Sunday, June 27, 2010

Certains Regards: La libertad (2001) & Ten Canoes (2006)

Receiving its New York premiere this past weekend in conjunction with the just-completed 2010 Robert Flaherty Seminar, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso's La libertad (2001), the 1975-born director's first feature, provided a fit course for international modernist art cinema in the years immediately following the Abbas Kiarostami-dominated 1990s. With Kiarostami redrawing the boundaries delimiting fact and fiction from Close-Up (1990) onward, La libertad emerges as a sensible extension of the aforesaid's ontological interest, providing a work that is properly speaking neither fiction feature nor documentary. La libertad's grounding in the factual - its non-professional lead performs actions belonging to his daily ritual - insures that this is not fiction filmmaking as it is conventionally defined, while the film's lack of explanation equally argues against its status as documentary. If anything, La libertad suggests a form of semi-fictionalized cinema that is separated from more traditional fiction film by the gulf of non-fiction; in specifying so little, La libertad becomes something other than the non-fiction that a description of its scenario might suggest otherwise.

After the black and red credits and heavy industrial-style scoring that have since become a discordant signature of Alonso's, La libertad opens on Misael Saavedra as he performs the tasks of a lumberjack: the young male fells trees, stripping the bark off the dead trunks with his forearms pulled tight as he flicks the steel blade against the thin outer layer. The viewer can almost feel the vibrations of the axe handle that accompany the thud of the blade as it catches in the thick trunk. Alonso's camera remains fixed on Misael, often in longer compositions and extended duration takes, as he repeats the same practice on a number of the locale's leafless trees, both fallen and standing, before leaving for the shade of his camp and a meal from an iron pot. Once he finishes, pushing the remnants of his lunch back into the same pot, Misael leaves his shaded exterior, covered by a sheet metal roof that also provides its waist-high fencing, the film's subject lies in the dark of his exposed bedroom with his gaze directed outside his makeshift hut.

At this juncture, Alonso's camera peels off from his lead, moving independently to a wire fence that closes off an adjacent field. As such, Alonso intimates the presence of his own narrational position within the film, separating subject from apparatus for the remaining duration of the take. Upon the conclusion of this visual diversion, Alonso returns to Misael who subsequently meets a man and his son after they pull up in an empty pickup truck. After loading the flatbed, Misael rides on the bare logs, with his hand resting on the neck of a panting dog. Throughout this sequence, Alonso awakens his viewer's sensory memory, calling to mind the smooth textures of the logs covered in fine sawdust, the warmth of the animal's neck and its angular shoulder bones. In this way, La libertad prefigures Alonso's outstanding recent Liverpool (2008).

Ultimately, Misael continues on alone in the truck, finally reaching a rural lumberyard where he sells the object of his work - below the price that he seeks initially. Having concluded his sale, he purchases gas and supplies at a petrol station, before returning finally to the same improvised homestead. Building a large bonfire, Misael sits staring into the camera - thus again enunciating the film's apparatus - which accordingly reenacts the shot that opened the film before the loose narration commences in earnest with the lead's work. In this respect, Alonso invites the viewer to consider the film's depiction of work as routine, as a repeated set of gestures carried out before the film begins and after the picture concludes. Here again Liverpool comes to mind.

In total, La libertad constitutes a form of cinematic portraiture, procuring an abundant sense of Misael's daily life, featuring not simply the actions performed on the job - though this does constitute the majority of the film as it would presumably Misael's waking life - but also the tactile sensations of these experiences and even those acts that are typically elided from feature and documentary filmmaking alike, whether it is riding in and driving the truck, preparing his meal (including his very ethnographic butchering of an armadillo, a scene that is essentially replayed in his masterpiece Los Muertos; 2004) or even defecating as he crouches toward the bottom of the frame. In this latter instance, the viewer hears though does not see said act, which Misael prepares for by clutching sheets of tissue paper in his fist. La libertad in sum seeks to comprehensively portray what Misael's life is like as he lives alone in the film's isolated rural setting.

