decade: Seinfeld, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, The Shield, The Wire, Nip/Tuck, Arrested Development, and Deadwood, to name only a few. Each of these represent storytelling, character development, comedy, or a combination thereof at their very best, even if they don't rate with the cinema of Eastwood, Lynch, Jarmusch, Linklater, Mann, Scorsese, Payne, and either one of the Anderson's in terms of their mise-en-scene. They do not equal them as works of cinema, but they do provide pleasures of their own. It's not even that they are deficient in their ideas: The Sopranos after all is an extremely ambitious examination of the American-myth gone awry; Seinfeld was a show about nothing that adeptly exposed its manipulation of its audience in the show's brilliant, though less than viscerally satisfying finale -- on second thought, maybe this does confirm at least Seinfeld's final episode as great cinema. Anyways, the point is, these are shows about something (or nothing) which are fully-sufficient in terms of their storytelling, though they often do not equal the organic complexity of cinema's best.

Often, because at times, television does rise to the level of great cinema. Fanny and Alexander and Dekalog are obvious examples. Less so, perhaps is another instance where the auteurs are the writer-directors rather than simply the writers is the BBC's The Office written and directed by the team of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. This is auteurist television, in the classic cinematic sense. Here it is not simply the brilliant comic writing that elevates the work to the status of great, but is, moreover, their handling of the space and time of this dreary setting: those interstices when nothing is happening dramatically; the character's awareness of the camera and its solicitation of performance; the wonderful moment in the second series when Tim takes off his microphone to ask Dawn an enormously intimate question, etc. Form and content are organically fused in The Office. This is great cinema in the classic tradition of the film serial.

Indeed, like the work of Louis Feuillade in the early 20th century, The Office, as is true of all good fictional television, most closely resembles the form of the serial in the manner that it compels the viewer to see what happens in the next installment. With the advent of the television series DVDs, entire seasons can now be consumed at the viewer's pace, as one might read a page-turner. Television has found its vocation in this format -- first-rate storytelling, and more often than not, second-rate cinema. So be it. It's time for Hell's Kitchen, and I don't want to miss a second.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Current Exhibitions: Pioneering Modern Painting / The Fabric of Dreams

The museum equivalent of Batman Begins -- a major summer blockbuster, though one lacking the cache of say a Van Gogh, the Sith of the art world -- Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 (running now through September 12th at the Museum of Modern Art New York) seeks to contextualize the work of these two late nineteenth century giants within their working relationship. At first glance one fears a curatorial straw-man: none of his contemporaries, let alone Pissarro, can match Cézanne's achievement in reinventing the language of an entire medium. After all, the art of Cézanne represents no less than a translation of 19th century science into the medium of painting, providing an important precursor to profoundly subjective literature of Joyce and Proust: in looking at one of Cézanne's paintings, the spectator is compelled to overlook intentional inconsistencies and to combine the work's disparate color fragments in his or her own mind's eye. In other words, the art of Cézanne portends a shifting paradigm in which it is no longer the artist alone who creates the visual object, but rather the artist in collaboration with the spectator, and particularly the eye of the spectator. Visual truth becomes subjective.

Who indeed can match this reconstitution of the medium's mode of spectatorial address? At best, Camille Pissarro is a master of atmospherics and a poet of the melancholy; his is not an original idiom. Still, Pissarro's excellence, such as it is, is on full display in the MoMA's double exhibition. In his Banks of the Marne in Winter (1866), the leaves that have fallen from the trees, the grey skies, and the field that is still green (befitting the earliest days of the season), all combine to create the sadness that marks Pissarro's finest work. On the other hand, when Pissarro's work fully inhabits the summertime -- occasioning not even a cool shadow as he does so well in Crossroads at L'Hermitage, Pontoise (1876) -- it seems little more than comfort food.

If Pissarro is thus a bit uneven, there would seem zero evidence of this in Cézanne's enormous corpus: he is very much the Bresson of painting, steadfastly proceeding according to an individual logic which has touched everything of importance since. Cézanne is not only the father of twentieth century painting, but is almost certainly the greatest single artist in his medium since Rembrandt. None of his peers compare in terms of both aesthetic invention and historical importance... and yet, Pissarro somehow remains a master hanging beside Cézanne. The moral of this is that surely Pissarro is a superlative artist indeed, with touches of grace when his subject matter matches his melancholic temperament. Similarly, Pissarro's work also serves to illuminate Cézanne's somewhat counterintutive high-key tonal register (that is for someone who spent a lifetime painting landscape's, still life's and self-portrait's: Pissarro's is an art of muffled tears, Cézanne's of guttural whelps).

Then again, in contrast to Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles, Cézanne's work seems down right Apollinarian. To me, the real value of the Metropolitan Museum's reconsideration of Matisse's extra-textual sources (on now through September 26th) was its revelation of Matisse as a supreme aesthete, as opposed to the artist-philosopher that I had long assumed, provided his unmistakable preoccupation with line. Speaking for instance of Morocco in connection to one his famed Odalisque's, Matisse noted that he "felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, that divine unconcern, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colors." In other words, Matisse's confesses a memory and preoccupation with the visual stimuli of the place. Surface appearances guide Matisse no less than touch does Renoir (which can be seen in his soft, gauzy works), or light and air does Monet. One can see Matisse's eye in this assembly of his work.

Of course, the textiles that are on display beside the paintings clearly did provide Matisse with many of the patterns that he would replicate in one work after another. Indeed, the Met exhibit makes a compelling case for his heavy borrowing of this curious source. However, the true value of "Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles" is less in the details of his debt to these pieces than in the role they play in showing how his artistic mind worked. Surely, the textile was precisely what occupied his two-dimensional imagination. It was the sort of subject that engaged his Dionysian spirit. It seems strange to me to classify Matisse in opposition to Cézanne (and with Renoir no less!), but there can be no denying his interest in the purely aesthetic. In this way, Matisse almost becomes an ahistorical figure, guided by the dictates of his aesthetic feeling and not the broader cultural fources that shape each age's art. Then again, the reflexive results of Matisse's concerns produced an art that perfectly instatiates the self-consciousness of his epoch. As such, Matisse must remain to us one of the defining creators of his generation.

In closing, let me make the following observations concerning the curation of the two shows: both do an excellent job providing context for the particular pieces, whether it is the similar subject matter produced by Cézanne and Pissarro or Matisse's borrowing of the graphic qualities of certain textiles. The MoMA exhibition falters a bit in its lighting, impelling the viewer to search out a passable vantage from which to view the paintings; but otherwise, these are first rate, blockbuster shows, more Christopher Nolan than George Lucas.