Sunday, July 20, 2008

39 Years Ago

Apollo 11, 20 July 1969

East West Rising Sun

Trans Am's video for "East West Rising Sun" (dir. Erik Barnes, 2006) seems to be under the influence of Gregory Crewdson, especially in its depiction of interior-lit automobiles and back-lit flora.


From "Dream House" (for New York Times) (2002) (Source: NYT)

From "Dream House" (for New York Times) (2002) (Source: NYT)


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Landscapes and Faces

Radio Telescope Array, from Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) (Source)

Landscape exists immobilized by interlocking tension. One the one hand, a landscape is something that inspires. Whether it is the pockmarked lunar surface witnessed by Apollo crews, or the hyperbolic canyons of rock and flora painted by Albert Bierstadt, a landscape is sublime. On the other hand, it can also be a fearful thing, a source of terror. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the cragged icescapes and broken, dried trees in Caspar David Friedrich's paintings inspire fear, but they certainly suggest a less benevolent take on the landscape.

A landscape also inspires solitude. And the other part of this equation, of course, is that a landscape can be a lonely thing indeed. The topographical expanse of a landscape dwarfs those singular objects trapped in its skein. I only recall the words of Ziggy Stardust's titular "Space Oddity" when, seeing our planet from his spacecraft window, sings "Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do."

If the introduction of the "machine in the garden" inspires a different type of literary or artistic reaction, one wonders whether, in some cases, technology only serves to intensify this loneliness. There is a rather well-known sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) where Giuliana (played by Monica Vitti) walks along an autumn landscape (see above image). On the screen, the colors range from dull russets to corn-stalk yellow. The arid mounds, the dead flora certainly serve to emphasize how Giuliana is indeed withering away, how she is casting herself adrift into the slow but tempestuous whorls of loneliness and despair.

The main establishing shots for this scene, however, draw our attention to a remarkable object in the distance: a radio telescope array. This is not the type of radio telescope we are accustomed to seeing, however. There are no dishes or bowls pointed to the night sky. Here, the array appears as a serrated space-frame buried in the earth. Indeed, the component parts jut into the air, as craggy and monolithic as the icebergs in Caspar David Friedrich's work, or as the reapers and harvesters in Days of Heaven. The latter is poignant, as the radio telescope array looks like a primitive agricultural implement upended and buried in the soil.

Medium Shot of Radio Telescope Array, from Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) (Source)

Medium shots of the radio telescope allow for a strange, anthropomorphic reading: it is as if the telescope is groping heavenwards, desperate for contact. This is not far-off -- think about the sending of probes such as Pioneer 10 and 11 (each with a plaque depicting an index of human existence) into the farthest, most desolate realms of deep space. The radio telescope suggests a similar shade of despair -- it is, after all, an incomplete form of communication. They cannot "see" what they want to contact with. They must listen.

Monica Vitti Framed by Radio Telescope Array, from Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) (Source)

The failure to connect, the telescope's tacit inability to make contact -- it all finds its appropriate expression in, of all things, a facial expression. In another shot, Giuliana stares ahead in subtle, blank anguish, her red hair framed by the radio telescope array. Although the telescopes in the background are blurry, this is a telephoto shot -- hence the flattening effect. We only see Giuliana's head and shoulders. There no sense of ground. No grounding whatsoever. There is no distance between Giuliana and the background. She is rendered flat against the array, made part of the technology, and the only thing that this technology amplifies is Giuliana's vast loneliness.

Such portrayals of technology and landscape continue. Think of Wall-E's binocular eyes searching for the flotsam and jetsam of human existence amidst towers of junk. Or in Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running(1972), Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) jettisoning a gardening dome containing a dying forest (kept up by two small robots) as his spacecraft is about to auto-destruct.

But back to Monica Vitti's face. Is not a face a type of landscape in itself? Indeed, as Jean-Luc Godard famously quipped, "a landscape is like a face." Eyebrows, lips, nostrils, cheekbones become ridges and glades covered by the soft expanse of skin?

Maria Falconetti in Carl Th. Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d' Arc (1928) (Source)

If there is ever a film that best exemplified the idea of face as landscape, it would be Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Maria Falconetti's portrayal of Joan of Arc in memorable. Her face framed with close-cropped hair, cracked lips, and a singular, profound tear running down her cheek -- this is Joan of Arc's suffering made tangible. In those moments, camera trained closely on Falconetti's face, we experience a different reading of landscape .


Thresholds 33 is finally out. I contribute a smallish article called Fata Morgana, which is based on my 2007 Master's thesis at Yale. My contribution is modest -- read it, if anything, for articles by Mark Jarzombek, Sanford Kwinter, Yung-Ho Chang, Meejin Yoon, and Peter Eisenman.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Sunday Night's Viewing of Iraq

Downtown Maputo Dressed as Baghdad for HBO's Generation Kill (Source)

Generation Kill is an HBO miniseries that fictionalizes (in an all-too-documentary way) the exploits of the Marines 1st Reconnaissance Batallion during the opening moments of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, or Stuart Cooper's Overlord, Generation Kill uses this effacing of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction to give a different, urgent reading to the military subject. And like its predecessors, it aestheticizes its subject in order to propel the story forward.

The main protagonist in this series is the landscape. Rows upon rows of tents and barracks fade into the distant horizon. Humvees and support vehicles, bedecked in tan desert camouflage, diffuse and bleed into the desert air. This is all intentional of course, for these opening moments reaffirm what we were always hearing as we watched American troops prepare for combat on CNN: deserts make for inhospitable climates, and nothing emphasizes this better than the sordid business of war.

And yet landscape has always been a vital element of books and movies about war. Take, for instance, Gert Ledig's brutal account of the Eastern Front, The Stalin Organ (Die Stalinorgel) (1955). In the opening moments of the book, a Wehrmacht machine-gunner is quite literally torn apart, his various body parts dangling from trees, the trees cut down and plastered underneath the treads of advancing Russian tanks. The body is literally subsumed into the landscape.

The primacy of landscape over soldier in Generation Kill is no doubt emphasized by the uniformity of the military garb. Every one wears the same flak vests, the same helmets, same goggles. This makes keeping track of the individual characters in the opening episode an arduous task, no doubt emphasized by the wooden, rote acting. These characters behave like almost every other soldier we've ever seen in a war film. Take away the color palettes, the standard-issue body armor and camouflage, and the normative universe of Generation Kill is reduced to a handful of swearing soldiers.

We are not intended to understand this as acting. The slow, yet urgent pacing makes us see these actors not as characters, but as the soldiers themselves. This is underlined by the fact that some members of the 1st Recon Batallion play themselves in the film.

Last night, however, before the first episode of Generation Kill came on the air, HBO ran a short documentary about the mini-series. In terms of behind-the-scenes exposés, this one was quite paltry. But again, it was interesting hearing the show's production designers and actors talk about the importance of accurately depicting the Iraqi landscape.

All the desert scenes were filmed in Namibia. Parts of Maputo, Mozambique were digitally altered or dressed to look like Baghdad. In one arresting scene, an actor who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom (and presumably a military advisor to the show) points to the sky and says (I'm paraphrasing here): "The sky. It's the same hue as Baghdad's."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Happy Birthday

This website is now two years old as of today.  Here's to more in the upcoming years :)