GALLANTRY

The word gallant once meant beautiful, even as applied to a woman. Now rare in that sense, as the dictionary says, except when referring to horses or ships. The Greeks understood the logic of this association of ideas around the word gallant. Aphrodite was born out of sea foam (an event familiar from Botticelli’s famous painting above) and Neptune was the God of horses as well as of the sea.

The triad of women, horses and ships represents the irreducible
grandeur of this world, and the sea somehow speaks for them all.


Probably the most famous work showing Neptune with his
horses is the Fontana di Trevi in Rome, in which we see two of the sea
god’s minions, the Tritons, leading the animals up from the deep.

The other minion:

Below is Uma Thurman as Aphrodite in The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, with a seashell behind her — the best we can do these days but not bad, considering:


Somewhere between Botticelli and Gilliam lies the potent 19th-Century strangeness of Bourguereau, who saw the birth of Venus this way:

MEXICAN COKE

Mexican Coca-Cola, like Coke in most parts of the world, is still made with sugar, instead of vile-tasting and hard-to-digest corn syrup. Real sugar in a Coke makes for a different drink altogether, and one delightfully familiar to anyone who grew up in the Fifties or Sixties, before government-subsidized corn crops made fructose the more economical sweetener for soda makers in the U. S.

Mexican Coca-Cola costs about twice what regular neo-faux Coke costs, but it’s more than twice as good. It can be tracked down in most areas of the U. S. which have any significant Latino population — which is to say that it can be tracked down most anywhere. Well worth the effort.

[Update -- now that Mexican Coke is so ubiquitous, its price has fallen dramatically.  I can get a case of it at a local supermarket for less than $20, down from the $34 dollars I used to pay at a small Latino market, which was the only place I could get it by the case when I first moved to Las Vegas.]

BOUGUEREAU AND THE UBER-PHOTOGRAPH



One objection commonly made to Victorian academic art is that it’s too “photographic” — that it tried for a kind of photorealism which the camera had made redundant.


I think this objection is misguided on two counts.  The first is that
the “photorealism” of the Victorian academics far exceeded the capacities
of the 19th-Century camera.  The academic painter could achieve color
effects which film stocks wouldn’t be able to record until late in the 20th
Century.  The Victorian academics could also capture motion in ways the
still camera could not until the early 20th-Century, with the advent of
faster film stocks and shutter speeds.  The Victorian realist painter
was in fact developing his aesthetic in precisely those areas where the
cameras of the time were deficient.


More importantly, photorealism is not an aesthetic fault.  Painters
since the Renaissance have often striven for hyper-realistic effects,
and have sometimes used proto-photographic technologies, like the camera obscura, to that end.  The fact that Van Eyck and Vermeer might possibly have used the camera obscura as an aid in draftsmanship is surely not in itself a fault in their methods.  And many artists now seen as post-academic, like Degas, used the camera itself as an aid to composition, and the photorealistic aspect of their work constitutes a strong element of its appeal.


The Victorian academic painter, however, was doing something new in the
wake of the invention and widespread popularity of photography — he
was conducting a conscious dialogue with the camera.  He was
incorporating a new standard of visual authority introduced by the
camera, and doing it on purpose.  He knew that the experience of
viewing photographs had introduced a new relationship to visual reality
in the mind of modern man.  The Victorian realist painter didn’t try to
ape the photograph, and he could exceed its resources in many areas,
but he always paid homage to its authority — and he tried to construct
a new visual aesthetic based on that authority.



His effort in that regard was the basis for the magic of Victorian
academic art, for it popularity at the time and for its enduring
appeal.  Apologists for the Victorian painters often try to downplay
this aspect of the academic style, try to reconnect them to the art
that had gone before them in an unbroken tradition.  But they were
radical — the photograph made them radical.



So Bouguereau wanted to show us nymphs and satyrs, wanted to show us
figures floating in mid air, but wanted us to receive the visions as
having the authority of photographs — and not just the photographs
that an actual camera of the time could make but ideal photographs,
recording the subtlest effects of light, capturing the most fleeting
nuances of gesture.  He wanted to make us feel that we were
looking at an über-photograph.  (Bouguereau’s fantastical work is the best
place to start in a study of the über-photographic aesthetic, because,
unlike much Victorian academic art, it takes as its subjects things
which could not be observed or staged in real life and thus could not
be photographed.  It’s therefore doing something far more complex
than imitating contemporary photographic practice.  If we can
locate the über-photographic aesthetic here, we can isolate it as a
purely conceptual strategy.)



