From time to time I will do an update of earlier pieces with added thoughts or new information. I will also link to the original essay in case you want to revisit it. Martha Winterhalter, who is administrating this site, is working with our Webmaster, Jon Stout, to create an easier way to access the archieved pieces. The existing “Wordpress” format is not yet our ideal system for easy access to them.
(This coming Monday I will post a two-part piece titled, "Last Man Standing in Toxic Town." It is the story of a town and its people, a town in the tri-state corner of northeast Oklahoma that once had the world's largest lead and zinc mine.)
Here is an update of three previous essays:
I did in fact meet Roy Andersson at his MOMA retrospective. It was comprehensive and the prints were excellent, many with projected titles in English. One thing that is certain about New York film audiences—no matter how specialized or arcane the subject or filmmaker, the Titus Theaters at MOMA are always well attended.
Andersson is indeed a quiet and gentle man; he has a devoted group of fellow artists and filmmakers who collaborate on all his films. They work mainly within the parameters of his personal workspace, Studio 24.
There was a new documentary shown as part of the retrospective, Tomorrow’s Another Day, made by his colleagues Pehr Arte and Johan Carlsson. It follows the shooting of Andersson’s recent feature, You, the Living and illustrates in great detail how many of the scenes were filmed. Most sets are built only out to the edges of a predetermined frame, with a set camera distance, height and lens, often as wide as 16mm. This is necessary as many sets are built in false perspective since the stage space is quite compact. The wide lenses create a sense of great depth and aid in the necessary deep focus. There are no CGI or visual effects employed. Everything is done in camera with foreground elements hanging in front of the lens to extend set heights.
A case in point is the end sequence, the so-called “Armada Bombing.” This first clip shows Andersson talking with an efx artist about the scale model of the city to be bombed. At the beginning of the shot, note the small painted sky backing and the suspended planes that will be dropped by wires into the scene:
Here is the final sequence of the film. The scene of the bombers in formation over the city begins at 1:52. This whole shot is done in real time on the stage. Crew members fly in multiple elements and create the clouds with a smoker:
Here is a picture gallery from You, the Living.
Contrary to what I had thought, Andersson says he uses very few of the sets from his commercials as recycled elements in his films. The shots in his films are just too specific. The detail and intricacy required to create each scene captured in a single setup, harkens back to an earlier handmade cinema era, almost to the magic theater of Mêlies.
Here is an excerpt from an interview Andersson did recently with Leonard Lopate on his eponymous WNYC radio show. Lopate asks him if his commercial work “bites the hand that feeds you.” Andersson, whose English is excellent, doesn’t get the idiom right away.
One 15-minute film that was shown at the retrospective and is now available on YouTube is World of Glory. The opening scene is a vision of a nightmarish future:
The narrator standing in the foreground and turning to camera several times is a businessman, (Andersson calls these characters “Mr. Nobodys”) whose bleak life becomes ever more unraveled, blackout-to-blackout as the film unreels. The subtitles are in French but the uncompromising severity of the images speaks for itself. Do remember, Andersson says his works are comedies. Beckett, anyone?
I fully understand that Andersson’s aesthetic is not tasty gruel for everyone. But his vision of cinema is, despite all the critics’ comparisons, absolutely unique in a world of cinema that is becoming increasingly cookie-cutter in its stylistic batter.
If you’ve stuck with the links ‘til now, here are two clips from You, the Living that show the more comedic, absurdist side of Andersson, what I called in the earlier essay, the “Keatonesque.”
I wrote this previous piece before the exhibition had opened in NYC but later, I did see it several times during its opening week. If you are on the east coast, go. If not, it stays at the Met until Jan. 3, 2010. This is its final stop. It has already been to SFMOMA. It is worth a trip to NYC just to see this historic show.
The gallery layout reveals just how much thought and editing Frank made in structuring the flow of the 83 images in the book. There are four sections (not indicated by captioned or chapter breaks), each one introduced with a photo displaying the American flag. This flow, image to image, can only be fully appreciated by seeing the work hung on a gallery wall. One imagines this is how Frank laid out the photos during his yearlong editing process. Several vitrines contain the marked up contact sheets of each of the images that made up the final selection. A close scrutiny of these sheets reveals Frank’s shooting method. Sometimes, there is close to a full roll of 36 frames exposed to get the chosen image; sometimes, there are only two or three.
Many of the prints are vintage. But some appear to be more recent, esp. the larger ones that come from his dealer, Peter McGill. We are used to thinking of work from the 50s and 60s printed in either 8 x 10 or no more than 11 x 14. Many of the prints here exhibited are much larger and defy your expectations, both in scale and in richness of tone. Much has been written about how casual Frank was with exposures. The contact sheets do testify to that as there is often great variance in exposure from frame to frame, but there is not a single image that looks compromised in the final print.
Here is a slideshow and audio interview with Philip Getter. Frank discusses specific images:
And here is Holland Cotter’s NY Times review of the Met exhibition in situ:
There is a pocket gallery at the end of the exhibition. On one wall a 3-minute video is projected. Frank made it at his home in Nova Scotia and in his apartment in NYC. It is here that Frank shoots video of a friend using a power drill to make several holes through a stack of prints of The Americans. It is shocking and is a testament to how imprisoned Frank must have felt for many years by the reputation of this body of work. The book had assumed an almost canonic reverence a decade after its publication. Frank felt this came at the expense of his current films and more personal photography.
In this final room, as you turn to the wall opposite, there is a Plexiglas case. In it is the stack of mutilated prints, held fast to a fabric covered plywood board by several metal bolts, the photos then wrapped in baling wire. A legend on the wall nearby reads, “Destroying the Americans.” Here is a rather blurred photo of it:
I don’t quite know how to explain the reaction I had on seeing this. I have never before seen an artist’s retrospective exhibition end with such a deliberate negative statement. Is it merely the dark personal joke of a mythic American artist in the twilight of his mischief posturing, or is there still even now an unresolved ambivalence about how the artist becomes a prisoner of his own creations?
After winning the “Silver Lion” award at this year’s Venice Film festival, Shirin took her film to the Toronto Film Festival. She has just returned from Stockholm and an exhibition of her photography. Her email gave me an update:
Since the film opened in Venice, the film has been invited to many festivals internationally. For example, this month I'll be going to London Film Festival and the Vienna Film festival (Viennale), and then to Kunstfilm Biennial in Kol; later it will go to many other countries as well, so it's wonderful that it's getting a nice festival run. Meanwhile, the producer told me that it has been sold to around 17 territories, which in this economy is not bad.
Meanwhile, I'm starting to free my mind so I could begin to read new scripts and novels which might inspire me. I'm thinking more and more about making my next feature film, this time perhaps even more cinematic... looking for the right story for the moment.
Needless to say it feels liberating to have FINALLY finished Women Without Men which at some point we thought to call it, “Women Without an END!!!”
There are few filmmaker or video artists who also have a body of still photo work as powerful, yet as beautiful, as Shirin’s. Yet she, too, must feel constrained by this decade long project.
Here is her self-portrait: