Monday, December 10, 2007


The last double feature of the semester for me was a well-paired viewing of Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and Derek Jarman's Caravaggio (1986). Both filmmakers began their careers as visual artists in a medium other than film, and both films riff off visuals from paintings -- for Jarman it's Caravaggio, of course, while Greenaway has some fun with motifs from Vermeer paintings.

The Jarman film is much easier to get a handle on: it's a fantasy of the life of Caravaggio, presenting events that might be "behind" certain paintings, or dramatizing situations that the painter's artistry and unorthodox lifestyle involve him in: the contumely of patronage, erotic dallying, homosexual and heterosexual, with models -- particularly a couple played by Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton -- the artist in extremis, with voice over stream-of-consciousness, while being attended by his devoted and mute assistant. The staging of the dramatic vignettes at times leaves a bit to be desired, and any scenes that involve actual painting seem travesties of Caravaggio's art when we see the lumpish mess on the canvas he's working on. But what Jarman excels at is recreating the paintings cinematically: he is able to create tableaux that strikingly render certain Caravaggio paintings.

There were other striking visuals as well: as when the male model (Bean) is, through Caravaggio's maneuvering, released from prison -- jailed for the crime of killing his paramour (Swinton) because she was leaving him, with their child, to become the mistress of a cardinal. Caravaggio believes he's innocent, but turns out he's not. So Caravaggio slits the man's throat in a scene set anachronistically against a car from a '30s gangster film, and the scene is shot in a kind of livid filmic light.

But the scene that elicited a gasp from me was late in the film: Caravaggio's in his death throes and there's a vision of him, as a youth garbed as an angel, in the company of the man, Pasquale, who may have been his first lover. They walk into a room and gaze out of the screen at us; then we see what they're seeing: a faithful rendering of Caravaggio's Deposition from the Cross, with the painter in the role of Christ. The composition in Caravaggio's painting is dramatic and powerful: all the diagonals of the bending men, rough and peasant-like, over the body of the dead Christ, prodding downward in the left hand corner like the rudder of a ship, create a sense of timeless stability while their faces and stances suggest a snapshot's spontaneity. Presented so starkly and suddenly in the context of the film, the image leaps off the screen, rendering at once the sense of the painter's passion and suffering while at the same time -- one of the key elements of the film I'd say -- aestheticizing the pain but not anaesthetizing it: the pain of the scenes we watch become canvases of remarkable beauty, a beauty that hurts.

Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts ("ZOO") is much harder to summarize. It's a meditation on death and "freaks" of nature delivered via a theater of verbal and visual puns, stunningly filmed by Sacha Vierny, the man behind the camera on most of Greenaway's films. This film boasts, like his later masterpiece, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), the over-packed tableaux, the tracking shots synched to the haunting music of Michael Nyman, the stylized dialogue, the painterly compositions, the studious mis-en-scène of Greenaway's signature style. Here, perhaps more than in any other Greenaway film, it's all at the service of odd proliferation of coincidence: visual, verbal, narrative.

It's much like a Nabokov novel in the way that patterns run the show: Alba Bewick, a woman driving a white Mercury, is in an accident involving a collision with a pregnant swan. Her passengers, two women, are both killed. The women, also pregnant, were married to two brothers, Oliver and Oswald Deuce, a pair of zoologists, who, we subsequently learn, were Siamese twins at birth. Alba (a "buick driving a Mercury") has her leg amputated; later, she loses the other one, under strong suspicion that the doctor advised it for the sake of the symmetry. The doctor, we're told, is a descendant of Van Meegeren, the man who forged Vermeer paintings. Meanwhile, the brothers, in their stark grieving for their wives, take to activities like: watching an endless nature documentary that traces the existence of life on the planet from the earliest, simplest forms up to man; or hiring the services of "Venus de Milo" (known as Milo for short), a prostitute who is also involved with an unsavory fellow who deals in black market obtainment of animals.

The brothers, in their obsession with a) how the odd confluence of swan, their wives, car and driver could have happened, and b) the rate and nature of decay in dead bodies (there is much fascinating footage, in speeded-up time-lapse photography of various organisms decaying: from fruit to prawns to fish to a swan to an alligator to a zebra), drive the film as though it were a demented game of cat-and-mouse with death itself: to uncover the secrets of how we came to be, as a species, to why we die as we do, and what becomes of us then.

 The brothers also begin, separately, sexual relations with Alba, and one has a tendency to free animals from the zoo where they work. There are fixations with certain recurring motifs, such as black and white stripes, the song "The Teddy Bear's Picnic," abecedaries (Alba has a daughter Beta and wants to have children to name for all the Greek letters), snails, Vermeer's "Lady in a Red Hat" and "The Artist's Studio," symbols of fecundity, maternity, and of course mortality, and the most oddly beautiful use of repellent things that one can imagine.

The movie doesn't so much follow a narrative as offer a series of tableaux and vignettes, each taking as its starting point some matter already portrayed. When whatever is ailing Alba claims her life, the brothers want to photograph her body's decay; they are thwarted by Alba's new husband, a legless man named Felipe Arc-en-Ciel, and so enter into a death-pack for the sake of research that is in its turn thwarted by snails in a scene so meticulous and compelling in its control that it comes to seem a high-art rendering of the failure of ingenuity before sheer process: the mechanical click of the endless camera shutter vs. the instinctual swarming of hundreds of snails, and beneath it all the clockwork process of decay.

Morbid and sordid as all this may sound, the film is mordantly amusing, wearing the trappings of allegory as the means best served to dress up the death's head. When I saw it in NYC last spring, it elicited amusement; with the Yale crowd, fresh from a series of papers on Painting and Cinema, the film's oddly buoyant audacities seemed to deflate like a recently deceased zebra carcass.

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