Saturday, December 25, 2010

Raul Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon, 2010

At four and a half hours, Ruiz’ version of Mysteries of Lisbon, an adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1852 novel, might be called epic. But given that there are no heroes here, no heroic deeds or events, no masters, no grand historical claims, it doesn’t really sustain such an ordinary assignation. In fact, the film is constantly working against the possibility of grandeur or mastery, opting instead for a sprawling and undulating narrative filled with infinite twists and turns that makes it, ultimately, elusive. This is a film in which the conventions of story telling are used to do rail against the epic.

The film opens with the story of a young, presumably orphaned boy in a monastery school being sketched by an Englishwoman. We never see her again, and the film never explains what she was doing sketching his portrait in the first place. She doesn’t, afterall, seem to be important, but her portrait of the boy is one of the handful of objects he holds onto throughout his life. He hangs it on the wall of every room he inhabits thereafter, irrespective of how long or short the stay. The boy also places a maquette of a theater given him by his mother, and a wooden ball given him by the priest who runs the boys’ school on the dresser of every room he occupies. These three objects are about all young Pedro, or João, as he is also known, and we alike, get to hold onto in a film that flows between past and present, between countries, epochs and generations, unpredictably. Voices, images, characters and places are fluid, and constantly changing through camerawork that equally often breaks the rules of continuity filmmaking. Throughout, Ruiz uses very conventional narrative, story telling strategies, but he confuses them through inventive camerawork that will be familiar to connoisseurs of his films. The flashback, for example, is abundant, but not signaled as such. Rather across edits the film moves with ease through times, spaces, character identities. The camera will track through 360 degrees and as the circle closes, the character seen at the beginning of the tracking shot will appear in a different costume, younger or older than originally. Or if a conventional flashback is signaled, for example through dialogue, the voice of the teller will change in the flashback, so it might in fact be someone else's memory, but we do not know whose. Alternatively, the character in the flashback looks so completely different that we do not immediately believe him to be the one speaking in voiceover narration.

Like Three Crowns of a Sailor (1983), everyone in Mysteries of Lisbon has a story, and everyone must tell his or her story. But it is through listening to someone else's story, not telling his or her own, that each character will discover and define who he or she is. And this search for an identity is in the end, what the film is about. Everyone is in pursuit of who they are, who their parents were, how they got to be where they are. And as they don costumes and names as easily as they change identities, social classes and pick up with the next lover, finding a stable identity is never achieved. As the priest becomes a soldier, he then goes back within his story as a soldier, to tell an anecdote that reveals he was also a gentleman after he was a soldier. While he is a soldier we also learn how he comes by a gypsy outfit that he dons in a plot to save the boy Pedro's life from a killer who then becomes a count, that is, after he is a pirate. And then the same priest goes to another monestary where he meets his father who, in turn, goes back in time to tell his own story which is, of course, the story of the priest himself. So not only do the characters transform themselves across this wandering narrative, as they tell their story, they also mutate into either a protagonist in the listener's story, or they assume the story of the listener him or herself. 

As I say, the lyrical unfolding of stories within stories, in which identities shift in and out of different times and places, across continents is all nourished by the sumptuous camera work familiar to Ruiz's films. As well as the magical 360 degree pans, we see shadows and reflections on surfaces that do not exist, impossible views from under the floor as if through a glass ceiling. And when he is not tricking us, the image is exquisite. In one such moment, filled with irony and beauty, two lovers discover they have been found out by the woman’s husband, they presume. How did he find out, the man, who ends up being the priest's father, asks genuinely perplexed. And as he asks, the shot is framed, masked vertically, we are led to believe by curtains behind which a servant watches the lovers' triste. The curtains gently pulled back, not only reveal the scene, but they place us in the privileged position of voyeur, from behind the curtains. And in the distance, on the other side of the room, through glass doors that open out onto a garden, we see a solitary servant standing, watching, everything. And so the layering of foreground, middle ground and background, through windows, doors and curtains, creates a game of deceit and discovery that so counters the lovers' conversation that their naïvety becomes stupidity. All this, in a single frame. 

