THE LAST PICTURE BLOG

OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

Posts tagged ‘Art’

There’s a scene in Faces, Places, the new documentary film Agnès Varda has made in collaboration with photographer and mural artist JR, in which this ostensibly odd couple – a 65-year age gap exists between them – chat with a group of male French dock workers. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Varda’s work that she instinctively asks the men if she can meet their wives, and before long the two artists are introduced to the three relevant women, two of whom – like their husbands – work on the docks.

The basic premise of the film is that Varda and JR travel around France meeting people (generally those who live and/or work in rural or smaller communities), before taking their pictures and then printing large images that are subsequently flyposted onto buildings or large objects. Having met the three women, and feeling suitably inspired by them, Varda and JR ask them to pose for portraits and then decide to plaster the larger-than-life pictures onto a huge stack of cargo containers, with the women themselves eventually emerging from behind the doors of container stacked high at the very top. It’s an extremely powerful visual statement – made in conjunction with a small group of people who appear to work for JR – in a film that’s littered with them, and yet it’s also completely indicative of the film’s humanism, the makers’ genuine interest in ordinary working class people and the rather likeable way that they are lionised in ways that also brings attention to their surroundings and the histories of certain places.

For most of the film Varda and JR travel around in his van, which has a large-scale printer adapted to fit in the back. They meet farmers, people from former mining communities, retirees and young children along the way. As they do, the documentary slowly evolves into a work that’s also about the power of images, as well as society, the influence of political decisions taken elsewhere, mortality and the act of seeing. One thread that’s weaved throughout pertains to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, while in another Varda regularly chastises the younger man for his desire to ‘hide’ behind his sunglasses at all times, something that occasionally causes a small degree of friction between the two. (JR, like the English artist Banksy, places much value on his own anonymity.)

Despite the odd minor clash between Varda and JR – she quickly puts him in his place when he patronises her – Faces, Places is very much a feelgood film: the two artists make for an extremely sympathetic, likeable duo, and the obvious differences between them – age, height, etc – soon become irrelevant in the face of their shared respect for and interest in others. As well as their time together talking to people – which sometimes recalls Varda’s earlier The Gleaners & I – we’re treated to lots of footage of the pair travelling together, hanging out in Paris and even dashing across the Louvre in a light-hearted homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.

It comes as a surprise, then, when Godard himself casts a rather unfortunate shadow on the film late on. JR arranges a surprise visit to the house of the notoriously reclusive director, who was one of Varda’s New Wave colleagues and someone who she considers a long-term friend, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, but the meeting and the trip becomes something of a non-event — grinding uncomfortably to a halt as a result of what appears to be mean-spirited pettiness on the part of Godard, perhaps driven by a rather unfortunate mixture of insecurity and thoughtlessness. Given what we’ve seen before it seems like a particularly cruel act to reduce Varda to tears, but her positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible, and the male director’s actions ultimately seem like an irrelevance as she figuratively picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets on with her life. The simple fact is that nobody can stop the positivity that radiates from Varda and from this wonderful film, surely one of 2018’s finest. (4.5/5)

You can see what George Clooney was trying to do with The Monuments Men. On paper it looks like a modern day Kelly’s Heroes, or some other war caper movie from the 1970s featuring an unconventional cast made up of normally serious actors, bankable stars, a couple of non-Americans – to pay lip service to the other nations who were involved in defeating the Nazis – and a few comic players for light relief. Joining Clooney here are Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville, and their collective job as part of the Allied Forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program is to locate all of the precious artwork the Germans looted during the Second World War and locate it before the retreating, nearly-defeated enemy soldiers torch the lot. There was a chance to create an interesting story, here, and Clooney has evidently tried to make something different to the norm, but it all feels so flat and dreary and there’s very little drama. The decision to make a couple of the characters oddly fixated with just one artwork, as if to inject the narrative with some purpose, is a total mis-step. And just look at the charismatic figures within that cast! Not one of them comes away with any credit, though it’s hard to blame them individually; they’re all working with a turgid, dull screenplay. Balaban and Murray draw the shortest straws as they should be the most entertaining; they share lots of screen time and, bizarrely, when they appear it’s so turgid you feel like you’re watching in slow motion. A pity. (*½)

