ENG: On the Threshold, pt. 1

Five dancers move –  I’d like to shoot the movement, the fugitive moment, the nimble dance of the limbs that’s nowhere as quick as the eyes. I haven’t been photographing dance before, but I will let that be no obstacle; I’ll apply the same humble rules I’ve come to respect in all photographing (whatever you’re shooting, the composition and the concept are everything). Since I’m shooting a work of art, more than anything else I’d like to respect its distinctive language and its idiosyncratic means of expression.

I’m shooting a piece titled On the Threshold, choreographed by Mikko Hyvönen and Veli Lehtovaara. I haven’t seen the work before, but I’m hoping that will be no obstacle. On a second viewing (I saw the piece twice, first with and second without the camera), I would have done certain things differently, perhaps not missed some of the quick solos (such as the one by Hyvönen upon the opening of the piece) I now missed. But I’m hoping my shots will carry something of the spontaneity of the dance.

We begin in a sombre setting: a woman is lying on the ground, her right leg lifted up as if in a transcendence. We have no idea where this will take us; for one, other dancers are standing as spectators in the background. (As I shoot them without their heads shown, this creates a strange feeling of suspicion and suspense.)

In a conversation following the performance (in a highly informal closing party for the Kuhmo Celebrates Winter), Mr. Lehtovaara told me – and somewhat unfortunately, this wasn’t reported anywhere in the programme – that the work is inspired by a painting by Caravaggio (1571–1610), “The Death of the Virgin” (1606). Permit me a general remark. Some works in contemporary dance tend towards esoterism: in the bacgkround of a given piece, there might be, and often are, certain extrachoreographical hints or themes to have given birth to the work. Just as often, however, these hints are made explicit neither in the work itself nor in the programme notes to the work. I hope I’m not entirely oblivious to the fact that we should give the dancers their freedom. Yet when such hints increase our understanding of a performance, hearing them could be aesthetically more rewarding than being left without them.

To compensate my slight embarassment upon receiving the necessary hint from the dancers themselves, on the second viewing of the piece I was beginning to suspect that there might be something hidden in the opening pose of the four dancers (shown above), repeated near the end of the piece… Now that the comparative perspective is available, it’s no difficult task to recognize the parallels —

In Mikko’s and Elina’s positions (the two are standing in the middle), there is a  recognizable element of grief, even if one wasn’t acquainted with the Caravaggio comparison. The name of the choreography ,”On the Threshold” comes from an identically titled essay by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who reads Caravaggio’s painting as carrying us to the threshold: of death and consequently, of existence. I haven’t read the piece – so I won’t be forcing all the possible programmatic observations into how I interpret the dance itself – yet as a philosopher myself (and I hope I can say this without arrogance), I can vaguely imagine what a thinker such as Nancy might have to say about the concept of a threshold.

Back to the movement itself. Though some of the shots from the work evidence raw and original energy, the choreography is deliberately reserved rather than bristling with explosive power. Upon the first viewing, I have some trouble precisely with this art of reserve; yet a few days later, it dawns on me that this is precisely the sense in which the work and the dancers are constantly on a threshold.

I grieve I cannot grieve, writes Emerson once in a letter — could it be, then, that the dancers like Caravaggio’s characters are incapable of mourning the loss of the Virgin, or whoever (a forgotten friend) has died? This is no sign of emotional numbness: the greatest losses are too great for us to bear, and this is what it means to begin to grieve them (to be perpetually, as it were, on the threshold of grieving).

This, then, would be my rudimentary explanation for why the emphases of the movements in this piece fall on unconventional places. The accents, in a word, are not where they customarily would be: there is syncopation everywhere and irregularity to the extent of destroying the idea of syncopated music arising from the movements. I asked myself, on the evening of first seeing the piece, whether something like music could be born from the particular accents of the dancers. My answer was negative (perhaps somewhat similarly to the sense in which, say, contemporary classical music or certain stripes of fusion jazz avoid virtually all phrases of melody)… But now I realize this is a strength rather than a weakness …

After spending forty minutes with the piece, I realize I sitll haven’t tried to shoot the movement itself (it’s so easy to trap the evanescence in a standstill, as easy as it is to give the false impression of something stable moving around)… Luckily enough, the beautiful slowness of the choreography gives me a chance to linger around its expressive language, even though I’m seeing it for the first time!

And thus there occurs an act of variously repeated swinging of the arms, performed primarily by Elina (photographed above) – from behind the back, up in the air again pointing to the sky, and then back again, back and forth – as if she was leaping up yet standing still, in a feigned Übergang, viz. pass-over, if you like…

This movement repeats itself so systematically that I’ll abstain from trying to give it a programmatic explanation: it is what gives the eye a chance to decompose the movement as such, its transparent power to generate a leap, only to return to itself.

And there are moments when I feel like I’m seeing a Cubist painting by Picasso, or perhaps something more contemporary, a disturbingly perspectival take on a divided mind losing hold of itself. It strikes me as a distinctive merit of this piece that it allows me to shoot certain things that I hadn’t seen during the performance itself (as if they became visible only after being eradicated from the very soil in which they grow, time’s incessant progression).

What is the most difficult task of all, in shooting a complicated choreography, is to try to capture all the dancers in a single frame but without the disconcerting impression of unintended randomness. I’m not sure I accomplish this, but permit me to suggest that the shots above and below come close to what I have in mind —

… And there is a fifth dancer, the musician Oula Susi, who throws the colors of his music over the piece’s repressed wisdom. The music has a fine homely touch to itself, it is delicately unpretentious, fruitfully Finnish (if I might use the word as a meaningful description), and rhythmically nowhere as complicated as a differently selected music to the given choreography might have been.

It takes me a few days to realize how this, too, (like the very art of reserve) is a strength rather than a weakness: had a more dynamic music been chosen to accompany the piece, the music might have stolen too much attention from the non-musical – and I intend that as a compliment! – character of the dance itself. To the contrary, these were the sounds that were needed: this music has the virtue of purity whose language the choreography speaks.

And alongside Susi’s music, there is a brief interlude near the ending of the piece where two quotations from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring are played, with Oula’s peformatively monotonous explanations preceding and interleaving them. This might be the only place, for now, where I face my moment of constructive criticism: The cited music has such a long and variegated history of oustanding choreographies in the history of contemporary dance that it might be too much to attempt to place it, without some queer friction, in such a radical or downright avantgardist choreography that the On the Threshold otherwise seems to be (unless, of course, this is intended as a cliché)…

And even as he speaks, there is repeated swinging of the arms,
which, in retrospect, makes me fall in love with this dance …

For in this very swinging, I feel like I’m landing on the shores, the very threshold of not only sanity but also … of immanence. This is to say, it is precisely this quasi-dyskinesic swinging of the arms that epitomizes, for me, the strange act of transcendence depicted in this choreography, as if it were the heavens (if you allow me an outworn metaphor) that the dancers are ultimately aspiring after.

Or so I come to think, in retrospective
contemplation of my humble shots of the work.

If only a camera could decipher a nimble pose of a limb.
It will be a pleasure to shoot further acts of dance.

ENG: On the Threshold, pt. 2

And here are some additional pics taken from the same performance,
with more or less success at capturing the swiftness of the movement:

Please mention the photographer (H. A. Kovalainen)
upon possible usage of the images. Thank You.

Malick goes Orion

Terrence Malick Through The Eyes Of ORION

National Audiovisual Arhive in Helsinki showing all of
Malick’s films from Badlands to The Tree of Lfe

In the spring 2012, there’s been a series showing five films here in Helsinki to have finally made me want to see absolutely all of them – with perfect focus and undivided attention  – something that I’m somewhat ashamed to admit to virtually never having felt before. That is, there’s never been a series of films shown in Orion, not even those of Tarkovsky or Tarr,  that I would have so much craved to see one after another such as the films by Malick right now. For one, it is with these films that I feel more strongly than with any other films that they ought to be viewed in a movie theatre, so enormous is the difference in experience once they’re seen on screen. I hold this opinion in large part owing to the peculiar phenomenology of Malick’s films: the unique way in which they depict the immediacy of life world – the seamless continuity between the nonhuman and the human realms of being, animals and humans.

