Some of Art is about making us either experience or overlook the contradictory nature of human imagination; that it is boundless, but boundless within its limits. For instance, when a blind person imagines color or a deaf person imagines melody, their mind’s eye fails to capture what their senses have not experienced; likewise, sighted and hearing people fail to find the vocabulary needed to describe color and melody to them. Our imagination is ostensibly limited when it comes to translating our literal world for those who don’t perceive it the same way as us. But, when we attempt to overcome this limitation by transforming the literal to nonliteral, we consciously enter creative space. We are persuaded by the boundlessness of imagination, and the possibility that the blind and the deaf can appreciate color and melody!
I think of all art forms the same way as I do our many senses. Each art form has singular, non-replicable qualities, same as each of our senses. And when we appreciate an art form using other art forms, we do so the same way that a blind person appreciates color using his other capacities. Consider a realistic painting of a sculpture. Even at its realistic best, it is still a painting, and not a sculpture. Its textures and temperatures have been replaced by something alien; the three-dimensional cold marble stone is now a flat oil on canvas. But, the sculpture as the painting adds a new dimension to its existence, that can only be appreciated when we contemplate why a realistic painting of a sculpture was made to begin with!
Of all art forms, I think of cinema as the one with superpowers. Because, it comes closest to sincerely reproducing other art forms, while making it near impossible for other art forms to reproduce it! For instance, when one watches a recording of a stage drama, a musical performance, or a dance recital, there is little information lost between watching the actual event and the recording on screen. When one scans each page in a book, and plays them on screen page by page, they are able to access its content just as in a book. The only things lost in these experiences are the intrinsic qualities, like the ambience of the theatre, the experience of dressing up for the event, the smell of the book, and the foibles peculiar to the medium such as dog-earing pages, or holding the chapter’s end page while reading!
But, most of our obsession and creative challenge with cinema is not with reproducing another art form, but overcoming reproduction, and taking advantage of the unique qualities of the medium that make it different from the other art forms. Every art form has special qualities that cannot be replicated into another medium. Those qualities are best perceived in the interpretative space, where the narrative is either fragile and does not provide the basis for the piece; or where it moves away from the recognizable world. Cinema is the only art form where one can truly reside in both the traditional and the interpretative narrative spaces at once; and the world can be both recognizable and alien. It is truly free of being realistic, and even when it depicts reality, it is not dependent on the chronological order of the story or the relative values of duration. One can travel any length of time and distance as quickly or as slowly as they choose! One can reproduce the world of their subconscious, their dreams, their thought processes, not truthfully, but sincerely; like Michel Gondry.
His work is on a different register, but it still feels familiar; like he means to express actual functioning of thought, or use his illusory world to explain the real world. He manipulates reality and shows us something visceral using a cinematic vocabulary that cannot be translated. But, it speaks to us personally and reverberates through our sensations, so that everything about this world that makes up our reality is on a new trajectory. In his world, people can inhabit many time-spaces at once, they can choose their own speed of movement, get lost in their imagination, liberate what is repressed, fall through different rabbit holes to new worlds and new scenes, and mingle the known with the unknown. It is oneiric, mimetic, self-evident and revelatory all at once. His work is inspired by dreams and music, it is made of rhythmic images, and celebrates the spectacular power of fragments and cinematic continuity.
Canudo thought of cinema as "a painting and a sculpture developing in time, as in music and poetry, which realize themselves by transforming air into rhythm for the duration of their execution". That’s what I think of Gondry’s music videos.
There is a lot that goes into making a superhero look seductive and heroic, especially when transforming the characters on page to screen, because their costumes are manifestly impractical to wear. The costumes are meant to perpetuate the unhumanness of superheroes, which is all nifty on paper, but on screen, to be both as faithful to the original as possible without the costumes coming undone and looking silly is a onerous task. Given the challenge, it’s amazing how badass and irresistible today’s superheroes look! What’s more, they even got a style update; Out with the mullets, bellbottoms and pouches.
A few years ago, Giorgio Armani’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at Met Museum explored how fashion designers interpret superhero costumes in their modernist creations; It also explored where comic artists draw their inspirations for creating the costumes; say from early 20th century professional wrestling, gymnastics and circus attires; swashbucklers in stage plays; contemporary athletic wear; traditional iconography of the dominatrix (especially in the fetishized costumes of women); paintings such as of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter; pulp-magazine covers; and various technologies depicting invincibility. The iconography in the costumes (letters, emblems, and such things as stars and stripes) often represent the socio-political realities they depict or are symbolic representations of their specific superhero abilities (such as stealth armors). The superheroes themselves have changed from their earlier boxy profiles to the more lissomely athletic over the years adapting to the aesthetic appeal of the time.
Fashion designers have always maintained that clothing transforms the body and plays a major role in the social construction of identity. It is one of the most visible markers of social status and serves to maintain or subvert structural boundaries. Superheroes exemplify this the most, because their costumes are explicitly designed to serve as a metaphors for identity, transcendent power, erotic spunk, heroism, politics and [American] patriotism (Superman’s costume, for instance, serves no other function); putting them above the law. Would one ever imagine superheroes testifying in court wearing their masks? (More on this later, when I write about The Law of Superheroes).
All one needs is a magical second skin to do the impossible, even if the skin itself possesses no real power. A large part of what we are is defined by our corporeal image. Designers work in the space that helps us create that image, and also unbeknown to us, they artfully transform us into metaphoric art. There is an element of fantasy in all of fashion that elevates it from commonplace to couture, and prosaic to poetry. Models on the ramp are hyperbolic impressions of reality who through exaggeration clue us in on what we will wear (which typically are subdued versions of their ensembles)! They share with superheroes, an obsessive preoccupation with the ‘ideal’ body, power of transformation (or the physical and societal agonies of transformation, such as with mutants), masking one’s identity with one’s purpose, and symbolizing ideas through visual and physical form!
I watched Tarantino’s Django Unchained again yesterday and fixated on Django’s badass costumes. Starting with that blue valet outfit, he came on every plantation scene dressed like a dandy. Costume is where you can visibly appreciate his freedom, especially when you think back to his slave days, when he was walking miles across an arid dessert, chained to the other slaves, none with a stitch on, and with iron shackles eating away at their ankles! To Django, costumes are a symbol of liberation.
And because it is a Spaghetti Western with black and german-immigrant leads, set before the Civil War, the film has two different kinds of period costumes and at least three or four different styles, each with a lot of symbolism. For instance, the valet outfit is inspired from Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of The Blue Boy, which was painted in retaliation to his rival’s statement about art: “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours;”
Ironically, for a Superhero exhibition, there were only two American designers included!
Here's a Youtube video of the curatorial talk about the exhibition.
April 2013 Filed in: Films
This is the kind of film that allows my thoughts to repose. It’s like what one does before they fall asleep at the end of the day. All the thoughts in the head float about listlessly, too tired to organize themselves, until sleep lulls them into the unconscious, where they morph into dreams and drift into the void. Each sequence in the film is a thought, a scene from a different story that lets on some truth or alludes to some mystery; but before it fully reveals itself, it disappears into the unknown.
It’s a simple story with a linear narrative structure and conventional character arc, and yet, its treatment is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s proposition that we must arrange our waking life the same way we do our dreams. Nothing resembles the freewheeling visions of dreams more than cinema. When cinema was first popularized, it was hyped as the dream factory that allows us to penetrate the world of our repressed unconscious. Filmmakers meant to give meaning to the garbled imagery in our dreams, and further justify our primal and transgressive desires. Dreams became the most common narrative device.
Ergo, Holy Motors, which pays homage to the cinematic medium, begins with the very first films ever made; followed by a scene of “le dormeur” (a sleeper), who wakes up from his sleep but remains in something of a dream state. He unlocks a door with his metallic phallic middle finger, tears open the two-dimensional screen, and breaks into the cinematic world. This alludes to our love for and the transportative powers of cinema. What happens after that, where we can’t tell dream from reality is what Christian Metz, the famous french theorist calls ‘perceptual transference’.
At its simplest, the story is about a day in the life of a seasoned actor. A chauffeur drives him around Paris to his performance locations in a luxurious limousine car packed with costumes. On the way to each location, he reads a brief about the role he is about to perform, and methodically dresses for the part. He then gets out of the limousine, performs his bit, and gets back in the limousine and moves on to the next location. In total, he plays nine different personas, in nine very different projects. In one he plays a homeless old woman, in another a father to an insecure adolescent, then a dying man, a murderous doppelganger, a humanist boy toy making passionate love to woman in a motion-capture suit that eventually reveals itself as a duel between two animated beasts in a visual simulator, a grotesque manikin who role-plays various priapic vignettes with an impassioned model. Each acting gig outdoes the other in outlandishness. Then there are scenes of the actor when he is not performing, which are equally compelling; like one where he bumps into his world-weary ex-lover from the same profession who melodiously expresses her existential angst to him before killing herself.
The film is full of allusions to many art-forms, and filmic genres presented in chronological order from old silent films to science fiction, and themes of life and death from young adulthood to old age and the impermanence of relationships. Some of his roles dawdle between the real and the absurd. Even when you see his larger-than-life persona interacting with the real world, he exhibits a befuddling unworldliness that belongs in some place mythical; And for all that, there isn’t the slightest indication of a camera, film crew, set or stage being present (the chauffeur and limousine seem to symbolically represent the whole production team; In the end the limousines also seem to represent the end the celluloid era).
In a way the lack of cameras around the protagonist draws attention to the artificiality of the scenes more than if they had been present. At the same time their absence presents the antithesis to our views on the perceptive nature of the camera lens. In the film, it also leads to the protagonist’s real identity getting mixed up with the characters he portrays, and therefore the perceptual transference that the audience experiences is also felt by the character! He’s a man whose vocation is clearly consuming him. He looks sapped at the end of each performance, including after impassioned scenes suggesting eros. Every scene is sexually allegorical, blending surrealism with humanism and satire. There’s always the clash between the conscious and the subconscious, the logical and the illogical, the real world and the imagined one, the uncanny and the norm. It is a film caught between 'providing an impression' and 'creating an illusion' of reality! In a way it goes with the larger theme that only in dreams and fiction do we sustain contradiction!
I like avant-garde and experimental films because they occupy the space in the cinematic medium that is unadaptable. You cannot translate experimental films into any other medium because they are not about storytelling, but about celebrating that unique metaphysical quality of the cinematic form that makes it different from any other medium! For instance this film cannot be adapted into a book, a play, or any other form, even though it has a simple narrative structure with a clear beginning, middle and end, and following a chronological time order (morning to night in an actor's life), because the scenes that the filmmaker chose the actor to perform in the film are ostensibly ambiguous and dependent on the atmospheric qualities that can be suggested only cinematically. Every medium has that quality that is so unique to it that it cannot be adapted into another form. For example: non-narrative poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, movement based abstraction in dance, expressionism in painting....
That being said, what is also remarkable about each of the scenes is that, while they are abstract in the way they were presented, they each seem like scenes that can fit in more conventional stories. There is enough detail in each scene to help us imagine the premise of the larger story that they may fit into. Or, we can think of them as self-contained short stories, since short stories are generally edgy, and oftentimes begin without an exposition, right in the middle of the action, and end abruptly.
In the end, it’s a film like none other, and your read of it will certainly be different from mine!