Amit Dutta’a 'Nainsukh' reawakens the subtle realism of the titular 18th-century Indian artist’s miniatures.

Swimming in the Deep End of San Francisco International Film Festival

Max Goldberg April 15, 2011

Even as Avatar raked in its billions, one sensed a certain degree of anxiety underlying the boasting over technological breakthroughs and old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle. If the first wave of Hollywood upsizing (processes ranging from CinemaScope to 3–D) was waged as a holy war against television, today’s executives contend with the far craggier media landscape of streaming and downloads. The widespread adaptation of expensive 3–D digital projection creates a need for product, and thus we end up with reliable franchises (Saw, Jackass, Step Up), comic book idylls (Tron: Legacy, The Green Hornet) and pretty faces (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) intruding still further on our personal space.

Given this state of affairs, this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival (April 21–May 5) offers welcome reminder that there are many different forms of film spectacle and that an immersive cinematic experience doesn’t necessarily mean checking your brain at the door. Films as varied as Trypps #7 (Badlands) (a ten-minute mindbender opening a fine selection of avant-garde shorts collected as The Deep End) and The Autobiography of Nicolas Ceausescu (a sharply insightful three-hour tour of the Romanian dictator’s reign comprised entirely of found footage), Le Quattro Volte (seasonal observations of the time and materials in the rural south of Italy) and World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s long unseen 1973 science fiction opus) all have similarly bold designs on our grip of reality. The encompassing nature of these films flows from their questioning spirit; forces as monolithic as gravity and history seem freshly up for grabs in their vision.

With this year’s World Cinema Spotlight, “Painting with Light,” the festival programmers have highlighted three films that employ the tools of cinema to contemplate paintings far predating the seventh art. Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross enters the teeming pageantry of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 1564 masterpiece, “The Way to Calvary.” Amit Dutta’a Nainsukh reawakens the subtle realism of the titular 18th-century Indian artist’s miniatures to life. Finally, Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the mysterious cave paintings at Chauvet as only Werner Herzog could. The mind reels when confronted with drawings dating from a time when faced stiff competition from Neanderthal man, but here they are, delivered in a distinctly awe-inspired 3–D.

Each of these films stand out in a field crowded with pan-and-scan art histories. The curious viewer will have to dig elsewhere for the kind of historical contextualization and expert opinions you would expect from a televisual profile of Nainsukh or Brueghel. Cave of Forgotten Dreams does feature a few talking heads—this being a Herzog film, though, they are invariably “characters”—but like the others it’s primarily dedicated to the transporting experience of actually standing before the painting.

The Mill and the Cross and Nainsukh accomplish this by dramatizing the world of the canvas, a slightly quixotic proposition since, after all, how do you plot a painting in time? Majewski manages this problem by organizing his scenes cyclically. In regularly returning to the same actions—young children roughhousing, a man making heavy advances on a woman, a fool playing his flute—Majewski cleverly replicates the way our attention circulates looking at such a dense canvas. This enveloping aspect is further developed with the high-tech imagining systems that allow Majewski to situate his actors within Brueghel’s own visual field. Meanwhile, the subversive aspects of the painting—the positioning of the mill grinder at a perch usually reserved for God; the placement of everyday bawdiness just next door to the Crucifixion, here imagined as taking place at the hands of Spanish inquisitors—come into focus through the narrative’s slow build. By the time the camera tracks out from Brueghel’s framed masterpiece, we’re nearly surprised to find all that adventure emanating from a single canvas—only one of many in the gallery at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The Brueghel who appears within
The Mill and the Cross comments upon his organization of the broader scene, while the Nainsukh in Dutta’s portrait is almost completely silent. The quiet passages highlighting the artist’s careful draftsmanship—drawing self-portraits using three well placed mirrors—and his rapt attention to birdsongs make clear the sense of wonder Dutta finds in the paintings, however. The film presents Nainsukh’s art coming from a family lineage, one supported by patrons and inspired by deities. Dutta pays close attention to the finesse of Nainsukh’s brushwork and his observant images of smoking, beard-trimming and dancing. When the filmmaker reconstructs one of Nainsukh’s more complexly staged scenes—as in the hunting of a tiger clutching its human prey—his cinematic technique of isolating different elements of a single scene evokes the dynamic register of imagination and realism animating the artist’s deceptively flat pictures.

In many ways,
Cave of Forgotten Dreams might be read as a mild rebuke to Avatar: Where James Cameron invented a world, Werner Herzog goes after a lost one; where Cameron’s technology celebrates itself, Herzog’s bows before ancient accomplishments; and while Cameron employed scores of technicians for years, Herzog and his crew of three only had a week inside fragile Chauvet. Whether or not one agrees with Herzog that the insinuation of movement in some of the cave paintings—a bison done with eight legs, for instance—constitutes a form of “proto cinema,” the advanced 3–D processing employed in Cave of Forgotten Dreams does justice to the striking undulations of the animal figures. It’s one thing to listen to experts explain that the primeval artists made expressive use of the shape of the rocks and quite another to work over this dimensionality with one’s own eyes.

Herzog’s enthusiasm for the material comes through strongest in the way he turns severe limitations to his advantage. He imagines his irregular lighting sources are not so very different from the torches the artists used to illuminate their work and uses the restricted camera positions as a commentary on the unknowable nature of the ancient artists’ thoughts and emotions. Regardless of how one feels about Herzog’s anachronistic (but characteristic) references to Fred Astaire, Wagner, Baywatch and mutant albino alligator, his essentially curious nature places appropriate attention upon the staggering traces of a distant stage of human existence: the shards of wood left where a torch was struck, the identifying deformity in one artist’s handprint, and perhaps most tantalizing of all, a bear skull placed in such a way as to suggest an object of worship.

Although not collected under the “Painting with Light” heading, one of the experimental shorts slated for The Deep End program (T. Marie’s Slave Ship) refigures J.W. Turner’s 1840 haunting portrait of a massacre, “The Slave Ship.” Meanwhile, other highlights of this year’s festival immerse themselves in landscapes (Foreign Parts, Le Quattro Volte, Detroit Wild City, Meek’s Cutoff, Nostalgia for the Light, Letters from the Big Man), archival footage (The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975), and the lives of outcasts (Aurora, Attenberg, The Journals of Musan, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye). What’s more, several of the festival’s awardees are known for pushing audiences into the deep end. One hopes that Oliver Stone, winner of this year’s Founder’s Directing Award, might unravel his longstanding attraction to conspiracy stories. Serge Bromberg, a richly deserving winner of the festival’s Mel Novikoff Award, will present one of his inimitable tours through his archival recoveries (this time in 3D!). And of course the cinematic benchmarks of Matthew Barney, this year’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award winner, are both celebrated and harassed for their steroidal surrealism. Tucked into the “Live & Onstage” section of the festival, the baroque pop group Tindersticks is set to perform a selection of their scores for the already-immersive work of Claire Denis at the Castro, providing this festival with at least one “once in a lifetime” event.

This overview wouldn’t be complete without special mention of the two longest films in this year’s program, both of them produced for television: the 256-minute Mysteries of Lisbon and 204-minute World on a Wire. I haven’t yet seen the former, but it has been widely heralded as a triumph for Raúl Ruiz, already one of modern cinema’s great tricksters. The
World on a Wire restoration will be an easy sell for Fassbinder fans, but its visionary science-fiction is so engrossing both at the level of style and plot that it might well serve as an ideal introduction to the German director’s formidable oeuvre. The convoluted story centers on Fred Stiller, the newly appointed technical director of a state-sponsored virtual reality program. Worries begin to gnaw at both his conscience and consciousness as soon as he takes the job: Was his predecessor’s death really accidental? To what degree is his boss covertly corporatizing the project? And what about that lingering doubt that the distinctions between “up here” in ’70s high artifice and “down there” in simulated reality are so hard and fast?

Upon its initial rerelease, many critics commented on 
World on a Wire’s anticipation of The Matrix’s high flying simulacra drama. If anything, Fassbinder’s tightly focused epic actually looks advanced of the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 blockbuster—especially in its prescient view of the simultaneous dispersal and privatization of computer databasing systems. Fassbinder’s film betrays genuine anguish over the role of creativity in such a highly leveraged reality, going so far as to present the audience with two possible endings. Visually, World on a Wire is a tour de force; every conversation is a virtual symphony of exotic camera movements (sweeping wide circles and backwards tracks that even Max Ophüls might have shied away from) and ornate mise-en-scène (the thematically resonant contrast of mirror images and artificial surfaces is near constant). One is struck above all by Fassbinder’s stupefying control within the chaos he’s contrived: Again and again, he threads the needle and hits some very exact point after a blistering camera combination. Fassbinder signals past film touchstones here—especially Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, with star Eddie Constantine making a late cameo—but World on a Wire remains a bracingly original work.