To be sure, no other director cherished both within the mainstream and amidst the true connoisseurs of art films, is as evanescent a character as Malick, as enigmatic enough as to abstain from, say, giving any interviews on his films. The basic facts are well-known: in the beginning of his university life, Malick made serious ventures into philosophy, studying at Harvard University with Stanley Cavell before embarking on a doctoral dissertation at Oxford under Gilbert Ryle (the graduate studies were never completed).He studied in the AFI Conservatory, originally the American Film Institute, earning a Master of Fine Arts in 1969 at the age of 26. During a timespan of 40 years, Malick has made no more than five films, from Badlands (1973) to The Tree of Life (2011).

Here, then, is my humble overview on the main contours of Malick’s career: There are two chief strands running in his work, the alluringly campy and deliberately rustic style exemplified by his earlies films (esp. Badlands), on the one end, and the increasingly megalomaniac and Hollywood-inflicted style exemplified by his latest films, on the other. As his career has progressed, the earlier trend has weakened and the latter strengthened.Thus Badlands is almost entirely immersed in the campy aesthetics of rural America in the 1950s, with the voiceover consistently in low-brow American English and with even the beautiful things (such as the girl played by Sissy Spacek) shot through a certain veil of distortion. In Days of Heaven (1978), one can sense the rustic element weakening and the epic elements surging in, while the righteously praised and the notoriously artsy war film, The Thin Red Line (1998), is Malick’s first feature where the Hollywood-element takes the upper hand over the rural dimension. Finally, in The Tree of Life (2011), this trend continues to the extent that the rustic strand has virtually disappeared before the dauntingly large epic aspects…

I left out one film, The New World (2005), precisely because it is this film that I’ll now want to address. I haven’t seen The Tree of Life at Orion yet (only one time a few months ago in a regural movie theatre), so this might be just the appropriate moment to say a few words on The New World. This film, unlike The Thin Red Line or even Days of Heaven, has been neither as emphatically celebrated nor as abundantly discussed, and for one, the highly unfortunate Pocahontas comparison (on the surface, the two films share the thematics of the origins of America in Virginia in the 17th century) has done serious harm to the reception of the film. It goes without saying that it’s a shame to discover that our knowledge of American Indians tends to be mediated through something that Disney has stumbled upon in an attempt to find catchy storylines

I will want to address The New World, in contrast, on a different plain, asking what the film has to say about the human condition, bursting out of rough and raw nature into human maturity, culture and civilization. I’m not denying that something like this can be seen as a theme in all Malick’s films, yet in no other films do I find them as lucidly and movingly articulated as in The New World.

For me, this film aligns itself with Truffaut’s underappreciated classic, The Wild Child (L’enfant sauvage, 1969), a story about a boy to have lived in the woods gradually – indeed, with painful inertia – entering the scruples of human society. In the case of both films, I find  this problematic in itself raising a number of intriguing philosophical and psychological questions: (i) What happens to us when we gradually progress from savage life into Western civilization? (ii) Did we have some virtues, disposition or character, in our savage state that will get lost upon our becoming civilized? (iii) If so, what were those virtues, and could a civilized man still (learn to) value them?

On my view, Malick’s answers to all the three questions are thought-provoking, and it should be considered a wortwhile achievement in itself that an American director succeeds in depicting the culture of the American Indians without indulding oneself either in utopian romanticism or in a narrow-minded rejection of their essential values. It is through this constellation of cultures, indeed, that Malick’s film manages to pinpoint a theme that so much of his work seems, overtly or covertly, to be getting at. In a word, it seems to me that there resides in this savage state of existence a peculiar beauty and immediacy (frankness, liveliness) of feeling and experience that can nowhere else be found; it is as if Malick’s characters in this film are – before they launch their project of becoming civilized in a Western sense – living in an original relation to the Universe, to borrow a phrase from Emerson –

And it is here that one can find, too, one of the most fitting crystallizations of the quasi-phenomenological overtones of Malick’s work: the Indians exemplify something that, in the jargon of phenomenology, might be dubbed natural attitude, whereas the civilized, cognitively oriented state of Western existence is pierced with the thorns of possessive knowledge, obsessive will to power, and somewhat constrained ethical imperatives. To be sure, I’m not suggesting that Malick’s film ought to be read exclusively in the light of phenomenology; rather, phenomenology is one relatively successful attempt at making conceptual sense of the ways in which human experience both latches onto and departs from the original life-world.

Returning to the storyline of the film, then, my sympathies fall on the blissful depiction of captain Smith’s romance with the innocently beautiful Indian woman, while all that follows thereafter – her acquaintance and the eventual marriage with another Englishman – connotes, in my eyes, the involunatery and therefore inevitable entrance into the state of inauthentic existence, in Heidegger’s words, the flimsy world of das man. (Having said that, I’m fully aware that cynical or America-aversive viewers will never be able to fully value the romantic depiction of the relationship shown in this film.)

Whereas some critics might charge the film, say, of excessive duration, on my view it is precisely the second Western alternative of existence (covered throughout the final half an hour or so of the film) that is needed to bring the full force of the original relation to the universe to the fore. Through a gradual process of transformation, the Indian woman becomes Rebecca, she learns to overcome her disappointment upon the termination of love for captain Smith, indeed, she learns to love another man towards whom she at first feels no emotion. She learns the Western scruples of conscience and the dauntingly destructive power of Christian morality to bereave oneself of the soul’s innermost feelings. There is one passage, indeed, in the film, where the whole project is summed up in one word: should — in other words, she should begin to love her new husband, she should learn to overcome all things unfit for her new, externally imposed normative framework.

The film’s inpeccable visual power, in turn, stems precisely from this juxtaposition of the immediate and tangible beauty of the American Indians’ life-world contrasted with the mediated and constrained order of the Western civilized world. Some appropriate examples are provided, near the end of the film, by the unfailingly geometrical rows of trees in the Queen’s gardens in England, the unmistakeably rectangular sets of stairs and bushes silently addressing one another in perfect harmony. The final images, however, are given to the shores of the savage world, the New World. And the very final picture, appropriately, shows a tree of life, whence all of this wild passion burst forth…

It seems that I will have to give another chance to Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, now that the first four have ardently set the table for some true spectacles.

Fiennes meets Kiarostami

[I had an article come out recently in the Finnish philosophical journal niin & näin on two documentary films to have struck me recently. As of now, I'm working on an extended draft of the piece in English, titled "Silk Factory Mazes, Natures Devoid of Men: The Two Paths of Reality-Grounded Documentary Films"... Please find below some snippets of my original Finnish articled translated into English.]

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Familiar and foreign, Sophie Fiennes’ Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010) offers us a strange documentary mixing downright naturalism with elements of the uncanny: a film in the realist tradition of direct cinema and yet at the same time broaching sublimity in a virtually alienated way. The film brings to the fore the German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer (born 1945) and his gigantic Gesamtkunstwerk in a derelict silk factory in Barjac, Southern France, where the artist moved in 1993. Seven years later he embarked on the project of transforming the location into a massive work of art. Upon his arrival at Barjac, there was nothing there. It behooved him to map out the vistas to be opened by the buldozers, and to draft the initial sketches of the houses to be built. Little by little, Kiefer filled the once abandoned factory area with criss-crossing alleys swarming underground, houses bristling with paintings and installations larger than human beings, and gigantic towers in the outdoor open space reaching towards the heavens.

Allow me to venture into suggesting, then, that we find in the film the rudiments of a novel form of art. Art is no longer the object of the film but rather its subject: Kiefer’s art works come to life—they performatively happen—qua Fiennes’ cinematic shots. His art is pervasively processual. Her treatment of his art is no less so. To go with the versatile fabrics of the paintings Kiefer constructs “Holy Books” weighing more than a hundred kilos, but before taking their place in the works the books are washed by the waves of the ocean such that the ocean leave its traces on the pages. In their own peculiar materiality, Kiefer’s broken jars, astronomic charts, forests of ash notched in the paintings, or streams of lead reminiscent of volcanic eruptions, all contribute to create an impression of a world of its own. Only rarely do the last touches of the paintings come from the artist’s brush, since Kiefer treats his surfaces with multifarious materials, and all the stages of the working process leave their imprint on the works.

The choice of Kiefer’s art as the subject matter of the film is illuminating precisely because cinematic expression—as the most full-fledged space-time art form—grasps the very processual character of art. Like drama and dance, the film unfolds in both time and space. The visual imagery opens up on a wide screen, and the film always has its duration. Such temporarily bound art forms customarily also have their own voice. In a literary sense, the sounds of Fiennes’ film are made of the crackling fire, the shattering of glass against the floor, and the roar of the buldozers, all of which make Kiefer’s art sensible, virtually smellable. In a figurative sense, Kiefer’s voice as an artist unfolds itself in the swift visual narratives of the film. In other words, film becomes art at those very moments when it follows the processes of creation of Kiefer’s works, which means either working on a new work or the gradual unfolding of a “finished” work in the investigative gestures of the moving camera. Allow me to generalize the observation. Art, in general, unfolds itself in cinema; cinema turns into art once it grasps the birth process of art.

The Iranian master of slow cinema, Abbas Kiarostami’s 74-minute film Five (2003) forms a parallel with Fiennes’ film. Whereas Fiennes has scripted her film precisely, manipulating the images with carefully calculated moving shots and razor-sharp editing, Kiarostami dwells, rather, on the sheer surprises in nature. Five uses no human voice, and in the only scene where human beings do appear, all they do is walk across the screen (as if to express the very disappearance of humanity). Kiarostami like Fiennes leaves himself—and leaves humans—into the background and allows nature to show herself. Kiarostami’s film carries into a climax the transition, adumbrated above, from anthropocentric narration to nonhuman things. The proper subjects of the film, indeed, are elements of nature: bark, waves, white light, dogs, ducks, black light, rain, thuhderstorm, and the Moon.

Five, in sum, is an exceptional one-man auteur documentary, characterized by the director himself as an experimental and meditative work of art, akin to poetry and photography. The film is dedicated to the Japanese master of the static visual narrative, Yasujurio Ozu, who like Kiarostami used extended takes virtually without any visual accentuation, excepting the camera angles and composition. By putting the Ozuesque visual language into documentary use—more specifically, into depicting in an immediate way the simplest incidents in nature—Kiarostami carries further than his master the director’s technique whereby carefully considered gestures are used to minimize the power of the director and maximize the power of the imagery.

Kiarostami’s film is analogous to Fiennes’ documentary precisely insofar as it surrenders expressive power from the director to the nuances of reality. In the Kiefer documentary, man-made art has been transformed into a world, which the film shows in itself—permanently abandoned and therefore perennial. Kiarostami’s film, in turn, demonstrates how the surrounding nature is desolate even when humans kill their time lingering around it. Fiennes’ camera is constantly in motion, thus making Kiefer’s realities to speak. Kiarostami’s camera stays virtually still, letting nature speak: when the camera is on and directed at the unscripted world, anything can happen… With deliberately advanced director gestures, Fiennes creates an impression of a world of its own not entirely unlike the world left to its own by Kiarostami’s digital camera. The subject of Five is no longer the human mind, but the elements of nature turn into animated personae speaking in their own, wordless tongues.

The novel cinematic art arises from understanding how the original and ultimate subject matter of film is not the human world but the humanless, derelict reality, which only a wordless image can translate into its own tongue. It is precisely by stripping visual imagery of too many human sounds that cinematic art may ever more intimately grasp the reality of images always saying more than words. Kiarostami demonstrates the nonhuman nature of cinema by warning us of the senseless projections and intentional illusions, both of which are taken to pieces—with cool rage—by his radical-ecological film. The key to the film about Kiefer, in turn, lies in understanding that while much of what’s shown in the images stems from human hands, the filmed transition of art from transient moments into timeless cinematic narrative is not in itself of human origin.