Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Decade in Film: the 2000s

The past ten years have not been the strongest internationally in the history of the art form. Certainly, as with the previous, vaunted decade-and-a-half, wherein notably Iran and the new cinemas of the Chinese world emerged, vital and compelling art has come from unexpected places: in the present decade, Argentina, Germany, Romania and Southeast Asia have all developed into new epicenters of the medium. Likewise, masterpieces have continued to stream in from these earlier hot-spots, and particularly from Taiwan, whose trio of masters - Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millennium Mambo, 2001; Café Lumière, 2003; Three Times, 2005; Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007), Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn, 2003 - pictured; I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, 2006) and the late Edward Yang (Yi Yi, 2000) - produced some of the very best work of the 2000s, even if the greatest director of last fifteen years of the twentieth century, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami (whose 2002 Ten continued his virtually unbroken streak of master works), has largely left the festival circuit for the gallery. However, with the exception of Tsai, none of the aforementioned has done their greatest work during the past ten years.

This perhaps is the first theme for the 2000s decade: major filmmakers continuing their mastery, though perhaps not quite at the peak of their achievement. To the above list, one might add the names of
Terence Davies (The House of Mirth, 2000), centenarian Manoel de Oliveira (I'm Going Home, 2001; The Uncertainty Principle, 2002; A Talking Picture, 2003; Belle Toujours, 2006), Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000; here the director was very close to his pinnacle, producing a film that was for the second consecutive decade the finest European film) and Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, 2000; 2046, 2004 ); each again made genuinely great films during the past ten years, though not entirely to equal their absolute best. (For the record, Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988; Doomed Love, 1978; Sátántangó, 1994; and Days of Being Wild, 1991, respectively.)

While the same was technically true of the active French 'New Wave' masters, the very fact of their continued high level of achievement - unseen in this depth since at least the twilight of the Hollywood classical period - ranks as one of the decade's most important cinematic stories. Among the many exceptional works produced by this contingent were
Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and The Flower of Evil (2003); Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique (2004); Alain Resnais's Not On the Lips (2003) and perhaps the finest nouvelle vague film of the decade, Private Fears in Public Places (2006 - pictured); Resnais's 2009 Wild Grass, on the other hand, may be the decade's most significant film for which this writer will have to wait until the 2010s; Jacques Rivette's The Story of Marie and Julien (2003), The Duchess of Langeais (2007) and Around a Small Mountain (2009); Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke (2001; a landmark in the nascent digital medium) and swansong The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007); and Agnes Varda's essayistic The Gleaners and I (2000).

French cinema remained otherwise strong thanks to the highlights of mid-career filmmakers
Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, 2008), Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, 2001), Claire Denis (Friday Night, 2002; 35 Shots of Rum, 2008; White Material, 2009), Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, 2004; A Christmas Tale, 2008), and Michael Haneke (Caché, 2005). Laurent Cantet continued his profile on the art circuit (The Class, 2008), while Nicolas Philibert directed one of the decade's better documentaries (To Be and to Have, 2002). Belgium yielded two more Bressonian encoded major works by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Son (2002) and L'Enfant (2005), as well as one of the decade's finest first films in Lucile Hadzihalilovic's strongly metaphorical Innocence (2004). Italian cinema was less impressive, but did produce high points in Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth (2003) and especially Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love (2004). Spain, however, fared better with Pedro Almodóvar doing the best work of his career (Talk to Her, 2002; Volver, 2006), José Luis Guerín breaking through with the exceptional In the City of Sylvia (2007), and Albert Serra renewing the time image to particularly haptic effect (Birdsong, 2008). Portugal likewise proved every bit as noteworthy, due to the combination of the seemingly eternal Oliveira's continued productivity and ultra-formalist Pedro Costa's festival breakout Colossal Youth (2006), which was in some distant recess of cineaste culture the film of its year.

Among the more newly alive corners of European cinema were once again Germany and Romania. In the former, the critically lower profile of the two stateside,
Valeska Grisebach (Longing, 2006 - one of the most under-appreciated films of the 2000s), Stefan Krohmer (Summer '04, 2006), and Christian Petzold (Jerichow, 2008) produced the best work - which coincidentally or not all shared the subject of bisecting romantic entanglements. (Austrian director Götz Spielmann's Revanche [2008] manifested many of the same virtues.) Much more popular, though to substantially lesser effect, was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar winner The Lives of Others (2006). In Romania, the similarly temporally obsessed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005 - pictured) and Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009) rank as the high points, easily besting, in both instances, critical favorite 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007).

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe,
Aleksandr Sokurov did some of his finest work, including his single-take, DV masterpiece Russian Ark (2002) and in his ineffable, Hirohito biography, The Sun (2005). Kazakhstan produced at least two major films in Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, 2007) and Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008). While in Scandinavia, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson returned after a quarter-century hiatus with the estimable Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007); Liv Ullmann's Faithless (2000) bested maestro Ingmar Bergman's final film, Saraband (2003); in neighboring Denmark, Lars von Trier did his best work when furthest removed from his 'American trilogy': namely The Five Obstructions (2003) and The Boss of It All (2006); and in Finland, Aki Kaurismäki directed one of his best films, the 1930s, socially conscious Hollywood inspired The Man without a Past (2002).

In Asia, the southeast emerged, largely due to the considerable achievement of Thai filmmaker
Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Indeed, were I to single out a single director as the key figure of the decade, it would have to be Apichatpong, who was responsible for no less than three structuralist-inspired masterpieces - Blissfully Yours (2002 - pictured), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) - each of which was among the very best films of their respective years. Beyond Apichatpong, fellow Thai's Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town, 2007) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe, 2003), Indonesian Garin Nugroho (Opera Jawa, 2006), and the Malaysian-born Tsai (in return to his country of birth with I Don't Want to Sleep Alone) all contributed to the region's cinematic vitality. Significantly, the 2006 "New Crowned Hope" initiative, marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, was responsible for three of the above films, as it was also for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt (2006), which rated along with the director's 2002 Abouna as among the finer African films of the decade.

In East Asia, mainland China presented another of the major figures of the 2000s, director
Jia Zhangke, whose ambivalent depictions of his nation's progress, Platform (2000 - pictured), Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004) and Still Life (2006), bested nearly everything else China produced. Among the only works to merit discussion alongside the aforesaid were 'Fifth Generation' filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang's remake of the greatest of all Chinese films, Springtime in a Small Town (2002), and Wang Bing's outstanding non-fiction Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007). Outside the mainland, Taiwan witnessed the aforesaid continued prominence of its greatest directors, though they were often led to work outside the Republic of China, as Hou did with Flight of the Red Balloon in France (his best of his uniformly strong works this decade). Taiwan also lost the very great Edward Yang, who created one of the two extraordinarily great films released in 2000, Yi Yi, which promised a qualitatively continuation of the 1990s that the decade ultimately did not keep. Indeed, in this spirit, Hong Kong witnessed a further decline from the earlier decade, though Wong's first two features of the decade and Johnnie To's work (Throw Down, 2004; Exiled, 2006; Sparrow, 2008) were undeniable high points.

Korea and Japan were likewise contenders on the world stage, with
Hong Sang-soo ranking as the leading figure of the former, thanks to his twice-told Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), Turning Gate (2002) and Woman on the Beach (2006). Additional major works were produced by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, 2003; Mother, 2009), Im Kwon-taek (Chihwaseon, 2002), Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy, 2000), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, 2003) and Park Ki-yong (Camel(s), 2002). In Japan, the heights and depth of accomplishment were even more considerable with Hiyao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001 - pictured), the best animated film of the decade, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's career peak Tokyo Sonata (2008) on top, with the latter director's Doppelgänger (2003), Shinji Aoyama's Eureka (2000), Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008), Takeshi Kitano's Dolls (2002) and Zatoichi (2003) - Kitano, however, did not equal his '90s stature - and Seijuin Suzuki's late period Pistol Opera (2001) not far behind. Outside of the art cinema, Japan also produced Mamoru Oshii's fine, animated Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) and some of the truly outstanding comedies of the decade, including The Taste of Tea (Katsuhito Ishii, 2004), Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005), Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita, 2008).

In the rest of the non-English speaking world, Kiarostami's disciple,
Jafar Panahi, in the former's absence, developed into Iran's leading director (with The Circle, 2000, and Crimson Gold, 2003). 2000, in particular, proved a very good year for the Iranian cinema with Marzieh Makhmalbaf's The Day I Became a Woman (2000) and Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) joining The Circle. Nuri Bilge Ceylan emerged in Turkey with the Tarkovskian Distant (2002) and especially Climates (2006). Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (2008) was the highest profile Israeli film of the decade, while Dover Kosashvili's Late Marriage (2001) was also noteworthy. In Latin America, Mexico proved quite vital with the best of Carlos Reygadas (Japon, 2002; the masterful Silent Light, 2007) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, 2006) ranking above art film juggernauts Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) and Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001; Cuarón, however, did make a franchise best with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004). Uruguay featured the strong, droll Whisky (Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, 2004), while Argentina, lastly, proved to be one the western hemisphere's cinematic epicenters with the films of Lisandro Alonso (the super-Bazinian Los Muertos, 2004; Liverpool, 2008), Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga, 2001; her full masterpiece The Headless Woman, 2008) and Celina Murga (Ana and the Others, 2003; A Week Alone, 2008) all among the finest films made anywhere in the 2000s. (By contrast, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund's art film blockbuster City of God [2002] looks threadbare indeed.)

Then there was Hollywood, which as always was the source of the majority of the films I saw in the past ten years (as I suspect was also true of most of this blog's readers), even if came nowhere near dominating the category of great art similarly - as it might have during, say, the classical era. That Hollywood wasn't what it once was - hardly a new sentiment; the same could be said with authority since at least the mid-1960s - is not to say that the American cinema failed to produce very strong work, however. Indeed,
David Lynch's career best Mulholland Drive (2001 - pictured) was one of the truly great "art films" of the 2000s, imbibing a surreal logic for its Hollywood critique, while refracting Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). Lynch also provided the even more opaque, though no less moving Inland Empire (2006). Among other Hollywood directors of note to do their best work (at a very high level) in the 2000s were David Fincher with his exceptional, Dirty Harry inversion Zodiac (2007) and his digital era Oscar picture of quality The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008); James Gray, with his elegant Two Lovers (2008); Curtis Hanson, whose Wonder Boys (2000) bested, however marginally, his universally critically acclaimed L.A. Confidential (1997); Michael Mann, who produced an organic masterpiece in Collateral (2004), which he followed impressively with his Miami Vice (2006) remake; and most implausibly of all, perhaps, Tony Scott, who released the surprising Domino (2005) before providing one of the best American films of the decade, Déjà Vu (2006). Additional major works by auteurs, most often just below their directors' respective peak achievements, included Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001), Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (2009), Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004), Terrence Malick's minor masterpiece The New World (2005), Steven Soderbergh's surprisingly successful remake of Solaris (2002), Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Catch Me if You Can (2002), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004), and Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007).

Scott's film, moreover, joined
Paul Greengrass's impressively sober United 93 (2006) in engaging fruitfully with 9/11, as did one of Spike Lee's most generous - and finest - works, 25th Hour (2002). While Hollywood did not seem equally suited to dealing with the ramifications of the Iraq war, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) was a highlight. Politics, of course, would play a very large role in the decade's documentaries, as it did in one of the peak achievements of the form, Errol Morris's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), though Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect (2003) and Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005) were equally impressive on the apolitical end of the spectrum. In fact, politics even made its way into children's entertainment with Pixar's WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) the most conspicuous example. Yet, Pixar's finest achievements belonged to auteur Brad Bird, whose depictions of individual excellence, The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), equaled the best entertainments Disney ever produced. Outside of Pixar, the finest work of Hollywood animation may have been Gil Kenan's Monster House (2006).

Among those films receiving Oscar recognition in non-animated categories, none were better than Clint Eastwood's back-to-back, culturally attuned master works, Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004 - pictured). In so doing, Eastwood matched his 1990s feat with Unforgiven (1992) and A Perfect World (1993), while reaffirming himself as Hollywood's greatest living director - which his revisionist Gran Torino (2008) further confirmed. Other relatively deserving Oscar winners included Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), this Griffithian structured work was easily the best of the trilogy; and Joel and Ethan Coen's fine, revisionist No Country for Old Men (2007). (Two strong, noteworthy, similarly Oscar nominated companions to the last two were Peter Weir's Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, 2003, and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007.) Still, Oscar got it wrong far more often that it got it right with the atrocious A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002; Baz Luhrmann's striking Moulin Rouge!, 2001, was the more impressive work in every respect); Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004), and Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008). Even Martin Scorsese's arguably belated Oscar came for one of his lesser films, The Departed (2006; Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's source Infernal Affairs, 2002, was the superior achievement). In general, the 2000s were not Scorsese's decade.

The 2000s, on the other, did belong to
Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow, at least in the realm of US comedy. The former produced the finest American comedy of the decade, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and the woefully undervalued The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Apatow's mark, on the other hand, was even more significant with numerous producer credits joining noteworthy directorial efforts, Knocked Up (2007) and Funny People (2009). The latter, however, is perhaps more significant for contributing to the further revision of Adam Sandler's star persona, which was signaled by works like Paul Thomas Anderson's major Punch-Drunk Love (2002; for this writer, the aforesaid comedy ranks above Anderson's There Will Be Blood, 2007) and James Brooks's Spanglish (2004). Among Sandler's Saturday Night Live successors, Will Ferrell starred in some of the best Hollywood comedy of the decade, such as Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), while appearing in others, including David Dobkin's exceedingly funny Wedding Crashers (2005). In a more commercially modest, auteurist vein were Jared Hess's Nacho Libre (2006), Harold Ramis's The Ice Harvest (2005) and Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003).

In the realm of the action blockbuster,
Christopher Nolan directed the notable Batman Begins (2005) and decade box office champion The Dark Knight (2008); Greengrass elevated visceral experience over visual decipherability in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007); Matt Reeves theorized the digital image in Cloverfield (2008); and Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor made one of the decade's most singular works (for better or for worse) in Crank (2006). Working in a more genre-based tradition, substantial work was done by David Mamet (Redbelt, 2008) and Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, 2008); the latter of these films, significantly, was built around a reference to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), a work of sacred art that was one of the decade's biggest money-makers. On the other end of the commercial spectrum, the American avant-garde, there was the 'devotional' cinema Nathaniel Dorsky (Song and Solitude, 2006; Sarabande, 2008) and the structuralist corpus of James Benning, the leading American experimental director of the decade, whose 13 Lakes (2004), Ten Skies (2004) and RR (2007 - pictured) articulated the minimal conditions for the art form. In the gallery world, Tacita Dean's Kodak (2006), as with RR, eulogized the death of the 16mm medium. At the same time, Michel Gondry sought to bring theatrical distribution into contact with the art world, which he did to increasing success in The Science of Sleep (2006) and particularly Be Kind Rewind (2008). Gondry's collaboration with Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), was likewise successful, as was Spike Jonze's Adaptation. (2002) - in both instances far more than Kaufman's miserablist directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008). (Stronger American first features included David Gordon Green's George Washington [2000], Kenneth Longergan's You Can Count On Me [2000], Phil Morrison's Junebug [2005].)

North of the border,
David Cronenberg continued his outstanding run of achievements with directorial signature Spider (2002), masterpiece A History of Violence (2005), and the criminally under-valued Eastern Promises (2007); Cronenberg was clearly another of the decade's leading figures. His countryman Guy Maddin did some of his best work in the quasi-avant garde, as for instance with his Cowards Bend the Knee (2003); likewise, Canada also produced the extraordinary, first-ever Inuit-language picture, Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2001). In the United Kingdom, Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, 2004) and Stephen Frears (The Queen, 2006) made some of the better films, while in Australia, Jane Campion made of a comeback at the decade's conclusion with Bright Star (2009).

Michael J. Anderson's Ten Best Films of the 2000s

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002, Thailand)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007, France)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003, Taiwan)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008, Argentina)
I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001, France)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, United States)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003, United States)
Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary)
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan) - pictured

Friday, November 13, 2009

Notes on Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (1928)

Marcel L'Herbier's legendary L'Argent (1928), which screens November 14th and 15th at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and which was released in a two-disc, region-2 DVD set by Masters of Cinema for its eightieth anniversary in 2008, updates Emile Zola's eponymous, anti-speculatory serialization (1890; novel published in 1891) within the persuasive américanisme of post-Spirit of St. Louis, late 1920s Paris. Indeed, L'Herbier's parable of speculation and sex, set against a fictional, reverse trans-Atlantic flight, very much belongs to the "intellectual debate" surrounding this obsession with all things American that Wanda Corn has noted in her tome, The Great American Thing (132). The concern was, in the words of the author, whether américanisme was "simply a veneer or was it a more serious transformation of French life" (132)? Responding to this cultural anxiety, L'Argent portrays the reckless market speculation and the celebrity, fad culture surrounding the picture's aviator in a far more critical fashion than would have ever occurred within the American popular cinema at the time, or surely among the country's people at large (even if the North American nation's literature had produced an even more negative current, as exemplified by the works of Sinclair Lewis). For Hollywood, it would require the events of October 1929, and a lag-time of about three years, for more cautious and detracting work, such as Frank R. Capra's American Madness, William Dieterle's The Crash and Harry Beaumont's Faithless (all 1932), to appear.

If L'Argent proves ahead of Hollywood in this respect, it remains avowedly - and to its benefit, certainly - of a moment that was quickly passing: the silent era of cinema. Continuously showcasing the camera mobility that was among the greatest filmic virtues of the age - the film's contemporary making-of documentary, Jean Dréville's Autour de l'argent (1929), reveals how L'Herbier simulated crane-shots, for example, in a period where these were all-but unheard of in the French industry: by swinging the cinematographer on a board above the action; likewise Dréville presents the very amateur means utilized to capture the revolving shots on the circular set - and which define many of its greatest works (F. W. Murnau's unparalleled Sunrise [1927], the exuberant, silent portion of Paul Fejos's transitional Lonesome [1928]). L'Herbier provides a rigorously mimetic dislocation of feeling onto the spatial environment; or, as Richard Abel has argued, L'Argent has invented "highly original strategies of camera movement and editing [that] helped to critique its wealthy characters and milieux" (The Oxford History of World Cinema 122). Among the most striking of these are its nose-dive compositions of the film's stock market floor - to secure what L'Herbier called the "ant's nest impression" of the environment - which again, as depicted in Autour de l'argent, were achieved by mooring the camera to a plunging cable.

This space, thusly, calls to mind Michelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962), just as it prefigures the nexus of sex and money that emerges as the director's primary subject. Similarly, L'Herbier's film reminds of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), and specifically, of that film's aviator subject and upper-class critique, to say nothing of its fluid camera work. (Moreover, its enormous set work, not unlike Fritz Lang's Metropolis [1927], whose female lead, Brigitte Helm, L'Argent shares, provide an additional dimension of critique that is at once metaphorical and spectacular, as Lisa K. Broad points out; it is out-of-control and aspirational at once.) Hence, L'Argent recalls the very best of European cinema, and whether or not it deserves to be classified on the same towering level - there is something less than satisfying about its antiquated melodramatic reveal in the final act - it shares the enormity of ambition of Antonioni's and Renoir's masterpieces. Like its cousins, or perhaps even its conscious descendants, L'Argent seeks to remake film language in the image of its protagonists, while critiquing a world on the verge of breakdown.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