[Note: This post was originally written for the 2016 Decades Blogathon co-hosted by Tom and Mark of Digital Shortbread and Three Rows Back respectively. As such I’ve turned comments off for this post as I’d encourage you to read it over at the Blogathon itself here, plus you can check out other entries by other people on Tom and Mark’s sites. I’d heard and read so much about Andrei Tarkosvsky without ever actually seeing one of his films – I know, I know, but we all have our gaps…it’s just that one of mine is the undisputed king of arthouse cinema – that sitting down and rectifying the omission had felt like a daunting prospect for quite some time. I’m not really sure why this was the case; the Russian director’s seven films are revered by cinephiles, after all, so it was always likely that I’d find lots to admire within any one of them. Perhaps I felt like this because a couple are quite long, or because I knew that the double whammy of metaphysical themes and cerebral subject matter would require unbroken concentration and full understanding of all the ins-and-outs of the narrative. Also – let’s be perfectly honest here – to the uninitiated one or two look as though they may be a little dry, on paper. What if – heaven forbid – I didn’t actually like them? How could I endure the shame? Should I close down my blog and pursue a life as a hermit, disconnected from all things internet? Should I watch them on a loop until something finally clicks? I set out in search of answers.]

For the uninitiated, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a historical epic from 1966 that dramatises the life of the titular Russian artist and monk, who worked primarily as an icon painter during the 15th Century. It examines the role of artists at that time, within its own version of Russian society, and details their desire to create works of beauty while also responding to the violence and destruction that surrounds them. The film clocks in at a bum-numbing 3 hours and 25 minutes, which is the length of the supposedly-definitive Criterion edition, though there are other shorter versions available, with censored material cut out. For me this is roughly the point at which watching a film begins to tip over from being an enjoyable activity (most of the time, anyway) into the realm of ordeal, though I’ve sat through longer on occasion. As a portrait of society in Russia at the time it’s extremely negative. It also offered thinly-veiled criticism of the Soviet regime during the 1960s – it’s no coincidence that an artist named Andrei was chosen as the filmmaker’s subject and protagonist – and it’s unsurprising that the film failed to see the light of day in its original state for many years. Eventually, of course, it made it to Cannes, and worldwide acclaim followed in the early 1970s. Tarkovsky – with this film in particular – influenced many directors whose work I am more (or slightly more) familiar with, and appreciate, from Lars von Trier to Terrence Malick, from Bela Tarr to Gus van Sant, from Alexei German to Nuri Bilge Ceylan. You’ll even find scenes from Andrei Rublev referenced in modern works as diverse as HBO’s Game Of Thrones and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. I’m mentioning all of this now because it’s potentially useful contextual information: I was acutely aware of the legacy of Tarkovsky as a filmmaker and the history of the film itself while watching Andrei Rublev; you feel it’s importance, you think about the way it echoes in the work of so many filmmakers on top of those mentioned above, and you’re also acutely aware of the irony that a film about artistic censorship and the battle between creativity and destruction should end up being butchered and banned itself for many years. All of this seems to hang in the air for every one of those 205 minutes.