Indeed, it may just be the solitary character of Misael's existence that provides the film with its most distinctive quality. The great majority of Alonso's seventy-three minute feature frames Alonso alone, where, save for his singing of a single song, he remains silent. The film itself, though it features an abundant ambient soundtrack, which attracts the viewer's attention as much as does the image track, likewise trades on Misael's silence, with the additional exception of the passages at his homestead where he turns on his hand-held radio. Alonso thusly identifies the experience of being alone as a silent one, where the viewer gradually becomes aware of Misael's lack of speech and the need for communication that will manifest itself in his moments spent listening to his radio, his brief conversation with the gas station worker, a phone call to a friend and even to his song declaimed as he crosses the field in late afternoon.
By comparison, writer-director Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes (2006), co-directed by Peter Djigirr, which like La libertad premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival, abounds with speech, featuring a voice-over in English depicting the events occurring in not one but two pasts of increasing remoteness from the opening's present. In the first of these historical settings, an on-screen narrator (David Gulpilil) tells the same extra-diegetically told story in Aborigine to his fellow tribesman (Jamie Gulpilil), whom he suspects of coveting his wife. The story told on-screen is intended therefore as a parable for the young man, with the same actor playing his earlier, covetous counterpart. As Ten Canoes proceeds in its telling of this story, the filmmakers frequently shift between the film's two pasts and at times even the present, featuring black-and-white for the earlier past and color for the both the present and more frequently the distant past. While there is an inelegance to de Heer and company's visual choice in this respect, their strategy does at least insure maximum intelligibly. Indeed, Ten Canoes' non-sequential narrative structure is not adopted to disorient the film's spectators.

Rather, de Heer and his fellow filmmakers utilize multiple temporalities in order to provide a historical framework for the stories being told. Specifically, Ten Canoes pursues a form for the representation of its Aboriginal people's oral history, in this case literally passed down from the past depicted in the black-and-white to the present, with narrators at both historical stages sharing the same story. In this regard, Ten Canoes represents a remaking of film language no less than does La libertad's poetic sub-documentary narrative minimality, through a form of incessant narration that almost completely eschews mimesis (the act of showing rather than telling); in this sense it is the very opposite of La libertad that shows everything and provides no commentary. Instead, de Heer and company's film uses its image track to illustrate both the story being told twice - a mark of another major direction in twenty-first century modernist art cinema, as instantiated by the works of Hong Sang-soo and Apichatpong Weerasethakul - and also the ethnographic details, the spectacle articulated by the off-screen narrator that emerge throughout the goose egg hunt on which the on-screen narrator shares the film's oral history.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rehearsing the Metaphysical: Occluded Vision in Thomas Cole’s Pre-Jacksonian Corpus

Kaaterskill Falls (1826)

In his essay “Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire,” written for the National Museum of American Art’s 1994 exhibition “Thomas Cole: Landscape into History,” Allan Wallach argues for a “mythic-historical narrative” in the artist’s landscapes.[1] According to the author, “this narrative… unfolds in three stages: in the first, there is the wilderness untouched by European culture (Kaaterskill Falls); in the second, white settlements and outposts appear (The Hunter’s Return); finally, the wild terrain of the frontier is transformed into pastoral or Arcadian landscape (View on the Catskill).”[2] Moreover, “each stage implied the next. The trackless wilderness would be explored, cleared, and settled; log cabins would be built only to be replaced by prosperous farmhouses.”[3]

By the time of Andrew Jackson’s election as the seventh President of the United States in 1828 – and the first to bare the mantra of Democrat singularly – each of the three above phases were clearly manifest in the historical transformation of the North American continent. So too were the first and second scenes from the artist’s 1834-36 “The Course of Empire.” Of course, it would take an additional five-plus years of Jacksonian democracy to draw out the “deep-seated historical pessimism” that was visible in the third through fifth panels of this same monumental artifact – and which would characterize his later landscape works, including those mentioned within the previous ‘mythic-historical’ program.[4] With ‘The Course of Empire,’ Cole’s attitudes toward Jacksonian democracy and “utilitarianism” were made unequivocal: each would “lead the nation to disaster.”[5] Consequently, no Cole landscape painted on either side of this grandiose cycle could be interpreted thereafter without being measured against it – whether it was the pre-Arcadian and Arcadian views of a Pre-Jacksonian America or the more apocalyptic scenes that culminated in Desolation (see below).

A second cycle hints at a different transformation in Cole’s view of the world, which nonetheless was just as shaped by the exigencies of Jackson’s America. By the middle 1830s, Cole began attending St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill.[6] According to biographer Louis Legrand Noble, Cole commenced church member shortly after his return from Europe in 1842, the same year he painted his deeply religious set of four panels collectively titled “The Voyage of Life.”[7] Hence, Cole’s turn toward organized religion coincided with the “increasingly religious temper of the Jacksonian period,”[8] and specifically with the Second Great Awakening, which dominated American religious life into the late 1840s.[9]

The Course of Empire: Desolation (1836)

Further, it was in this same period that Cole “came to see in Christianity’s promise of individual salvation a personal resolution to society’s seemingly unresolvable crises,” as would be exemplified for instance in ‘The Course of Empire.’[10] To quote Wallach once again, “from then on his interest in religious issues grew rapidly, while the social and historical concerns that animated his art during the 1820s and 1830s diminished or disappeared.”[11] The vine covered ruins of a decimated civilization were replaced within less than a decade by a castle in the sky.

