Much of the magic of movies comes from the way they combine older arts like paintings, music, and theater. Films at the Detroit Film Theatre and Michigan Theater on October 27, 2016 showed how particular works of art can be used to enhance a movie.
At the DFT, the 1956 documentary The Mystery of Picasso showed Pablo Picasso creating drawings and paintings. At the Michigan, organist Stephen Warner used Edvard Grieg’s music to accompany the theater’s annual screening of the 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu.
The collaboration in each movie was pointed out to the audience. In The Mystery of Picasso, Picasso worked with director Henri-Georges Clouzot and cinematographer Claude Renoir to set up a shot of Picasso painting.
At the Michigan, Stephen Warner remarked that his performance would be a four-person collaboration involving him, Edvard Grieg, Nosferatu director F. W. Murnau, and Dan Barton, the founder of the company that manufactured the Barton Theater Organ that Steve played.
Both Steve and Picasso talked about their relationship with the audience.
Steve hoped that his music would enhance Nosferatu so strongly that after a few minutes the audience would forget that he was sitting at the organ.
Near the end of The Mystery of Picasso, Picasso said that he followed his own artistic impulses and didn’t care about what the audience thought about his work.
The overall effect of these events was a testament to the power of art to challenge and reward.
The Mystery of Picasso, which I first saw at the DFT in 2001, was only 78 minutes long. But in that short time, I went through many emotions, including fascination, impatience, and bemusement.
The novelty of watching Picasso make artistic decisions in real time wore off fairly quickly, and I was forced to find new ways to watch the movie.
Thankfully, the energetic and creative music of Georges Auric kept me engaged. The film then became a type of silent movie, as I watched the “story” in Picasso’s paintings unfold.
The movie built up to a furious finale, as Picasso constantly changed a CinemaScope-shaped painting until he decided that he was finished. It almost seemed like Picasso wanted to paint different variations on a theme before he called it quits.
At the Michigan, I sat in the balcony, to the upper right, because of a large crowd that included many students from the University of Michigan. From my vantage point, I could see both the movie and Steve playing his accompaniment.
That vantage point helped make the event feel like both an organ concert and a silent movie screening. Steve’s accompaniment had the lush, atmospheric feeling of an orchestral or church performance, instead of the chord and phrase-heavy accenting that is often used in silent movie accompaniment.
Both movies had stunning visual moments.
The Mystery of Picasso of course had many different works by Picasso, with their challenging view of what constitutes real art. When Picasso wasn’t painting, the black and white photography of his studio had a hyper-realistic feeling, in contrast with Picasso’s paintings and drawings.
Nosferatu was presented in a beautifully restored tinted print, with many chilling images of the vampire who was the title character of the film.
So today, I’m reflecting on these two unique movie experiences, and how they both creatively put the “art” in art film.
Copyright © 2016 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.