Monday, January 31, 2011

Gleaning the Cube: Picasso and Braque Went to the Movies

Twentieth century painting has leapt ahead and left cinema way behind. Cinema hasn't even reached its Cubist period yet.

– Peter Greenaway, in Vernon Gras and Marguerite Gras (eds.), Peter Greenaway: Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000, p. 132.

Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies
This famous Greenaway-ism couldn't help but come straight to mind when I sat down to watch Arne Glimcher's 2008 featurette Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, a documentary studded with stars of the arts world and the academy which, irrespective of whether its director was aware of Greenaway's well-travelled quip, nonetheless stands in stark, if roundabout, opposition to it.

With regular interpolations from talking heads, Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies (herein P&B) traces encounters Picasso and Braque had – or are conjectured to have had – with the early moving picture shows, leading to lots of surmising from the likes of Tom “cinema of attractions” Gunning, painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, Martin Scorsese and many others that cinema, one of several extraordinary new technologies that, as Scorsese intones in the introduction, “promised the annihilation of time and space, as it was known”, must necessarily have been a precursor to cubism's own reconfigurative challenges to the norms of space-time.

That's right: the central thesis of P&B is nothing less than that the advent ca. 1907 of cubism, one of modernism's great flag-bearers, might never have been were it not for inspiration drawn from an art form then so in its infancy that it would be many years before it would even come to be begrudgingly considered an art form at all. (cf. computer gaming presently.)

Let's consider a few of the arguments for:

In P&B, Julian Schnabel asserts that cubist painting clearly bears the influence of film in that, as with the moving image, it requires time to digest. One can't simply look at cubist art and read it instantaneously (the unavoidable and rather dodgy implication being that one can at visual art forms pre-dating cubism).

Picasso's Woman with Mandolin (1910)
Picasso's Woman with Mandolin (1910)
Painter Eric Fischl suggests a little more convincingly that the play of light upon largely monochromatic cubist paintings finds an analogue in – and so therefore perhaps betrays a debt to – the play of light emanating from a projector as it throws black-and-white imagery upon a screen (upon a canvas, if you will) umpteen times per second.

And eminent Picasso biographer John Richardson makes much of parallels between a cinematic close-up and the claustrophobically large heads barely contained by the frames of certain of Picasso's paintings. Well, while these parallels are interesting, I should immediately note that film grammar didn't commonly extend to use of facial close-ups around the time of cubism's birth, and that the close-up, as likely pioneered by Alice Guy Blaché, while an innovation more or less contemporaneous with cubism, was nonetheless one whose time had not yet come...

Schnabel, Fischl and Richardson's assertions aside, P&B makes concessions to the received wisdom that other developments in the painterly arts directly influenced cubism: most significantly, the geometrical approach undertaken by Paul Cézanne. P&B also posits other antecedents to cubism: the 'fanning' of forms in Picasso's cubist paintings might well have been inspired by his regular exposure to the coded manoeuvring of fans by women in his home country. And the often imitated – and yes, often filmed – serpentine dance pioneered by Loïe Fuller (some spectacular footage of which, beautifully hand-tinted to emulate the effect of the lighting employed as an integral part of its performance, features in the documentary as well as just below), is also cited for the billowing fluidity of transient forms it generated.

It has to be said then that the documentary does not – perhaps can not – make an altogether compelling case for cubism's debt to the fledgling art of cinema. To weigh in too heavily to that argument is not, however, to focus on what for me is most interesting, is most telling, about this documentary.

For mine, the most illuminating aspect of Glimcher's film comes from its incorporation of a great many clips from several of early cinema's most important figures. It is these clips that form the most revelatory part of P&B, not because many of them are unfamiliar (though many are), but rather that, on reflection, many of them appear so much more radical than that which is commonly the stuff of cinema today, 100+ years and no few brushes with postmodernism later, and with the cinema so long enshrined now as an art form that its death is commonly proclaimed. Yet the clips in P&B of 'trick' films from the likes of Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomón, J. Stuart Blackton (see Princess Nicotine (1909), just below), Ferdinand Zecca, Thomas Edison, et al, so full of joie de vivre in their self-consciously ingenious play with the kinematographic apparatus, appear so very much more modern than does, say, present day “Tradition of Quality” Oscar-bait like The King's Speech (d. Tom Hooper) and even, I would argue, Black Swan, the latter much ballyhooed as the work of a “visionary director” (Darren Aronofsky) but which, as I shall contend, is in no way a visionary film, with all the suggestions of revolutionary content and/or form that such an epithet connotes, but which is rather, formally and narratively, a highly conventional one.

In fact, when reflecting upon my recent experiences viewing The King's Speech, Black Swan and several other trumpeted mainstream releases in the course of my reviewing duties and in the lead-up to the awards season, I am struck that, to paraphrase Edmund Blackadder: it's as if “[modernism] was just something that happened to other people”.

Martin Scorsese knows something of what I speak. In P&B – his ubiquity is almost now to film history documentaries what Bono's is to music ones, albeit rather more welcome – Scorsese explains overlong his difficulty in translating to film instructions from the end of William Monahan's screenplay for The Departed: “and then a strange thing happens, a rat comes out...” How ever does one these days evoke strangeness on film? How does one aspire to produce a moment of poetry to order for a Hollywood blockbuster?

How indeed! Yet, extraordinary, is it not, that well over a hundred years into cinema's ascendancy, one of the acknowledged great masters of film struggles to produce that which was the bread-and-butter of primitive cinema? And has to look back to a film made before the turn of the 20th century, Méliès' La danse du feu (1899), for guidance?

La danse du feu
La danse du feu, incorporating elements of serpentine dance.
Let's come back to Black Swan, and contemplate it alongside Dario Argento's classic Suspiria (1977), a film often being mentioned in the same breath, and another film I've viewed only recently (on DVD) which Black Swan carries many echoes of, Juraj Herz's Morgiana (1972).

As is probably now common knowledge, Black Swan concerns Nina (Natalie Portman), an uptight ballerina obsessed with perfection who desperately wants to be cast in the featured dancer role in a production of Swan Lake. The white swan incarnate – all fragile beauty and innocence, all Nina needs do to land the role she yearns for, according to the exasperated advisement of her sleazy, cod English-speaking, Euro-pudding refugee director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is get in touch with her inner Black Swan – her sexual self, her impulsive self. She needs to surrender to being, and ease off on all her frigid striving towards becoming.

Black Swan
Black Swan
However, the more she looks to embrace the black swan within, the more she becomes unhinged. Severely sexually repressed, a la Carole (Catherine Deneuve) in Polanski's Repulsion (1965), Nina's environment and those who people it intermittently and increasingly become mocking, threatening. And thus the film's narrative ostensibly becomes more and more ambiguous and fragmented and episodes within it more hallucinatory: is what we're seeing what Nina's actually experiencing? Where does Nina's reality end and paranoid fantasy begin?

I would assert, however, that Black Swan lets rip with episodic bursts of delirium only in the service of advancing the film's narrative. Black Swan's is a wholly subjective delirium, not delirium for delirium's sake. No matter how sophisticated its play with modes of “reality”, nor how many games of “if this, then... that?” that might needs be played in wake of viewing it in an attempt to identify and reconcile the phantastical elements of its protagonist's journey with those grounded in “reality”, the better to futilely hope to arrive at a definitive reading of the film's narrative, Black Swan the film just isn't delirious.

Consider Morgiana, with which Black Swan rhymes in several respects, most notably in that both posit a dialectical, literally black-and-white opposition between forces of purity and forces of wickedness across the battleground of a single white female body (in Black Swan, that of its protagonist; in Morgiana, that of the one actress (Iva Janžurová) occupying two roles).