And so one has the utter strangeness of Bouguereau — decidedly
corporeal figures hovering above the ground, mythological figures with
the sex appeal of naughty photographic postcards, because they seem to
represent actual naked men and women with unimpeachable authority.
Some people find Bouguereau’s nudes pornographic, and on one level they
are.  Bouguereau has used his virtuosic technique to portray these
naked men and women as though they were real people recorded by a
camera, not visions transmitted through an artistic sensibility.  They
have that hint of indecency, of violation, that always attaches in some
measure to photographs of naked people.


This is not something to object to — it’s what makes Bouguereau cool,
exciting, new, radical.  It’s why his paintings are still alive for
people today, objects that rivet the attention, whatever judgment the
mind may be passing on them as works of art.  How much more
complicated, courageous, inventive, witty was Bouguereau’s response to
the photograph than that of the modernist rebels who simply walked away from
it, turned to abstraction in defiance of the photograph’s power.


That power has not diminished over time — indeed much of our
conception of the world we live in today is determined, overdetermined,
by the photograph.  Which is why on some level Bouguereau speaks to us
more deeply than the abstractionists do.  Bouguereau draws us
into that same dialogue with the photograph that he himself conducted,
and in transcending its power — by seeming to carry it farther than it
can ever actually go, even in the age of Photoshop — he places it in a truer
perspective than the modernists could ever have conceived.

A distinguished museum director has observed how difficult it is to
hang Bouguereau in a modern museum — discerning a disconnect not only
between Bouguereau and 20th-Century modernism but also between
Bouguereau and the great high-art tradition his work seems to
inhabit.  That is precisely because Bouguereau’s work strove for a
transcendent synthesis of painting and photography — something
no art before him could have done and no institutionally-sanctioned art
after him has chosen to do.  His work is thus profoundly modern, more genuinely modern in some ways than the work of the 20th-Century abstractionists.  It may be, in fact, that Bouguereau is so modern, so radical, that for some time to come he will need a room all to himself.


[I think the concept of the über-photograph is a useful way of distinguishing the style of the early pre-Raphaelites from the mainstream of Victorian academic art that emerged after them. Rossetti had a fundamentally painterly aesthetic with a strong bent towards the stylized and decorative, a bent developed most conspicuously in the work of William Morris.  The academic painters of the second half of the 19th-Century departed from both in adopting a photo-authoritative strategy, however fanciful their subjects.  Burne-Jones was a key transitional figure in this process.  Though he held onto many of the painterly and decorative elements of Rossetti's style one begins to see in his work a shift towards the photo-realistic -- mainly in his strict stereometric modeling of forms and figures, which gave his paintings a sculptural quality.  It was the quality of relief-sculpture, however -- he rarely pursued the bold evocations of deep space that so preoccupied Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Tissot and Waterhouse, to take a few examples.  Their strategies with regard to spatial illusion were closely connected to the über-photographic aesthetic.  By the same token, the idea of the über-photograph can be used to distinguish the project of Victorian academic painters from the sterile photo-realism of some modern painters, who are consciously evoking and aping the photograph and not trying to transcend its limitations, not trying for a new visual synthesis.]



GABRIEL FIGUEROA

There are some cinematographers, like Greg Toland and Vitorio Storaro, who are
auteurs in their own right — it’s worth watching anything they shoot,
whether the film is good, bad or indifferent, for the superior art and
craft they bring to each assignment.


Gabriel Figueroa, the great Mexican cinematographer, is in their
class.  He studied with Toland and his style is reminiscent of
Toland’s — with a concentration on stereometric lighting and deep
focus that gives his images a sculptural quality.  (I’m speaking
here entirely about his black-and-white work — I’ve never seen a
Figueroa film shot in color.)


Figueroa worked for the top directors in Mexico’s fabled golden age of cinema, in the 1940s and 1950s.  He shot Macario for Roberto Gavaldón, in 1959, which was the first Mexican movie ever nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.  Macario is a fascinating fable based on a novella by B. Traven (who wrote The Treasure Of the Sierra Madre.)  Set in colonial Mexico, the film is sort of an existential morality play about a poor man who meets a supernatural figure in the forest
(the Devil . . . Death?) who gives him a jug of healing water.  The consequences of the gift are not quite what the poor man, or we the audience, quite foresees. 
The film is filled with ravishing images of daily life in old Mexico, including some great footage of a Day Of the Dead celebration.  A
lot of the footage is reminiscent of Tisse’s photography on Eisenstein’s aborted epic
¡Que Viva Mexico!



