Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now At The Getty: The Religious Art of Sinai and Dresden

Running now through March 4th at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai represents the largest American instillation of Byzantine icons from St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula -- which happens to house more than half of all Eastern icons in existence. As such, Holy Image, Hallowed Ground constitutes a major event in the art world on the basis of its subject alone. Therefore, it is all the more gratifying that the exhibition not only establishes the stylistic and thematic range of the pieces, but their substantial aesthetic value as well, and at least a facsimile of their impact. These are works that don't reproduce well, however -- the pieces require the beholder to interact with them in their space. Take for instance the masterful Late 12th century Annunciation from the Holy Monastery: here, a burnished golden ray of light cuts through the large, empty gold-leaf background, depicting the Holy Spirit's descent in the scene. In print -- or on-screen -- the work's compositional grace is manifest, though it fails to reach its genuine phenomenological impact: in person, the ray of light seems to almost descend toward the Virgin when one moves in front of the icon, with the burnished ray becoming apparent from certain angles when it is invisible from others.

Another instance of this work's power in its presence can be found in the superlative 11th century Scenes of the Nativity immediately to the Annunciation's left. In its case, the work's beautiful color palette becomes visible in a manner that seems impossible in print or on line. Yet, it is not simply that the work utilizes rich hues, but that they guide the beholder's view, narrating what is genuinely a sophisticated narrational space: the viewer's gaze lands at the Mary and then the midwife in the upper center of the composition, before his/her attention is led to the magi approaching and then to a scene of their adoration of the Christ child. (This element again is not evident in print, and therefore does not fully tell the story of their readings; in person, the nativity works in much the same way as Masaccio's Tribute Money.) However, this piece's complexity does not begin and end with its color schema, but indeed finds a form to communicate multiple narrative scenes within the hilly topography of the composition -- often in clearly readable sequences. In addition, this eleventh century work (most likely originating in Constantinople) utilizes space in a fashion where form articulates content, as with the beam of light that connects the Christ child with the ethereal upper register, or with the magi literally leaving on the panel's other side (thereby giving form to the axiom that they left on a different route after being warned by an angel -- whom we see with them elsewhere). And then of course there is the exceptional detail that was once thought to be the purview of the illuminated manuscript, but again in the presence of these works is shown to be essential to their achievement.

If I am becoming a bit long-winded with reference to this single piece, it is because I have been studying it specifically for the past couple of months, in preparation for the exhibition. For the sake of total disclosure, in my new life as an art historian, I have been enrolled in Holy Image, Hallowed Ground's curator Robert Nelson's Icons seminar at Yale. Having said that, let me also say that with my intimate experience of the pieces for these past few months, I can say without reservation that Prof. Nelson's exhibition has exceeded my expectations. These are works that are not only made to be seen, but to be interacted with, in space that the Getty has recreated admirably. For those who can and do see these pieces at the Getty sometime in the coming months, this is the sort of exhibition that can make one rethink its period, and in fact the history of art. Future writers of textbook surveys will need to contend with the Annunciation, Scenes of the Nativity, St. Theodosia (from the catalogue cover; above), a remarkable 6th century St. Peter, and countless other works of similar sophistication -- not that their reproduction will tell us what we need to know about these wonderful works.

Ironically, then, another exhibition currently on view at the Getty showcases a series of works that are actually more impressive in reproduction, as a colleague of mine pointed out: Gerhard Richter's 2005 Wald Series in From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter. These series of anti-art, semi-figurative landscapes, commissioned for this exhibit to respond to the half-dozen or so Dresden Friedrich's on display, suffer from the excessively intense over-head lighting and the space's stark white walls (in contrast to the purple tones in the two Romantic-era rooms) to be sure; even so, these spatial difficencies do not mitigate the garish palette of this modern heavyweight: the resonant golds of the catalogue are in the presence of the works, ill-conceived lemons. Moreover, the cycles themselves are incomplete, and at a point, arrest for lack of continuity -- while patterns emerge, to be sure, as with a rich series of landscapes reproducing water effects (again more poetic in print), at some point these same patterns fall apart, denying the cohesiveness that an engagement with the Romantic master would seem to dictate -- that is, if they are to respond to him at all.

As for the Friedrich's, in spite of their slim numbers, there is opportunity to learn something new about this artist -- namely, that his misty and often tumultuous landscapes were very much in the service of another project: his belief in transcendence, presence beyond surface, and particularly his devout Protestant faith. A Crucifix in a suitably Gothic frame (designed by the artist) makes this case as the centerpiece of the exhibition; however, given this point of reference, works such as the poetic Bushes in the Snow (1827-8; above) or Two Men Contemplating the Moon (c. 1819) register this same quality with greater nuance. In this way, then, From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter at least provides a framework to view the former's metaphysical purpose -- to say nothing of giving American audiences the opportunity to see rarely-seen masterworks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Film: Marie Antoinette

In the words of my girlfriend, Marie Antoinette is not just a girl's movie, but a very particular kind of girl's movie: a movie for girl's who don't mind quasi-long take movies with little dialogue. In other words, its for her -- or better yet perhaps, for who she was maybe five years ago; that is, the kind of girl who then (as now) knows that the first song was Gang of Four. So, I will leave the main -- albeit short -- assessment of the film to her, Lisa K. Broad, with my own similarly concise comments to follow. Enjoy.

Somewhere beneath the 80s-soundtrack and cotton-candy color palate of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette beats the heart of an American art film. Reveling in pure sensual experience, the film largely avoids the psychological terrain covered by most film biographies. The dialogue is sparse and strange, and the narrative nearly non-existent, but the vivid music and imagery demand not just to be seen and heard, but to be actively looked at and listened to. In its penchant for flat, frontal staging and cheeky reflexivity, Marie Antoinette brings to mind Sally Potter’s Orlando (minus the feminism). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Coppola had studied up on the punk period-pieces of Potter’s mentor Derek Jarman.

At once compromised and uncompromising, the film is alive with beautiful graphic compositions that manifest a painterly attention to color, light, and texture, and striking radial symmetry, but Coppola rarely allows them to linger onscreen long enough to be fully appreciated. Seemingly afraid of alienating her audience, she falls just short of the true long-take style she hints at. The subject, or perhaps the object, of each of these aesthetic meditations is the lovely Kirsten Dunst. Although Dunst’s Marie Antoinette remains completely opaque throughout the film’s duration, her body is exhibited to us so closely and at such length that a kind of phenomenological intimacy is generated that gives way to a creeping, visceral dread as the specter of the royal family’s grisly demise looms ever closer. Thus although Marie Antoinette isn’t terribly deep, it skims along the surface of things with a kind of rigor and sensitivity that escapes many films that presume to plumb the depths.

-Lisa K. Broad

Thanks, Lisa. Let me concur with your observation that "Coppola rarely allows [her compositions] to linger onscreen long enough to be fully appreciated." While one might say that this distinguishes the director as a post-MTV artist, it remains, to my thinking, a flaw of her aesthetic. In my opinion, this same element limits her highly-regarded Lost in Translation (2003), as does her generally tendency to film in a relatively shallow depth-of-field. Perhaps one could connect such a style to the inherent shallowness of the film's subject, but to do so does not exactly flatter the maker -- as she would have produced a superficial form to express her film's superficial content.

As to Coppola's choice of topics, let me say that it makes sense that this daughter of Hollywood royalty would dare to produce a biography of this oft-vilified historical figure. That she musically situates the picture in her own teenage decade -- the '80s -- provides added resonance (in terms of the film's biographical dimension). Ultimately, Marie Antoinette manifests nothing if not the director's ambition. And in its defense, let me add that I find the connection compelling: surely, Marie would not be so out of place in our celebrity-obsessed age.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

New Film: Volver

Literally meaning "to return," Pedro Almodóvar's Volver confirms its title through a number of related associations: director Almodóvar was born in La Mancha, where for the first time he has located one of his films; Volver stars two of his acting axioms -- Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura -- the latter of which he is working with for the first time since 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; and then there is the subject of "motherhood" that found expression in his All About My Mother (1999), which coincidentally was released the same year that the director's mother and occasional cameo Francisca Caballero passed away.