New Film: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, from a William M. Finkelstein screenplay, represents a form of pleasure for which this writer, in his recreational critical guise, rarely advocates, let alone enjoys personally: that of really bad film art. After all, to find pleasure in bad art is to participate in a lesser brand of spectatorship, defined by the location of incriminating details - ridiculed from a problematic position of superiority - compared to the synthetic act required to recognize greater works, whereby the viewer is called upon to map out the form-content relationship that stands at the crux of any quasi-objective aesthetic evaluation. Worse still, spending time with bad art takes away from an engagement of more substantial works, for which there never has been a shortage, even in a qualitatively lesser moment like our own. (As this decade is coming to a close, it has become increasingly evident that the 1990s represented a markedly richer ten year period.)

All of the above is to preface this author's acknowledgment of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans's interest, emerging from the picture's staggering inexplicability, despite the fact that it remains a remarkably bad work of cinema in most respects. (Those unwilling to make the bad film leap are still making the correct choice in this case.) Indeed, Herzog essentially plays Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992) antecedent, from which its greatest debt is the former's eponymous protagonist, as absurdist comedy - though, and this is where the interest lies, seemingly without screenwriter Finkelstein's awareness. Herzog adds a mournful alligator's close-up, shot very poorly by the director himself in consumer-grade DV, and a ridiculous monologue referencing a sterling silver spoon to the television writer's (N.Y.P.D. Blue, Murder One, L.A. Law) genuinely awful screenplay. It is as though Herzog is sabotaging the film's hoped for franchisability from the outset.

Port of Call shoots for, and easily reaches the realm of the ridiculous through its poker-faced presentation of Terence McDonagh's (Nicolas Cage) unswerving commitment to his numerous vices - crack-cocaine being foremost of these - which the film mixes with its unaccountable passages of sentimental dialogue and scoring, as well as some of the more comically absurd gestures to appear in any recent work of narrative cinema (the film's absolute highlight, for this writer, is Cage's surprise interrogation, while shaving with an electric razor, of two elderly women in their home; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, eat your heart out). And it does so within the explicit context of a post-Katrina New Orleans, whose location is used to surprisingly sparse effect, thereby adding to the gratuitous provocation of Port of Call's bad taste.

Yet, it is not only the film's taste-level that provokes, but further its unmistakably low quality, as if the legendary German filmmaker was working, from the very beginning, within an imagined "film maudit" genre. This is the cinematic equivalent of a Norwegian death metal artist beheading himself to show how metal he is; and it is as good for Herzog's legacy as eating a shoe was for his digestive system. In making Port of Call the director shows the good sense of Timothy Treadwell, which then again does give Herzog's participation a perverse logic.

The question remains, however, who else was in on the joke. (The reading that the film is not to be taken seriously is to give Port of Call the benefit of the doubt; if it is, something has gone very wrong in its makers' minds. His recent collaboration with David Lynch might suggest, troublingly, that it could just be.) Was Finkelstein? Again, neither his previous credits nor the idea of updating Bad Lieutenant in modern day New Orleans would suggest that he was. How about Cage in what is an epically preposterous, Golem-esque performance - his Leaving Las Vegas (1995) turn perhaps played for comedy, perhaps not? The fact that Cage would sign on at all might suggest that he knew that the film's absurdity would insulate him from what would seem to be an obvious, inevitable scorn. Then again, Cage's insinuation that the film might succeed as a franchise calls this into question. Either way, Cage's 'bad lieutenant' is something to be seen to be believed - and to be quoted ad infinitum.

Fortunately, for his less self-aware collaborators, Herzog does his best to assure that Port of Call will be Bad Lieutenant's lone, unaccountable, if fascinatingly preposterous "sequel." In so doing, Herzog shows a truly remarkable indifference to his personal reputation.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

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


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.


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)


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

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