Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Being Above / Being Within: A Taxonomy of the 360° Panorama"

Introduction 

Traveling down the nine hundred eighty-four feet of one of the emblematic structures of the nineteenth century, the Eiffel Tower, via the twentieth century’s signature cinematic medium, René Clair’s Paris qui dort (a.k.a. The Crazy Ray, 1924) provides a taxonomy for an art form born in the late eighteenth century, the panorama. Beginning with a cartographic view of the Parisian metropolis below and concluding on the ground with an immersive representation of the surrounding city frozen in time, The Crazy Ray offers the breadth of possibilities presented by this industrial-era form. Throughout this downward-directed series of camera movements that follow a protagonist from the top to the bottom of the steel structure, Clair presents the myriad possibilities open to the panoramist who must select a position somewhere along a vertical axis: these positions include not only those above the cityscape or completely immersed within it, but further, in each of the steps in between, positions that emit measures of both the cartographic and also the immersive.


Yet before this taxonomy is constructed further, it is necessary first to define precisely is meant by the term ‘panorama.’ While this issue of classification is fundamental to any formal taxonomy, its application for the panoramic form is particularly problematic. The panorama is at once virtually extinct in its explicit instantiations and is at the same time one of the most widely applied appellations for uniquely nineteenth century forms.


In its most unproblematic manifestation, the panorama painting is consubstantial with the windowless rotundas of the same name in which they were exhibited. Accordingly, Bernard Comment begins his tome with a definition of the term used in both ways, culled from a Parisian Dictionary of Building Terms dating to 1881-2:


Panorama: a building in which a painting referred to as a panorama is exhibited, that is to say painted on the inside wall of a rotunda, covered by a cupola or cone-shaped roof. (Comment 7)


To put it simply, the panorama painting exhibited in the panorama building is the materialization of the form without any qualification; it is the panorama in its original, unmodified form.


In terms of the basic representational system of the form, the same architectural dictionary definition offers a useful overview:


These paintings are faithful reproductions of what a place looks like when viewed from all angles and from as far as the eye can see. To that end, the spectator is placed on a platform or circular gallery that simulates a tower and that is located at the centre of the rotunda; the light flows in from above, through an area of frosted glass fitted to the lower part of the roof so that it falls onto the painting. A huge parasol, suspended from the timbers above the platforms, which is greater in diameter, keeps the spectator in the dark and at the same time conceals the sources of light. (Comment 7)


As such, the panorama in its conventional format represents a phenomenological shift in the way paintings are experienced. No longer confined to the rectangular limits of the canvas and hung on the walls of state-funded institutions and the private homes of the exceptionally wealthy, the panorama instead introduced a viewing environment that was as cardinal to the form and its perception than was its unbroken, circular form. For this reason Jonathan Crary argued that the panorama is “one of the places in the nineteenth century where a modernization of perceptual experience occurs.” (Crary 17) Specifically, it was its “phantasmagoric” quality, procured by the illumination of the 360° canvas in the otherwise darkened interior that established its break from earlier modes of viewing. As Crary puts it, “such lighting conditions made the painting seem to radiate its own light.” (Crary 19)


Likewise, Crary notes that the format’s “spatial remove,” inasmuch as nearly all panoramas feature “moatlike” areas surrounding the viewing platform, disallowed spectators from participating in a “subjective rationalization of the intervening distance between eye and image.” (Crary 19) That is, the panorama un-moors the spectator, forging a new relationship between subject and object that was not aided by the space of the museum. (Crary 19) This process occurred on the space of a platform, in a nearly pitch-black interior, elevated above the ground so that one, “no doorways could interrupt the surface of the painting,” and two, “spectators could never cast shadows on the image.” (Crary 19)


As a result, the primary effect of the panorama, in its elimination of painting’s seams, became the replication of reality. Thus the panorama fit within a series of related media which all sought the duplication of reality to the greatest possible degree. As Crary points out,


Perhaps the single most important category of exhibitionary attraction in the nineteenth century encompasses those various techniques of display whose allure was simply their efficacy at providing an illusory reproduction or simulation of the real, regardless of what was being shown. (Crary 11)


Indeed, as Comment claims likewise, “panoramas had to be so true to life that they could be confused with reality.” (Comment 7) To achieve this effect, beyond the exceeding verisimilitude of the paintings themselves, panoramas depended upon their sites of exhibition to facilitate a sense of a real place. The places they sought to recreate were not limited to the surface of the canvas but engulfed the entire space of the rotundas they filled.


Of course, the above consideration of the panorama limits the form to its narrowest definition: the circular painting housed in structures erected specifically for its display. Beyond this baseline of the art form, the term ‘panorama’ was likewise applied to the moving panorama variety – a proto-cinematic format – and later to the circular camera movement that was later christened the ‘pan’ shot. Similarly, the term ‘panoramic’ found more universal application, be it in the nineteenth century novel exemplified by Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831) or Alexander von Humboldt’s age-defining geographical text Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions (1807); the Hudson Valley school of American landscape painters, exemplified by the work of Thomas Cole; and various related nineteenth century technologies, as for instance Daguerre’s Diorama and the Marshalls’ “peristrephic picture.” (Oettermann 132) In each of the above, the epistemologically totalizing, ‘realistic’ impulse of the 360° panorama found related expression – when not explicitly referenced, as in Notre Dame de Paris. (Crary 11)


Overall, the above survey is intended simply to indicate the breadth of the ‘panorama’ as a concept, beyond its status as form. Moreover, these various media offer insight into the nature of the 360° panorama, even when their classification as a ‘panorama’ per se cannot be established without qualification. As such, a liberal definition of the panorama will be retained instrumentally for the following essay, even if it is not precisely these forms that are of concern. Rather the subsequent consideration will seek to illuminate an essential component of the traditionally-defined 360° manifestation of the form that has been ignored in most discussions of the form’s singularity: namely, the variances in spectatorial point-of-view that define the format. That is, rather than being understood as a singular experience, the following text will assume the panorama’s capacity for emitting variable and at times discrete experiences and functions.


Specifically, the forthcoming piece will propose twin, potentially opposable purposes for the panorama as immersive on the one hand and cartographic on the other. The fact that both reveal a fundamental dimension of nineteenth century experience confirms their currency for the new medium. At the same time, the following taxonomy will not seek to construct absolute categories, but rather to suggest poles defined by the above objects, with most panoramas falling within the spectrum extending between these extremes. Examples will be given for all three within the traditional 360° format, and also for more tangentially-related forms including The Crazy Ray, which again exemplifies the range of possibility open to all panoramic representations.


As such, it should be noted that for the purposes of illustration, the most revealing examples, regardless of geographical or historical location have been selected. Also, for the sake of clarity, the below examples will be limited to urban panoramas – with one revealing exception – as they make clearest the distinction between cartography and immersion, and also the experiences that they facilitate. Other purposes could be ascribed to panoramas with rural subjects, but the cartographic-immersive taxonomy remains just as telling. Indeed, the first panorama to be considered is not entirely urban in its orientation, even if it does construct a space teeming with human presence.


