March 22, 2013

The Way to Calvary.

Every Execution has its history.

Computer generated special effects have come a long way in the last ten years, moving closer and closer to a fantasy-based realism unlike anything so far presented on screen.  This is all well and good, and realist-minded film theorists have argued for a fidelity to life-like artistic representation since the advent of cinema, but I feel a downside also exists. That downside comes in the form of that spectacle’s dwindling ability to awe its audience and the audience loses its ability to imagine, to stretch the limits of belief. Therefore it’s refreshing to see, on occasion, a film utilizing CGI technology in order to trigger an audience’s imagination in a way that allows them to interpret images, to fill in gaps.

Such a film is Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross and my approach to art history will never be the same after this.  It invites the viewer to literally enter the mind of Flemish master Pieter Bruegel and glean the deeper meaning of his 1564 painting “The Way to Calvary.”  A first that we can only hope sets a precedent, Majewski uses Bruegel’s preparatory drawings, computer generated blue-screen compositing, 3D imaging, a huge painted backdrop as well as on location shooting to invite the viewer into the craggy landscape where all the rituals of daily life unfold.  What you’ll learn is that against the backdrop of the brutal Spanish Inquisition, Breugel had to be clever and he imbedded his work with a series of symbols that tell a compelling crucifixion story.  There are more than 500 figures in the panoramic painting, including an array of villagers at different stations in life and the red-caped invading horsemen who butchered and then suspended them on huge wheels for all to see.  Rutger Hauer plays a Breugel who imparts wisdom about life and art that makes us hunger for more.  Charlotte Rampling delivers a Virgin Mary whose suffering is palpable. The film is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s novel bearing the same name.

The film’s plot is thin to the point of being nonexistent; Bruegel, played by Rutger Hauer, sketches out and paints The Way to Calvary while explaining it to his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, played by Michael York. The film’s particular genius lies not in this simple plot, but in how it is visually presented. The painting itself surrounds Bruegel, with the figures he details living and breathing in the space around him, moving beings occupying a CGI constructed background that captures the tones and depth of Bruegel’s brushstrokes. Llech Majewskiallows the viewer to actually live inside Pieter Bruegel’s bustling Flanders landscape as he creates his 1564 masterpiece The Way to Calvary. Bruegel wields the power to freeze his figures, to isolate certain elements while others move on undisturbed, manipulating the fragments of his work to his liking. The result is not, as so many CGI worlds are, a reality dependent on fantasy, but rather a fantasy dependent on reality. Bruegel’s world and his painting are very much real, but Majewski’s film presents them in a way that is more than real, that is surreal.

Now, I will say viewing this film takes a certain amount of patience, and may not be for everyone. In most films, CGI is synonymous with a certain level of action that is not present in The Mill and the Cross. However, for those with an interest in art history, unconventional narrative, or simply something outside standard cinematic fare, The Mill and the Cross not only pays off, but stands up to multiple viewings as well.

March 9, 2013

To be or not to be . . .

. . . was that the question?

Perhaps for L'Empereur it should have been; to go, or not to go.

“It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do, except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever”, said Stanley Kubrick in answer to his plans to make a film about Napoleon. Kubrick never made the film, but now Steven Spielberg has optioned Kubrick’s original screenplay and announced his own ideas to make a mini-series.  I suppose we might expect this version to be “the best mini-series ever”?

One recalls Marlon Brando as Napoleon in the 1954 film “Desiree”, with Jean Simmons and Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine, not his best effort.

Not so silly was the epic 1927 French silent film “Napoleon, which ran about five hours! It was directed by Abel Gance. In 1980, restored by film historian Kevin Brownlow, and with a new score composed by Carmine Coppola, Gance’s “Napoleon” had a much acclaimed revival. For some Los Angelitos, it was the in thing to do, going to see this mammoth work. Many were just interested in seeing if they could actually sit through the film without a cocktail, a snack, or a trip to the bathroom. It was an entitled endurance trial.
Of course, true cinema fans were enraptured. They didn’t need snacks. But for a while, what you heard most at gatherings was “Have you seen ‘Napoleon?’ The hours flew like minutes.” 

March 2, 2013

The “art” of resistance.

One would not necessarily look for the second largest collection of Russian Avant-Garde Art in the midst of Uzbekistan. And yet, the Karakalpakstan State Museum - or the ‘Louvres des Steppes’ as the French magazine Telerama named it – houses an enthralling collection of 90,000 items from archaeological objects and antiquities to cutting edge contemporary art.

This incredible story of how a treasure trove of banned Soviet art was stashed should beg the question, and inspire the exploration, of how art survives in times of oppression.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, a small group of artists remain true to their vision despite threats of torture, imprisonment and death. Their plight inspires a young archeologist (and frustrated painter) Igor Vitalyevich Savitsky. Pretending to buy State-approved art, Savisky instead daringly rescues 40,000 forbidden fellow artist's works and creates a museum in the desert of Uzbekistan, far from the watchful eyes of the KGB. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoles the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who are banning it. He amasses an eclectic mix of Russian Avant-Garde art. But his greatest discovery is an unknown school of artists who settle in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917, encountering a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin. They developed a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.

Ben Kingsley, Sally Field and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists. Intercut with recollections of the artists' children and rare archival footage, the film takes us on a dramatic journey of sacrifice for the sake of creative freedom. Described as “one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art” by the New York Times and located in one of the world's poorest regions, today these priceless paintings are a lucrative target for Islamic fundamentalists, corrupt bureaucrats and art profiteers. The collection remains as endangered as when Savitsky first created it, posing the question whose responsibility is it to preserve this cultural treasure.

Directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, 2010

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich