Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Iconosphere: Cinema in the History of Art

William Holden, Sunset Boulevard, 1950.

“Movies are magic” Van Dyke Parks
When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, growing up in the wasteland suburbs outside Toronto (Don Mills was, by the way, among the first such planned outliers in North America; it looked rather pleasant and was a splendid locale for experimenting with Aldous Huxley’s spiritual vitamins) and where I spent much of my time watching television like most of my fellow baby boomers, I was also treated to a rather unique experience that my fellow truants were not.

While whiling away the dreamy hours in front of that magic flickering box I would occasionally be taken aback by the sight of my own surname on the screen as the writer and producer of many a classic black-and-white film being screen on the new medium of TV.

There was, in those days, an almost total absence of the specifically programmed content we take for granted today, and instead the new-born networks would recycle movies from the early age of cinema for unsuspecting viewers such as myself. And when I asked them who this “Charles Brackett” was, their perhaps too-casual, somewhat innocent suburban response was something along the lines of “Oh ,yeah, I think he was part of the American branch of the family who had something to do with Hollywood.”

Something to do with Hollywood? He was, in fact, a member of Hollywood royalty, having also been a member of the Lost Generation in Europe along with Hemingway and Fitzgerald (both of whom he knew and nursed through their hangovers) before coming to New York and being a member of the Algonquin Room circle along with Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley (more help with hangovers, Charlie being teetotal) while also serving as the drama critic for The New Yorker.

Like other talented writers (including of course, Fitzgerald and Faulkner) he was eventually financially lured to Hollywood, where he was teamed up by Paramount Studios with a recent émigré from Austria who barely spoke English, to write screenplays for the great Ernst Lubitsch.

In my estimation, the first photograph to legitimately be considered a work of art at par with painting: Alfred Steiglitz’s 1911 impressionistic image of the streets of New York.

That émigré was in fact the acerbic Billy Wilder, with whom my grandfather’s cousin Charles Brackett had a volatile love-hate partnership that spanned the writing, producing and directing of some of cinema’s greatest screwball comedies (such as Garbo’s Ninotchka) as well as some of its greatest film noir classics (such as Swanson’s Sunset Boulevard).

I’ve written about the strange magic of their fraught collaborative partnership elsewhere on Critics At Large, and for the moment I bring them up only to situate my first exposure to the realization, at about the age of 11 or 12, I think, that films, motion pictures, cinema, flicks or movies, whatever we choose to call them, were in fact a huge part of the larger history of visual art.

It suddenly occurred to me one day, while off from school and pretending to have the flu, not only that films were our contemporary paintings, but also that they were in fact paintings using light, darkness, sound, and eventually colours. The film that first illuminated the modern history of art for me was Sunset Boulevard, with its arresting opening scene of a dead William Holden floating eerily in a swimming pool, shot from the bottom of the pool looking up.

Edward Muybridge’s photo-study of horses in motion, 1878, clearly an indication that the invention of “movies” was just around the corner.

This image took my breath away in a way that has never quite permitted it to return in any semblance of a normal fashion. In fact, I’m still visually gasping. My second encounter with the reality of cinema as a visual art was a simple little throwaway quote from the great French film director Jean Luc Godard: “Cinema is the truth, twenty-four times a second.” That little line somehow conveyed to me that what appeared to be the magic of movies, real life floating past us in the dark, was in reality a sequence of still photographs manipulated by a series of montaged moments in order to recreate actual space and time. Reality.

The realization that films actually were paintings that moved, so to speak, has never entirely left me, and it has also drawn me into a love affair with them that accepts the fact that they are a stolen series of stills rapidly filtered past a shining lens. In other words, films that do tell a story, but whose story is somewhat subordinated to the visual aspect of the narrative’s unfolding. Painting in celluloid.

Now, don’t get me wrong: anyone who knows me can tell you that I also enjoy the most bombastic exponents of storytelling entertainments, even to a kitschy and schlocky degree (e.g., I adore Jason Statham in action). But this taste runs parallel to an appetite for films that don’t forget they are constructed confabulations and even celebrate that fact.

Edwin Porter’s Great Train Robbery, which stunned audiences in 1903 with its direct confrontational announcement of the power of cinema to tell a story visually.

Both cinematic appetites, however, were equally sated by my teenage obsession for collecting 8 and super-8 mm films, eventually also in 16 mm formats, especially silent films, which I screened at home on my bedroom wall with a projector borrowed from the local library and played my own soundtrack, usually wigged-out jazz.

I also joined a society of fellow fetishists and received movies from the Blackhawk and Castle companies, which sent me films supernaturally (to me) through the mail, almost on a monthly basis. How I recall the charm of those packages of secret images belonging to me alone.

As a result of my passion for watching classic films on television, and collecting them in various projected formats, I also developed a very early parallel interest in the history of photography, as well as the role of photography in the history of art, especially the art of painting. I just adored the subversive arrival of this most Gallic of all inventions, kicking open the doors of western art with a well-aimed French boot.

The first photograph featuring people in action, by Daguerre, 1838.

Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1928, another example of the pictorial style of early photography which maintained a close alliance with its cousin of painting.

October (1928): an astonishing work of cinematic art emerging the same year as Genthe’s image, and directed by the master of psychological montage, the great Soviet artist Sergei Eisenstein.

While I blatantly referred to the genius of Eisenstein as being unsurpassed, naturally that could never be quite literally true. In my opinion, the first feature film by the German film artist Werner Herzog forty years later, Signs of Life (1968), was the clarion call to a whole new breed of storytellers who would surrender to the sheer retinal power of the pure visual image.

Herzog’s body of work over the following decades would reveal a visual artist of extremely sensitive, albeit highly idiosyncratic, demeaour, and one who would push the limits of narrative storytelling via the vehicle of montage to its limits. Personally, I believe that he actually rivals Eisenstein in terms of how he employs the power of sequencing individual shots for maximum and optimal effect on the often unsuspecting viewer.

Image from Herzog’s Signs of Life, 1968,

Along with his fellow countrymen Rainer Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, he would often invite us to sit silently in the dark contemplating the embodied meanings that he was capable of conveying to us through the spectacles he enacted on that empty white rectangle: the screen. In addition, I suspect he went further than many toward the goal of reminding us again, and again, that cinema is not only deserving of a rightful place in the history of art; it is the very culmination and apotheosis of that art.

Perhaps the best place to begin thinking about films as visual art and cinema as painting is with the insight into his craft that the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky offered when he observed that films were sculpting in time. Film critic Adam Nayman touched upon this unique realm in his appreciation of Tsai Ming-liang’s visually splendid 2013 movie Stray Dogs: “Film critics should thank God for Andrei Tarkovsky for many reasons, but mostly because of his concept of sculpting in time, where with a single turn of phrase the great director ably described his own slow cinema while also gifting writers with a handy go-to metaphor that could be applied to any duration-based works. Tarkovsky’s dictum is about cinema expressing the passage of time within the frame.” I would also say thank the Lumières!

The world first motion picture, a short film by the Lumière Brothers, 1896.

Building sculptures made out of time itself instead of marble, all of the directors in this category of ultra-durational film artists could easily be considered part of the auteur school of cinema aesthetics, in order to differentiate average studio entertainment from the highly idiosyncratic expressions of directors who clearly saw themselves as visual artists using light and time as their paint and plaster.

They use the film medium not just in a philosophical manner, but as the primary delivery system for images which transcend the cognitive and get right to the affective. Photography was the culmination of the history of art, and cinema was the culmination of the history of photography, and the digital domain is the culmination of the history of cinema. All are delivery systems for images. If there is a poetics to duration as there is to space, it probably involves the privileged state of reverie which films induce. Action!? Instead, some esteemed directors seem to call out: Freeze!

Among this breed would of course be Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Theo Angelopolous, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Rainer Fassbinder, Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Peter Greenaway and David Lynch, and a few others. They appear to me, and a significant handful of others, to be the contemporary masters of what I like to call the cinema of stillness: the art of painting with film.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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