On Painting Reality

On Painting Reality

We've got too many stimuli and not enough places to put them. And so, perhaps, we keep moving around the surplus excitement, sticking it onto this or that image, with the unintended consequence of creating the hyperreal.


On a psychological level, film is related to the art of embalming–or so André Bazin wrote half a century ago, in an essay that's still being chewed over. Bazin proposed that people feel a deep need to represent their world, as the next best thing to preserving it; and so the arts have struggled over the centuries toward an ever-higher degree of illusionism, till reaching the level of the sound-and-color film. This theory rests on an observation that seems to me unchallengeable: The cinema's early viewers experienced great satisfaction in seeing that pictures at last could capture not just the shape and surface texture of an object but also its motion, the visible essence of life. And yet, from the early years of cinema until now, certain directors have also felt the need to arrest motion, as if yielding to a psychological tendency to make film imitate the condition of painting.

These tableaux vivants served at first to dignify the raffish new medium of film. (They also saved directors and production designers a lot of work–as when D.W. Griffith, wanting to mount an ancient Babylonian feast for Intolerance, cribbed from a Salon painting that hung in a New York restaurant.) Later, frozen art-historical moments have figured prominently in stories about painters, who in the movies rarely have to go through the brain-wracking work of developing a composition, sketch after sketch. More often, these movie painters reproduce scenes that magically appear to them, all nice and finished–either in the real world (if the artist is van Gogh in Lust for Life) or in an inspired inner vision (such as the one that strikes the maestro in Pasolini's The Decameron).

There is also a strong, though less popular, tradition of making paintings-on-film for purposes of comedy, satire or critical commentary. Having been translated out of context, the original image becomes, in Marcel Duchamp's terms, a reverse readymade (meaning, for example, a Rembrandt used as an ironing board). Jean-Luc Godard has done quite a lot of this kind of thing (perhaps most notably in Passion). And before him, there was Luis Buñuel, who in Viridiana (1961) gave us the locus classicus: the moment when a crowd of beggars, who are throwing themselves a banquet, freeze in a parody of Leonardo's Last Supper.

The great Spanish actor Francisco Rabal happened to have participated in Viridiana. Now I see that he's back in the tableau vivant business, starring as the title character in Goya in Bordeaux. Written and directed by Carlos Saura, the film has precious little use for critical commentary. It's strictly of the "It came to me in a dream" school–and as such things go, it's worth a few laughs.

This much of the story is true: In 1824, when he was already an old man, Goya went into exile from Spain, which had become uncomfortable for him with the restoration of the monarchy, and settled in France, where he spent the last four years of his life. With him were his much younger companion, Leocadia Zorilla, and their little daughter. Goya in Bordeaux takes shape in this setting as a spiral of the ailing old man's memories–which he sometimes narrates as "secret, secret" stories, told to the 12-year-old daughter, and sometimes relives as dreams or hallucinations.

"Where am I?" croaks Rabal as his first words, waking in bed in a bleaching light. He plods to the window in his nightshirt, looking remarkably like Goya's self-portrait at this age: more bullfrog than man, with a wide, pouting lower lip and a great whiskery pouch of a neck. Down one side of his nose runs a deep cleft, left by some act of violence; a puckered scar complicates his left cheek. "Where am I?" he repeats, as the first instance of the dialogue's excess. "Who put me here?" In response, the room's color changes from red to blue, lights flash and a maja in a black mantilla materializes, only to disappear immediately through the door. Goya follows and soon finds himself chasing down one of those glowing white corridors with chessboard floor tiles that are standard equipment in the hallucinated-memory game.

The vanishing lady–as if you haven't guessed–is the Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú), whom Goya will eventually paint both clothed and nude. She'll serve a symbolic function, too; but, for the moment, her role is merely to lead Goya's thoughts back to age 45, when he was still slim and could be portrayed by José Coronado. We see him at a fancy party, where he's gone, dressed in a white wig and painted-on beauty mark, so that he might advance his career and ogle the Duchess. But, having tossed out these scraps of biography and romance–and having paused in mid-scene to observe Madrid's highest society in close-up–the film rushes on to other matters. Goya discovers dark visions within himself, and the power of the imagination; he etches the grotesque, satirical scenes known as Los caprichos. The pictures, blown up to six feet in height, appear on a series of scrims; the younger Goya walks behind the scrims, commenting on the images, while the older Goya stands in front of them, closer to the camera, adding a few thoughts of his own.

You get the idea. Goya in Bordeaux takes place in theatrical settings, almost all of them constructed on a soundstage, where cinematographer Vittorio Storaro can play freely with his colored lights, and where the younger and older Goyas can act out various episodes and sometimes converse with each other. The effect, by turns, is smooth and clunky, refreshing and tedious. On the one hand, Carlos Saura knows very well how to move freely and imaginatively from scene to scene and time to time; on the other, he doesn't know any better than to have the two Goyas sit around swapping information about the political situation, as if they were the play-by-play man and color commentator of some lost broadcast from the Romantic era.

But the really cheesy aspect of the movie–the part that bears some discussion–is Saura's re-creation of Goya's images. Pictures keep coming off the wall. In some cases, the three-dimensionality is limited and illustrative, as when Goya envisions the fresco Saturn Devouring One of His Sons complete with blood dripping from the Titan's mouth. You don't need the illustration, but at least it doesn't take up much space. In other cases, though, the effect is more intrusive. A whole crowd from Goya's "black paintings" rushes forward to surround the camera, which stares in understandable alarm. It's like being assaulted on the street by a mime troupe. And as the film's climax, Saura has Goya's greatest, most devastating images of war come to "life" on an elaborate stage set, before a painted backdrop.

Among these images is The Third of May 1808, Goya's large-scale canvas commemorating the execution of Spanish resistance fighters by Napoleonic troops. The painting is a work of brutal simplification. On the right side, a diagonal line of soldiers, their backs turned toward the viewer, forms a dark funnel, which narrows toward the rifle barrels that occupy the center of the picture. Under these barrels is the only source of illumination in this nocturnal scene–a lantern–from which a funnel of light opens out, dominating the left half of the picture. The victims all stand, or lie in a bloody heap, within this area of the canvas, so that the violence is swiftly, inexorably channeled from right to left, with the abrupt change from darkness to light serving as the visual correlation to an explosion.

Saura's version is, shall we say, less rigorous. The figures are framed loosely, rather than compressed into a space of no escape; the stark contrast of light and dark is lost (since the backdrop is now a glowing cyclorama); the single, unforgettable gesture of the painting–the lifting of a victim's arms–is made to compete with any number of other poses in an expanded composition. Most disturbing of all, the silence of the painting is abandoned. A strange choice to make, considering that Saura's screenplay is always harping on Goya's deafness, which is said (more than once) to have isolated him. Maybe so; but, more to the point, The Third of May 1808 seems to erupt against a background of profound stillness. The painting rings with silence; whereas Saura's image is accompanied by the all-too-predictable soundtrack of drumbeats, trumpets and bang-bang-bang.

This overelaboration of the painting, this nattering on behalf of something that was eloquent in itself, reminded me of the wax museums and dioramas of which Umberto Eco wrote in Travels in Hyperreality. What is the source, he wondered, of this desire to "improve" an image by keying up its illusionism, to the point that it becomes more vivid and tangible than any lived experience? I don't recall Eco's answer but I think it had to do with our sense of a lack in daily affairs, for which we then overcompensate. But as I watched Goya in Bordeaux, I began to wonder if the hyperreal might arise from our anxiety about an overabundance, rather than a perceived shortage.

Unless we're profoundly deaf, there is no silence in the world anymore; every moment is awash in televised voices, canned music, the ringing of cell phones. Nor do pictures stand still; even paintings jump around, having been digitized for our scrolling pleasure on the Internet. We've got too many stimuli and not enough places to put them. And so, perhaps, we keep moving around the surplus excitement, sticking it onto this or that image, with the unintended consequence of creating the hyperreal. Even Saura, who's a sophisticated artist, falls into the practice, all the while telling himself he's been faithful to Goya.

You want to see The Third of May 1808 in a movie? Try The Phantom of Liberty, by Luis Buñuel.

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