In the Thick of It

(The following post was published on Animate ProjectsAPEngine.org site in August 2010)

Space, concludes Frederic Raphael in his memoir of the period of time spent as scribe to Stanley Kubrick, is limited strictly by the rigid frame of the cinema screen. Writing specifically on why he felt it was that a great many filmmakers were unable to effectively replicate the true form and intangibility of dreams (and dream-space) on screen, it was, he felt, one of the difficult tasks to create expansive, indefinable space within a framed medium.

Recently released in London are two notable dance films. Following a lengthy wait since its successful UK premiere at the 2009 London Film Festival is Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse: Le ballet de l’opera de Paris, and at Frith Street Gallery is the late Merce Cunningham’s final dance-on-film work, a feature-length artist’s moving image piece by Tacita Dean, Craneway Event.

The great artistic skill that both Wiseman and Dean display is in the patience that they hold for their subjects. Wiseman’s subject is the Paris Opera Ballet. Similar to previous documentaries, his film is about the institution itself. Though taking far less screen time than an actual dance rehearsal and performance, long stretches are dedicated to the efforts required in fundraising and the minutiae of building the costumery, the cleaning, the refurbishment. Given equivalent care and attention these non-performative elements underpin the level of discipline required in order to successfully stage a world-class dance performance. In this way, the daily performances of artistic director Brigitte Lefevre (the star of the piece, if there is one) are as standardised and stylistic interpolations of expression as any one of the dancer’s movements. The movements are defined – refined through extensive rehearsal – in fact it is the rehearsal that primarily interests both Wiseman and Dean.

Craneway Event was filmed over three days of rehearsals for pieces of Cunningham’s works chosen for staging. Focussing her camera on fixed points, Dean allows the dancers to define their own on-screen space, to learn to be uninhibited by the frame of the lens. Wiseman’s approach is more fluid, using expansive wide shots generously focussed and punctuated with small, almost gestural camera movements. Shooting rehearsals predominantly from behind, he uses reflections from the mirrored walls to open up the audience’s sense of space in relation to the dancer.

In his 1991 book Boundaries in the Mind, psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann identified two descriptions of personal emotional attachment: one thin, one thick. These are manifested in a physical sense by the boundaries people put up when engaging with others. Where some people utilise a thin description and are perhaps not observant of any literal or figurative boundary, others knowingly develop a thick boundary of resistance, are detached and observant, and will stand markedly apart from others, for example. Of human behaviour, a thick description is one that explains by observation the behaviour by its context. What we learn about the dancers, the artistic director, the corps de ballet are gleaned through their own actions, relations and interpretations. A decade ago Nils Tavernier (son of Bertrand), took his camera to the Paris Opera Ballet and received freedom within the institution equal to Wiseman in order to make his documentary Tous pres des etoiles, Les danseurs de le ballet de l’opera de Paris. In direct opposition to Wiseman’s methods, Tavernier’s is a thin boundary and the dancers, his interviewees, speak at length on their work and their emotion personally defines their own structure of learning and what they hope it will lead to. He is sensitive to the dancers, as a group and individually, but his camera finds it difficult to keep just enough distance – the end result being that Tavernier’s film feels more directed than a documentary should.

Similar to the work of Edgar Degas, Wiseman’s and Dean’s figures are largely anonymous. The filmmakers relax the boundary between subject and background. Robert Rosenblum notes that the effect of Impressionism is that “…the (work)…resembles… a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance.” (1989). Dean especially with her use of fixed point camerawork and affected lighting presents a sense of depth to what is a flat object (as highlighted above, Wiseman does it with mirrors).

Wiseman’s and Dean’s dancers are abstracted forms, emphasising an arched back, a foot en pointe or a hand curling up from the shoulder. The filmmaker’s focus on the dancer’s rehearsal period culminates at the end of every scene with the memory of a collection of repeated poses and postures. It is this preoccupation with form, and the context of form, that reinforces the notion that the role of the documentary filmmaker (as essayist, as film artist, as onlooker) will have above all else (talent included) patience because in the here-and-now (or, conversely, there-and-then) he or she is better best ignored.

