Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annunciation Essays: Meditation on Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation

Annunciation Blogging
for Advent 2014:
The Annunciation
by Jan van Eyck

Fade in.  An angel appears before Mary.  The angel makes a surprising proposal, Mary responds with a question, the angel reassures her, and she graciously agrees to the plan.  The vignette has a beginning, middle, and end.  Classically constructed, the scene begins with the angel announcing, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with You!” and ends with Mary entering into an agreement, “(L)et it be to me according to your word.”  Fade out.

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish,
circa 1390-1441),
The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436,
oil on canvas transferred from panel,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection,
National Gallery of Art.
As told by the evangelist Luke in his gospel, the Annunciation has the shape of a conventional narrative.  It unfolds like a well-constructed movie scene.

Most art of the Annunciation—both literary and visual—treats the scene as conventional narrative, in the manner of Luke.  The artist thoughtfully selects a moment in the story that captures what they want to express about the text.  It could be the second when the angel enters, or the angel greeting Mary, or Mary’s asking “How shall this be?” or Mary’s final note of gracious acceptance.  That’s the normal way of doing things.

Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece The Annunciation employs a very different strategy, sometimes used by the Old Masters but rarely to this extent.  The whole story flashes before us at a stroke, with van Eyck treating time with the creativity that Cezanne would later bring to the treatment of space.  In van Eyck’s The Annunciation, there is no natural beginning or end, no unfolding of narrative, no reading from left to right.  The story is shaped into an image that instantaneously contains the whole.

Within a single frame, the angel enters, the angel speaks, Mary responds with a dramatic gesture symbolizing alarm, the angel reassures, and Mary speaks the final words.  It’s all there.

But this brief Annunciation story is wrapped within a much larger story. Biblical history, prophecy, and theology surround the main characters through the illustrations on the tiled floor and the paintings and stained glass that decorate the walls.  The remarkable details on the two most prominent tile scenes depict David slaying Goliath and Samson pulling down the temple, events that were believed to prefigure the works of Jesus.  This mighty encompassing framework is an important part of van Eyck’s vision.  Vast history is telescoped into a narrow scene with the Annunciation particulars in the foreground and the Biblical backstory lining the background.

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish,
circa 1390-1441),
Detail of The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436,
oil on canvas transferred from panel,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection,
National Gallery of Art.
Van Eyck’s grand painting is awash in symbolism, with the drama enacted in a sacred space—the church interior.  The angel utters the visible words “Ave gratia plena” (translation: “Hail, full of Grace…”) and the words of Mary’s response, “ecce ancilla domini” (translation: “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord…”) appear upside down.  They have been flipped because they are addressed to neither Gabriel nor the viewer but rather upward to God, whose Holy Spirit is descending as a dove on streaming rays of gold leaf.

The apostle Paul famously said in his first letter to the Corinthians that we see through a glass, darkly.  Rooted in secular time and space, most of the world’s artwork explores the limited viewpoint which is part of the human condition.  But in this one painting, van Eyck ventures to depict a world stripped of its mundane and profane elements, where every detail resonates with the sacred.

It’s a God’s eye view, filled with awe and joy.

Reference Sources

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection Online
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, translated by William C. Creasy

© 2014 Lee Price

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Annunciation Essays: Meditation on Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece

Annunciation blogging
for Advent 2014:
The Mérode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of Robert Campin

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)
Workshop of Robert Campin (Netherlandish, ca. 1375-1444, Tournai)
Date:  Circa 1427-32
Oil on oak, 25 3/8 x 46 3/8 in. (open)
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Cloisters Collection, 1956

One day, God sent an angel to carry a message to a young woman in Nazareth.  In the painting above, we see a depiction of the scene.  The artists offer a 15th century Netherlandish interpretation of the story of the Annunciation as related by the evangelist Luke in the first chapter of his gospel.  For us today, as well as for people who lived in the Netherlands nearly 600 years ago, the Biblical story is far removed from present experience.  To enter the scene requires an act of sympathetic imagination.

The early Netherlandish artists were poets of the imagination.  In their extraordinarily beautiful works, time and space are collapsed.  Past, present, and future merge together into one; a house in Nazareth becomes a house in Belgium which stands for a house anywhere… everywhere.  Through contemplation of their paintings, viewers are invited to enter into the scenes as part of the work of devout meditation.

