Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Standing in front of Cezanne canvas is confronting reality in the most clear-cut way. A Cezanne is stark, solid and well defined to the maximum extent possible. In a world where communicating the artistic  intent in a roundabout way is treated as clever and sublime, Cezanne chose to dig art by conveying presence through solidity. He agonizes ‘to realize his sensations’. His sensation is not a fleeting stimulus but a weighted optical whole that has a concrete richness with tangible attributes that challenge the artist to realize them on canvas. Cezanne feels almost a moral imperative to scrupulously realize that presence. 
 Like his art, Cezanne is a solid presence. There is very little in modern art after him that has not reckoned with him. Cubism may be most open about its debt to Cezanne but Cezanne was ‘father of it all’ as famously stated by Matisse. When Lucien Freud struggled to bring lardy nakedness out of his portraits, he was facing the same moral imperative of solidity as Cezanne. Even Andy Warhol, in his choice of presentation over representation was echoing Cezanne.  It is common knowledge that his so-called ‘geometric works’ fed into Cubism. However, it was his meditation on presence that attracted Cubists who, in turn, were also obsessed with bringing out all facets of reality.  It is documented that Picasso bought a lithograph of ‘Large Bather’ when he was working on ‘Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.’ He was not referring to the ‘geometrical works’ when he said “it is Cezanne’s anxiety that is most interesting.” More on this later. Braque was more detailed in his assessment of Cezanne’s influence on the movement that he co-founded. Braque said “The discovery of his work overturned everything….I had to rethink everything. There was a battle to be fought against much of what we knew, what we had tended to respect, admire, or love. In Cézanne’s works we should see not only a new pictorial construction but also – too often forgotten – a new moral suggestion of space.”  Pithiness of this observation lies in capturing the moral dimension of Cezanne’s obsession.


Coming back to Cezanne’s anxiety, this anxiety is a critical part of the moral dimension. In an oft-quoted remark to his son six weeks before his death, Cezanne said “I must tell you that I am becoming, as a painter, more lucid in the presence of nature, but with me, to realize my sensations is always painful. I cannot achieve the intensity that manifests itself to my senses; I do not have the magnificent richness of coloration that animates nature.” Cezanne’s anxiety- his desperation for expression or a yawning gap between feeling and realization was defined by critic Robert Hughes as ‘ the scrupulousness of a genius without facility’ and was elevated to the level of ‘the touchstone of the modern consciousness.’  Hughes too detects the moral dimension in Cezanne’s struggle. He writes “his painting was a moral struggle in which the search for identity fused with desire to make the strongest possible images of the other – nature- under the continuous inspiration and abomination of an art tradition that he revered.”

Development of Cezanne’s art makes for a fascinating reading. His origins had very little art. In Aix-en-Provence, where he was born in 1839 it was as non artistic as was possible in the France of the day. His father was a laborer turned  hatter and, eventually, a banker. He (the father) was convinced that his son was not a fool and was surprisingly supportive of his son’s artistic plans.  From 1852 to 1858 young Cezanne studied humanities at the College Bourbon in Aix, where he met his lifetime friend, Zola the writer. Ironically in college, Cezanne used to win all literary awards and Zola was winner in the arts competitions. After that he studied law for a while, but under Zola's constant encouragement he turned to painting. By 1861 both young men were in Paris.

His fascination   with ‘presence’ found its natural expression in his genius as portraitist. Starting with 1869-70 portrait of his painter friend Achille Emperaire he went on to become one of the best portrait artists of all time. His self portraits ‘invite comparison with those of Rembrandt, and the best of them justify it’. Like everything Cezanne, his portraits assert their pictorial distinctiveness with every fiber of their being. Subjects of the portrait emerge as ‘fully formed’ to take their space and cut out any confusion that can lead to dilution of clarity of structures. ‘Realization of sensation’ is foregrounding of the syntax of presence. Hughes nails Cezanne’s  pursuit of chiseling out the reality of his local mountain- Mont Ste- Victoire. I will reproduce this biggish paragraph so as not to dilute the astute observations of the critic.  “Each painting attacks the mountain and its distance as a fresh problem. The bulk runs from a mere vibration of watercolor on the horizon, its translucent, wriggling profile echoing the pale green and lavender gestures of the foreground trees, to the vast solidarity of the Philadelphia version of Mont Ste.-Victoire, 1902-06. There, all is displacement. Instead of an object in an imaginary box, surrounded by transparency, every part of the surface is a continuum, a field of resistant form. Patches of gray, blue and lavender that jostle in the sky are as thoroughly articulated as those that constitute the flank of the mountain. Nothing is empty in late Cézanne — not even the bits of untouched canvas. …. His goal was presence, not illusion, and he pursued it with an unremitting gravity. The fruit in the great still lifes of the period, like Apples and Oranges, 1895-1900, are so weighted with pictorial decision — their rosy surfaces filled, as it were, with thought — that they seem about twice as solid as real fruit could be. … The light in his watercolors (perhaps the most radiant exercises in that medium since Turner) is not just the transcendent energy, the "supernatural beauty" of abstraction; it is also the harsh, verifiable flicker of sun on Provençal hillsides. To his anguish and fulfillment, Cézanne was embedded in the real world, and he returns us to it, whenever his pictures are seen.”  It is this struggle of realizing those sensations on canvas that makes Cezanne so enduring.

Durability of Cezanne’s appeal is also due to comprehensive nature of success. He is relatively rare in achieving maturity of multiple aspects of his artistic genius. When his influence on later artists is talked about, mostly the reference is to some particular aspect which was picked by the artists and taken to new heights. In Cezanne we find realization of many aspects- coloration, form, drawing, texture, modeling and expression. His monkish dedication to his art and ability to avoid self-destructive impulses, so common to his era, led to a certain ripeness and heft to his output. This ripeness lent sufficient complexity to his work that enabled later artist to pick and choose from a masterly weave of fully realized fields. Softly dazzling aura of his watercolors, stoic weightiness of his still life or unmistakable ‘presence’ of his portraits is grand enough to be a foundation of separate schools. Here too, his achievement was embedded in a moral dimension as noted by Meyer Schapiro “he was capable of an astonishing variety. This variety rests on the openness of his sensitive spirit. He admitted to the canvas a great span of perception and mood, greater than that of his Impressionist friends. This is evident from the range of themes alone; but it is clear in the painterly qualities as well. He draws or colors; he composes or follows his immediate sensation of nature; he paints with a virile brush solidly, or in the most delicate sparse watercolor, and is equally sure in both. He possessed a firm faith in spontaneous sensibility, in the resources of the sincere self. He can be passionate and cool, grave and light; he is always honest.” Cezanne was always direct and agonizingly moral. ‘Frankness of his means’ coupled with his dedicated search of the pure form took him to a pedestal which is reserved for the epoch-makers. 
Robert Hughes has written “it may be that Cezanne was reaching for a kind of expression in painting that did not exist in his time and still does not in ours.” His desperation for expression and ‘sensitive spirit’ was looking for a new sensibility. Despite ripeness of his output that search remained unfulfilled. This unfulfilled search for a new sensibility is what that makes him ‘Patriarch of Modernism’. His sensibility was beyond his facility as bemoaned in his last letter to his son while describing the pain of realizing the sensations. He kept his agony from turning self destructive and that allowed him to practice his craft at a level which was heroic enough to open the floodgates of modern art.  True modernism is a search, not a point, in art history.   The fact that Cezanne remained unfulfilled is a testimony of his humanity and his greatness.

