Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: The Real Problem

Even those reviewers who remain luke warm about Christopher Nolan’s latest installment in the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, find enough to like about it that will make their readers want to see this summer’s blockbuster. This enthusiasm for the film, however muted, worries me. While the literate public are all too accustomed to believing press reviews in the daily papers, even though we know them to be directed towards the commodification of our desires and dreams, for some reason, the apparent mis-perception of The Dark Knight Rises worries me more than usual.

Manohla Dargis for the New York Times is not alone in his consideration of the film as “intelligent” as well as “pleasurable, [on a] purely cinematic level.” Dargis and others praise The Dark Knight Rises for its references to the French Revolution, claiming that the evil Bane’s speeches are worthy of Robespierre. However, in my understanding, just because a film makes reference to the French Revolution, and the villain makes speeches that match the verve of the revolutionary lawyers, doesn’t make it “intelligent” and neither is Bane given any substance whatsoever through a parallel to Robespierre. Similarly, the rise of the mob seeking justice, the construction of a kangaroo court, the soaring skyscrapers and bottomless misery deep underground might resonate alternately with Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Metropolis (1927), but it doesn’t mean that the film has any coherent vision of the political ramifications of a social uprising. Nor does it even take a position on the disenfranchised workers in their struggle against evil. And neither do the utterances about justice for all by the right wing mob in The Dark Knight Rises make any political or social sense. Afterall, this mob has only one goal: they just want to destroy everyone, including themselves. Critics all complain about the difficulty of understanding Bane’s dialogue because of the mask he wears, but they can rest assured, they didn’t miss anything. I read the French subtitles when Bane talked, and really, he didn’t say anything worth noting. He may have begun his rampage through Gotham City by wreaking havoc on the stock market, but even Lang’s chameleonic Dr Mabuse (to which Bane is surely a reference) seemed more articulate – and Mabuse was in a silent movie. 

I could go on with other examples, but I will only indulge in one more. Philip French of The Observer thinks that the ending is given complexity because it is “ambiguous”. However, I wondered if we had watched the same film. After Batman has saved Gotham City from complete obliteration, Bruce Wayne is spotted with Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) by Alfred (Michael Cain) in a café in Florence, incognito, in broad daylight. To my mind, there's no ambiguity at all, as Nolan sets the path for the next installment. Oh look, they survived afterall, what a surprise! 

I have students – many of them – who think that Christopher Nolan is the best director since Alfred Hitchcock. Correction, they believe that Nolan is actually a better filmmaker than Hitchcock. There’s something about the mental gymnastics, the confusing narratives, the fragmented stories, the layer upon layer of impossible visual worlds, all of which they believe gives his films an intellectual command. In my mind, these “qualities” communicate a self-indulgence in special effects and an inability to put a narrative together. And The Dark Knight Rises  was no different. At the end of the film, I didn’t really know what it was saying. The Dark Knight Rises is a long way from the DC Comics' character of Batman who fights crime to keep people safe. When Batman gets the better of terrorists, the Atomic Bomb, Armageddon, the financial crisis, and intergalactic warriors, all through brute force, a housekeeper and a “financial” advisor, Nolan moves so deep into the realm of the ridiculous that it’s hard to take the film seriously. Let alone compare it to The Birds for example.

In a film that makes no argument, a film that is apparently little more than a way to make money at the box office, what worries me is that the world gets caught up in the spell of a pretension that is all but a thin mask for vacuity. Yes, the deaths in Colarado are tragic and that event was terrifying, but the power of The Dark Knight Rises lies not in its ability to incite a lone gunman seeking vengeance for his troubled mind. The very real destruction of a film such as The Dark Knight Rises is that of the minds of all those who actually believe the film has anything to say.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

La Noche de Enfrente, dir. Raul Ruiz, 2012

Raùl Ruiz’s final film, La Noche de Enfrente is charming. In the vein of a true Ruiz narrative it’s a film that flows easily and incomprehensibly between past and present, between life and death. It moves effortlessly between French and Spanish, where words are uttered to joke, to dream, to remember and to muse on what might have been but is yet still to come. Language like time, is fluid and non-rational, it is poetic like the narrative world of Don Celso’s contemporary Chile in La Noche de Enfrente.

We first meet the retired Don Celso, the protagonist, in a poetry class for adults, and all of a sudden, his alarm clock goes off – disturbing the class. But he is old and we forgive him because he needs to take his medication on time. We follow him home, out to dinner, to his childhood, to his death and into the magical world of his fantasies all the way to the afterlife. He lives with a vast collection of sailing boats in bottles, the physical articulation of his unmoored journey through life, as Ruiz narrates it.

Young Don Celso with Beethoven
In one of the most delightful scenes, the young Don Celso goes to the movies with Beethoven and his young friend. Beethoven is incensed by the violent aggression of the men towards women and wants to stop a murderer on his spree: he runs up to the screen and tries to stop him, interrupting everyone else’s view of the movie until the young Don Celso pulls him back from the screen. Beethoven doesn’t understand that a film is a beam of light creating figures in motion through a world that does not exist. And, of course, Beethoven wouldn’t understand because the cinema wasn’t invented in the eighteenth century, when he was alive. Beethoven reappears as a bust placed on the table when Don Celso has dinner with his friend as an adult: like an empty wine bottle, Beethoven is then removed by a waiter as the conversation comes to an end. 

