Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 3

Stealth, Clarissa Upchurch 2004

A sense of foreboding is to be expected in a story about crime, but the language it deploys need not necessarily be gothic. In 1928, King Vidor made a silent film called The Crowd. It is a tragedy of ordinariness, with a central character but without heroes. Its very lack of speech (in the year after the issue of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer) shielded it from sentimentality and its panoramic views and partly documentary style (“No picture is perfect, but this comes as near to reproducing reality as anything you have ever witnessed,’ declared Photoplay)  implied that the city itself was as much the subject as the individual whose life provided the linear narrative for it. Vidor constantly reminds us of the dramatic personality of the city. Like Fritz Lang in ‘M’ in 1931 he casts it as the locus for melodrama and social disintegration.  It was as well that ‘The Crowd’ was silent for it is hard to imagine dialogue enhancing it. Once dialogue becomes possible narrative exerts far greater pressure. Shades of thought and feeling may be conveyed with sophisticated accuracy. A state of mind must be accounted for and has consequences. Dialogues and detectives shift the scene to Chicago or Vienna. Enter the Mob and the KGB; enter the Bay City cops, Naked City and NYPD Blue. So we discover the hard Realisms of Chinatown, the New York of Dead End and the Newcastle of Get Carter. The negotiation between realism and Proyas’s Dark City is a complex but natural one, one follows the other as night follows day.

Meryon would have been a natural collaborator for Baudelaire, Baudelaire as the script-writer and Meryon as the designer of the new film about a phantasmal Paris. Movies do rely on designers and story-board artists to establish mood and syntax. Designs may be as fantastic and extravagant as the panoramic Miltonic landscapes of John Martin, as in Walter Hall’s designs for Intolerance in 1916 (his twelve elephant caryatids were cut down to three in the film as even D.W.Griffiths had a budget), or as claustrophobic as Henry Fuseli’s work, as in Ben Carré’s sketches for the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera.. Film designers borrow from painters as much as theatre designers do, that much is obvious.  But I am thinking here more of story-boardists than of designers; of William Carlos Menzies’s sketches for Gone with the Wind for instance. I am struck by their formal breadth and sense of anonymous action. Anonymous because, from Menzies’s point of view, it did not matter what Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable looked like. His story telling is a more distant affair, and though it is filled with action, his characters are anonymous, elsewhere. I am interested in the location of such language, and how it might provide a place of metamorphosis for hard-to-classify forms of depictive art.

The story board is a syntax provider. It is, like much of the art before the Renaissance, a functional, almost anonymous art, serving the movie instead of the church. Like the fresco cycle it is related to a firm narrative originating elsewhere, in a detailed text. In fact it positions itself somewhere between the fresco-cycle and the comic strip in its formal dramatic structure but keeps its distance from both. I think of the paintings of Hopper and Chirico, both, in their different ways, suggestive of narrative; both, in their different ways, refusing to satisfy it. Their handle on character is firmer than that of a story-boardist, but depend on diffusing character in the interest of narrative terrain.  We are aware of the characters only in action or in between actions and in so far as the actions are piecemeal and detached from the main body of some supposed narrative, we see them in suspense. They do not give themselves. Their identity has been transferred to their environment, their sphere of isolated action.

I suggest that this is the narrative reality our imaginations have grown up with. We live in a glimpsed world of cars, doorways, figures in doorways, on trains and buses, appearing at windows, round the corner of the street, and our meanings and expectations are created from our readings of them.

The works of Clarissa Upchurch inhabit this city of readings. Like the photographs they faintly resemble – by Kertész, Walker Evans, Atget, and Sudek – and the film-makers they seem to refer to like Wim Wenders or Proyas on the one hand and even Guy Ritchie on the other, they see the city as a narrative basin into which they can dip then leave. This narrative basin is as much filmic as graphic or painterly. They are further informed by a distinctly Eastern or Central  European sensibility. The films of the seventies and eighties Hungarian directors Peter Gothár, Márta Mészaros and András Jeles spring to mind. And this is scarcely surprising for her subject matter has been the same city for fifteen years: Budapest...

to be continued

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