AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2011 – ART AND MOVIES AT THE VENICE BIENNALE
by Harlan Kennedy
If you didn’t believe it before the 54th Venice Biennale, you did afterwards. In the visual arts world all is flux, and the flux capacity increases year by year. Painters become video artists. Video artists become filmmakers. (See Steve McQueen, moving from gallery screen to movie screen with HUNGER and this year’s Venice entrant SHAME). Filmmakers become – what?
To judge by several of the best movies at the 2011 Mostra del Cinema, they reverse or advance the process by becoming abstract expressionists: swatchers and swathers of pictorial effect – bold, elemental, almost nonfigurative – from Andrea Arnold in WUTHERING HEIGHTS to Golden Lion-winning Alekxandr Sokurov in FAUST. If JMW Turner were alive today, he might be a movie director. If Eisenstein were alive today, equally and conversely, he might be doing installations for the Giardini, the bosky island home of the Art Biennale. (This year’s show is still on. Hurry! Tickets available for the remaining days. It closes on November 27th).
The Other Lion
If you didn’t believe this before the 54th Venice Biennale – repeat opening sentence with emphasis. The other Golden Lion, the one given not to best film but to best art pavilion, went to guess who: a filmmaker turned artist. Germany’s Christoph Schlingensief died last year of lung cancer, but not before designing the bulk of his “Kirche der Angst” (Church of Fear). This stood in the Art Biennale’s Deutscher-Pavilion shivering our timbers with its appalling – in the best sense – replica of a church filled with video images of pain and suffering. A case of the moving image going AWOL. Kinetic pictures that should, you’d think, be in a cinema or on TV double their power by being trapped like birds in an ecclesiastical space designed to represent and advertise unchanging verity.
Meanwhile an assortment of Schlingensief’s early movies, including the camp 100 YEARS OF ADOLF HITLER: LAST DAYS IN THE BUNKER, with its starry array of Fassbinder-era actors (Udo Kier, Margit Carstensen….), unspooled in a pavilion backroom. It was as if they said, “This artist got his art chops in the movie house. Now he’s in an art space. But it is all, really, the same. One great factory for the imagination.”
Nextdoor to Germany’s pavilion is France’s, where another artist, with another Christ-derived first name (“The medium is the messiah”?), went cine-nutty. Christiane Boltanski’s installation was called “Chance”. Resembling a giant movie projector its maze of scaffolding – wall to wall, floor to ceiling – carried a strip of frame-by-frame imagery threaded like celluloid. The strip coolly rollercoasts up, down and all around the room. Images of baby’s faces are the multiple motif. What Boltanski names his “wheel of fortune” is about “the luck and fate of newborns.”
For cinephiles, the strongest irony of this installation is that it freezes cinema at a moment of imminent antiquity. We soon won’t have any projectors. They won’t exist to ferry their picture-strips through mini-labyrinths of metal. So in today’s digital dawn, fat approaching the digital noon, we look at Boltanski’s work as a sort of cinematic Stonehenge. The luck and fate of newborns, yes. That includes the luck and fate of once new-born art technologies.
The Japanese pavilion was devoted to – again in the best sense – a kind of creationist chaos. The artist Taboimi’s room, filled with engulfing animated projections on walls, floors, ceilings (lapping the feet, flying over the head, bathing every inch of peripheral vision), suggests some ideal imaginary culture pre-existing our world of demarcated art forms. What the hell do we call this riot of moving eye-candy? Monumental cities birthed and dying; gorgeous seas in majestic flood (though you’d think it would be a picture of hell after Japan’s recent experience of unchained oceans). Simultaneously plant and human and animal life bursts, gloriously, wherever you look.
It is a lyrical celebration of the raw material of visual art and human perception before fallen man – and woman – ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Separated Media and Art Modes.
Back to the Feature
So. Flux capacity in overdrive. Is this good for art and cinema? Yes and yes. The indebtedness to cinema shown and flaunted by the Art Biennale was paid back with interest in the film festival.
Back to the Mostra del Cinema. Homages to visual art were everywhere. Steve McQueen’s SHAME, befitting a former video and installation artist, is part movie, part sequential still life: episodic, tableau-esque, a series of ‘moments’ – as still as images in lightning – from the life of New York and of a New Yorker (Michael Fassbender) whose life has become fragmentary, Eliotian, self-estranged. Without loss you could hang SHAME, frame by frame or scene by scene, in an art gallery.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS absorbs the power of Emily Bronte’s novel so effectively that it loses – in a transcendental fashion – orthodox cinematic narrativity. The last half is a painterly delirium, delivered by cameraman Robbie Ryan who won Venice’s Best Cinematography prize. In washes of mood and colour the story becomes the Yorkshire Moors landscape, the landscape becomes the story. Bronte must be purring in her grave.
As plainly and impertinently as Pontius Pilate asked “What is truth?” modern cinema asks, “What is narrative?” Is it the story? Or is it the expressive agenda of the imagery? Sokurov’s FAUST merely, but magnificently, advances this Russian’s career-long campaign to make cinema a symbiotic equal with visual art. It’s a non-Faustian pact whereby each partner gains not loses a soul – or part of a soul - by partaking of the spirit of both artworlds. Try to reduce this FAUST, in summary, to a mere storyline, a mere drama, a mere version of Goethe, and you quantify, by subtracting and isolating it, the amount of “painting” and visual expressionism lost in the process.
The moral? Life is too complex a story to be served merely by stories. It is also too important a story to be served merely by the emotive responses and abstractionist reachings, however complex, of visual art. Each facet of the jewel we call visual culture must be turned to the light. When they are both turned to the light at the same time, in the same place, as at Venice in 2011, the radiance is irresistible.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved