Category Archives: critical writing

usually reviews of shows or films

AHFM: Parajanov and “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”

ART HISTORY FOR FILM MAKERS

IMG_20160206_232824342Sergey Parajanov’s first major film, and the one he considered to have started his career is SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS made in 1965.

Parajanov was a painter as well as a film maker, and it shows in his films.

SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS is loosely based on a story by the Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (1864 – 1913), who wrote about life in traditional isolated Ukrainian villages. Shadows is set in the remote Carpathian region of the Hutsul people and features their sumptuous textiles and folk art in the production  design. Parajanov’s treatment of the story is less ethnographic than mythic. Although there is a wealth of detail in the film, and the life of the pre-communist peasants is shown as hard (de rigueur in Soviet portrayals of pre-revolutionary life), Parajanov gives the film a sense of timelessness that underpins the story of love, loss and grief and vengeance.

But it is Parajanov’s sense of visual storytelling that is most striking.

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Leading sheep in the mountains, converging lines and use of different shades of white

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The extreme close up, especially with the subject eyeballing the camera, is little used in western cinema, but does appear in Soviet film making, and in Soviet still photography.* It does not occur in portrait painting until the 20th century, although Gustave Courbet got pretty close here with this self portrait:

256px-Gustave_Courbet_-_Le_Désespéré_(1843)

It’s an aggressive shot: either aggressive to the subject, being “in-his-face”  – or aggressive to the viewer, having the character’s face shoved into one’s own. It refuses distance. Very effective when used cleverly. Parajanov makes much use of this kind of shot in the film.

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Another type of shot Paranjov uses that we might find unusual yet evocative is the very high angle shot. Quite a bit of this film is shot from a very high angle. Here the massing of the sheep contrasts with the more isolated figures of the people, who are arranged in quite a rigid line. The film does contain religious images and symbolism (such as crosses and crossed sticks, lambs and so forth) but the way they appear in the film offers much more than just religious symbolism, as can be seen in the shot above. Here we see humans trying to assert their humanity, their ability to form lines, and the sheep just mass randomly. The red spot in the middle is brilliant, it’s like a heart at the centre.

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Parajanov’s use of framing is really interesting. Many scenes are shot framed by something (a window a tree, crossed sticks, etc.). Here we see the people enter the courtyard, but it’s shot for above so it’s actually framed by the roof above and below. [sorry this one was shot with instagram]

Abstraction is another very important artistic element that Parajanov brings in to the film and I suppose it is one of the main things that got him in trouble with the Soviet authorities (that and the rampant pagan-Christianity that’s presented). He uses two principal techniques to attain abstraction:

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Above, he uses distorted reflection, to liquefy the image, render it insubstantial and constantly eluding clarity of vision. The use of colour (hard to see here, but tones of blue, red and brown-gold with spots of green).

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Movement. He moved the camera quickly as the characters also move quickly. The result is a gloriously-coloured blur, an abstract image that nonetheless manages to convey the feeling of what’s happening in the film: a celebration.

From a ‘story’ point of view, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It has all the necessary story elements but like an opera, the story is only the skeleton on which to hang the main event. If you’ve ever seen La Traviata, you’ll know what I man. The story is hokey, awful (even the Dumas novel is practically unreadable). Yet every time I’ve seen it I’ve cried like a baby by Act II. And not just me. Last time I went  to Traviata, people were in floods, a woman behind me was actually howling with grief. Why? Because Verdi’s a brilliant composer, and his music forces you to feel.

In Shadows, the main event is the visual, the art.** Shot by cinematographers Viktor Bestayev and Yuri Ilyenko, it is the visuals that carry the film’s emotion and passion. Production design was by Mikhail Rakovsky and G. Yakutovich, with costumes by Lidiya Bajkova. This team created a convincing yet dreamlike evocation of Ukrainian village life.

Some of the film was shot on location and some was shot at the Dovzhenko film studios in Kiev.***  Aleksandr Dovzhenko was Parajanov’s mentor. I think that it’s Dovzhenko’s amazing film Earth that links Parajanov, Dovzhenko and Tarkovksy. Although Earth is in some ways a standard Soviet film (it’s about the process of collectivization of agriculture and the hostility of the ‘Kulak’ landowners to the soviet), Dovzhenko actually transforms it into a film full of mystery and spirit.

Shadows of Fogotten Ancestors isn’t Parajanov’s best known film, that honour goes to The Colour of Pomegranates. My personal favourite is The Legend of the Suram Fortress which I wrote about in Art History for Film Makers. But Shadows is a good introduction to the director’s style and concerns, and it’s an interesting first step in the development of an extraordinary body of work where style and story converge and create superb film art.

 


Folk art and folk culture

Russian and Ukrainian folk art is powerful and distinctive and was actually encouraged and supported during Soviet times, which is why a fair bit of it has been preserved. The great History painter Surikov tried to depict the colour and visual style of Old Russia.

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[Feodosia Morozova by Vladimir Surikov – Wikimedia Commons]

Some painters tried to capture the remnants of peasant life on the cusp of the Revolution.

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genre paintings by Boris Kustodiev [Wikimedia Commons]

Parajanov’s film in many ways adheres to the Soviet celebration of folk culture, but since this rendering is devoid of the redemptive power of class struggle or any foreshadowing of Sovietization it got the director into trouble.


 

READ MORE ABOUT THE FILM

IMDB

excellent essay on Earth by Dovzhenko with a link to the film


 

*Carl Theodore Dreyer uses it to devastating effect in The Passion of Joan of Arc

**I rewatched it with the subtitles off and that was better.

***I really need to make a pilgrimage there one of these days

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TWIXT

twixt

TWIXT a book of critical writing by Gillian McIver 2012

A while ago I published this little book of art criticism, bring together a host of
writings published on the web and in print collections.
It’s now available to buy on Blurb. I might Amazon it later but I’m not sure.

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Back to Tennesee, please. My review of Blue Jasmine

Tennessee Williams was a great American playwright and one of the greatest of American writers because he combined poetry of word with empathy of spirit. His self-deluded, crushed characters, though they are so often architects of their own misfortune, and tread so heavily on their own dreams, contain within them a spark or spine of strength and resilience that we hang onto. They are fully human, fully alive. We share their pain even as we decry their choices, cringe at their statements, recoil at their reactions.

Filmed versions of Williams’s plays exist – most sumptuously and memorably by Vivienne Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, but also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and several productions of The Glass Menagerie.

Prolific film maker Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine has been a called a homage to Williams (Mark Kermode, The Observer, Sunday 29 September 2013). I thought a homage meant “respect or reverence paid or rendered” (dictionary). Does Blue Jasmine do this? I had not read Kermode’s (or any other) review before seeing the film but quickly as the story unfolded the thought that ran consistency through my head was “third rate Tennessee Williams rip off”.

Allen’s film succeeds in paying homage to Williams only in that it shows us how great a playwright and analyst of human nature Williams was. Allen’s shortcomings highlight Williams’s’ greatness.

Despite incredible mimetic performances by, among others, Cate “the great” Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, the script is beyond weak. The plot points are clunky, and everything is so predictable you could set your clock by it. The skewering of the kind of ice-blonde society woman we secretly and jealously hate, may appeal to our sense of schadenfreude, but we are prevented by the script from really having empathy for her and so our witnessing her descent into neglected madness has about it a whiff of misogyny. Are we just means to hate everyone in the film? The comedy was there, but often misplaced. Tennessee does not make us laugh at brutish domestic violence, at rape. Why are we laughing? Why does Allen want us to laugh?  He extracted the laughs like teeth… Allen does not give us any characters to love. I can’t recall when I have seen a bleaker, more nihilistic film.

It is not the first Woody Allen film to be saved by brilliant actors, but it’s unfair to the actors to give them such a tawdry piece of writing.

Better stay home with a DVD of Streetcar than venture out to Blue Jasmine. Tennessee Williams was a genius because he combined poetry with empathy. Blue Jasmine has no poetry nor empathy.

50366328.PlumbagobluejasmineFlowerKeyWest

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WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK

“The real problem with the art world is not the money men scavenging in its wake – they’ve always been there – but the pirates who’ve taken over the ship. I am thinking of course of that awful art world species: the curator. When I started writing about art, there were no curators. Now they are everywhere. They go to the same biennales; speak the same meaningless art language; and control the art world from within by privileging their creativity ahead of the artist’s. For 5,000 years art survived perfectly well without curators. Now they are its gate keepers.

What we need is a revolution, akin to the impressionist revolution in 19th-century France. Just as the impressionists overthrew the salon and put artists back at the centre of the art world, so someone out there needs to overthrow the Tate empire. Come on Hackney. Rise up.”
Waldemar Januszczak
London

 

REF. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/sep/23/art-world-rise-up-curators

 

FOR THOSE OF MY READERS WHO DON’T KNOW, WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK IS ONE OF THE PREMIER ART CRITICS AND ART HISTORIANS IN THE UK. HE MAKES AMAZING FILMS ABOUT ART. LOVE HIM.

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The Naked Truth (or, big sexy world, is it?)

Nude Greek

Thirteen years ago, he was an up and coming artist, spreading his talents across various media. Painter, graphic artist, film-maker, dancer, actor and performance artist – these are just the things I saw him doing. Handsome and charming, his performances in particular were intense and riveting. And sometimes – not always – he did them naked.

Like that of many young artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his art was often about the body, about its vulnerability, about movement, about endurance. It was not about sex or sexuality. For a brief moment there appeared to be a general understanding that nudity was not “dirty” or sexy. That an artist or actor or performer could be nude in the same way a statue in a museum could be nude.

Actually, in the world of art and art appreciation I’d say attitudes have not changed, but outside of those rarefied circles they certainly have.

In 2009 Richard Prince’s piece Spiritual America (1983) was removed from “Pop Life, Art in a Material World”. The Tate removed it after a visit by the police. This was unusual; in western society over the past fifty years or so outright censorship is very rare. Police are normally not involved unless there is evidence an actual crime. In Prince’s case the provenance of the work is both well documented and more than acknowledged by Prince; in fact the provenance is the whole point. The work is a 1976 Playboy nude photograph of a heavily made-up prepubescent girl (an actress) which was authorised by the girl’s mother as a commercial venture. To my mind it is an absolutely necessary piece of work to be on display. It tells us everything need to know about Western sexual attitudes in that era. (It tell us about the current British Light Entertainment scandal when Jimmy Saville and other entertainers have been guilty of rape and exploitation of children throughout the 60s and 70s.) It tell us that sexualisation of children, and the whole porno-cratic ideal, is not glamorous and clever but sad and tawdry. And about money. Spiritual America is an unpleasant art work but a necessary one. It forces us to look and then think. And so it was strange and horrible that the police removed it.1

This is important because Prince’s piece was made in 1983 after he appropriated the original photograph, and has been shown numerous times since then. After the removal it appeared on the web, where clearly it reached many more people than would ever pay to see Pop Life. What happened between 1983 and 2009? The picture was awful in 1976, vile in 1983 but by 2009 it is itself a crime? Did the Taliban take control?

Hardly. The New Puritanism in the museum has not been matched by any kind of reining in of social behaviour. The exploitation of children continues. Politicians and the media continue to score points for themselves with periodic self serving ‘crusades.’ Little has changed.

So, thirteen years ago it was perfectly all right and perfectly fashionable for an artist or an actor to appear nude. It probably still is. But this breezy assumption does not take into account what happens when for whatever reason you are no longer and artist or an actor. Thirteen years ago if you met someone who used to be an actor and did a few nude scenes, unless you had the video tape, you’d never get to see it. It’s hard to believe it but in 2000 relatively few people had the internet at home. It existed but it was expensive and insanely slow. Low grade videos, small photos and no interactivity. Broadband barely existed; it only became available in the UK in 2000, and this was far too expensive for most. Ofcom (UK Office of Communications) notes that “If you travelled back in time to 1999 and stopped the first person you met, it’s quite possible they’d have yet to try out the internet.”

Fast forward from 2000 to 2013. The dynamic young artist is now a middling-aged school teacher. Perhaps not his first choice, but Saatchi never came calling. Bills have to be paid. The Bohemian antics of thirteen years ago are long forgotten. And then comes the phone call. “It has come to our attention that there are salacious images of you on the Internet.” What? Our hero is bemused. He cannot think what they mean. He agrees to the meeting with the Governors, and rushes to his website to see what on earth it can possibly mean. No, the site is clean – just photos of his paintings, which he sells from time to time. Flickr – nope just family stuff. Picnics. Facebook? He has exactly two photos on it, one of a work party and the other of a particularly impressive burger. He doesn’t tweet and has no time to blog.

He goes to the meeting and is confronted with photos and video he had forgotten about – because they dated from 2000. Photos from obscure art festivals, and a short film in a film maker’s archive. He does not own these sites and has no control over the content. Do the governors understand that? No, they don’t. Children can find this stuff and can be harmed by it, is the line. He realises that even if they are not right about the harm (from a vague non-erect pixelated penis), the fact that this stuff has surfaced means that it’s going to be difficult for him to take control of the situation at work. The school does not seem prepared to back him up and perhaps making it a ‘teaching moment’. He promises to try to remove the offending images though he does not really know how.

More nudity:

Nude Catalan

breath | Originally uploaded by artsite

With Richard Prince it was easy. The police came, threatened the Tate’s workers, who promptly removed the picture. Though no doubt the Tate workers were traumatized, it was a matter easily rectified. With the case of our man though, it was not. He is currently trying to get various websites around the world, none of which he has any relationship with, to remove or hide the images. Legally, none of them has to. Some of them won’t want to, since they are part of an institution’s archive and therefore are valuable to the institution. I know about this because he approached me, about one of my films. I was able and willing to hide my content behind a password but some of the images of my work are on sites that I don’t own, film festivals etc.

Now, trying to help him, I see that a particularly hideous situation is unfolding. How many artists from the late 90s and early 2000s have images of themselves in positions that today might be considered compromising? Huge numbers. Virtually every performer I worked with in that era used nudity. I look at my own back catalogue and I find several other cases where I used an actor or performer – and there they are, nude on the Internet. Still photographs, too; whole series. Some of these sites aren’t mine; they belong to the curator or the exhibiting organisation. Should I remove all the ones I can remove? After all, it’s my work. And the arrangement was entered into freely. And what of the performers? Are they just to erase their creative past?

The funny – ok, unfunny – thing is that despite this insistence that children not be harmed by fuzzy low quality images of their teacher as a youth doing performance art, despite this righteous prudery, nobody sees to give a crap about what the actual kids are actually doing. The rapes, the exploitations, the neglect; the coarse sexualisation of childhood, the brutalities of social media, the ever present sexual (and otherwise) bullying .. all of this continues with impunity. But if the teacher just gets rid of his web page then it will all be okay.

There’s no space for an honest in class discussion of things like, what is nudity in art? What is performance art? Even, how we do change as we go through the course of our lives? No, no time for that. Just a big bucket of snow white paint and a massive brush, thank you very much.

Even a criminal conviction is considered spent after a while, but Internet images, apparently, brand you a sinner for all time.

nude communist

Nude Communist

 

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Kenneth Goldsmith: don’t trust the cloud

I’m at home on this rainy day archiving my films and photos and came across this bit of wisdom from Kenneth Goldsmith.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/04/why-i-dont-trust-the-cloud/

I am following his advice and backing everything up, to drives, to dvds and some of it to the cloud.

But although I have no plans at all to go to China or any other repressive place where i can’t reach my gmail (and I really mean that!) it has made me think about the gmail. Yeah, it is convenient but I don’t actually own it.  I must not be naive about the Net. As Goldsmith says “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, exploit it, but don’t believe in it. Or even the web for that matter. Many people assume that the web —and its riches—will always be there waiting for you. It won’t. ”

Goldsmith is one of my favorite people on this earth, the kind of person that allows you to feel faith in humanity. A poet and thinker and the founder of that great gift to mankind, UBUWEB which I blogged about the other day.

and enjoy this too: If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/if_it_doesnt_exist.html

don't trust the cloud!!!

 

 

 

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