Figueroa shot most of the important films directed by Emilio Fernandez,
the celebrated master of the Mexican golden age — one of the most notable
being
Victims Of Sin, a noirish vision in a peculiar Mexican genre, the cabaret dancer
film.  These films concentrated on the heroic efforts of lower-class women to rise above the exploitation and misery of street life, mainly by working in cabarets run by sleazy underworld
thugs.  There is almost nothing like these films in American cinema, though some of their themes are echoed in the
films noirs starring Joan Crawford in the 40s.  They have a frankness about sexuality and a brutality that still startle.



Even more startling, perhaps, is the fact that many of the greatest Latin singers
and musicians of the time make appearances in the cabarets around which
the stories of these films revolve — creating an almost surreal
contrast with the sleazy ambiance.  The films are strange but
wildly entertaining.


Figueroa sometimes worked for American directors making films in Mexico — John Ford on The Fugitive and John Huston on The Night Of the Iguana (below) for example.



It’s hard to find films from the Mexican golden age on DVD in this country, harder still to find ones that are subtitled — but they’re well worth tracking down.  (The two mentioned above, Macario and Victims Of Sin [Victimas del Pecado] are available here in subtitled versions.)  Any one of them shot by Gabriel Figueroa repays the closest attention.

FRENCH ONION SOUP


Everybody
talks about French onion soup — it comes to mind unbidden on cold
winter nights, or in the middle of a bad case of the flu — but almost
nobody does anything about it. My sister Lee is a notable exception.
One day after much wheedling and outright begging I got her to pass
along her recipe, modified from a rule in
The Joy Of Cooking with her
own refinements. She would not actually send me the recipe, thus
committing it to writing, but gave it over the phone while I took
notes.



Then I did something about it.



To
make this soup you first slice up three moderately large brown onions,
as thinly as possible — don't chop the slices up. (Now is the time for
your tears.) Put three quarters of a stick of butter into a big pot
that can hold six cups of liquor, plus the onions, and melt it.



Now,
as my sister explained, in hushed tones, a terrifying game of chicken
with the onions begins. Your goal is to sauté them slowly, patiently in
the butter until they turn a dark, a very dark brown. When they have
turned the darkest brown possible they will be just seconds away from
burning and turning black — at which point all your slicing, all your
tears, will have been in vain. The onions will try to fool you, by
leaving black deposits on the side of the pot, so you will think they
are as brown as they can possibly get — but they aren't. Not yet — not
quite yet!
Bonne chance, mon vieux!


When
the onions are browned to perfection, remove them from the heat and add
into the pot six cups of beef broth. Beef broth can be over-salty,
especially the cubed kind, so it's good to use a mixture of low-sodium
broth with the regular stuff. I used two cans of low sodium and one of
regular broth. Grind some fresh pepper into the pot.



Simmer this slowly for about half an hour, adding a dash of sherry at the very last moment if you want.



To
serve, place the soup in an oven-safe bowl. Take thickish slices from a
baguette of French bread, toast them lightly and then float them on top
of the soup, grate Gruyère generously over the surface of all this and
bake it in the oven until the cheese melts.



Eat it
with a strong, simple red wine and feel the flu, the chill of the
night, the melancholy of the day recede. Rejoice in the fact that, by
following this recipe, you will have plenty of soup left for the days
and nights ahead, when it will only taste better.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND


One
of the best movies ever made about sexual love, about the intoxication
of falling in love and the toxicity of a break-up. It's beautifully
observed, beautifully written, beautifully played — it features Jim
Carey's best performance ever on film, brilliant and pitch-perfect –
and it's directed with magical, lyrical, demented invention by Michel
Gondry. It's funny and romantic but it's not a romantic comedy — it's
far too real and too devastating to enchant us the way that genre can.
In deconstructing one particular romance, Charlie Kauffman is also
deconstructing the kind of movies that feed our delusions about love –
and he's offering something to take their place, a profoundly felt
sympathy that is honest, humane and inspiring. The movie is a miracle,
plain and simple.

 

JAMES TISSOT: A VICTORIAN ARTIST YOU SHOULD KNOW

James Tissot was known for two things — his immensely popular Bible
illustrations and his paintings of contemporary Victorian society.


My friend Paul Zahl says that the Bible illustrations influenced the
iconography of the early Hollywood Biblical epics, and he may be right,
but I’m not a big fan of these works, aesthetically speaking.
They’re drawn in a looser, more impressionistic and decorative style
than his easel paintings, and to me don’t have the same power.


The easel paintings strike me as downright stunning.  In them the
use of an almost photographic draftsmanship and sometimes subtle but always highly
dramatic evocations of spatial depth result in works that utterly
enchant me.