John Vanderlyn’s Panorama of Versailles: The Immersive Panorama


John Vanderlyn’s Panorama of Versailles (fig. 1) was completed in Kingston and New York, New York between 1818 and 1819. According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Vanderlyn used numerous sketches… that he had made at Versailles in 1814.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Using these sketches, the painter prepared a circular work which was “originally intended for display in the Rotunda built by Vanderlyn in 1818 at the northeast corner of City Hall Park in New York.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) However, the Panorama of Versailles was not as successful as Vanderlyn had hoped, compelling the painter, “in search of some profit,” to tour with panorama until his death. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Currently, Vanderlyn’s Panorama is exhibited in two facing, semi-circular panels, thereby dispensing with its original, unbroken format. Of course, the institution’s departure from its intended form is necessitated by the museum’s exhibition space and its lack of panorama-friendly interiors or panoramic rotundas. However the space was built specifically nevertheless for the piece’s exhibition; as Time reported upon its 1956 instillation:


One of the biggest, most elaborate and most thoroughly forgotten paintings in American history is heading for a comeback. A 165-ft. panorama of the palace and gardens at Versailles, painted in two CinemaScope-like sections, is being installed this week in a specially built circular room in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum. (Time)


Importantly, the author’s comparison to Cinema Scope makes sense of its exhibition (beyond the dictates of the structure in which it was installed): that is, we are faced with two Cinema Scope screens rather than a traditional, unbroken panorama. Consequently, the Panorama of Versailles in its currently divided form may not facilitate the same experience as a panorama housed in a form-specific rotunda, and yet Vanderlyn’s painting perfectly illustrates the first of the proposed categories, the immersive panorama.


Vanderlyn’s Panorama of Versailles features the palace centered in one of its two sections, flanked on either side by large reflecting pools; on the opposite panel, we see a fountain in the middle of a terrace just below the palace’s elevation, with a descending series of terraces receding down toward the ‘grand manner’ landscaping of the French estate. Thus, as spectators, we are positioned on the ground level of the palace with the opposite terracing descending beneath our feet; we are in the space of the Versailles complex, immersed in its world.


Significantly, the Metropolitan Museum has also constructed a ‘moat’ around the canvas by placing a circular rail between the platform space and the canvas. In this way, the Metropolitan Museum has maintained the classical ‘remove’ of the 360° panorama which Vanderlyn likewise figures in the canvas itself. That is, Vanderlyn avoids presenting the panorama’s numerous human figures in the foreground of the work, thus reaffirm the piece’s operative illusionism by downplaying the spectator’s confrontation with expressly painted, motionless figures.


Speaking of this illusionism, it is not only a real space that Vanderlyn seeks to represent, but also a particular moment in time. Historically, this is the moment after which the Napoleonic Wars have ended, leaving a peace to the First Republic that was nevertheless touched by the Emperor’s defeat. However, it is less its historic specificity than it is the snapshot quality that reveals the piece’s logic: to the right of the palace, we see a young boy chasing a butterfly with a string net. Behind the child, we see a couple conversing in mid-stride as they point ahead into the distance. In fact, both gestures are ubiquitous motifs in Vanderlyn’s canvases. Similarly, in the garden section of the work, we see a woman chasing her young daughter as the latter rushes in the direction of a fountain; a second child, her son presumably, stands near this same fountain poised to toss his hat into the water. Elsewhere we see adults playing games, as for instance the large group in the gardens playing ‘blind’s man bluff.’ Indeed, in each of these figure groupings, Vanderlyn underlines the degree to which his painting represents an evanescent moment, a juncture unique from any other before or after. In this sense, the painter seeks to construct a space as it was at an exact time and place – a feeling of a real place in which the spectator is immersed. (see Mulvey)


Moreover, regarding Vanderlyn’s creation of realistic space, it is his insistence in removing figures from the immediate foreground that mitigates the peculiarity of being situated amid frozen characters. This same technique significantly is common to battle panoramas as well, where the subject requires multiple figures in movement. For example, in Franz Roubaud’s Panorama of the Battle of Borodino (1912; fig. 2), the artist stages the majority of movement in the middle and backgrounds thereby preserving the illusion of reality which again a foregrounding of similar material would obfuscate. (Comment 233) For those figures who are positioned closest to the viewing platform, Roubaud tends to represent them in static poses – engaged in trench warfare. Furthermore, the artist adds stagecraft to the viewing platform to both suggest continuity between the platform and the surrounding painting, and also to slightly occlude those figures who are positioned closest to the platform.


For the immersive panorama, this sense of continuity between viewer space and the space of the painting is indeed essential to the category: that is, the spectator is in the space of the panorama, at or near the groundline of the painting, with a single space extending in all directions. The circular panorama is not simply the illusion of reality within a frame, but is instead a real space where this illusion plays out.


Charles Parsons, Thomas Horner & the Cartographic Panorama


Eschewing the feeling of a single moment in time that permeates the immersive works described above, a second panoramic model, the cartographic panorama, characteristically eliminates temporal specificity altogether; instead the cartographic form represents no time in particular. This quality to be sure relates to the problem of distance, which compelled Vanderlyn to at once highlight temporal specificity, and when possible remove it to the depths of the canvas. Bernard Comment characterizes the issue of distance in the panorama as follows, evoking Blaise Pascal:


The overview has a tendency to immobilize individual elements, whereas the close-up view teems with life, with details. Pascal referred to this in his Pensées: ‘A town, a landscape are when seen from afar a town and a landscape; but as one gets nearer, there are houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grasses, ants, legs of ants and so on to infinity. All this is subsumed under the name of landscape.’ (Comment 111)


In other words, it is life that populates these cities that comes into view as they become immediate. Certainly, we see this dynamic illustrated in a pair of Charles Parsons’s prints, both of which feature the Brooklyn Bridge. In the artist’s The City of New York (1876), the Bridge’s location in the recesses of the foreground eliminates specific detail. By comparison, Parsons’s The Great East River Suspension Bridge: Connecting the Cities of New York and Brooklyn (1874; fig. 3) positions the spectator significantly closer to the Bridge, highlighting the individuals standing on its upper level, gazing off in the direction of Downtown Manhattan. Similarly, Parsons’s composition also features a small swath of Brooklyn Heights beneath the structure, where we see life captured unawares: in particular we view horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians, both of which he catches in motion. Thus, we again have a specific time, a hallmark of the immersive mode; on the contrary, in Parsons’s cartographic composition, the increased distance denies individuated detail.


In addition to its distance from its subject, Parson’s The City of New York also illustrates the cartographic model in its aerial position above its subject. That is, in our bird’s-eye view of the island we no longer possess a position within the space of the city. Rather we float above New York Harbor, occupying an essentially impossible (or at least rare) position that simulates the point-of-view of a balloon or better still anticipates air and zeppelin travel. Nonetheless, the position adopted is less an attraction in its own right than an epistemological tool: to clarify its urban subject instead of reproducing the atmosphere of the place.


Speaking of this impulse for clarity, Comment positions this instinct within the circumstances of the late nineteenth century:


A landscape transformed by the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the first great metropolises, beginning with London. The City exploded, becoming opaque, no longer visible. In conditions like these, the panoramas had a decisive role to play. Not only did it express the perceptual and representational fantasies that benefited such troubled times; it was also regaining control of sprawling collective spaces. (Comment 8)


Compositions like The City of New York remove the spectator from the urban expanse, providing a sense of the contours of a place – that is, they provide much the same information as a map; their purpose is more epistemological than it is visceral. To this end, The City of New York conveys a sense of the urban geography, even if Parsons’s has embellished the true dimensions of the city: the composition adopts a fish-eye view of the island that exaggerates the size of Downtown Manhattan, and particularly the Lower East Side. In fact, the Brooklyn Bridge covers at least half the island, far exceeding its actual proportions. Still, in this foregrounded field, Parsons’s structures emit a great amount of detail, reproducing facsimiles of the Downtown structures they represent, the courtyards they surround, etc. While these buildings occlude the streets they face to the north, the essentially overhead position delineates the Downtown blocks. Moreover, Parsons labels a number of landmarks concentrated in Downtown and Midtown Manhattan and in the image’s fragment of Brooklyn Heights. Thus it becomes the clear that the artist’s purpose includes making transparent the urban environment and specifically that of Lower Manhattan.


Importantly, Parsons does not isolate any specific structures north of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (located on Fiftieth Street below Central Park). In fact, as Parsons’ Manhattan continues into the distance, simulating railroad tracks converging at the horizon, the artist transitions from the miniatures of his foreground to the implied gridding of the work’s background. As Parsons’ Manhattan extends toward the Upper East and West sides, the artist has dispensed with representing buildings altogether, appropriating instead single black lines, green and orange-brown shading to indicate the location of buildings and streets, rather than reproducing a facsimile as he did Downtown. Hence, it becomes clear that the piece’s purpose is at once to highlight the specificity of the lower city – as if The City of New York was commissioned to champion Downtown business interests over those of the burgeoning Uptown sections of the city – and also to showcase its scope.


Furthermore, Parsons utilizes major urban thoroughfares, including Houston and Twenty-third Streets to segue between areas of descending detail. Likewise, R. Havell’s An Aeronautical View of London (published 1831) also uses key thoroughfares to transition from overhead foreground locations to more oblique and perpendicular sections of the city depicted in the middle and backgrounds. In this regard, we see how no panoramic image can be truly and unequivocally cartographic, to the extent that its simulation of one or even a set of point-of-view’s invariable determines that most points on the canvas will remain oblique to the spectator’s view. It is the map plus perspective.


Returning to Parsons’s piece, the artist once more dispenses with any attempt to figure clearly recognizable landmarks outside of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights. Rather, as the lower labels indicate, the peripheral detail figures cities – such as ‘Jersey City,’ ‘Williamsburgh’ or ‘Greenpoint’ – instead of individual structures. In much the same way, Parsons’s earlier The City of Boston (1873) also labels a number of the municipalities surrounding the city, including ‘Medford,’ ‘Edgeworth,’ South Malden,’ ‘North Chelsea’ and ‘Chelsea.’ In these cases, each of which is represented on the northern periphery on the right edge of the frame, the communities are figured in far less detail than in the centered city of Boston.


Boston, it is worth noting further, is saturated with the blood red tones that dominate the city’s red-brick architecture. This shade likewise appears in the outskirt communities, though in less concentrated denominations. As such, Parsons’s utilization of this tone assumes a cartographic role in its identification of urbanized areas. In this way, Chelsea, seemingly the largest of the towns listed above by virtue of its conglomeration of forms, features the largest vermillion coloring. In the countryside extending beyond the built urban environment, Parsons further includes occasional red configurations, indicating distant cities emerging in the Massachusetts and New England landscape. Parsons also adds a shade of red along the horizon, again supporting the idea that there exist cities beyond our view. In short, The City of Boston offers a cityscape that like The City of New York anchors the city with its landmarks while providing a sense of its scope and the manner in which the city bleeds into the surrounding countryside. It is in this regard profoundly panoramic – an image of a boundless expanse – of a moment when the city has become opaque.


Of course, while the above reveal the cartographic impulse in clarifying the ‘opaque city’ and ‘regaining control of sprawling collective spaces,’ none is properly speaking a panorama. For an example of a circular panorama that operates on this basis, one might turn to Thomas Horner’s panorama at the Colosseum in Regent’s Park (fig. 4). Stephen Oettermann describes Horner’s project as follows:


In 1823-24 the dome and cross of St. Paul’s Cathedral were undergoing renovation, and the scaffolding erected for the purpose gave… Horner (active 1840-44) an idea. Horner, who had worked as a surveyor, landscape architect, and draftsman, thought of seizing the opportunity to sketch a panorama of London from this very special vantage point. (Oettermann 132)


From this location high above the City of London (as illustrated by an extant aquatint) London is
revealed as a series of structures and their abutting streets (Comment 163) – that is, as an illustrated map or as a forerunner to satellite imaging and more-recently to Google Earth. In Horner’s presentation “absolute clarity of detail” is insisted upon, “even when distance made this impossible.” (Comment 134) That is, Horner eliminated the atmospherics that would realistically obscure the city below, thereby producing an image that clarifies the urban geography even when it diverges from realism; or as Oettermann put it, “What Horner offers in his panorama is no longer a reflection of reality but the hyperreality of a mail-order catalog.” (Comment 137) In other words, Horner creates this ‘hyperreality’ to make greater sense of the city beneath the spectator’s feet. His is the ultimate knowledge-generating panorama.


Importantly, the preserved aquatint also reveals the experience inherent in viewing the city from a bird’s-eye vantage point: not only does Horner’s conceit work to make the city more readable, but it provides a visceral experience in its own right. That is, the spectator is made to feel as though she or he is suspended far above the urban environment, just as we see spectators gazing out onto London from one of the tower’s higher vantages. In other words, we experience the city vertically, prefiguring the skyscraper phenomenon of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


In short, Horner’s panorama connotes an experience of ‘being above,’ which is a counterpoint to the immersive panorama’s simulation of ‘being within.’ This quality of ‘being above’ is likewise present in Notre Dame de Paris, and particularly in Victor Hugo’s descriptions of the fifteenth century city in the aptly-titled “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris.” In this section, Hugo describes “a beautiful panorama [that] unfolded itself simultaneously on every side” of the Cathedral’s towers, providing a glimpse of the Medieval city that continually highlights its historic geography. (Comment 131) For example, Hugo notes that “in the fifteenth century, Paris was still divided into three quite distinct and separate towns, each with its own physiognomy, speciality, way of life, customs, privileges and history: the City, the University and the Town.” (Comment 131) The author continues:


Seen from above, these burghs… each appeared as an inextricable mesh of weirdly raveled streets. Yet you could tell that these three fragments of city formed a single whole. You at once noticed two long, unbroken, undisturbed, parallel streets, which ran almost in a straight line through all three towns at once, from end to end, from south to north, at right angles to the Seine, binding them together and mingling them, infusing, pouring and decanting the inhabitants of one within the walls of another and making the three of them one. (Comment 135)


Hugo’s panorama therefore showcases an impulse to clarify the organization and operation of an otherwise impenetrable place – that is the cartographic function – as well as providing an explicit immersion within the space of the setting:


Gringoire had entered that inextricable labyrinth of alleyways, intersections and cul-de-sacs which surround the ancient burial-ground of the Saints-Innocents and resembles a skein of thread ravelled by the cat. ‘Not much logic about these streets!’ said Gringoire, lost amidst the countless twists and constant turns, through which the girl was following a route she seemed well acquainted with, without hesitating and at an ever brisker pace. (Comment 92)

Consequently, Hugo relies on the two primary systems of panoramas, the cartographic and the immersive, placing his protagonist and the reader variably above and within Paris. 


