Posts Tagged ‘minimalism’

Last night Patt and I had the rare opportunity to see Michelangelo Antononi’s film “L’Avventura” as a 35mm film print at the Northwest Film Center. It was shown as part of the Italian Style exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. A few years ago, I wrote of my love for Antonioni and his first color film “Red Desert“. Today, I’d like to tell you why L’Avventura is one of my favorite films of all time.

Antonioni seems, to me, to be the opposite of many earlier Italian filmmakers. Before Antonioni and his generation were the Italian neo-realists like Visconti and Rosselini. Neo-realist filmmakers share some common production traits such as using amateur actors, on-site cinematography, outlines instead of formal storyboards and scripts, socialist themes about the working class and their struggles, and the physical effects of historical events. As one would expect from the name  “neo-realism” these films were almost a form of interpretive historiography.

Antonioni’s films, however, use well-trained professional actors (Monica Vitti!!!), expensive locations, highly stylized aesthetics, upper class protagonists, and a strong focus on the psychological (versus physical) effects of events. To my mind , Antonioni is the antithesis of a neo-realist. But I love Rosselini, so, clearly being antithetical to Rosselini and Visconti isn’t what I love about L’Avventura. That is simply one among many of the things that makes Antonioni and this particular film, unique.

Honestly, L’Avventura is pretty light on plot-lines. But here is what Janus Films has to say: “A girl mysteriously disappears on a yachting trip. While her lover and her best friend search for her across Italy, they begin an affair. Antonioni’s penetrating study of the idle upper class offers stinging observations on spiritual isolation and the many meanings of love.” That’s the extent of it. The “missing girl” is “Anna”, her lover is “Sandro”, and the best friend is “Claudia”. Sounds pretty damn dull, huh? My wife sums it up even more succinctly. The Patt Bilow synopsis is this:

Anna disappears and Sandro is a scumbag“. You pretty well nailed the plot, babe. That is one reason I love you so much! 🙂

Seriously, though, the film does have a bit more structure than I’m flippantly implying. L’Avventura should be viewed more as a “composition” in the musical sense than as a traditional film. In that context, L’Avventura could be said to have five “movements”. Each movement, then, has it’s own unique mood and environmental structure. Each ends with some event that changes how we view the characters; each alters the narrative direction. This is not my own private analysis. It is widely accepted that there are 5 sections to the film.

  • 1. Anna goes to the Island
  • 2. The search of the Island, for Anna
  • 3. Claudia and Sandro follow Anna’s trail
  • 4. The new relationship between Claudia and Sandro
  • 5. The return

The film also has much more character complexity than simply to say that Sandro is a scumbag. He is. But he is also weak, more insecure than he is willing to portray, needy, and angry. Sandro cries at the end of the film and, oddly, Claudia comforts him. This implies that he is weak, lonely, and for all his money, alienated. So, frankly, is Claudia. After all, she does become Sandro’s lover much more readily than one would hope.

So, ok. Look… It’s not much of a plot. Surely, that is why it was booed at its first ever showing at Cannes in 1960. But, it does have structure and meaning; even if its greatest meaning is little more than to say that everyone suffers from post-modern alienation. There are more important aspects to the film and I’ll readily admit that it is not plot that makes L’Avventura great.

What then? Does it have a super-secret encrypted message? Well… I can’t answer that question any better than the greatest of film critics, Roger Ebert. In 1997, Ebert said this:

These people were bored by a lifestyle beyond my wildest dreams. When I taught the film in a class 15 years later, it seemed affected and contrived, a feature-length idea but not a movie. Only recently, seeing it again, did I realize how much clarity and passion Antonioni brought to the film’s silent cry of despair.

His characters were parasites whose money allowed them to clear away the distractions of work, responsibility, goals and purposes, and exposed the utter emptiness within. It is possible to be rich and happy, of course, but for that you need a mind, and interests. It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained. “L’Avventura” becomes a place in our imagination–a melancholy moral desert.

This is not all that different from the many other interpretations which say that L’Avventura is a direct shot at the Italian upper-middle class who Antonioni the socialist really does dislike. But, when it comes to wasting time and money, the upper-middle class may also be an allegorical representation of a larger problem. I propose that it is. I propose that the film forces us to ask the larger question of meaning in human life in general. How do we make a meaningful life? Antonioni does not answer that. But he does do one heck of a good job of demonstrating that idleness, inaction, lack of productiveness, complacency, and meaningless sexual promiscuity are not the constituent parts. About that, we must ponder long and hard.

I still have not explained why I love the film. Unless I simply enjoy static plot-free films about angst, there must be more. So, let’s forget about plot and meaning; let’s focus on aesthetics. There are 3 fundamental aesthetic characteristics that make this film great. I’ll share them now. Hopefully, you will see why I’m in love with this film despite the minimalist plot and slow pace of its 473 shots.

1. Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to visual detail. As a competent photographer, I think I’m adequately trained to speak to the compositional style in Antonioni’s ouerve. I propose that if you were to print of every frame in L’Avventura, the majority of those prints would contain a near-perfectly composed image. That results from Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to detail.

2. Without being overt or cheeky, Antonioni uses superbly crafted iconography and even simple visual cues in very powerful ways. We begin to see this as early as shot 2. We can tell that Anna and her father don’t have a particularly good relationship because they speak to each other’s backs, with no eye contact. That’s not really the iconography I’m talking about but it quickly demonstrates how Antonioni uses imagery to tell us more than words or action.

Much of the visual, and even verbal, language that is used (in a much more advanced way) to depict allegory in L’Avventura comes from Catholicism. Last night, the entire theater laughed when Claudia, in shot 202, hands Anna’s father Anna’s Bible. He takes it as a good sign that she would not commit suicide. He says: “I believe than anyone who reads the Bible could never do anything so rash!“.That is a sort of verbal joke. But consider the later scene where Sandro purposely spills ink on a young architect’s drawing and then escapes a fight with the young man by scrambling into line with a large group of black-clad school boys and their priests. Ahhh! Saved by the priests!

But, by no means is all the allegory Catholic. In fact, the penultimate (and not so subtle) iconography comes at the end of the film where Sandro is represented by a church tower and Claudia by the cavernous womb of a church. Sexual allegory? Naw… never! 🙂

3.Antonioni borrows an almost anti-teleological aesthetic commonly used in Japanese literature and abstract expressionistic music like that of Morton Feldman. He spends more time on character and psychological effect than enacting plot and action. His camera often stays on a shot for several seconds after the action has ended; creating a teleological version of “negative space”.Like L’Avventura, Japanese novels are often also static, and the same is true of music by an abstract expressionist composer like one of my old teachers, Morton Feldman. like Feldman’s music and Japanese novels, the lack of a temporal dynamism in L’Avventura is actually the source of its utter beauty. Instead of bouncing through quick cuts and fast-paced action, the viewer must watch the film long enough to adapt to its pace and time extension; having settled in to the pacing, we can experience the subtlety and detail almost like a meditation on perfectly composed images floating in a clear lake of temporal stasis.

I don’t just make this stuff up. Antonioni himself explains his philosophy of time, events, and images in an essay called “The Event and the Image“. He states explicitly that he wants to present an “event” and then dispense with it quickly in order to use related images to depict the EFFECT of the event. In L’Avventura the “event” is the disappearance of Anna; the “image” is the entire remainder of the film; imagery and iconography are used to to explore the effect of Anna’s disappearance on Claudia and Sandro. It make for a very beautiful experience if you let yourself have the time to immerse in it.

I’m used to watching this film on a Criterion Collection DVD. Watching the 35mm film print was both good and bad. It was good because it is historically significant and film does have a particular look. Unfortunately, I sometimes found it difficult to read the white subtitles. Also, I was a bit surprised at the lip sync issues and how much the audio synchronization problems bothered me.That is just a characteristic of the available technology. Still, there are plenty of films from long before 1960 that have well dubbed audio tracks. I do have to say, though, that even with the poorly sync’d audio track it was sure a blessing to get to see a film print of one of my all-time favorite flicks!

All-in-all it was a great thing to see L’Avventura on film. Thank you to the Northwest Film Center for showing it, to the Portland Art Museum for letting members in free, and to my lovely wife for being the only friend interested in coming to watch it with me! Now I need another 2 1/2 hours to devote to this film.  I really want to go back to my DVD and watch it with the secondary audio track; therein my old friend and video professor Gene Youngblood provides a play-by-play commentary. It might be time for some serious cinematic geekdom!

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been over a month since I posted the first part of this piece. In the interim I’ve dealt with mom’s broken hip and a week in London, among other things. None of that is really an excuse, except to say that I’ve been crazy busy. Oh well. Back at it.

James Turrell often talks about his work in the context of Plato’s parable about the cave. I’m sure you know that one. Those kept prisoner in the cave can only see the shadows of what’s outside in the real world. They think that the shadows ARE the real world, not knowing that there is a larger, more vivid, much more complex world outside their cave. They don’t know that because their concept of the world is shaped only by what they perceive. Personally, I hate that parable; not because of what it says about sense perception but because Plato uses it to describe his notion of underlying forms and I’m SO not into Platonism.

But, I have to say that when Turrell uses the parable to explain the concept that we are living in a place far more wondrous than what we actually perceive, I get it. Personally, I draw a hard-line when the implication is that we live “in a reality that our mind creates” because that leads down a subjectivist rat hole that has historically led (IMHO) down a very scary path. I refuse to believe that we create our own reality: reality is not a social construct or a linguistic construct or a perceptual construct. Reality is reality. Existence exists. That is my belief system and I’m sticking to it.

Now, the part of the equation that I DO buy into wholeheartedly it the idea that what we commonly consider the totality of reality is subject to the sensory limitations of our perceptual apparatus. To me, the profound power of Turrell’s work is that he forces us to confront the perceptual and cognitive limitations and to look deeply. I don’t want to burden that thought with New Age pseudo-spiritual fluff. Feel free to do that yourself. But, I see this work in a more objective way,

You see, I feel that awareness of subtlety and attention to detail are tools for cognitive tuning, living as fully as possible in the world, creative success, and the ability to maximally experience joy, beauty, and wonder. And, the more joy, beauty, and wonder we are able to glean from our experience of the world the more fulfilled we can be as individuals. Turrell’s work, by encouraging us to look more deeply than typically possible, makes us more aware, makes our experience more nuanced, and positions us to have a deeper, more fulfilling life.

That’s a pretty bold statement and, just to be clear, it came from me not from Jim. I’m not sure he’d describe his work the way I do; but I’m sure he’d approve of my assessment. And… It’s my assessment that leads me to the aesthetic value I see in his work.

Although teleology is something that much of 20th and 21st century art has forsaken, I still believe in the old notions of direction and purpose. I know, I’m old-fashioned. In many cases, artists have “purposes” with which I disagree. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is intellectual activity that is purposeless. If you make violent art to sensitize the viewer to the horrors of violence, I may not like it, but I’ll respect it. Conversely, if you make violent art just for the sake of violence, I’ll look you in the eye and call it valueless.  The point is that art have a purpose.

My own belief is that the value of art comes when that purpose is, in one way or another, directed toward making we humans better for having experienced it. In the case of my friend Michael Newberry, the purpose of his work is to make us see the greatness we can achieve and the capacity we have for joy. I love his work because it has that purpose. At the diametrically opposite extreme, consider Alain Resnais’ film “Night and Fog”. The purpose if the file is to make us see the utter depths of depravity we can fall to when a nationalistic genocidal machine is allowed to grow from a history of antisemitism and the capacity the Nazis had for bestiality. I love that film, although I can probably never watch it a second time, because it has a purpose. The purpose is painful, horrifying, and tragic. But it strives to make us better by making us wary of the depths to which we can fall. Terrifying as it may be, we are changed by watching it; hopefully made just a bit more empathetic and compassionate.

But what about Turrell?

Okay. That brings me to the aesthetics of nuance. The work of James Turrell makes us better human beings because it makes us pay attention to subtlety. By experiencing Turrell’s work we wrestle with perception, we experience surprise, we watch, we wait, we look, and we see. In each case, we exercise our cognition and we tune our senses. We stand in a museum looking at a hole in a wall and some fluorescent tubes. Big deal, you say. Damn right it’s a big deal. Because, if you give yourself time to experience that light, to let it work it’s magic on your visual cortex, to become sensitive to its subtlety, you may just walk out of that museum and notice a flower you’d otherwise have missed, see a sunset you might have otherwise been too busy driving past, hear a bird you might not have noticed, smell the aroma of the bread at the bakery you walk past, touch a stone whose texture you may have missed, experience a smile that might have gone unnoticed, feel just a bit more intensity in that night’s orgasm, LIVE just a bit more fully than you lived before…

…Just maybe… the world will seem a little bit more blessed with  wonder.

That’s an aesthetic worth experiencing.

I’ll say this unequivocally: I just came back from the most enjoyable performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” that I’ve ever attended. It was part of the “Reich-analia” presented by Portland’s stellar Third Angle new music ensemble. It was breathtaking.

I have to admit that I’m sort of “past my minimalism phase”. There was a time when I’d go to every Philip Glass performance and every Steve Reich concert; I’d seek out other minimalists like John Adams and even the coolest, but less well know, LeMonte Young. I used to make a pretty long trip to Mills College to see Ingram Marshall, too. But, honestly, even though I’d never miss seeing these guys if they came to town, I just don’t dig incessant pulses and arpeggios like I used to.

Tonight was different though. Tonight I was enthralled. This is partly because of the acoustics in the performance space. It was not held in a theater but, rather, in the atrium of the Montgomery Park building in Portland. I expected it to sound odd. After all, the space was designed to be an atrium, not a theater. But, I have to tell you, the clarity blew me away. This is certainly partly attributable to the transient response of the room and the location of the ensemble. But it’s also largely attributable to the crystal clear articulation of each one of the eighteen. Simply put, it was a crisp performance in a surprisingly perfect space.

Music for 18 Musicians” is a special piece to me. It is arguably the clearest example of Reich’s aesthetic. It’s hundreds of time more complex than early work like “It’s Gonna Rain” or “Come Out”. Yet, it does not stray far from the pulses, mallet instrument cues, instrumentation, and sectionalism that characterizes much of Steve’s music. But that does not explain why it is special to me. It’s “special-ness” comes from the great memories it brings me of my youth spent running around Telegraph Avenue record stores on my frequent visits to Berkeley. You see, I bought my first copy of “18” at Moe’s Records as a used vinyl album. I remember bringing it home to my Cousin Mark’s house and listening to it immediately so as to check for scratches. That way I could make sure I was able to return it if necessary, before heading home to LA. It brings back great images. But, it was also the day that I decided that, for myself, Reich was the greatest minimalist. Sorry Phil, but pulses beat arpeggios and marimbas trump Farfisa Organs any day, in my book.

As it happens, “Music for 18 Musicians” is a special piece to Third Angle as well. They are the first ensemble, aside from “Steve Reich and Musicians“, to be allowed to perform the piece. They worked on it with Steve himself and they have obviously mastered it. So, Bravissimo to 3A!

Two other pieces were part of the program. One was “Electric Counterpoint” for guitar and tape. The second was “Vermont Counterpoint” for 11 flutes. I won’t address the guitar piece because this is the first time I’ve heard it. But I do want to mention the “Vermont Counterpoint” performance. You might not know this, but the flute is about as close to a sine wave as an instrument can get. It’s a very pure timbre with very limited harmonics. It can be either a gorgeous solo instrument or a overtone-free complement to more timbre-rich woodwinds. But, take 11 of them and put them all together and, unless they are really good flutists, you can end up with a big puddle of sine wave mud. Well, that is NOT what happened here. The “Vermont Counterpoint” performance was well-defined and articulate; and, surprisingly, the space contributed to the clarity rather than muddying the instruments. Surprisingly lovely. This demonstrates something I love about Portland. For a city this size we are unquestionably blessed with great musicians. How else could one find 11 flutists, all of whom can play Reich in a buildings atrium, without becoming muddy. Again, Bravissimo.

So, was there a downside to the show tonight. Well… yes. I’m not sure whether there were too many audio cables running parallel to each other, an issue with lighting, or what. But, I have only one little tiny complaint. What the hell was that buzzing in the background?

Aside from that, a fabulous night!

The Portland Rothko Retrospective will remain on view for only one more week. Today was very likely my last chance to visit it. I spent an hour there, this morning, and I want to make one last attempt to urge you to get there if you have not already done so. It is an important show and you owe it to yourself to see it.

Let me bring a few topics to conclusion.

From Figure to Ground

One of my earliest recommendations was that you walk the show chronologically. I urged you to observe the gradual dissolution of “figure” to the extent that, in the late paintings, nearly all that remains is “ground”. Along with this comes the gradual trend toward minimalism which culminates in the  low contrast and tonal darkness of the Seagram’s Murals and other late color field paintings. I also pointed out that, even in the early painting, the “ground” has many of the characteristics of the later panels. Christopher Rothko is the guy who originally told me to look for these patterns and I stand by my contention that Christopher’s guidelines are strongly supported. Here are a few examples that I noticed today.

First, in the following photo notice that there are 3 bands: heads, torsos, extremities. Ignore the foreground that contains those elements and you have a light grey, red, dark grey color field. Arguably, the colors are as important as the images. This, to me, seems like a good example of a transitional painting – moving from the importance of figure to the importance of ground. Blur your eyes and you tell me.

Yet closer to a pure color field is another painting from the 40s that has an even less important element of figure. It’s too early to be a color field painting but the panels are certainly the most important part of the painting.

And, right on the chronological cusp of Rothko’s solidification of the color field is this painting.

So many of the color transitions here have that blurred, indistinct, blended coloration between panels in the “classic” Rothko paintings. Even the brushstrokes here look like the brushwork of the Rothko we all know.

When one considers that these 3 paintings fall right smack in the middle of Rothko’s oeuvre, between the figure of the 20s and 30s and the panels of the 50s and 60’s it seems relatively clear that the transition from reliance on figure to the reliance on ground is chronologically smooth. By the late 60’s only ground remains.

Tragedy or Grandeur?

In one of my early posts I mentioned that I loved the emotion in Rothko’s paintings. I even said that they made me feel good. Later in this series I described how Rothko viewed his work as “tragic”. I have wrestled with this personal contradiction for the duration of this retrospective.

I have no issues with considering the Seagram’s murals tragic.I also certainly understand why the Rothko Chapel paintings so powerfully evoke the sublime. What I wrestle with is the relationship between “sublime” and “tragic”. The “sublime” in Rothko’s estimation can evoke fear, desperation, and even terror. But, try as I might, I don’t always feel that way around these paintings. In some of the very late paintings I can see and feel that. But, for me, many of the color field don’t elicit that reaction.  At least in some cases, I simply can’t stop myself from feeling GOOD around these pieces. Rothko may tell me that I misread them or that I don’t really get their power and intent. But, believe me, I get their power! I just don’t always get their “tragedy”.

I tend to feel like there is room for personal reaction in the experience of nonrepresentational art. I’m okay with the fact that I don’t always react the way I think Rothko would expect me to react. That’s cool. But I also feel like I have some insight into why I feel as I do. Reacting to the “sublime” can sometimes evoke what Abraham Joshua Heschel might call “grandeur”. I’ve been re-reading Heschel’s book “God in Search of Man” and I’ve really come to love his expression “Radical Amazement”. That is Heschel’s way of saying that our experience of the grandeur of the sublime is one of amazement. Seeing the beauty of nature, we react with amazement. Realizing the immensity of the universe, we react with amazement. To Heschel, this “amazement” is a core of spirituality. I’m starting to think that this “radical amazement” is really what I feel in a room full of Rothko’s. Sometime it’s amazing fear. Other times it’s amazing joy. In both cases, it’s a viable reaction to the sublime. So, I think I understand what Rothko wants me to experience. But I think that sometimes my reaction to the grandeur is just a little different that his expectation.

What I’m trying to say is that I understand how Rothko sees his work in the context of the sublime; but I see it (or at least some of it) more in the context of experiencing grandeur, irrespective of the specific emotion evoked by that grandeur. And…. I’m cool with that.


I’m not always right and I hope I’m not always wrong. But I love the work of Mark Rothko and he remains one of my favorite painters. If you want to pick apart all the mistakes I’ve made over the course of these 11 posts, I’m sure there is much to fuel your endeavor. What I want you to understand is that these posts aren’t about me being right or showing off my great knowledge about theory. These posts have been about sharing the way I wrestle with art, philosophy, beauty, culture, and experience. I’ve not been trying to teach you much. What I have done is to share my personal experiences with Rothko’s work and the Portland retrospective in the hope that you will get down to the museum and check it out. I really do hope you have learned something from this particular series of posts. More than that, however, I really do hope that, if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll get down to PAM this week before the show closes.

Thanks for playing!