Tissot had a number of compositional strategies for producing an
impression of spatial depth.  The most characteristic was the
depiction of semi-enclosed spaces with portals onto wider spaces
beyond, which cause the eye to come to rest momentarily in the
foreground space and then to explore the background space, which
reveals itself almost as a surprise, a release.


Tissot also had a knack for compositions involving larger groups in a
public space, like a ballroom, in which the empty areas of the scene
suggest the potential for action within it.  The strategy is very
explicit in the painting below, Too Early, in which the future of
the evening unfolds like a ghostly vision around the few early arrivals
waiting for the festivities to begin.



This is a perfect example of how visual space can be charged with
emotion — we populate the half-empty ballroom with future dancing, just as
the early arrivals do . . . we enter into the emotional anticipation of
these folks who’ve arrived a little too soon.



Tissot’s genius at suggesting depth through composition and modeling
also allowed him to produce canvases which shimmer with surface colors,
like the canvases of the Impressionists, but almost simultaneously draw
our imaginations irresistibly into the space depicted — something the
Impressionists were rarely concerned to do.  The effect is
magical, and one that movies would soon learn to achieve in more
spectacular ways than the academic Victorian painters had at their
command.  Their most potent charm was appropriated, and their
school of painting faded into history.


But when we look at Tissot’s paintings today, when our imaginations are
drawn into the spaces of his world, we can achieve a remarkable sense
of intimacy with the Victorian society he observed, we can share the
concerns and sometimes even the emotions of its long-vanished
inhabitants . . . and there’s an enchantment in that which will never
fade.

PALACE OF DREAMS


This building, in the small town of Belhaven, North Carolina, used to
be a movie theater, a palace of dreams.  It was a tiny palace, as
you can see.  The set-back led to doors which opened directly into
the theater — there was no lobby.  Popcorn, the only snack sold,
was dispensed from a movable cart set up on the sidewalk just under
the marquee, which is now gone.  I made a pilgrimage to the
building this past summer, because it was such an important part of my
life, once upon a time.





In 1956 and 1957 this theater was a few minutes walk from my home, and
I made that walk every Saturday, when the feature film always
changed.  A kid's ticket cost 25 cents, half my allowance, and
popcorn cost 15 cents.  A Five and Dime next door sold popcorn for
10 cents, but you had to sneak it into the theater, past the watchful
eyes of a teenage usher.  I was five and six years-old in those
years, and I don't think I ever missed a show.





Here are the ones I remember most clearly:


MOBY DICK





The John Huston version with Gregory Peck.  When I looked at the
poster and the lobby cards outside the theater before going in I
wondered if the film could possibly deliver the spectacle it
promised.  It did — beyond my wildest anticipation.





THE YEARLING





This movie affected me as deeply as any work of art ever has.  It
was really the first work which showed me how powerfully art can move
the heart.


ON MOONLIGHT BAY





I don't remember this movie very well, though I remember the poster clearly.  The song
On Moonlight Bay always gets to me, though, and that must have something to do with having heard Doris Day sing it in this film.




THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON





I don't remember this one very well, either, and I haven't seen it
since, but I have the impression that some sort of miracle occurred at
the end of it which was delightful.





JAILHOUSE ROCK





This was the first film I was ever allowed to go see at night without
adult supervision.  Our babysitter, a girl in her early teens,
escorted my sister and me and a few neighborhood pals to the
show.  The crowd was different at night, older, better behaved,
even for this rock and roll classic.  The evening screening seemed
like a window onto another world.


BUFFALO BILL





I only saw the first half of this film because I was suddenly
gripped by a profound sense of homesickness — for a home that was
practically in sight of the theater I was in.  When I got back
there I was unaccountably relieved to find my mom in the kitchen — as
though she'd be anywhere else an hour or so before suppertime.


THE TEN COMMANDMENTS





This film did not screen on Saturday, but on a Wednesday afternoon,
when the theater was always dark.  I assume this was because it
wasn't a big enough house to rate a print of the newly released epic,
which was something of a sensation at the time, on a weekend. 
(Many of the films I saw in Belhaven were older releases — whatever
prints the theater could get hold of when the new releases were tied up
in bigger towns.)  This Wednesday
was a school day and I had to get special permission from my
second-grade teacher to skip afternoon classes to go see it. 
Permission was granted, undoubtedly because of the uplifting nature of
the motion picture in question.  No one else in the class wanted
to go see it but me,
and there was almost no one else in the theater when it played. 
Consequently I felt even more overwhelmed by the spectacle than I might
have otherwise been.  It was almost as though the drama was being
played only for me.





The movies I saw at this little palace of dreams have a kind of glow about them, in my memory, which time has
never dimmed.  Even watching the films again and discovering that
they weren't quite as magical as they seemed back then doesn't really
alter my memory of them.  I saw the films I saw, they were what
they were, and they set the standard of enchantment against which I
measure all other films.




THE LORD OF THE RINGS


This trilogy is so well-made and possesses such magnificence of spirit
that it
seems truly churlish to wish that it was better — but I do. It is,
nevertheless, faut de mieux, the great epic film of our time — the
embodiment of the all-but-hopeless struggle just beginning against the
corporate control and perversion of all human life and an image of the
inevitable victory of humane culture in that struggle. Its faults are
primarily the faults of the book — a very vague appreciation of female
power, a coziness that avoids the true terror and complexity of the
genuine epics that inspired it, an avalanche of dazzling invention that
only rarely rises to the level of authentic enchantment. (The second film
of the series,
The Two Towers, is the best of the lot, if you only
have time for one of them.) But its heart is in the right place, its
moral sense steady and true. Mordor is on the march — time to set the
beacon fires. I'll light one if you will.


MARY AND CATHERINE


My
favorite image of Mary Magdalene in art is part of a triple portrait by
Bellini at the Academia in Venice showing the Virgin and child flanked
by St. Catherine (left above) and Mary Magdalene (right above.)




I'm assuming that this St. Catherine is St. Catherine of Alexandria,
known as “the pure”, selected as a pendant to Mary Magdalene, the
“impure” — and indeed the Magdalene here does seem to have a
penitential air, as though meditating on past sins.  An
allegorical interpretation is inevitable since St. Catherine lived
after the time of Jesus and Mary Magdalene would not, according to tradition, be in a
state of penitence until she encountered Jesus at the time of his adult
ministry.  The Magdalene's carnal nature is not unduly stressed,
however, which means one is not necessarily impelled to view her
in the context of her fraudulent identification as a reformed prostitute.




In any case my admiration of the portrait has nothing to do with
theology — I just find it enchanting for the beauty and sweetness of
the figure, its authoritative evocation of whatever real-life Italian
girl of the Renaissance sat for the painter.  When you stand before
the painting in Venice you feel you are in her living presence, echoing
through time.



St. Catherine of Alexandria lived, according to legend, in the 3rd
Century and was martyred for her faith.  She was initially
condemned to be broken on the wheel, a kind of torture rack, but when
she touched it the wheel broke instead, and she was beheaded.  The
Catherine Wheel thus became a symbol of the martyr's metaphorical
triumph over persecution.  In 1969 St. Catherine of Alexandria
lost her day in the
Roman Catholic calendar of the saints
because of a lack of evidence as to her actual existence, though she
was a figure of great importance in the history of the church. 
(One of the oldest monasteries in the world, in the Sinai desert, bears
her
name.)  She got her day back in 2002.  Perhaps some day Mary
Magdalene will get her reputation and good name back.




Below is Catherine with her wheel as imagined by Caravaggio:


BLIND HUSBANDS


Blind
Husbands
(from 1919) remains the most astonishing directorial debut in
the history of American movies. The film has been compared to
Citizen
Kane
in that regard, but it has also been pointed out that Welles's
startling debut was preceded by a significant body of work in theater
and radio which brought him serious critical acclaim as well as
national prominence, and made the phenomenon of
Kane less surprising.



Erich
Von Stroheim had worked as an assistant in various capacities on the
Griffith lot and for director John Emerson, and he'd made a name for
himself as a character actor doing variations on his trademark wicked
Hun impersonation. He had, in fact, more practical experience of
filmmaking than Welles did before he made
Kane — but there was
nothing in his resume which could have prepared anyone for the mastery
of the medium, the creative brilliance, on display in
Blind Husbands.



In this
film he managed to refine the documentary power of Griffith at his best
and combine it with an expressionistic visual poetry worthy of Murnau.
It has the feel of a work conceived for its medium alone, with no
echoes of stage practice — not surprising since Von Stroheim had no
significant stage experience himself. (He had written one unproduced
play.)



In his
biography of the director, Richard Koszarski points out that Von
Stroheim saw the importance of Griffith's obsessive concern with detail
and authenticity in costumes and settings — this was a key way of
enthralling an audience and trumping stage practice, no matter how
elaborate. Yet because Griffith usually looked to the melodramatic stage
for his narratives and only occasionally explored interiors in purely
cinematic ways, an aesthetic tension remained in his work — he always
seemed to have a foot in both worlds, that of the stage and that of the
cinema.



The tension is dissolved in Blind Husbands. There is no sense, in either interiors or exteriors, of the theatrical
“set”. The camera seems to be exploring real places — however idealized or fantastical.



Much
has been made of Von Stroheim's obsession with seemingly insignificant
details, as though it represented some kind of pathology, but this was
crucial to his method — to get actors to behave as though they were
inhabiting real places, to convince audiences that they were watching
(and vicariously inhabiting) real places.



Audiences
and critics of the time recognized the power of this approach, even if
they didn't always appreciate how it was achieved — how it moved
cinema one step further from the Victorian stage. Griffith could throw
Lillian Gish out onto a real piece of ice on a frozen river, and in the
same film shoot and stage an interior as though it were being enacted
within a proscenium arch. It was the totality and integrity of Von
Stroheim's realized vision of a cinematic universe that made
Blind
Husbands
an immediate sensation.


The
film cost a bit more than $100,000, and Universal spent slightly
more than that promoting it — but it brought in over $300,000
during its first year of release, at a time when the average Universal
film was bringing in just over $50,000.



Making
a film like
Blind Husbands was obviously riskier than churning out
programmers, but it represented a formula for commercial success all
the same — and one curiously similar to the blockbuster event-film
formula currently followed in Hollywood. Today the money is most often spent on
special effects — but in Von Stroheim's day, his obsessive recreations
and presentations of reality must have struck audiences as very special
effects indeed, and every bit as thrilling, as cutting-edge, as
exploding Death Stars.



It should be added that Von Stroheim's method is still thrilling, some 85 years on, in a way the startling digital effects
of our time may not be in a few generations.



The
film tries for a greater psychological complexity than conventional
melodrama, and presents adulterous temptation with an erotic frankness
unusual in its time, but it is still a rather ordinary love triangle at
heart. It's the organic integration of the physical world into its
drama and the power and beauty of its images which make it magical and
memorable — a purely cinematic masterpiece.



(All
versions of the film available today derive from a cut-down re-release
from 1924. About twenty minutes were removed, and the clumsy pacing and
hurried feel of so many sequences in this version suggest that much of
the cutting simply involved the trimming of individual shots. One can
only imagine the power of the film if its images could be relished at a
more leisurely pace.)


VICTORIAN ACADEMIC PAINTING

Faced with the invention of photography, academic painters of the Victorian era (like James Tissot above and Jules Lefebvre below) at first tried to compete with the new technology on its own terms — by creating super-realistic images that had the advantage
of being in color and could convey a more convincing suggestion of narrative or of the flux of ordinary life.  Posed photographs tended to look posed, largely because long exposure times required subjects to stay frozen in fixed positions for many seconds at a time.  The
academic painter could achieve effects with his figures that seemed in some ways, paradoxically, more naturalistic, more lifelike than anything the 19th-Century camera could capture.  These effects constituted the realist painter’s only areas of advantage over the
“scientific” authority of the photographic record.



The Victorian academic painters concentrated on producing an illusion of depth in the image (again competing in this with the photograph and especially the stereoscopic photograph) and located their expressiveness in the drama of space itself, drawing the eye into the painting as a prelude to seducing the mind into the emotional content of the scene depicted, as in the painting below by John William Waterhouse:



They were enormously successful in this, across a wide range of genres — from historical tableaux to contemporary social observations.  The Impressionist school which challenged the academic style tended to downplay spatial drama and bring the surface texture of the painting itself, and the sheer drama of color, into prominence.  The Impressionists generally abandoned historical subjects and concentrated on contemporary scenes.  There were some painters who almost straddled the two schools, like John Singer Sargent and Gustave Caillebotte — but to me these two painters remained primarily in the academic camp, because a precise, stereometric modeling of forms and an insistence on the drama of space tended to loom larger in their work than either the free treatment of paint on canvas or the pure celebration of color as an end in itself.

Caillebotte hung out (and hung his work) with the Impressionists but his best paintings, like the scene below, are almost categorically academic:

Sargent, though he made his living primarily by painting portraits of the sort of people who favored academic art, was enchanted by the Impressionists’ free use of paint, but even at his most unruly in this regard he remained at heart captivated by the drama of space and solid forms, which can be seen in this exquisite interior whose subtly dramatic framing draws our eye past the surface of the canvas into the room depicted:



The invention of movies almost instantly obliterated the academic approach as a popular style, just as the radical freshness of the Impressionist school had discredited it among the intellectual
elite.  Movies could render the illusion of space far more eloquently and convincingly than any painting, and were also capable of theatrical effects and a narrative complexity beyond the range of the easel painter.


A vital school of art thus virtually disappeared overnight — surviving
only in magazine and book illustration as practiced by artists like N.
C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell.  But the influence of the school
endured, because filmmakers drew on it for basic strategies of
composition in cinematography, basic notions of how to charge space
with emotion.  Indeed, Victorian academic painting had far more to
do with the development of movies as an art form than Victorian
stagecraft, which is usually the arena from which movies are presumed
to have sprung.


Victorian academic painting is now thoroughly discredited
intellectually and appreciated only as kitsch, but it’s far more than
that.  It was an exciting and entertaining form which deserves to
be taken seriously and studied far more carefully than it ever has been
in its relationship to the development of cinematic style.  Some
of it, like the painting by Sargent below, was very fine stuff indeed.

SAVED


The best thing about the movie Saved is the wondrous Jena Malone, who’s
brilliant in just about everything she does but has never gotten a
break-out role. Saved is a gentle satire of young fundamentalist
Christian teens, with a sentimental but overly-familiar message at its
core — real goodness isn’t always found in the dogmatic pronouncements
of the self-appointed true believers. Since this was a big part of
Jesus’s message, you could argue that this is really a Christian film
at heart, for all its barbs at the fundamentalist types. It’s pretty
funny but gets a little too sloppy and preachy at the end.




Malone is probably best known for her role in Donnie Darko but check out her little cameo in Cold Mountain as well — scary . . .

WHORES: A VALENTINE’S DAY MEDITATION

Baudelaire searched the dark back streets of 19th-Century Paris for harlots whose
painted faces, whose company and whose smiles offered him a glimpse into the abyss, exciting because it was profound. There was more than a commercial or sexual transaction going on between the poet and his flowers of evil — there was a bargaining between lost souls, a danse macabre beyond the pale of bourgeois stasis and despair.

Of the painting by Delacroix above, Women Of Algiers, Baudelaire wrote, “This little poem of an interior . . . seems somehow to exhale the heady scent of a house of ill repute, which quickly enough guides our thoughts toward the fathomless limbo of sadness.” Quoting this in his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin chose to emphasize the word fathomless.

When Baudelaire visited whores he was engaging in genuine depravity, knowing that he was violating something sacred and thus committing a profound act.  He did this out of a kind of rage at what the world was becoming, a place where the sacred and the profane had no meaning, in which all values and all faiths were trivialized.  He saw the birth of the world we now inhabit, the province of bourgeois superficiality, meaninglessness.  He believed that this world had obliterated heaven and the possibility of heaven, but he also believed that in violating its hypocritical code of decorum, by embracing hell, he could still feel the grandeur of the profound.

Alas, even this desperate but oddly heroic depravity is denied to modern man.

What would M. Baudelaire have made of the harlots of modern-day Las Vegas, sitting at the elegant casino bars playing video poker, indistinguishable by sight from the non-working girls passing through those same bars? What would he have made of the billboards and taxicab ads, in plain view in the bright desert sun, featuring exotic “dancers” from the “gentlemen’s clubs”?

In the commercialized sexual transactions of modern-day Las Vegas, souls do
not figure. The terror of damnation is reduced to a haggling over access to body parts and the means by which a bodily emission is induced. Whatever intercourse results is undoubtedly difficult to distinguish from congress with a rubber sex doll.


Prostitution in Las Vegas has entered the realm of bourgeois commercial trafficking — honest, innocent, drained of life. Today we speak unselfconsciously of “sex workers” and the “sex industry”. In the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin remarks that “Prostitution can lay claim to being considered ‘work’ the moment work becomes prostitution.”

Today, it’s not just the proletariat which is alienated from its labor, but the bourgeois, too, even the haute bourgeois — the moneyed class that patronizes the “respectable” whores who work the classy casino bars.

There are undoubtedly more desperate sisters of the night working the dark
back streets of Vegas’ shabbier neighborhoods who more closely evoke the lost ladies of Baudelaire’s world, but the distinction today is more apt to seem one of style and economic status than of existential depravity. The only time you can readily distinguish a working girl from a female tourist in a casino bar is when the former opens her mouth to speak and reveals a kind of slow-witted banality of mind.  (“Nobody gets into my pants for less than, like, $500,” I once heard one say — the “like” being an inelegant indication of her willingness to bargain.) She is simply less educated than her non-commercial sister, with a less developed sense of irony and play.


We’re all in hell now but we have no perspective from which to deduce that fact, and consequently there is no more glamor in damnation.


