Tag Archives: painting

Color and Form

 At last, a film about the ultimate Minnelli concerns: about the spaces, physical and psychological, that humans inhabit; about the individual elements that enhance or impair our sense of self; the problems, in short, of adornment and décor.

That’s Keith Uhlich, in his really beautiful Sight & Sound article “Garlands and cobwebs: Vincente Minnelli’s ecstatic vision,” writing about Minnelli’s mental hospital melodrama The Cobweb (1955). Indeed, it’s a film more of surfaces than story, and it signposts this by being veritably obsessed with a set of drapes. Their fabric and pattern, debated across the whole of the movie, are the MacGuffins behind The Cobweb’s ornate plot, triggering all manner of love affair and power grab. This mere fact has overwhelmed many a viewer over the years, leading them to label the film instantly risible. But as Gloria Grahame says during the opening scene, in a line seized upon by critics like Uhlich and Dave Kehr, “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form, and that they make you feel good?”

As an art-for-art’s-sake sentiment, this could (and should, I think) apply to cinema at large, but it feels especially apt with Minnelli, and especially here. Drape obsession or no, The Cobweb has color, form, wildness, and bombast, which make me feel good. It never shrinks away from the lurid or tawdry, but rather embraces them as legitimate means of expression. Between its all-star cast and sprawling CinemaScope frame, you’d expect a mid-’50s soap like this to be lurching, elephantine, yet it’s actually pretty fleet. It helps, I suppose, that Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame play the doctor and wife at its creamy center, an offbeat leading man wed to a shrill sexpot. Their troubled marriage is where, as an opening title explains, “the trouble began…” and from whence it ripples out through a network of psychiatrists, administrators, and patients.

The most disturbed of these is Steven, who’s being treated by Widmark’s Dr. McIver. He’s played by John Kerr, who’d star the following year as another sensitive youth in another Minnelli movie, Tea and Sympathy. But he’s much more agitated here as an oedipal, sometimes suicidal young artist who gets out his resentment and self-loathing through loose, color-streaked paintings of hospital life. (In reality, they’re in the signature style of David Stone Martin, credited on the film as “graphic designer.”) In Steven, Minnelli fuses the film’s ideas about mental illness and the creative act, about the latter as both liberating and dangerous in its intensity. Pacing around the colorful ‘Scope boxes that make up the Castlehouse Clinic, Steven could be the more overtly sick brother to Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, released just a few months later.

Like Rebel, The Cobweb uses melodrama to diagnose the soul sickness of 1950s America; both films also make prominent use of staircases as psychological symbols. (All this said, it should come as no surprise that producer John Houseman even pursued James Dean to play Steven, only for him to balk at the pay.) Stairs, rooms, drapes with floral patterns… it’s as if the characters and their mise-en-scène are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s last words, fighting a duel to the death, and one or the other has to go. As if the clinic’s furnishings had become as sick as its patients. Minnelli always had such facility for smearing beauty across the screen, for shooting sets and actors just as Steven paints the clinic, and The Cobweb isn’t shy about the duality of these images: surfaces can be beautiful, but they can also devour you and never let you go.

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Beautiful Wickedness

Nothing much happens during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland leans against some hay, then walks, leans against this wheel, walks some more, then sits down. Five shots, about two and a half minutes, and that whole time we’re listening rather than watching because hers is the most wistful voice in all of human history. But minimalism or no, this shot is still surprisingly dense. It’s cut in half diagonally by Judy’s arms and by that wheel, whose arc across the frame guides our eyes toward the upper right—the same off-screen space Judy’s gazing at and singing about. Furthermore, the wheel gives her something sturdy to rely on as she sings her heart out, and its spokes work with the fence in the background to make her look especially imprisoned by Kansas farm life. But of course, like my favorite shot in Easter Parade, this is all about Judy’s eyes, and the sepia is even lightest around her head to accentuate them. Yes, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and this is one of my three favorite images in the movie.

This is another of them, though about as far removed from Auntie Em’s farm as you could get. It’s a matte shot of the Wicked Witch’s castle that’s only onscreen for about two seconds, yet can have a colossal impact on the psyche of a child watching it. The Wizard of Oz overflows with marginal details that suggest sprawling, untold stories: What was the Witch of the East like? Where did the red brick road go? What exactly are the Winkies chanting, and why? Similarly, this shot suggests an impossibly tall fortress sprouting out of a chasm that threads its way around a mountain range, none of which ever actually existed. It’s just a single painting by the uncredited Warren Newcombe that nonetheless arouses the viewer’s curiosity and imagination, with reverberations that are tangible decades later in fantasies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. This shot is visual magic, expanding the film’s already epic scope. (Speaking of camera tricks, I was surprised to realize on this rewatch of Oz that several of my favorite shots involve lap dissolves.)

Finally, sticking to the Witch’s castle, here’s my favorite shot. I really love Margaret Hamilton’s somewhere-over-the-top performance in this movie, and although she’s facing away the camera right now, she’s still oh god so terrifying. Here she’s at the height of her magical authority, screaming “Fly! Fly!” and gesturing broadly to whole squadrons of her simian slaves. This is one woman giddy with unbridled power, using it to exact revenge for her sister’s death. Like that matte painting of the castle, this shot suggests a gray vastness beyond the Witch’s fingertips, but here it’s framed within a picture window. Here we’re privy to the Witch’s war room, whose foreground is dotted with objects—vulture statue, candle, crystal ball, gyroscope—that call to my mind Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. This shot is an intimate portrait of evil, the kind the Witch herself might hang on her wall, with the camera stationed on the inside and gazing out. It’s a vantage point scarier than any lion, tiger, or bear.

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Ozu/Hopper

I’ve been glancing over images from Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). His compositions tell all these terse, self-contained stories through line, color, and lighting—stories about middle-class life in postwar Japan, about all the pain (and incidental comedy) inherent in the very concept of “family.” Stories about disappointment, and the impossibility of happiness without first some compromise and heartbreak.

Between the placidity of Ozu’s frames and the frustrations of his characters, An Autumn Afternoon started reminding me of American painter Edward Hopper. As with Ozu, much of Hopper’s work consists of understated tragedy. Both men situate their characters in low-key milieux: modest rooms, taverns, street corners. And despite their gloomy implications, both Ozu’s swan song and Hopper’s paintings (like Chop Suey, above) abound with visual playfulness, never giving in entirely to misery.

“In the end, we spend our lives alone,” opines this drunken old man, a former schoolteacher from An Autumn Afternoon. “All alone.” Both of these artists, separated by decades and the Pacific Ocean, single out solitude as a constant of the human condition. Their figures are enshrouded by darkness, and that darkness is offset by harsh lighting elsewhere in these frames. This old man—in the twilight of his life, left with nothing but a noodle shop and a resentful daughter—is downcast, wistful, at rest. Same goes for this lonely woman in cloche and coat, pausing over a cup of coffee in Hopper’s Automat. They’ve turned their emotions inward and resigned themselves to loneliness.

Each of these shots is a study of body language, of the gestures and poses through which melancholy manifests itself. Poor Michiko (Shima Iwashita), informed that her would-be beau is already engaged, slouches silently just like the half-dressed traveler in Hopper’s Hotel Room. Their contexts are totally different: Michiko’s suppressing a wave of emotions in front of her father and brother, whereas Hopper’s subject is in the thrall of a more abstract lethargy. But they share the same hands-down, head-down posture and inscrutably blank face. Both Ozu and Hopper integrate these physical expressions of sadness into the mise-en-scène, letting the disappointment of their characters ripple out across the frame.

[Hopper paintings courtesy of “Bert Christensen’s Cyberspace Gallery.”]

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Link Dump: #65

This week’s kitty is not only adorably nommin’ some food; it’s also right next to Ryan Gosling’s legs in the movie Half Nelson, which makes it doubly cute. In short, cute kitty! Now here’s a very full, very fun set of links:

Here’s an especially timely search term: “cannes film festival fucking pussy films.” Also, “flsh lifht pussy.” Whatever that means.

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Link Dump: #30

I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary. I don’t want to live my life again. Especially if living my life again involved being attacked by Church, the scary-as-fuck kitty cat from Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary. (I’ve never seen it, but Ashley assures me that it’s terrifying.) Whether or not you’re fond of zombie cats, you’ll probably love these links, which include the funny, the sad, and the just plain ridiculous:

  • Sometimes kids’ books are actually more for adults. Brain Pickings documents a few of those times, including the great Matilda and The Phantom Tollbooth.
  • Nathaniel was out of town this past week, so I helped run the “First and Last” game over at The Film Experience. It was an amazing experience; go over and see if you can guess my and Dave‘s picks!
  • In case you need more evidence that the legislators in Arizona are completely off their rockers check out this birther bill: got a foreskin? YOU AIN’T AMERICAN!
  • In “Ashley totally called this” news: Nic Cage was arrested early Saturday morning for drunkenly yelling at and pushing his wife.
  • Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum is distancing himself from his campaign of “Fighting to Make America America Again”. Why, you may ask? Because he found out a similar phrase was already used by Langston Hughes. Dickbag.
  • If you have a lot of time to spare, then check out these 15 hugely entertaining movie cliché montages.
  • In New Zealand, a new billboard campaign is attempting to lower motor accident fatalities by raising “maximum awareness through unease”. What exactly does this mean? Bleeding billboards.
  • After a Tumblr user speculated that most women “probably find catcalling flattering” (cause what’s more flattering than men feeling entitled to yelling shit at you on the streets?), the Tumblr How Many Women was born; if you want to see just how many ladies love the street harassment go there (spoiler: none of them do).
  • If you want to see some beautiful swan songs, look at Flavorwire’s “Famous Artists’ Last Works,” which starts off with Duchamp, Klimt, Van Gogh, and more. (Yay, paintings!)
  • Guy Maddin was recently given free rein to grab some DVDs and Blu-Rays at Criterion Collection headquarters. Watch the video here. I really want “BAG!” to become an Internet meme. On a related note, I realized that I am disturbingly similar to Guy Maddin.

In terms of search terms, we had some weird ones this past week. Someone asked the obvious question, “why did barbara stanwyck wear that ugly wig in double indemnity,” while someone else inquired incoherently, “which actrees expose there pusy during a flim souting, photo.” Another visitor was wondering “awkward with women is it because of porn”; that might be the case if you watch porn where “every woman in the room was systematically fucked.”

There was one question, though, that I can’t answer: “fucking to women during his pregnancy is safe or unsafe.” Because I don’t know what that means. Finally, we had some great, bizarre search terms, “video erotic beheading” (somebody likes Videodrome-style porn?) and of course, the inevitable “the digestive system theme song.” I wish I knew the tune to that.

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Francis Bacon scares me

Tonight I was reading about Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the painting itself really, deeply started to creep me out. It’s not hard to see why: Bacon fucks with Velázquez’s classicism, tearing the composition apart with those rippling vertical lines. With its open mouth, the once-papal figure looks terrified, as if it’s being torn apart. It’s very dynamic, yet very ghostly. It’s a pleasant reminder that horror in visual art is not confined to film.

It’s also not surprising that Bacon’s nightmarish, agony-stricken canvases would have echoes in later cinematic horrors. Famously, a shot of a corpse suspended from a cage in The Silence of the Lambs was based on Bacon’s Figure with Meat. The Screaming Pope is also strikingly similar to the poster for David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The works of both Bacon and Cronenberg are heavily concerned with the pliability and deformation of human flesh, a topic that’s inherently a source of horror. Death to Velázquez, long live the new flesh?

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