Print the Legend

(The following article was written for Animate ProjectsAPEngine.org and was published in October 2010)

As American Night by the German artist Julian Rosefeldt replaces John Akomfrah’s ravishing Mnemosyne at the BFI Gallery; and as the Hayward Gallery prepare for Isaac Julien’s ambitious nine-screen installation Ten Thousand Waves (which itself, has travelled the world already) and as we lie in the wake of one of the most successful films of the year thus far, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee…, it’s difficult to think anything other than that artists – our favourite film artists at least, in a time of meagre pecuniary prosperity for the arts – are making sense and analysing the present situation using the blanket of mythology and reflection.

They are not dissimilar in content either. Where Uncle Boonmee… and Mnemosyne tread the route on the search for discovery of identity, the latter takes as its starting point the disparity of opportunity provided to migrant workers in the quest for a (figurative) gold rush. A gold rush that weighs its shadow heavily over Rosefeldt’s five-channel installation, comprised of a (thematically and chronologically) anachronistic analysis of the foundation myths of the American west. Inherently, a gold rush will define, in many cases, a permanent settlement of itinerant workers foreign to at least the immediate area. This is the immediate concern of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves. Following the tragic death of twenty-three Chinese people working as cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004, Julien re-interprets The Tale of Yishan Island, a 16th century tale of a fisherman lost at sea, led home by a goddess figure, a tale which originated from the same province as the cockle pickers.

Taking four years to research and produce, in this time Julien also exhibited the five-screen installation WESTERN UNION: Small Boats. In the wake of the tragedy, the artist invited poet Wang Ping to England to write Small Boats, a meditation on the disaster, which is recited in Ten Thousand Waves.

The shackle of modernism bears weight over all of the above artworks, and not only them. Ori Gersht’s wonderful Evaders is, almost literally, the imagining of the journey taken by Walter Benjamin as he escaped the Nazis; I don’t need to spend any more time writing about Omer Fast’s Nostalgia when so many others have done so before me, and these are only an example. What are these other than contemporary representations of Homer’s Odyssey, the cultural history of a community or communities fragmented and disconnected? With the disillusionment of the post-war era, continuing long into the twenty-first century, a substitution of a mythical past takes place. These films share very modernist conceits. Their respective styles embrace a consistency of form that gives their work more in common with the colour field abstract expressionists than traditional filmic convention; however, these artists operate with more cynicism than action, and are more academic than intuitive, side-stepping punk for a (pre)postmodernism.

There is a line of argument that believes that indulging in mythology and legend removes by one step an engagement with the real world and the issues in front of you. Certainly, mythology and the visual arts make comfortable bedfellows, relying as they do on an innate set of symbols and allegorical meaning intertwined with morality and emotion. Ernst Cassirer stated that it is in the agency of myth (as in symbolic form) that the object is made visible and that that is the fundamental practical element of myth: As an organ of self-revelation.

The tragic resonance of myth, its brutal implications, represents to each artist an elemental truth.  As Mark Rothko might have put it (though undoubtedly in a more perplexingly intricate manner), it is the shared poetry of the myth with the visual arts that elevates the artist’s message to that at a level equivalent to the medium of music (or poetry, for that matter); that makes the moral, the unanswerable question, a penetrative, near unearthly, appealing, emotional experience.  “This is not mythology out of Bulfinch,” says Adolph Gottlieb, “…the implications here have direct application to life.” Abstract art is developed not by clear narrative but it must speak to an audience and be recognisable in some fashion for it to work successfully as a piece of art.

Utilising the multifaceted aspects of the filmmaking process, these artists are able to fashion a layered fabric of sensory acuity upon the viewer; the notion of a technique commonly used in painting but repressed (or deliberately skewed) among the historical chronology of avant-garde cinema and the art-film. Without wanting to sound facetious, it is, palpably, a post-painterly abstraction.

An exclamation: Sergei Paradjanov

(The following article was written for Animate ProjectsAPEngine.org and was published in February 2010).