Gaertner’s Berlin & Barker’s Constantinople: The Transitional Panorama


At the same time, the quality of ‘being above’ does not exclude the quality of ‘being within,’ and vice versa. Rather, each represents a series of points on a single spectrum within which both categories occur. Again, the above distinction between ‘immersive’ and ‘cartographic’ is intended to represent instantiations of form that obtain to one category or the other. They are ‘being above without being within’ – the Horner Panorama – and ‘being within without being above’ – the Vanderlyn Panorama. In order to achieve the effects listed above the panoramist has opted simply to place his or her spectators at different vertical distances from the subjects they depict – that is in a position far above the space presented or close to/within the space showcased. Consequently, the spectator’s position (and its manifestation/augmentation in the viewing platform) can be understood as moving along a finite vertical axis around which the circular painting has been oriented. In the immersive panorama, the spectator is at the axis’s baseline; in the cartographic panorama, the spectator occupies a position up the vertical axis commensurate with the distance that the viewer maintains from the painting’s subject.


As such, there remain possibilities between the ‘being within without being above’ of the immersive panorama and the ‘being above without being within’ of the cartographic panorama. These works emit both qualities to varying degrees, as in the case of Eduard Gaertner’s Panorama of Berlin (1834; fig. 5, 6). Here, the spectator is located on the roof of Werdersche Kirche in Berlin, amid the privileged patrons who share our view, including the painter’s family (fig. 7). In other words we are immersed within the space of the roof (that is, on the roof-top platform). Beyond this space, Berlin becomes visible as a series of steeples, roof-tops and the upper levels of the surrounding structures. Our point-of-view is not that of the tallest distant steeple, disclosing the city’s grid, nor do we share the viewpoint of the figures visible in the city square, located to the north of the Werdersche Kirche. Rather our oblique view gives an impression of the adjacent sector of the city – and of those persons occupying the space (we are privy to the private moments of the city’s residents, an effect that is absent in fully cartographic instantiations) – without fostering map-like clarity. Thus, Gaertner’s Berlin panorama serves as a transitional step between the fully cartographic and the fully immersive, which because of the elevation of the structure upon which we are positioned, relates closer to the latter, to the immersive category.


For an example of panorama that is less immersive than Gaertner’s without entirely operating as a cartographic work, one might cite Henry Aston Barker’s Panorama of The Celebrated City of Constantinople and its Environs… (1803). (Comment 183) Here we are positioned above the Town of Galata in modern-day Turkey looking eastward. Our elevation above the city exceeds that of the Gaertner example – the author notes that one of the two views from which the panorama was constructed was secured from the Leander Tower (Comment 183) – without attaining the overhead position of Horner’s work. In other words, our angle of vision is always at least partially oblique, though we are still provided a sketch of the urban geography beneath our feet. (Across the waterway, however, we glimpse the city’s sprawl without any sense of its organization.) Moreover, in the right corner of the image cited specifically, we see three miniscule persons in two sections of a dirt road. As such, Barker does maintain the sense that his work represents a specific time, without isolating the physiognomic details that – as detailed in the work of Vanderlyn and in Parsons’s Brooklyn Bridge print – create the sense of an immersion at a single moment, in a single place. This is the sense of being just outside a place at a particular moment in time, the essence of a panorama that is neither entirely immersive nor fully cartographic.


Heading Down the Eiffel Tower: The Crazy Ray as Exemplar


Perhaps the most indicative examples of transitional panoramic imagery do not occur in the medium of painting at all, however, but instead on celluloid. To return to the opening example, The Crazy Ray illustrates not only these interstical stages between the cartographic and the immersive modes, but rather the taxonomy itself, and its variation across a vertical axis.


The Crazy Ray opens with an overhead, bird’s-eye view of Paris, displaying a cross-section of the city’s streets intersected by the Seine. A title follows this opening image: ‘One night, Paris goes to sleep.’ Clair cuts to another bird’s-eye view, featuring a second segment of the city’s urban geography, which on this occasion surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. After a second title telling us that it is now morning, and the first appearance of the film’s protagonist in his residence high atop the Eiffel Tower (he is the monument’s night watchman), Clair cuts to the gentleman stepping out onto one of the structure’s platforms. Once on the edge of the tower, Clair cuts to a downward circular tilt that concludes with the protagonist as he leans over the railing’s edge, gazing at the map-like city beneath. This shot is shortly followed by a point-of-view taken from the lead’s perspective, again representing the city far below his feet.


In the meantime, he observes that nothing is “stirring” in the City. Thus, Clair has provided his spectator with a series of images that adhere to the cartographic mode, representing the city from above and outside of time. What the spectator receives are images clarifying the organization of the city – or at least the small sector we see – without the pretence of a specific moment frozen in time (even though, of course, the film depicts the literal freezing of time).


When “no one comes” to the monument, Clair’s protagonist sets off to discover the source of this inactivity. Clair’s camera follows the lead down a circular staircase as the young man rushes toward the ground below. At this moment, Clair cuts to an exterior take of the structure and then to a closer view of the protagonist, this time static, as he continues to race down the structure’s countless circular stairways. After we see additional crane shots down the exterior of the tower, we eventually return to the protagonist as he finally reaches the ground.


In terms of this largely mobile passage’s relationship to the panorama, each of the images become less and less cartographic as the camera follows the protagonist down the structure – revealing the city behind the figure and through the scaffolding of the steel monument. As we move closer and closer to the ground, the sense of being grounded within a space increases while that of being above it dissipates. In other words, the cartographic panorama slowly yields the immersive type in the aforesaid sequence.