Like Beethoven’s incredulity at the illusions presenting themselves as reality in the cinema, Ruiz pays homage to both his love of the cinema and its trickery. Inside a hotel where a lot of the action takes place, the wind blows just as it does in the most torrid of melodramas. And outside, all is impossibly, perfectly still. On the beach when Don Celso the child talks to Long John Silver of having lived his life still to come, people in a projected backdrop walk forwards and backwards, in reverse motion as only the cinema can do. And all of the well-know Ruiz ruses to break the continuity of cinematic rules abound in La Noche de Enfrente. Spaces proliferate, changing across the edits that enable them to do so. Mirrors around the living room in the hotel repeat the space, doors are opened and the rooms on the other side appear and disappear. Like Un Chien Andalou spaces are impossibly connected, and they move effortlessly between different eras.

In another delightful scene that reminds us this film is Ruiz’s farewell to the cinema and to the world before he would die in August 2011, the dead sit down to séance and call up the living. And when they arrive, like all good ghosts, invisibly touching and haunting the dead, it turns out they too are dead, having been shot in a massacre that was meant to have happened to the dead at the séance. And in the final scenes the dead Don Celso ruminates on his time in the afterlife with a cast of characters who have been dead for centuries.

Death is everywhere the anticipation of this film and indeed, is the reason for its circular motions and digressions. Don Celso, like Ruiz, awaits his death, but the former anticipates a man will come to kill him, while the latter is fittingly already dead by the time the film appears. As a boy Don Celso tells Long John Silver that he lives alone, because his father who speaks to him and continues to set the rules, is dead. He died yesterday. And he speaks of his mother in the present tense, suggesting she is alive, but then when asked, she too is already dead.

This film isn’t sumptuous like some others such as Mysteries of Lisbon, it’s funny. There’s something hurried about La Noche de Enfrente, or perhaps this is my imagination, the final film by a man whose oeuvre refuses to be hemmed in by the structures and organizing principles of representation or the worlds it echoes. Most notably, this is an elegy about a man who was not dead, sometimes through the eyes of his child self who knew of his impending death, and an elegy for Ruiz who himself was not yet dead. It is, quite simply, a film about growing old and what it means, where we go, when we die. Ruiz continues to inspire, even from beyond the grave. How perfect that his final film is released a whole year after he died. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Modigliani, Soutine and the Legend of Montparnasse

Maurice Utrillo, Place de l'église à Montmagny, c. 1907

With very little choice of exhibitions in Paris this summer, I made the conservative choice to go to the Pinacothèque for Modigliani, Soutine et L’Aventure de Montparnasse. The exhibition showcases the collection of Jonas Netter, an Alsace businessman who amassed paintings by a handful of chosen artists in the teens and twenties. Unlike other exhibitions of this nature, while the accompanying text is interested in the collector and his motivations, the works on display are given ample attention by the Pinacothèque.

That said, while the collection comprises some really exquisite paintings by Utrillo, Modigliani, Soutine many of the other works were second rate at best. As a collection, other than the contemporaneity of the works purchased by Netter, the one cohering principle appeared to be his taste and fascination for color. I was reminded of the brilliant colors of Franz Marc, August Macke and the other innovators of German abstraction that were working contemporaneously.  But the similarities to the work of the Germans did not, unfortunately, extend further than the palette. Most notably, even though the paintings collected by Netter were all painted in the years of WWI there is no indication, anywhere, in any of them, that there is a war going on outside of the frame. So other than the canvases by Utrillo, Modigliani and Soutine, there was very little of pressing import.
Maurice Utrillo, Porte Ste Martin, c. 1908
I didn’t know Maurice Utrillo’s paintings before, and so was pleasantly surprised to find their interesting incorporation of the influences of what would have been the relatively recent invention of photography. In street after street after street, Utrillo invites us down the street lined with houses. This view down a road lined with houses, with only ever one or two anonymous figures of little consequence, in an urban environment was clearly Utrillo’s preoccupation. And the perspective is always that seen through a slightly anamorphic photographic lens. It was as though he was searching for the reproduction of the photographic vision.
Maurice Utrillo, rue Muller à Montmartre, c. 1908

 Also, of interest for Utrillo was the sky. His skies are always grey, but they span the gamut of grey’s possibility: from blue, to red, to purple to green greys. And in each case, even though the skies are grey, they reflect an extraordinarily luminosity. Utrillo is a painter who has a consciousness of the rapidly developing modernist aesthetic, while all the time, adhering to the principles of pictorialism. His canvases are vibrant and filled with a warmth and energy, and yet, they are not the kind to be reproduced ad infinitum and placed above the mantelpiece.

Amedeo Modigliani, Fillette en bleu, 1918
The real treat of the exhibition was however the multiple Modigliani portraits: the familiar elongation of the body and the face, the spare background, the earth toned palette, all of these familiar traces of Modigliani really shine when the portraits are shown in great number. The first thing to captivate me was that for all intents and purposes, each sitter might be the same body, and even the faces are always the same shape, and yet, each has their own very distinct and powerful personality. The little girl in blue is gentle and innocent, the Russian woman enigmatic and reflective, for example. And the overwhelming individuality of each sitter is held in the loose strand of hair that falls to the forehead, the look of the eyes, the tilt of the head, the hair cut, the color of the cheeks, the shape of the eyebrows, the purse of the lips. These otherwise tiny details take over to articulate the depth of the sitter.
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de la jeune fille Rousse, 1918
The angles and sparsity of the background, and the blandness of the clothes also seem to create figures who are outside of social station. The portrait is timeless, the people are classless and somehow ageless. Compositionally, Modigliani must have been influenced by the modernist aesthetic, as the bodies come out of the backgrounds and, at time, it feels as though they are sliding off the painting into our space. Because their background — both painted and social — is of no apparent significance, as I started to think they might rather have slid out of their space and into ours.
Chaim Soutine, L'Homme au Chapeau, 1919-20

And lastly, the Soutines. Again, like the Modigliani’s, Chaïm Soutine’s canvases have a clarity of vision and a master of the medium that is nowhere to be found in many of the other works in the exhibition. His portraits are a revelation as these figures emerge out of the paint, and simultaneously, appear to be in the process of receding into its depths. In the thick, luscious paint that is as much the subject tof Soutine’s paintings as is the sitter, color, paint and its ability to be pushed around the canvas do battle with representation in the form of the figure. As a consequence, the L’homme au chapeau, La Folle and even Soutine himself in his Autoportrait appear troubled, melancholic and uncertain because of his struggle to be realized in paint.

Chaïm Soutine, La Folle, 1919
As my friend James pointed out, what makes Soutine's portraits compelling is they sit on the precipice of figuration and abstraction. neither realist, and not quite abstraction, these figures are painted as if disappearing into the future of the twentieth century painting, namely, abstraction. And yet, they are filled with expression that we are drawn into their world, and particularly, to their agony and isolation. Thus, while Modigliani is concerned to find identity in the details of an otherwise anonymous face repeated over and over again, Soutine seems less convinced by the twentieth century's chant of the triumph of the individual.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ellsworth Kelly, Curves on White (Four Panels), 2012 Galerie Marian Goodman, Paris

Ellsworth Kelly, Curves on White (Four Panels), 2012
The four panels in Ellsworth Kelly's current Paris exhibition literally burst off the walls and fill the sunlight-bathed ground floor space of Marian Goodman's gallery in the Marais. They fill the already luminous space with their dazzling colors, blinding the spectator with their force and intensity on a perfect Paris summer's day. The four panels, one on each wall, envelope us, inviting us to fall into - most seductively - the red, to the point where we are no longer able to see the white panel, which is both background and plinth for the vibrant red curve. Up close, the white panel on which the color is mounted becomes one with the wall, the red bulges out, becoming increasingly concave as we approach it.

Installation View
Characteristic of Kelly's individually shaped, single color panels, when I stare too long I begin to see the black spots which are really my retina in illusory reflection on the colored panel. I look away, and not surprisingly, the vision persists. The intensity of the persistence of vision is dependent on the color, its relationship to light, the angle from which I approach the piece, the shape and orientation of the colored panel, its placement in the space, the presence or absence of light coming in the skylight. Who would have thought that these otherwise sparse painted panels could be so complicated, and our vision of them dependent on so many variant factors? Who would believe that shape, color, form, light as the substance of painting stripped to its non-decorative, could be so fascinating?

Installation View
But these works are not really about painting, at least, they are not about paint. For in their sculptural presence the panels become, at times, no more than light. The shadow cast by the elliptical color on the white panel, which in turn casts its shadow on the wall, give dimensionality to white. The sun brings the white panel as plinth into existence and the colored one a new dimensionality, when at other moments, white melts into the wall and we are left to examine the colored panel as a painting. Kelly thus uses light to give dimensionality to painting, objecthood to color. And yet, the relationship between support and wall, between painting and sculpture, color and form, all these are the fundamental issues of painting, not sculpture. 
Installation View
It is true that Kelly's work refuses to fit neatly into any of the prescribed categories for painting given to us by art history and criticism. But what struck me when I was immersed in the excitement of this environment created solely through the interaction of color and light, was how the discourses engaged in by the paintings were strictly intellectual. Like the postwar experiments in the conceptual and optical dimensions of painting in an effort to push at its boundaries, Curves on White (Four Panels) retains all of the intellectuality, the refusal of gesture - what today is called "anonymity" - and the scientific, mathematical, anti-expressionism of 1950s and 1960s American painting. While these four panels may elude comfortable categorization, they are every bit the epitome of the world from which they come. 

All images courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery