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.
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.
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.