Detail, right panel of
the Merode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of
Robert Campin.
The Metropolitan
Museum of Art,
The Cloisters Collection.
Standing prayerfully before the Mérode Altarpiece, a masterpiece of early Netherlandish art by Robert Campin and his workshop, you might consider the perspective of the donors on the left, Joseph on the right, or Mary front and center.  Each perspective would offer different avenues for exploration of the painting and its themes.  In the left panel, the contemporary donors approach the story reverently but are forever kept at a distance—they are outsiders gifted with a view of the miraculous, once removed.  In the right panel, Joseph models a conscientious, methodical approach to the task at hand (the task being the work of salvation).  These characters are models meant to encourage us.  It is good to be like a reverent, wealthy donor.  It is good to be a diligent worker like Joseph.

But on a much grander scale, Campin calls for everyone, regardless of gender, to identify with Mary in the magnificent center panel of the triptych.  Her unexpected meeting with the angel Gabriel has cosmic implications; everything on earth and in heaven will hinge on her response.  She has the freedom to say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord” or, conversely, she has the freedom to say, “remove this cup from me,” as Jesus would later consider requesting in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Perhaps she even has freedom to decline to acknowledge the presence of the angel in the room—to continue reading her book, her eyes fixed on the expected rather than the unexpected.

When Campin and his workshop artists painted this triptych in the early 15th century, there was a religious movement in the land called Devotio Moderna, a turn toward a set of monastic-based practices of humility, obedience, and simplicity.  It was a pre-Protestant critique of the wealth and empire of the dominant Catholic culture, offering a deep spirituality accessible to the growing middle class.  As part of the rather mystic approach of Devotio Moderna, Christians were called to meditate on Biblical scenes as if they were inside them—to imaginatively converse and interact with the characters within the scenes.

Detail, center panel of the Merode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of Robert Campin.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Cloisters Collection.
Some art historians believe that the early Netherlandish artists like Robert Campin intentionally created some of their artworks to serve as instruments for meditation in the new Devotio Moderna style.  Deep in reverent prayer, you enter the scene.  The time that separates you by 2,000 years from an ancient—and seemingly irrecoverable—reality becomes meaningless.  The deep past is no further away than the second that just passed.  Similarly, the vast distance that separates you from Nazareth becomes meaningless.  It is all holy space.

The moment is now, in Nazareth twenty centuries ago.  The moment is now, a cloudy day in Belgium six centuries ago.  The moment is now, experiencing the painting in The Cloisters in Washington Heights, New York City.  The moment is now, wherever you are.

There’s an angel in the room.

Campin, assisted by his workshop of talented artists, invites the viewer to look up and greet the miraculous.  And he implicitly challenges the viewer to respond as Mary would:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.”
Luke 1: 46-48

Reference Sources

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection Online
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, translated by William C. Creasy

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, December 8, 2014

Notes for an Essay Series on Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur

Winsor McCay's
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Turns 100!

Gertie peeks out.
The world’s oldest animated dinosaur, Gertie, turned 100 this year.  Gertie made her world debut in February 1914, with the animated dinosaur appearing to interact with her live creator, the brilliant artist Winsor McCay (1869-1934), on a vaudeville stage in Chicago.  Last month, I celebrated this important early cinema anniversary at a Museum of Modern Art film event hosted by John Canemaker (who led the audience in a “Happy Birthday” sing-along!) but I didn’t celebrate here on my blog, where I had really hoped to find the time to compose a multi-part blog series.

Someday I may still get to it, but in the meantime, here are my notes on subjects and questions that might reward future development:

        Pay tribute to a hundred years’ worth of changes to the exterior of the American Museum of Natural History (contrast today’s museum with a screen capture from 1914?).
        Illuminate those dark interiors of the American Museum of Natural History to better expose the museum!  (Poor McCay was hampered by a refusal from the museum staff to allow appropriate film lighting.)
        Compare/contrast:  From McCay’s personality animation of a mosquito in How a Mosquito Operates (1912) to the full-blown personality animation of Gertie.
On command, Gertie lifts her foot,
complete with animated shadow.
        What it would have been like to first-hand witness McCay’s vaudeville act with its lightning sketches?  And what would it have been like to have been in one of the first audiences for Gertie the Dinosaur, with McCay snapping his whip???
        Speculate on the vaudeville musical accompaniment that would have added a third component to the multimedia production (film, live performance, and live music).
        Explore Gertie’s use of the screen as an extension of the vaudeville stage, with great depth of field (a lake extending into the distance).
        What kind of a dinosaur is Gertie? This question would naturally lead to an exploration of turn-of-the-century dinosaur representation.
        What kind of a sea serpent is in the water? This question would naturally lead to an exploration of turn-of-the-century sea serpent representation.
        Gertie as a toddler.  Gertie with a diagnosis of ADHD.
        Gertie as a puppy.
        Gertie’s size, and the question of whether Gertie is treated to a pumpkin or an apple.
        The bizarre anatomy of the four-winged pterosaur.
        And Gertie’s eloquent tail—a charming example of McCay’s masterful ability to capture personality in subtle comic details.

Gertie's very eloquent tail.

© 2014 Lee Price

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Horror of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave!

Five years ago, Kevin B. Lee invited Christianne Benedict and me to talk about Horror of Dracula (1958) for a podcast on his now-dormant blog Shooting Down Pictures.

Man, it’s fun to talk about Dracula!

During our 25-minute horror geek-out, Christianne and I ranged freely across the broad vampiric landscape, with fun tangents on the Hammer Dracula’s similarity to James Bond, low-cut inspirations for Victoria’s Secret, the professionalization of the vampire stalking business, the threat from the east, and Bram Stoker’s ever-lurking anti-Semitism and misogyny.

Going into this podcast, I was more than a little intimidated by the prospect of playing Siskel/Roeper to Christianne Benedict.  She is my favorite living film critic.  When I watch a movie and then want to sample an intelligent critical response, I take a beeline to her blog first.  At Krell Labs, I can always depend on being challenged and delighted by unexpected insights backed by solid film scholarship.

This remains my one-and-only podcast, which probably says much about my performance.  I drawl, stutter, repeat myself, and say ummmm way too much.  But the content’s pretty good, rendering the total podcast respectable enough to deserve a chance to rise from the grave again this Halloween season.

Christianne, Kevin Lee, and I bonded years ago on the IMDb (International Movie Database) Classic Film Board.  These days, Christianne and I primarily express our love for movies through our blogs.  Meanwhile, Kevin is a rising star.  After completing the Shooting Down Pictures project (where he blogged himself through the 1,000 greatest films of all time as compiled by the website They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?), Kevin became a filmmaker himself—swiftly gaining a reputation as an innovative master of the emerging video essay format.

This week, it would be worth a trip to Austria to catch Kevin’s remarkable short documentary Transformers: The Premake at the prestigious Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival) 2014.  This 25-minute film is an intoxicating joyride that wickedly dissects film production, promotion, and fandom.  And if you can’t make it to Vienna, enjoy a viewing below in its most natural setting: YouTube.

So gorge yourself on the podcast and video treats... and whether you go trick-or-treating this year as the Prince of Darkness or as a shape-shifting robot monster, Happy Halloween to all!

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, October 6, 2014

Halloween Tips from Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939)

Seventy-five years ago,
Jean Renoir filmed
The Rules of the Game (1939) ...

Jean Renoir as a bear, with Nora Gregor and
Marcel Dalio to his right in folk costume.
In the spirit of the season, I offer some Halloween costume ideas inspired by Jean Renoir’s classic film The Rules of the Game (1939):  bear costumes, Austrian folk clothes, traditionally-sheeted ghosts, and a classic skeletal Death.

In The Rules of the Game, a masquerade is announced at the country estate of La Colinière—a time for the elite to play dress-up, Halloween-style.  Jean Renoir, genius director and pratfalling actor, dresses as his alter ego, a bear.  The party’s hosts are in the colorful Tyrolean getups.

Then, as things really start getting wild and weird, Death takes the stage.

The Master of Ceremonies arrives.

Screams followed by laughter.
Like guests touring a modern-day haunted house attraction, the high society regulars at La Colinière enjoy the domesticated thrill of an encounter with the inexplicable.  The ghosts that dance with Death leave the stage and playfully terrorize the appreciative audience.  We all love to be frightened, provided it’s a predictable scare at a designated hour in a safe place.

Of course, this being a film masterpiece, the scene functions on several levels, simultaneously launching farce while foreshadowing tragedy.  The gliding camera picks up on numerous subplots, deepening and commenting upon them.

For Death’s set piece, a player piano slips into Camille Saint-SaënsDanse Macabre.  Backstage, four men don their costumes—three as ghosts and the fourth as Death.  The curtain drops and the cavorting ghosts are revealed against a black background, each dancing with an umbrella frame like a prescient undead version of Singin in the Rain.

Leaping and prancing, Death leads the ghosts in the dance.  When the ghosts descend into the audience, Death appears to be looking for something in particular.  He spots the two playful lovers whose actions will trigger the climactic tragedy.

Death spies the lovers, played by Julien Carette and Paulette Dubost.

The Rules of the Game offers the classic Halloween ghost costume:  white sheets with cutout eyes.  Under the sheets, they wear black clothes (as well as black gloves and shoes) so as to blend in with the background behind them.  The umbrella frames, stripped of their fabric, are an inspired touch.

And The Rules of the Games offers a classic Death:  a black leotard with an artistically painted skeleton.  The skull is a pull-over mask.  The crisp white of the bones makes them seem to glow in the dark.

It’s a charming Halloween ensemble, best played against a black stage and a soundtrack of Saint-Saëns.

Death dresses while the ghosts perform.

Here are some other classic film ideas for dressing up as ever-popular Death this Halloween season:

© 2014 Lee Price

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Death of a Frog in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Horror in
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)
by Annie Dillard

With the pounce of a bloody tomcat, violence is foreshadowed in the first two paragraphs of Annie Dillard’s nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It’s a classic horror novel opening.  Then Dillard cleverly lulls the reader back into complacency with a pastoral description of a morning stroll down the path to the creek.  Janet Leigh’s heading toward the shower—what could possibly go wrong?

Dillard sits by the flowing creek and in the last sentence of the twelfth paragraph, she returns to Subject A:

“I’m drawn to this spot.  I come to it as an oracle;  I return to it as a man years later will seek out the battlefield where he lost a leg or an arm.”

That’s the transition.  She’s about to unleash the horror.

Some critics compare Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with Thoreau’s Walden, but it reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy’s gore-splattered horror/western Blood Meridian.  McCarthy works out his fixations on the macrocosm of the parched deserts of the American west.  Annie Dillard works with the same themes (a quest for meaning against a backdrop of existential futility) by focusing on the microcosm of life in her Virginia backyard.

When Dillard spies a small frog, it’s like that moment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet where the camera plunges below the manicured lawns.  The sense of order disintegrates.  A seemingly alien world comes into view.

In paragraphs 13 through 17, Dillard observes—and then broods upon—the annihilation of the frog.  Twenty years after reading these paragraphs for the first time, I’m still mesmerized by the passage.  To proceed with this SPOILER, Dillard watches a frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug:

“And just as I looked at him (the frog), he slowly crumpled and began to sag.  The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed.  His skin emptied and drooped;  his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent.  He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.  I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall.  Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water...”

For the rest of the book, Dillard struggles to comprehend a theology capable of encompassing the annihilation of frogs.  If she doesn’t entirely succeed in this quest, her effort is as noble a failure as Herman Melville’s to fully understand the nature of the white whale.  At best, Job-like, we glimpse God’s backside as he departs.  In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy never figures it out either.  These are the themes that you wrestle with till sunrise, leaving you broken and still unsatisfied.

But this is the world we live in, closely observed.  If horror isn’t acknowledged as a neighbor of theology, then the theology is cheap.  The creek is out back;  death waits there.  The frog’s eyes are drained of some undefinable spark, horrific as a transformation in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“I never knew fear until I kissed Becky.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Like Melville, Dillard assumes the existence of God.  And, like Melville, she is determined to reconcile the Creator with the creation.  The notion of a fallen world does not enter into her equation.  She accepts the world as is and holds God responsible for its cruelties, pain, and death, rejecting any theology that does not acknowledge giant water bugs.

Insects are her test case:

“Fish gotta swim birds gotta fly;  insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.”

Insects creep, crawl, and fly through the book.  A mutilated Polyphemus moth creeps down a driveway “on six furred feet,” a female praying mantis religiously observes her cannibalistic sex rites, a starving clothes moth larva obsessively molts itself into non-existence, a grasshopper exercises its 18 mouthparts, and there’s an amazing description of a bee being eaten by a wasp being eaten by a mantis.  She teases, pokes, and prods at the idea of insects in her search for profundity.

“I ought to keep a giant water bug in an aquarium on my dresser, so I can think about it.  We have brass candlesticks in our houses now;  we ought to display praying mantises in our churches.”

Near the end of his life, Michelangelo painted a self-portrait into his Last Judgment fresco, picturing himself as grotesque folds of flayed skin, his countenance drooping like a kicked tent.  I think the giant water bug caught him at last.  It’s a horrific way to look at life.  There’s no explaining it.

There’s no explaining the death of a frog.

Detail of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, August 11, 2014

Your Guide to L'Atalante's Cabinet of Curiosities

Eighty years ago,
Jean Vigo completed
L’Atalante (1934) ...

Dita Parlo in L'Atalante (1934).
“It’s a regular curio cabinet!” Juliette (Dita Parlo) exclaims in Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante (1934) as she discovers the strange and colorful items exhibited in the cabin of Père Jules (Michel Simon), the barge’s first mate.  Exotic objects hang from the ceiling, are nailed to the walls, decorate the shelves, and rest on the floor.  It really does look like one of those proto-museum displays that were known as “cabinets of curiosity” in centuries past.

Ole Worm's Cabinet of Curiosities,
from Museum Wormianum (1655)
on Wikimedia Commons.

L’Atalante is an examination of a young marriage, focusing upon Juliette and Jean, her barge captain husband, as they journey along the Seine.  While the details of the barge trip are often realistic, the relationships on board the barge (the young couple, the first mate, and a cabin boy) are conveyed more impressionistically.  There are few characters on film quite as charmingly strange as Père Jules, the gruff first mate who appears to have lived a full and fascinating life.  His cabin is our window into his soul.

Père Jules allows Juliette to explore his cabin.  She sees:

The aquatic collection.

Père Jules is a man of the water, with a starfish and octopus nailed to his wall.  Juliette holds a shell to her ear.  And that’s a very impressive sawfish rostrum mounted on Père Jules’ bunk!

The toy collection.
Toys and miniatures are everywhere, from a ceramic dog to a carved alligator.  A miniature skull resides next to a tiny guillotine.  Juliette playfully cranks a music box while Père Jules brings his prize puppet to life.  “I got him in Caracas,” Jules says, “after the revolution in 1890.”

Juliette examines an anatomical specimen.
Juliette curiously picks up a tusk and examines it.  Père Jules identifies it as “an anatomical specimen from a hunting trip.”

Screens, masks, and fans from abroad.
Père Jules has traveled the world.  From Asia, he boasts a large fan and a delicate painted screen.  Masks hang on the walls.  “Nothing but the finest things,” Jules explains.

The art gallery.
Although he shows restraint with Juliette, Père Jules is a carnal man.  His paintings and photographs depict women in various states of undress, including nudes.  The men in his photographs are shirtless, too.

A mysterious jar.
The cabin may be a window into the soul of Père Jules, but we see through the glass darkly.  Mystery remains.  Juliette stumbles upon a jar containing two human hands.  “That’s my friend who died three years ago,” Jules says.  “His hands—all I have left of him.”

Historically, a cabinet of curiosities was intended to showcase the interests of the owner.  These were the things that piqued the imagination of the proprietor.  The links between the disparate objects provided insight into the unique personality of the host.

All that's left of
Lee's Museum.
When I was a boy, I had a museum in my basement.  Lee’s Museum had a chemistry table, a biology section with specimens in formaldehyde, my pet iguana, shells, anatomy models, earth science displays, and lots of rocks and fossils.  It was my cabinet of curiosities.  I don’t have one anymore unless you count my single cabinet of rocks and fossils.

Unlike Père Jules, I think I’ve become less interesting with age.  Unless, maybe, these essays are my new cabinet of curiosities…

© 2014 Lee Price