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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What Is Art? Bob Ross and Mary Cassatt

I was listening to a discussion of the recent documentary on the life and work of Bob Ross. He is the painter who painted all the "happy little trees" and liked it when a slip of the brush or paint drippings created "happy accidents." He was a practitioner of the "wet on wet" technique of oil painting that would allow a person to complete a painting in around 30 minutes. He was not an academically trained painter; he learned to paint through a television series after he retired from the Air Force, where he spent much of his time in Alaska.  Alaska gave him a deep appreciation of mountains and other bucolic, tranquil scenes. 

Bob Ross

Critics routinely savage Bob Ross. They attack him for being sentimental and formulaic, and that there are no deep ideas behind his paintings, just a shallow, uninteresting set of visual cliches designed to make people feel that all is good in the world, and there is no reason to examine, interrogate, or question life. His work is not subversive, at least not overtly so. 

It's interesting about how and when critics attack artists for being too "commercial" or sentimental. I think that the early Impressionists were not universally admired or embraced, especially those who painted in "plein aire" -- taking their oils out into the outdoors and painting quickly. I think it's similar to what Bob Ross did, except the brush techniques, the color palette, and the subjects were different. Mary Cassatt comes to mind. Many of her paintings were done in "plein aire" -- "Poppies in a Field (1880)" comes to mind. It's not a landscape per se - it has children in it, but it has bright colors and to look at it gives one a happy feeling (to quote Bob Ross).

Mary Cassatt - Poppies in a Field (1880)

Is Mary Cassatt controversial or subversive?  She was classically and academically trained, and from a wealthy family. She moved to France to pursue painting -- so, her formation alone differentiate her from the way that Bob Ross learned how to paint. She was quite literate, where as Bob Ross dropped out of high school at age 14, but presumably had a GED given that he was in the Air Force.

But, how might Mary Cassatt be considered great and Bob Ross considered kitsch?  We can say that Bob Ross is making a visual commentary on the Hudson River school such as Thomas Cole and the landscape artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt who painted the American West -- with the sense of romantic vastness. 

Thomas Cole - The Oxbow (1836)

The answer might be not just in the technique, but in the philosophical underpinnings that inform the paintings. Bob Ross paints to elicit an emotion (happiness) while painters such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt painted from the Romantic spirit of the day; Romanticism as a philosophical construct that seeks extremes of emotion (awe, the sublime), a sense of the vast, unknowable states of being and universal order (or chaos), and finally, the concept of human liberty. That said, would a painter who seeks to evoke tranquility be automatically relegated to "kitsch"? Sometimes the differentiator is a commercial motive: Bob Ross worked to sell his books and art supplies. But, how many Romantic painters worked on commission? Here we can see one differentiator - Kitsch is intended for mass markets; Romantics painted for a more rarified audience, seeking the seal of approval by various academies or institutions.

Bob Ross - Stream

But, to return to the idea of a visual "conversation" with an artistic forebear, it's interesting to compare the choice of colors - the palette - of Bob Ross versus that of the 19th century landscape artists. Bob Ross's paintings are often considered "pretty" or even "beautiful," while aspects of the Romantics could be considered "stunning" or even terrifying. He is making a commentary of sorts. The same be said of Mary Cassatt -- she is making a visual commentary on paintings such as Jean-Francois Millet's The Gleaners (1857).

Jean-Francois Manet - The Gleaners (1857)

Manet subverted generic expectations by including the poor and working class. She subverted yet again generic expectations by incorporating children of the upper middle class, playing in poppies. The children are not cherubs or angels, as in religious paintings, nor are they the infant Jesus or saints as infants. That in itself makes them rather unique -- plein aire -- spontaneous depictions of every day life, and a heightened kind of realism that makes experience, or the recollection of one's experience, more glorious and joyous each time one recollects it.

Bob Ross - Mountain at Sunset

The Smithsonian's American History Museum accepted the donation of four Bob Ross paintings, along with memorabilia. One of those paintings was displayed, after the Smithsonian even hosted a Bob Ross painting class featuring one of the Bob Ross, Inc. instructors. The concept of having a school of painting and many practitioners is oddly evocative of the Italian Renaissance, and more specifically, of Michelangelo, Titian, and Donatello, except that the painters paint to achieve a mood rather than to produce a mood (thinking of religious awe or later, the Romantics' "blessed mood" (Wordsworth) or the "sublime" (Edmund Burke). But, more on that later!

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Thoughts on Rochelle Owens: Patterns of Animus, Part 3, The Ludwig Skulls

Rochelle Owens's latest work, Part 3: The Ludwig Skulls, is a part of a larger work, Patterns of Animus, which has been published online in Poems and Poetics edited by Jerome Rothenberg, and Jacket. The overall work, Patterns of Animus, can be said to constitute a neural network of patterns related to the creative process, which is also a practice of intentional destruction on signifiers and the meaning-making mechanisms in all their manifestations. In "Part 3, The Ludwig Skulls," the incantation-like repetitions and the horror that the Patterns of Animus images evoke suddenly takes a dark turn into deep sadness, loss, and a sense of shock on contemplating what happens after death. She focuses on the skulls of Ludwig von Beethoven and Ludwig Wittgenstein, pulling them together as revolutionary geniuses, the first whose skull was studied after his death in order to posit a connection between nature (the skull you were born with) and genius.

Male Skull, Male Genius

Owens's primary emphasis is on the deep questioning of society’s tendency to place male genius on a pedestal and then make the criterion of excellence something that only highly charismatic and hyperbolically dramatic males can achieve.

The act of disarticulating a skeleton in order to study the skull is a metonymy for fragmentation. In this case it is a systematic dismantling that gives rise to the existence of multiple meanings, multiple interpretations. The process constitutes a persistent and grotesque “memento mori,” and, like the memento mori of Renaissance art, it serves as a reminder of death that is supposed to make one’s appreciation of life the most keen. Nevertheless, such a memento mori also posits a kind of living horror, a waking nightmare of life in which the haunting presence of death is inescapable and even joy can only be maximized by smashing it together with death.

It’s very much a Renaissance motif, which one sees not only in paintings but also in poetry and drama. “Alas, poor Yorick” is perhaps the most famous reference, when Hamlet gazes onto the skull of the famous actor, Yorick, whose reputation has faded, and all that is left is the skull.   The idea is expressed in the line from “The Ludwig Skulls” --“only death gives life meaning.”

Technologies of Revelation

When a body is dissected, it is taken apart to explore and uncover what lies hidden. In "The Ludwig Skulls," there is more than method used in this process of revealing patterns and other phenomena. Owens explores the technologies of revelation; namely cameras, projection, and light. She repeats the following passage:

      Camera zooming and panning

      projection screen

      solar light slashes (“Patterns of Animus” part 3)

(https://jacket2.org/commentary/rochelle-owens-2)

The juxtapositions of the frantic camera, the fragmentation of language via letters (as Wittgenstein broke apart language to expose the ultimate futility of using it to convey universal meaning), with the routine support work of a lab tech, and the energizing qualities of hot, black coffee, combine to shred and break apart the elitist carapace of knowledge and culture.

The process of disaggregation is more important to the process of revelation than one might think. The disarticulation of a skeleton is clearly a dismantling of the bodies (of authority, of knowledge) of the past. As one contemplates the fragmentations, one might think of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto from 1909. However, Marinetti was in large part simply reacting against aristocratic or bourgeois sensibilities. Owens, however, introduces a subversive humor. The memento mori of a Ludwigian skull  a response to the continued lionizing of the “great male skulls” that make it impossible to break free from old paradigms because both the beliefs and the countering subversions are held in the skulls of the Ludwigs, who represent dead, white European males and the mainstream European intellectual tradition.

The central irony that a deaf man can write some of the world’s most stirring music has been a paradox that haunts people who learn the history of Beethoven’s life. They do not realize what an iconoclast he was, and they forget the context of Romanticism and some of its most important terms: the ineffable and the sublime to express almost mystical or transcendental awareness.  He embraced revolution in the sense that it disrupted the order, and in the chaos seethed a cauldron of potential.

Wittgenstein writes about the ultimate impossibility of language to communicate meaning. How different is what Wittgenstein saying about language than what Beethoven did with music?  The musical notes he cannot hear are the words that float around, unmoored from their meanings.

Skulls and Puzzle Bones

Owens suggests that to truly create a work that breaks free from the strictures of dominant culture paradigms, it is necessary to identify the underpinnings (the “skulls”) and to interject light, nature, and natural processes (life as well as rot) and then to reconfigure both language (“cursing / howling / screaming”) and the essential order (the “puzzle bones”), and then to juxtapose decay with the vital fluids of life (spit, blood, gore).

As pointed out before, Wittgenstein stated, among other things, that language has a certain irreducibility, and that it is not capable of expressing the ineffable (“about which we cannot speak we must consign to silence”), or if it is, it is only by creating language that is the equivalent of silence, a kind of white noise of random juxtapositions.

Owens contends that to overcome the embedded patriarchy and hegemonic strictures of language, one must move to the visual (the “camera zooming and panning”) that triggers the parts of the brain that can admit new patterns and are not trapped in the pattern-recognition / meaning construction of language or music built within “old skulls.”

When construction and subversion (or deconstruction) are all constructed of the same materials and when the builders and the subversives are of the same group, there is no subversion at all. All that happens is a transfer of power, and the King accedes to a cousin, the Duke. In the end, the bastions of power are reinforced. The ten percent become the one percent. All they have done is create a smaller, and tighter elite by keeping the masses busy by going to war with themselves.

In the end, it is the essence of the human body itself that offers a pathway to illumination and the production of the kind of art that exposes the mysteries of life itself.

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

    Norman, Oklahoma

 

 

 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Two Monks (Juan Bustillo Oro, Dir., 1934): Why I love Mexican Cinema - 4

Dos Monjes (Two Monks) emerged in 1934 as one of the most innovative Expressionist films of the time. In the same genre as the work explored by the German Expressionist filmmakers, F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, Juan Bustillo Oro uses dramatic techniques to tell a story, but more importantly to probe the psychological state and the nature of reality of the protagonists.

