Wednesday, March 16, 2011


My thanks to Danny Kasman at MUBI for publishing my brunch conversation with Thomas Elsaesser, recently conducted inbetween panels at the UC Berkeley international symposium on silent cinema—Cinema Across Media: The 1920s. Equal thanks to Laura Horak and Althea Wasow for arranging the time for me to sit down with Elsaesser and, of course, to Thomas himself for being so generous with his time during such a busy conference. Along with the topic of the changing role of national cinemas in international film festivals, Elsaesser and I also discussed another subject of recent interest.

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Michael Guillén: Recently, I was asked to introduce a revival screening of Black Narcissus at the Mostly British Film Festival in San Francisco and what was foremost on my mind was how eager I was to see the film again, even though it was going to be about the eighth time I had seen it. I had to ask myself: "What is it about this movie that keeps you coming back to it again and again?" I knew the story inside out. I knew all its plot developments. The performances were familiar. And yet I keep returning to the film with the same degree of anticipation.

The best clue to understanding this in myself is an observation made by poet Mark Doty in his lovely volume Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, wherein he suggested that paintings exert a gravitational force and that—if a painting "speaks" to you—you are drawn into its orbit, returning to contemplate it again and again, at times for extended lengths of time. This caused me to consider that it was not the narrative or story that was pulling me in but the underlying beauty of the film—its painterly qualities—that had caught me in its orbit. Not only with Black Narcissus; but, recently as well, with a restored print of Luciano Visconti's The Leopard, which I watched at the Castro Theatre and equally appreciated for a similar gravity.

Thomas Elsaesser: Well, first, I recall that
The Leopard is a pretty sexy film as well, if I remember it right. I was much younger when I saw it.

Guillén: Can you speak to that quality of what is "painterly" in a film?

Elsaesser: That's a
big question, but an interesting one. Now, with Visconti—both in Senso and The Leopard—the director and the art director very clearly thought of where the color scheme comes from, costumes and so on, because they were historical dramas. There you are talking about the echoes of the film literally created with historical paintings, with the settings, with a kind of gravitas, which traditional art conveys. But when you talk about Leo Carrax, or someone like that, using Paul Gauguin—and Gauguin painting is a fascinating subject—using color schemes from Piet Mondrian or an abstract expressionist or a painter friend, that quality is more difficult to locate but it may actually have a deeper resonance.

If we're talking about "painterly", you really have to make a distinction. Are you talking about "painterly" in the 19th Century sense? Or are you talking about Modern art or painting? So I would make a big difference there. Both you can find in film. But Visconti is as operatic as he is painterly whereas obviously Godard is not operatic at all.

Guillén: I guess what's interesting me is that sensorial experience of having an aesthetic arrest when faced with a beautiful painting or a beautiful film; the physical attraction.

Elsaesser: There we come to what we've already talked about: the contemporary contemplative film, which has the quality of attention that you associate with painting. My question is: do you return to the painting because what is beautiful is somehow "out" there or is the effect of the beautiful something
you establish in dialogue with the painting? The beauty is not something that your eye slides off after a couple of seconds because you think you recognize it, but more the fact that the longer you look the more the painting becomes something else. You know?

You see a Renoir and at first you think, "Wow, what voluptuous nudes" and then you think, "But, no, the
brushstrokes!" How often he must have gone over and caressed that particular part of the body. Or that he gave as many caresses to a painted tree as he gave to the back side of one of his nudes. You see? And then you establish a rapport with the painting. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to put yourself in the place of the painter, as I've just now suggested, but it's that something happens and your mind gets drawn into things that you never thought you'd be interested in or think that you'd notice. Even though this is a painting full of light where all sorts of things happen, if you look long enough and if you follow certain colors and color schemes, you realize incredibly there's a geometric grid underlying the composition which on the surface is not noticeable at all but it gives the painting its strength that allows you to watch it for 20 minutes or half an hour. So if you transpose this to film, then you can call "painterly" films those films that really—on the surface of it—do not evoke painting as such; but, which allow you to unravel the way they were made and why they were made over a period of time. They were made to attach your attention to them.

When everyone was raving about Marlene Deitrich, Josef von Sternberg used to say, "Forget about Marlene. Frankly, the way I think about a great film, if you turn it upside down and back to front, it would still be a great film. Because what really interests me is the distribution of light and shadow over two hours."
That would be a painterly point. A filmmaker says, "It's not what everybody else thinks that's important. If that rhythm, that way I catch light and shadow, wasn't consistent and interesting over two hours, Marlene Deitrich wouldn't strike you as beautiful."

Cross-published on Twitch.


Brian Darr said...

Fascinating stuff, Michael! I'm so glad you had the presence to pick the brain of this brilliant thinker.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Brian. Danny Kasman and I were saying that Elsaesser should be a regular guest on some podcast program. It's kind of astounding to consider that this is a man who not only spearheaded film festival studies (which is where I caught up with him); but, he's also one of the individuals responsible for film studies period. I feel so grateful to have had this chance to converse with him and certainly hope for another. There's so much I could talk to him about.