Wednesday, January 25, 2012

While You Were Art

Those of you who may have been fans of the old 1960s TV show Wild Wild West no doubt recall the episode where the evil Dr. Loveless invents a device that lets people travel inside paintings. The device is used for nefarious purposes (inhabited paintings placed in royal houses were designed to facilitate the theft of royal jewels, etc.), but having seen the episode at an impressionable age, I have always thought it would be pretty cool to travel inside a painting (of course, this would depend on the painting...). While those of us who require glasses often have the experience of being in an Impressionist painting, generally, though, we can only imagine what the oil-on-canvas-based life would be like.

Now, however, Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski takes moviegoers inside a painting, specifically, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. The movie is The Mill & The Cross, which will screened at the Saratoga Film Forum this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. This is not a first for Majewski, who is himself a painter; his 2004 film The Garden of Earthly Delights involved reenactments of scenes from the titular triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, which sounds like it would put the “trip” in “triptych.”
The Mill & The Cross goes even further than simply reenacting a painting—it uses computer graphics and heavy-duty compositing to simulate Bruegel’s visual style and place the actors within extrapolations and interpolations of what is on the canvas, in some ways “finishing” Bruegel’s work. The film brings the 16th-century Flemish master into the 21st century, and this “bringing Bruegel forward” is not just visual, but thematic as well.
Bruegel the Elder (so-called in retrospect to distinguish him from his son, also a painter, who became known, cleverly enough, as Bruegel the Younger) was known for what has been called “genre” painting; his works often featured peasants and the daily life of a fairly typical village. This was quite rare at the time, and Bruegel’s works have been important documents of 16th century Flanders. Part of this “everyday” life also unfortunately involved torture and execution, and the painting—and film—depict victims strapped to Catherine wheels, ravens pecking away at them. At the time, Flanders was occupied by Spain, and by all accounts it was a brutal occupation. As a result, the crucifixion of Christ depicted in the painting is performed not by the Romans, but by the Spanish. Bruegel invented a style of painting perhaps known as “protest art.”
Bruegel's The Way to Calvary
And yet if you look at the painting (click here for a higher-resolution version), you’ll notice the milling crowd (as it were) going about their business blind to many of the horrific events around them, as if they have become immune to them.
Majewski spoke about Bruegel’s attitude toward the subjects of his painting in a recent interview:
[H]e is a realist in looking at human conditions. He is a profound observer. I feel a lot of compassion in his paintings, a softening for Flanders and its people. He is compassionate in his depiction, but realistic…it is the inbred condition of human beings, that’s the way it is…to be cynical you have to be on purpose, so to say.
His message is timeless, anything important happens, you most likely won’t see it because you just don’t see beyond your own nose…the foreground is less important…Bruegel’s attitude is truthful, I mean people go after the incidents that catch their eyes, but that’s not necessarily the most important thing happening around them.
Times have changed, but not too much:
People have to be particularly stronger today as we are attacked by many aggressive disruptions, whether we like it or not. Disruptions to our train of thought are constant; if you want to communicate with yourself there will be constant interference – radio, TV etc.
And, above everything, the mill. For Majewski, the mill is the primary symbol of both the painting and the film, representing the divine. There is a scene in the film when the blades stop and the world stands still. What should we make of this?

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