Saturday, January 31, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog, 2007

I braved the crowds once again at the Centre Pompidou to get into the Herzog retrospective tonight. (See my review of Fata Morgana)

And, as always, I wasn't disappointed. Encounters at the end of the World is familiar because we have seen Herzog go many times before to far off lands to discover the eccentrics who inhabit them. And, even though the outsiders who are the subject of this recent documentary are in Antarctica, like all Herzog's visionaries who, removed from the insanity of the everyday world that clutters the mind and the spirit, they too impart wisdom and understanding of otherwise infathomable phenomena. 

Despite the repetitiveness of Herzog's documentaries, I always notice something different, something that seems so obvious, I wonder why I never noticed it before. Tonight I was fascinated by the invisible line trodden by Herzog in his ability to represent the humor in and of his subjects, while granting them the utmost respect and sincerity, and simultaneously inviting his audience to marvel at the subjects' enlightened ability to see a truth about the world that isn't available to the likes of us who obey the routinization of life in ... well, Paris, for example. So, on McMurdo Research Station we meet scientists who stage an "open air concert" on a rooftop in sub-zero temperatures at the South Pole in celebration of the day's esoteric molecular discovery on the ocean floor. Or the adventurer whose one woman show at the talent night sees her zipped up as carry on luggage. And then there is the linguist turned horticulturalist who ends up being a philosopher before Herzog's camera. He tells his story and weaves it with that of the rapid extinction of languages, likening his plight to preserve natural species as akin to his failed doctoral dissertation in linguistics. Herzog interrupts him, "making a long story short" and yet, somehow, we don't feel the intrusion as invasive or violent. And still we are convinced by the linguist's argument. How does Herzog do that?

My  favorite moment of Herzog as facilitator of the profundity of other people's stories, and the greatness of their lives, comes when he interviews a man who spent years behind the iron curtain. Asked about his escape, the man is not only speechless, he becomes visibly distressed, agitated and panicked. Herzog's gentle voice reassures him he doesn't have to tell his story if he doesn't want to, and immediately the trauma evaporates. This moment touches me at some deep level, not the man's physical expression of his trauma, but in Herzog's gentle witnessing of it which, in turn, enables the filmmaker to relieve his subject's trauma, to take on its burden. It's a very powerful and deeply moving few seconds in an otherwise light film.
I haven't mentioned the incredibly natural formations of the ice in Antarctica, I haven't mentioned the breathtaking scenery, the adorable and splendorous animal and plant life in this film. In many ways, encounters with them are more fascinating than are the human kind. Because these animals and natural formation are way beyond our comprehension. Way out of our league. Everything from their behavior, through their physical appearance, their habits, and the sheer magic of their ability to survive in these harsh conditions, none of it is rationalizable. Still that doesn't stop us. There's a wonderful physicist who explains the project of collecting particles that appear in a flash that lasts something like a 100,000,000,000,000,000 of a second. He refers to these particles as so ethereal, ephemeral that they are like spirits, like God. And because we are human, we have to make every attempt to control them! Even though the scientific research and experiments on McMurdo are shown as completely eco-friendly and responsible, it's this attitude that has lead to the film's ultimate message: it's all on the way to extinction, including us!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, 1976

There are many delights in the group show "On Paper," currently on exhibition at Galerie Karsten Greve in the Marais, and this small oil on cardboard by Josef Albers is among them. (See also my review of Norbert Prangenberg's paintings). I have seen it and others like it in reproduction, both in his own book, Interaction of Color and in books that discuss the optical interactions of color and chromatic effects on which Albers is the authority. But up close, in person, Study for Homage to the Square is precious and intimate in a way that never is when captured in reproductions.  The object itself is delicate and, in close up, carefully, but not flawlessly executed. Just to experience the edges of grey where they bleed into the green of the background, and the moments where the green seeps over onto the white of the cardboard makes standing before the square a delight. Because these moments tell of the presence and influence of the hand in works that are always touted as evenly painted, focussed on the form of the square, the choice of the colors, and the optical interaction between them. It is only when we have the privilege of seeing the square in person that we begin to appreciate paint, color, light are inseparable, all permeating the substance of the others, all lending their luminosity to provide definition and identity to the others. This may not be what Albers intends to teach in his lessons on color, but it is what I learnt as I examined this delicious green and grey square this afternoon.

My friend Georgia was fascinated by the placement of the square on the white paper background. The right edge of the green square doubles as the edge of the paper, while the left, top and bottom edges are constituted by the three-sided white frame of the same paper. Why did he do that? The placement of the square on the paper does not introduce imbalance to the composition, but in a work that is focussed on the relationship between the adjacent colors and the effect of these on the human eye, it cannot be a random choice on the part of Albers. To be sure, in spite of conventional wisdom on Albers, there is nothing neutral, homogeneous or symmetrical in this or any other of his squares. They are replete with intimacy, asymmetricality, unevenness, varying intensity of colors, and other traces of the interaction between the hand and eye that paints them.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The ridiculous delusion of having to settle down and resign from Life

Revolutionary Road, dir. Sam Mendes, 2008

I saw Kate Winslet in The Reader a few weeks ago and was stunned by her performance as Hannah, a woman with a past in Auschwitz who falls in love with a 15 year old boy 20 odd years after the end of WWII. However, having seen Revolutionary Road tonight, I realize that The Reader is a film that isn't strong enough or deep enough to make her shine to her full brilliance. Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, has what it takes. She is extraordinary. The film is stronger, much stronger than American Beauty. In fact, I can't remember the last time I saw one of these American middle-class angst films and was so engaged by it. Much of my engagement has to do with Winslet's performance - why she didn't get an academy award nomination for this role is beyond me. As her marriage unravels, so does she. The undoing of her marriage is spawned by the inability of her husband to face the truth about himself (to feel real emotion), and her inability to resolve herself to a life in Connecticut taking out the garbage, making scrambled eggs, going on double dates with Milly and Shep, and of course, breeding. Her understandable inner turmoil, frustration, entrapment and finally resignation to all of these, become written on her face in the subtlest of gestures, which sometimes means no gesture at all. Powerful. As a woman brought up in a world that gave me, to use her words, the idea that I had "to buy into the same ridiculous delusion, this idea of having to settle down and resign from life" in order to be accepted, I identified with every one of her protestations. Including her ultimate decision to halt the perpetuation of the illusion by using the only means left available to her: her body. It's a powerful statement about the choices, and lack thereof, of suburban women to break out of the template for life that the world gives us.

And men? I have never been a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, even though I will admit he has matured as an actor. Still, I had difficulty feeling any empathy for Frank Wheeler, though empathy is what he really needs. Trapped by his own image of what a man must and can do, of what makes life safe, the energy we believe he has (because his wife tells us so) has nowhere to go but to well up inside of him. And then, of course, it is expended in sex with the secretary and violent outbursts against his wife. It's a familiar story. My sense is that, though the film is set in 1950s America, and specifically relates a middle-class dream, its message is really more general in nature. Sadly, the disintegration of this "perfect" couple, an erosion of private life thanks to a struggle to fit the mold of the bourgeoise nuclear family life, is way too common an occurrence in our suburbs, today. 

Mendes handles all of this social indictment with skill, and I have few criticisms of the way the film is put together. The use of a clinically insane sage to put the film's message into words was perhaps overwrought. Similarly, I found the film's opening with a violent argument between DiCaprio and Winslet as the exposition of their relationship to be too much too soon. For some reason I would have liked to have seen DiCaprio's rage build up across the film, rather than have it introduced, then disappear - ie. when he was all ready to leave the Connecticut suburbs and his detested job in sales. When the rage all of a sudden evaporates, and he becomes the loving husband who seems to have no emotional baggage, his character becomes uneven and loses credibility.

Despite its flaws, go see it, and hopefully, it will put you off marriage and life in the suburbs - FOREVER!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Christian Boltanski, El Caso, 1988

            My favorite room in the K21 Kunstsammlung, Düsseldorf: Christian Boltanski’s haunting El Caso (1988). Three walls  are filled with portrait photographs of people reported in the Madrid newspaper of the same name to have been murdered. Each photographed face is blown up to a blurred portrait in characteristic Boltanski style. A desk light, complete with leads shines directly onto the image making it even more difficult to look at, and even more impossible to identify the face. As is often the case with Bolantski’s photographs, not seeing is tbeir power. It is not the identity of the person photographed that is important, what matters is that they have been murdered. The obscurity of each individual’s features is the photograph’s reach for generality. In a biscuit tin beneath each photograph Boltanski has apparently placed an image of the murdered corpse or the scene of the crime. [These photographs have, in turn, been collected into an artist’s book of limited edition]. The blurb at the entrance to the room informs us that the photographs we cannot see are taken by police at the scene of the crime. Not seeing is, once again, the force of these images: because we cannot see the corpse in the box, our imaginations run wild and there is never a doubt that it is hidden because the body is too mutilated, too deformed to bear. And yet, we don’t need to see, because we are certain that the photograph above the tin is the face of the one who the body belongs to. Thus, the face we cannot fully recognize is all we need to see. This refusal on Boltanski’s part to reveal the identity of the person in the blurred photograph, under the desk light, in the tin box is what make each “memorial” disturbing. Each face is like a spectre come back to life – having exceeded the limits of the tin in which it supposedly belongs. They are spirits that won’t die or disappear, they won’t be shut up in the tin, that persist in coming back to haunt the museum spectator. This imagined presence on the walls of the K21 gives these faces a relevance to our own indulgent lives, it forces us to confront ourselves and our need to mourn the dead we never knew. Connected to each other by the leads of the lights that obscure them, the faces demand we too pick up the thread and become involved in their stories. 

            One wall of the room is filled with linen sheets, neatly packed, cleaned but not ironed and placed on a shelf. With the absence of a visible human connection to the sheets, we immediately begin to imagine the people who they once covered. And of course we connect them to the faces in the photographs. Were they the sheets that covered the corpse in the morgue? Or perhaps the sheets that were used as shrouds for burial? It’s unclear, but we are struck by the fact that the people who once used these sheets no longer need them. And we assume, they are no longer with us. Again, the tactile presence of the absence of the murdered enfolds us in their cry for remembrance and recognition.

            Counterposed with the trauma and truth that we experience in the midst of the installation, is another familiar Boltanski concern: that of the archive. In El Caso the exhibition of the photographs and what we assume to be the photographed remains of their corpses communicates the filing away of information as is the wont of police in murder investigations. It’s material to which we, the public, ordinarily have no access.  Thus, through the complex interaction of portraits we cannot see, lights, leads, tin boxes and mysterious sheets, Boltanski offers us an imaginative access that potentially undoes the rationalization of the authorities’ archive. We may not see clearly what the authorities hide, and the press sensationalizes, but Boltanski invites us to animate and envision through imagination. In turn, our vision creates our responsibility for the memory of those who have been murdered. Because the images are made public for us: the police, the newspaper, the morticians, even Boltanski the artist, have left the installation. In their wake they have left an environment into which we step, an environment that surrounds us with, makes us responsible for the past, its injustice, for murder, and its motives, and the memory of each. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

If it was a Movie, it would be too contrived to be believeable

Even Stanley Kubrick could not have scripted a better end to the Bush Administration than the image of a hunched over Dick Cheney being tipped from wheelchair to limousine in the final moments of his political career this afternoon. It was the most perfect moment of today's inauguration.  It's the fitting end to his despotic acts, the violence and bloodshed that have been endured as the result of his ... to quote Mr B Obama ... mixing up of safety and ideals. Crippled by his own malice, Cheney is too perfect for a Hollywood villain. 

How fascinating that George H W Bush could hardly walk, and yet Jimmy Carter who has continued his humanitarian projects and human rights advocacy, literally skipped out onto the stage. Surely the moral of the fairy tale down on Capitol Hill this afternoon has to be that evil comes back to erode the bodies of those who indulge. And if compassion, service to fellow humans and humility is our code, we will be blessed with perfect health!

And then there was Ted Kennedy's collapse at the dinner table. Again, it's the kind of event that would seem overwrought if it was in a film by someone like Douglas Sirk if he were still around, or Luchino Visconti if he were American! The 60s patriarch collapses at the moment his generation must make way for the new ideals, the new beliefs, the new world. The place and philosophy of the Democratic Party has been and will continue to be redefined for a generation in which the Kennedy way of doing politics is no longer on the cutting edge, no longer speaking to the youth of America. 

Today's is a world which stops to look at and listen to a black man. 

Can the black family walk down Pennsylvania Av. to 1600, and enter through the front door to take up residence? I don't think so. No Hollywood movie could make that a credible ending and still sell tickets. Luckily, the movies and real life have little to do with each other. It's an exciting time for America, an exciting time for the world. Obama is humble and brilliant, and with the Bush Administration gone, out, finished, over, hobbling their way off this screen, America and Americans can again assume the self-respect to stand up, speak, and have their voices heard. 

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Why We Cry. Rothko at the Tate Modern

James Elkins can't quite put his finger on why we cry before Mark Rothko's paintings (James Elkins, Pictures and Tears, Routledge, 2004). Elkins gathers responses to the 15 foot high black on black paintings commissioned for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The comments were left in the visitors' book to the chapel. Elkins uses these responses as the bases of his speculations on why we cry. Is it the deep emptiness of the monochromatic squares that disturbs? Or is it that the viewer is brought before God in the face of these works? Perhaps those people whose souls are touched "see" the profundity of Rothko's own dark experience that he had when executing the untitled works. The idea of this connection between artist and viewer in the moment of perception would be Rothko's hopes for the paintings. 
Ultimately, however, despite the fact that Elkins comes close to pinpointing why we cry, he doesn't quite do it. As one of those viewers who is stirred to want to prostrate before these overwhelming and unfathomable works, I know what it is to cry in their presence. And I have an idea of why, as I entered the room in which the Seagram murals were hung in the Tate Modern yesterday, I wept silently as if called to bear witness to a great, devastating truth.
Elkins talks about being with a Rothko as akin to being with someone we love, wanting to draw closer both physically and emotionally. And then, as we do move closer, drunk with the experience of breathing the same air, we feel our increasing vulnerability. In a gesture of self-protection and self-preservation, we step back, suddenly reminded of the safety of distance. This is my experience. It is my experience of being with a Rothko, and being in love, equally. I fall into the space opened for me by the canvas, and again, by the infinite depths of color within color, just as I fall into someone I love. And then, recognizing the discomfort of this intimacy, with nothing between me and the canvas, nothing between me and another's soul, I recoil. Here, in this falling, I am moved to tears. Sometimes, like yesterday, Rothko's paintings offer me a space of perfect stillness, a space that brings me face to face with nothing other than the power of who I am. These canvases have the potential to show me the stillness, thus the life inside of me, and it is a stillness so naked that there is nowhere to go but to tears.
I would argue, because it is my experience, that this invitation to open up and out to a place in me that is no longer within reach of the physical senses is what makes these paintings great. The tears and the greatness belong together. A man who sat next to me for a short while as I experienced the Seagram murals, said he didn't get it. It's a common response to Rothko's paintings. As Elkins notes, it's as common as the imperative to behave towards them as to icons of adoration. The man just didn't see the point of all these repetitions, and of course, he could have done them himself: "anyone could paint them, it's all about technique." The man was wrong. I think. These are not works that anybody can paint.
All this then makes Rothko the quintessential Romantic artist, a designation that, in the hallowed halls of modernist painting, is not to be celebrated. But the paintings don't stop where I left off. They are more complex and more ambiguous, more challenging than my impulsive tears would make them out to be. The man was right - there is technique, form, color, line, an infinite play of figure and ground, the impossibility of layer upon layer without thickness of paint, the energy and vibrations of light in tension, yet hand in hand, with darkness. These formal qualities interrupt the harmony, distract the eye and mind from the meditative slumber of self-reflection. In this, the murals are modernist par excellence. Thus, they confound expectation, and elude all attempts to make finite sense of their richness, their provocation. They are no more able to shoulder the label of an art historical category than they can be fathomed in the way the Tate Modern exhibition seems determined to do. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Thomas Struth ... continued...

I swear I didn't know, but admit I should have known, when I wrote my reflections on the Audience series in Düsseldorf, that Struth actually photographed the swarm of crowds before Velasquez' masterpiece, Las Meninas, in the Prado. The series is another of his museum series now on display in the Objectivités. La photographie à Düsseldorf at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

When I saw these yesterday, I once again found the series compelling, as compelling, maybe more so then in Düsseldorf because it was more comfortably hung. However, I was struck by the fact that all the same questions and issues came up for me as I pondered the Museo del Prado series. Looking at the boy in the front who is way more interested in Struth's camera than he is in Velasquez' painting, or the waving hand of the tour guide that alerts the group to what's necessary to see in las Meninas, the young men in the foreground who use the opportunity to talk amongst themselves, even the tourists who prefer to see this extraordinary work through their own digital camera lens, I am again reminded of the practices of looking and not looking that are handed out to us by the museum and the culture industry alike. The same contradictory, unfathomable behaviors, poses and gazes are in operation before Las Meninas as they are in the presence of the absent David in the Audience series.

And so, I began to wonder whether or not Struth's practice was somewhat limited, at least as it relates to these museum photographs. Does the identity of the painting or even the museum for that matter change the dynamics of Struth's photographs? My companion to the Musée d'Art Moderne wanted each Struth image to raise new questions and explore new ground determined by the differing relationships between audience and individual art works. However, I am not so convinced. Surely the point of Struth's photographs is the very ignorance of the painting, or at best, the highly codified ways of looking (and not looking) when we are in an art gallery, especially before such revered works as Las Meninas? Ultimately then, Struth's photographs may look good and have a certain fascination for us as viewers in times and spaces removed from our counterparts in the image (and here, the audience in the painting before them). However, do we need to look over and over again, at different audiences in different museums? Or do we get the point from a single viewing of a single series?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Roman Polanski - Wanted and Desired, dir. Marina Zenovich

We all know Roman Polanski was charged with rape, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and various other offenses, and we all know he fled the US a year later never to return. But what this film uncovers are the intricate details of the case in the California courts, and the manipulation of justice that plagued the case. In particular, the film focusses on the media conscious Judge Laurence Rittenband whose decision to convict was driven by pride and arrogance to save his face in the media.

The film is not particularly special or noteworthy as a documentary, ie. for its form, using interviews, archival footage and new footage, text and voiceover intermixed throughout. But it does present as a nuanced and sensitive account of Polanski's ordeal. Most impressive is the filmmaker's ability to not pass judgement on Polanski's actions, and simultaneously to indict a legal system that was clearly not working in the interests of justice. It's interesting that the film's most severe criticism is of those figures entrusted with the law who are led astray by an overwhelming preoccupation with their representation in the press. And this at a time (late 70s/early 80s) when cameras were not yet allowed in the court room. One wonders how different it would be if the case were tried today. The epilogue to the film tells us that the case was in fact retried in 1997 following the victim's public announcement of forgiveness. And the LA judge ruled that if Polanski were to return to the US he would serve no further sentence, but only on the condition that further legal proceedings would be televised. In effect, then, nothing has changed in the thirty years since. At least where the relationship between the law and the press are concerned, the two are as influence by and dependent on one another as ever.

What has changed surely though, is the cast of characters - from friends and associates, to lawyers and judges, not a single woman is involved in these proceedings. With all these middle- (now late-) aged white men writing and performing the law in a case of rape, sexual misconduct and potential abuse of minors, one wonders how different the ethical stakes and the outcomes of such an investigation would be if played out in a more representative courtroom today?

The film is worth it just for the archival footage, but also, it's an intelligent account of (yet again) the corruption of the US legal system.