Paradjanov! Flamboyant non-conformist! Anarchic filmmaker; a thorn in the side and a spit in the face of Soviet Russia! Three times imprisoned, who spent five years in a labour camp! Who was lobbied on behalf of by Tarkovsky, Yves Saint Laurent, Francoise Sagan, Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Bertolucci, Marcello Mastroianni, Antonioni and John Updike!

Paradjanov’s Soviet Union is an exclamated sense of place. A sense of place that between February and May 2010 will be hosted by the National Theatre, Arnolfini, Pushkin House and the Armenian Institute, where exhibitions, events and symposia will be held to honour the twentieth anniversary of his death by lung cancer. Particularly notable are the public events at BFI Southbank, where a retrospective film season will showcase his features and the gallery will show a newly commissioned work by Mat Collishaw, made in response to the great man. The first mention of a Young British Artist being commissioned to create a piece for the BFI Gallery in response to the work of Sergei Paradjanov did, in all honesty, inspire a short intake of breath and a reservation of judgement however there is, of course, a rationale, and the BFI Gallery rarely (if ever thus far) misses its intended mark.

Mat Collishaw’s work feels violent (I’ve never felt I could fall in love with, or to, one of his works) but his retrospective – Retrospectre, as it is billed – is head over heels with Paradjanov. Paradjanov! Whose works are nothing if not filled with a unique, exquisite beauty! (Sorry). And Mat Collishaw does have an inherent interest in concepts of beauty, moreover how beauty is perceived and represented. And he, like Paradjanov, has a similar fascination with the allusion of religious allegory. Both re-appropriate and finely craft a conceptual narrative, utilising collage and mosaic-based composition, giving an affected contextualisation to (meta-)physical personal, spatial relation and interaction.

As preparation for the new work, Collishaw visited Paradjanov’s Armenia, now Georgia, as well as the sites most associated with the director. The footage that he filmed there is back-projected onto the installation, through windows and mirror-spaces of his large-scale construction. We can forgo the obvious ‘look into the artist’s world’ line of investigation; however, what is interesting is the comment previously made of Paradjanov’s work that his films are ‘…not about how things are but how they would have been had he been God.‘ Paradjanov! With the matchless sense of vision into the artist’s mind! Precisely what the films of Paradjanov encounter are the symbolic impressions of the manner in which an artist formulates and manifests thought.

There’s no better example to illustrate this than the film considered his masterpiece (arguable): The Colour of Pomegranates (1968). A biography in the Orlando sense of the word, the film tells the life story of Sayat Nova, the Armenian troubadour. Actress Sofiko Chiaureli took on not only the role of the character known only as The Poet, but also The Poet as Youth, his love, his muse, the mime and the Angel of Resurrection, in what might be described as Paradjanov’s love letter to the actress herself, his muse.

To muse on muse, Paradjanov for Collishaw, with indirect strands of reference to Sayat Nova, Chiaurelli and not only. Paradjanov’s obsession with the artist’s obsession cannot be overstated. Ukrainian Rhapsody (1961), telling the story of a soprano passing on international stardom for the memory of her fiancé, Ashik Kerib (1988), the titular wandering minstrel on a voyage of heroism to save his beloved, or Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), traditional Ukrainian folk culture transposed on-screen in the most sumptuous, fabulist communal communique, set to heartbreak and violence. Here lies a man whose artistic vision forced him out of the nation of his beloved heritage; the artist unwelcome in his own country. Accused of rape, homosexuality, bribery – ‘Appreciate these beauteous works, direct antecedents to an historic tradition, still manifest today! Mine is not a unique voice.’ he pleads! His subjects, worn and battered, forced in continual travel else violence befall.

Collishaw! With your occupation – the production of work that highlights the personal, social and political fascination – a grotesque fascination – with sex and violence, a glorified sex and violence. Unwarranted beauty, superfluous aggrandisement on a mass-conscious level. Subvert, overt, covert. The form is irrelevant once your theme has been identified. That theme: Paradjanov! (with an onus the exclamation mark.) Subtlety is not your bedfellow. A horse’s eye peering at me – in fear, in wait – on a backdrop of unobscured, yet legitimate, beauty.

