If art is meant to elicit an involuntary reaction in us that comes from a place that the mind cannot touch, then con artists are the truest to that vision!
They are the incidental inheritors of the philosophies of happiness that have been steadily passed down from the times of Lao Tzu and Socrates to our present day. They apply them on their marks like an art form; by offering them confidence and pleasure, in exchange for cultivating their hopes and desires. And when they have manufactured enough of what they want, they suck out every bit of the outcome, and along with it, all self-worth, until their marks are reduced to nothing but the scars of this terrible violation, and the helpless realization that their rational mind was blindsided with emotions and impalpable offerings, just so that they may be stripped naked forever. Then, the artists move onto their next mark. They spare only those who can destroy them, or who can provide them with more marks to feed off!
There is no doubt art involved in the eduction of happiness through connivery, and in delivering the dementor’s kiss without suspicion. It is a systematized art (like the practice of game theory or behavioral economics), where the ultimate goal is not some sort of creative or existential nurturing, but something more elemental. But, when it is presented as a cinematic story, that engages in artistry with the former nurturing goal in mind, the two combined bring about ultimate happiness of the kind prescribed by the early monks, whose philosophies ought to be passed on for all time.
... And then there is that lovable, exasperating, conniving little master manipulator of them all! Who is the real artist? Rosalyn Rosenfeld or J-Law!
The Dementor's Kiss:
"What's under a Dementor's hood?"
"Hmmm . . . well, the only people who really know are in no condition to tell us. You see, the Dementor lowers its hood only to use its last and worst weapon."
“What’s that?” asked Harry.
“They call it the Dementor’s Kiss,” said Lupin, with a slightly twisted smile. “It’s what dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly. I suppose there must be some kind of mouth under there, because they clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and -- and suck out his soul.”
Harry accidentally spat out a bit of butterbeer.
“What -- they kill -- ?”
“Oh no,” said Lupin. “Much worse than that. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no . . . anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just -- exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever . . . lost.”
I still salivate when I recapture Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of the Swan Lake ballet with the male swans. It is a sublime reincarnation of the original, with some humor and whimsicality thrown in for good measure. Even though its story diverges from the original, the music is faster and more authentic than in the traditional ballets. It would have made Tchaikovsky proud.
Bourne is a film buff, and brings his cinematic sensibilities to ballet, which makes it all the more appealing to me. In an interview, he shared that he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds, especially in Act 4 of the Swan Lake when the swans turn savage. Hitchcock is a very visual filmmaker. A lot of his storytelling is defined by the way he frames the shots, moves the camera, lights the scene, among other things. So it is interesting to see Bourne bring that sensibility to the staging of a ballet. His characters too take on Hitchcocky characteristics, such as, identity confusion, self-entrapment, paranoia, and some oedipal issues (although he says he was more influenced by Hamlet’s jealousy of his mother’s lover in this aspect); likewise, you see Hitchcockyness in the way he slowly reveals all the aspects of a character over the course of the ballet, and in the way he places the horror in everyday settings.
I have been meaning to read his conversation with Alastair Macaulay about his life, his various works and influences. I wonder if someone with his encyclopaedic knowledge about the arts works off of his subconscious memory, without even intending to draw from them. I might enjoy reading the conversation now, especially since I saw two of his three Tchaikovsky ballets.
Last week, I saw Bourne's Sleeping Beauty ballet at Kennedy Center, in which he spruced up the Disney version of the story with vampires and other gothic elements; all to Tchaikovsky’s music. I expected it to be either old-school Gothic-like, with elements of the original grotesque Sleeping Beauty story, or with Tim Burton’s eccentric style, since Bourne has adapted Edward Scissorhands to contemporary dance with great success in the past. But, it ended up being somewhat tame. With some imagination, it comes close to being as scarily vampiric as the True Blood or the Twilight series.
Perrault’s original story and most early European versions of Sleeping Beauty* had a lot more gothic elements in them than this ballet. Here is my blend of some of the stories I have read:
After the Princess falls asleep, a strange Prince from the neighboring kingdom climbs a tower to find the Princess (assumed dead in some stories) lying in her coffin wearing seven white bridal skirts and silver bells. He is bewitched by her beauty and returns to the tower everyday. One day he kisses her on her lips, and is overwhelmed with an insuppressible urge to keep kissing, until he finally rapes her. Eventually, she gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl). One of her babies mistakes her finger for her breast. He suckles hard on it, and fortuitously pulls out the needle stuck in her finger that put her to sleep. She wakes up and learns that she has been asleep for a hundred years. Just then, the Prince too climbs over the tower and introduces himself as the father to her two children. She instantly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. Unhappily, the Prince reveals that his stepmother, an Ogress, might not accept the Princess, and may even cause her and her children harm if she finds out about them. So they keep their marriage a secret until the Prince ascends the thrown. The Ogress, then lovingly invites the whole family to her house in the woods, and directs her cook to serve the Princess and the kids as dinner to the Prince. The kind-hearted cook tricks the Ogress and switches the daughter with a lamb, son with a goat, and Princess with hind, and hides the Princess and the kids from the Ogress' sight. But, when the Ogress learns that she has been tricked, she becomes wildly furious and takes matters into her own hands. When the Prince is resting, she orders the cook to summon the Princess, and prepares a fiery pit with noxious creatures to throw the Princess into it. As the Princess is undressed, the silver bells on her skirts ring loudly and alert the Prince. He runs to her rescue. The disgraced Ogress then throws herself into the pit and is fully consumed. The Prince, Princess and the kids live happily ever after.
In Matthew Bourne’s ballet, the Princess falls in love with a gamekeeper, and not a Prince. When she goes to sleep, a fairy turns him into a vampire, so that he can live to see the Princess when she wakes up after 100 years. As the eras change, the Prince goes through enormous transformation. He is now only vestigially a human, and faced with absolute indigence (uncharacteristic of a vampire). He lives in a tent outside the decaying palace overgrown with vines, and woefully waits to wake the Princess up with a kiss. In the mean time, the evil fairy who cursed the Princess to sleep grows lonely and courts the Princess even though she is asleep. He too waits for her to wake up so that he can make her his bride. In the end, the fairy who turned the gamekeeper into a vampire makes quick work of the evil fairy, and the Princess and the gamekeeper live happily every after.
This is the only version of Sleeping Beauty with both male and female fairies, and where time does not stand still, except for Sleeping Beauty. The scenery assumes many transitions, and we are treated to settings of the Late Victorian period, the Edwardian period and modern day; in Russia. But, even as time passes, the story is bound to the historic moment when the curse took effect and put the Princess to sleep. From then on, we deal with the past in the present, and some aspects of the story remain immutable. This is amplified by the fact that time has completely stopped for Sleeping Beauty. Even in the future, in her dreams, she remains in the past.
I love romance. It is the most veritable way to experience something unreal happening to us. In romance, we reach out to a fantasy that wasn’t instinctually real for us until then. We embrace this irrepressible feeling, even though it contradicts our natural urge to shelter ourselves from the unattainable, albeit with eager hesitation. Love always brings with it a sweet pain. And Gothic, with its excesses, elevates this feeling to an epic stature. It turns reality on its head, so that the improbable is probable and the real is unreal. It drops us where opposing qualities mingle and bring forth a pleasing terror.
Over the years, Gothic has evolved into male and female genres (mostly a separate female genre), with the former being associated with horror and the latter with terror.
In the female Gothic, where women write for women, the stories mostly cater to women’s suppressed desires. At the same time, they also play on their everyday fears of rape, abduction and violence; and remind them of their reality of being weaker, helpless and oppressed by men. The plot oscillates between reality and the supernatural, while often siding with one over the other. Many women authors favor “imagined evil” over the supernatural or “realistic evil”; the philosophy being that real terror arises from the voices in one’s own mind.
Even in the earliest gothic stories ever written (and by men), women were mostly depicted as being fearfully trapped, either physically in labyrinths, or mentally, because of their own discrepant impulses.
In male Gothic (as in, general Gothic), pain is mixed with pleasure to form a pleasing horror. The horror is considered pleasurable because of our awareness that the perception of fear is fictional. The stories heighten uncertainty and celebrate the immeasurable. The contemplation of the immeasurability arouses awe, while our inability to fathom it gives rise to displeasure.
I find that Sleeping Beauty is among the rare exceptions that transcends this distinction. Each version of the story fleshes out either the terror or the horror in the story, or both!
Mathew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, the year that the original Sleeping Beauty ballet premiered in Russia. Interestingly, this time period was also the beginning of the century of Gothic fiction (or Fin de siècle). This was also the period of degeneration, when cynicism and pessimism among the people led to decadence. Gothic was everywhere, in art, in plays and operas, novels and short stories, and even newspapers.
This was the era of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James’ Turn of the Screw. The 1900s was also when cinema was introduced to the larger mainstream, followed by radio and television. People began their visual assault of the next 125 years of cinema with fiction that had strong gothic elements. The malleable and fantastic nature of Gothic added to the magic of moving images. And because Gothic is the genre of Borrowings, which cannot be circumscribed to any one period or style, it helped address many cultural concerns. It blends romanticism with idealism, and individualism with societal decadence, and anything else that you want to add to the mix.
But, the story arc is almost always one of subversion. Set in the gloom of a cursed castle or strange world, the good people are at the mercy of dark powers, whose origin is shrouded. They lurk in the shadows, waiting for a ripe time to threaten the people into physical and mental dissolution using diabolical means. But, in the end, through bravery or deception, the hero vanquishes the evil and good prevails. (Unless it is Grimm’s Tales, in which case, the story may end with the children being eaten).
But, in Michel Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty with vampires and a princess hijacked by dreams, it is not the hero who vanquishes evil, but a fairy, because the hero isn’t even fully solid! His abhuman gothic body is as helpless as the Princess languishing in the unconscious world.
In a way, we relate to them, because we have at least in one point in our life experienced the state of being both alive and ‘not’; be it in our mother’s womb, or in our sleep or in some kind of unconsciousness. We have, through the use of hallucinogens or because of illness, experienced feeling out of control, and not feeling fully human. We have waited endlessly, and helplessly, for our loved one to be saved by a miracle. We viscerally remember this as we watch the plights of the Princess and the Gamekeeper.
There is something to say for the fact that these stories have eternal appeal. We keep readapting them with little changes to their basic features. This may be because they provide symbolic mechanisms to help us confront the anomalies and contradictions even in our modern times. And because they are set in haunting distance from us, they provide us with time-honored way to deal with our forbidden desires and deviant thoughts that we divorce ourselves from in real life.
Gothic allows us to transgress moral laws in a richly complex way. There is mental degeneration, spiritual corruption, selfish ambition and carnal desire, but they are all obscured of single meaning by a supernatural subtext. The supernatural allows us to take everything in without being troubled with moral judgment. But, when the story ends on a happy note, we are forced to assimilate the moral of the story; that transgression, even in its darkest form comes with dangers. Terror begins where the rules of social behavior are neglected. This helps restore moral lines. This story would have been entirely different if the king did not neglect to invite the evil witch who granted them a daughter, to her christening ceremony!
The ballet lends itself surprising well to this Gothic retelling of a fairytale. Gothic in many ways opposes the rigidity of classical ballet. Its aesthetic rules insist on unity and symmetry. But here, you see the dancers break rules, and embrace disarray, and play up the grandeur and magnificence of the gothic world.
While writing this post, I read that Bourne used About the Sleeping Beauty by PL Travers (a book that shares five versions of Sleeping Beauty) and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (a book that analyses children's fairytales), for his research! I wonder if he decided that the original Sleeping Beauty plots had very little love, and too much macabre weirdness even for a Gothic retelling. Moreover, what would you make of a story where a Prince looks at a sleeping Princess for the very first time, and kisses her, and she wakes up and immediately agrees to marry him? Bourne was not impressed. Is love at first sight, with a comatosed Princess, or with a strange Prince who kisses you in your sleep, your thing? The impossible love between a commoner and royalty in a supernatural world is still far more Gothicy and realistic!
*Here is a list of some popular Sleeping Beauty versions: The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, Little Briar Rose and The Evil Mother-in-Law (split into two stories) by the Brothers Grimm, a story in Frayre de Joy e Sor de Placer (A14th century Catalan collection), ‘Troylus and Zellandine’ in the Perceforest, Sole, Luna e Talia in The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, Sleeping Beauty and her Children in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales… and a gazillion other variants, not including adaptations in other non-literary mediums.
My favorite type of adaptation is where you take a beautiful jigsaw puzzle and rearrange its pieces to create a new picture that is at once the same as and different than the original intended picture! The Wachowskis do more than that with their adaptation of Cloud Atlas. They take six completely different jigsaw puzzle sets, and combine them into one perfectly interlocked farrago. You can either reassemble the fragments of the different sets in your head into their individual stories, or think of them as a single harmonized unit, where all the sets coalesce to form a continuous whole!
To make such an adaptation, one needs to make sure all the existing puzzle pieces perfectly interlock and tessellate with each other in spite of being rearranged! The shape of each piece in relation to the others is therefore important in order to find the perfect placement!
The six stories in this movie look incompatible, completely opposed in character, like they belong to different worlds. The stories are set in the past, present, future and distant future, in many different places all over the world. The characters too move from story to story, and morph themselves into many other characters, oftentimes even changing gender and race. So your job as the audience is to suss out the differences and commonalities in their different personalities, and place them in context of the larger message that the soul transcends time and space. When you finally see them fit together seamlessly, it becomes clear that every instance in the world is comparable, analogous and homologous with every other!
In the plant world, epiphytes are plants that live on other plants or objects, not as parasites but by gainfully deriving nutrients or support from them! In the phone and tablet world, one might think of mobile apps as epiphytes that depend on the technology they are on to be operative! In Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis create an epiphyte-like narrative structure, where each story impels the other stories forward, as their scenes play out alternately, propagating their motive into each other. In this way, we move forward, while also being kept continually on edge with multiple cliffhangers throughout the movie. The cumulative effect of all this anxious uncertainty, is the equivalent of watching six completely different period-suspense films at once that also have profound philosophies behind them. It is a multitudinous mental exercise! Not to mention, how every story, however fantastical, is in fact disturbingly real.
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.
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
Scheherazade! How many back-to-back narrow escapes does it take before the audience faints from an overdose of suspense? Luckily, so far, I haven't had to find out, even though Argo came close. The story is based on real life, so I went into it knowing how it was going to end; and in spite of that, the narrative tension in the movie was so intense in the sequences leading up to the end that I was forced to suspend my knowledge of what is to come, and entertain the possibility of the 'other' unpleasant outcome while things were still playing out!
Argo has two things going for it. It is factual as far as the big picture story is concerned, and fictive as far as the plot details are concerned. The details are where the holes in our memory and the window of opportunity for narrative tension reside. And together, the fact (the real story) and the fiction (the movie) share a common 'essence', and trigger the same sentiments and streams of thought.
Since the 2000s, there have been more films based on real events than in all the ninety years of cinema prior to that. I have wondered why this is the case, especially since most of the recent stories are based on incidents that happened prior to the 2000s. This may be because retelling of past stories require big-ticket resources to accurately recreate those ambiences, without which we can't fully immerse ourselves in that world; and given that film budgets too have increased manyfold within this same timeframe, this is now more possible than before. Also, stories of the past naturally permit fictional embellishments because they require us to put ourselves in a world that we don't belong in. And retelling of stories that happened in the past can take advantage of the paradox of suspense, because when we seek a fictional version of the real story over a factual one, we are seeking "half-truths" over "the truth", and depend on them to create the narrative tension. That's how Argo delivers. Ironically, a dialogue in the film says "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit". I am of opinion that Ben Affleck made a real movie, and it was a real hit.
For a fuller experience, I suggest watching the film and reading the real story, and interviews of the filmmakers and people involved in this hostage crisis. Here's a start, for those who've watched the film, and those who love spoilers:
Of course, Wiki to Argo and Wiki to the Iran Hostage Crisis
Interview with Argo's screenwriter
Interview with Ben Affleck
Joshua Bearman's Wired write-up on Argo
The real story about the Airport Sequence
Tony Mendez on the True Story
Argo as seen by the hostage survivors
Iran's plans on making it's own Argo
Argo vs. Zero Dark Thirty
The Argo (Lord of Light) Storyboards
A nitrate film burns at 17,000 feet per second. It produces its own oxygen and can't be put out with water. You can strongroom it to keep it safe, but, what is the point of keeping films locked up?
I think of cinema as a mandala, a visual scripture of time, that is evanescent and finite. The old melts away, often literally, like ninety percent of old films that are now lost forever. The few left too will buckle with age, or will never see an audience because they are being preserved in a temperature-controlled bubble.
Even if films are everlasting, our minds move on. Beautiful art forms within the medium are ritualistically destroyed every decade to give way to new forms. Vaudeville gave way to silent film, silent film to talkies; black and white to color, films to digital, and 2D to 3D. This transitory nature of cinematic mediums symbolizes the fleeting nature of art and life itself;
Luckily, there is no end to man's imagination. It knows no age or era! One may stop transforming cardboard boxes into forts, spaceships and playthings, but one never ceases to transport himself to different worlds. As he grows older, and acquires new abilities, he realizes those worlds in other ways. For a filmmaker, the camera is his cardboard box, a portal to any world that he only has to imagine to bring into existence!
In the early 1900s, cinema was a game with no rules. There was no one to say what was possible or not possible to do. Filmmakers seemed always to want to make the impossible possible. The silent era was not the era when sound synchronization was not possible, or when cinema did not mean itself to ever be sound-synchronized (several silent filmmakers were happy to upgrade or readapt their silent films to sound eventually). It was the era when filmmakers chose to entertain even without synchronized sound, and oftentimes with a live symphonic orchestra accompanying the visuals. “The mighty wurlitzers” could produce every imaginable sound effect, and musicians were as much film celebrities as the filmmakers and actors; And anyone who makes silent films today will tell you that the genre is far from primitive, and requires tremendous imagination to conjure up new and exciting ways to tell stories that are captivating. Silence was a new language, with a vast visual and expressive vocabulary that was evolving as filmmakers began to explore it through their works! Moreover, silent films offer a wide range of storytelling possibilities that can be deep and meaningful, or silly and ridiculous. And when the audiences took that leap of imagination with the filmmakers and accepted the filmic world, cinema became an obsessive new art form!
There was a lot that was being tried in the early 1900s. In fact, 3D films were pioneered and patented by William Friese-Greene in the late1890s, where in two films were projected at the same time to create a 3D illusion when watched through a stereoscope. Harry Fairall made the first commercially successful 3D film in the 1920s; The Lumière brothers used 3D processes to shoot several scenes in their films, including one as early as 1903. Georges Méliès created a camera so that he could shoot on both European and American film reels at the same time, and when used together, both films created a 3D effect. Of course, production costs meant bigger experiments in 3D cinema would have to wait till the 1950s, when it made impressive headway, and several 3D films entertained a sizeable audience!
Even in the early 1900s, filmmakers began to dream of color cinema. In the 1910s, D.W. Griffith used a number of colors to tint each scene in his movies to complement the moods in his scenes, and he later invented a lighting system in which colored lights flashed on different areas of the screen to achieve the desired effect.
And almost simultaneously as the beginnings of cinema, came the use of visual effects and animation. In the 1890s just as cinema was born, Georges Méliès used stop tricks, made time-lapse videos, used dissolves and creative transitions, multiple exposures, and handpainted color. Several others used moving painted backgrounds and miniatures to depict worlds that didn’t exist! In the 1920s, Dziga Vertov was already making visual poetries full of animation and special effects, by manipulating film and transforming reality.
Even as cinema was being born, no one thought it would remain forever silent! So when I see The Artist, I see a charming film that I absolutely love and will watch over and over again. But, while it pays homage to the silent era, like the "simplicity" of good old cinema, and the charming romantic stories, the tragedy that befell silent artists, it does not fully represent the rich realities of that era from a historic point of view; There was nothing simple and innocent, or silent about 1920s cinema!
In fact, when one looks at the way The Artist is shot, one sees that it candidly pays homage to films made over four decades; which is what I enjoyed about it! You see it inspired by Hollywood as a whole, and by everything wonderful that each era has to offer. For instance, it uses the old square-screen format; is shot at 22-frames-per-second to quicken action (which is somewhat accurate of the 1920s, although typically they used a quicker frame rate, until the advent of sound); it has gorgeous art deco sets (which came to Hollywood only in the 1930s and 40s); and the acting, title cards, and music capture the spirit of the 20s era (even though the music used in the film was composed in the late 1930s).
And, if you have seen the old 1920s films, you can tell that this one is not dredged up from that era. The quality of the visuals is implausibly pristine, since it is not shot using black-and-white film but high quality color film from our era; the camera angles, editing and lighting styles are evidently inspired from films in the 30s through 60s. And yet, it all comes together and makes a movie that ultimately pays homage to the late 1920s silent films in a way that both neophytes and buffs can fall in love with! And in not being accurate, it (albeit unintentionally) captures the experimental spirit of the 1920s; which was an era forgiving of deception! When you think of it as a 21st century filmmaker's love letter to the silent era, The Artist is by far the most beautiful love letter a man of the future has written to the past!
Months after watching War Horse on Stage, I was still turning over in my mind how a horse made of sticks galloping in front of a ripped piece of paper with surrealist artwork on a bare stage can reveal so much of our world to us, and extend our empathy to an animal, and through it to the million men and horses who lost their lives in a war fought almost 100 years ago!
Humans empathize with everything. If one were to hold a pencil in his hand and call it his sweetheart and break it into two, we would wince like he just broke his sweetheart! So, it isn't very hard to imagine that we are capable of seeing real horses in horse puppets, empathising with them and reflecting on our choices through them. And, in War Horse, we extend our empathy to the most silent character in the story. We see war through this neutral trooper - a horse that finds itself in situations, endures the shafts of human battle as part of British, German, and French militaries, but makes no judgments of anyone.
I was hoping the Making of War Horse would show me what went into making those beautiful life-size horse puppets that looked and behaved just like real horses. This was after I had watched a Ted talk demonstration of the same by the Handstring Puppet Company, followed by the play itself. I just couldn't get enough.
What I saw instead of the making of puppets was the rehearsal of the men who worked inconspicuously from inside the puppet to project a real animal onto it. I also saw them rehearsing wearing just horse hats made of paper, holding a rod that served as a whole horse puppet; and they synchronised their gallops and neighs, the movements of a ear or the tail. They weren't just letting the horses be horses, but were being horses themselves, and reacting not to dialogue, but the emotional temperatures of the scenes. It was like watching kids transform empty boxes into vehicles and themselves into beasts! Only, here, each puppeteer operated one bit of the horse, and together they determined how we saw the whole animal and reacted to it; so the audience was also engaging in their game!
Without going into the contents of the documentary itself, but continuing from where it left off, here is some of what the stage play captures beyond what meets the eye.
The first world war marked the beginning of the end of the old order in Europe. Technology was radicalized and warfare changed beyond recognition. Even as armies were learning to cope with the new changes and adapting their tactics, they were active at war and becoming casualties. Everything from aircrafts, machine guns, automatic rifles, tanks, poison gas, barbed wire and trenches were used for the first time, and what ensued was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen! You see the war in the play, and you see the stage turn into a dark war zone, as troops line up for battle, and huge tanks and machine guns come rolling out, overwhelming the British army. It is men on horses against machines!
The art movements of the time too were bloody but unbowed. The futurists saw war as cleansing the old orders, and the anvil upon which the 'new man' would be forged. Their aesthetic of art celebrated machinery and violence. Marinetti, in his Futurist Manifesto declared that "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice". He saw war as inherent to life itself, and wanted art to "glorify war - the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman". Britain too had its own Vorticists who wanted to wipe out all traces of the Victorian age and place the machine age at the very centre of their art work. You see these two cubist "offshoot" movements represented on the stage, in the backdrops and through the harsh lighting. Every scene was like Paul Nash's surrealist paintings, with stark landscapes, spaces full of darkness defined through light.
But none of this describes how bad the violence really was, and that's where Michael Morpugo's novel and the inspiration behind it comes in. He saw FW Reed's frightening painting of horses during the First World War, in which, Germans were shooting at the British cavalry charging up a hill into german lines. And as men were being shot at, a mass of horses had already become entangled in barbed wire. Later in the documentary, it is revealed that 8 million horses were killed during the first world war, and one to two million were from Britain alone!
With all the improved technology, the horses were still used for cavalry charges, because of the quick mobility they provided, and they remained the best means for moving scouts, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery to the battlefield. But in spite of all that, the staggering loss of horses meant rural life throughout Europe would never be the same again. Some breeds were so reduced in number that they were in danger of disappearing. It changed the color and culture of the continent and also the ways in which things were done, including farming, mining and transport!
In a way the play captured and represented the fractured environments and inhuman landscapes of the early 20th century through a personal story, not of a soldier, or an animal, but of a collective people. It was a community going to war and returning to what little remained of home.
I enjoy that the whole story can be understood only by allowing ourselves to take in fragments of accounts through various mediums. It is a children's novel set in a historic context of World War I, with a central animal character, that came about as a result of the author's interactions with war veterans, his observations of a young boy's relationship with a horse, some old paintings and photographs of world war, and the poetry of Edward Thomas; It then got transformed into a stage play with puppets that introduced us to the aesthetic of various art movements at the time, and the folk songs that gave us a sense of the community… and together they wove something of a human narrative!
Slightly off-topic, but on the subject of human empathy, here is an interesting TED talk where Jeremy Rifkin explains how we are rethinking the human narrative.
January 2013 Filed in: Books
I have been slowly ploughing through the Cairo Trilogy by Naquib Mahfouz, relishing it like a succulent meal. In spite of that, having read the first book, I am now gravitating towards Cairo, a [completely different] graphic novel by G. Willow Wilson, instead of the second book in the trilogy.
I haven't fully moved past my childhood picture-book days. I need the text versus illustration ratio to tip towards illustration to experience full satisfaction. Which is why, I hope every book is adapted into a movie, and is written in a suitable font to begin with! No amount of evocative writing will fill the visual void that my imagination relies heavily on to transport me to its world. I see this as a disability that I manage to overcome with acceptance and mind games. I imagine that I am the filmmaker being given the task of adapting the book into a movie, and then the void becomes my canvas.
Now, about the book.
Palace Walk is richly descriptive, and paints a visual picture of the everyday life of a family living in an alleyway by a major souk in Cairo. It deals with the Cairene's simultaneous struggle with and respect for the old established order, at a time marked by profound transformation, during the days leading to the Revolution. This is done sensitively, aided by Mahfouz's own nostalgia for the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Cairo, and its fragile social fabric!
There are two stories being told through the plot: One, presents a portrait of people that details the characters' lives and their personal aspirations, and alludes to the larger story behind the perceptively drawn picture; Another, presents a portrait of time that focusses on the story of the rising tide of nationalism, and the push and pull of a patriarchal society, and how it contributes to the incongruous life of one family!
Mahfouz combines the two stories with some fluidity, so even when the characters are preoccupied with their own lives, you can see each of them rising from their personal depths and representing an ideological point of view shared by many Cairenes. You can see inside their minds and grasp the motivation behind their behaviors, and understand both the shared values and the gulf of understanding between the characters.
The revolution has just begun and I am taking a break now to savor a real-life-meets-mythology take on Cairo in sequential art form.
January 2013 Filed in: Films
Tarantino's violence is of a particular personality that I happen to like. It's an aesthetic ultra-violence requiring a willing suspension of disbelief so that art and motif can coalesce with chimerical coherence. It is at once real and sensational, and unreal and provocative, and evokes many opposite and extreme emotions simultaneously. I find myself reacting instinctually to the action, and intelligently to the dialogues. It convinces me that the only place for all moral outrage is on cinema, where violence can be converted into beauty!
One way to judge a film would be to imagine it being played in two different scenarios, and see if the filmmakers intention comes in the way of our perception of the film.
In one scenario, Tarantino makes Django Unchained just to cater to his whim. He hires a large crew, orchestrates a carefully crafted blaxploitation spaghetti western film full of stunning cinematography, eclectic music, cathartic action scenes, and frequent laughs! When the film is made, he keeps it to himself, for his late-night viewing and doesn't show it to anyone (this assumes of course, that he has the wherewithal to afford this indulgence). In another scenario, he makes the same film available to the audience.
In the case of the former, his motive being the creation of art and self-gratification, there is less incentive to make a point about slavery, as much as set his story in those slavery times by happenstance or by reason of his fancy! It is purely a creative endeavor by a man who has a thought, a fantasy and grandiose talents, and is wanting to scratch an itch without feeling the need to share or impress!
In the case of the latter, he is more generous. He gratifies himself while also allowing us to indulge in his fantasy and create our own; he gives us our first iconic black hero (a lovelorn slave turned bounty hunter) in a spaghetti western. A black western hero is an unwonted induction made more stark by the fact that it is a western set in a deep southern plantation backdrop; and he uses this setting to make known the holocaust of black slavery from his distinctive, fictional point of view! If these are Tarantino's motives (as he claims they are), then the violence is just a plot device to dragoon us into a frame of mind needed to move the actual story along!
The historic inaccuracies, such as that the Klu Klux Klan was formed at least a decade after the period in which the film was set, or that there is no evidence of real Mandingo fighting, maybe irrelevant as factual history, but are necessary to the story! They are artistic liberties that serve as plot devices to make a point about the slave experience, which in reality was as brutal as the lies that Tarantino fabricated! And that is where he has a whip-hand over historians, in that he is allowed to be blatantly manipulative, and use grandiose falsehoods as tools to weave mysterious threads of truth and tell some form of the real story! But he also intentionally forces us to reflect on the times by sincerely recreating the physical ambience of those plantations! The result is a fine balance of the different tones and stories at play. This is true also for his other purposefully inaccurate, and fittingly misspelled film, Inglourious Basterds!