Once on the ground, the protagonist encounters a number of Paris’s more recognizable landmarks – for instance, the Opera and Notre Dame – absent of any human presence. It is as if he has entered a series of Eugène Atget’s (1858-1927) Parisian photographs, where all signs of human life have been eliminated, leaving only the preternaturally evacuated city. In panoramic terms, Clair’s set-ups evoke a sub-set of the format that depicts largely empty landscapes: an example would be Henk Guth’s The Panorama of Central Australia (1975) where the “semi-arid landscape” stretches out indefinitely toward the distant horizon, with few signs of life emerging anywhere in the composition. (Comment 156) In this regard, the empty panorama presents a solution to the problem of maintaining realism in spite of the imminence of static human forms – namely to remove these figures from the space entirely. In its case, however, Clair’s film seeks not the sense of an all-consuming, immersive space, but rather a world that markedly departs from the one the spectator knows. It is, in other words, distinguished by its departure from reality rather than by its verisimilitude. At the same time, its form can be grafted perfectly on to the taxonomy previously set forth.


As the lead continues through the city’s boulevards and plazas, he discovers a series of persons frozen in time: for example, a man in his auto; a police officer chasing a criminal; and a man perched over the Seine, a note affixed to his chest as he was preparing to jump to his death. Thus, Clair offers a series of temporally-specific landscapes, complete with figures fixed in mid-gesture that are comparable to Vanderlyn’s in his immersive Versailles panorama. Like the immersive panoramic spectator, the film’s protagonist is surrounded by a place that has been frozen time. He is within a static atmosphere just as he was above it while atop the tower’s upper platform.

Conclusion

In sum, The Crazy Ray literalizes the vertical axis around which all 360° panoramas are oriented. In this way, the protagonist figures the panoramic spectator, securing new point-of-view variations within the cartographic-immersive spectrum as he moves from one pole to the other. This sequence of stages along the vertical axis thus compares to a series of viewing platforms oriented to occupy separate viewing perspectives on the surrounding landscapes.


While of course all landscapes require a point-of-view, the circular panorama proves unique in its figuration of the spectator literally within the painted environment – the panorama is not only the two-dimensional canvas, but also the three-dimensional platform. Moreover, given the panorama’s unbroken format, there is no space beyond the frame, precisely as there is no frame. Thus, the framing of a landscape no longer remains a problem for the panoramist to solve. The artist no longer must decide how much or how little of the space they will represent, what they will disclose and what they will conceal with the edges of the frame. Instead, the panorama is again ‘faithful reproductions of what a place looks like when viewed from all angles and from as far as the eye can see.’


Similarly, verisimilitude is rarely an issue for the panoramist. In actuality, the issue of the space’s realistic representation is preordained: the panoramist will reproduce ‘the real’ with a high degree of verisimilitude. However, the panorama painter reproduces reality for one of a set of purposes, not only to enact ‘an illusory reproduction or simulation of the real’ – once again, to figure the spectator above the space, within it, or some combination thereof. The artist’s selection of point-of-view is the cardinal choice in determining its effect on the spectator, not his or her relative verisimilitude or the size and scope of what is produced. Thus, it must be on the basis of this orientation that considerations of panoramas proceed: as works of cartography and therefore of making a place visible and/or the simulation of reality in the spectator’s total immersion in a recreated environment.


Figure 1. John Vanderlyn, Panorama of Versailles (1818-1819)


Figure 2. Franz Roubaud, Panorama of the Battle of Borodino (1912)

Figure 3. Charles Parsons, The Great East River Suspension Bridge: Connecting the Cities of New York and Brooklyn (1874)



Figure 4. Thomas Horner, Panorama at the Colosseum in Regent’s Park (1823-4)


Figure 5. Eduard Gaertner, Panorama of Berlin (1834)


Figure 6. Panorama of Berlin

Figure 7. Panorama of Berlin (detail)

Sources.

Comment, Bernard. The Panorama. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1999.

Crary, Jonathan. “Gericault, the Panorama and the Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Grey Room (Fall 2002).

Havell, R. “An Aeronautical View of London.” London: R. Havell, 1831.

Hugo, Victor. Notre Dame de Paris. Trans. and ed. John Sturrock. London: Penguin

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Works of Art: American Paintings and Sculpture.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Visual and Other

Oettermann, Stephen. The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium. New York: Zone Books, 1997.


Books, 2004.
Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Pleasures.



Versailles in Manhattan,” Time (Monday, August 27, 1956).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bollywood on Tativille: Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)

Warning: the following post contains partial spoliers.

One of the unqualified highlights of this year's New York Film Festival, Abrar Alvi's Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress, Servant, 1962), the longtime scenarist and dialogue writer's lone directorial credit, might as well bear the authorial stamp of its male lead, legendary actor-director Guru Dutt: after all, there are exceedingly few films in the history of world cinema that so fully register a personal directorial style without actually being signed by that filmmaker. Indeed, whether Alvi, Dutt himself or their shared cinematographer V. K. Murthy were ultimately responsible for the film's systematic use of push-ins and close-up framings of characters looking into or through the lens of the camera, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam embodies the singular visual style of Dutt's supreme directorial masterpieces, Pyaasa (1957) and Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959), while also utilizing acousmatic sound in the same poetical-spiritual manner as these career peaks. It is in this confluence of visual form and metaphysically-inflected audio-visual juxtaposition that Dutt's cinema resides; and it is here, likewise, that we might speculate either of Dutt's direct authorship or at least of Alvi's exceptional assimilation of the actor-director's idiom. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is fully a Dutt film, while also being, perhaps more accurately, a work of his atelier.

Following a crane shot into a book during the opening credit sequence, Alvi slowly dissolves into the ruins of once stately manor, before pushing into Dutt as an off-screen woman's voice echoes: "my restless soul tormented..." Alvi thereafter dissolves to a naive Dutt's first arrival as a young servant at the mansion; indeed, our epistemological positions as spectators will be moored to that of Dutt's as he slowly discovers the personal politics of the compound. Dutt's "Bhootnath" soon comes in contact with his very attractive fellow servant Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), whom he shortly spies on while she sings a poem. In fact, as with Pyaasa, Rehman sings poetry while directly facing the apparatus, nodding at the camera lens. However, unlike as in the former picture, it is not to Dutt that she is singing, essentially through the camera, thereby eliminating this technique's earlier narrative justification and its implied grounding in Dutt's psychology; additionally, it is not Dutt's poem that she sings, but her own composition.

Bhootnath's desire, nonetheless, is soon redirected towards Chhoti Batu (Meena Kumari, pictured), the lady of the house and the very loyal, long-suffering wife of Chhote Sarkar (Rehman, pictured). Chhote, however, prefers the night time company of courtesans to that of his exotically beautiful bride; in fact, Chhote is introduced in the company of a dancer, with her dress glancing against his face, while Kumari, first depicted after the aforesaid musical interlude, is at first restricted from our view as Alvi maintains Dutt's point-of-view - immediately locked to the ground and to the woman's decorated feet, before cuts to a tight extreme close-up of Kumari's large, doe-like eyes and to her supple lips. Interestingly, Kumari's eyes are shot in precisely the same fashion in her then husband Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah (1972), which was in production concurrently with Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, even though it would take another decade for Amrohi's film to be completed and released. In both cases, Kumari is very much a standard of alien beauty.