Here, Maura plays Cruz's and Lola Dueñas's deceased mother, Irene, who begins to appear to locals of their former home town, including their soon-to-be late Aunt (Chus Lampreave). Dueñas's Sole is the first of the daughters to see their dead mother, after she arrives for Aunt Paula's funeral. (Death, it should be noted, is everywhere in the opening portions of the film.)

However, it is less in this trans-grave reunion than in Cruz's familial plotline where the picture's melodramatic heft becomes apparent. After an initial visit to Irene's grave and Aunt Paula's home, before she passes on, Cruz's Raimunda and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) arrive home to find the shiftless man of the house lazing on the couch after losing his job earlier that day. After gazing at his teenage daughter, the gentleman climbs into bed with his wife, who withholds intimacy from him. The next day Raimunda arrives home to find her stunned daughter -- the implications of which are that she has been sexually assulted by her father (who claims that he is not this). To be sure, we learn that he did try, though as we also learn the young woman has slain her father in the midst of the act. Raimunda quickly intervenes, enlistening her female friends first to hide the body in a restaurant freezer and later to bury him in a spot beside a country stream.

In the meantime, Raimunda herself has stumbled upon an additional revenue stream -- necessitated by her husband's lost income -- by catering for a local film crew (at the aforementioned restaurant). It is at this point that Sole encounters her dead mother and the film's secondary plot commences. Sole takes her mother in as a hair-washer in her fugitive hair salon and soon Sole is forced to hide her ghost mother from her sister and niece.

At this point, the ontological status of Irene is still contested: is she actually supernatural? Is she instead alive? Or perhaps is she a fictional projection of the character's loneliness? After all, those that have seen her have all this loneliness in common. (In this way, Volver resembles the director's masterpiece Talk to Her, 2002; and like that film, Almodóvar poetically concludes Volver by bringing together two lonely people.) Whatever Irene is, suffice it to say that Almodóvar's masterful manipulation of narrative information allows the spectator to evolve in his or her thinking as to what Irene could be, before the director discloses the perfectly reasonable answer. As such, Almodóvar again reveals himself to be one of the world's most accomplished classical directors.

Then again, the classicism of Almodóvar, or rather his position within the framework of popular filmmaking might be more accurately described as "rococo." Indeed, commensurate with this term, Almodóvar's art seems to signal a style that is decorative for its own sake: the director's strong bold colors (blues, yellows and reds) and his canted angles and overhead camera positions all seem to exist for their own sake. If anything one could say that Almodóvar succeeds in producing visual pleasure. Nevertheless, the visual tropes serve as both a signature visual style and also position the artist's work within a tradition that stretches back to the melodramas of John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk.

Certainly, Volver is no less melodramatic than its hyperbolic sources, particularly given the film's central mother-daughter dynamic, to say nothing of the incestuous content. Yet, in the case of the latter specifically, it would seem that Almodóvar is again figuring the autobiography that is inherent in the picture's title (as one could also say of the film's systematic disclosure of familial secrets) -- that is, as long as one can read the homosexual Almodóvar into the experiences shared by the mother and daughter, given the clear autobiographical elements that are otherwise connoted in his almost male-free narrative. Either way, one might see in this generational exposition of victimhood an archetype of homosexual experience, as it also connects the film thematically to much of the director's corpus (where non-normative sexual experience are closer to the norm).

However, in identifying the author as homosexual, another important component of the narrative loses its obvious interpretation: namely, the emphasis upon the almost vulgar excessive physical beauty of Ms. Cruz. No longer a pure object of fetish, one might instead see in Almodovar's framing of the actress a curiosity in her other-worldly beauty that seems to connect to the picture's profane sense of humor through the director's often tongue-in-cheek compositions (like his overhead's of Cruz's cleavage). At the same time, Volver remains somehow restrained compared to much of the director's corpus. To be sure, it is for this reason, among others, that Volver stands out among the director's work -- this might be his finest film this side of the very similar Talk to Her. Further, the director's genuinely Hitchcockian handling of narrative information (the plot's amoral manipulations are certainly worthy of the master) makes Volver the finest fusion of art and entertainment released thus far this year.