-Dhiraj Singh

Friday, May 24, 2013

Normal Pathology of The Fall

The fall (BBC 2 starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornon) is now two episodes old and has making of a great complex psychological drama.  The Allan Cubitt’s new drama is a serious affair with brilliant performances and uncompromising portrayal of evil.  It is a difficult viewing which is scary rather than repelling.  An overhang of violence or implicit threat has not been achieved by gore and blood but situating evil in boring sedate reality.  This ordinariness of the evil is compounded as camera refuses to turn away from ‘really’ uncomfortable issues. 
“The basic story of the series is that of two hunters: a serial killer on the loose in Belfast and the police officer who is tasked with stopping him. The first hunter is a man by the name of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan); a serial killer who happens to be a grief counsellor by day. The second hunter is Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson- she of X Files). Gibson, an officer from London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is an old acquaintance of PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns (John Lynch), who calls her in to do a 28 day review of a murder case which has stalled. While reviewing the case she comes across two cases which she believes are linked and were committed by the same individual and, after convincing Burns of that fact, abandons her review to head the inquiry into the serial killer on the loose in Belfast.” (from TVwise review of the The Fall)
            Serial killing is by definition sadistic i.e. killing for pleasure and, moreover, the victim has done nothing to earn her (mostly it is a she) fate except to conforming to some characteristic that triggers the evil in the psychopath.  In popular culture it has been used extensively however, almost always, a distance has been created by situating the evil in something exotic.  Audience differentiate themselves from serial killers in more fundamental ways then just degrees.  They normally don’t see themselves on the same continuum and serial killers are given enough ‘quirks’ to make them a different species altogether.  But not here.  Proximity with the evil has been achieved not only with camera dwelling lovingly on the brutality but also the calm way in which the killer goes about his business at the crime scene. 
            More than this longish stay with the brutality, it is the context in which the killer has been put.  Jamie Dornan’s Paul Spector gets his menace quotient from the scenes in which he is placed in normal family life and a routine day job.  Busy thrum and stress of the domesticity only adds to the normalcy of the circumstances.  There is nothing extraordinary about the stress that he faces in his everyday life.  He may not be cheerful but how many of normal people are?  Still, there is no doubt that he is evil.  Domesticity is a backdrop that props up his darker side.    Use of deviant situations in routine everyday life creates an unease which does more to establish the dark canvas then the conventional mores  of suspense genre.  
            In one scene we meet Paul in his role as a grief counselor and find him asking probing questions to his clients. Occasional diversion   in the sexual territory will not be noted, but from him it raises some antennas. Later we catch him making inappropriate drawings while the mother talks of death of her child.  Other uneasy situations involve children near perilous situations.  He hides his gear in the false roof right above his son’s bed, adorned with whatever children’s rooms are adorned. His daughter gives a jaunty family performance while he gets distracted by the news item about his previous kill. Inappropriate behavior of the teenage babysitter and her vulnerability in the presence of cold blooded psychopath keeps us on edge. In a later scene, camera follows the young daughter moving towards the room where Paul is wrestling with the babysitter.
            These situations firmly established the perverse nature of the landscape.  However, the perversity never crosses the line to become otherworldly.  It always remains within the overall parameter of normalcy: just a point on the continuum where we all can see ourselves.  Somehow, it always appears that this evil is possible for any one.  Even the audience cannot rule itself out. 
Another effective trick was a juxtaposition sequence in the beginning of the second episode.  In the sequence camera alternately shifted between domineering lovemaking between DSI Stella and one of her subordinates and the languid perversion of the killer in which he ‘poses’ his victim with elaborate tenderness. The sequence serves to blur the boundaries of perverse behavior of a serial killer and seemingly normal behavior of DSI Stella.  In short, intense atmospheric shots are used to stunning impact to give the series its calm eerie texture.  
Performances are top notch. Gillian Anderson is effortless in conveying her haughtiness, maverick tendencies and a very strong personality. She uses the full weight of her personality to get what she wants – whether it is the attention of a good looking cop or to be lead investigator in a case. Above all she conveys her capabilities and vulnerability with great facility without making too much song and dance about them. The Fall achieves its status of being “perfect means of exploring the banality of evil, the nature of obsession, and the niggly-squirmy minutiae of everyday”  by devoting equal time to the hunter and hunted. Jamie Dornon is playing the creepy with a surefootedness of a  pro. He is able survive long sequences without belaboring the point of his evil still conveying the full horror of his ‘normal’ pathology.

-Dhiraj Singh

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Martin Scorsese: 'Headlong Momentum of a Consummate Story-teller'

If works of Martin Scorsese were not so absorbingly effective, one would have tempted to call him a ‘show off’. He simply loves to ravel in style and wears his love for his craft on sleeves. Good thing is that his showmanship comes from his excellent command over the language of cinema and mastery over various ingredients that go into making a truly great movie. What makes this good thing work is his ability to deploy his skills to realize his vision. In him we see a happy synthesis of a “consummate story teller and a visual stylist.”   With his extraordinary skills in both style and substance he chose a role of outsider and stuck to deploy his skills to realistic portrayal of gritty urban landscape. His saga is replete with defining motifs of celluloid lore of past almost four decades. His two defining sensibilities- catholic religious themes (he trained to be a priest) and fascination with gangsters (he grew up in little Italy area of New York), were leveraged to deal with fluent portrayal of reality of American life in particular and, more importantly, life in general. He chooses his themes and builds his story like a clockwork which is absorbing in its effortless complexity and flawless execution. Themes like the love for technology or wonderment created by curiosity (Hugo), corruption by power and greed, betrayal (all his gangster movies), joy of talent and music (his documentaries of Rolling stones and Bob Dylan), catholic sin (Mean Street) and aloneness (Taxi Driver) get fleshed out with powerful performances, made to order editing and camera movements that capture the spirit of the story. He uses his camera like a pen and impels viewer to ‘read’ his scenes.  He is capable of creating a point of view shot without using PoV shot. A perfect marriage of craft and emotions.


This visual calisthenics is not jarring as it works on the inherent grammar of his stories.  Scorsese has complete tonal control over what is appearing on screen. He maintains that control with a surefootedness which is an innate quality with Scorsese. He has honed his technological virtuosity to amazing sophistication. However, this sophistication has always been subservient to his greatest gift- the gift of storytelling. He has a knack of grasping the central theme of the story and portraying  that with gritty realism and a lyrical control over the flow of the story. Another thing that makes a Scorsese movie so captivating is his enthusiasm for his subject.  As Late Roger Ebert said in his review of ‘Goodfellas’ ‘the film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share.” Scorsese is able to convey that enthusiasm   to the audience and makes them an accomplice in his story telling. 
Martin Scorsese was born on November 17, 1942, in Flushing, NY to Charles and Catherine Scorsese who later often made cameo appearances in Scorsese films. As a child he suffered from severe asthma. His condition restricted his outdoor activities and helped him develop a relatively solitary passion in movies. Given the devout catholic atmosphere at home he studied to become a priest. Eventually he found a stronger calling in films and enrolled in film school at New York University. His student efforts, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (9 Minutes), It's Not Just You, Murray! (15 Minutes) were noted favourably. After another short film- The Big Shave (1967) he completed his first feature Who's That Knocking at My Door? in 1969. He formed two key partnerships in the movie one with actor Harvey Keitel and other with Editor Thelma Schoonmaker who has played a defining role in affirmation of Scorsese’s visual style. For next three year he taught films at New York University, worked on documentaries, shifted to Hollywood, directed Boxcar Bartha. He came back to New York and made his first great movie Mean Street in 1973. New York Times says “ Mean Streets established many of the thematic stylistic hallmarks of the Scorsese oeuvre: his use of outsider antiheroes, unusual camera and editing techniques, dueling obsessions with religion and gangster life, and the evocative use of popular music. It was this film that launched him to the forefront of a new generation of American cinematic talent. The film also established Scorsese's relationship with actor Robert De Niro, who quickly emerged as the central onscreen figure throughout the majority of his work.” 

His Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, brought Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress Oscar in 1974 and  a Best Supporting Actress nomination for co-star Diane Ladd. His gifts were reaching their fruition and found a resounding manifestation in one of the all time great movies of cinema history ‘Taxi Driver’. Paul Schrader’s screenplay found that rare coming together of all the elements to create perfect harmony. Harmony is a curious word to use for the gorgeous chaos that was ‘Taxi Driver’. The movie is a veritable study in how to depict links between individual and societal pathology. Scorsese hit on the language that can be used on celluloid to portray mental decline, corrosive impact of loneliness in a society relentlessly pouring excuses for violence for emotionally challenged. De Niro rose up to the task with gritty determination. Music, cinematography, performances, editing and direction created a wonderfully weird tapestry that made every quixotic turn natural and even hitting a receptive chord in audience. Travis Bickle’s (De Niro’s cabbie driver character) complete alienation with humanity and his awkward attempts to have normal contact with fellow humans had outlandish turns (remember when he took his date to a porn theatre in all his earnestness or the conversation with the presidential candidate in the car that progressed from flattery to alarm or his interactions with  the child prostitute) led to deepening of story and audience felt engrossed in the splendid unfolding of a complex story. For the audience every jarring incident is a comforting marker in the journey of the story. That inherent order in the chaos is what made Taxi Driver the movie that it is. 

He remained prolific in coming days, though with relatively moderate success. New York, New York, a musical starring De Niro and Liza Minnelli was not received very well. He succeeded with his documentaries. His documentary of the farewell performance of the Band, shot on Thanksgiving Day of 1976 and star-studded The Last Waltz in 1978 were appreciated by the target audience. Filmed in black and white Raging Bull is regarded as his most ambitious movie and is ranked among his greatest. De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar, while newcomer Cathy Moriarty won a Best Actress nomination and Thelma Schoonmaker won an Academy Award for editing.  De Niro-Scorsese team gave a middling satire in 1983 The King of Comedy. He directed After Hours when his dream of directing The Last Temptation of Christ fell through due to pulling of plug by the studio. After hours, though lesser known of his movies, has been called an exercise in “pure filmmaking; … a nearly flawless example of -- itself.”  The Color of Money, got him more commercial success and Oscars for his stars Paul Newman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

He started 1990s with a masterly Goodfellas.  The film epitomized his grasp over gangster genre. He is a master of simmering violence that works as a lubricant for the story. Age of innocence and Kundan  were worthy exercise in different styles. He ended the Millennium with ‘return to the gritty urban reality’ in Bringing out Dead with Nicolas Cage. 

