Saturday, October 31, 2009

Providence, dir. Alain Resnais, 1977

As I sat watching Resnais 1977 psycho-drama, Providence, I thought of all my students who would not even know his name, and as a result, of what they were missing out on. For those of us raised on the diet and discipline of learning a discipline from the Pyramids to Picasso, from Old Norse to The Sound and the Fury, the equivalent in my cinema studies' education was the Lumières to Film School Generation. And Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad were turning points in 20th century cinema as they were in my growing appetite for modernist film. Yes, it might be confusing, and it might even be nonsense, but for me, seeing this bizarre film as an undergraduate was as all part of the thrill of having new worlds opened up.

And I was plunged back into that excitement last night when I chose Resnais’ 1977 Providence over This is It, the Michael Jackson bonanza. Now my shame: I can't believe I hadn’t seen Providence already. It’s a great film and would, in many ways, be more suitable in the classroom than Resnais’ modernist masterpiece. Students would get their teeth into what’s real and what’s fantasy – and of course, because the lines between the characters’ reality and the fantasies of the aging John Gielgud, and the narrative he is writing in his latest and presumably last novel are indeterminable and unfathomable, we could then turn the lesson to questions of the realities that are at stake in the cinematic world more generally. The absence of reality check in Providence makes it a perfect psychological puzzle of the kind that fulfils both the needs of the students to convince themselves of the importance of untangling the “real” from the imagined, and of the teacher to convince them of the pitfalls of debating the stability of cinematic realities. Students would also have fun with analyzing the character of the son (Dirk Bogarde in a characteristically brilliant performance) who not only harbors all the anger and hangups of his father, but who takes a mistress that is played by the same actor — Elaine Stritch — as his mother.

Aside from its suitability to the classroom, there is much to admire about the film as it demonstrates Renais’ absolute skill at putting stories together in a way that both embraces the full spectrum of the cinema’s want to transgress social norms and expectations and, simultaneously, to escape the rationalizing desires of the audience. Providence plunges us into a world of an aging — dying if we are to believe Gielgud — writer who both rewrites his life as he remembers it or as he would like it to have been, and/or (not sure which) convinces us his nightmares are true. There is reference to a war as the opening depicts soldiers chasing an unknown man through a forest who turns out to be transforming into a werewolf. However, the real war of the film is the narrative written, erased, rethought, and rewritten, as we are shown it to be playing either in the aging John Gielgud’s mind, or in the novel he is or is not writing. What we never know is whether or not he is really vilified by his family, or if it is in his imagination – do they change their minds about him, or does he change his mind about them? Is the daughter-in-law (Ellyn Burstyn) really in pursuit of the man who killed a werewolf? Who turns out to be Gielgud’s illegitimate son? Or are her lascivious desires the whim of a horny old man frustrated with and intolerant of a repressive social world that allows no place for his bald imaginings? It’s difficult to say. And in the end, knowing Renais, it probably doesn’t matter. What matters for him, as the great modernist filmmaker, is that the medium allows him to blur all distinction between real and imagined, fantasy and reality, memory and fiction and even, the nature of the relationships between husband and wife, stranger and step son.

Film doesn’t come much better than this, and, given the choice of seeing Resnais’ version of reality or Michael Jackson raised from the dead – which might not be Michael Jackson after all – there is really no discussion.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shirin Neshat, Games of Desire, Galerie Jerome de Noirmont

My two cultural outings last Friday were, to say the least, uncomfortable bedfellows. I knew this in advance, but it wasn’t until 1am this morning when I arrived home after a four hour performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar that I realized just how impoverished some forms of contemporary culture can be.

I have never been a fan of Shirin Neshat’s work: she is one of those artists that I think is very overrated, someone who exploits her Iranian background to win the attention of those who matter in the art world. She is, afterall, an upper-middle class, Berkeley educated woman living in New York City who makes images about female oppression in the Islamic world, claiming legitimacy on the basis of her Iranian roots. Why then, do I keep going back to see her work? Because I keep thinking, well maybe there is something to these video installations, typically bifurcated visions of Muslim gender divisions on two screens simultaneously, that I am just not getting. Alas, Games of Desire at Galerie Jerome de Noirmont on Avenue Matignon failed to convince me of any failing on my part to be wise to the supposed profundity of Neshat’s work. The dozen photographs on the ground floor, all of a single Laotian in front of a ritual drawing are pretty, but it is the video upstairs that is the centerpiece of the exhibition. I had barely got through the gallery door before the man told me the video was upstairs.

The 22 minute video was filmed in Luang Prabang in Laos in 2005 and 2008. The two-channel video is shown on two screens, one at either end of the gallery: on the right we see 60-80 year men singing passionate love songs, and on the left, women of the same age do the same. The Laotian men sit on mats cross-legged, chanting and singing with glee as if to schoolgirls, wooing them with phrases that seem strange given the reality of the women opposite them, at the other end of the room. In a group, and then one by one, framed individually, they sing of the “round faced girl” while the women respond by singing of the men’s white teeth and red lips. Clearly, the lined, yet joyful, faces, mouths filled with rotten teeth on the opposite wall do not marry with the young lovers we imagine to be the recipient of such flattery.

The singing or chanting of the men mirrors that of the women. The words are symmetrical and repetitive, slowly becoming raunchy, erotic and then sexually explicit. We are somewhat shocked to hear these old faces singing such lines as “open my skirt so you can see the paradise! There you can see the Naga’s (dragon) eyes in the water (…)” The men answer by matching the invitation “There you can see the God’s mouth in the sky! Something black erected, you thought it was a hunter’s gun powder (…).” The representation of the old Loatians enjoying life and reveling in their erotic fantasies of is anthropologically of interest for its challenge to conventional representations of the old. Similarly, there is a very touching connection established between the men and the women across the boundary created by the gallery space.

Ultimately, however, I remain unconvinced of the great insights about this Eastern culture that Shirin Neshat apparently brings to the West. There is a border between men and women, yes, but wasn't this the same message we were given in all Neshat's other work? I am only glad that I had Julius Ceasar to look forward to, and to give me something more worthy of my energy to think about over the weekend.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tsuyoshi Shirai and Takayuki Fujimoto, True at the Maison du Japon

Tsuyoshi Shirai’s True is another of the Japanese dance works that open up whole new ways of thinking about dance and performance. First, I have to admit that there is a lot about the work I still do not understand. For example, the relevance of the title to the piece still eludes me. In an interview the director and lighting designer, Takayuki Fujimoto, says that the piece “tries to show that what we perceive to be a lie can also speak the truth.” Conceptually, there’s little to disagree with, but the connection to the dance performance is obscure. And that's through no fault of the piece itself! Perhaps this is because the knowledge base and aesthetic references of a performance such as True are, like so much that comes out of Japan, of a different realm, steeped in Japanese history, ways of thinking, and seeing the world.

True opens with what appears to be a street kid in a hooded sweatshirt and chinos familiarizing himself with his environment, mainly handling the objects that sit on a 10 meter long table. A cup, a glass, a globe, a puzzle, a toy aeroplane among other everyday treasures. Tsuyoshi Shirai, picks one up, inspects it, turns it around, looks at it from different angles, and then puts it back on the table. Ever so slowly the tension mounts and as Shirai handles an object, an electronic noise is emitted simultaneous with his taking it off the table. The second he puts it back where it was, the noise stops. Then the lights are activated. LED lights that beat at the rhythm of the technological sounds and bathe the space in their red, blue or yellow. This integration of sound, light and human body was extremely impressive.

In the West we are accustomed to thinking of dance as being about the body, and indeed, the body of the dancer is usually fetishized — through lighting and movement etc — such that the form and movement of the body is the very substance of modern dance. However, in True, the body shifts from a technological sound board to no more than a silhouette. Sensors are attached to Shirai’s body such that the movements of his muscles and his brain register on a computer and trigger sound and light simultaneously creating a world of technological wonder. Even when Shirai’s slight body is in motion, and indeed, his movements are often extraordinary, it is otherwise unremarkable. Dressed in street clothes we would walk straight past him were he to cross our path out in the world. And even though his movements are often of the highest technical demand, they are not flamboyant, but rather, most often they are an intensification of an everyday movement that you or I would make, unthinkingly. This understatement of the body is a very different language of dance than those we are used to, and might perhaps account for a reviewer for the New York Times complete misunderstanding of the piece. When Japanese art and performance is seen in the West, it might, on one level seem straightforward, but I would argue that it is rarely coming from an aesthetic and epistemic history that we have at our fingertips. This leaves me at least without the tools to understand, let alone analyse a work such as True. And yet, I was nothing short of riveted for the 90 minute performance at the Maison du Japon the other night. There was something so exciting about the sophistication and ease of this concert in light, sound and human bodies reduced to movement.

