Category Archives: Brian Warfield

The Passion of Lovers is for Death

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus reimagines the Orphic legend, telling the immortal story of the poet’s love affair with Death.
It depicts the story of Orpheus, a poet beloved by the public – but a pariah among the art set who have turned their affection towards Cegeste, a new and younger voice. Cegeste is like Arthur Rimbaud, whose early death cements his accomplishments as insurmountable.

So the poet, Orpheus, pursues death at the risk of life. As a reward, he receives the sounds of his new poetry as transmissions through the car radio coming from another realm. “I’m on the trail of the unknown,” he says as he is possessed by the words of the dead.
The poet is torn between two loves: Life and Death. He is alive and there is the natural obligation of self-preservation. But he would do also anything to prove himself as a poet.

It is death that the poet longs for. He sees it in himself as he gets older, the reflection in the mirror, taunting him but not taking him. Death steals his vitality, his life, his wife, and he descends into hell to retrieve her. There is a cyclical pattern of death and rebirth, the pursuit of one at the stake of the other. This is consistent with Cocteau’s notion of the poet’s need for a series of deaths in order to prove himself.

Orpheus redeems his life/ wife but is not allowed to look at her. Salvation requires repentance – which literally means “to turn away.” To look back at the object of desire is to want more than what has been given. Death is not satisfied by only looking and not touching, as Orpheus needs to have and to hold.

In the end, Death relinquishes Orpheus because she loves him and through his trials and poetry, he has become immortal.
Death as a lover is a common theme in poetry. Shakespeare says, “The stroke of death is a lover’s pinch,” (Antony and Cleopatra IV, ii: 280). Baudelaire describes the Dance of Death in his “Flowers of Evil”.  Emily Dickinson writes that “Death is a suitor” while Stephenie Meyer transforms vampires and monsters into heartthrobs. It is not (always) just a morbid preoccupation. Death is the common terminus of all humans. And as such it holds a certain power over life.
It is a paradox and poetic that the only way to achieve immortality is to woo Death.

by Brian Warfield

Orpheus screening and discussion:
July 1st, 7:30pm
AxD Gallery, 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
Like us on Facebook for additional information.

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Broken Plates, Broken Bodies

“The shattered surfaces make the images waver
and shift in an atmosphere of ruined decadence…”
– Roberta Smith, New York Times’ Art in Review, 1999.

In the 1980’s, Julian Schnabel made his name in the art world by painting portraits of friends, acquaintances and celebrities on broken bits of plates. When he turned his focus to directing films, Schnabel furthered this process. Instead of creating portraits on a broken canvas, he made portraits of broken people. He started with familiar territory in Basquiat, exploring the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat whose self-destructive tendencies burned faster than his talent. In Before Night Falls, he depicts a homosexual Cuban poet and novelist who becomes a political prisoner. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the culmination of Schnabel’s artistic expression.

On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke that put him in a coma and damaged his brain stem. When he awoke three months later, he was in a state called cerebromedullospinal disconnection, or, locked-in syndrome. His entire body was paralyzed, save some neck movement and the ability to blink his left eye. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Schnabel’s adaptation of the book that Bauby wrote – dictated by blinking that one eye.

From the very beginning, Schnabel places us inside this paralyzed existence, plunging  the audience into the head of the diving bell. His camera captures all of the beauty – of the sea, the sky, clouds, light, dresses flowing in the wind. It adds layer upon textural layer. Bauby’s memoir was not a point-by-point  record of his experience, and Diving Bell is not meant to accurately portray that memoir. They both choose what they will focus their eye on to create a version of truth – the best means of expressing their own point of view. When you look at Schnabel’s portraits, you aren’t looking at photographically realistic representation. And when you watch his movies, you get to see the internal landscape that isn’t always readily visible to a casual observer.

During the end credits, an avalanche reverses itself and all of the pieces of the mountain float back up, the natural forces of decay and destruction are reversed until everything is made whole again. JohnWalker asserts that “[r]eality for Schnabel… is not just the external, objective world, it is also the internal subjective dimension of dreams, emotions, memories, myths, fantasies; thus the subject/object barrier is dissolved.” The subjects of Schnabel’s movies become the broken pieces over which he paints their own portrait, transforming them back into whole beings.

For more on the relationship of Julian Schnabel’s art and film, please visit: http://wn.com/Julian_Schnabel_Art_and_Film

See also:

– Julian Schnabel at the Tate: Profiting from new art (1982)

– Julianschnabel.com

By Brian Warfield

Sans Soleil: Heisenberg’s Scrapbook

What is time? How does memory work? These are the primary questions Chris Marker poses in his essay film, Sans Soleil. The film is anchored by the narration of letters from cameraman Sandor Krasna. But this isn’t Krasna’s story. Sans Soleil has been called Marker’s most personal film, but it is not his story either. The footage focuses on Japanese in Tokyo with diversions into Portuguese colonies, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, in Africa and a touch of Iceland and San Francisco. But it isn’t their stories either. It is the story of us, the viewer.

The shifting of images linking past to present and culture to culture plays like flipping through the pages of a disorganized scrapbook or the scrapbook kept by a Martian. These images are not meant for contrast, the narration says, but are “extreme poles of survival.” There are many meditations on the nature of history and memory and how the two are related. “We do not remember, we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten.” Memory is the individual’s participation in history.

The film explores the various aspects that make up history, from the banal to the poignant. It looks at cat temples, parades, political struggle, television.  The city is a dream dreamt by its citizens. Sleeping commuters dream and create a collective unconscious that is in turn recorded and broadcast on television. With the advancement in modern technology, the collective unconscious becomes externalized.

“If the images of the present don’t change, then change the images of the past.” With new technology, the filmmaker can alter history, absorbing its original context and re-contextualizing it. As the camera records, the thing it commemorates has already become the past. The act of filming creates images of the past and then transforms those images.

Like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the viewer, by watching the film, takes part in its creation. The tone of the narrator’s voice is constant throughout the film, lulling us into a hypnotic, dreamlike state. We dream the film. She brings us back with punctual repetitions of “He wrote me,” or “He writes,” grounding the film to the notion of linear reality.

In recounting Krasna’s story (a singular function of memory), Marker tells us his own. His place at a singular moment of time, recording things that reveal themselves like individual frames of film that seem to be finite and grounded. Taken as a whole,  the individual frames played back in a complete reel, they become  movement and connect to each other. By watching them, they connect to us and our place in the world, in time and history.

By Brian Warfield

Diabolical Suspension

 

Henri-Georges Clouzot is a master of suspense. His Wages of Fear, about four men hired to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin 300 miles on roads full of dangerous pitfalls, is the definition of suspense.

 

Like in Strangers on a Train, where Hitchcock forces you to watch the back and forth volley of a tennis match that stalls the action in its place, suspense is exactly what it sounds like. It is an Acme anvil tied to a fraying rope, dangling over your head. It is not the opposite of action, it is the impending threat of action to come.

 

Clouzot has been called the French Hitchcock, but, to be fair, Hitchcock cribbed a few notes from Clouzot. He acknowledged the debt for such movies as Psycho and Vertigo to 1955’s, Les Diaboliques.

In Les Diaboliques, Michel Delasalle is the virtueless headmaster who is cruel both to his own wife and to his new mistress. Christina is Michel’s wife and the owner of the boarding school. She is a former nun and the only teacher the boys seem to genuinely like. She has a good heart but a bad heart condition. Nicole is the mistress who has recently been sporting a black eye underneath those sunglasses. She is cool, strict and calculating. It is her idea to solve everyone’s problems by enticing Michel up to Niort (the director’s home town), sedating him, drowning him in the bathtub and then dumping him in the school’s pool.

It is a very tenuous line that keeps the audience on the edges of their seats. You have to give them something to fear, but it must always be just out of sight, waiting.

 

Christina is teaching English and we watch her pace back and forth in front of the window overlooking the pool. One of the caretakers stops at the pool as she recites verbs to be conjugated by her class: “To be, to bear, to beat, to begin, to break, to choose, to fall, to find…” And there is this pregnant pause as she watches the caretaker rake the scummy pool. But he only drags up leaves.

 

“Your punishment is lifted, for now,” a teacher tells one of the boys who claimed to have seen the director after he disappeared. And that is the exact way Christina feels. Her punishment has been temporarily lifted above her head where she waits for it to fall.

There is always the risk that what they have done will be found out. They want to hide in the darkness, but a light always seems to get turned on them. Clouzot presents multiple opportunities for discovery. It serves to place the audience on the side of wrong. We want them to get away with it.

Any time the viewer doesn’t know exactly what is happening, it triggers something in his or her brain. The viewer is obligated to fill in the missing bits, and the director relies on his audience’s imaginations to be even more base than his own.

This is why horror movies take place in the dark. The Blair Witch Project wasn’t scary because of a witch – it was at its most frightening when the screen was completely black and there was the threat of a witch creeping up on you.

At the climax of the movie, all of the elements of suspense come together. It is dark. The floor boards creak and doors let out shafts of light. There are close-ups of gloved hands. Empty corridors, the sound of frightened breathing, blind corners, the staccato tapping of a typewriter, a door that opens of its own accord, the shadow of a hand, an empty desk, discarded gloves, Michel’s name typewritten over and over. And then the lights go out. Christina screams and runs through the darkness into the safety of her own room – where the denouement awaits her.

In the end, although there are some answers, there is still left a question. One door closes and another opens. Clouzot can’t help but leave us tantalized.

By Brian Warfield