There are, as might be expected, an infinity of themes, subplots, morals and meanings. For example, money changes hands constantly, however, having money is not so important. On the one hand, what is important is not to accept money that does not belong to you. Pedro's mother is offered a fortune by her unfaithful husband, a count. She chooses not to accept the money, and thereby impoverishes her son and hence hinders his entry into the monastery school. She dies a solitary death of the plague in a convent, and sees her son only once, through the grate of the convent. And yet, he was the reason for which she lived in the first place. She claims to retain her honour by not accepting the money because her husband had kept her locked up and  had betrayed her for an affair that produced the illegitimate son in the first place. This, despite the fact she had already had the child before they were married! On the other hand, this does not mean that to have money is a bad thing. Indeed, those who are redeemed are those with the money: the assassin who the priest – then a gypsy – pays off to ensure he does not kill the boy – is redeemed in his life of luxury and social elevation. As is the count, who, on his deathbed offers his fortune to Pedro's mother, his wife. Money, like everyone and everything else in Mysteries of Lisbon, is also fluid and unpredictable in the values it carries within it, and the meanings given it by the film. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mondrian au Centre Pompidou

Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue and White II, 1937

Tonight, I went to see Mondrian and de Stijl at the Centre Pompidou, and I nearly cried. I didn’t particularly like the hanging of many of Mondrian’s greatest paintings that are on display here. Although this huge exhibition did, at times, gesture in the right direction, in true Centre Pompidou style, there was way too much going on, and to be seen properly it would need at least three full days. While I see the logic of bringing Mondrian and De Stijl together — more on that in the next blog entry — as an exhibition it was too big and too overwhelming. That said, being in the presence of Mondrian’s paintings reminds me of what joy it is to be alive. 

Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1912

Mondrian’s paintings are among those of a handful of artists that have been reproduced ad infinitum on cups, postcards, posters, t-shirts, and every other object that can be sold for a profit to those who want to own a slice of modern art. This is perhaps what makes the paintings themselves all the more exciting: the reproductions have nothing at all to do with the paintings. From the very beginning, Mondrian’s work is a love affair with paint. Even in the early years when he was painting portraits, the sea, things as we know them in the world, the paintings are about the problem of the medium, they are about how to find a form that is truer to the limitations and possibilities of painting. I had forgotten The Grey Tree, from 1912, a painting that sits on the precipice of abstraction, a painting that marks the beginning of Mondrian’s most prolific and experimental period. The grey tree encapsulates everything for which Mondrian will become famous, its influence will ricochet throughout the twentieth century. And yet, it is grey, recognizeably a tree, in its own frame, ostensibly bearing no resemblance at all to the forms and patterns in red yellow and blue that are reproduced everywhere. The grey may not have the dynamism of red yellow and blue, but that is just the point. Mondrian strips away the distraction of color and focuses on the brushstroke: thick, defined and defiant bare boughs that waver in the still, cold air that surround them. And the boughs become lines, depending on our perspective, in tension with the air that is really a series of staccato, emphatic horizontal white to grey strokes. Line and color are engaged in a battle with each other, even if that color is white or grey. Figure and ground are in the process of merging completely, on the surface of the canvas.

Composition in Red Yellow and Blue, 1927

In a room that was, for me, the centerpiece of the exhibition, a room filled with works from the 1920s and 1930s when one war had subsided, the other still to come, the paintings gradually enter into a world of their own, independent of any influence I may have over them. I last saw paintings such as the compositions in red yellow and blue in New York at MoMA in 1996. There and then, they were hung differently, in galleries that were not thoroughfares, but discreet spaces that invited the paintings to speak to each other. These masterpieces were exhibited slowly and silently, in chronological order, fully allowed to contradict and to enhance each other, to confuse us, to provoke us to marvel at their independence from anything we might think about them. At the Centre Pompidou this sense of community between the compositions is gestured towards, but not fully enabled. Still, we become confused by them, as we try to work out if the red square is bigger than the blue. Is the white between the black lines equal, which is the line and which the color, or is it, in the end, all an optical illusion? These games that the paintings as a community play with us are the great joy of letting go to the magic of Mondrian. It is then that we begin to feel the vibrations as they rub up against each other, constantly moving, changing and deceiving us as our vision is tested against the forms and surfaces of lines, the blocks of red, yellow and blue. This is what makes not only Mondrian's canvases, but the experience of painting life changing.

The excess of context for Mondrian’s greatness is reflected in the enormity of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. That this great master was not working in a void, but rather came at the end of a long line of Flemish masters, in a land filled with water, flatness and a natural world waiting to be echoed in painting. This is interesting, in and of itself, but I wonder if it is really what Mondrian has most to offer the world today? Is the intellectual, historical understanding of color on a canvas, ultimately, as interesting as the relationship we enter with them as we stand, among the paintings, listening with our eyes to their intensity?