As Illustration of the “foreigness” of the references, my friend James pointed out with amusement a question posed to Fujimoto in the program. The French interviewer asks “In Renaissance painting for example, the table symbolizes knowledge. Does the table in your work have the same significance?” Without even reading Fujimoto’s response, common sense would tell us that in True the table belongs to a completely different order of things. The dancers pull it apart, use it as a jungle gym, they pass objects through it, and are drawn to it as a safe haven for objects that otherwise create intense noises when they are touched, or even worse, lifted off the table. The table is a constant source of fascination, something to return to, but also a mystery that can be transgressed, its parts used for innovative games (at one point a cylinder that is cut out of it is rolled across the stage). Whatever it is, the table obviously does not represent the sturdy resolve of knowledge.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fellini, La Grande Parade, Jeu de Paume

Given the paucity of exhibitions in Paris this Fall, despite my reluctance, I went to the latest installation at the Jeu de Paume: “Fellini, La Grande Parade”. The text at the entrance to the exhibition announces that it is a visual laboratory of moving and still images, texts and sounds, by and about the great Italian film director, Federico Fellini. Even though it is one of the only national museums in Paris that exhibits contemporary art, on hearing of this as a planned exhibition I was skeptical. I wondered why we needed to visit and exhibition of Fellini paraphernalia rather than go to see his films.

Unfortunately, my reservations were well-founded. Rather than a visual laboratory —which gives the impression of a kind of experimentation through juxtaposition of different media to create surprising results — Fellini: La Grande Parade, might better be described as an overwhelming and incoherent cocktail of image forms.

What I find most disturbing about these exhibitions at major Paris museums and galleries is that the images are completely emptied of all value. (See my review of the recent Warhol exhibition at the Grand Palais) And so clips of Fellini’s own films, those he admired, documentaries about him, about Anita Eckberg, and about Marcello Mastroianni are represented on large flat-screen monitors or scrims in very poor reproduction. This representation might be conceptually challenging, but the image is so impoverished through reproduction and editing that even Fellini’s biggest fans will not want to watch the clips from beginning to end. The curators proudly announce that this “visual cocktail” is not in any particular order, certainly not chronological. While they might see this as a drawcard, for visitors to the exhibition, the lack of explanation, context and logic to the installations results in a bombardment of texts and images —from magazines, journals, newspapers, and so on — that had this viewer losing interest very quickly. It is true that the energy of the exhibition evokes Fellini’s enthusiasm for life, but the conglomeration of display objects became one big blur after the first couple of rooms. However, this said, the one set of images I was delighted to see were Fellini’s famous dream books. Fellini’s recording of his dreams in pen, ink, and gouache are both aesthetically sumptuous and fascinating. This said, however, the content is still no more revealing than any of his films —the proliferation of over-sized women’s breasts and buttocks in the dream images comes as no surprise.

Ultimately, my question was answered: Parisians and tourists alike would do well to spend their time at Place de la Concorde by having coffee in the Tuileries. And then, those in search of Fellini magic should head down to the Cinémathèque to see the complete retrospective of the great filmmaker’s work. Certainly, there is nothing on display at the Jeu de Paume that will give greater insight into Fellini or his filmmaking than watching 81/2 and La Dolce Vita again.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Unleashing Phantoms at the Louvre. Robyn Orlin's Babysitting Little Louis

Readers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of the Louvre. It must be my favorite place in Paris, I love everything about it - its architecture, the collection, the activities, exhibitions, and there’s nothing better to do on a Friday night than visit my favorite paintings which, because they don’t appear on the “highlights of the collection” guide for visitors, always silently awaiting my arrival. One of the things I have always admired about the Louvre is its awareness of the necessity to keep the collection alive. While other museums might be happy to let their Roman antiquities, Egyptian relics, medieval paintings, and old masters rest on their historical reputation , not the Louvre. Not only does the Louvre invite young artists to create works that converse with the collection, it purchases and commissions contemporary works - see the installation of the Anselm Kiefer pieces in Richelieu. I have also had the joy of being educated by young art students in one-on-one presentations to visitors about otherwise obscure works they have studied. These and other events ensure ongoing interest in the Louvre’s extraordinary collection, and bring to life works I would probably have otherwise walked straight past.

So while I am not surprised that the Louvre invited a figure such as Robyn Orlin into the museum to unleash her creative vision, I am nevertheless impressed that this stalwart of French heritage and culture embraced Orlin’s lashing critique of its whole raison d’être. Babysitting Little Louis is swashbuckling fun from beginning to end. The title of the piece refers to a minature of François Girardon’ 1692 statue of Louis XIV which sits in the Puget courtyard with other impressive, but noticeably bigger, bronze and marble statues. Like the bigger, more sturdy, pieces in the Puget, the tiny bronze sculpture sits in the open air (as opposed to encased in glass) to avoid oxidation. And so, little Louis is very vulnerable, and needs to be “babysat” by the guards to protect him from the temptation of wandering hands. This is explained to us in song by the 8 security guards on the first stop of a “guided tour” they will lead us on over the next two hours. Immediately, the colonial and racial politics of little Louis’ power are the focus of the show. We hear of Louis’ nightmare — as we watch black African women in fantastic dress writhing on the opposite balcony. As we all stood around, a six foot plus African guard approached a group of us, to tell a story of how when he was a young boy in Africa he met a man with no head. A story that was brought to resolution when the man came to Paris as an adult and found the head on display in the Louvre! Clearly, the other guards of various racial origins were telling similarly frightening stories of Louis XIV’s colonial rule.

Towards the end of the performance an English tourist (one of the handful of professional dancers and actors used by Orlin), goes to Africa. While the audience sits and stands huddled in between headless African statues and oriental antiquities, the man plays Louis in Africa: he recounts in a broad British accent such exciting events as his lunch with Nelson Mandela, who when he arrived was having tea with Madonna. Carrying an “Out of Africa” shopping bag, at one and the same time, a typical tourist and a slanderer of French Imperial oppression, the man had me in hysterical laughter. Sadly, for a non-English speaker, the French translation did not capture the trysts and asides that held the most humorous, and cutting, remarks.

There were many other wonderful moments as we went around the museum: one highlight was when a guard entered into a conversation with deeply reflective statue that mimicked a therapy session. “I know you are depressed, but many people would do anything to be in your place surrounded by treasures;” “you want to be like Michael Jackson, dying, and have all these people come to mourn you.” And on she went; it was brilliant.

Mention must be made of the extraordinary guards who performed the piece. Apparently Orlin talked to guards, watched them in their work and eventually selected eight enthusiastic security guards for Babysitting Little Louis. Orlin invited them to make a film of their favorite work in the museum. At one point on our tour, everything stopped, the guards opened their jackets and projected their films on the inside. So we all crouched down and watched intently at the amateur images. While the technology of projection onto jackets, and sculptures in the midst was probably more interesting than the films themselves, the point was made with conviction. Guards in a museum are not simply someone to ask for directions to the toilet and the exit. As much as the piece was a scathing critique of the history of French culture and its acquisition, it also gave voice to an otherwise silenced group: the museum guard. The eight guards who performed in Babysitting Little Louis, not only showed their creativity through singing, dancing, filmmaking and performance, but the piece was an opportunity for their articulation of the depth of their engagement with the works they survey. The greatest tribute to them was that I didn’t know if they were actual guards from the museum or actors until I got home and read the program. Ultimately, it was the guards, and their continual interaction with the audience and statues alike, that shattered our preconceptions of what we do and who we are in a museum: that we should observe silence, or that guards (like Africans) have no opinion on culture or their own oppression within cultural structures, and so on.

It is true that as we walked around, following the guards on their journey through the Louvre, there were times when chaos reigned. There were times when I wondered what I was meant to be looking at, times when I couldn’t see, and times when there was so much going on that I didn’t know where I was supposed to be. Our movement through the space, and the conception of the piece itself, were at times too ambitious, resulting in incoherence. However, there was much to make the night fun and memorable. In addition to the innovation of the whole spectacle there was the pleasure of being in a French audience. While the French are usually reluctant to laugh out loud, I did catch a few having a chuckle at this relentlessly entertaining, and simultaneously, searingly critical “night at the museum.” That in itself really speaks for Orlin’s performance: getting the French to laugh at the principles that underlie the history and culture on which they have built their very national identity. And this, within the walls of their most revered cultural institution no less. This alone makes Babysitting Little Louis quite an achievement for Orlin. And in its embrace of an opportunity to see itself and its collection from an innovative (and not so flattering) perspective, Babysitting Little Louis has me even more in admiration of the Louvre.