In the new century, Scorsese attained what every artists dreams of- a great late style. He is making great movies at will. Starting with Gangs of New York a larger than life violent period drama he went to biopic like Aviator, documentary on Dylan and Stones. 

 2006 brought best Director Oscar to him for The Departed, an adaptation of Infernal Affairs. To quote Ebert again “What makes this a Scorsese film, and not merely a retread, is the director's use of actors, locations and energy, and its buried theme. I am fond of saying that a movie is not about what it's about; it's about how it's about it. That's always true of a Scorsese film.” He has continued making quality movies. If Shutter Island stopped at very good,  Hugo came out to be great. A very far cry from violent gangster movies, Hugo showed Scorsese, almost 70 at that time in full command of his gifts and weaving a celluloid poetry, leveraging his awesome technical skills for a fluid storytelling experience. A tribute to wondrous world of movies. One only hopes that he maintains that ‘headlong momentum’ of a consummate storyteller. 

-Dhiraj Singh

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hannibal on TV- Cannibal in the livingroom

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is back on screen, this time on small screen. As has been the wont of the genius cannibal doctor, he is the star of the show though, like always, most of the screen time is taken up by his pursuer the cop. In Hannibal, we are still at Red Dragon Lector where he was still social, though ,actively engaged in his anti social, anti-human activities of making homo-sapiens his lunch. In fact, Red Dragon and Silence of Lambs led to creation of an enduring villain who is a constant presence in background while centre stage is hogged by Will Graham in Red Dragon and Clarice Starling in the Silence.  However, this dark fascination with evil followed normal tendency of humanizing the evil and make him somewhat sympathize with dogged protagonists. Hannibal was made to care for Clarice a bit too much to retain the edge in his evil. Thomas Harris would have been better off just continuing to offer Lecter’s  genius and discomfort that he creates by his obvious superiority intertwined so effortlessly with his obvious evil.

 Great characters, whether suffering or inflicting sufferings, unravel when they start caring about other people. Brando’s character in Last Tango in Paris was fascinating in his silent suffering and keeping the focus on his delicious agony.Bernardo Bertolucci in a masterly way showed how he lost his lustre once he became a normal ‘sissy’ boyfriend. You touch your dreams and they will change colour. Harris in effect  killed the character with Hannibal (the third novel) and Hannibal Rising (The Last in series) effectively entombed the evil in the coffin of humanity.
This makes it interesting how the medium of TV, where episode system provides new possibilities through the use of time that allows build up much more thoroughly than two hour movie. On TV Hannibal is on to a great start as Hannibal is giving vent to his darker side.  Danish Actor Lars Mikkelsen is taking forward his poker strengths of Casino Royale. He is able to induce uncertainty in our feelings towards him.   Uneasiness that his predilections create in our mind are easily compounded by his unwavering ambiguous gaze that conveys, more than anything, a disturbing quality of menace. The director is able to dexterously harness the food and eating connections of cannibalism. Scenes of unexplained sharing of food (with Will Graham in first episode and with Jack Crowford  in second) with suspicious colour and texture add to this discomfort. Horror is more effective if it is repulsive in a more intimate way.

Apart from his culinary aspects Hannibal is also indulging in ‘breaking an interesting pony’.  He relishes in mind games with a worthy opponent. Will Graham is a suitable challenge for his capabilities. In films and novels, Dr Lecter pulled his strings more subtly and explanation of his influence and reasoning were less obvious. On TV this is being done more elaborately. His rich understanding of human beings is on display and his effortless mental dual with Graham is part of the charm. Dr Lecter attains full traction only in the company of opponent who are unique in their own way. Will Graham and Clarice Starling both were special and damaged. Here, will Graham’s episodes of ‘extreme empathy’ are the dramatic high points which are used as a tool to unravel the gruesome montage that serial killers are so good at.  Hugh Dancy is settling nicely in his role. He is burdened and suffering due to his gift. Dancy is portraying the vulnerability and determination with due felicity.

Build up is promising as the show is avoiding haste in catching audience. Similarly, character points for highlighting have been identified and established. Now events and psychological duals have to carry the show. Hope the audience gets its pay offs from this show with strong cast and great characters.

-Dhiraj Singh