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Melancholia

Caution: this post is a bit of a plot spoiler for people who haven’t seen the film. However, knowing the plot was no hindrance to my second viewing of the film, at all. I was even more impressed and awed, the next time around.


How does the world end? To quote Robert Frost via Bella Swan:
Some say the world will end in fire,
some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if you had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate

 

to know that for destruction ice
is also great
And would suffice.

If you’re Lars Von Trier, the world ends in total destruction, as it both implodes and explodes, in the opening sequence of his new film, Melancholia. The earth’s atmosphere is ripped away by the gravitational pull of a wandering, giant blue planet, named Melancholia, which literally consumes the earth, as it draws our planet in to the point of implosion/explosion, and burns it up. POINT, FIRE.

The film begins with this gorgeous, slow motion, cinematic ballet of cosmic death, choreographed to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  As viewed from outer space, this cosmic dance of death is almost sensual, and certainly as lyrical as anything in Kubrick’s “2001.”  It’s both a prelude  to the main body of the film, and a documentation of the end. Before the first character comes on screen, we have already seen their eventual fate.
That first introduction of characters is similarly done in an expressionistic, slow motion scene that visually weaves the fate of the main character to the planet’s own inevtiable attraction to a gravitational field bigger than its own.

This is the first time we see Justine ( Kirsten Dunst.) She seems to both strain against and also be pulled toward an invisble force, just like the earth is, in the heavens above. The first part of the movie is the story of Justine’s wedding. Her mental illness, more than just normal depression is on display early, and in fact the wedding night ends with the marriage and Justine’s career in tatters.
This beautiful image, left, is part of an early montage that reflects a sense of  the morbid fairy tale that is about to unfold. The film’s visual style is ” a clash between what is romantic and grand and stylized, and then some form of reality,” according to Von Trier. Yet the melding of styles of Kubrick’s sensual, fluid, visual imagery  and Bergman’s intense, elegiac, naturalistic acting (enhanced by a lot of hand held camera shots) blend quite effectively throughout the film.
The mood and composition of the shot above is certainly a reference to the well known Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece by John Millais, called, Ophelia, below. It was painted in 1852, and is an illustration of  the death of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


It captures the tragic-romantic-depressive mood that permeates the movie. In fact, the idea for the film was generated by a therapist’s suggestion to Von Trier, (who famously suffers from depression and anxiety disorders,) that depressed people often remain calm in highly stressful situations. It doesn’t get more stressful than the literal end of the world.

The first section of the film is entitled “Justine,” after the Kirsten Dunst character, and chronicles her wedding at the opulent, castle home of her sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and her wealthy husband, John, played by Keiffer Sutherland.



Above, the couple arriving two hours late for their wedding party, and, above, right, pausing to stare at a strange celestial object, with Claire and John, the evening’s hosts. While everyone else seems transfixed, Claire stares away, tensely and with, as it turns out, appropriately ominous, premonition. John, an amateur astronomer, explains that the object is the star Antares, hidden by the sun, and harmless.

The wedding party’s moments of joy are laced through with increasing tensions. Justine’s divorced parents, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are bickering, while her boss, Stellan Skarsgard, who is also the best man, and Justine, are at odds. Below, left, the groom (Alexander Skarsgard) and his best man, clearly indicate something is amiss. Below, right, Claire and John are tense and agitated, as Justine’s behavior starts to become seriously erratic.


Left, we see a last moment of happiness between the bride and groom. She demures from undressing and says she needs some time, and starts to wander around outside. Over the remainder of the evening she becomes more depressed,
unnerved, and acts out, at the end, disastrously.

Outside, Justine, Claire, and Clare’s son, Leo, become enthralled by the mysterious intruder in the sky.

Justine , however, starts to become completely unhinged, causing scene after scene. She ends up telling off her boss, quitting her job, and sleeping with a virtual stranger, all outdoors, under the watch of the mysterious celestial visitor, that seems to infect her soul. Below, she surrenders to the night.


By the end of the evening, everything has come undone. Justine’s husband walks out on her, devastated, humiliated, and disgusted. Her parents are at each other’s throats. Her brother-in-law, is furious at wasting so much money on such a lavish event, which he has done to placate his wife, who is now angry at both him and her sister. Everyone feels betrayed by Justine, whose breakdown has helped reveal the cracks in everyone else’s personalities and relationships.

Part two of the film is called “Claire.” Justine has now become so depressed that she can not even walk to the bath under her own power, or perform the simplest activities.

She comes to the castle to live with Claire, John, and Leo. Gradually with Claire’s nursing she becomes better. The focus now shifts to what was thought previously to be the star, Antares, and is now revealed as a huge planet on a rogue orbit through the galaxy, called Melancholia, because of it’s blue color. As it becomes clearly visible on its own, everyone flock’s to John’s telescope.

The mainstream scientific analysis is that the orbit will take the gigantic planet to a close and spectacular, fly by of the earth.

As Justine has improved, Claire has become increasingly agitated and fearful that the world is coming to an end. She has started obsessively doing internet research and finds data that shows Melancholia is on a collision course with the earth, and that John’s analysis is wrong. At first, the collision theory is portrayed as a kook conspiracy notion, but eventually, is proven to be true. The characters reactions to this reality and their varying levels of acceptance of it, takes up the last third of the film. John pretends it’s not true. Claire’s agitation and fear keep mounting for herself and her child, while Justine becomes almost calmly philosophical and accepting, even as the climate changes and strange precipitation falls from the sky



John can not handle the truth, and absents himself from the situation. Both Claire and Leo are now totally dependent on Justine for emotional support. The wheel has turned completely. Justine gets the two of them to help her build a “magic” tepee where they will be safe.


The three enter their magic space as the collision with Melancholia approaches. As they hold hands, Claire is almost catatonic, while Leo and Justine seem calm and accepting. The world ends.

The acting in Melancholia, with it’s great cast, is superb. As is his usual style, Von Trier does not rehearse the actors and uses a lot of improvisation. He initially operates the camera himself, hand held, on the first take. On subsequent takes, the cinematographer operates the camera, mirroring Von Trier’s movements.

The film is a rich feast visually. Kirstin Dunst won the award at Cannes for best actress, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is every bit as good. Although the subject matter of Melancholia is certainly unusual, the film itself is probably the most traditional Lars Von Trier has ever done. He has said that, ” a film should be like a stone in your shoe.”  I, however, did not feel the slightest rub in my shoes. The film’s stylistic accessibility gives it a universality, and promotes a sympathetic identification with the characters, that is not always the case in Von Trier’s oeuvre. Melancholia has a deeper continuing resonance, for me, than any of his other films. It totally absorbs you and compels rumination about the deepest questions in life. Parts of the film that Von Trier considered a parody of superficial, upper middle-class life, actually, (as in the way Ingmar Bergman often used the same milieu,) open up many touchstones with everyone’s emotional experiences. Families are families in the end, and how they deal with the messy stuff of life, offers much that compels and preoccupies us all.
Melancholia is a film that washes over you and through you and leaves you deeply moved and thrilled. The experience of it is more like viewing and inhabiting a piece of art, than merely watching a movie.

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Doctor, If I think It, Is It Real; My Psychiatric Journey Through Conceptual Art

David: Doctor, I have trouble sleeping.
Doctor: How long has this been going on?
David: Since I was three.
Doctor: That’s a long time. Was there a traumatic event involved?
David: I guess you could say so.
Doctor: Yes?
David: Well, in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning.
Doctor: So something you couldn’t possibly have been aware of, at that time,
has traumatized you for 48 years?
David: Everyone said that was when my problem began. When I studied
Art History in college and found out about this work, eureka, the light bulb went on.

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing

Doctor: Explain.
David: You see I loved de Kooning’s work. Every piece I ever saw of his made my heart sing.
Doctor: Continue.
David: Well Rauschenberg, I mean I appreciated his work when I studied it, it’s significance, etc., but, I mean, he destroyed a beautiful thing just for the idea of it.
Doctor: So do you think ideas are better or worse than objects? Can’t an idea be beautiful?
David: You know, “cogito, ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am. I certainly believe an idea can change the world, make you soar. But ideas are different than objects, as in  traditonal “art.” They both can evoke emotion and knock over your associative dominoes. But they represent different kinds of  ‘beauty.”
Doctor: I feel that what you’re saying is not exactly what you mean.
David: Well, on the one hand , you have a beautiful object, say the de Kooning drawing, which is so pleasing and evocative to look at, and on the other hand, you’ve got what was formerly this drawing, put in a frame, after it’s been erased. I get the idea, but do I want to stand there and look at it after my initial astonishment? No. And, in fact, it sort of pisses me off. That of course, is a deep reaction, which “Art” can evoke. But if I want to get pissed off, I can just read the newspaper. I have ideas all the time. Some I’d like to foist on our politicians, some on the whole world, but I don’t put them in a frame and exhibit them.

Doctor: Your ideas  about what is art are infantile and bourgeois. Did you have a particular trauma when you were toilet trained?
David: Well, yes, in fact, I did.
Doctor: Go on.
David:  Ever since I was a little kid, I liked to pee. I was a bit of a bed wetter. So whenever I saw an image of Ducamp’s urinal, I had to run to the bathroom.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

I missed most of the lectures about him because of this Pavlovian response.
Doctor: And…
David: That’s all. Nothing more. Do you think I’m afraid of it?
Doctor: What do you think?
David: I get the idea that it’s all about context. And that’s interesting for a second. But as far as weighty thought goes, it doesn’t really draw blood. Ideas like freedom, enslavement, joy, transcendence, those really rattle around in your gut and brain. They can hit you were you live. Let me give you an example. Chairs, it’s really all about chairs.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965

Vincent Van Gogh, Chair, National Gallery, London

Vincent Van Gogh, Chair, National Gallery, London

Doctor: Chairs?
David: Yeah, one in 1965, the other in 1888.
Doctor: Go on.
David; Well you can see in the illustration, One and Three Chairs, by Kosuth. It’s a chair, a photograph of the chair, and a definition of the word, “chair”, and instructions . You see, the piece is different every time it’s displayed. The installer chooses a chair, has a photograph the same size as the chair placed to it’s left. The blown up definiton is placed to the right of the chair and aligned with the top of the photograph. It’s really very clever.
Doctor: You have a problem with clever?
David: Doctor, believe me, I do really enjoy clever. It’s implications engage me for a minute, I chuckle appreciatively to myself, and then I’m ready to move on. But if I really want to know from chairs, I look at Van Gogh’s. It hits me in the gut and stays there.
Doctor: I fear this is really all about the subconscious.
Do you see that?
David: Yes, exactly. It’s a deep itch that needs to bypass the conscious mind to be scratched.
Doctor: So what you’re saying is that for you there’s a difference between engaging your mind on a certain, maybe lower, shorter acting level, and a deeper, multi- level and multi-sensual cascade of mental and emotional reactions and associations.
David: Yea, sort of like Mozart, Beethoven, Cream, The Stones, Michelangelo, etc. It’s about the uplifting, the sublime, the everyday, the awful and tragic, but at a whole other level of response. And listen, I’m not afraid to tell you that I sing along everytime I hear the Monkees’s I’m a Believer.
Doctor: So for you , it’s this quality of aspiration that defines the value, nature, experience, and maybe even, the definition of art?
David: Doctor, you took the words right out of my mouth.

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The Still Point

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Compotier, 1883-7, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance
is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

 

This still life by Cezanne was the first painting I saw that made me realize that art is not merely a reproductive, or illustrative process, but an encounter that can touch on the sublime and the infinite. It elevated me to a place of profound stillness, that felt like timelessness. I felt lifted up and given a glimpse of a higher plane of reality, of being.
This painting hung in The Fogg Museum at Harvard and was an image taught in the introductory art history class I took first semester of my freshman year. I found myself visiting it often over the four years I studied there. I would stand, both mesmerized and transported. The apples were not just apples. There was a weight, a solidity to all the objects, indeed, a plasticity to the very space they inhabited, that felt at times overwhelming. The table, the jars, the fruit, the space itself, seemed as if they had always been there, and always would be there. They seemed to stand for every piece of fruit, every table, every jar, that ever existed. They seemed to contain the entire universe in them. No beginning. No end.
Was it the compressed compositional geometry, the forced perspective and abstracted spatial relationships, the tonal modeling and harmony…? It was certainly all these things, But also, it was something quite ineffable. There is a liminal feeling of being completely present. Somehow this quality transforms the specific into the universal, as it collapses past and future into an eternal present.
Cezanne transported me to a state outside myself, into a state of stillness
Not unlike meditation or prayer. Once again T.S. Eliot describes it better than I can
In Burnt Norton.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern.
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still,
Moves perpetually in its stillness….

Cezanne’s approach to “representation” brings up important questions
about what is ”realistic” and what is “abstract” in terms of painting.
I will talk in other posts about these concepts, and especially in relation to the way we actually see. Hyper-realism is a dramatic abstraction of “reality”
And the way we actually perceive the world. More later.

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WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT YOU GET; THE FALLACY OF ABSTRACTION VS. REALISM

 

[box type="note"]Coming soon…[/box]

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Celebration of the Odalisque

The “Odalisque” has a long history in art, and here are some of my favorites. A celebration of the female form ,there has always been a certain  tension between the sacred and the profane  imbued in this motif that reflects the particular moment in time of the culture it is crated in.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Odalisque

Ingres

For me this Ingres is the gold standard. The elongation and exageration of shapes creates a very radical abstraction  and incredible elegance, within a “realistic “ mileau. The draughtmanship and total synthesis  devastates me every time.

MORE TO COME SOON!

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