Kumari is likewise, again as she will be once more in Pakeezah, fated for destruction. Here, her destiny is wrought once she submits to her husband's wish that she consume alcohol with him at night (very much opposing what was socially acceptable for an Indian woman both in the colonial era of the film and at its time of release). She does this after pleading with him, vermillion between her eyes, in a scene that opens on a close-up of her long, jet black hair; here, she puts her forehead on Chhote's shoulder, and he pushes her off, thus smudging this symbol of their nuptials, and in the process, providing a poetic, visual encapsulation of their marital disjunction.

Kumari, in informing Dutt of her intention to drink with her husband, is warned that she could become addicted to alcohol. This in fact does occur, leading to her ultimate demise, which further parallels that of the manor that they inhabit. Autobiographically, Kumari's own struggle with alcoholism, leading to her death one month after the release of Pakeezah in 1972, provides an additional, retrospectively elegiac subtext to Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (not unlike that of Amrohi's film). In both instances, then, Kumari instantiates tragedy, whereas with Alvi's film at least, Waheeda Rehman represents a possible future happiness, just as she did similarly in Pyaasa. In this sense, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is nearly the Platonic ideal of a Kumari-Rehman twin vehicle, even as it remains quintessentially a work of Dutt's. In other words, this is a work of multiple star-auteurs.

Of course, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam further summarizes the end of colonial India, with the disintegrating manor (itself doubled by Kumari's personal decay) doubling the loss of imperial authority. Where first we see a 10,000 rupee ceremony on the occasion of a cat's wedding - truly the ultimate expression of opulence - Alvi finally depicts the estate liquidated of its many assets, its crooked mustached patriarch sitting alone in a volumetric room, all within a narrative frame that presents the manor's literal, physical collapse. (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam has been compared, rightly, to Satyajit Ray's own end of colonial India elegy, Jalsaghar; The Music Room, 1958.) In Alvi's film, the estates's financial resources have disappeared after its masters are dealt with crookedly, which provides a potential location for colonial critique. Then again, the loss of the aesthetic beauty depicted partially militates the force, and even the purity of any colonial critique, importing instead a certain melancholy at the colonial era's passing. (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam also speaks to the end of a cinematic era, retrospectively, to that of a Bollywood classicism and its full integration of art with entertainment that the losses of Dutt - in 1964, to an overdose - and Kumari would further, and more irrevocably portend.)

In the end, Kumari not only meets her tragic end, but she does so without receiving the proper burial, adorned in splendor, for which she begs Dutt. Finding her remains in the ruins that open and close the film, Alvi presents us with one final, literally fantastic image of Kumari, bejeweled, as she experiences her final rest. Thus, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam provides us with another definitively Dutt - and classical Bollywood - set-piece, of a conditional future that time's passage has rendered impossible. In this moment, we see the very best of not only Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, but also of Dutt's corpus, and even of the classical Indian cinema itself: a lyrical cinema and an art that pushes beyond the material limits of photographic reality into the register of interior expression.

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is available in an All-Region format at Amazon.com.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

New Film: Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze's heavily anticipated, hipster Where the Wild Things Are, from a screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers, succeeds in nothing so much as the clarifying the substance of the director's authorship, thanks largely to Charlie Kaufman's absence in the film's pre-production (marking a first in the director's three feature career). Whereas both of Jonze's previous films supplied a distinctive sensibility and mood, via principally their respective mise-en-scène's, while also maintaining a strongly classical shot/reverse-shot program, their thematic content and narrative structures have remained somewhat indistinguishable with those Kaufman, especially following the latter's collaborations with Michel Gondry and his own, archly reflexive, miserablist Synecdoche, New York (2008). However, with Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze develops the unique specificity of his own work, procuring another embedded fictional world that is nevertheless the inverse of his prior effort, Adaptation. (2002): rather than life following fiction, fiction very much models itself after life in Jonze's Maurice Sendak update.

Straightforwardly, Jonze's film patterns itself after The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming and King Vidor, uncredited, 1939), replete with an unappealing real-world frame and an embedded, fantastic world-within-the-world (though the technicolor Oz is a far cry from Where the Wild Things Are's arid, leafless fictional world - itself not that different from the latter's snowbound reality). As in Oz, those that populate the outer world come to inhabit the second, albeit in a series of doubles that again finds resonance with both Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation. In Jonze's world-within-the-world, Max (Max Records) is doubled by Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), while sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and mother (Catherine Keener) are both refracted through KW (Lauren Ambrose). In each of the three pairings with Max/Carol, tension is wrought through new relationships that leave Max/Carol displaced.

This doubling also extends itself into an additional world-within-the-world that Carol has constructed as an escape from his flawed fictional realm. In among the strongest of the film's moments, Carol invites Max to poke his head through a hole in the miniature built environment that immerses the latter in his creation. Max is accordingly compelled to suggest that they attempt this utopia, which results, finally, in the same imperfections that the two embedding worlds share. As such, Jonze and Eggers confirm the impossibility of full escape from the world's problems, emphasizing that there is the same hurt and sorrow in children's games as there is in the non-fiction world beyond.

Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are establishes a clear perspective on the world, which the filmmakers universalize through the tripled worlds that emit some form of hurt and suffering, brought on perhaps through the contemporary break down of the family that is very different than Sendak's parable of boyhood nature. (In this regard, Jonze's film is not child friendly, exactly.) Where the Wild Things Are also secures perspective on the visual level: from the film's opening passage, the camera tightly frames Max, procuring a visual strategy that leads to a strong identification with the child to match the narrative's filter. Cut to the original music of Karen O., Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord further register this mood in typically pale (winter) sunlight, often flaring on the camera lens, and star or fire-lit nocturnal images.

While it remains to be said that much of the film does suffer from its lackadaisical narrative structure, post-"Wild Rumpus," Where the Wild Things Are again, at the very least, introduces a clear world view to match its strong sense of narrational perspective, effected on both the levels of the story and through the film's framing strategies. And it does so in a system of doubling that minimally clarifies the director's authorial identity. For this writer at least, the auteur who emerges falls fairly decisively between Gondry above - thanks to the latter's continued interest in bringing cinema in line with the visual arts, as in The Science of Sleep (2006) ,which it is worth noting possesses substantial affinities with Jonze's latest - and Kaufman below, due in his case to the non-generalizable quality of the misery articulated in the director's feature debut. Where the Wild Things Are makes a case for its pain (plausibly imported into the life of childhood play) whereas Synecdoche, New York narcissistically assumes that the despair felt by its maker is shared the world over.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The 47th New York Film Festival: Around a Small Mountain & White Material

Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup), from a scenario by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, follows The Duchess of Langeais's (2007) classical subsumption of the filmmaker's arch emphasis on repetition, with a more straightforward, performing arts world-motivated presentation of the theme. In transitioning back to one of the director's most familiar environs (L'amour fou, 1969; Out One, 1971/4) - here a traveling circus in the empty-tent image of Clint Eastwood's Bronco Billy (1980) mobile Wild West show*, a director for whom it is worth noting Rivette has cited an admiration, saying that he has liked "all his films, even the jokey 'family' films with the ridiculous monkey" - the French maestro has reintroduced the primacy of fictional worlds to his film, which in this instance characteristically spill out into the world beyond the big top.

