Hello dear readers,
Here’s a sneak peak at a work in progress that should be ready very soon…
I’ve been working on a Some Notes on Film zine!!!
It’s going to be half-sized, about 60 pages, with revised & expanded versions of some of my favorite essays written for this blog, plus original illustrations and an all new essay.
More details to come shortly.
"One should put everything into a film."
— Jean-Luc Godard
"I’m going to tell the audience everything I know. What I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I hope things will be, what I think human relations are, what I think history’s about, what I think philosophy is about. Anything that comes to mind. I think that’s my business. I hope I have something worth communicating. I assume I have because I’m involved in it myself. So I don’t question it."
— Abraham Polonsky
In my last post I included images of two production drawings from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. These were both done by Tarkovsky’s art designer Mikhail Romadin. Here is a link to an essay by Romadin where he describes in detail Tarkovsky’s relationship with the art of painting:
Every time Tarkovsky came to visit us I would spread out a heap of books in front of him, monographs on various artists. […] We had no money and therefore each monograph was very highly valued. It was pure ecstasy to be able to buy a new volume from the Skira publishers, and if we managed to get hold of a monograph on Salvador Dali or René Magritte, the news made the rounds of all our friends. Each new book was scrupulously examined and then the reproductions were each covered, in turn, with a sheet of paper with a one and one-half centimetre opening cut in the centre. We then tried to guess who the artist was “by his stroke”. Andrei loved to play this game.
[…] And still, in spite of the fact that Tarkovsky considered painting with great interest and knew it well, he felt its influence only indirectly. He avoided drawing parallels between art forms and attempted to isolate the language of film. He didn’t believe that this language was somehow secondary to that of either literature or painting. He never considered that filmmaking was a synthesis of various art forms. He intensely disliked the term “poetic film” which the critics had attached to his early pictures.
A little over a month ago I posted a link to something I’d written about the history of art over on the Partially Examined Life blog. In that post I’d included an image of the top painting above, Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych from 1974. When a reader asked for more information about the painting I shared some of my thoughts on it in the comments.
Lo and behold, Simon found my comment and contacted me. We wound up emailing back and forth and eventually meeting to see his painting together. It’s really been an amazing experience to speak with this artist about his work. The Fulbright Triptych is an incredible painting full of rich detail and complex networks of meaning - I’ve spent countless hours examining it and thinking about it since discovering it a year and a half ago.
You can expect more from me on this painting soon, but for now I wanted to share this excerpt from a recent article about it, “Simon Dinnerstein’s Irregular Grid.” The comparison to Tarkovsky may be of interest to readers of this blog:
The regular grid makes its ambition clear: It means to cover everything. The irregular grid admits failure from the start. It appears repeatedly, for instance, in the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky — idiosyncratic collections of art prints and objects appear in Solaris, The Mirror and Stalker. The irregular grid is like an extended hand, grasping at a torrent of images, each meaningful in its moment, and most of them lost in the end. The creator of the irregular grid has a strong sense of tragedy. He recognizes that his ambition is doomed, that completeness is outside the scope of the fallible mind, and perhaps of the nature of systems themselves.
Dinnerstein’s grid is a tragic grid. It has the poignancy of the packrat: He does not want to lose a single slip of memory. And yet, he is artist enough to recognize that he cannot keep all things, and even if he could, there isn’t room enough in life to go on looking at all of them again, and loving them properly. So he loves each thing one more time, as he did the first time he saw it, and then he moves on.
If you’re reading this and you’re in New York, I strongly urge you to go see The Fulbright Triptych. 14 feet long and filled with countless tiny details, it can only be fully appreciated in person.
It is on display until March 31 in the lobby of the German Consulate (871 United Nations Plaza, 1st Ave & 49th St - open from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday). On the evening of March 10 Simon will be giving a talk on the painting and on the form of the triptych in art alongside a performance of “Triptych” by the composer Robert Sirota. He will also be available to discuss the painting between 4 and 6pm. Admission is $5. There is also a book available devoted solely to this one painting, including many full color closeup reproductions along with essays by Jhumpa Lahiri, Guy Davenport, Rudolf Arnheim, John Turturro, and others. My copy is beat up from overuse and overflowing with margin notes - I may buy another - highly recommended!
"Shots are the accommodation, the connection, the empathy, the view of the subject matter we see on the screen. The cuts are the clarity that continually reawakens the view. […] The shots, as moments of luminous accommodation, ripen and expand and are popped like soap bubbles by the cut."
— Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema
Over on the Script Notes blog, John August talks about a Q&A he did with Alfonso Cuarón. One of the things August was most curious about was Cuarón’s preference for very long takes. He calls Cuarón’s answer a “revelation.” Here’s how he puts it in his own words:
Think of it from the audience’s perspective: each cut requires us to find our character against the background. It’s not a huge burden, but it’s work. If there’s a lot of cutting, we prioritize the character and start paying less attention to the background. We don’t explore the setting because we’re worried we’re going to miss what the characters are doing. The Who is almost always more important than the Where.
But in a long take, we can shift our focus from the character to the background and back again. We can notice things we otherwise wouldn’t. Scenes shot in long takes feel “more real” not just because of the continuity of time and performance, but also because we have the time to really invest in the backgrounds.
I’m reminded of another Script Notes-inspired post I wrote back in September, on "Billy Wilder and the decline of physicality in screenwriting." In that post I argued that compressing scene description in a screenplay runs the risk of replacing “the depiction of an action itself with the presentation of the idea of an action.” There’s a similar risk at play when a filmmaker decides to cut constantly. Both decisions shift the emphasis away from the bigger picture of a character within their environment, acting upon and reacting to it, and toward something that feels more abstracted (less about an actual person in space and time than the idea of a person), subjective (emphasizing the agency of the character over the objective reality of the environment), and directed (in the same way we can say a script feels “written,” but also in a way that implies manipulation - we more strongly feel the hand of the creator at play, guiding our attention).
Conversely, rich scene description and long takes can both - at different stages of the process - help to provide a sense of realism by stressing physicality and allowing for the incidental. Rather than keeping our view confined to the barest presentation of the character’s most essential and narratively relevant actions, we’re allowed to let our attention wander to a whole swath of surrounding details which contribute to a certain richness, a sense that we’re watching real people in a real place.
Long takes (along with deep focus and wide shots) were a cornerstone of André Bazin’s theory of cinematic realism, and he provided a similar explanation for their power as August and Cuarón do. He championed a “democracy of vision” that would give spectators “a certain freedom to select for themselves with their own eyes from among the elements which the image contains, and thus far to participate in the film’s creation.” Of course, that participation must necessarily have limits, and it is the joint task of the writer and the director to decide where those limits are best set, to balance guiding attention with letting eyes wander. Cuarón does this masterfully.
"Art can’t fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What’s important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It’s someone’s view of an incident, an advanced starting point."
— Steve McQueen (via trydo)
(Source: a-bittersweet-life, via trydo)
"Works of art, in categorical contrast with mere representations, use the means of representation in a way that is not exhaustively specified when one has exhaustively specified what is being represented."
— Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace
"Observancy is a dying art. The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated."
— Stanley Kubrick