If it is possible therefore to compose a narrative whereby Cole first responded to the problems posed by Jacksonian democracy and then by those highlighted in the Second Great Awakening, the question remains what precisely were the issues or concerns that confronted Cole in the few years that preceded the election of President Jackson. Indeed, one might even ask, and perhaps one needs to do so first, whether Cole became a critical artist on the occasion of America’s transformation following the election of Jackson, or whether this tendency – in whichever way it might have been directed – was already present in this earlier phase of the painter’s career? In other words, might Cole have experienced a third period prior to the rise of Jackson and the Democratic party in 1828?

The subsequent essay addresses this question by considering two of Cole’s works in greater detail, The Clove, Catskills and Sunny Morning on the Hudson, both of which date to 1827 (and both of which are reproduced below). In each of these two canvases, a middle-ground mountain face, cast in shadow, bisected by a second mountain or set of mountains, obstructs the spectator’s view onto an expansive valley rendered lower than the paintings’ chosen point-of-view. In my reading of the works, however, Wallach’s social and historical narrative fails to account for the peculiarity that is manifest in these canvases. In fact, the genesis of the following piece was the simple question why does Sunny Morning on the Hudson look the way it does? Hence, this essay intends to answer that question above all others.

In so doing, I will also ask whether Cole’s subsequent work offers any clues to interpret these seemingly obscure, historically-transitional works (that is from a Federalist to a Jacksonian America), in much the same way that ‘The Course of Empire’ inflects the political content of Cole’s other landscapes. Moreover, I will trace the semantics of the above move, emphasizing what it means to leave hidden significant portions of these spaces, by eliciting comparisons especially to Cole’s disciple Frederic Church. I will begin however by creating a baseline for Cole’s pre-Jacksonian corpus with his works of 1825-27.


Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825)

1825-1827: Cole & Claude Lorrain

As Wallach has indicated, Cole “from the beginning of his career… frequently employed the conventions of pastoral or Arcadian landscape, long associated with Claude Lorrain, for portrayals of rural scenery.”[12] The author cites the example of an 1826 “view” of William G. Featherstonhaugh’s estate, where the artist “employed a basic Claudian formula in painting a serenely horizontal composition, with a single framing tree, in which sheep – the sine qua non of pastoral landscape – graze placidly in a newly cleared pasture overlooked in the distance by Featherstonhaugh’s country mansion.”[13] Indeed, this formula characterizes many of the artist’s earliest canvas. To this end, Cole painted a second landscape, View near Catskill (1827), which similarly figures a group of three grazing sheep on a small grass and pebble covered incline before a placid pond. Likewise, there is the instance of the painter’s even earlier Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825), where Cole substituted deer for the later canvases’ sheep: the buck on the left is caught staring to its right, its figure framed by three separate fallen trees that form a triangular shape around the animal, whereas its companion trots off to the right in front of the perfectly still, earth-toned pool. In short, Cole was procuring a profoundly Federalist vision of America, represented in a picturesque mode, which in instances such as the Featherstonehaugh canvas “centered on the preservation of aristocratic privilege and traditional property rights.”[14]

Still, it is essential to affirm the role that identity-formation played in these earliest canvases. As Wallach points out, the “taste for landscape,” not more than thirty years old in the Americas, was the sole purview of the aristocracy of the time.[15] As such, Cole, who “had learned to think of himself as a gentleman… whatever his actual circumstances, his belief was unshakable,” would have found an avenue of social-mobility in these canvases.[16] Under the serenity of Claude, the painter’s master and the artist he would later crown “the greatest of all landscape painters,” Cole could create works that befitted his Federalist patrons’ tastes as well.[17] In other words, as expressive as these works are of a particular ethos, it might be just as possible to read these earliest canvases as efforts in imitation that nonetheless found an audience and launched the artist’s career. That is, they represent Cole’s desire to become an artist, even a great artist, more than they do his vision of social and historical circumstances. Only later, with the explicit critique of his post-Jacksonian corpus, does it become clear that Cole is creating out an effort to summarize the political landscape – and in its case the decline of the American civilization. For the time being, the American republic seems more secure.


River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumean Sibyl (c. 1655)

1827: Cole and Salvator Rosa

Importantly, Cole’s work would soon bare a greater resemblance to that of Salvator Rosa, marking the painter as an inheritor to the tradition of the sublime rather than to the Burkean beautiful of Claude: to this end, Wallach points out that “during the 1820s Cole was considered the ‘American Salvator’ in recognition of the extravagant sublimity of many of his early landscape paintings.”[18] However, when Cole himself saw the painter’s work in his 1832 visit to Italy, he claimed to be “disappointed:” “Salvator Rosa’s is a great name… he is peculiar, energetic, but of limited capacity comparatively.”[19] In fact, it was precisely at this time that he affirmed his belief that “Claude, to me, is the greatest of all landscape painters: and, indeed, I should rank him with Raphael or Michelangelo.”[20] Not surprisingly then it was “during the 1830s… when a new tranquility began to manifest itself in [Cole’s] art, [that] he became the ‘American Claude’ – or as one writer put it, ‘our ‘American Claude.’’”[21]

Yet to return to the possibility of Salvator’s inspiration on Cole’s art, which appeared obvious in contemporary judgments of the painter, the American-based artist’s two mountain-centered compositions of 1827, Sunny Morning on the Hudson River and The Clove, Catskills, do seem to confirm the comparison. Once again, in each, the spectator’s view of an expansive flat field, well below the adopted point-of-view, is obstructed by a mountain or set of mountains that fill the image’s near middle-ground, even as they are in part or in whole cast in deep shadow, thus reducing the detail of this facing landmass. Similarly, Salvator’s River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumean Sibyl (c. 1655) positions a mountain mass in the furthest recesses of its right foreground, thereby occluding the path of the river which snakes behind this geological formation. As if to highlight this obstructed space, Rosa introduces small swaths of yellow around the outer edges of rock and upon the water itself. As such, the spectator is cued into reading this hidden space as the point of origin for a light source that is only hinted at within the composition proper. In a sense, the most visually dramatic component of the landscape – a sunset over the serpentine river – is denied to the spectator. Rather we are given intimations of a phenomenon that is far more visually resplendent than the one which the painter has depicted.

So too has Cole chosen to eliminate the most spectacular vantage in exchange for an image that is far less awe-inspiring, particularly in its orientation of the viewer’s point-of-view to the landscape. Of course, Salvator’s painting frames a mythological exchange within the setting in much the same way that two more of Cole’s canvases from the same year treat a historical scene within a space that denies its spectator the most dramatic possible vistas. The first of the two historical panels, Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”: Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (see below), commissioned by Daniel Wadsworth, represents an assemblage of the eponymous tribe on a stone platform hanging above a deep precipice.[22] Behind this found proscenium – and a pair of shadow-covered rock outcroppings that back the platform – the landscape again falls significantly. As such, Cole has adopted a point-of-view – in its case, the viewer is positioned above the platform – which once again denies the most dramatic vantage onto this locale, while also greatly reducing the detail and therefore the narrative legibility of the distant middle-ground figural assembly. In other words, Cole’s choice of vantage denies both a clear view of the drama rendered on canvas and also of the dramatic landscape above which these persons hover.

Cole’s other major historical landscape of 1827, Landscape Composition, St. John in the Wilderness, which was purchased by Wadsworth as well, similarly utilizes a rock out-cropping to stage a fictionalized historic encounter. In its case, the platform is divided into two elevations: on top of the first, a single figure points to a lone cross; a golden afternoon side light hits this higher elevation, the figure and cross. Below, a series of figures look above to the evangelist, presumably, occupying the shrub-covered rocky promontory. Palm trees extend from the edge of this platform, and line the spot-lit valley below, exoticizing Cole’s fictional Israel.

Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”: Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827)

Visually, this promontory again blocks the viewer’s vantage onto the valley beneath the theatrical grouping, though our point-of-view is in this case beneath the platform. Then again, the tops of trees emerge beneath the spectator’s imaginary position, securing a placement that seems to hover in mid air. As with Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”: Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, Cole has dispensed with the ground-level perspective of Salvator, thereby violating “traditional prohibitions against rendering a view from a high vantage point,” as the artist would do even more famously in 1836’s The Oxbow.

By comparison, both The Clove, Catskills and Sunny Morning on the Hudson River occupy positions on the ground of their respective landscapes, though in the case of the latter it is a position close to a rocky cliff’s edge, perpendicular to a shadow-covered mountain. Moreover, there is a stone ledge at the edge of the cliff that compares to the rocky platforms in the historical paintings, though it is a rocky promontory in The Clove that appears closer to the mythic landscapes. In both, these geological figures are lit theatricality – that is the exact source seems to exceed the canvas’s natural lighting – as is also the case with the natural platforms in Landscape Composition and Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans.” However, absent the human subjects of the historical compositions, this choice of lighting marks the platforms the artist has chosen not to adopt, the more dramatic views that have been denied the spectator.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that this feature of a rock platform appears in a third figure-less canvas from the previous year, Mountain Sunrise (1826). In this work, which in some sense offers a template for the more radical Sunny Morning, Cole has figured a free-standing rock ledge in the deep middle-ground of the composition, highlighting its tip and the facing stone cliff with the same sort of theatrical lighting that appears in The Clove and especially Sunny Morning. In the background, behind a shadow-covered wooded mount, the day begins to break, producing a yellow light that spreads across the horizon and infuses the clouds that bracket the sunrise with a pinkish tint. Here, as we will see in Sunny Morning, the subject of the sunrise is removed from the spectator’s view.

Sunny Morning on the Hudson (1827)

Sunny Morning
: Connoting the Un-Visible

What we do see in Sunny Morning is the shadow-darkened face of a rounded, evergreen-covered summit, crowned on the top and encircled to the right by cottony cumulus fingers. In both places, Cole directs our attention around the edges of the geological figure to the sunny front face of a valley that of course we can never reach. On the other side of the mountain, we can see the light brightened horizon, thus confirming that indeed the object of the picture’s title – the sun in the morning – is located outside our view: both behind the mountain, and to the left of the image itself. Ironically, our position is figured at precisely the place where we can least experience the eponymous subject of the art work. Rather, we are given a theatrically-lit, natural viewing platform in the foreground and a mountain face opposite the illumination just beyond. It is behind this seemingly misplaced viewing platform and the occluding mountain that the film’s dramatic content resides. Indeed, Cole’s panel is a remarkably dark rendering of the subject of morning light.

So what than can be made of Cole’s decision to deny his spectator the view of the Sunny Morning that his title announces? Why are we made to view a mountain cast in shadow from close up, rather than either the phenomenon signified or the expansive space over which this event is occurring? While Cole’s debt to Salvator must be noted, certainly this lineage does not tell us everything we wish to know, particularly again as Salvator’s compositions at least figure foreground mythical subject matter, making his blocking geological figures backdrops – even as they imply a segment of the world depicted that remains beyond our vision. Again in Sunny Morning and The Clove (to a lesser extent, perhaps) all that remains is the obstruction, this portion of the world not seen.

Then again, it is worth noting the connotative value of the object selected to complete this task – the mountain – for the artist. According to Noble, in comparison to Niagara specifically, mountains for Cole “were symbols of the eternal majesty, immutability and repose, which no cataract could ever be.”[23] The author continues:

The mountain, with a fullness of might in itself, is yet mightier as one of an innumerable brotherhood, in each of which you behold an image of everlasting repose – from its summit can escape into the infinite, and upon the perpetual rocks hear voices from the bosom of inwrapping clouds, talking of the presence of the Almighty, and say, with both a lowly sense of your own present littleness and restlessness, and a lofty sense of your immortality and final rest, “it is good to here.”[24]

In a word, the mountain figures presence, but even in more ‘as one of an innumerable brotherhood.’ It is at once an aesthetic object in its own right, engendering contemplation and appreciation; and at the same time, the mountain acts as an interface, a place of meeting between the physical and metaphysical, upon whose summit one can ‘escape into the infinite,’ and upon whose ‘perpetual rocks [one can] hear voices of inwrapping clouds, talking of the presence of the Almighty.’

This latter metaphor of the ‘inwrapping clouds, talking of the presence of the Almighty’ seems particular apt a description for Sunny Morning’s mediating function, inasmuch as they lead us from the mountain, from its eternal, unshakable presence, back to the absence, to the un-visible rather than the invisible – that is, to a world whose existence is manifest, but outside the represented universe of the painting. With these ‘inwrapping clouds’ encircling the conical object, as with the river whose course the same figure obscures, we are assured of a presence that we simply cannot see. In short, the mountain generates meaning doubly: first, as a signifier of God’s presence in his creation; and second, as a figure of obstruction, of an object blocking a world not seen but one that most certainly exists.


The Voyage of Life: Manhood (1842)


“The Voyage of Life:” Making Visible the Un-Visible

While this representation of a world not seen repeats in many of the artist’s canvases, it is perhaps even more significant – as it reveals the scope of Cole’s interest in the subject – that the artist moves to make visible this unseen world in his second major cycle, “The Voyage of Life” (1842). Again, deeply religious in both subject matter and tone, Cole completed this cycle at roughly the same time he began his church membership. Here, supernatural presence unequivocally enters Cole’s canvases: an angel with a glimmering halo accompanies the infant in Childhood; the same figure points the way to a heavenly city in Youth; with the human figure in Manhood kneeling in supplication, the same ethereal guardian looks down from heaven (even as further figures are rendered in the gray clouds above); and in Old Age, this guardian reappears with a second to presumably lead the everyman to his new home in the light.

