Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sèvres Outdoors

La Manufacture en 1813
Cité de la Céramique à Sèvres, 1740
I enjoy being in Paris in August, when the Parisians are gone to their destinations by the seaside, and every storefront in my street has a hastily written sign in the window with the dates of their vacation. If there is one drawback about being in Paris in August it is that I sometimes run out entertainment. Not being a fan of Paris’ tourist traps and hooked into a world that follows the same season as every other Parisian business and shop, pickings get slim in August. But as often happens, I made a new discovery.
Laurent Le Deunff, Totems, 2007
At the suggestion of Time Out Paris for Londoners, on Sunday, I got on the bike and rode the 20k out to Sèvres where about 30 galleries have taken up space in the gardens of the Cité de la Céramique. The museum is attached to the famous Sèvres porcelain factory, up the road (conveniently) from Madame de Pompadour’s Bellevue Palace. The magnificent 18th century buildings were constructed at the instruction of Louis XV to house the largest manufacturer of porcelain in Europe. The whole site has that industrial feel to it, even though the making of porcelain doesn’t require big chimneys and oversized machinery. It’s a strange place, nestled in the not so showcase world of beyond the péripherique Paris.
Jochen Dehn, Freedom is Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose, 2014
In the gardens, the contemporary sculptures that were not made as outdoor installations feel completely at home. A wooden piano by Jochen Dehn ('Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose', 2014) looks so much integrated into the foliage, and lichen-covered tree behind that it is difficult to believe it has ever lived anywhere else. There is a peace and an eeriness to this relatively small sculpture garden, but it is still and mysterious, in a way that a landscape transformed by art should be. Once inside the garden I felt submerged in a timeless world of art and nature.
Ernesto Sartori, Une Multiplication, 2014
Some of the works fit perfectly into the environment, others such as a Japanese style capsule hotel bed, seem very out of place. [Atelier Van Lieshout, 'Dynamo Capsule Hotel', 2010)] A Jimmie Durham piece, “Thinking of You” was Durham’s usual fun and games as a bronze bird sat atop a high perch. “Une Multiplication,” by Ernesto Sartori sits quietly outside one of the old factory buildings. Everything about it is unnatural and artificial and yet its cobalt blue blends in so nicely with the still air of a factory not in operation on a still, late summer afternoon.
Markus Lüpertz, Herkules Entwurfsmodell 11, 2010
As visitors enter the grounds of the ceramics museum we are greeted by two of the cast iron Hercules figures by Markus Lüpertz. They are bright and colourful, confronting and disturbing, the one with his leg broken off, the other without an arm. Their faces distorted, these are the victims of a world that distorts and destroys. But like much sculpture in this kind of environment, their evocation of quite reflection and stillness made them haunting, at peace.  They are true heroes, contradictory in nature.
Across the Seine to Sèvres

As I looked across at Sèvres from the other side of the Seine on my way home, I was reminded of how much a showcase central Paris really is. People always talk about how beautiful Paris is, and it is, but it’s also good to leave now and then to be reminded that the minute you venture outside of the centre, it’s a rather ordinary place. The detritus and decay of an industrial era looks very similar to its counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Sèvres is a small oasis in the middle of a not always attractive neighborhood. For that, it is a jewell in Louis XV’s crown, well worth a visit.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Winter Sleep, Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
I wish I had something new and exciting to say about this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or, Winter Sleep. It’s a long and very beautiful film that revels in the sumptuousness of the cinema. It’s about as Shakespearean as the cinema gets in its epic form and story, but unlike a Shakespearean play, at the movie’s end, the mise-en-scène is fully intact. Unlike a Shakespeare play where the stage is strewn with bodies and blood as the evidence of the drama that has unfolded before us, all of the desire, destruction, and revelation has happened internally, behind the deep brown eyes of the characters, in the cold air between a husband and his unhappy wife.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014

The most devastating moment of Winter Sleep comes when a poor drunkard, recently returned home from prison, throws a great wad of 100 lire notes in the fire. The protagonist, Aydin, a 60 something wealthy writer who is also filled with arrogance and disinterest in those not his social equal, is the poor man’s landlord. Aydin’s beautiful young wife decides that benevolence is the solution to her husband’s arrogance and ills. In a far less shocking scene, Aydin warns the lovely Nihal of the complexity of charitable acts and the deceit of those who minister them. We don’t believe him anymore than she does because his warning is delivered in anger, perhaps as a gesture to control her, perhaps because of his jealousy of her life away from him. It’s difficult to know his motives. But when she decides to visit the family in the village below who cannot pay the rent, only to have her gesture thrown into the fire, her lesson, like ours, is moral and very real. As she defies her haughty and wise but unflinching husband, she learns a moral tale the hard way: you can’t just give to the poor and expect everything to be better. It doesn’t work like that.

Aydin and Necla discussing his writing
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
What I loved most about the film was the dark, often firelit mise-en-scène of closeups. Much of the  “drama” of the film takes place in conversations between Aydin and Nihal and his recently divorced sister, Necla as well as the visitors to the hotel —Othello House — that he runs in remote Anatolia. The beautiful closeups watch faces lit by fire light and intense dark eyes allowing us to read the emotion, if not always the thoughts and motivations of the characters. Ceylan uses a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and blacks out much of the background while the closeups consume every breath of the screen. This is a daring use of cinemascope if ever there was one. The other, most exquisite aspect of Winter Sleep is Ceylan’s editing. He has a practice of cutting, quite boldly, between scenes before they are finished, with a conversation acting as a sound bridge to another scene, and a shift or pause in conversation once the spatial transition is established.

Ceylan not only stretches the film medium, but in its 3h15minute length,  he pushses us to a different kind of film viewing. We remember, it’s a film in which very little happens, in which the action consists of the characters slow revellation of themselves, and with themselves their morality, their politics, their flaws, their vulnerabilities, through conversations with each other. All this talking, reflecting, being pensive isn’t exactly cinematic action. So he really asks a lot of his viewer: we have to go in, sit back and let go to the fairy tale in a castle on a mountain —which turns out to be not such a fairytale afterall. The drawback is that like the Chekov stories the film is based on, there is a lot of talking, therefore a lot of reading subtitles. Those seeing Winter Sleep subtitled in their own language may not have this difficulty, but I missed a lot of the gorgeous imagery because I was distracted by reading subtitles.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
Ultimately, I was also taken by the brilliance of Winter Sleep’s epic reach. Like Shakespeare and Chekov and Dostoyevsky and Voltaire that inspired the film, the contemporary politics of Turkey are engaged as the characters struggle with the most intimate lives. Aydin writes about religion in his weekly newspaper column —that as his sister points out, is much more to satisfy his ego than to inform the readers. In conversation and disagreement, the film then raises the question of the split between religious and non-Religious Turks, the difficulties caused by the gap between rich and poor, educated and illiterate.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
All said, it’s a fine winter’s tale and worthy winner of the Palme d’Or, but I am not convinced that it is Ceylan’s masterpiece. My favorite film of his is still the first one I saw, Uzak, a film that is more human in every way. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Moonwalk One, dir. Theo Kamecke, 1970

Theo Kamecke, Moonwalk One, 1970
Moonwalk One is in many ways, the ultimate American feel good movie. But as Discovery Channel-type documentaries go, it is a unique treasure that, because it is now 45 years after the fact, can almost be forgiven its “America the great nation becoming even greater by winning the space race” narrative. The director, Theo Kamecke, was commissioned by NASA to make a documentary of Apollo 11’s 1969 trip to the moon, and for the purpose, he was given access to launch control, mission control and all NASA’s technical footage. The result is a compilation of stock and shot colour 16mm footage blown up to 35mm. The film was shelved having attracted minimal attention at the time, and recently rediscovered, digitally remastered and re-released. For cinema lovers, Moonwalk One is a treat from beginning to end.
Theo Kamecke, Moonwalk One, 1970
Making space suits
Anyone familiar with the aesthetic of 16mm Kodak film from the late 1960s will be able to guess why this film is so luscious. The image in Moonwalk One is the sensuous, light sensitive kind, with deep luminous colours and variegated texture that we no longer see at the movies. The footage of the rocket launch at Cape Canaveral is slow and fascinating as the ship penetrates the cobalt blue sky of the earth’s atmosphere, and moves into outer space. The view outside the astronauts windows from the space ship as it rotates around the sea-covered earth, blanketed by whispy clouds, the opticals of the sun, the cold and dead, but luminous moon, see the image compellingly drift into abstraction. And as we watch the journey from launchpad to lunar touchdown, perhaps the most seductive element is the time that is given to this journey. In keeping with films from the period, the pace of the editing is unhurried, what we might today see as attenuated, but in reality, is appropriate to a vision of motion through thousands of miles across what is, effectively, impossible terrain.
Theo Kamecke, Moonwalk One, 1970

There’s a real 60s feel to the film: aesthetically it is very much a product of its time—no digital effects back then—and no fear of image experimentation, indeed the abstraction that reminds viewers of the days of psychedelic drugs. Moonwalk One includes long sequences of audiences around the world anticipating the landing and watching that great step forward for mankind. And of course, they watch it on television sets with images so fuzzy and interfered with that we, 45 years later, will wonder why anyone would bother. But in the late 1960s, audiences thought that these sometimes barely discernible images were “perfectly clear” as the guys in Houston confirm to the crew in one radio discussion. As the American crowds around the country turn skyward to see the long awaited moment, they have the coolest sunglasses, outfits and cars. The men in mission control smoke pipes to help them think, use binoculars to see into the distance, and best of all, are the women—regular seamstresses—who we see making the astronauts suits, by hand, with needle and thread. All of the footage of the long and detailed preparation for the trip tells us as much about the culture of late 1960s America as it does about the technological and human feat of sending men to the moon.
Astronaute sur la lune
Theo Kamecke, Moonwalk One, 1970
What comes out very strongly watching this film 45 years later is the political exploitation of the trip to the moon. Moonwalk One doesn’t say this, but we know too well that as Neil Armstrong was placing the American flag on the powdery surface of the moon, down on earth, battle was being waged against the Viet Cong. At the end of Moonwalk One, the narrator asks why “we” celebrated Apollo 11’s trip to the moon with such verve and passion? He lists a number of possibilities, but the one he forgets is probably the most convincing: the colonization of space was a great distraction from the bombings of North Vietnamese base camps in Cambodia, Stonewall riots and rising tensions on university campuses across the country. As America’s star was still on the ascent, just before everything went pear shaped, a very happy and spritely President Nixon is shown in the crowds gathered to welcome Apollo 11 back to earth.  How could a president who was elected to end a war, and was in fact doing the very opposite as he escalated the military attack, win popularity points? Turn the colonization of the galaxy into an American achievement that warrants the celebration of the century.