Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Mysteries of Lisbon

What a strange four-and-a-half hour film! It resembles Dickens, but without the flamboyant, larger-than-life characters; Austen, but without the wit or the good cheer; Proust, in its labyrinthine regressions into memory; Charlotte Bronte in its depiction of doleful and imprisoned women; and Galdos, Pio Baroja, or any other nineteenth-century Spanish novelist with its priests, pirates, and gypsies.

In fact, the film’s director, Raúl Ruiz, hails from Chile, and the tale on which the film is based is by a Portuguese novelist, Camilo Ferreira Botelho Castelo-Branco,1st Viscount de Correia Botelho, who died in 1890. Branco is said to have written more than 260 books during his career. One critic has observed that Branco’s writing combines “the dramatic and sentimental spirit of Romanticism with … a highly personal combination of sarcasm, bitterness and dark humor.”

Indeed, an atmosphere of gloom and dread, reckless passion and world-weary piety hangs over the action of The Mysteries of Lisbon, which amounts largely to people visiting one another in their gorgeous and rundown country estates or their elegant urban parlors to swap hitherto untold stories about the deep past, stir the cinders of spent passion, or plan routes of escape from their diabolical spouses, invariably male.

At the center of the drama is a boy of fifteen, João, who has no stories. He doesn’t know who his parents are, or where he came from. In the course of the film he finds out a good deal about who he is, and how cruel people can sometimes be to one another.

As the layers of narrative build up, it sometimes becomes difficult to remember which generation we’re dealing with, and a Hundred-Years-of-Solitude-esque mystique begins to envelop the action. I suppose it may have been unwise to watch the film in two parts on successive nights. But after all, a longer version was originally broadcast on European television in six episodes.

It might also have been better to see the film in the theater, I suppose. The camera movement is fluid and the lighting and shot composition are exquisite. It strikes me in retrospect that the effort Ruiz spent planning the character movement of even a single scene probably rivals U.S. Grant’s plotting of the Bayou Campaign against Vicksburg. In fact, I suspect the film has many technical virtues that lie beyond my capacity to notice, much less articulate.

One enthusiast wrote:
“In Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz's fluid camera work principally serves his fluid progression of stories, their next-to infinite regression, with re-framings in all but a handful of examples accomplished within rather than without the camera and figure movement universally recapitulated in the visual field through its tight figural identification - moored to his stories' many tellers. The director's long-shot, long-take work also affords for the re-introduction of The Three Crowns of the Sailor's aggressively planar, baroque compositions, at times inorganic and at others not, with servers, in their organic usage, adopting foreground positions where they will overhear the gossip, in the frame's recesses, that will lead to the masters' ceaseless miseries.”

I think the film would have been better had Ruiz paid more attention to fewer characters, allowing us to get to know (and perhaps occasionally even like) them better. Yet in the end, The Mysteries of Lisbon is well worth watching. It has an atmosphere like no other film I’ve seen, and it ranks right at the top in terms of hand-painted wallpaper.

At the same time, it reminded me of another six-part TV show set during the same era that I really ought to see again, The Charterhouse of Parma (1982).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Art Books and Book Arts

I caught the Graphics Show at the Walker on the afternoon of its last day. Plenty of color posters, digital gimmicks, magazine layouts, and branding displays. As we entered I caught sight of the big display of books in a gallery to the left and whisked past the introductory bulletin board with nary a glance.

Why? Because I like books—precious, hand-made books and those with eccentric, avant-garde designs. But the books under the Plexiglas at the Walker reconfirmed my long-held belief that many such productions are fascinating to ogle but very difficult to read. When a book becomes a mere vehicle for lavish design, or beyond that, a piece of sculpture, I begin to lose interest.

You may argue that there’s no need for us to chose between “books” and “book arts.” As the saying goes, “It takes all kinds (of books) to make a world.”

True enough. And I have books scattered all around the house that seem precious to me, at least in part, because they’re so exquisitely crafted. I recently pulled off the shelf a fine copy of The Book of Tea by Okahura Kakuzo, for example, with heavily textured paper, encased in one of those sturdy boxes.

Opening it at random, I read:
“…But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup. Mankind has done worse…”
Then again, the squared format, quaint illustrations, and scattered type-setting of the anthology The Cubist Poets in Paris is entirely appropriate to the subject. And what about this tiny cased edition, 2 inches square, of Findings by Ursula K. Le Guin that I hold in my hand. It was published by Don Olsen at Ox Head Press in 1992 in the Minnesota Miniatures Series. You could hold the press on which it was printed in the palm of your hand.

All good stuff. But at the point where “design” or “innovation” begins to obscure the literary import, I become queasy. Such creations often exhibit the same delectable textures that make a fine-press book so, well….fine. But I’m not sure whether I ought to read them or put them on exhibit above the piano. (It seldom becomes an issue, because most such examples of “book arts” are out of my price range.)

It strikes me that this issue of cross-purposes extends even to blank books. I’ve bought a few hand-made blank books in my time, but have difficulty writing anything in them. Nothing that’s going on in my head at any given time seems worthy. Eventually I take the plunge.

I’m looking now at a fine little book I bought in a little shop called Il Tourchio in the Altarno in Florence. Opening it at random, I read:
Dec 4, 1992
Poulenc and wine. Just having finished Judge Dee and the Chinese Lake Murders. And I don’t like this pen.
Music by the moods. What would you be reading if you were listening to Ravel’s Scheherazade? There’s an essay by Cocteau that I wish I had but do not have. Don’t know the name of.”
Do I prove my point?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Tuscan Brainteaser - Certified Copy

I missed Abbas Kiarostami's latest film at the theater last summer but streamed it last night. It was worth the wait.

As the film opens a small group of Italians has gathered to hear a British author talk about his recent book, Certified Copy. He assures them he isn’t an art “scholar,” and exudes a modest arrogance in his assertion that the issue of authenticity in the art world is overblown. After all, most originals are renderings of something else, he points out—a landscape, a face—while a reproduction can be considered an “original” in its own right. This brief lecture sets the stage for the subsequent conversations between the scholar and a French antiques dealer who owns a shop in town, (Juliette Binoche), not only about art, but also about life and relationships.

Binoche had arrived at the last minute and left early to buy her difficult 11-year-old son a hamburger, after arranging to have the author come to her shop the next morning to sign the books she’d bought. Her son later teases her for falling in love with the man, though she has admitted she doesn’t like his book.

When the author (played by opera singer William Shimell, in his first film role) arrives the next morning, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t like her shop much, either, and they decide to go for a drive while he signs the books. As they drive around aimlessly they discuss art, though the conversation gets more personal as Shimell learns more about Binoche’s sister and her sister's stammering husband. Binoche looks on them as an ideal couple, simple people who have found contentment with one another and their lot in life. “There’s nothing simple about being simple,” is Shimell’s caustic reply.

They go to a small-town museum, then a café, then a historical building that’s become a popular wedding chapel. More talk about art and relationships, including Binoche’s difficult relationship with her son. One of the more interesting conversations is between Binoche and the woman running the café, who thinks the two are man and wife. He’s stepped out into the courtyard to take a call and Binoche plays along with the woman’s error. Though the barista thinks Binoche has a good marriage and an attentive husband, she's a staunch defender of even bad marriages, and sums up her position: “It would be stupid to ruin our lives for an ideal.”

That’s the film: Old World ambiance and cultured talk, sullied by the frustrations of being a single mother in a world where men can deliver lines such as, “Ultimately people must live their lives for themselves.” It contains one or two further odd wrinkles that I’ll leave it to viewers to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that with Certified Copy, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has created a work that bears comparison with Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia or Antonioni’s La Notte, though it may be better than either of these post-war classics. (For a contemporary equivalent, let me describe it as an Until Sunrise for adults.)

It’s beautifully shot and rich in chiaroscuro. Even the reflections in the windshield of the car are gorgeous. So is Juliette Binoche, who won a well-deserved Best Actress award in Cannes for her quirky, mercurial performance. William Shimell has been widely criticized for his less animated role, but it seems to me he also does a good job. He's basically just killing time with a bright but anxious and slightly distaught woman he hardly knows until the evening train arrives, and he chooses his words carefully for a split-second before speaking, careful to balance truth and tact.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Trypillians and After: Art of the Ukraine

If you ever wondered what the earliest civilizations devised by humankind were like, stop down to see the current show at the Russian Museum before it leaves town. There you’ll see ceramic artifacts from—not the Egyptians, not the Sumerians—but the Trypillians, who occupied the region between the Danube and the Dnieper rivers extending north from the Black Sea, some nine thousand years ago. (The official dates given are 7400 BCE to 4700 BCE.) These mysterious people knew how to plow, kept domestic animals, grew grapes, and erected temples the look of which have been preserved in miniature clay replicas.

About half of the area occupied by the Trypillians (also known as the Cucuteni) is within the borders of modern-day Ukraine, and the show, titled “ Antiquities From Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations" includes artworks, weapons, jewelry and sundry other items from succeeding civilizations, too—the Cimmerians, the Scythians, and the Greeks, Johnny-Come-Latelys who didn’t begin to colonize the region until 800 B.C.

Some of the large clay jugs on display are reminiscent of far more recent productions of the Hopi and other Southwestern peoples, and no less beautiful. Others carry the spiral ornamentation I associate with the Minoans. The tall, narrow, clay figurines bring to mind fertility goddesses of the Cycladic cultures of the Aegean. But the Trypillians pre-date all of these peoples by far. Considered all in all, the older artifacts on display fall into the category of genuinely Gee-Whiz “cool.”

Perhaps the most intriguing, though not the most attractive, are a set of weird ceramic vessels that consist of several hollow binocular-shaped units fused together. (Maybe we’re looking at the world’s first kitsch candleholders?)

As we follow the faux-flagstone pathway to the rear of the exhibit space, we meet up with the Scythians, who figure prominently in the history of Herodotus. The Scythians were talented horsemen and knew how to make bronze. They buried their kings surrounded by their household staff, who met their end for precisely that purpose. On the first anniversary of the king’s death, thirty of his top horsemen were killed and buried around the tomb, along with their horses. According to the museum text, Herodotus referred to the Scythians as “wiser than any nation on the face of the Earth." I’m not so sure.

The Scythian warrior carried a gold cup on his belt, in imitation of Herakles, and a very fine one is on display. (We used to carry our cups on our belts while out on the trail in the BWCA, too.) Nearby, a golden headdress made of wafer-thin oak leaves and tiny acorns is also staggering. The small gallery at the back of the museum is given over to jewelry from the classical Greek, early Christian, and Byzantine eras, and it’s almost uniformly exquisite. (The buckle you see below is about one inch high.)

Back home, I pulled my Herodotus from the shelf but found no reference to the overreaching wisdom of the Scythians. At one point he says, “The Black Sea is home to the most ignorant peoples of the earth.” He excludes the Scythians from this judgment, however, and goes on to praise them for having discovered what he calls “the cleverest solution I know of to the single most important matter in human life.” He commends them for carrying their homes behind their horses on wagons, rather than building villages and strongholds. “Since they are all expert at using their bows from horseback, and since they depend on cattle for food rather than on cultivated land, how could they fail to be invincible and elusive?”

So elusive, indeed, that they have long since vanished from history.