Category Archives: Art

“Look, Madicken, it’s Snowing!”

Not to be repetitive or anything, but would you look at the picture that I’ve just made my blog header image for December?

It’s an illustration by the legendary Ilon Wikland from (also legendary) Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book Titta, Madicken, det snöar (“Look, Madicken, it’s snowing!”) which was my favourite Christmas book when I was little. The illustration shows the main character of the book, Madicken’s little sister Lisabet, glumly and enviously looking on as Gustav, a little boy she knows, gets to ride on the back of a sleigh and taunts her in the process, but I think the picture is such a perfect little work of art that it works, even if you don’t know the story. The look of crestfallenness in Lisabet’s posture; her arms hanging dejectedly down her sides, her little booted feet in the snow, her full cheeks that betray a defiant pout. Versus Gustav’s triumphant, scornful mien, and the robust body of the horse, making its way through the falling snow. Absolutely lovely.

“I Am a Bricklayer” – Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet and the Character of Johannes

Last night I went to see my very first Carl Th. Dreyer film, namely Ordet (“The Word”). I’ve been eager to see a Dreyer film for years; so many film directors, Lars von Trier for instance, claim to be inspired by Dreyer, and he is always mentioned among the great masters of cinema, even internationally. Once I actually came very close to seeing his Day of Wrath. I happened upon it at Blockbuster and couldn’t believe my luck, so I tried to rent it, but the girl behind the counter regretted to inform me that the tape (this being back in the stone age, before DVDs had taken over the market) had gone missing. Instead, I rented a video called Comedy Zoo featuring a series of stand up routines from 1997. The girl behind the counter commended me on this decision. “I think that’s a much better choice than that sad, old thing you first tried to rent.” she said.

So my Dreyer virginity was not taken until just last night with Ordet. I have to say, though, that it was a rather bizarre experience. Intense, yes, but bizarre. I think it was the overt religious theme of the movie that freaked me out a little. I mean, it wasn’t even religious in the Seventh Seal existentialist kind of way, it was more in the sense of “GOD IS HERE!HE EXISTS!!1! ACKNOWLEDGE HIM!!!!1!”. And why would this freak me out? I’m not sure. I’m a fairly devout Lutheran myself. And I knew that the movie script was a play written by Lutheran minister Kaj Munk, so I don’t know how it managed to surprise me that there would be a religious theme in the film. I guess the whole thing was just a little overwhelming and will need to let it sink in. I’m not sure what to make of it just yet.

ordet

Still from Ordet

That said, there was one part of the movie that was immediately appealing to me: The character of Johannes Borgen. For those of you not familiar with the film, Johannes is the central character in the story. He is the son of farmer Morten Borgen, who encouraged his charismatic son to study theology, hoping that he would be able to spread the word of the Lutheran church in their local society which is becoming increasingly dominated by fundamentalists. However, Johannes seemingly suffers a mental break-down during his studies and becomes convinced that he is Jesus Christ himself.

The part is played by Preben Leerdorf Rye, which is an absolutely brilliant casting on Dreyer’s part. Leerdorf Rye has the strangest personality and really draws you in with his big, sparkling and round eyes underneath his neat centre parting. His movements are strangely slow and almost ghostly or zombie-like. And infamous in Danish cinema for his rather odd diction (I grew up with my father’s impersonations of his voice), Leerdorf Rye gives the voice of Johannes a strange, almost musically intoning and admonitory sound that is absolutely perfect for this character who lingers dangerously somewhere between the physical and the metaphysical.

Leerdorf Rye simply seems off, perfectly so, and this becomes most startlingly apparently in his relationship with the rest of the characters – or, rather, his lack of same. Because part of what makes Leerdorf Rye’s Johannes so captivating is the way he interacts with the other characters, yet never seems to react to them. His eerily slow movements and his thundering voice stay the same in the face of his frustrated surroundings who, frightened by his behaviour, turn a deaf ear to his preachings.

A good example is this scene, in which the new town minister pays the Borgen family a visit and is met by Johannes:

It’s the tension between Johannes’ presence and lack of presence in his surroundings that fascinates me about this scene. “Pick up the scraps so that nothing goes to waste,”, Johannes solemnly preaches to himself, but he demonstrates his sombre words by picking up a left-over cookie. Similarly, Johannes seems lost in his thoughts, but he still has the presence of mind to reply “Come in” (in the exact same intonation that he just used for preaching!) as the minister knocks on the door. Filled with a divine power, Johannes dwells ambiguously between this world and another throughout the movie.

The result is… well, I don’t know exactly what the result is. I still don’t know exactly what to make of the movie. But whatever Dreyer wished to achieve with this ambiguous Jesus figure of his, the casting of Preben Leerdorf Rye makes for one of the most effective and haunting movie characters I have ever seen.

Olaf Rude “Skejten” at Fuglsang Museum of Art

Last week The Boyfriend and I went to visit his parents who live in the southern part of Denmark, and we all made a trip to see the Fuglsang Museum of Art at Lolland, Denmark, which re-opened just last year in a new building by English architect Tony Fretton. I’d read an interview with Fretton about the building, in which he said some very interesting things about the architectural challenges that the flat Lolland landscape offered, so I was excited to see the place, and I wasn’t disappointed. The building blended in superbly with its surrounding and set them off beautifully – particularly breathtaking was one particular wing of the museum, the house end of which was constructed as one big window, presenting the view of a Lolland field stretching out before you. The building alone is definitely worth a visit if you should ever find yourself near Lolland!

But the art collection was also excellent. One piece that particularly stood out to me was Olaf Rude’s painting Skejten, and I thought I would post it here:

skejten_olaf_rude

The painting shows Skejten, an area in the vicinity of Fuglsang where Rude grew up. I always feel self-conscious when I’m to describe a painting since this is not really my field of expertise, so I won’t say a lot about it. Other than the fact that to me it’s really an example of a landscape painting that sums up a particular emotion or state of mind more than simply reproducing a landscape. I find the sense of gravity and perhaps melancholy displayed in the painting to be startling. The group of trees in the center of the picture have a remarkable heaviness to them which is emphasized by their reflection, painted in slightly darker colours, in the stream in the foreground, the massive tree taking up the space to the the right, and the textural effect of the artist’s technique – broad, vertical strokes.

This sense of gravity really spoke to me that day, to the point where I could almost feel the heaviness and melancholy within me, like a knot tying up in my guts, and I was so moved by the painting that it’s been my desktop background for the past week.  I don’t know if the piece will have the same effect on you at all, but I thought I’d take the chance and share it with you in any case.

* Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to the painting – I merely found it online. If I am violating any copyrights by displaying the painting here, let me know, and I will of course remove the picture immediately.

John Book and The Crisis of Witnessing: Reviewing “Witness” (1985)

(Yeah, so I watch a lot of Harrison Ford movies these days. What of it?)

witness

Witness is a favourite crime movie of my parents’ and it caught my eye on their DVD shelf when I was visiting them recently, not just because of Harrison Ford’s likeness on the cover, also because of the title, “Witness”. You see, the literary theory I’m using for my thesis is the theory of Testimony and Witness. The theoretics of testimony have arisen in the wake of the Holocaust and were founded primarily by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub in their book Testimony – Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. The basic idea of testimony theory is to debate how or, indeed, whether it is possible for literature and art in general to bear testimony of an event that is so horrible that it leaves no witnesses capable of giving testimony of its horrors (i.e. the Holocaust). I find it a most inspiring branch of literary theory because of the fact that it ties together literature with reality; it seems so meaningful to me.

As a consequence I’ve been reading a lot of books lately with the words “Witness”  or “Testimony” in their titles, and that’s why this 1985 movie caught my eye. I had seen the movie once before on T.V., but I was about 15 or so, and all I remembered from the movie was that:

  1. A cute little Amish boy named Samuel witnesses a murder
  2. Harrison Ford is a cop who goes to live among the Amish
  3. Harrison Ford and the Amish raise a barn in a field
  4. The little boy’s mother takes a spongebath, and Harrison Ford sneaks a peek at her, and –
  5. I was daydreaming for weeks afterwards about escaping from my complicated!!1!!! existence as a highschool girl and going to Pennsylvania to live the simple life as an Amish woman, taking spongebathes, and raising cute little sons with biblical names, and, possibly, getting involved with a random hot cop at some point.

So I decided it was time to re-watch it and see if the movie might have anything to contribute with in terms of the theory of testimony.

So did it, you ask? No, it didn’t, not really. That would have been a little surprising anyway. Felman & Laub’s Testimony wasn’t even released until seven years after Witness premiered.  But it’s still an excellent and rather underrated movie (one of the best crime flicks there is, I’ll venture), and it did have some very interesting things to say about witnessing that I definitely didn’t remember from the first time I watched it.

Police Corruption and the Impossibility of Witnessing
The story deals with police corruption (the murder young Samuel witnesses is related to a group of crooky Philadelphia policemen who deal impounded drugs), and I’d never really thought of this before, but police corruption is a kind of crisis of witnessing in its own right. Not in the sense we see in Felman & Laub’s book, where testimony becomes impossible because the Holocaust leaves no witnesses, but in the sense that if what we witness is police corruption, then we have no one to turn to with our testimony. Testimony is a triple concept that presupposes the act of seeingknowing, and telling about it, and as Paul Ricoeur has noted, language and society could not exist if not for this institution of truth that the credible witness makes. In the legal sense, this institution is dependent on the police. The police are supposed to administrate our testimony, but if they are corrupt our testimony is, at best, ignored, or, at worst, used against us.

This is what John Book learns the hard way at the beginning of the movie as he falls victim to attempted assasination after he has reported the police corruption to his boss. And so it becomes more than just a Hollywood shtick when John flees the city along with Samuel and his mother Rachel to go underground with them in their Amish community.

The Amish as Reluctant Witnesses
Because the Amish community may be the one place John can go where he may be able to free himself of the damning testimony that has made a fugitive out of him. I won’t claim to be an expert on the Amish, but from the way the community is depicted in the movie, it is a community that to some degree avoids being witnesses. In a poignant scene, Samuel’s grandfather Eli talks to Samuel about his having witnessed the evil and violence of the outside world. “By seeing you become one of them,” Eli says, “What you take into your hands, you take into your heart. ‘Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing’.”

The Amish community, in other words, offers John Book a chance to escape from the realm of testimony, at least for a while. That this can only be temporary goes without saying – even if the bad guys weren’t able to track down Book, the entire Amish approach to life is too different from his: John wants nothing more than to touch the unclean things – to pick them up by his hands and throw them into the trash.

Like any good crime flick, however, nothing is entirely black or white, and the theme of witnessing is twisted and turned several times throughout the movie, making the Amish the eager witnesses, and John Book the reluctant one. “You’ll see so many things!” Rachel’s Amish suitor Daniel tells Samuel with an excited smile as Samuel is set out for his first visit to Philadelphia at the out-set of the movie. Similarly, when Samuel first delivers his dangerous testimony by pointing to a picture of McFee in the police court, a shocked John Book covers Samuel’s pointing finger with his own hand. 

At its perhaps clunkiest and least subtle, the theme of witnessing is also present in the name of the main character: John Book. The name is undoubtedly a reference to the tenth and eleventh chapter of The Revelation of St. John, in which John is given a book to eat and is asked to “prophesy” and in which we are introduced to the two witnesses of Revelation.

Rachel at her Bath
The differences between the Amish and John’s world come into play most obviously in the increasingly romantic relationship between John and Rachel. Love stories between two opposites are always touching, and so are doomed love stories, and of course you just know that a love affair between the hard-boiled cop and the Amish woman is bound to be a doomed one. What I especially like about it, however, is that it manages to be an erotic cinematic love story in a way that is both unconventional and ties in very well with the theme of testimony and witnessing.

There is no actual sex scene between John Book and Rachel Lapp, and I would say that it is open to discussion wether the two ever even have sex off-screen. Even so, we get a startlingly erotic scene between the two – the sponge bathing scene mentioned earlier. This is also an example of a movie scene that manages to use frontal nudity in a meaningful, rather than pornographic way.

In the scene, we see a semi-nude Rachel washing herself with a sponge. The camera lingers on Rachel, the dim lighting of the scene emphasizing the aesthetics of her body, but we only gradually become aware of the fact that John Book is actually watching Rachel in the process: Along with Rachel we see John in the reflection of Rachel’s mirror, gazing at Rachel through a partly opened door. The image of John’s face between the door and the door frame recalls the image earlier in the movie of Samuel watching the murder unfold from a bathroom stall, and it thus re-establishes the theme of witnessing: John Book witnesses  Rachel’s semi-nudity in the shower.

As any art connoiseur will know, the image of a man peeping at a woman at her bath is a recurrent image within art history: There are numerous interpretations in paintings of the old testament story of the Elders peeping at Susanna at her Bath (or, indeed, of Peeping Tom looking at Lady Godiva. Or Actaeon looking at Artemis at her bath).

Rembrandt's Susanna

Rembrandt's Susanna

The image is piquant not just because of the naked female body, but because the part of the spectator is emphasized: As spectators contemplating the picture showing Susanna in her bath, we in turn become a kind of double to the peeping Elders, staring as we do at the naked Susanna. (There is without doubt a lot more to be said about this motif, but I am not an art historian, so I will leave it at this).

In the scene in Witness, however, the peeping Tom situation gets an extra dimension, because as Rachel sees John, she doesn’t turn away bashfully or try to hide her nudity as is the case with Susanna. Instead, Rachel turns and looks directly at John (and, thus, directly into the camera, facing us, and meeting us with what feminist film theorists term the taboo of the female gaze), returning his gaze and revealing her exposed and naked breasts, and this is what gives the situation its sense of something reciprocally erotic. Not only does John witness Rachel’s nudity, Rachel witnesses John looking at her, and her gaze back at him is testimony to the fact that she’s aware of what he has witnessed.

One might argue that the theme of witnessing is also there in the scene in which John and Rachel dance together in the barn loft after John manages to fix his car radio. The song that they are dancing to is Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”,  the lyrics revolving around the theme of knowing versus not knowing (“Don’t know much about history/Don’t know much about geography/[…] But I do know that I love you.”).

But the sponge bathing/peeping Tom scene is definitely the more memorable love scene, and the one that truly reveals to us how much is at stake for both John and Rachel in this budding relationship. It’s also worth noting that John never touches Rachel in this scene, and actually casts down his gaze, seemingly overwhelmed with the situation. Just as Rachel engages in an markedly un-Amish situation of witnessing, the usually very hands-on cop John keeps “separate” from Rachel and “touch[es] not.

Update: (March 2 2010) I discuss the bath scene in another entry, here, for those interested.

Death by Corn and Raising the Barn
There are also plenty of scenes where the theme of witnessing isn’t especially prominent and in which the movie is allowed to be simply an exciting crime flick. The scene where the dirty cops catch up with John Book and chase him around the farm is an example of this. The scene in the silo, where one of the dirty cops finds his death in the corn is especially outstanding. A most disturbing movie moment! And brilliantly effective. Choking to death as tons and tons of corn is being poured over you has to be one of the more unusual deaths in the history of crime flicks, and there is something almost biblical about perishing in a flood of corn, so it goes well with the biblical theme of the movie.

And then there are scenes in the movie that are just so aesthetically pleasing that they transcend the genre. Kelly McGillis looks beautiful, like she stepped out of a Dutch 17th century oil painting in all of her scenes. And the barn raising scene is an absolute classic: pictures and music really come together in this beautiful scene. I’ve heard some people say that they regret that the music wasn’t arranged for a full orchestra instead of a synthesizer, but I actually disagree. I think the synthesizer lends to the scene that kind of dreamlike, transcendental touch that electronic music excels at. One might also argue that the synthesizer music combined with the old-timey images of straw-hat-donning craftsmen raising a barn establishes the conflict between 80s cop John and the old-fashioned community of the Amish. In any case, I think a full orchestra would have been over the top and kind of cheesy.

You can watch the scene here (sadly, I could only find a German dubbed version):

Awesome Ford, Adorable Haas, and a Random Viggo Mortensen Cameo
And then the movie is very well acted. John Book is often mentioned as Harrison Ford’s best performance ever, and I’m inclined to agree. Ford plays equally convincing John’s scenes as a hardboiled cop whacking drugdealers and his more sensitive ones like the one where he stands breathless and passive in front of Rachel. Kelly McGillis has a good take on the hidden spunk of her otherwise demure Amish character, and Lukas Haas is absolutely adorable as Samuel and a very appropriate cast: His big, dark, expressive eyes alone are enough to strike up the theme of witnessing.

Also, the attentive viewer may spot a very young Viggo Mortensen as one of the men inthe Amish community. Don’t blink or you’ll miss him, though. He hardly even has any lines.

Clunky German Lines
Oh, and speaking of the Amish and their lines; that’s one of my only peeves about this movie. The Amish are depicted as speaking German to each other, but I don’t think the movie was meant for an audience that actually understood the language, because the lines they’ve written for them are awful. Very clunky. The Amish go around saying ridiculous things to each other like “The man is afraid! Very bad!” (after seeing a near-fatally wounded John Book for the first time) or “Those are not his own clothes – those are the clothes of Jacob!” (after Rachel has lend John some clothes that belonged to her late husband Jacob). They might have hired some kind of German speaking coach to help them write some better lines. Nobody talks like that.

Kristin Lavransdatter – Fugged

I recently blogged about the weblog Judge a Book by Its Cover, and as yet another celebration of that phenomenon I’d like to share with you a truly hideous cover I came across online the other day:

Kristin Lavransdatter - fugged
Kristin Lavransdatter – fugged

Oh no they di’nt! Why would someone do this? Here we have Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, one of the best novels ever, and a Nobel Prize winner to boot, and this is the cover they choose for it? It’s an outrage! I mean, judging by this extremely cheesy cover, a potential reader would be right to expect to find several mentions of “heaving bosoms” and “quivering loins” in the book. It also makes Undset’s very thoroughly researched period novel look like the kind of trashy wanna-be medieval romance in which the villain is anachronistically portrayed as a viking. 

Which is so not the case with Kristin Lavransdatter. In fact, if you haven’t read it yet, you need to go do so immediately. A lengthy, yet riveting novel (consisting of three parts: “The Wreath”, “The Wife”, and “The Cross”), the book is perfect for a summer vacation, so the timing couldn’t be better.

Your Own. Personal. Jesus.

Kåre posted this picture, which he found at fffffound.com and I don’t really have anything to say about it, other than the fact that it’s easily the most brilliant picture I’ve seen in a long time, and I wanted to share it with you.

Jesus. With an Abnormal Cat.

Jesus. With an Abnormal Cat.

R.I.P. Jørn Utzon, 1918-2008

I wasn’t going to update until I had the time to do the Top Five Moments of Classical Music Used in Television or Movies as I promised, and I know I’m two days late with this particular piece of news, but as a Dane and an opera lover I’d just like to take a moment to commemorate Danish arcitecht Jørn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House  who passed away on November 29.

He will be greatly missed.

/marie