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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Film Fest two...

I don't know how I make it through life sometimes. I was all set to go see "Tape", Richard Linklater's new film and I arrived promptly. At the wrong venue. I entered Brown Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts to see a sparse crowd and a string quartet with a piano and drum set. That was signal number one that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't in Kansas, after all.
After a brief introduction, I realized I was in for "Upstream", John Ford's lost comedy from 1927 about the relationships of a Broadway boardinghouse and the rise to fame of one of its denizens, a hambone (Earle Foxe) who falls into theatrical fame by his name (Brashingham!) and tutelage under a much older actor (Emile Chautard) at the boardinghouse and the effect his departure and rise have on those who stay behind. His departure is salutary as John Rogers (aka "Juan Rodriguez", played by a very young Grant Withers) is finally able to win the hand of Gertrude (Nancy Nash). However, Brashingham grows into a huge walking ego ("they didn't come to see Hamlet, they came to see me!") whose downfall is literal; in the denouement, Withers gives him a kick in the pants that sends him down the stairs at the boardinghouse to which he returned for a photo op.

In an hour's time, Ford spun several stories that were in par with any number of similar tales. I suspect that there is still footage missing; particularly at the end whee there is a jump cut from Bramingham speeding away to Withers and Nash in happy embrace. But there are some other instances where I got the feeling there were one or two other sub-plots gone wanting, not the least of which might have been with a youngish actress who may have had her eyes on Withers' knife-thrower and maybe another scene or two with Chautard's Mandare, the older actor and mentor to Brashingham. Be that as it may, it's not a minor work; Ford's narrative prowess is in full view here and the eye that would be lending "Stagecoach" in another twelve years is in focus.

The other beauty of this viewing was the performance by members of the David Sosin Ensemble from the Shepherd School of Music with songs performed by Joanna Seaton. This was great fun (especially the sing-along moments), giving an idea of what attending a film in the silent era might have been like as a kind performance piece/audience participation. David introduced the film and his score (with improvisation) was a delightful match for the film.

...and three!

Last on the run for me was "The Mill and the Cross" which was a layered art historical narrative using Pieter Brueghel (or Bruegel, as here and perhaps is now the more preferred spelling)'s painting "On the Road to Calgary" as a point of departure to examine the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, the social tensions lying underneath the occupation, and Bruegel's attempt to render these via the allegory of Christ's journey to the crucifixion. Additionally, the theme that great events take place when no one notices (in Bruegel's painting, you don't see Christ's face, the crowd is distracted from paying direct attention to the drama playing out before them and in the film, the crucifixion is layered on top of a proposed contemporary flogging and crucifixion so that the painting and life become one.)

It's easily one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen and as an evocation of what informs art, it's almost more of a documentary. What is fantastic is the use of the painting itself as a tableau vivant as a mechanism by which to tell the various stories and render them as parts of a whole. Wherever you look, the painting infuses the film as its peaks are seen in the distance in windows and behind the mundane affairs that populate the lives of the peasantry, the mill is ever-present and the rolling terrain where the bulk of action in the painting occurs is returned to over and over again. The painting becomes the reality.

I didn't see Lech Majewski's "Garden of Earthly Delights" that used Bosch's painting as the focal point; however, on the strength of this, I would really like to. There's a visual richness here that frames the compositions like Renaissance and later Flemish and Dutch paintings. Bruegel's faith and his powers of observation are well rendered and the use of painting as political statement as well as religious testament gives the film its hooks.

I didn't find that to be true of the characters. Despite line readings by Rutger Hauer as Bruegel, Charlotte Rampling as "Mary" (she seems to double as a contemporary Netherlander that Bruegel knows as well as allegorically as the mother of Jesus) and Michael York as a banker and art collector (Brugel's patron?), their place wasn't to drive a conventional drama based on narrative tensions or to develop characters that "evolve". The goal of the film is other.

Part of that goals is as a meditation on a painting and the time in which it was created. It seems to me that "The Mill and the Cross" is itself an allegory on the uses and abuses of power and the deadening effect of occupation on a population; and perhaps it is also a general rumination that great art arises out of just these times. But all this is interpretation on my part, as much as the film is conjectural on Majewski's.

The film isn't didactic, by the way. It's too full of life to merely be a discourse on a painting. It does ends on a metatextual note as we leave the composition and the camera recedes from the actual painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. But it's not merely a clever way to end the movie. It asks questions about the lives lived that produced this work and others and what are we viewing when we look at a painting or a sculpture or any work. The value of Majewski's work is that it can very well enrich an encounter with a painting (or a sculpture or a performance), engaging with the art behind the artifact.

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