Little is known about the real Rublev (certainly when compared to other European artists of the period), so Tarkovsky decided to portray his protagonist as – per Jim Hoberman’s Criterion essay – ‘a world-historic figure’. In this film, and this version of Russia, the talented painter (played by Anatoly Solonitsyn) is well-known within certain artistic and religious circles, and his fame seems to increase as time progresses. Tarkovsky opts for an episodic structure, and there are eight separately-titled black-and-white segments in total, along with a prologue and a full-colour epilogue; each of the segments portrays different events during Rublev’s adult life, including a rural meeting with a jester-type figure, a strange encounter with a group of pagans, a brutal Tatar raid on a village and a story about the casting of a bell. The artist travels to a monastery to study, leaves, works on a church fresco, takes a mentally-ill girl under his wing, kills a man to save her and, eventually, withdraws into a vow of silence, only to be inspired once again at the end of the film. Together the episodes cover around 25 years, though the emphasis is on a dozen of those. Sometimes Rublev is the central figure, sometimes he’s an incidental character. Throughout we see various attacks on art, creativity, Christianity and free speech, usually by groups of soldiers or warriors, and carried out through the practice of censorship or via verbal and physical reproaches. Whenever something is created in the film then the creation in question – or something close by, or related – is wrecked soon after, save for the bell at the end, an optimistic symbol to ring in the changes as the country enters a new era. But, for the most part, Rublev and those around him struggle with exterior, uncontrollable forces – mobs, the petty jealousies of contemporaries, the whims of (largely-unseen) princes and masters – or bear witness to others enduring similar struggles and persecution.

andrei-rublev-1966-006-mongol-torch-00n-0hs-1000x750

Punishment for expressing a dislike of Tarkvosky has always been harsh.

Inevitably one or two of the segments are less exciting or involving than others, though the film is packed with striking camerawork and memorable images that ensure looking at it is never dull, and they also imbue it with a sense of grandness; the sheer number of meticulously-arranged frames – sometimes featuring hundreds of extras – that stack up is as unexpected for the first-time viewer as it is impressive. The camera tracks characters as they move through or around buildings, usually during long takes. There are well-executed long shots that reveal the ebb and flow of the landscape as well as the size of entire towns and settlements. There are even some of these from high up in the air, breathtaking in their scope, with birds’ eye perspectives and, in one case, the view of a man who has temporarily managed to fly in a balloon. Such lofty views and filled frames – it’s all about the edges – contrast with stark, minimal close-ups on terra firma. How a film looks is – for me – more important as an individual element to the overall work than just about anything else, including the acting, the script or the plot, and Andrei Rublev is without doubt one of the best-looking films I’ve ever seen. (The cinematographer was Vadim Yusov, who also shot Tarkovsky’s Solaris and one of the director’s early featurettes.)

As you might expect, given the care and attention toward the film’s visual style and the extended running time, there are recurring motifs. Horses – a symbol of life – feature prominently, with one infamously filmed falling down some stairs during the Tatar raid sequence. Birds, particularly ducks and swans, are also regularly evident, while it’s a film that is intermittently besieged by heavy rain, the storms constantly adding to the pervading boggy, muddy, grimness of many of the sets and locations. The grittiness of Tarkovsky’s medieval Russia is furthered by the violence, which is brutal and bloody more often than not. Few people escape the clutches of the soldiers and warriors who rampage with impunity, and those who find themselves at the mercy of other men invariably end up beaten, burned, beheaded, cut down or – in one case – tied to a horse as it gallops away. Yet that’s not to say Andrei Rublev is merely a feast of medieval hacking and slashing; that’s the exciting stuff, for sure, but there are long passages in which conversations about art and religion take place that may test the patience of some. I found myself drifting in and out of two of these in particular, unable to sustain enough interest in the subject of the dialogue.

It’s often difficult to know exactly where you are, or who the characters are, or what their significance is to Andrei. That alone will cause many people to dislike the film, or at the very least to find the experience of watching it a chore. In today’s age we’re lucky, in the sense that it’s possible to watch Tarkovsky’s film after reading a plot summary or a synopsis of the historical background, as I did, but even with that information I still struggled at times. I wonder how those who managed to see Andrei Rublev in the late 1960s or early 1970s fared; it can’t have been easy to follow, but in a way I wonder whether that even matters, given the obvious rewards that can be found from other aspects of the film. And I suppose that’s Tarkovsky’s second feature in a nutshell; it is difficult, and challenging, and unwieldy, for many reasons, but it’s also immensely rewarding all the same. I won’t deny that watching it felt like a slog at times (though, in truth, there were other periods during which the minutes flew by), and I agree with the writer David Thompson, who says ‘Tarkovsky’s epic stance reveals his single handicap: the lack of humour, and the way in which that slows his grinding pace’. This. Is. A. Film. That. Grinds. Really, though, such trifling is far outweighed by the wonders of this singular, incredible achievement. When the prologue finally arrives it’s a glorious epiphany: we see close-ups of some of Rublev’s surviving works, in all their glory. They are beautiful to look at, and despite the mud-inflected brutality of much of the action, so is Tarkovsky’s film.

Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky.
Written by: Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Konchalovsky.
Starring: Anatoly Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Burlyayev, Irma Raush.
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov.
Editing: Tatyana Egorycheva, Lyudmila Feiginova, Olga Shevkunenko.
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 205 minutes.
Year: 1966.

There are certain documentary filmmakers that I’ve belatedly discovered since starting this blog; I caught my third Albert Maysles film earlier this year, watched my first by Chantal Akerman a couple of months ago, and National Gallery is my first exposure to the work of the revered Frederick Wiseman, now in his mid-80s and with close to 50 films in his back catalogue. It’s nice to have so many unseen films by these three lying ahead, if a little daunting, but in terms of Wiseman’s work National Gallery seems like an accessible starting point, and perhaps an apt one seeing as it’s his most recent (In Jackson Heights played in a few film festivals recently, but is not on general release in the UK yet, as far as I’m aware).

London’s National Gallery is a space that I’m very familiar with: having lived in the city for fifteen years I’ve probably visited around ten or fifteen times, from brief one hour pre-pub drop-ins to entire days spent pacing the rooms and generally being overawed by the impressive collection. It features work by da Vinci, van Gogh, Turner, Holbein, van Eyck, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Bruegel, Monet, Manet, Rousseau, Caravaggio, Goya, Canaletto and Rembrandt, among others, and many of the paintings by these artists are foregrounded in Wiseman’s documentary about the institution, the camera lingering on the artworks or occassionally pulling back to show the way members of the public act or interact with them. Wiseman is less interested in the gallery’s visitors than its employees, but I like the fact that the focus is on the latter, as a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage included here is fascinating. I’d warrant that we see nearly all of the National Gallery’s employees, from scholars and guides to those in charge of its budgets, from framemakers and decorators to those who care for and restore its paintings, and while we do not get to know any of them personally it’s more about marvelling at the collective knowledge, skill and enthusiasm. The film is three hours long, and if that sounds like a chore then I will point out that the exact opposite is the case; it’s calm, and often quiet, but National Gallery is never boring or tedious. My only negative comment is utterly flippant: how did Wiseman, who usually films for between four and six weeks in such places, ensure it was so quiet (aside from the footage of so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions)? The last time I visited the National Gallery, a couple of years ago, it had reached saturation point in terms of the number of people crowding the more popular works and taking selfies or photos of the paintings. Anyway, I digress: this is an excellent film, and please don’t be put off by its length.

Directed by: Frederick Wiseman.
Cinematography: John Davey, Frederick Wiseman.
Editing: Frederick Wiseman.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
180 minutes.
Year:
2015.

6 Comments

2014-MR.-TURNER-014

This ambitious, blustery period piece by Mike Leigh explores the later years of the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner (played by Timothy Spall), covering a period from 1828 until the artist’s death in 1851, at the age of 76. Copying to an extent the typical colour palette of Turner’s own landscapes and with an attention to period detail that leaves countless Dickens adaptations trailing in its wake, Mr Turner is a visually-impressive biographical film and, at times, an intiguing dramatisation of the man’s later life.

Spall is on-screen for nearly all of the film’s 150 minutes, often delivering a guttural grunting noise as his Turner goes about daily business in London, by the sea in Margate and elsewhere. This expressive ‘grrr’ can, and does, mean anything during the course of the film: a dismissive snort, an acknowledgement of somebody else’s fine humour, an approval or an agreement, a ‘thank you’, a ‘no thank you’, and so much more besides. If you thought ‘I am Groot’ was 2014’s phrase of a thousand different meanings then I suggest you watch Mr Turner and marvel at Spall’s ability to turn a simple noise into just about anything. Not that you win the Best Actor award at Cannes for simply grunting for two-and-a-half hours, of course. Spall delivers the rest of his lines with just as much relish, and this is a triumphantly-vibrant performance full of verve and gusto; it certainly assists in evoking the hustle and bustle of Georgian and Victorian life in London at the tail end of the industrial revolution.

Leigh’s film begins quietly in the Netherlands, with Turner standing atop a hill, painting a nearby windmill. The colours of the sky, thanks to the light of the fading sun, are suggestive of the pastels the artist favoured during his career, and it is an early sign that cinematographer Dick Pope’s work is to be informed by Turner’s art; later on the connections are made a little more forcefully, with ethereal whiteouts and foggy seascapes awash with pale yellows, pinks and blues. Soon, though, we return to England, and during the next two hours we see several glimpses into the man’s private life in various houses, shops and other locations crammed with the typical fixtures and fittings of the age. He lives primarily with a loyal housekeeper named Hannah Danby (an equally-impressive performance by Dorothy Atkinson), who he uses for sexual gratification, and denies that he is the father of two girls with another woman, Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Ruth Sheen). For prolonged periods he relocates to the seaside town of Margate, where he enjoys another relationship with the landlady and widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who herself appears to be barely interested in Turner’s status and talent.

Turner’s bond with his father and studio assistant, William (Paul Jesson), dwarfs the other relationships. Theirs is a jovial closeness borne partly out of the sectioning and subsequent death of Turner’s mother, Mary Marshall, who passed away in 1804, and it’s worth noting that Leigh addresses both men’s deaths in a similar fashion, which seems to strengthen their connection. In this film Turner isn’t quite the same after his father dies, and there is a suggestion that the father’s death is the catalyst for Turner’s highly experimental later period, which causes much harrumphing at the Royal Academy.

The Academy scenes, incidentally, are great fun; they are filled with various highly-strung artists throwing hissy fits about the placement of their work on the walls, though it doesn’t seem to bother Turner himself when one of his landscapes is hung in an ante-chamber. Leigh teases us with a glimpse of Turner’s rivalry with that other celebrated British landscape painter of the era, John Constable (James Fleet), before cruelly dropping the thread after a minute or two. The lively and entertaining dialogue in the Royal Academy gives some insight into the prevailing tastes of the period: both Turner and Constable are credited with changing attitudes toward landscape painting within the snooty art world, elevating it to the same status as historical painting, although later we see Turner publicly mocked for his early brand of abstract impressionism at a ribald comedy show. The general public’s take on his work seems to bother Turner far more than the opinions of noted art critics of the day like John Ruskin, played here by Joshua Maguire, who invites Turner to an art discussion that bizarrely turns into a debate about gooseberries. Even comments by Queen Victoria (Sinéad Matthews), who dismisses his work as faulty on account of the artist’s fading eyesight, are merely met with a resigned shrug; you get the impression Spall’s Turner would grunt right in front of her if he could.)

As with many biopics the film is structured in a linear fashion, though the passing of time is mainly perceptible through encroaching illness and the sudden introduction of new technologies (Turner is intrigued by the workings of the camera, for instance, and even encourages the skeptical Mrs Booth when she dismisses the idea of sitting for her own Daguerreotype). The signs of aging are perceptible and the roughness of the diseases of the day allow for some fine make-up work by the team of Christine Blundell, Alexandra Joyce and Chris Lyons, with Hannah Danby’s skin in particular acting as a different, gruesome canvas. Keen fans of the artist will no doubt be able to chart the passing years by the paintings that hang or sit on the floor in his studio as well, I would imagine.

At times Leigh’s Mr Turner is a lurid, bawdy biopic and at others the writer-director successfully engages with more highbrow subjects that remain relevant today, such as the commercialism of art and the influence of changing technology on artists. He approaches it all with a masterly confidence, creating a broadly-focused and unhurried biopic that reinforces his status as the finest British filmmaker working today. Spall has delivered his best work to date here, and considering his excellent performances in the earlier Leigh films Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy, that’s saying something. Highly recommended.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jeeson
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 147 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.0

8 Comments