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
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.”
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
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
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
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR
CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
KENNEDY. All rights reserved