Around a Small Mountain establishes its pervasive focus on repetition through a series of performances of a comic skit, whose totally Rivette cobbles together in its multiple stagings, as he does the peak of the film's French title from multiple vantages. Alternating with these set pieces, which emit variations only on the basis of their live-ness (a suggestion that a detail of the act be changed is rejected flatly), Rivette offers conversations between the circus's participants, whether it is a nocturnal romantic confrontation staged on a found proscenium and lit overtly theatrically, or more regularly, in the afternoon interstices that follow their poorly attended Midi shows. Of particular note among these are the on-going dialogues between clown Alexandre (André Marcon) and affluent Italian fan Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), whose presence among the troupe follows his chance meeting with Jane Birkin's Kate in the picture's incipient passage. (Kate, moreover, is noteworthy additionally for a pair of monologues that again attest to the film's theatricality.) In each of these instances, then, the repetitions of the theatrical rehearsals and performances are displaced onto daily conversations that follow the same routine template.

This overarching sameness, as much a film being un-spooled continuously as it is a play's confining written dictates (this point is confirmed by the inflexibility of the clown act noted above and to Vittorio's insistence that were he and Kate to meet again, it would be necessarily on the same terms - with her broken down on the side of the road, and he coming to her aid; in other words, like a film, the narrative cannot change), is shattered at Vittorio's behest when he learns the secret behind Kate's disappearance from the circus fifteen years earlier. Indeed, the very fact of this secret and its delayed disclosure links Around a Small Mountain to the director's earliest conspiratorial features, from his Paris nous appartient (1960) debut on through his 1970s masterworks, where additionally the liberatory dimension of Rivette's cinema comes to the fore. As in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), a film that remains conceivably not only the filmmaker's greatest but also the masterpiece of the 'New Wave,' Around a Small Mountain's protagonist brings down the film's fictional world from the inside, which once again is undertaken to free a female character from the world of performance's structuring repetition, which in Kate's case ironically entails an inability to perform.

In totality, Around a Small Mountain serves as an organically motivated signature for its author, with the added qualification that Rivette no longer insists on the exceptional duration of his best known work (the director's latest is a lean 85 minutes). Yet, that Around a Small Mountain so fully expresses Rivette's auteurist identify indicates that pure duration is less a necessary and sufficient condition for the characteristic Rivette feature, than it is a facilitator for its emphasis on repetition, and to that theme's incumbent insight into the making and viewing of film fiction. With Around the Small Mountain, the director has again made a film, and a very fine one at that, which once again to quote Rivette on Eastwood, "belong[s] to [him] and no one else."

Equally a work that belongs to no one other than herself, former Rivette protégé Claire Denis's White Material replicates the latter director's singular, overtly subjective Beau Travail (1999)-Friday Night (2002) idiom, replete with their rhythmic editing pattern; preponderance of tight, medium-length compositions; and lastly, their lyrical, contextualizing landscapes. (By contrast, Around a Small Mountain, maintains an even lighting in its outdoor, southern French spaces, favoring long shot-long take set-ups that again affirm the film's connection to theatre.) Furthermore, White Material shuffles its temporal structure - in line with 2004's L'intrus, though arguably much more lucidly in the later picture, and older Rivette - to procure the strong sense of an interior narrative filter, often though (importantly) not exclusively aligned with Isabella Huppert's Maria. Denis specifically cuts from Maria, separated from her family estate, to earlier scenes depicting her coffee plantation's overtaking in the midst of civil war.

In this way, White Material registers a dream-like character, or more precisely a nightmarish valence that in some respects, to make another comparison to the American cinema of the late Carter-era, suggests Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). For Denis, the hell is an unspecified, war-torn, post-colonial African, where DJs call for revolt against the country's remaining whites, and where bands of child soldiers sport fire arms and machetes, as they prepare to ambush the aforesaid. Indeed, it is details such as the latter that White Material proves its immense topicality as one of the only recent examples of Western world cinema willing to engage with the tragic reality of its former African colonies. Denis's film is many parts of post-colonial Africa, to extend the Coppola comparison. And while there is a certain political incorrectness in highlight such ignominious realities, or to worry about colonizer subjectivity at all, unjustified in this writer's view (especially when one considers Denis's stated sympathy for the "rascals"), White Material equally acknowledges the film's French colonist's ability to leave - albeit at the great cost of their life's works - in contrast to its African nationals whose future reality promises unemployment for those lucky enough to survive civil war at all.

Ultimately, White Material is vital filmmaking both on the level of global political realities, and also that of filmic form. Of course, its very impressionistic nature also makes it among the more difficult major works of 2009, and, for this writer, one of those films most in need of a repeat viewing. Nevertheless, however allusive it might prove to be, Denis's accomplishment is unmistakable.

Note: [*] Eastwood's film manifests a proto-Reaganism in its patriotic renewal of the US, whereas Rivette's film, typical for the director, lacks such a (French) sociological context. Thus, Rivette's film, which in some respects presents itself as a final testament, does not allow for a full house at the film's end. Rather Rivette's art, emblematic not of a nation writ large but of the director's own art historical context which has become by this point classical, embraces its continued minor popularity.

Friday, October 02, 2009

"Hatari! and the Hollywood Safari Picture" & "The Mortal Storm: 1940 and After" @ Senses of Cinema + Recommendations

I wish to alert Tativille's loyal readership to two new pieces that I have in Issue 52 of the newly (and beautifully) re-designed Senses of Cinema: "Hatari! and the Hollywood Safari Picture" and "The Mortal Storm: 1940 and After". The first places Howard Hawks's late-period masterpiece within the cycle of safari "A"-pictures that seems to have fed off the success of Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton's 1950 remake of King Solomon's Mines, while using a footnote in André Bazin's "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" as an interpretative key for the mini-corpus. For those who are interested additionally in the subject of Bazin and wildlife, see the highly perceptive Seung-hoon Jeong's "André Bazin's Ontological Other: The Animal in Adventure Films". Likewise, for further reading on the safari film from yours truly, see my Tativille entry on Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966).

The second (playfully, in my own dry prosaic way, I hope) considers Frank Borzage's fine feature within the context of its very strong year of release - a year that I suggest was better than the more widely esteemed 1939, as a stylistic apogee for the decade it followed and as a bellwether of the ten years to come.

While I am writing in abbreviated form, let me also offer my recommendations for three new films that I will not be writing about on this site in detail (because of both time constraints and the lack of inspiring or inventive things to say for each): Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009, Australia), Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (2009, Portugal) and Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town (2008, China). Campion's imagistic return to form once again reverses the object of desire in old-school Mulveyan terms, producing a work that (refreshingly) would have been much more at home in the 1990s, for which Campion was one of the key figures, than it is in our current decade. Maybe not so much new to say, but it says it very beautifully.

The 100 year-old, and still active Oliveira's film is relatively standard for the director's ultra-late period (meaning quite good, if not at the peak level of I'm Going Home [2001] or the valley of The Fifth Empire, 2004), replete with its emphasis on diegesis over mimesis, telling over showing. In other words, it would be more of the same were I to write on this film, as I have with so many Oliveira films in the past. (My wife Lisa has some great ideas on the film that I hope she will share with the blogosphere before the end of the festival.)

Lastly, the nearly three-hour, non-fiction Ghost Town paints a picture - on its often choppy, low-grade DV - of a rural, remote China for which the past sixty years seems to have made little perceptible impact. Rather, the film's location bears a distinctive similarity to much of the rural United States (though not materially) thanks to the central place that the film's evangelical church plays in the lives of a seemingly large segment of townspeople - while its absence elsewhere is equally felt. Both lightly comic in parts and harrowing especially in a third and final act where we have a teenager living very primitively on his own after being abandoned by his parents, Zhao courageously concludes with a highly damning reference to Mao Zedong and implicitly, to a faith in the PRC's material beneficence. Ghost Town is an especially important rejoinder to the "Seventeen Years" cinema being celebrated at this year's New York Film Festival.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 47th New York Film Festival: Police, Adjective

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Corneliu Porumboiu's
outstanding second feature Police, Adjective (Politist Adjectiv), from the Romanian director's screenplay, renews the temporal emphasis that is among the key markers of its country of origin's nascent "new wave," whether one looks to Cristi Puiu's exceptional The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) with its real-time synchronization of narrative duration and Mr. Lazarescu's final moments, or to Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) debut, where an on-screen television program wryly considers whether or not a shadow protest occurred in a provincial town around - or even before - the time specified in the English title. (Cristian Mungiu's comparatively underwhelming Cannes prize-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] might be proffered as a third example, if for no other reason than for its duration-specific title.) For Police, Adjective, this defining interest characteristically finds expression in an archly modernist long-take aesthetic that underscores the duration of the film's central investigation, and facilitates our own exasperation at its tenor. As such, Porumboiu's latest proves closer to Puiu's organic application of this technique than to Mungiu's ersatz introduction of the long-take.

Police, Adjective opens in the midst of an on-going police investigation of a hash-smoking teenager, with young cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur) following the aforesaid in the film's opening, mobile take. Porumboiu wracks focus to introduce Cristi, who characteristically, as in the numerous similar passages to follow, steps into the shot that commences with the human subject of his investigation. Indeed, while these zoom-lensed sequences offer the point-of-view of surveillance, it is not Cristi's literal p.-o.-v. that Porumboiu presents, but rather an omniscient, authorial view that in effect Cristi and the viewer shares, without precisely inhabiting this perspective. Moreover, the location of Cristi's entry into the frame becomes minor drama in a fashion, thanks to the pattern established in the frequent utilization of this strategy, as well as in the film's dearth of more conventional dramatic occurrences.

Throughout his lengthy passages of surveillance, spread over an eight-day span that again precedes the film's opening, Cristi stays out of sight, rushing to collect physical evidence after the underage trio - including Cristi's unreliable mole - disperses. As these scenes proliferate, Porumboiu provokes in his spectators a feeling of the waste involved in this investigation, not simply at the thought of its subject going to prison for three-and-a-half years on the basis of minor drug use, but of the resources wasted in nabbing the young man on what has every appearance of being a relatively venial crime. Again, this is a matter of time, of longer takes presenting the banal work of police surveillance, and even of the film's deviations from this strategy, where a cut-in, often accompanied by changes in the soundtrack, immediately signifies a temporal ellipsis.

While the film's investigation trades on temporal excess, the impossibilities of syncing schedules comes to the fore later in the narrative, as the sudden time crunch involved in concluding the investigation produces a situation where there is far too little time as opposed to the picture's prevailing circumstance of overabundance. Once more, in this emphasis on the temporal, Porumboiu stimulates his viewer's frustration, which in this instance ironically focuses on the possibility that the prosecution of this young man is being rushed into. For all the waiting and down time presented throughout Police, Adjective, which extends beyond the actual surveillance to passages that focus on Cristi dining and drinking alone, or in the off-camera presence of his wife who listens to a You Tube clip at an ear-splitting volume, there is too little time at the film's conclusion.

By virtue of Porumboiu's extensive engagement and manipulation of the temporal aspect of his medium, Police, Adjective does emerge as a fundamentally cinematic work, to define cinematic in this regard as the emphasis on a quality of the work that belongs particularly to its medium's ontology, something to which its medium is particularly well suited. Moreover, Porumboiu certainly reinforces his film's self-reflexive interest in its specific art form through an on-screen definition of "police" that locates the film squarely within the police procedural form, as J. Hoberman noted in the film's introduction for its New York Film Festival screening, and which compels a certain, genre-necessitated conclusion, as NYU film scholar Lisa K. Broad observed, to match the procedural form. However, as Ms. Broad also argued, this same on-screen inclusion of 'police's' dictionary definition contributes to the film's generally un-cinematic character: namely, Police, Adjective's obsession with language - which includes not just this ultimate on-screen definition, but also two hand-written police reports scanned slowly for the spectator to read, in addition to the verbal exchange in which 'police,' among other pertinent words such as "conscience," "moral" and "law" are defined, and a pair of earlier discussions with his wife on a song's meaning and his report's misspelling - speaks to a work that might have been equally well-suited to the short-story, prosaic format.

Yet, as undeniable as this might be, Porumboiu nevertheless actively articulates an off-camera space that is very much the purview of sound cinema. In this way, the language and even time of the written media is joined with the space of the visual arts (and in particular, to cinema again in its combination of on and off-camera spaces) to create a work that is compellingly cinematic and un-cinematic at once. Along these lines, it remains to be said that Police, Adjective combines highly verbose passages with equally wordless sequences, most of which revolve around the surveillance portion of the investigation. In other words, this is a film in which alternately we watch, we read and we hear; this is a mixed cinema that is nonetheless cinematic.

Police, Adjective, it remains to be said, is also quite funny in its moments of verbal sparring amid the picture's longer passages of silence, whether we consider the early discussion of Paris, Prague, Bucharest and a fourth Romanian backwater, or the final dictionary reading, where Porumboiu implies that modern-day Romania might still qualify as a police state. In this regard, Police, Adjective continues the Romanian 'new wave's' express emphasis on its nation's current institutional deficiencies, inherited from Ceauşescu's Soviet satellite; in this instance, Porumboiu presents a legal infrastructure that is as broken as the bureaucratically crippled medical system of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. As such, Police, Adjective emerges as a signature work for not only the Romanian 'new wave' but for the 2000s modernist art cinema itself, which has shown a marked movement away from the more poetical 1990s (exemplified by Abbas Kiarostami) to a socially conscious idiom. Porumboiu's film also joins Puiu's Lazarescu at the very peak of this new Romanian cinema.

Police, Adjective is scheduled to be released on a limited basis in the US through IFC Films, beginning 12/23/09.