The storyline of Dos Monjes is straight-forward, especially as Gothic fiction goes. Two monks, who clearly hate each other, are in the same monastery. One has a secret, and the other has a lacuna, a big gap in his memory, which is not as much like amnesia as something that might have had from a shock from which his mind has not yet recovered.

Dos Monjes (Two Monks) is a ground-breaking film of Mexican Expressionism. Although critically well received, it was followed by only one of the same Expressionist genre, primarily because the newly-elected president of Mexico, President Cardenas, gave financial support to work following Leninist notions that art was to be used for didactic purposes, and to inculcate socialist values. Thus, his presidency supported the films that were consonant with themes such as land reform, nationalization of national resources, separation of church and state, educational opportunities for indigenous, and more. Abstract, modernist, and expressionistic art forms clashed with his administration’s ideology. So, Bustillo Oro, along with other filmmakers, began to make more traditional films, although there is no doubt that Bustillo Oro’s aesthetic ideas infuse all his work, and even constitute a subversion of the dominant ideology of the day.

Bustillo Oro’s ability to manage the techniques and ideas of Expressionism is stunning, particularly considering he and his crew had to improvise and build for the first time the sets and the techniques in order to bring about the effects.  Specifically, there is a visual “conversation” with various antecedents, which include the German Expressionist cinematographers: F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. From art, the conversations include the painters Edvard Munch, Ernst Kirchner, Pablo Picasso, and the sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

The story is a basic one: a young woman is shot during an argument between two young men. What really happened? The only certain thing is that she is dead, and that the two men ended up at the same monastery. We learn what happened in the accident through flashbacks. The details of the accident are not as important as the psychological story being told by means of film technique, and also the destabilization of reality and all the ontological considerations attendant to it. Specifically, Bustillo Oro uses lighting, shadows, point of view and perspective to call into question what is real and what is a hallucination or flaw in memory.  

CHARACTERS

Javier                           A gifted composer, but psychologically unstable

Juan                             Javier’s boyhood friend, now a sailor

Ana                              Javier’s next door neighbor with whom he falls in love

Gertrudis:                     Javier’s mother

THEMES

Madness:                     The primary theme of the film is that of madness and how it shapes one’s perceptions of reality. In essence, it is about the victims of madness and how it takes their lives away from them. For Bustillo Oro, madness is depicted less in words and more in expressionistic images and lighting that show rather than describe the states of mind, the perceptions, and the unmoorings from rational thought.

Obsessive love:             Javier’s love for Ana verges on the obsessive. She does not reciprocate in the same way; she is mainly grateful to him and to Gertrudis (Javier’s mother) for having given her a place to stay when her parents expelled her from their home after she rejected a suitor. Unbeknownst to all, Ana rejected the suitor because she had promised herself to Juan before his latest long sea voyage.           

The nature of memory: Memory is not to be trusted in Dos Monjes. In fact, the film revolves around two competing narratives and ideas about how memory depends on the eye of the beholder, and that one’s own memory may be inaccurate.

Friendship:                   The friendship shared by Juan and Javier is one that dates back to childhood. However, it does not withstand the pressure of rivalry over a love interest. Nor does it withstand the pressure of psychological instability.

This is an excerpt of a longer article by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. To access the full version, you may click here

Meet Javier, a monk who is living the life of a self-abnegating monk, but we do not know why. Notice the light focused on his face, the candle and the dark background. 



This scene is absolutely brilliant: Javier is watching from his home, and observes the arrival of a suitor, the welcoming gestures of Ana’s mother, and Ana’s own resistance to the arrangement. The silhouette technique is quite striking. 



After Javier meets the newly admitted Juan in the monastery, he begins to play the organ again. But instead of the sweet, harmonious tones he created before, he is now mentally disorganized, and his performance reflects it. His music is discordant. The lighting reinforces the concept of madness, with a circle of light suggesting exaltedness. The monks are faceless, with their backs to the camera, a menacing presence.


Friday, April 30, 2021

Each Madman with his/her Theme (Dir. Juan Bustillo Oro, 1939): Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 3

Cada loco con su tema (Each Madman with his / her Own Theme) is a high-energy and highly intelligent farce from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (Cine de Oro). As a farce, it entertains the audience its use of exaggeration, absurdity, and over-the-top performances. However, as in most of Bustillo Oro’s work, Cada loco con su tema uses Expressionistic cinematography and themes from film noir to satirize a genre (pulp horror radio) and to pull in the tradition of the “carpas.” The carpas were Mexican (and also Mexican-American) traveling tent shows that traversed Mexico and the southwest United States from the time of the Mexican Revolution, 1910, through the 1940s. The high-energy theatrical spectacles were intended for working-class Spanish-speaking audiences and as such, they often mocked the wealthy classes and the mores of the rich, especially the elites descended from the Spanish who were granted land and privilege during the Spanish colonial times.  Thus, they could be, and generally were, anarchic and subversive. The brilliant comedian, Cantinflas, got his start in the carpas, where he perfected his “peladito” character, a cheerful and quick-witted street-smart character who finds himself in absurd situations, often deliberately defying conventions of the upper classes (who are indistinguishable from corrupt politicians and organized crime families).

In Cada loco con su tema, there are many levels of mistaken identity and misperceptions due to completely flawed assumptions. The main premise is that a horror-radio show writer with a comical name (Julio César Napoleón ) has driven himself into a state of extreme paranoia by being immersed in crime drama and horror all day, every day. After a nervous breakdown, he is advised to spend a month at a sanatorium operated by his doctor. To avoid possible career repercussions, he takes on an assumed name, Justiniano Conquián , which, coincidentally, is the same name as a mild-mannered and rather befuddled taxidermist who must endure one month in the ancestral family mansion, reputed to be haunted by spirits that drive one mad or to one’s death. Justiniano will inherit the full 6 million pesos. The catch is that he has to emerge from the month both alive and sane.  It won’t be easy. The real Justiniano has the bad luck of having greedy relatives who are eager to push Justiniano into madness or death so that they can have equal shares of the inheritance.

So, with such a premise, there are many opportunities for identity confusion, mix-ups, and comical misperceptions.  Most of the action takes place at the ancestral family castle, where Julio César  and his assistant, Serafin, end up after taking a wrong turn on their way to the mountain sanatorium. Justiniano’s scheming relatives are already installed there. Justiniano arrives a day late, having spent a night at the mountain sanatorium after also taking a wrong turn.

MAIN CHARACTERS

Julio César Napoleón                A successful, but very high-strung writer of horror shows for the radio          

Justiniano Conquián                  A mild-mannered taxidermist who may inherit 6 million pesos

Josefina Larios Conquián          Lovely younger sister of Justiniano

Serafin del Monte                      Julio César’s assistant

Dr. German Casca Conquián     Distant relative who devises a scheme to cheat Justiniano

Augusta                                    The butler’s wife who foretells doom and gloom

Severo                                     The butler, and also, secretly a contender to the inheritance

Lucrecia                                   The scheming wife of one of the contenders to the inheritance

Dr. Luis Jiménez                       Psychiatrist who runs a sanatorium based on his personal theories

THEMES

Grand Guignol-esque Naturalism:  The Grand-Guignol Theatre was a theatre in Paris that specialized in horrifying spectacles known to make people faint, become sick, and otherwise traumatized. In a way, they can be said to make a mockery of the Greek notion that the efficacy of theatre is in its purifying and emotionally clarifying catharsis. The Grand Guignol productions were extremely popular from the late 19th century through 1962 and exercised a tremendous influence on radio, film, and expressionistic experimental theatre such as that of Antonin Artaud (The Theatre of Cruelty). The theatre was an outgrowth of literary naturalism as pioneered by Zola, Flaubert, and Proust. The spectacles were highly popular, and prided themselves on giving people extreme experiences – something that found its way into French philosophy as well; for example, in the case of Foucault’s quest for “limit experiences.”  Always a bit disreputable and willing to toy with the frontiers of life and death (they often boasted of having a doctor on call for people who needed medical attention due to the intense shock), the Grand-Guignol Theatre became a kind of “guilty secret.” The direct heirs of the horror spectacles were the popular genres in literature and film, which included pulp fiction, horror radio, sensation novels, and horror films. Cada loco con su tema is a parody of the Grand-Guignolesque productions, and in subverting the genre, it also calls into question the true impact of art, and the nature of catharsis in theatre.

Reality is a Deconstruction.  In Cada loco con su tema reality is seriously and repeatedly called into question. Perhaps the most powerful message in Cada loco is the tacit suggestion that reality is a choice, and not something to be independently verified by empirical observation or sensory perceptions. Because they believe that they are in an asylum and that what they are seeing are simply theatrical productions designed to shock them into their senses, Julio César  and Serafin scrunch up their faces, close their eyes, and loudly chant: This is not real! This is not real! The comical aspect is that they are actually closing their eyes to something that is quite real.  When Julio César  chooses to assume the identity of Justiniano Conquián , he is also choosing his own reality. For the “real” Justiniano Conquián , his befuddlement and tenuous grasp on what is going on around him have the opposite effect. For Justiniano Conquián , reality is not a choice, but a slippery slope that slides just beyond his grasp. Taxidermy further illustrates the “reality dialectic” – the taxidermy specimens are real depictions of a life that is no longer a life. They are dead – except for the supposedly taxidermied gorilla, which turns out to be quite alive (albeit not a taxidermy specimen at all, but a man in a gorilla suit).

 This is a brief excerpt of a larger work by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.  You may access the article here. 

Julio César Napoleón, a horror radio show writer, arrives home to the sound of “hands up or I’ll shoot!” but does not realize it is his radio that has automatically turned on at the hour of his “Murder in the Madhouse.” Bustillo Oro uses the chiaroscuro of German Expressionism to emphasize the fact that this is a part of the horror genre (or a parody / subversion of it). 


Justiniano Conquián, a mild-mannered taxidermist, learns that he will inherit $6 million pesos if he can manage to survive a month in the Conquián Castle without going insane or dying. 

Dramatic backlighting gives Augusta an unearthly glow, and the light that illuminates her crucifix gives rise to the thought that one needs divine protection to survive a night in the castle

This is a dramatic point of view shot that reminds one of Bustillo Oro’s masterpiece, Dos Monjes. Dr. Conquián takes Julio César’s suggestion to start the evening meal with a prayer – a “Black Mass Prayer” to an absurd extreme. When Julio César enthusiastically joins in, Dr. Conquián impatiently chides him, “Stop blaspheming my blasphemy!”  While the Black Mass is an inversion of Christianity and Catholic rituals, the Julio César’s interruptions and farcical asides are inversions and subversions of the subversion. The result is comical chaos. 

When the loudly blaring radio program, “Murder in the Madhouse,” opens with “drop your gun!” it so startles everyone that they drop their guns. Julio César scoops it up and subdues the scoundrels, the scheming, greedy distant relatives. 


Thursday, April 08, 2021

Arm in Arm Down the Street (Del brazo y por la calle) - (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1956) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 2

Juan Bustillo Oro’s film, Arm in Arm Down the Street  (Del brazo y por la calle) (1956) is the story of a young married couple, María and Alberto, who have great dreams, but who live in grinding poverty in the harsh, noisy, industrial neighborhood of Nonoalco / Tlatelolco, which is slowly robbing both of their human dignity and, in the case of María, her sanity. What makes this film unique is the fact that Bustillo Oro uses the Expressionistic techniques he employed in his earlier works of Mexican Expressionism and film noir, to create the sensory conditions of the experience of the living in an industrial part of Mexico City (Tlatelolco) near a huge train terminal and the Nonoalco bridge, and the psychological consequences. María, who hails from a family from the wealthy (and snobbish) Mexican elite, married the impecunious but ambitious artist, Alberto. They are intensely in love, and both have the best of intentions to make their marriage a success. However, the grinding monotony of poverty, the bill collectors, and the invasiveness of the city with its noise, heat, smoke and grime are pushing María into a state of anxiety, despair, and paranoia. 

Trapped at home, she comments that “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry” (from Del brazo y por la calle). Alberto’s pride and ambition push him to make rash and ultimately selfish decisions, and above all, make him blind to the consequences of his selfish point of view. The film is emotionally difficult to watch, but as opposed to the films based on plays by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, Bustillo Oro’s film, like most of the great films from Mexico’s Epoca de Oro del Cinema Mexicano, has a life-affirming ending with a message of hope, strength, and salvation.

While many of Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age films are melodramas, comedies, film noir, or westerns, Arm in Arm Down the Street is an example of Naturalism.  In a literary sense, the film is in a direct line of descent from the novels and novellas of the naturalist writers, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and George Gissing in that it shows the inner workings, dreams, contradictions and vulnerabilities of people in a state of relative powerlessness.  In the case of George Gissing, his female protagonists are often ones driven by poverty to degrading behaviors; but it shows (as Jane Austen was at pains to always point out), that women had to muzzle themselves with respect to frankness and honesty in order to have any chance whatsoever at survival (aka, a “good match”).  Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s female characters also tend to fall to that level as well. Without a “good match,” there was essentially nothing to keep you from falling into a pit; a veritable hell on earth. In that sense, many of the naturalists and sensationalists (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Ellen Wood), are in essence writing cautionary tales about what fate will be befall you if you marry badly.  Although they write to question and undermine the practice of “The Season,” there is a sense that they can’t change reality, and so the novels become normative in the sense that they simply equip people with knowledge and a cold-eyed stare at the practice to arm themselves to play the game to win.

Del brazo y por la calle is really no different. While its super-realism / naturalism engenders comprehension and sympathy (and perhaps even self-knowledge) in the viewer, in the end, most viewers will look at María and think, “Look what you could have avoided if you had not been dumb enough to marry an artist!” In terms of the clichés surrounding “artistic temperament,” one can argue that María is even more temperamental than Alberto. He is unflappable. However, that is primarily because he has learned to insulate himself a bit from reality. It is only when reality intrudes does he face his own part in the drama that resulted in such profound alienation and emotional agony for his wife. 

MAIN CHARACTERS

Maria                Beautiful young woman from a wealthy family in the Mexican elite

Alberto             Poor, idealistic painter who is passionately in love with María

Mexico City       Credited in the credits as the third main actor

SYNOPSIS

Del brazo y por la calle the story of María and Alberto, who marry in spite of María’s parents’ exhortations to the contrary.  Wealthy parents never want to see their daughters marry impecunious artists, and it is even more the case in highly stratified Mexico where social hierarchy has been so rigidly enforced it amounts to a caste system. But, love will be love, and all it takes is a little bit of Puck’s pansy juice in the eyes, and the beautiful society debutante falls in love with the penniless artist who lives in a noisy apartment that is falling apart at the seams and inhabited by carousing neighbors and sexual predators. The film is about the how the once utopian part of the city that housed the hub of President Porfirio Diaz’s immense railway network evolved into a dystopian, Hephaestian inferno around the Nonoalco Bridge, and how that environment slowly chipped away the sanity of the residents. In the end, the strength of their love prevails, but it is not without deep challenges and introspection. The clanging, shrieking, hoarse-throated city breaks down, but in doing so, it reveals the gold within.

THEMES

Naturalism in cinema.  As perhaps one of the most innovative and daring films of the entire Epoca de Oro del Cine Mexicano (Golden Age of Mexican Cinema), Del brazo y por la calle .  Its subtlety and relative obscurity have resulted in the fact that it seems to be an underappreciated film. And yet, there are aspects of the film that make it unique, not only for being an intensely innovative example of Naturalism in cinema that brings in the city itself as perhaps the main protagonist, but for functioning as a time capsule.  The film was shot in the Mexico City industrial areas of Nonoalco and Tlatelolco, which, at the time of the filming in 1955, was an industrial area criss-crossed by train tracks and busy elevated bridges and highways. It was an ugly agglomeration of Bauhaus-appearing multi-story stucco buildings, plazas with low-rent businesses (pool halls, etc.), cheap hotels, incessant construction, and pockets of grinding poverty where poor children did not get the nutrition or medical attention they needed.  There were also vestiges of the past – a small church dating back to colonial times, constructed over the old Tlatelolco city-state that once rivaled Tenochtitlán. There was also a charming lake, Lake Texcoco, which rivaled Xichimilco, but unlike Xochimilco, Lake Texcoco was drained.  It is interesting to note that Bustillo Oro filmed in Nonoalco, the same location as Buñuel’s classic (but immediately banned) film, Los Olvidados (1950) which incorporated the story of juvenile delinquents. The scenes of the trains and the tracks upon which María trips as she returns from the market are reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s stunning photographs of the trains of Mexico City which he published in 1955. In Rulfo’s photographs, the trains simultaneously evoke the rapid leap to modernity of Porfirio Díaz’s presidency, along with a sense of its impact on people’s ways of surviving against all odds.

Costumbrismo urbano:  One can consider Bustillo Oro’s film an example of “costumbrismo urbano” (to coin a term), because the Tlatelolco of 1956 (as in the case of the pre-Conquest Tlatelolco) no longer exists. Much was demolished in order to make way for utopian urban projects – a utopia that never arrived, given that Tlatelolco was the site of a massacre of students by the military in 1968, and then the site of mass death in 1985 when the relatively new buildings collapsed during the 1985 massacre.

This is a brief excerpt of the full article by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.. Click here to read the article with additional details about plot elements, themes, character analysis, illustrative scenes, and review questions. 

In the opening scenes, the narrator takes the viewer on a tour of Mexico City and its wide and diverse array of neighborhoods and communities. This is a few of the Polanco district, renowned for its leafy trees, wide avenues, and prosperous businesses. 

As we progress through Mexico City, the camera angles become more pronounced and the views of Mexico City are askew, suggesting that the city itself can cause disorientation and alienation. 


Alberto and María kneel inside the small, colonial-era church located in the poor, industrial Tlotelolco District of Mexico City, where Alberto lives. 

Working by the light from below, María huddles near the skylight, still mending clothing.  She is still on the azotea (rooftop patio), and in the distance one can see the neon lights, demonstrating that artifice and human constructions have completely overwhelmed / negated nature. 

María observes poor children playing in the dirt and trash in her neighborhood of Nonoalco, just past the train tracks and under the elevated highway bridge. She notices one boy is disabled. All seem to be hungry. She leaves her paper bag containing bread for them. “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry.”


The bridge at Nonoalco where Alberto considers suicide. The chiaroscuro treatment by Bustillo Oro gives it a feeling of being in an inferno. 

María and Alberto recommit themselves to each other. Morning has broken, and the light of day is shining into their home and their hearts. Bustillo Oro uses light to represent calm optimism and a transformation. The cross-beams are clearly visible, also connoting stability

Alberto and María walk hand in hand down the street. They are together, and the sky is clear. There is very little traffic, and the weather is calm. The viewer has a sense of optimism and restored balance. 


Sunday, April 04, 2021

El Angel Negro (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1942) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 1

 In El Angel Negro (The Black Angel), Juan Bustillo Oro takes his desire to experiment with lighting, shot sequencing, mise-en-scene, and camera angles in order to achieve expressionistic effects that represent hidden, chthonic places in the mind and the heart, and a psychological experience that explores perception and beingness, and asks what happens when you represent ontological uncertainty. He also creates what may be the most evil femme fatale in film noir with Cristina. (For a full plot summary and character analysis, click here).

In his earlier films, Dos Monjes (Two Monks) and Cada loco son su tema (Every Madman with His Theme), Bustillo Oro explores the deterioration of mental state due to guilt (Dos Monjes) and due to an excessive exposure to hyperbolic, sensational narrative, similar to the notion that young women could be negatively influenced by reading gothic novels or romances (Cada loco con su tema). In those cases, the audience’s gaze was directed to a particular character whose mental stability was the primary focus. However, in the case of El Angel Negro, the issue of mental illness is not in question; the person who is obsessive and potentially mentally ill has already arrived at that state. Instead, Bustillo Oro explores the kind of emotional impact that he can create within the world of the film; how a world becomes suffused with danger and menace because of a combination of past sinful criminality and a tacitly present sense of invasive, engulfing desire.  Specifically, Bustillo Oro brings his expressionistic cinematography to show how the murderous obsession of a deranged, illegitimate half-sister and the murky worlds of possessive desire, echoes of past violation, and an unwholesome attachment spill out into the audience who perceives the way that the fabric of the daylight, polite world can be ripped asunder.  The audience feels the vulnerability, not only to their person, but also to the potential of being classified as an outcast, or shunned due to one’s origins. In this case, the emotions are not created in order to feel compassion or empathy, but to intensify the sense of revulsion and menace.  The danger is palpable; the assault on one’s values is recognizable. The audience feels relief when the evil woman kills herself and order is restored to the world. And thus it is that horror serves a normative purpose and could be viewed as a kind of “rhetoric of conservation.” Bustillo Oro’s excursion into the depths of depravity end as the holiest and most revered of religious figures, the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, essentially breaks the evil spell and reunites the family, and re-illuminates the sin-darkened world.

In El Angel Negro (1942), Bustillo Oro creates a psychological drama that pushes the envelope on earlier films that established the horror genre, such as such classics as The Mummy or Frankenstein. It is the story of a failed attempt to protect an innocent new bride and her new baby from the jealous intentions of another woman. The fact that the woman was the half-sister of the new wife, and that the man’s previous wives had mysteriously died of poisoning, and that the half-sister lived with the burden of a shameful secret of origin (her mother was raped by a man working in the home) and an unwholesome love for her half-brother add not only a sense of the taboo, but also the experience of vicariously stepping outside the norms and order of the polite world.

In looking at Bustillo Oro’s oeuvre, while on the surface, El Angel Negro may seem rather simplistic, it represents an important aesthetic bridge between his Expressionistic works: the gothic Dos Monjes and the campy satire, Each Madman with His Theme, and the nostalgic, romantic world of ornate architecture, expansive growth of wealth for the upper class, and intricate social rituals of the time of President Porfirio Díaz (In the Time of Porfirio Diaz (1942) and My Memories of Mexico (1944)).

While a review of the relatively simple plot gives the impression that the movie is simply about the fact that truth prevails in the end, and justice is restored, the movie itself is much more than that. The non-narrative aspects of the film, namely the Expressionistic lighting and camera angles, and the visual narrative that contains shadowy evocations of evil, go far beyond the simple person of Cristina, and point to a world at least half-saturated with the forces of darkness, underworld, and the chthonic.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is suggested at times, and in visual allusions and the chiaroscuro with unusual camera angles, the idea of a world where order trembles on the brink of darkness and chaos is suggested.  Femininity and womanhood are problematized by the presence of a woman (Cristina) who is aggressively antagonistic to the social and cultural ideas of a “nice” woman. The power lies in the shadows and not in the light, which trembles and may be blown out or otherwise extinguished at any time.

Bustillo Oro has created film that revels in its triumph of the fertile, chaotic, procreative darkness over the light, and which suggests that the horror genre relies on the interplay of order and symmetry, over its ghastly, infernal counterpart. In such a world, Cristina and Elisa are in fact both the one true mother of the son, but as a fused doppelganger, the order containing its own disorder.

PRIMARY CHARACTERS

Jorge Llorente               Wealthy member of the elites; a widower who marries Elisa

Elisa                             Innocent and beautiful young woman who marries Jorge

Cristina                        Jorge’s half-sister

Don Luciano                 Elisa’s father, a prosperous but rather silly man

Doña Meche                 Mother of three marriageable daughters

Doctor Bustamente       Don Luciano’s doctor

SYNOPSIS

Set in the 1860s, El Angel Negro begins as a story about the “season” for young women of Mexico’s elite class in the mid 19th century who attend elegant balls and soirees in an attempt to attract a wealthy suitor. Elisa, the daughter of a doting (if rather silly) and indulgent father, seems to have the best of all possible chances; at least that is certainly the assessment of the mother of three daughters who will compete in the same pool of men.  Elisa, who is as innocent and good as she is beautiful, is ineluctably drawn to the wealthy, but potentially dangerous widower loner, Jorge Llorente, whose previous two (or possibly more) wives died young by sudden illnesses that look a lot like poisoning.  Elisa and Jorge are magnetically drawn to each other and their intense connection is palpable.  However, when Elisa entered Jorge’s massive, gloomy mansion, things start to become quite strange.  Jorge’s half-sister, Cristina, is the housekeeper, and although she tries to conceal it at first, she is intensely jealous of any attention toward Jorge.  Jorge does little or nothing to stop the behavior; in fact, he exacerbates the problem by keeping a life-size portrait of her in a main hall, and by letting her have access to Elisa.  When Elisa gives birth to a baby boy, Jorge is delighted and relieved.  Almost immediately, Cristina positions herself as the primary caregiver, to the point that it seems that she does not want to release the baby to Elisa or Jorge.  Eventually, Cristina’s possessiveness and erratic behavior become quite obvious to Elisa, and she complains to Jorge.  In the meantime, Cristina catches Jorge’s ear as she whispers to him that Elisa had an affair with a male friend, and that Jorge is not even the father of Elisa’s son. As a result, Elisa is forced to move away and the baby is raised as Cristina’s son.  Years pass.  Elisa and Jorge reunite, and they decide to tell Jorge who his real mother is. Cristina tries her best to block the news, but is unsuccessful. Jorge rejects the information, but Cristina believes it is just a matter of time, so she gives herself a lethal dose of poison.  Jorge remains unconvinced until a religious medal containing the Virgin of Guadalupe triggers his memory. The movie ends as the three embrace – a family reunited.

For the full article by Susan Smith Nash and her analysis of themes, character, and illustrative scenes, please visit Humanities Institute: El Angel Negro

Jorge Llorente arrives at the ball in a top hat. Elisa is wearing a blindfold, which is both physically and metaphorically indicative of her ability to see what she was getting herself into. 

The otherworldly beauty of the life-size painting of Cristina which hangs on the wall in the gloomy mansion / castle where Jorge lives. 

Cristina holds the baby possessively, and the camera angles make the baby blend into her own body, giving the impression that they are a single being. 


Cristina, the camera angle and lighting emphasizing the wildness in her eyes, tells Jorge she will never give up “her” son.



Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Phantom Selves and Haunted Places in Chemical Hearts (Dir. Richard Tanne, 2020)

Chemical Hearts (Dir. Richard Tanne, 2020) is a teenage angst-riddled love story that has a The Catcher in the Rye premise.  The new girl in a suburban New Jersey high school walks with a limp and a cane. We find out that she is tortured by guilt and blames herself for the fatal car accident in which her football star boyfriend (she is a track star) dies at age 17.  He was driving, but she thinks she distracted him by trying to be funny. It happened a week after she moved into her boyfriend’s family home due to clashes with her alcoholic mother.  The new girl meets a shy, aspiring school newspaper / yearbook editor who has never had a girlfriend.  

The shy, writerly guy is obsessed with his favorite hobby, Japanese kintsugi, the art of breaking then repairing pottery by gluing back the pieces with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver, or other metals.  This highly symbolic hobby makes one immediately think that he is driven by wanting to fix broken things and make them even more beautiful than before ; a metaphor that is not lost on the new girl, who, at one point declares to him, “I’m not your latest kintsugi project!” 

But she is, because she is extremely broken. The scar on her leg seems to get larger, and her limp seems to worsen. Psychologically, she reshatters herself daily by living in her boyfriend’s unchanged room, and even by wearing his clothes (it is unclear how / why the dead boy’s parents do not say something about that). 

Grace Town (played by Lily Reinhart) is the new girl. The shy, writerly guy is Henry Page (played by Austin Abrams). The film was directed by Richard Tanne for Amazon films, where it was released for immediate streaming. The dead boyfriend’s name was Dominic Sawyer. 

Grace catches Henry’s attention as they are seated next to each other, waiting to see the journalism teacher. She is reading Sonnet XVII from Pablo Neruda’s 100 Sonnets of Love.  He reads the following, some of which as been highlighted: 

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz

or an arrow of carnations that propagate fire

I love you as one loves certain obscure things – 

secretly, between the shadow and the soul – 

Sonnet XVII

He is also fascinated by something he sees inscribe on a ring she wears hanging from a chain:  “Serva me, servabo te”  / Save me, and I will save you. 


Henry’s curiosity is piqued, and even more so when he and the new girl (Grace Town) are called into the journalism teacher’s office.  The teacher offers Henry and Grace the position of co-editor. Grace immediately declines and offers to be an assistant. Henry is confused. 

Since Chemical Hearts is about damaged or painfully shy teenagers in love, we know there will be pain and heartache. But, what will be the extent of that pain, and what will we learn about ourselves along the way?  Well, it really depends on how you catch the metaphors in the scenes.  Here are a few: 

After suggesting developing a feature story on teens and suicide over the ages, Grace pulls a stack of works of literature featuring teen suicide: Romeo and Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, Girl Interrupted, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and more. Will Grace follow in those footsteps? 

Henry follows Grace to the places she visits after school. One is in an abandoned building that mysteriously has an intact koi pond on the bottom level. She likes to wade in, hip-deep, in the cold waters.  At one point, Grace is wearing the dress she was to be married in, and one can’t help but think of the pre-Raphaelite (John Everett Millais) painting of Ophelia (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) face-up, dead after drowning herself in a shallow pond. 

Grace does not literally attempt suicide but in many ways she has expunged her own existence to become the animating spirit of her boyfriend, Dominic Sawyer, as she dons his clothing and becomes a kind of phantom self – a living ghost that desperately seeks redemption through physical contact, which creates a pathway back to a differentiated, re-established self. 

What makes the movie interesting? There are quite a few elements that give the film an edge. First, there are the punctuated “reveals” – the information that is revealed like puzzle pieces or clues that help you solve what is clearly developing as a mystery, or at least a mystery girl. 

Further, there is a sweeping sense of “place,” especially of a haunted place. The leafy, lush New York / New Jersey woodlands, streams and rivers, together with ornate gingerbread-carved Victorian homes, crumbling factories, and a soulful, stained, shadowy home where Grace lives in the dead young man’s bedroom and wears his fading clothes, converge to reflect states of mind. 


At school, visual allusions to Ken Kesey-esque Merry Pranksters can be found in the camaraderie and creative self-fashioning and subversion of the tradition. The Pranksters are those who work with Henry and Grace on the paper. They pursue self-expression where the chemical state of being “in love” is everything, and when the most raucous, they also invoke an echo of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). 

The film itself subverts and challenges the hyperbolic bathos of teenage love and at the same time acknowledges the true, physiological impact of grief by literally depicting walking in another person’s shoes. 



















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