Now, there are certainly sequences where the expressionism and derangement infusing the whole film is expressly subjective (if often bizarre: for example, though we don't know this at first, certain beautiful, bouncing, extreme wide-angle camera manoeuvrings represent the POV of the film's eponym... a Siamese cat!). And conversely, Black Swan does conspicuously apply a few impressionistic strategies to generate mood and thrills exceeding the simple need to communicate the fragility of Nina's mind and body. Occasionally, for example, it's the camera, rather than Nina, that pirouettes during a dance sequence. But that is as nothing compared to Morgiana which, far exceeding any narrative expedient to convey the two sisters' mental disintegration, pitches for a hallucinatory heightenedness throughout. A la Suspiria, Morgiana parlays an unrelentingly portentous soundtrack which, underscoring its truly loopy dialogue delivered with such camp aplomb, is a fine match for its consistently fish-eye-popping visuals, generating and sustaining an oneiric atmosphere and an air of unreal menace for its entire running time. Morgiana and Suspiria are true children of Gunning's cinema of attractions, hearkening back to modernism's heyday, playing and appealing tirelessly to the gallery, neither film pretending for one moment to present a world that demands it be believed in, just one that demands it be marvelled at.

Black Swan, for all its bouquets and descents into madness, is a very traditional film. It has its attractions, its moments of spectacle, but they're steeped in a whole different sensibility, aligned with a Bordwellian Classical Hollywood Narrative tradition, privileging a seamless, mechanical narrative – never mind how unreliable the narrator – over matters of style, mood and atmospherics. Lest there be any doubt, Thomas Leroy truly gives the game away. For most of the film his sleazy characterisation is so arch and his accent so ripe that you might think he's aiming to hit as high a water mark of camp unreality as Alida Valli's toothsomely demented ballet instructor, Miss Tanner in Suspiria. But late in the film Leroy, who until this point had spoken only in heavily accented English, storms out of a rehearsal muttering furiously in French, which sadly explains away – or at least, is clearly meant to – both his manner and his cod English and the daft lines he speaks in it. He (“Thomas Leroy”) had been French all along! That explains it!

Contrastingly to Black Swan, both Morgiana and Suspiria have perfectly reliable narrators, but their narratives are so utterly batshit crazy bonkers and their attractions so foregrounded that the narratives, and characters' psychological motivations, are borderline irrelevant. The experience is the thing: the witting awareness that one is watching a fucking movie, and it's fucking incredible!

Yeah, so here's sending a big yah boo, bollocks to the grimly perfunctory way narrative is advanced in so much contemporary cinema; the correspondingly perfunctory mise en scène employed by its makers has robbed the moving picture shows of so much of what made them so magical, so marvellous, in cinema's halcyon pioneer years. Privileging “closed romantic realism”, as Mark Cousins somewhat pejoratively coined it in his The Story of Film, has rendered so many of today's moving picture shows so much less attractive, and, incredibly, yes, so much less modern than films from back in those early 20th century days when cameras very seldom moved, pantomimical performers routinely stared down the barrel of the camera to ingratiate themselves to the audience, and seamlessly incorporated CGI was not even the nightmarish pipe dream of a pioneering stop-motion animator's pipe dream...


Back now to Greenaway's gripe that opened this piece. “Cinema hasn't even reached its Cubist period yet”, says he.

Bollocks, says I.

Just for starters, and with apologies to Breton and his first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924):
Abel Gance is cubist in split-screen.
(See Gance's use of “ Polyvision” in Napoléon (1927). 1927! Greenaway wouldn't even be born for another 15 years!)

Abel Gance is cubist in multiple-exposure.
(Again, see Napoléon.)

Busby Berkeley is cubist in choreography.

Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) is cubist in telling it like it is.

The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) is cubist in bullet time.

Peter Greenaway is cubist in making Peter Greenaway films. As well he knows.

Guy Maddin is cubist in camp.

The cinema is cubist after Barthes. Well, everything is cubist after Barthes. Because after Barthes, after all, all bets are off.

And cinéphilia in the age of Web 2.0 is almost unbearably cubist. With the advent of the blogosphere, RSS feeds, Twitter, etc., never before have so many had so much to say about so much to so many others so immediately. Never before has so much critical appraisal of any given film (or any indeed of any given thing) bombarded us so instantaneously, so constantly; never before has our own critical output been subject to such immediate and vigorous feedback originating from so many widely differing points of origin – geographical and critical – offering so many nigh on simultaneous points of view as now. Criticism in this Web 2.0 world, in its creation and in its consumption, is truly a cubist enterprise.