Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Review: L'Eclisse (1962)

Enigmatic, world-weary, capricious and bewitching, such sort of women that preoccupy L’Avventura and La Note is also the focal point of L’Eclisse. All of them were played by Monica Vitti, with such confidence and aptitude that one cannot help wondering if Antonioni had them all tailor-made, or simply that Vitti was born for these roles. Claudia, Valentina, Vittoria and Vitti all seem the same person with only slight variations.

After all, maybe one shouldn’t bother too much with the distinction of life and art when both are so confusedly intermingled in Italian cinema. Especially with Antonioni’s films, the quotidian is often made ambiguous by virtue of the auteur-director’s invariable reliance on the more instinctive mode of storytelling. Antonioni once said: “I never discuss the plots of my films. I never release a synopsis before I begin shooting…I depart from the script constantly. I may film scenes I have no intention filming. Things suggest themselves on locations, and we improvise.”

Yet L’Eclisse does not seem as if it were made on a whim. Any momentary bizarreness is to be accounted for as the film unfolds. Even if one is still left scratching one’s head over some particular sequences, the unaccountable vagueness of which is to be atoned for by the film’s rhythmic consistency. Indeed, the film is akin to a symphony, where one hears the interweavings of sound and silence, loud and quiet, accelerando and ritardando. Never was the presence of time and space so vivid and forbidding that they seem to become the dictators of the characters’ course of lives. After a tryst with Alain Delon’s character, Piero, where both make empty promises of continuing their love affair whilst barely masking their lingering fear that the finality is nigh, Vittoria breezes out of the building and loiters on a populated boulevard. As if summoned by something she cranes her neck and is briefly transfixed by a tree, the leaves of which waver as the wind sweeps by. This simple image seems to bestow on her an epiphany that, for once in the film, I see Vittoria finally awakes from the lasting ennui that a prior failed relationship has induced.

As Antonioni so deftly manifests in L’Eclisse, happiness, along with other sensations and notions, can be relative. The brief moment of silence in the midst of a cacophonous stock exchange seems relatively prolonged, its quietude relatively loud and restive, as everyone waits nervously and impatiently for its break-up. Life is felt keenly through relativism, disrupted only by a veer towards extremism, which in turn breeds paradoxes. Paradox is the scourge of all relationships. Recounting her past relationship, Vittoria tells Piero that as long as both lovers are in love they understand each other, because there is nothing to understand. Another memorable quote from the heroine as she tactfully puts off the hero’s overtures by saying: “Why do we ask so many questions? Two people shouldn't know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But, then, maybe they shouldn't fall in love at all.

The elliptical ending of L’Eclisse signals a return to the leitmotif that encapsulates Antonioni’s works- the mystery that underlies the mundane. The understatedly mesmerising score, composed by Giovanni Fusco, and the juxtaposition of wide-angle and close-up shots exquisitely handled by Gianni Di Venanzo- all aid and sometimes exacerbate the mysteriousness that envelopes and underpins the film. The supporting cast: Francisco Rabal as Vittoria’s jilted lover Riccardo, and Lilla Brignone as Vittoria’s money-grubbing mother, though cede much of their share of screen time to the two main characters, counterbalance the latter’s elusiveness with some degrees of vigour and intensity, which add an interesting edge to the film. L’Eclisse is the final film of Antonioni’s that was shot in monochrome.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Landscape Art and Frederic Edwin Church

Landscape art can be elusive. In any art exhibition that aggregates paintings from a variety of genres, those with the subjects of clouds, mountains, trees, forests, river, ocean etc. are very likely the least interesting ones for the most ignorant of gallery-goers, who might, however, still notice the vivid colours and the superb brushworks before hastening on towards the more popular showstoppers. Colours and brushworks- the only attributes those viewers can recall of the paintings that quickly become no more than a passing memory, almost negligible in their perceived role of acting as a foil to the more notable masterpieces.

Our instinctive apathy towards landscape painting might be partly ascribed to the general ignorance of Nature. History testifies to how precious little do we know of the nature we’ve inhabited, how frequently such wanting of knowledge abets the selfish people to gratify their avarice at the expense of the harmony amidst all living souls. Every voice in Nature is unanimous in pleading for mercy, but men heed not. Modern civilisation destroys totally the tenuous bond we still share with our Mother Nature. There is hardly a plot of land extant on earth that is not smeared with the footprints of humankind. The nature we know now is far removed from the paradisiac kingdom of yore- the purity is irrevocably corrupted, the beauty ruthlessly tainted.

Possession comes in various forms. Photography, in many ways, proffers a benignant means of possessing nature whilst leaving it intact and unharmed. Viewing for the first time a framed photograph of Mount Everest must be one of peculiar excitement. People are no longer obliged to go through an extremely hazardous, toiling expedition on the sole purpose of catching a glimpse of the mountain’s formidable presence. They can now enjoy the beautiful spectacle in an exhibition hall, or even in their drawing room. The incontestable verisimilitude between Mount Everest and that in a well-produced photograph- though, of course, the mountain is considerably smaller in scale- gives the ownership of the artwork an undertone of meaning not dissimilar to the possessiveness of a money-grubbing entrepreneur. Moreover, by imprisoning the mountain with his camera the photographer guarantees its immortality. Such possessiveness smells faintly of narcissism.

The advent of photography, regardless of how it is possibly the only art form that successfully blurs the boundary between art and reality, undermines somewhat the novelty and innocence that are inherent in its more archaic counterparts. In regard to the portrayals of nature especially, photography is no match for painting.

My hitherto ignorance for landscape painting was to change when I first lighted on the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church. As a pupil of the renowned American landscape painter Thomas Cole, Church became one of the leading figures of the Hudson River School, a mid-19th century art movement founded by Cole, whose portrayals of American wilderness were profoundly influenced by the idealised vision of Romantic landscape art. Like many landscape painters of his contemporary and the succeeding generation, Cole had a penchant for the synthesis of nature and allegory. Church diverged from his teacher by giving the allegorical themes a wide berth and restricting his entire oeuvre to the depictions of nature. This decisive break from the norm was arguably one of the reasons Church was criticised for lacking an imaginative and spiritual flair in his handling of subject.

But is the aforesaid a justifiable verdict of Church’s paintings? There is an unwritten law for every novice reader of landscape painting to always delve into the tiniest detail and facts, regardless of how inconsequential they might be comparing to the whole. In The Heart of the Andes (1859) it is the little grave on the lower left of the painting. Not much effort is needed in ferreting out this tiny feature as the sun kindles the grave to a gentle glow. In the vicinity of the grave is a small waterfall which is almost transmuted into a cloud of white fume as it plunges into the water. The water is so emphatically rendered that we can virtually hear its rumbling roar. Our eyes then skim through the birch trees, the rocky plains, the magnificent mountains, and the snow-capped mountains in the far distance. Who said Church’s art was bland and unspiritual? Unlike any typical landscape painting, the pivot of Church’s is neither the mountains nor the trees nor the plains. Rather, it is that little grave- a gem embedded within the hovering nature, a lull against the excited hubbub. These harmonious juxtapositions of contrasts stimulate the painting to life.

Nature can have its dramatic moments. Church made sure he always had the dark palette ready when he encountered one of Nature’s shrewish tempers. The volcanic eruption is always an apt subject for the landscape painters to demonstrate their proficiency in tackling a more theatrical theme with a more monumental scale. English painter John Martin recognised a correlation between volcanoes and the stories in Revelation. His many depictions of the erupting volcanoes are to be seen as a retelling of the Revelation tales set in a growingly industralised England, which is swamped by the boiling magma of human destructions. Whilst Martin’s vision was bleak and unrelenting, Church could not seem to rid himself off the Romantic influence that is implicit in a majority of his works. In Cotopaxi (1862) the spectacle of a volcanic eruption has the same beauty as a flaming sunset. Curiously, a sun can be perceived dwelling upon the horizon, distinguishing itself out of an expanding throng of black smoke. In common with the little grave in Heart of Andes, Church was wont to create a pleasing sense of quietude amidst the chaos. I see the painting not so much a bravura of unmitigated horror as that of Martin’s. Instead, I see the fluid brushwork, the soft nuances of colours, the brilliant interplay of light and shade, and the hint of a possible hope glimmering in sheer desolateness.

Church’s laudable effort in preserving the purity of nature did not, however, make his landscape paintings any less elusive. There are, within his sprawling oeuvre, works that one knows not how to make of, but can only admire the more obvious features like forms and colours. Scene in the Blue Mountains, Jamaica (1865) belongs to this sort of paintings. One struggles to no avail in grasping at a more precise and critical appraisal of the painting without yielding to a merry-go-around of banal enumeration of facts like the dangerously steep mountain ridges, a wide spectrum of green from yellow-green to forest-green, the ingenious lighting effect that helps create the distance-diminished detail...

Landscape paintings are an acquired taste but their importance is by no means any inferior to those of other subjects. Their elusiveness is the very incentive that spurs us on to keep looking.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Centenary

                 * Edvard Munch, Jealousy (1907)

That awful sound would not stop. The chanting, the interminable chanting, the muffled sound of which showed no sign of abating. Its monotony compounded her distress- after a grueling day of grieving, even the tenderest sob provoked her.

She compelled herself to reflect on what really happened, raking up the memory that was too tragic and searing to be deemed realistic only a few days earlier.

We were happy, she recalled. Of course such merriment was punctuated with contretempts, but they were never bitter, and quickly forgotten.

Were I ever content to dwell in a household where no evils had ever admitted the entrance? She wondered.

Yet there was this inclination to rebel, this unmitigated lust for a hazardous adventure. Out of this dreary, dingy, provincial home was what had been preying on her mind all summer.
That summer, when the ceaseless rain could hardly relieve the interminable heat, when some nameless phantoms pestered her so in her sultry dream. How she…

The train of recollection was brought to an abrupt end as some relative approached her with eyes misted with tears. No chanting now. Everything was finally over. Mourners threw up to her stoical face words of futile consolation. She confronted each of them with defiant silence.

At night she slipped in and out of consciousness. Two imposing figures rose before her. Their faces were invisible, but once they bent down and she sensed that familiar fragrance- she smiled.

Together they merged into an amorphous mass. They could fill an enormous room with their emptiness, frolic about in the most ungodly manner and whimper aloud in a corner when they were irrevocably deserted by the darkness.

Rarely were they perceived by strangers’ eyes. But their intimate talks, regardless of how strenuously they muffled their excited noise, could hardly escape the ears. One would walk into the room convinced that the wall and the floor were in the midst of a tryst. Their unabashed proclamations of love echoed deafeningly from every crevice and cranny.

At length the house shattered with anger; never once in its muted life had had intruders so blatant and undisguised with their affection. They were banished from the place but their sounds were canonised: sighs, moans, whisperings and the like.

She was curious to know their feelings when they first clapped eyes on Heaven. People tended to allay the fear of an indeterminate time of departure by imagining their afterlife to be whiling away in a Utopia, barred from all afflictions and ordeals. There were hardly any truths in that specious prospect, she knew.

She knew time stood still for those in Heaven. Their memories were forever trapped in a time warp. Snippets of scenes from days past flitted across their eyes like butterflies. They noticed its beauty but the recognition of the object was ever elusive. What difference did it make, then, if they were rendered blind? Heaven could be a newborn baby, swaddled on all sides with a dark blanket. So tightly and securely was the baby swaddled that she sunk into a sweet suffocation before long. Her world became an eternal whirl. Like the baby, everyone in Heaven was stuck ruthlessly in his listless mirth.

At day she woke. It was a glorious day so she joined others and basking herself in the sun. There used to be three of them. Her abiding presence had been an object of torment and the cause of dissention for the other two. People used to warn her that some day God would punish her recklessness by reminding her repeatedly her wrong.

My wrong? When was I ever wrong? She looked askance heavenwards and inquired. When was I ever wrong?

Both of them were weeping. Their dewy eyes transformed into cluster of clouds. She felt their tears on her shoulders; she tried in vain to wipe them away as they were blood red. The sky blasted but they kept staring down at her, until the sun rolled down from their melting faces.

Heaven was suddenly blind and black.