I was with friends who were unaccustomed to modern art. When I explained Mondrian’s preoccupation with the problem of painting, the revolution that he spearheaded in the attempt to break away from centuries of perspectival renderings as the great deception of painting, they said “uh ha.” And when I talked about his challenge to perception via a fusion of figure and ground, line and color, the space of representation and that beyond the frame, they seemed to be engaged. However, when I asked them to watch the surprises and unpredictable optical movements of the untitled compositions, asking them what they saw, over time, their faces lit up. It was in this gesture of measuring their own perception against the ingenuity of Mondrian’s compositions that my friends became really engaged. Indeed, they were fascinated, visibly animated by the magic of abstract painting as it came alive in a relationship they developed with what was, otherwise, paint on a canvas in a frame hung on a wall next to another image of paint on a canvas in a frame hung on a wall. And I ask myself, isn’t this what painting is all about? Isn’t this what Mondrian was looking for in the first place? 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Raimund Hoghe, Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert

At a work Christmas party tonight, I talked with a colleague about the density and complex chaos of the Wooster Group’s productions. And as I rode my bike home through the snow, I thought how the performance I saw on Saturday night, Raimund Hoghe’s Si je meurs, laissez le balcon ouvert,  might possibly be as diametrically opposed to the Wooster Group as it is possible to be. Hoghe’s collage of dance styles and traditions, dissolving from Romanticism into abstraction, seemed to move at a pace as gentle as the Wooster Group’s performances are frenetic. Where the Wooster Group pack a kaleidoscope of people, things, times and spaces, as well as geographical locations, theatrical traditions and oeuvres onto the tiny stage of the Performing Garage, Hoghe’s stage is sparsely populated, lonely, intensely introspective, lyrical and abstract. Where I have come away from seeing the Wooster Group in the past marveling at their ability to create profundity out of a chaotic layer upon layer of texts, images, bodies, cacophonic dialogue, and sets that are constantly on wheels, in motion, I came away on Saturday night with a sense of quiet awe at the serenity of Si je meurs, laissez le balcon ouvert

 Takashi Ueno and Marion Ballester 
This is not to say that Hoghe’s choereography, inspired by a Lorca poem, Adieu is emotionless or stagnant, far from it. Rather, there is something about it that makes me come away feeling as though I was meditating for three hours. Even though at times there is a powerful intensity to the dance and the emotions it expresses, these moments are couched in a quiet resignation to the place of such emotions in the montage of life on its way to death, of the advent of death, and its opening up to life, from the balcony. In one extraordinary vignette, somewhere in the middle of the three hours of fragmentary dance, the frustrations and anger, the resignation to loss and its shadow over every movement that comes in its wake, is danced to the crescendos of a full orchestra requiem. Marion Ballester was literally chased around the stage by Takashi Ueno, passionately, in a frenzied desperation. He never catches her, and yet, as she evades his reach at every turn and twist, he smiles with glee at her cold, relentless cruelty. Suddenly, Hoghe, who has been sitting watching the performance, holding a bouquet of flowers on the side of the stage, gets up, yells his disapproval and comes between them to break the tension, momentarily. But the arrest of this painful pursuit is always impossible because Ballester is the figure of death, clad in black, angry and raging out of control.

Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert is supposedly an homage to Dominique Bagouet, the young dancer who died of AIDS last year. But when Hoghe appeared in a soft silk dress, my friend Anne leaned across and reminded me it was a Pina Bausch dress. Hoghe quietly moved a hand, raised the shoe lace straps, placed his arm around the tall woman next to him, quietly and gently offering one of the few moments of human contact in the entire performance. As if in homage to Bausch, such gestures resonate throughout the performance to create something beautiful, strange, tragically hopeful. Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert was, like a Bausch performance, a surreal reflection on death, memory, hatred and desire, none of which can be pinned down.

And then Hoghe appears appeared in a black jester’s hat and a long black coat, I imagine paying homage to Dominique Béjart who also died recently in 2007. Like Béjart’s most celebrated productions, Hoghe’s work appears so simple that there are times when it seems as though not so much is happening on the stage. But it is in the raising of a hand, or the peeling of an orange (as Hoghe does opposite Ornella Balestra in a breathtakingly beautiful scene) that everything about being human, every desire and frustration, is revealed. And like Béjart, Hoghe places the young male dancer in the spotlight. Witness Emmanuel Eggermont shift from burlesque through pantomimic and classical dances to his closing solo in which he twists and turns his body such that it becomes an abstraction in the slowly fading spotlight. He was, in many ways, the highlight of Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert. Thus, this is a piece about death, loss, memory, about the end of the twentieth century, the end of an era in modern dance, an era which was shaped by three masters who recently died: Pina Bausch, Dominique Béjart and Merce Cunningham. And it is simultaneously a celebration of the life of the male body.

