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 .


Dave Lovely said...

Brilliant post!

Think of Zabriskie Point, where:

"The real star ... is the desolate, parched-white landscape of Death Valley, in particular the vista from Zabriskie Point, the desert lookout that gives the movie its name and where Frechette and Halprin consummate their brief relationship in a hallucinatory sex scene. It is an eerie, skeletal expanse of stony ridges and dry stream beds, stunning in its ancient, unearthly emptiness. And the climactic explosion of the opulent desert retreat belonging to the real estate tycoon played by Rod Taylor -- a fit of imaginary vengeance envisioned by Halprin over and over in her mind's eye after she hears of Frechette's death at the hands of the L.A. police -- is spectacular in its composition and compelling, repetitive effect."

(Zabriskie Point @ pHinnWeb)

Ollifs said...

The picture of Maria Falconetti is absolutely captivating.

Grant Wythoff said...

Hey Enrique, glad to have found you here-I'm really enjoying your posts.

Your gestures toward astronomy in this landscape post--lunar photos and Pioneer probes--esp. interested me since I'm working on a project on photography and Mars.

I'm struck by what you say about technology and landscape, and whether or not technology serves to intensify a latent solitude in landscapes.

Landscape photography on Mars is, of course, wholly dependent on technology, and it is both because of and in spite of this that it is impossible to get a sense of perspective in them. The range of "interlocking" responses a landscape can inspire, as you say, I think has something to do with one's ability to view it as a field of potential action and movement. This quality is exactly the problem of Martian photography--the landscape is only barely familiar enough to be able to insert some sort of avatar into the frame.

I'm thinking of photographs like this or this with amazing hills off in the distance.

One would think that any technological element added to the Martian surface (not present in the first) would automatically serve to orient our sense of scope in these photos. But the Phoenix probe seems like a truly alien presence in this otherwise incomprehensible landscape.

enrique said...

Hey Grant .... thanks for stopping by and for your great comment. And I think your observation that responses to landscape concern "one's ability to view it as a field of potential action and movement" is not only spot on, but it is also a much more eloquent and succinct statement than I am able to marshal.