Monthly Archives: January 2012

deja vu

Seniors at Carleton get to enjoy a process called ‘comps’ (a ‘comprehensive project’ for one’s major), and for the CAMS department, part of this entails (quickly!) writing a sizable paper on an ‘Object of Analysis’ that is specially selected for each senior comps student.  My object is Bill Viola’s Hatsu-Yume, a 56 minute video piece he created in Japan in 1981 as part of his artistic residency with Sony Corporation, immediately following a year and a half of Zen Buddhist study with the priest Daien Tanaka as part of a cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan.

The work, the first ten minutes of which are viewable above, is beautiful and mesmerizing in itself, but I recently made a discovery about the increasingly uncanny way in which Hatsu-yume is proving to be the best possible object that the CAMS faculty could have gifted me with:

I was transfixed by Bill Viola before I knew I had been, before I began to watch Hatsu-yume.  And then I was transfixed again.

Last spring, while I was on the study abroad OCS New Media Roadtrip in Europe, we made a stop at the ARoS museum in Arhus, Denmark, on our 3-day bus-tour of the country, after 8 weeks of cultural and artistic and aesthetic sensory overload across the continent of Europe.  We were taken on a quick tour of the museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, including a visit to the ‘basement’ of installation art.

Once we were let loose to wander the remainder of the museum, I found myself drawn back to the massive dark room, the first we had visited in the basement, where a complex rushing soundscape enveloped the ears and 5 giant screens punctuated the darkness, each with a color-scaled video loop of eerily slow and life-sized bodies plunging, periodically in or out of the water on the screen.  Each plunge or flight – it was hard to distinguish, gravity was unleashed in this underwater-like world – was proceeded or accompanied by a particularly powerful build and rush of sound, like waterfalls, but eerie.  This was Five Angels for the Millennium – and until a few days ago, after having received my copy of Hatsu-yume and watching it twice and beginning to investigate this Bill Viola fellow – I had not realized who the artist was whose work had held me so transfixed that day in Denmark.

A still: one of the angels ascending.

I didn’t leave that installation until it was time to get lunch and re-board the bus to continue our encircling of the vastness of Denmark – I lay among Five Angels for the Millennium and let the almost prenatal feeling of the sound wash over me, as I wrestled my fear and fascination with the bodies and bodies of water, the ‘five angels’ that came in and out of the room almost at random.  There was terror and awe in the work, a sense of death but also life, an uncertainty that bred a desire to stay, to find some impirical way to make sense of the world Viola had created – it was, at the same time, profoundly spiritual, in a way that left me drained and fulfilled.

Having known (now that I know that I knew it already) the work of this amazing artist so intimately, it is no wonder that I should find myself equally transfixed by Hatsu-Yume.  It uses ‘ambient’ (I use this term with great caution and trepidation) sound in similar ways, to create a tension that synchretically adds value to the images, but is, in essence, essential to their power as driving, rhythmic forces.  The boundary between sound/image, the way they interact to exert a strange holistic power on the senses, is very much at play in Viola’s oeuvre.  There is also something religious about both pieces – a religion of light and sound, if you will.  And both have captured me entirely.

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four films and a funeral (minus a real funeral)

I’m “home” now (aka back in Olympia, Washington, birthplace of riot grrls and site of one of the most toked-out colleges in the country, the illustrious Evergreen State) — which means a chance to return to the Capitol Theatre, and my beloved Olympia Film Society.  I actually wrote my college application essay about (among other things) the religious quality that this space and its attendance holds for me, the spiritual qualities of sustaining oneself through the evening’s double features on Oldschool Pizza and organic lemon-pepper popcorn.  So coming back is a bit like coming to a personal CAMS-majory Mecca.  And since I’m feeling chagrined about my lapse in posting, I’ll wax quasi-eloquent about what I’ve gotten to see this week.

In the time I’ve been home, I’ve managed to see four films (and may be able to see two more before I jet back to the Midwest…), but this is likely my last visit to Olympia while it is still “home” — hence this post’s title’s invocation of the funerial…  What I saw, in order of viewing (not necessarily in order of enjoyment): Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, The Mill and the Cross, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Weekend.

Detective Dee is a visualization of everything Kristen Whissel has to say on the new verticality of digital cinema in “Tales of Upward Mobility”, with its towering personification of the threat of modernization, regime change, and power in the hands of woman, and it’s gravity-defying wu xia fight sequences.  A sort of Crouching Tiger meets Sherlock Holmes plus a talking deer and people bursting into flame.  Basically, a 21st century period romp, which I would highly recommend for its indeterable enjoyability.

The Mill and the Cross is a heavy-handed filmic moralization of Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary, a relatively plotless meandering (or trudging, if we feel ourselves as Christ’s companions in the slog towards the end…) through a masterpiece of lighting and cinematography that puts Pictorialism to shame.  Here, with the camera in the hands of director and cinematographer Lech Majewski, the world is literally painted with light, as sequence after slow-moving sequence sends the young film student into a dizzy spin of rapture on the medium’s powers of translation, for the film is literally a series of living oil paintings, with all the richness and inner glow that one might expect.  Only when I resigned myself to being whacked over the head with religiosity for 96 minutes could I fully appreciate the irony of the film’s greatest attributes being its greatest sins, its visual sensuality at odds with its purportedly pious subject material — the painting depicts 16th century religious persecution in Flanders, plus some suffering on the part of Jesus, for good measure.  Thus, the film’s form and content are arguable equatable with sin and virtue themselves, and the film becomes a glorification of the pleasures of visual stimulation — which after an hour and a half is about all one can take.

My parents saw these first two films with me, but they wouldn’t go to Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is truly unfortunate, because although it is, as they objected in advance, quite disturbing, it is precisely that which makes it so good — it is a precision study in disturbance.  The ending is shockingly sudden (especially after 101 minutes, when I mistaktenly expected the film to be exactly two hours long), and in it’s suddenness, eerily ambiguous.  The story unfolds beginning from the young woman (Elizabeth Olson) Martha’s return to her family after two years with a cult in the Catskills, and one is left wondering where such a story could have come from, and where it will go, hacked off at the close as it is.  It is a study in power and life philosophy that makes the “normality” of the life led by Martha’s sister Lucy and her husband Ted match almost shot for shot the daily (and nightly) goings on in Martha’s memories of the cult.  Is a farm in upstate New York where rape and death are made sacred so far afield from the cult of money and possession that Martha accuses Ted of living for, really?  We leave the film feeling morally unleashed, afloat in our own uneasiness, not just with the farm and the charming horror of Patrick (John Hawkes) but also with the kind of society that drives young girls like Martha to feel at home in such a cult.  In film, water is so often (almost tritely) a symbol of female awakening, but as Martha is plunged repeatedly intto these lakes, we do not sense her freedom — rather, as her final swim is steeped so in danger these symbols seem reversed, as if perhaps o capture the totality of Patrick’s awful power over the women in the cult — extending even into the tropes of cinematic feminist ‘rebellion’ (within the patriarchy of course; even his name — Patrick — sounds like patriarch…).  He brings these images back into the fold, as with his women, “just pictures”, as he very creepily sings to Martha (who he has rechristened “Marcy May”) the morning after raping her in a ‘rite of passage’.  So much remains unclear, arcane, locked in Martha’s memory — and when the final shot cuts to black from Martha’s darkening face — at last from the trance of the film itself, as uncertain of what we have just experienced as Martha herself.

Weekend is Andrew Haigh’s new film, introducing Tom Cullen and Chris New as brief and complicated lovers (for, as the title suggests, merely a weekend).  It struck me as one of the most poignant and truthful portrayals of love and sex, period, but as a representation of the complicated state of queer love and sex, and what it means to be queer in the 21st century, it is an apotheosis.  Everyone.  Just see this movie.  Run, don’t walk, to your nearest art-house cinema.  You won’t be disappointed.