In the painting above, Picasso goofs on the Delacroix painting at the head of this post, deconstructing it. It’s not just an aesthetic exercise.  It seems to me that Picasso is appropriating the bourgeois male’s hatred and fear of the female and using it to dissect the female into lifeless, if vivid and lurid, component parts. It’s possible to see cubism in general as an attempt to render three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. It’s also possible to see it as an attempt to reduce three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional object, to make it superficial, and thus conformable to the sterile bourgeois psyche.

Study the two pictures and come to your own conclusions about Picasso’s aims. Consider the use of body doubles in movie sex scenes, where disassociated, anonymous parts of the naked female body are made to stand in for the whole woman. Consider the question of whether Delacroix’s willingness to confront fathomless sadness is not more courageous than Picasso’s hysterical attempt to master it, to bring its contents up to the surface and lay them out on a butcher’s table. It may lead you to conclude that one goal of modern artists ought to be restoring the image of the whole woman to art, whatever the psychic consequences for men.

SHOW PEOPLE


Show
People
, a silent film directed by King Vidor, is one of those rarest and most delicious of movie confections
– a romantic comedy that's truly funny, truly zany and also
emotionally affecting. It was my first encounter with the work of
Marion Davies and I was curious about her for all the usual reasons.



Welles's
caricature of Davies as Susan Alexander in
Citizen Kane is so
effective and so devastating that most subsequent commentators have
gone out of their way to point out that it was unfair — that Davies
was a truly talented woman. I wondered how much of this was merely
apology for a patently ungallant attack and how much a considered
judgement.



For
the first few scenes in
Show People I wasn't really sure. Davies is
certainly beautiful and charming, but she has a kind of eerie calm for
a movie star, an unwillingness to reach out to the audience. She's
willing to mug goodnaturedly in the service of the film, and seems like
a regular kid, but I wondered if her reserve was the assurance of a
confident artist or the smugness of a hostess in a castle. Were the
goofy faces she pulled just genial parlor tricks?



Then
came the wonderful scene where she makes her debut in a slapstick movie
and gets hit unexpectedly with a blast of seltzer water in the face.
Her affronted reaction is effective comically and dramatically as well
– she looks truly humiliated and bewildered. And then, retreating
behind the flats, she falls apart and your heart just goes out to her,
as does the heart of Billy, her romantic leading man. When he carefully
re-does her make-up and re-applies her lipstick, we start to care about
him, and about the couple. It's the heart of the movie.

 

William
Haines is an effective leading man in this very light role, though I
found his mugging, whether slightly manic or slightly fey, unappealing.
It's called for by the part, but a star in a romantic comedy has to be
able to make a complete idiot of himself and still be loveable, and
Haines wasn't quite, for me. What saves the situation is Davies. When
she becomes an insufferable star she launches into her famous
impersonation of Gloria Swanson, which is dead-on, hilarious, and
occasionally downright demented. She doesn't just strike poses, she
also from time to time starts pursing her lips so fast that the
behavior reads as borderline psychotic. The goofiness of Peggy Pepper
which keeps busting out of Patricia Pepoire echoes Billy's goofiness
and reminds us that they belong together.

It's
odd to find in this genial portrait of Hollywood filmmaking in 1927 a
nostalgia already present for Hollywood filmmaking in the Teens, the
days of knockabout improvised comedy. The collision of the two location
casts, when a Sennet-like troupe passes like a dream through the
already dreamlike parody set of a high-class Pepoire vehicle, out in
the sunny California countryside, has a Bergmanesque, melancholy edge
to it. The Hollywood past has already become surreal, even within the
surreal arena of filmmaking itself.



This
episode is one of the few breathtaking bits of visual poetry that
remind us we're watching a film by the man who directed
The Big
Parade
— though there are shrewd bits of plastic calculation
throughout. The first shot we see of Peggy Pepper's slapstick debut at
the screening of her first film is a furious tracking shot looking back
at Peggy running madly, pursued by a car-full of clowns. It's an
exhilarating evocation of the spirit of early film comedy, with all its
excitement and joy.



By the
end of the film, I admired Davies enormously, and liked her, too –
she's good company on film, as apparently she was in life. But I still
felt some element of reserve — between her and Haines, and her and the
audience. There was no smugness in it, more like a dimension of
vulnerability she was willing to admit but not quite willing to share.
It gave her a mysterious resonance, partly alluring and partly sad. But
perhaps it's just the ghost of Susan Alexander I was sensing, the
gossip and suspicion and envy out of which Welles created his malicious
portrait, and which Davies had to live with long before
Kane. It's a
phantom which poor Marion Davies will never really be able to shake.