Emmanuel Eggermont

Faced with the difficulty of interpreting Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert, I am left simply observing a work filled with confrontation, pain and remorse. The confrontation extends limitlessly: between texts taken from Goethe, Lorca, and others, music of all eras and genres, between the rich variety of colors and the death of black that cloaks their bodies, between death and the life that is invited in through the open doors of the balcony, between the dance styles of Bausch, Béjart, Cunningham, all of which, for Hoghe, begin with the classical. And then, as Balestra stands tall, imposing, completely possessed of her own grandeur stands as if on her balcony, and as she beckons her audience below to adore her, I am reminded that the confrontation extends into the space between life and representation. As Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert slides into the world of representation, we are invited to occupy that space opened by the death of representation and of dance in the twentieth century, as well as that space of mourning that we drift in and out of in the unconsciousness of loss. This is the only way to explain why it is so mesmerizing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mathilde Monnier and Dominique Figarella, Soapéra au Centre Pompidou

A choreographer and a painter joining forces to create an opera, Soapéra, in which the medium is soap bubbles? It was all very unlikely, and I couldn’t imagine what this would be like. I am so happy I surmounted my skepticism of what sounded like one of those camped up, post modernist, not very meticulously sewn tapestries of faux intellectual frivolity. Mathilde Monnier, the choreographer and Dominique Figarella, the painter, created a piece that was as sensuous and subtle as it was dense and imaginative.

As we arrived in our seats in the large theater at the Pompidou Centre, soap bubbles were spewing forth from a huge pipe suspended above the stage, settling into a cloud of soap bubbles of considerable dimensions. As we sat in silence, we began to see something. Though I was initially unsure if I was imagining it, the cloud of soap bubbles began to change shape ever so slowly and slightly. The first half had begun. It was a mesmerizing image as the four dancers very slowly crawled underneath the soap, moving as if they were on the moon, slowly, at the same pace as the soap bubbles. They made shapes with the soap, standing up, lifting an arm, and the soap would obediently rise up, as a mass, to a height double that of the standing human figure. Who knew this is how excessive amounts of soap bubbles would behave? Accompanying this entrancing vision was a soundtrack, eerily like heavy breathing, as though the astronauts wading across this previously undiscovered planet whose surface is covered in soap were breathing artificially.

As we watched in total silence, the manipulations, distortions and elongations of the soap bubbles, the moment came when everyone in the audience began to cough. Again, who would have thought that soap detergent gives off fumes that could make the entire audience in the Pompidou’s huge theater cough uncontrollably? And so our coughing took over as the soundtrack, noises generated by soap bubbles.


And then, in what I understood to be the second part of Soapéra, the bubbles disintegrated. Without soap, the dancers were left on a black felt-laid stage with a white square in the middle. This square then became their medium. They picked it up, slammed it against the wall (above), rested it on their outstretched legs, and then when the soap had all disappeared, they danced on the white square, writhed on it, crawled underneath and around it.

Because much is made of the fact that Monnier the choreographer comes together with Figarella the painter to create a new medium on this strange planet of Soapéra, I was compelled to imagine the dialogue between dance and painting as I watched the piece. In the first half, the soap was the paint, flowing, viscous, being pushed around the canvas by the dancers as unseen brushes, molding their movements to become one with the medium. In the second half, the merging is complete: they take off their grey protective hooded jackets, to become four brushes: golden, green, yellow and white, their tops colored as though their upper bodies have been dipped each in a different colored can of paint. And as brushes, they danced on their white canvas. The dancing and movement was as agitated, energetic and disconnected in the second half as it was minimal, fluid and gracious in the first. And so the unpredictability of paint, the sensuousness of working it across a canvas in a search to discover its infinite forms of behavior, its endless possibilities, is perhaps just like the exploration of another planet; strange, unknown and a constant negotiation with the unknown, the not yet colonized.

Often today, contemporary dance performances are uneven, a single dancer being so much better than all the others such that an imbalance and a kind of inertia result on the stage. However, the last thing I must say about Soapéra, and one of the qualities that make it so captivating is the equality of the four dancers. Each was very different in his and her particular personalities, but their level of exertion, the assimilation of their movements with the body as energy source and their physical relationship with each other was, in all four dancers, exceptional.