Sunday, July 7, 2013
Filming the Human Comedy
Long time readers of this blog may recall my fondness for the 2011 film The Mill and the Cross by Lech Majewski. The movie examines a moment in the life of the painter Pieter Bruegel and the creation of one of his masterworks, The Way to Calvary. The painting is one of the sprawling canvases, teeming with activity, for which Bruegel is well known. The figure of Christ weighed down by His Cross may be centered in the composition, yet He is not given any special emphasis by the artist. Indeed, He receives no more prominence than any of the other characters populating the scene. (The only figures given such special designation are the Virgin with her companions). As with many of Bruegel's works, this is an illustration of history in progress, even if few of the passersby have any inkling what they are witnessing. Many do not pay any heed to the procession of condemned, preoccupied as they are with their own cares. Bruegel was interested in more than simply recording the Important Events of History, but also the more typical everyday actions that co-exist alongside. Majewski takes this approach in his film as well, giving us less a portrait of the famous artist than of the society in which he lived and the range of behavior he witnessed in his daily life. Like the painter with his brushes, Majewski wishes to capture with his camera, as much as possible, the sum of human experience.
This summer, another approach to Bruegel through cinema can be experienced. Jem Cohen's outstanding Museum Hours is the story of two individuals who meet in a Vienna museum. Johann is a guard at the institution, while Anne is from North America, visiting a once-close cousin, who has lapsed into a coma. Large sections of the story occur inside Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, which happens to contain an entire room of Bruegels, including some of his most famous works (The Way to Calvary being among them). A scene in which a "visiting guide" shares some remarks on Bruegel highlights Cohen's own desire to reproduce the aesthetic of the artist. The guide speaks a little on The Way to Calvary and other paintings, but Cohen seems most in sync with Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding. Here there is no lofty subject of the past being ignored, only everyday life being experienced. There is no hidden subtext within this picture, or some old-wives' proverb being illustrated for our edification. Instead, the artist simply shows how people live. We witness the good, bad and ugly just as we might at any contemporary wedding celebration we might attend ourselves this season.
Throughout the movie, Cohen inserts seemingly random sequences of bystanders, both in and outside the museum, going about their business. Then, late in the film, Johann takes Anne to his regular tavern for its weekly "immigrant night." There is no narrative purpose to this scene, yet it is one of the highlights of the story. Music foreign to both the local and the tourist plays while patrons drink, sing and dance, welcoming Anne into their celebration. During the time in the tavern, Cohen focuses on a huge collage of photographs, reminders of the people who have been there and the various events they have observed. A faded banner hangs prominently on a nearby wall. Bruegel used paint; the tavern uses photography, Cohen uses a movie camera, yet they all follow through on the same human instinct: to document, to express through art, "we were here and this is how we lived." In such a way, Cohen, like Majewski, successfully translates the aesthetic of Bruegel's paintings to that of cinema, and in the process attempts to capture as wide a spectrum of the human experience as possible.