Therefore, the physical and the spiritual have come to occupy the same pictorial space in this series of highly allegorized landscapes. Whereas The Clove and especially Sunny Morning suggested the Divine in its representation of the figure of the mountain and in the un-seen reality that object obstructs, ‘The Voyage of Life’ leaves nothing to implication. There is in this latter series of canvases an unwillingness to be mistaken, and for its religious content to go unnoticed. The world hidden to our view in the former compositions here becomes the ‘cloud-built palace’ as Cole himself described it.[25] In fact, to this latter point, it is not simply that Cole reduced the ambiguity in his landscapes, but that he produced descriptions of each of the scenes, so as to leave none of its meaning up for debate.[26]

Furthermore, ‘The Voyage of Life’ depicts an interventionist God: here, heaven and earth remain in constant communication, be it in the mediating presence of the Guardian Spirit – both with the child, pointing the way to the heavenly city, listening to the prayers of the endangered protagonist or leading the way to the other world – or once again in the combination of physical and metaphysical spheres in a single space. And as the white-waters of Manhood have given way to the calm pool of Old Age, the heavens seem to answer the man’s prayers. By contrast, images such as The Clove and Sunny Morning fail to embellish the non-visible world they depict and to make visible what is invisible. God can be known through what he once made, not through his present intervention. If anything, the divine being of these early landscapes is fundamentally deist, while the God of ‘The Voyage of Life’ is active.

So while God is present in Cole from the first, it is only with his deepening devotion to the faith that the hidden is made manifest, that what has always been is now made clear and unequivocal.


A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch) (1839)

The Hidden and the Horizontal in Cole

Importantly, the subject of an unseen presence does not entirely cease with Cole’s ‘Voyage of Life’ cycle. In his A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning (1844), Cole represents a lone figure in the lower left foreground, standing upon the bottom of two rock platforms. He gazes off toward his and the composition’s left, in the direction of the sun that illuminates the mountain face that bares the eponymous Mountain House. Likewise, on the right half of the composition, two long, narrow, parallel lakes extend toward and perhaps beyond the right edge of the composition. While the two arched trees on either foreground edge of the painting ostensibly frame this picturesque setting, the tree on the left reinforces the direction of the human figure’s gaze, leading the spectator’s off the canvas toward the unseen. A real place beyond the canvas is conceived, and so therefore is a metaphor for the metaphysical.

The motif of the lakes on the right half of the composition is further picked up in canvases such as Catskill Mountain House: The Four Elements (1843-44; also post ‘Voyage’), where the same parallel lakes extend over the right edge of the canvas in a pair of powerful horizontal planes. This same horizontality is also evident, though implicitly, in the earlier A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch) from 1839. Here the titular notch emerges at the base of a towering mountain face, between two lower sections of rock. The mountainous section on the right particularly stands out from the background stone inasmuch as the former is covered in green pines, while the latter is rendered in duller earth tones. Between these two geological formations, a strong horizontal plane extends to the right and eventually past the towering background mountain. Here we have a strong sense of a plane that we cannot see but whose presence is nonetheless manifest.

Crawford Notch in this way possesses more than a passing resemblance to View of Delft, one of the rate landscapes of a second seventeenth century artist, Jan Vermeer. In that artist’s atypical work from ca. 1660-61, once again the spectator is confronted with an occluding foreground rendered at ground level, and covered in shadows, which accordingly blocks the recessive planes of the city’s flat topography. Here and there snatches of the cityscape are visible between the facing structures, but largely the city remains hidden to the spectator. In a more conventional (for the artist) genre setting, a second composition secures a similar effect, 1870’s The Love Letter. In its case, the framing doorway both highlights the work’s human subject, and also renders space invisible before us. It works like the mountains or the front row of structures in Delft. Here, as in so many of the artist’s compositions, a strong sidelight breaches the space, thus calling attention to its off-canvas point of origin – or, once again, rendering real a world beyond our perception.


Twilight in the Wilderness (1860)

Frederic Church: Naturalizing Cole

While Vermeer’s work may be more analogous to Cole’s than it is causally linked, Frederic Church’s intimate connection to the older American landscapist is well-documented.[27] At the same time, it is a similar interest in making manifest the invisible that concerns both Vermeer and Church. In Church’s case, however, it is principally in the landscape idiom – in most cases naturalized, unlike Cole’s ‘The Voyage of Life’ or even ‘The Oxbow’ with its Hebrew script on the hillside in the far distance – that he achieves this end. Accordingly, one might look for example to Church’s 1847 Scene on Catskill Creek: in this canvas, Church presents the placid waterway framed on the left by a picturesquely felled dead tree and on the right by a tall, cropped deciduous. Along its left edge and low on the horizon, the sun is barely made visible. Nonetheless, its excessive luminosity infuses the right half of the image, thereby calling attention to this light source, and equally to the occluded and cropped space that the orb inhabits. Church is making known another reality, through both the mediating object of the sun and also the composition’s guillotine framing on the right side – where another world seems to seep into the frame.
A more spectacular instance of this strategy can be found in Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness from 1860. In this canvas, we are once again provided a strong horizontal obstruction in the manner of the View of Delft and Crawford Notch, with the low-rising mountains blocking Church’s conspicuous horizon. Over the furthest range, the sun is barely made visible once again with a shimmering white light hugging the craggy peaks and a golden yellow radiating above the first hue. The illuminated world beyond the horizon, and indeed the heavens themselves, reaches into the landscape of Twilight in the Wilderness, entering through the sun’s orbital interface.

Then again, it is less in this recurrent motif than it is in the rich salmons and oranges that ordain the dark clouds that cut through the navy sky that the painting’s metaphysical presence is made clear. Church’s world shows God at his most aesthetic: he, instantiated on the horizon-line in a radiant glory, is the painter of this sky that Church faithfully depicts. It is as though this other world has broken through into the terrestrial world, passing through the horizon-bound point of intercession. Or, Church has exploded the obstruction itself, creating a world where the earthly and the divine commingle. And it is a world that is naturalized.

What is significant here is that Church largely follows the same trajectory as Cole, though they achieve roughly the same ends by different means. If both, early in their careers, utilize the same logic of obstruction and occlusion to indicate a world beyond what we see, their investment of this invisible in the pictorial space differs in the elaboration later in their respective corpuses: whereas Cole makes physical the metaphysical heavenly city, Church leaves the trace of the divine in the adornment of a natural world whose beauty far exceeds everyday phenomenon.


The Clove, Catskills (1827)

Conclusion

But what does this tell us again of Sunny Morning and its 1827 corollary The Clove? Simply that in Church, as in his inspiration Cole, each canvas negotiations the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial, the earthly and the divine. These elements may be subsumed by other subjects, as with a later Cole such as The Oxbow, but they remain nevertheless keys – and perhaps the most important keys – to understanding each artist. After all, what can these paintings tell us of an America they largely refuse to depict? Again, considering the painters 1836 canvas listed previously, we would seem to have a clear contraposition of wilderness and civilization rendered on the left and right halves of the image respectively, with the Hebraic writing behind to provide the canvas with an added religious dimension. However, with Sunny Morning and The Clove there is no similar allegory for historical progress inasmuch as we are viewing a space at the same stage of un-civilization.

What we have instead is the religious rather than the political axis of Cole’s art taking precedence. To summarize, these canvases of 1827 give us the writing in the distance, an indication of the presence of the divine, stripped of the allegorical content in the fore and middle grounds. In the foreground of these works we have viewing platforms that are either not adopted (as in The Clove) or which generate a view that provides minimal impact (as in Sunny Morning). In the middle distance we have the occluding mountains, the makers of meaning in these works, the very trace of God that Cole makes so explicit thereafter, and the figures that nonetheless keep him hidden from view. And in this invisible background we have the creator of these mountains, indicated by a world we know to exist but which has been forever elided from our view.

[1] Allan Wallach, "Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire" in Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, ed. William H. Truettner and Wallach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 64.
[2] Ibid, 64-65.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, 98.
[7] Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964), 252.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005), 266.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid, 98.
[12] Ibid, 70.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Wallach, "Thomas Cole and the Aristocracy" in Reading American Art, eds. Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 80-81.
[15] "Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire," 28.
[16] "Thomas Cole and the Aristocracy," 83.
[17] "Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire," 70.
[18] Noble, 125.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Wallach, 70.
[22] Robert Gilmor commissioned a second, slightly smaller (25 x 31 in. to 25 3/8 x 35 1/16) canvas on the same subject which Cole completed the same year (1827). I have chosen to highlight the Wadsworth for its similarities to the St. John canvas that I have described subsequently. In any case the Gilmor composition features the same elision of the dramatic that is characteristic of the other two 1827 pieces.
[23] Noble, 73.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid, 215.
[26] Reprinted in Noble, 214-216.
[27] In a letter reprinted by Noble it even seems that he was to give Cole's son a drawing lesson. Ibid, 272.
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Friday, May 28, 2010

New Film: The Father of My Children

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Another highpoint in an exceedingly strong year for both the French cinema and female directors, Mia Hansen-Løve's The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants, 2009) fictionalizes the last days of French producer Humbert Balsan's life, with his filmic equivalent Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) taking his own life in the midst of the meltdowns of his finances and of a Swedish-based film production modeled in part on Béla Tarr's real-life shoot of The Man from London (2007); Tarr's film in fact precipitated Balsan's actual suicide.* For the viewer aware of the Balsan-Tarr connection, The Man from London perpetually hangs over The Father of My Children as a possible hermeneutic key that nonetheless never seems to explain Balsan/Canvel's act. The Man from London more significantly provides a perfect inversion of Hansen-Løve's retelling, with the former's long-take, luminous black-and-white camera work articulated for graphic effect and generic citation foremost, whereas The Father of My Children's natural light-infused color mise-en-scène and elliptic cutting proves subordinate to its filmmaker's storytelling and her character formulations; Tarr's film is pure application of style, in other words, while Hansen-Løve's is all humanity.

The film's tenderness emerges very early in The Father of My Children, with Grégoire calling home to speak to his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), following a series of work calls that Hansen-Løve combines through a conventionally Gallic, elliptical cutting schema. Sylvia puts on their two younger daughters, Valentine (Alice Gautier) and Billie (Manelle Driss), who affectionately and jokingly converse with their greatly overworked father, who though exhausted, humors and goes along with the tangents of his daughters. Later that evening, following Grégoire's citation for speeding, the same two young girls stage a play for their mother, father and oldest sister Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing); the latter reclines and rests her head on her father's shoulder, one of many moments of physical affection. With the play's monster playfully named for Grégoire, the film's male lead responds, again in jest, with a promise that his daughters will receive the spankings of their life, which he then offers hugging and wrestling his two delighted daughters. Hansen-Løve accordingly captures the authentic, loving rapport shared by members of the close Canvel family. In this way, the late twenty-something's accomplishment converges closely with that of her early thirty-something German counterpart, Maren Ade, whose Everyone Else (2009) similarly brings the lives of its singular protagonists into vivid existence. Both female filmmakers in particular show a heightened sensitivity for the feelings of their young female women, while reserving opacity for their male leads.

Indeed, The Father of My Children is similarly aided by its sketchy depiction of Grégoire's psychology as his suicide nears. The viewer is made aware of his severe financial problems - he receives word that his assets have been frozen immediately prior to his death - which again were most recently exacerbated by the overages of his genius Swede director Stig Janson (Magne Brekke), the film's Tarr equivalent. No more motive is articulated, though it would seem clear enough that Canvel's act followed from his sense that he had no way out of his financial straights, that his career's work was all but gone, as he cautions when it is proposed that he sell his catalog. Hansen-Løve, to her credit, does not push an interpretation of an action that though opaque is easy to identify.

That he acted in the wrong becomes immediately clear, however, whether or not his despair is understandable. Yet, the writer-director does not sentimentalize the experiences of Grégoire's four female survivors, whose grief and perseverance supply the subject of the film's second part. In so doing, the director constructs her narrative to match her persevering rhetoric with the picture's focus shifting from the eponymous male patriarch halfway through, to those whom he has left behind and for whom life must go on after his departure. The Father of My Children's content organically generates its form. At the same time, Hansen-Løve does extract maximal emotion impact from the suffering of Sylvia and her young daughters, inviting an extraordinary amount of pathos for the young victims of Grégoire's action; this again is a work of extraordinary humanity.

As The Father of My Children proceeds, sans père, the female Canvel's grapple with Grégoire's death and especially their professed feelings of abandonment. Sylvia, in her husband's absence, is compelled to deal with his failing production company, and with the outfit's on-going difficulties with their Swedish auteur. Clémence, on the other hand, discovers an estranged son in her father's past, acquaints herself with one of his Central Asian filmmakers - played here by Tajik director Jamshed Usmonov - and, commensurate with her pre-adult liminality, has (presumably) her first sexual experience with another of her father's would-be young directors. His older two women, in other words, are forced to face up to his problems, while forging their own paths forward.

The Father of My Children
thereby inscribes life's continuation after tragedy, the necessity of perseverance after human loss. To this end, Hansen-Løve's film continues to abound with singular, life-filled moments even as the family continues to mourn, as for instance when a sudden power outage forces the women and family friend Serge (Eric Elmosnino) out onto a city street, or when the younger girls insistently greet the workers at the now liquidated production company, before play-acting and searching through their mother's workspace. In the scene to follow, The Father of My Children closes as it has opened, with compositions of the Parisian streets cut with an upbeat musical refrain that serves as the film's literal epitaph: "que sera sera."

Correction [*]: Writing for the Village Voice, Ella Taylor suggests the director is meant to invoke Lars von Trier and the production was his Manderlay (2005), even though other, earlier reviewers and interviewers have also suggested The Man from London as the source, as I have in this piece; in many respects von Trier's anti-humanism provides as compelling a counterpoint to Hansen-Løve's work as does Tarr's formalism. Perhaps then it would be more accurate to say that "Saturn" is a composite of these two productions.