On Alan Clarke's Elephant

(The following article was written for Animate ProjectsAPEngine.org site and was published in December 2009).

There is a remarkable cadence to Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989) that makes it difficult to define as a television drama, extended short, short-form feature or artist’s moving image piece. In differing contexts it could be read alongside films such as Culloden, Partie de Campagne or Meshes of the Afternoon. The film, a circle of violence, near silent with no thematic context provided, other than three lines of dialogue spoken in a Northern Irish accent, provided Clarke an opportunity to focus his camera in a manner akin to his more conventional roots in social-realist docu-drama.

Produced for BBC Northern Ireland and originally broadcast on BBC2 in January 1989, at a time when the corporation had been recently forced by Thatcher’s government to impose a blanket broadcast ban on loyalist and republican organisations with supposed links to the IRA, Elephant makes no attempt to explain, contextualise, glorify or denounce the succession of eighteen murders, played one after another, the only recurring feature a lingering single shot of the murdered man at the end of every sequence.

By shooting almost entirely on a steadicam on the streets of a Belfast free of passers-by and stacked along with empty buildings, gives Clarke the opportunity to determine the pace of the film by its characters and allows it to unfold as if it were a documentary. Clarke’s narrative arc is episodic and its beats are natural. We follow, literally, each assailant or victim as they go about their daily business, playing football or taking a stroll in the park, at work in factories and offices, even chatting with friends in their own homes. Our field of vision is as limited as the man which we trail. Every area we are led towards, indoor or out, feels claustrophobic, inescapable of violence that we are aware is imminent, that we will to stop but are never given the respite.

Alan Clarke’s final film, and after Contact (1985) his second to deal with the political situation in Northern Ireland, Elephant has it’s antecedents across a broad range of the arts. One can draw a direct thematic line between Shadow of the Gunman by Seán O’Casey to the plays of Frank McGuinness or Richard Hamilon’s The Citizen to a legacy that has been recently well established by works such as Gus van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning homage (with the title, for example, a direct reference to that well-worn phrase of ‘the elephant in the room’, in both cases the history of a violence that goes unremarked upon) to Willie Doherty’s recent multi-media installations Ghost Story and Buried. The latter works draw upon Clarke’s distinctive and purposeful use of the steadicam to trace a character’s bearing. In both instances, we are led by paths well-trod that hold the weight of a violent history.

Clarke as a film director was an anomaly, in that he was a filmmaker who made only four features (all of which were highly acclaimed and even underwent, like many others, a short and unsurprisingly unsuccessful R&D period in Hollywood), but who spent almost twenty-five years making films for television, which at that point, along with the theatre, was traditionally a writer’s medium. Drawing on experience of theatre, feature film and television, Clarke was one of the leading proponents of the social-realist movement of Thatcher’s England and Scum (1977), Made in Britain (1983) and The Firm (1989) are all held as exemplary models of reflection of England in this period. The evolution of his modus operandi culminates, artistically and literally (this being his final film, broadcast six months before his death) with Elephant and its candid, fluid and unobtrusive camerawork and sparing mise-en-scène. Add to this themes and content that hold wide: general examination (violence in this instance, politically-motivated or otherwise, or drugs in Christine [1987]), Elephant is a work of drama; whether each episode has its roots in reality or otherwise. It works separately as a piece of art because of the lack of a moral bias that distances the film between political accuracy and emotional sub-/objectivity. It is not overtly political, we cannot say with any conviction that the murders that we witness are specifically republican-led, yet the wider significance of each action cannot be understated. There may not be a rigorous interrogation of the actions however the focus remains, this is clearly not an ambiguous film.

In the end the motivation for the actions are unnecessary, we as viewers will bring our own interpretations to the occurrences, a difficult feat for an artist to achieve when dealing with potentially highly-politicised subject matter. Played on a loop on a television set, this is the art film in your living room.