29 May 2014

On: Location, V

Place and placelessness; conflicting histories and transmuted genre; mythologized frontiers and one notion of “the West” blurring into a socio-historic another, somewhere just beyond the usual reach of cinematic allegory and metaphor...
"The momentous events underscoring these films are not only associated with emptiness and with landscapes in turmoil but also, particularly in Wings of Desire, with the rise of National Socialism, the tumultuous destruction of World War II, and the resulting emptiness of postwar inner-city 'ruin landscapes' (Trümmerlandschaften); an equally important unifying theme is the generational rupture between fathers and sons following such seismic historical events. In this framework, the American West (and the American Western) served a specific and telling purpose for the postwar German West: to envision both traumatic upheaval and utopian projection. This projection was as much of a socio-cultural project as it was a cinematic fantasy. Wenders has commented that his 'first memory of America is of a mythical land where everything was much better.'"
In a recent essay at Design Observer, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern write about the sense of emptiness, transcience, and marginality in the films of Wim Wenders; focusing particularly on Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit), Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), and Paris, Texas. (It’s an abridged version of a longer essay, the full text to be published in a forthcoming academic volume from MacMillan.)

Admittedly, it’s been years (if not two-and-a-half decades) since I’ve viewed several of the aforementioned films. Still, the thematic tropes – by way of visual impression – lingers in memory. Had never previously read that Wenders described Wings of Desire as a “vertical road movie.” Which would go a long way toward explaining the film’s narrative layers, all of them rippling outward from scattered points – a story about a specific city in the aftermath of a very specific socio-historical trauma; and about the changes besetting that same city and society in the broader context of European/Western history; and – finally – the story of a particular spot on the map in relation to the course of human history as a whole.

The authors similarly discuss Wenders’s use of borderland settings in the three films at hand, the bleak or provisional character of these territories serving as a sort of aporia signifying states of historic ambivalence or abjection. The most obvious border in this instance being the Berlin Wall and the division between East and West Germany. The Berlin Wall figures prominently in Wings of Desire – an ever-present backdrop and obstacle, as inescapable as the sight of the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Like in Kings of the Road as it follows the travels of Bruno and Robert throughout the eastern perimeter of the country, their route frequently bringing them in contact with the inner border.

Also, curiously, the authors quote from an old interview in which Wenders spoke of his own (post-war) generation’s “distrust of images.” This, in close proximity to his film Until the End of the World, in which a character remarks about a modern “disease of images” as endemic to the character of modern life. The first comment might explain the source of the latter, suggesting that somewhere in between lies an idea similar to Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited remark about how twentieth-century fascism involved a devised and comprehensive “aestheticization of politics” for the sake of public appeal.*

* * * *

At one point in the article, the authors reference the work of nineteenth-century Irish-American photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Looking at O’Sullivan’s photos again for the first time in many years, I’m struck by how many of the images remind me of another film that falls in a similar orbit to those of Wenders, and involved a contemporary, ironic port-mortem revisiting of the frontier epic – Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

Jarmsusch’s work shadowed that of Wenders in many respects, both sharing many of the same influences and fascinations. They also often shared the same cinematographer, Robbie Müller, who ended up serving as a sort of common denominator between the two. For Wenders, Müller shot almost everything up to Wings of Desire; for Jarmusch, he was behind the camera on Down By Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man, and several other films. Having spent the whole of his career working on films with modest (if not meager) budgets, Müller was a virtuoso of scouting and framing locations and capturing them in a sense that simultaneously captured their site-specific atmosphere and their concrete reality.

Likewise with Müller's rendering of the peripheries of Los Angeles in Alex Cox’s Repo Man. The space, the architecture, the peculiar flows, caesuras, and ruptures of a built environment – the vagaries of its presences and blanks, the pushes and pulls and voids that result from how things come to be and then soon elapse into nominal-use marginalia – and how these provide “setting.” A setting that figures so prominently in the miser-en-scène, that it almost explains as mach about the actions of the characters as the characters and their actions do.

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*  A theoretic aside on my part, perhaps better phrased as a rhetorical question. Wenders was, most likely, speaking metaphorically. The “distrust” of his generation of post-war Germans wasn’t limited to images, but extended to narrative in general – an impatience with prevailing silence of the preceding generation concerning events of the recent past, and an instinct skepticism toward whatever offered account of those years (usually conveniently partial or selective in nature) occasionally broke that silence.

23 May 2014

To Destroy Painting, I


Naturally, it all makes for a good story. I too once had a landlord I wanted to throw rocks at.

But there are plenty of pitfalls to wedding an evaluation of an artist’s work to their biography. One is the way in which this story quickly degenerates into cliché with each retelling. We know how these stories go: Jackson Pollock drunkenly raging and stumbling about while being dragged under by his own insecurities, Charlie Parker somehow radically changing the nature of music between heroin nods, Van Gogh cutting off his fucking ear. And something something something about their "demons." All good stuff for some bio-pic that’ll drum up moderate returns, but inevitably falling far short when it comes to explaining anything about what an artist accomplished. Nothing that adequately explains how their work was a “game changer,” or about the game that was changed, or why that game was possibly in need of changing, or about why any of this mattered in the first place. Nothing that explains the alleged greatness or “genius,” and certainly nothing about how said art may have been problematic in its time, but widely accepted and praised in the years after the artist’s death. Or, in the case of Caravaggio: the other way around.

* * * *


Disputes over proper attribution are bound to coalescence around any artist who’s been dead for many centuries. As with so many other artists, so it’s been with Caravaggio. First there’s the array of sordid details – his scurrilous misdeeds, criminal offences, etcetera. About which the various accounts offer a fair amount of conflicting and contradictory info. Then there’s the matter of the man’s work itself, and which paintings can be rightfully credited to his hand, and the questions about which ones were done by students and imitators. The earliest accounts of Caravaggio’s life and work – brief though they might have been – were written by critics and contemporaries during or shortly after Caravaggio’s lifetime. Many of these dwell extensively on the artist’s temperament and exploits, offering a portrait of a reprobate, a shameless opportunist chasing after prestigious patrons, a habitual brawler and criminal offender, a denizen of the most undesirable layers of society. It’s possible that many of the earliest accounts were penned by critics who simply disliked the man, disliked his paintings, and were incredulous with the degree of artistic influence he had throughout the Baroque era.

Such might be the case with the overview offered by Giovanni Pietro Bellori. Published in his 1672 volume The Lives of Modern Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Bellori’s account is largely devoted to cataloguing Caravaggio’s careerism and misbehavior than to discussing the artist’s work. But when Bellori turns his attention to Caravaggio’s paintings, the verdict is a harsh one. He conceded that Caravaggio was vastly influential on younger artists of his day, but dismisses the results as an art hinging on “novelty,” mere stylistic apeings of Caravaggio’s “facile manner.” Bellori liked the early phase of Caravaggio’s career, but – as more and more of each slips into swathes of darkness – much less so with the artist’s more renowned mature works. He seems especially troubled by Caravaggio’s disregard for working from sketches and classical models, his practice of working directly from observation. This break from traditional practice resulted, Bellori lamented, in an art in which “the antique has lost all authority.” With that in mind, Bellori summarizedW:

"...Many of the best elements of art were not in him; he possessed neither invention, nor decorum, nor design, nor any knowledge of the science of painting. The moment the model was taken away from his eyes, his hand and his imagination remained empty.”

Such was the consensus among a number of critics and patrons, both during the artist’s lifetime and over the next several centuries that followed. The gauge here was the art that had preceded the Baroque – the High Renaissance work of Da Vinci & co., and the convulsive vibrancy of the Mannerists who soon followed. The art of the previous era, the argument went, involved a process of extensive drawing, planning, development in the preparatory stages; a process in which subject matter was skillfully transformed – manipulated, idealized, refined, sublimated – by the artist’s imagination and intellect. By contrast, Caravaggio shrugged off established methods and classical models, opting instead to dumbly paint whatever was in front of him. Hence, he was little more than an impassive technician, “lacking inventiveness” – a mere imagist, but not a painter in the true, post-Renaissance sense of the word.

* * * *


Slippage is also an issue here, as well. The account offered by André Félibien, is translated as asserting that Poussin – a friend and confidant of Félibien-- “could not bear Caravaggio and said that he had come into the world in order to destroy painting.” Another, more anecdotal, version is more specific; and contains a curious qualifier. On first viewing Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin,” Poussin is said to have cried out:

“I won’t look at it, it’s disgusting. The man was born to destroy the art of painting. Such a vulgar painting can only be the work of a vulgar man. The ugliness of his paintings will lead him to hell.”

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