Works of Art

Some film writers have said that motion pictures are paintings of time. After seeing The Mill and the Cross at the Detroit Film Theatre on January 28, 2012, I wondered if one of the major challenges of painting is to know how to stop time and capture an image of a moment.

The Mill and the Cross imagines how Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder created The Way to Calvary, a 1564 painting in which the crucified Christ is one of hundreds of people in a countryside landscape. The director Lech Majewski experimented with the different layers of reality within the film by having Bruegel step into the world that he was painting.

It was one of those art films that was difficult to figure out, but which turned into an intensely thought-provoking experience once you accepted it completely on its own terms.

For me, the most significant moment in the film was when Bruegel decided to stop the world into which he had stepped. His exercise of that God-like control made me think that the “reality” of all that we had seen in this world was really Bruegel’s imagination.

But then you had to understand that Bruegel just didn’t conjure up this world out of thin air. Much of it had to be from his actual life experiences, and his reflections on the crucifixion of Christ, and his observations of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands in the 16th century.

The Mill and the Cross made me think about other movies. I thought back to the stop-action scenes in My Fair Lady that were used to show how the streets of London wake up every day. The different layers of images had a surreal quality that made me think about the Eric Rhomer film about the French Revolution, The Lady and the Duke, which played at the DFT in 2002 and which used digitally enhanced backgrounds that at the time were very innovative.

The manipulative powers of both Bruegel and the film’s director brought back ironically humorous memories of the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion animated cartoons that I discovered at the DFT. The mental forces of the artistic creators reminded me of the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet, which I saw at the Redford Theatre on January 20, 2012. In that film, Walter Pidgeon’s imagination creates monsters that have deadly effects.

The screening of The Mill and the Cross was connected in part to the current major Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.

Also, Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance is displayed in the DIA. On January 21, 2012, an evening showing of The Mill and The Cross was complemented by an afternoon DFT 101 screening of the 1936 biopic Rembrandt, in which we saw one great artist portrayed by another, Charles Laughton. In a more conventional way than The Mill and the Cross, Rembrandt showed a painter immersed in his creative and earthly worlds, tapping into his inspirations, influences, and intuition to create great works of art.

Religious feeling played an important role in both films, which was enhanced by the stately, cathedral-like grace of the DFT auditorium. Both painters seemed to be driven by a somber, profound Christian faith that helped them see the universal passions of human life.

Both films also had a shadowy, dramatic painterly light, which in Rembrandt was achieved using black and white cinematography. And they each showed the details of everyday life, in almost documentary fashion, helping us better understand the worlds of these two painters.

The Canvas and the Silver Screen

The screenings of these two movies led me to some of my more technical and academic film books, to see what connections have been made between paintings and film.

In How to Read a Film (1981), James Monaco compared two images:

Edward Dayes’s painting Queen Square, London, 1786 offers striking similarities with this landscape from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, set in the eighteenth century. Film naturally draws on the historical traditions of the older arts.

In the 1934 essay “Painting and Film,” theorist Rudolf Arnheim, who taught at the University of Michigan, wrote:

…the same principles of the division of space, as painters have applied them for ages, and as photographers have adapted them, can also be applied to film: for instance, every good film shot groups the objects in the image into simple mathematical figures, eye-catching lines organize and unify the many visible objects, the spaces are balanced according to size, form, and light, etc.

(from Arnheim’s 1977 book Film Essays and Criticism)

And in the January 1927 Dial essay “Not Theater, Not Literature, Not Painting,” Ralph Block remarked:

Like music, painting and the drama in their primitive stages, the movies are manifestations in some kind of aesthetic form of a social will and even of a mass religion. They are in effect a powerful psychic magnet, an educing force which draws submerged dreams from hidden places to the surface of the common life.

(from the 1960 book by Lewis Jacobs, Introduction to the Art of the Movies)

Paintings have been the subject or important elements of many movies that I’ve seen at the DFT, including Lust for Life, La Belle Noiseuse, and Lola Montès. Probably the most memorable movie of a painter that I saw at the DFT was the 2001 screening of The Mystery of Picasso (1956), in which Pablo Picasso was shown creating art that is reputed to exist only in this film.

The final credits of The Mill and the Cross featured serious, impressionistic music and images. The helped the movie sink deeper into my senses, and made me more alive to the moment as I walked out into the darkness of a chilly winter’s night. As I drove home, a low-hanging, almost horizontal crescent moon seemed to be the perfect end to the evening, with its distance and mystery.

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Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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