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Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media

Monday, November 28th, 2016

When the lights go out, strange things can happen.

Allison Meier has an excellent article in Hyperalleric (fast becoming one of my favorite online journals) on a remarkable new book, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott was released earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press.

As Meier writes, “Elcott’s Artificial Darkness navigates this human-made gloam through a series of sites and individuals, such as Étienne-Jules Marey at his 19th-century Physiological Station in France. There Marey photographed movement against a black screen, with participants dressed partly in black, to emphasize certain motions while masking other parts of the body.

Elcott also emphasizes how darkness in the theater, whether for cinema or drama, is a relatively recent norm. At the turn of the century, a dark theater might have been referred to as ‘Wagnerian,’ referencing German composer Richard Wagner’s Festival Theater, which had a successful 1876 debut. Before that, a theater was ‘a space to see and be seen, two aims that were often in conflict.’

Elcott notes that ‘artificial darkness was, above all, a technology of visibility and invisibility.’  Of course, this new immersion of the audience into a tantalizing night quickly sparked fears about scandalous behavior, with reactionary actions such as the British National Council of Public Morals’s issuing the 1917 report ’The Moral Danger of Darkness.’ Nevertheless, the dark emphasis on the stage endured, and Elcott highlights later artists like Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus performers that involved the obscurity of dark space in avant-garde theater.

‘Modern artificial darkness negated the negative qualities ascribed to its timeless counterpart: divorced from nature and metaphor, highly controlled and circumscribed, it was a technology that fused humans and images,’ Elcott writes. ‘More precisely, controlled artificial darkness negated space, disciplined bodies, and suspended corporeality in favor of the production and reception of images.’

Artificial Darkness is definitely an academic book, although its thorough text is beautifully illustrated with the ghosts conjured with magic lanterns in Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s 19th-century phantasmagoria, ‘Black Art’ shows from the 1890s when skeletons hovered in inky space, held aloft by hidden performers, and Georges Méliès’s early 20th-century films that conjured fantastic illusions through dark screens, such as making heads of actors disappear [see above].

From the photography darkroom to the disorientation of time in theatrical spaces, the 19th and 20th centuries radically changed our perception of darkness, from a state of night and shadows, to an artificial setting for spectral spectacles.” This is a fascinating study, and despite Meier’s warning that it’s primarily an academic tome, the general reader will still find it visually enthralling – a study of a long vanished time, when “artificial darkness” was a relatively new phenomenon.

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

50th Anniversary Screening of The Chelsea Girls at Anthology

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Fifty years ago today, Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls had its first public screening.

Tonight at Anthology Film Archives, Jonas Mekas will introduce the 50th anniversary screening of this indelible, inexhaustible masterpiece, which is a very difficult film to project, requiring two 16mm projectors, stereo sound, and a great deal of patience on the part of the projectionist.

Starring nearly the entire gallery of Warhol 60s superstars, including Nico, Ondine, Marie Menken, Mary Woronov, Gerard Malanga, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar, Mario Montez, Eric Emerson, and Brigid Berlin, the film runs a mammoth 210 minutes, but is worth every second of your time.

As Anthology’s website notes, “Warhol’s double-screen masterpiece – consisting of 12 unedited reels, shown side-by-side, with only one soundtrack audible at a time – depicts the Chelsea Hotel as a teeming hive of Superstars, junkies, prostitutes, and generally out-sized personalities.

An underground sensation upon its release, it ultimately broke out of the underground cinema circuit, invading a ‘respectable’ uptown theater and leading uptight New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to declare, ‘now that [the] underground has surfaced on West 57th Street and taken over a theater with carpets…it is time for permissive adults to stop winking at their too-precious pranks….’

Before having the gall to blow uptown minds, however, The Chelsea Girls premiered in 1966 at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque at 125 West 41st Street (apparently far enough downtown for Crowther), where it sold out many of its initial screenings and enjoyed several return engagements, before moving to the Cinema Rendezvous on 57th.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we present this special screening (safely downtown), hosted by Jonas Mekas himself, who will share stories of how The Chelsea Girls was let loose on the world.”

The original projectionists were Jerome Hiler and Bob Cowan; the Cinemathque in this particular iteration was run by the late Greg Sharits; and as the notes above indicate, it was an instant smash, with ads running in The New York Times, and nearly universal critical acclaim.

More than any other film, with the exception of La Dolce Vita, The Chelsea Girls holds a mirror up to the culture of the 1960s; it is at all surprising that the late chanteuse and actor Nico is in both films?

So, if you’re in New York City tonight, this is a must see – of course, there’s also a great new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde playing at The Metropolitan Opera this week, so that’s something – just something – of a toss up. But that should give you some idea of just how important The Chelsea Girls is as a cultural landmark – it’s an absolutely brilliant, merciless, and altogether stunning experience, of equally epic stature.

The Chelsea Girls is on my “top ten” list – which has 250 films in it – see it if you can.

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Click on the image above for the trailer for Melancholia.

I’m not a Lars von Trier cultist by any stretch of the imagination — his previous work strikes me as empty and pretentious — and I say this only because with Melancholia, easily the best film of his career, he has created one of the the most heartbreaking, elegiac, complex and accomplished films in cinema history — in short, it’s a stop at nothing masterpiece, and instantly joins the pantheon of truly remarkable films, evoking everything from Dreyer to Bresson to Resnais and all the stops in-between.

The plot of the film is no secret; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a deeply depressed young woman whom we meet on her wedding day, afflicted with melancholia, the disease; at the same time, a huge planet, also named Melancholia, is hurtling towards earth at terrific speed, destined to utterly destroy the planet. All of this is revealed in the first five minutes, in a super-slow-motion montage reminiscent of the video gallery pieces of Bill Viola, culminating in the moment that Melancholia collides with Earth, as seen from distant space.

But after this opening, wordless sequence, scored to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film leaves the apocalypse plot aside for a close-up examination of Justine’s disastrous and ruinously expensive wedding, during which Justine bit by bit collapses into a state of almost complete catatonia. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to help her through the day-long ordeal, but to no avail. By the end of the day, Claire’s husband deserts her, she’s fired from her job for telling off her obnoxious boss, and her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) stands up during a toast and tells the entire room that she hates the very idea of marriage, even as the forced festivities continue.

That’s the first half of the film, aptly entitled Justine, but when Claire takes over the eponymous second half of Melancholia, the film deepens into a doleful meditation on mortality, the worthlessness of property and money, the fickle stability of family relationships, and because the end of the film is predestined — we know from the opening moments that everyone in the film will die, as well as every other person on the earth — the tragedy becomes almost unbearably intense, as Justine pulls out of her depression, embraces the inevitability of death, and becomes, against all odds, the most courageous member of the group in the film’s final moments.

More than that I cannot and should not say; this is a film that simply must be experienced, preferably on a large screen for full visual and emotional impact. This is the sort of apocalyptic thriller that only an artist can pull off; it’s absolutely pitch-perfect for its entire two hour and fifteen minute running time, and like the rogue planet that dominates Melancholia from first frame to last, the film inexorably gathers velocity and resonance as it hurtles towards its horrific and yet transcendant climax. The entire cast is superb — Dunst gives the performance of her career in the film — and John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and all the rest of the ensemble are equally brilliant.

I spend so much of my time watching junk, which is all the Hollywood makes now, so when something as good as this, or Margin Call, comes along, I want to celebrate. It’s as Ingmar Bergman said near the end of his life; you see so many bad movies, that after a while, you don’t expect anything more. Then something like this comes along. Melancholia is an astonishing, absolutely remarkable film that succeeds on every level — as human drama, as science fiction fantasy, as social parable, as purely visual filmmaking. See it at once.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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