Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014; Directed by Matt Reeves)
Who would have reasonably believed it? The summer’s most intelligently crafted blockbuster is descended from a long line of stiff, heavy-handed sci-fi B-movies; Hollywood’s most emotionally and politically resonant statement of this silliest of movie seasons features a gaggle of simians (some of them riding horses!) as its protagonists. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be (and at its core truly remains) ridiculous. And yet it’s serious without being pedantic, suffused with soulful feeling instead of cornball manipulativeness, a powerful spectacle whose inevitably conflict grows organically from situations, characters relations, and ideologically differences. It’s, well, good (though not, it should be said, quite great).
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes represents a quantum evolutionary leap from its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (though, as Andrew O’Hehir pointed out in his less-positive review, perhaps the titling should have been reversed, as the rising of the sun generally follows the dawn, no?). Rise had an insistently dumb script and not a single properly competent human performance (not even from its putative star, James Franco). These faults aligned it nicely enough with the original five films in the franchise from the late ’60s and early ’70s, which were classically cheesy B-movies at a time when such films were still economically possible in Hollywood. Rise only overcame its shoddy craftsmanship in the generally excellent sequences centered on motion-capture acting master Andy Serkis’ Caesar, the Moses of apekind’s exodus from zoo-and-lab bondage.
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), taking over from feature directing neophyte Rupert Wyatt, knows what he’s got in Caesar and his ape followers, and this is their movie (and, soon enough, their world). As Rise hinted inelegantly in its closing throes, a simian flu virus accidentally generated by Franco’s bleeding-heart liberal scientist to cure Alzheimer’s has rampaged across the world. Reeves memorably literalizes this trope of recent dystopian science-fiction epics, sweeping around the globe and telling the story of the epidemic’s spread and human society’s related collapse into destructive strife with red flight paths, video and audio snippets, and the twinkling lights of civilization slowly winking out.
The earth has gone dark, and so has the cinematographic palette; Michael Seresin shoots this post-apocalyptic landscape, half-reconquered by nature, in the deep greys, blacks, and blues of an indie horror-thriller. He’s aided immesurably by the setting, which is once again the rain-soaked, foggy San Francisco Bay Area (though the locations were actually shot in the rainforests of British Columbia). Caesar was last seen leading the apes he had freed into the Muir Woods on the north end of the Golden Gate, the promise of self-determination on his lips; he had picked up the gift of speech by the end of Rise, and he’s not the only ape with the ability in Dawn. Caesar appears to have made good on that promise as the narrative commences ten years after his escape: the apes have built a civilization of their own on the cliffs around a waterfall, with edifices of spiky tree trunks, a school for the young taught by sensitive orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and a set of rudimentary guiding principles, most important among them a prohibition against ape killing ape. Caesar has a mate and two sons, and rules as an admired philosopher-king.
It’s been some time since the apes have encountered man, but that changes with a harsh suddeness. An exploratory party of humans from a colony of genetically-immune survivors based in a huge, incomplete skyscraper in San Francisco has ventured into the woods in search of a hydroelectric dam that could, if repaired and reactivated, provide them with enough power to stave off desperate infighting and maybe to contact other survivor cells. The problem is that this dam is in ape territory and any hope of success depends on simian cooperation or at least tolerance. Cooperative tolerance is made much harder by the presence of one especially antagonistic jerk amongst the human group (Kirk Acevedo), who makes sure that the first human-ape contact for some time involves some ill-advised shooting and generally makes an unpleasant nuisance of himself. Acevedo’s Carver is a remnant of the petty belligerence and self-interest of the humans in Rise, spouting prejudiced bile about the apes and sneaking forbidden guns into their lands. “Right, I’m the asshole,” he spews sarcastically to make a point, but the obvious reply is, “Well, yes, that does seem to be your function, friend.”
Carver and colony leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) represent a siege-mentality extremism vis-à-vis the apes and, unfortunately for the state of human-ape relations, they have an ideological counterpart on the simian side in Koba (Toby Kebbell). Freed from the same lab that Caesar was born into, Koba is scarred physically and psychologically from experimentation by humans and is ever ready to respond to them with aggression and violence, which has dire consequences for both factions when he rebels against Caesar’s authority. His moniker was an early nickname of Joseph Stalin’s, and casting Koba as the warlike authoritarian foil to Caesar’s order of moderation and cooperation with the human colony’s co-leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is not Dawn‘s most subtle or sophisticated element.
For subtlety and sophistication, look no further than Serkis’ Caesar, who is once again the most thoughtful, nuanced, emotionally-rounded individual in the film (though the humans are better-written and acted this time around), and many of the apes around him follow his lead admirably. Serkis continues to set the bar for the art of “cyber-thespianism” that he practically invented so high that it seems like his peers will spend a good decade or more catching up to him. Caesar’s older son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) is a convincingly uncertain young adult, feeling love and respect for his father’s vision and wisdom but also the definite tug of Koba’s aggressive masculinized pride. Maurice the orangutan’s yearning for knowledge shines in his eyes, never diminished by his less-expressive non-chimpanzee face. Even Koba, with his scars and menacingly slack jaw, is no mere caricature of hate and violence. A tremendous, witty, shocking sequence sees him throw two human arsenal guards off guard by playing the silly monkey, hooting and clapping and drinking their whisky until he gets close enough to gain the upper hand. Like his namesake, Koba knows when to play the pitiless man of steel (ape of steel?) and when to charismatically disarm with a twinkle in his eye (much as Stalin did with Winston Churchill, wining and dining the pompous aristocrat to gain a vital ally at a crucial period in the struggle against Hitler).
The primacy of safety, harmony, and family in Caesar’s worldview proceeds from his caring socialization by James Franco’s character in Rise and is given emotional depth and resonance by Serkis and his fellow motion-capture ape actors. His moderate soft-power liberalism and family values aligns him with Malcolm and his own family unit (Keri Russell as a former CDC doctor and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his artistic son) just as it sets him at odds with Dreyfus (who, like many of the frightened human survivors, lost loved ones to the plague) and especially the radicalized Koba (I compared Caesar’s disillusionment with human domination of apes to Sayyid Qutb in my review of the earlier film, but Koba is clearly the better analogue to the father of modern Islamism). The real miracle of Dawn is the way in which not only the character dynamics and emotional beats but also the inevitable showpiece action sequences (Koba’s attack on the San Francisco colony, the closing fight between Caesar and Koba atop an unfinished skyscraper) are natural products of this central animating dialectic rather than video-game digressions from its knottier implications. Narratively and thematically, this is a tightly-constructed film that packs a considerable and visceral punch.
On the surface, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes presents an allegorical conflict between the tolerance and coexistence favoured by liberal democracy (though the ape society is quite unambiguous a benevolent dictatorship) with the valuation of force, strength, and fear of the Other relied upon in authoritarian nationalist regimes. It’s about how those mindsets develop, clash, and, in a pernicious way, begin to meld. Although Reeves’s film is dark in its implications as well as in its visual construction, there should be little doubt about how this struggle turns out in an American summer blockbuster.
But the deeper suggestion carried by the open-ended conclusion of Caesar and Koba’s conflict (and the promise of a descending human army in the all-but-certain sequel) is that even in its triumph, liberal humanism is helpless to prevent the propagation of the divisive tensions that it rejects and must, of necessity, embrace the very gospel of force and fear that it has long strove to eradicate in order to survive. Fighting against reckless hate leads rational moderation to adopt its enemy’s beliefs and practices, or at least to legitimize them in attempting to defeat them. The consequences of that hate linger, and the Caesars of the Planet of the Apes world as well as of our own are left to deal with them.
Thor: The Dark World (2013; Directed by Alan Taylor)
Marvel Studios’ mostly-successful translation of comics-style storytelling to the cinematic medium continues apace in Thor: The Dark World. It’s a movie much more immersed in the property’s particular generic mix of the space opera and sword-and-sorcery genres (with a sprinkling of speculative astrophysics) than the grandiose, goofy 2011 franchise kickoff. Is it better, though? That’s quite a separate question.
The Dark World is a sequel to not only Kenneth Branagh’s Thor but also to Joss Whedon’s overweening megahit The Avengers, in which both this franchise stream’s titular Asgardian quasi-god hero (Chris Hemsworth) and its swishy, imperious villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) played a key role. At the same time it’s setting up at least two more movies and probably even more than that; we’ll have to wait to see precisely how the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe continues its rhizomatic expansion and conquest of most of mass Hollywood culture over the next few years to be certain. Such is the nature of the new narrative order heralded by Marvel, which is quite creatively revolutionary but also so nakedly commercially calculating as to inspire knee-jerk cynicism in tempermental critics.
Thor himself was last seen onscreen departing the company of his fellow Avengers after thwarting a trans-dimensional alien demolishing of Manhattan, a catastrophe that was largely the doing of his adopted brother Loki, who is power-hungry but also undeniably chaos-hungry when power proves immediately unavailable. Back in the glittering Space Norse kingdom of Asgard, Loki is led in chains to the dungeons of his kingly adoptive father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, Thor and his lieutenants, the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano) and childhood semi-sweetheart Sif (Jaimie Alexander), are occupied with mopping up the lingering rebellions in the Nine Realms ruled centrally from Asgard and reached via Bifrost, a space-time bridge between the Realms guarded ever-vigilantly by Heimdall (Idris Elba). And back on Earth, Thor’s mortal romantic interest Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in England, adjusting to life without the hunky man-god whom she has not seen for a few years.
But these separated characters are thrust together again by the reawakening of an ancient enemy. The Dark World opens with an expository flashback narrated by Hopkins’ Odin that strongly evokes the similar scene-setting harkening back to an ancient conflict and a dangerously powerful object in some well-known fantasy epic or other. Some eons back, Odin’s father defeated Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in a tremendous battle and preventing him from destroying (or just darkening?) the universe with an insidious, twisting red-black weaponized substance called the Aether. The Dark Elves either went down in a blaze of glory or were put into suspended animations; the Aether was locked in a stone cube and sent… somewhere (like much of the plot material, this is not made very clear).
But as mysterious astral portals begin to align, Malekith wakes and the Aether finds it way back into the world (or worlds; multiverse theory will fill in some of the blanks left by the script). Jane’s intern Darcy (Kat Dennings, cracking ever wise) and her intern (Jonathan Howard) alert the scientist to bizarre anomalies in an abandoned factory outside of London. Pulled into one of these portals into an unfamiliar off-world place, Jane inadvertently is infected with the Aether. Alerted by Heimdall, Thor shows up to whisk her away to relative safety in Asgard after the dark force now inside her blows up a chunky of rainy Albion. She’s a bit irritated at his long and unexplained absence, although she did see him kicking trans-dimensional alien butt in the ruins of New York City, so she gets over it pretty quickly and there’s enough public displays of affection to piss off Odin (he’s a pretty ornery chap; he could use a nap), who prefers that his heir go for some fine Asgardian stock for a mate, like that nice Sif gal.
Before things can get too advanced in the romantic direction, let alone in the de-Aethering of Doc Foster, Malekith and his Dark Elf minions arrive on the scene in huge spaceships in the shape of obsidian shards to smash the joint up and snatch up Jane and the powerful stuff that possesses her. Heimdall takes down one ship pretty awesomely, but deep losses are sustained before the dark forces retreat. The tragedy that Malekith inflicts upon Asgard’s royal family is powerful enough to unite the sundered brothers Thor and Loki in a plan to take out the Dark Elf and banish the Aether for good.
I haven’t really covered reams of this overstuffed, undoubtedly expensive movie. There’s ample trademarked Hiddlestoning (you know it when you see it) and multiple vintage Loki double-crosses and ruses; there’s the reliable nutball Stellan Skarsgård running around Stonehenge in his underwear shouting about the end of existence; there’s Lost‘s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Malekith’s sidekick, who transforms into a monstrous fire-bull creature. The whole mad outsized generic smash-up climaxes during the astronomically rare Convergence of all of the Nine Realms, which occurs quite conveniently at the British imperial centre of standardized time and space at Greenwich. Although this perfect alignment really should be over the Royal Observatory for maximum heavy-handed symbolism, Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece of the Royal Naval College looks better onscreen and so it gets to be trashed in the course of the closing dust-up (the dome of St. Paul’s even gets dinged by airborne antagonists; somebody’s an architecture critic).
Like I found with The Avengers, it’s a tough slog considering the aesthetic merits of Thor: The Dark World in and of itself. It’s got enormous scope and huge action and amusing comic relief and reasonably authentic (albeit inherently shallow) appeals to emotional investment. Hiddleston is a smirking riot and Hemsworth has got Thor’s bluff charm down to an art (he still seems bashful and a bit uncertain in anything else I’ve seen him in, though; here’s an actor that needs some challenging soon). Even Portman, reduced to a damsel in distress by the requirements of the Aether-soaked plot, manages to suggest new facets of the intelligent but not emotionally distant Jane (though she’s still been doing little but collecting paycheques since she won that Oscar).
But as much fun as I had poking holes in and often laughing at Branagh’s Thor, it might have been the better film. The fish-out-of-water element of that movie, though a common origin-film conceit, revealed comic gifts and empathetic qualities in Hemsworth that are subsumed when he wields his all-smashing hammer. Furthermore, Branagh seemed more comfortable with the cornball grandiosity and heroic aggrandizement of the subject matter, while Taylor (primarily a prestige televison director) overwhelms with sparkling spectacle in his first foray into blockbuster filmmaking. The Dark World is big, brassy, and a bit logically incoherent, but the general Marvel Studios drive towards stubborn quality mostly (but not entirely) pulls it through while laying groundwork for multiple franchise streams to continue to perpetuate. In this way, it fulfills its every purpose with confidence and competence, like a firm, bone-crushing hammer stroke. But artistry, resonance, transcendence? Not around these parts, buddy.
The Monuments Men (2014; Directed by George Clooney)
The contemporary World War Two film finds itself in a tough spot. The grand stories of the 20th Century’s defining conflict have been told onscreen, and they are among Hollywood’s canonical texts: Patton, The Great Escape, The Best Years of Our Lives, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List. The big narratives of the Big War have all been told and often retold; POW films, Pacific theatre films, and Holocaust films are all bursting subgenres in the larger war film megagenre. Even the war’s margins have produced classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia; post-modernist deconstructions (Inglourious Basterds) and art film digressions (The Thin Red Line) have predominated in recent years, though some traditionalists (Clint Eastwood with his Janus projects Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) have reached into the cynically discarded themes of honour and duty for inspiration. Fundamentally, though WWII films are still made, it seems like a largely spent mine narratively speaking; the precious metals have mostly been extracted.
George Clooney’s The Monuments Men typifies this problem: as interesting as it may be, it seems (painfully at times) like a less-vital side-story to the central drama of World War Two. It doesn’t present an unappealing story, though it does present that story with uneven earnestness, stiffness, and the dull middlebrow self-regard of a prestige film that isn’t ever good enough to earn the sobriquet. Though my own familiarity with the efforts of the titular agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program stems more from The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas than from the account by Robert M. Edsel that was the source for Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay, I was pre-invested in the story told by The Monuments Men to a greater extent than much of its audience. And if even I found the film unengaging and inconsequential, there were clearly some issues in its execution.
For those unfamiliar with the Allies’ wartime program to safeguard, preserve, and recover the unprecedented number of works of art, architecture, and furniture either looted, threatened, or displaced by the war in Europe, Clooney provides a useful summation at the movie’s opening in the form of a pitch to the U.S. authorities that are his project’s potential patrons. As Allied forces press inexorably towards Berlin post-D-Day, Frank Stokes (Clooney) highlights the existential threat to many of the continent’s greatest masterpieces. Military types would sooner blow up a medieval monastery than risk losing a man to capture it with its historic treasures intact (as happened at Montecassino in Italy), and the Nazis under failed artist Adolf Hitler and avid collector Hermann Göring were taking truckloads of paintings, sculptures, and other objets d’art from conquered territories (and from well-off Jewish families shipped to concentration camps, concerning which the film offers only a soft-focus symbolic gesture) for either their own villas or for a massive museum planned in the Führer’s Austria hometown of Linz. The cultural patrimony, Stokes insists, must be saved for the sake of future generations.
Stokes’ unseen audience (implied to be the President) expresses some pointed doubts about the relative value of art to soldier’s lives that neither Stokes nor the movie ever answers satisfactorily. Still, Stokes gets the green light and assembles a team of mostly middle-aged white men from the country’s top cultural institutions to be shipped to the front to do the job. There’s a young curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), an overweight sculptor and professor (John Goodman), a sharp-tongued art critic (Bob Balaban), even British and French academics (Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) for some international colour.
Even if the war is turning rapidly in the Allies’ favour, the front remains an active war zone and is not without its dangers. The unit is shot at and shoots back (not everyone lives to see VE-Day), and must not only pursue dissembling German agents of the Reich’s systematic art looting infrastructure but also must locate the missing masterpieces before the Soviet Red Army does, lest they fall forever behind the expanding Iron Curtain that was the main cost of Churchill and Roosevelt’s Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles that was Stalin to win the war.
There’s plenty of narrative, dramatic, and comedic meat here, but Clooney doesn’t seem to know how to grind it down into anything tastier than a street hot dog. The getting-the-team-together montage is perfunctory, as the fish-out-of-water element of high-culture types going to war is played for a laugh or two in basic training. The caper genre potential is badly squandered thereafter. The squad is quickly split up to hunt down specific artworks and the ensemble impact is diminished (one feels that Clooney was working around busy schedules and limited availability windows with his cast). Murray and Balaban are great together (they have a nice exchange with a German scout that they happen across at night in a forest), Goodman and Dujardin less so, and the paternal Clooney floats about with his mustache and smile of indulgent self-possession.
Damon’s James Granger, meanwhile, is saddled with a stop-start sort-of romance subplot in repatriated Paris with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). Based on the remarkable Rose Valland, who worked with the French Resistance and secretly catalogued thousands of displaced works of art while working at a gallery under the noses of the German occupiers, Simone is reduced to glaring at Nazis and alternately dismissing and flirting with Granger, with whom she has little chemistry (blame the generally befuddled Damon, who seems to mainly be here to help sell the movie as a species of WWII Ocean’s Eleven prequel). Valland deserves a film of her own, and Blanchett would have been a fine choice to play a more fleshed-out version of her, but she’s just another anecdote in a film that consists entirely of them.
This attempt to shoehorn every notable story from the Monuments Men epic into this one square, inert film is central to its failure. It’s too busy getting to all of these art world anecdotes (the Ghent Altarpiece being found in a salt mine, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna rushed out ahead of the Russian advance, the loss of masterpieces taken by the Nazis) to craft an overarching narrative of intelligence, pathos, or dramatic heft. It never earns its grandiloquent closing thesis statement about the preservation of cultural heritage (much of what they’re saving is just rich people’s stuff, lest we forget), thus making it seem like the frivolity that the army brass felt cultural protection in a war zone to be. The Monuments Men attempts to tell a compelling and resonant story from the margins of World War Two, but becomes lost in those very margins. The great tales of the conflict have been told, but that need not mean that there are no stories left that could be great. There was plenty of reasons to expect that The Monuments Men could have been one of those stories, and a marked disappointment that Clooney wasn’t able to tell it in the way it deserved.
Tim’s Vermeer (2014; Directed by Teller)
Tim Jenison is an inventor, which means to say that he solves problems by using technology. This description might seem to be considerably removed from, if not diametrically opposed to, that of the artist, who doesn’t solve problems so much as diagnose and represent them aesthetically, or else imagine and conjure up a vision of an idealized absence of those problems. This last description in particular would seem to be an apt description of the artworks of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter of delicately composed, timelessly poised, exquisitely lighted interior scenes of contemporary quotidian life.
Vermeer’s paintings achieve a vivid serenity that feels practically impossible. But Tim Jenison thinks them all the more possible because they’re so practical. Having made a comfortable living developing and manufacturing high-tech video technology, Jenison has examined Vermeer’s paintings and his expert eye has recognized a photorealism that can only have been achieved with the aid of some more primitive form of visual projection technology. The prevailing theory is that the human eye and the artistic imagination are simply, technically not sufficient to produce the effects seen on Vermeer’s canvases.
Tim’s Vermeer documents Jenison’s thorough multi-year effort to first devise a mechanism allowing him (a total novice as a painter) to replicate Vermeer’s artwork and then to set about the time-consuming task of actually replicating it. Stage magicians and spokesmen for rational empiricism Penn and Teller produce and direct, respectively; Jenison is an old friend of theirs, and has dedicated his life to a more practical magic. His methods and practices are quite wondrous, all the more so for their tinkerer’s ingenuity, and the film’s greater message is that this mix of qualities was more than likely Vermeer’s as well.
Investigating and designing the type of mirrors-and-lenses optical device that Jenison believes Vermeer likely used (documentary evidence on the painter’s life is scant, and little or nothing is known or can ever be known for certain about his techniques), our hero rejigs the reflective apparatus of a room-sized camera obscura to craft a simple but fiendishly clever device that places an inverted reflection of any given object in a small shaving mirror rigged at eye level above a desk and canvas. All one needs to do is take up a paintbrush (which Jenison has never done before, but he’s a quick study) and painstakingly transfer the image that the eye sees in the glass to the canvas directly below it. It’s a visually intuitive process, albeit one requiring a high level of concentration. If you’re doing it right, the edge of the image in the mirror should blend into the one on the painting surface.
It might sound like a complex and confusing process in description but Jenison’s demonstrations for the camera as well as for artist guests like Martin Mull and David Hockney (who has written extensively about the potential use of optical aids like Jenison’s in achieving the Renaissance’s great leap forward in realistic artistic representation) are revelatory (see it demonstrated in the excerpted clip embedded below). “It’s not subjective,” Jenison says of his method, “It’s objective.” Once he’s shown that the device can produce virtual verisimilitude with a variety of simple objects, Jenison decides to undertake the odyssean task of applying its operation to the work of the master himself. He elects to use his device to produce a painstaking copy of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.
The practical logistics that this project requires would surely daunt a less meticulous and determined person, not to mention a person lacking Jenison’s financial resources, technical manufacturing know-how, and apparent vast reserves of free time. To accurately create a painted copy of the The Music Lesson using his optical device, Jenison must construct, stage, and light the entire interior scene that it depicts in a warehouse studio, then sit in front of it for the better part of a year, diligently painting the mirror image in all of its considerable and minute detail. This designing and building process, though only a prelude to the grueling task of painting that exhausts and even begins to depress the seemingly unflappable Jenison, is impressive in itself. Jenison makes or tracks down the specific windows panes, tablecloth, mirror, chair, virginal (the period keyboard instrument played by the pupil) flooring, and clothing. At one point, he chops an expensive electric lathe in two because it isn’t long enough to make the virginal legs he requires.
Jenison pursues and executes the project of producing a Vermeer to call his own with an admirable but slightly frightening scientific obsessiveness. Tim’s Vermeer can feel like an extended Mythbusters episode with greater sophistication, more of a wry sense of humour and no explosions or production deadlines. The Guardian‘s art critic Jonathan Jones ripped into the film’s total lack of mystified awe at the rare power of artistic genius, accusing it of reducing The Music Lesson‘s creation to a mere “trick”. Jones is far from fair concerning Jenison’s investment in Vermeer’s art. If the tremendous investment of time and resources and mental exertion required to produce “a copy of a poster” isn’t proof enough of Jenison’s admiration of the original, his quietly moved reaction after being allowed to see the painting at Buckingham Palace should appeal more to the sort of mesmerized worshipfulness that the critic seems to feel appropriate when faced with Vermeer.
But my own reaction is that Tim’s Vermeer makes the master’s achievement seem grander and more ingenious even while systematically demystifying the amorphous cult of the genius. Nothing can ever be proved beyond doubt concerning Vermeer’s use of optical aids in the production of his masterpieces, but Jenison collects data to support the hypothesis in the course of the experiment: many almost imperceptible visual details in the original painting that are familiar to his trained techie eye suggest the use of image projection, including a very slight curve in the supposedly straight horizontal lines of the virginal that would not be reproduced if painted from life through the human eye alone. Obviously a working artist like Vermeer had to be quicker in producing his work than Jenison was, although a longer production period would serve to explain the relatively small number of known works by the master.
But the technical ingenuity and problem-solving acumen that Tim Jenison demonstrates and implicitly attributes to Johannes Vermeer need not preclude the evolved creative instincts and aesthetic vision that are breathlessly (and lazily) imparted to ineffable “genius”. Jenison’s device and painstaking model scene-setting allows him to merely (if convincingly) replicate The Music Lesson. Vermeer had to conceive of this transcendent tableau of light, air, and stillness and then apply whatever ingenious methods he formulated to execute its making. The Jonathan Joneses of the world acknowledge amazing technical acumen but seek to segregate it from the sublime ephemerality of artistic genius like high priests mediating between supernatural mystery and the empirical reality of their dull mud-splattered congregants. Tim’s Vermeer suggests more open-mindedly that sophisticated technical achievement is its own form of genius, and can tessellate seamlessly with loftier visions to form the genesis of a most memorable art. And even better, it shows us how. A most practical magic, indeed.
It’s a deep historical irony that some five centuries after Spain’s rulers utilized all of the power at their disposal to remove conquered non-Christian minorities such as the Muslim Moors and the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, many of the country’s major cultural tourist attractions are grounded in the unique heritage of these vanished communities. This is most true of the southern region of Spain that was held under the sway of Islamic authorities for the longest period, known from the 8th to 15th Century as al-Andalus and now the semi-autonomous region of Andalucia. The Muslim influence on the history and culture of this part of Spain is now especially reified and monetized as a particularly notable feature of the region, despite a long history of official erasure of this precise sort of cultural difference.
Across Andalucia are telling signs of this process of erasure of these now-restored elements and replacement with Spain’s particularly fervent Catholic culture, often emblazoned into the enduring architecture of its ancient cities. Moorish architectural embellisments survive on old gates, walls, arches, and buildings, with occasional more extensive masterpieces surviving behind walled-off sections of interiors and thanks to the rare progressive impulse towards preservation winning out under the aegis of Early Modern and Enlightenment authorities. Some Jewish sites, including three pre-expulsion medieval sinagogues, survive as well (although two of them are further north, in Toledo). Even when the specific original edifices are no longer standing, architectural concepts endure: the comforting, leafy courtyards (“patios”) that hide in private residence in Andalucia’s cities are a direct inheritance from the Moors, just as the ablution fountains and minarets of their mosques became garden cloisters and bell towers in the Catholic cathedrals built over them. Defining cultural features of modern Spain (and Andalucia especially) like tapas and flamenco are often traced to Muslim sources as well.
The region’s largest city and governmental seat, Seville, preserves mere echoes of the once-thriving Islamic kingdom. In its Alcazar palace, Moorish gardens with citrus trees and gently gurgling fountains ring the interior rooms, many of which boast spectacular, intricate decoration in the Moorish style commissioned of converso craftsmen by King Pedro I soon after the city was conquered by Christian armies. These are the quintessential works of the mudejar architectural style, the adaptation of Islamic architectural tropes for the buildings of Christian rulers. Seville’s most recognizable building, the Giralda bell tower adjacent to its massive, gloomy Gothic cathedral, is an adapted minaret, the elegant patterns on its lower section now topped by Late Renaissance crenelations for the bells.
In this way, the narrative stream of history as it is written on buildings is perhaps more immediately and strikingly visual apparent nowhere but in Andalucia. The architectural intrusions of early post-Reconquista Christian monarchs on the magnificent constructions of the defeated Moors demonstrate the sudden, harsh detours connected with the privileging of a new faith or set of cultural and aesthetic beliefs over an older one.
One Christian perpetrator of these surmountings stands above all others in the Spanish context: King Charles I, a.k.a. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Every major surviving Moorish landmark in Andalucia seems to have survived its greatest threat in Charles V’s ostentatious Renaissance legacy projects. Pedro’s mudejar chambers in Seville’s Alcazar stand alongside Charles’ austere rooms with wooden-beam ceilings, which replaced more elaborately-decorated older designs. A monumental square palace still bearing his name seems to have been dropped into the midst of the organic, sensual sprawl of Granada’s hilltop Alhambra like a heavy book on an elegant spider, though it cannot intrude on the rare magnificence of the Nasrid-era palaces next to it. Most damningly and unfortunately, the sylvan procession of elegant columns and candy-striped arches of the Great Mosque of Cordoba are sharply interrupted by a horrifying, gaudy Baroque nave, altar and choir that even Charles V had enough sense to realize was a tragic aesthetic mistake (not that he was so distraught as to undo the change, mind you).
It is in Cordoba’s great monument to the era of al-Andalus that history’s upheavals are writ largest and starkest. Though colloquially referred to as the Great Mosque or the Mezquita-Catedral in tourist-focused literature and advertisements, it is never called anything but a cathedral upon the holy premises themselves. There is a certain defiance to this labelling that transfers into the audio materials and guides for visitors, which call Charles V’s Baroque addition “controversial” but steadfastly refuse to elaborate that the controversy is above all aesthetic, as well as imparting cynical pecuniary motives to those among the city’s grandees who contemporaneously opposed its construction. The building may only be so notable due to the architectural inspiration of a rival faith, but never is the visitor allowed to forget which institution of belief runs the show now.
Still, even if the sightlines of marching columns are fouled by the central Christian addition and the numerous side-chapels, the Mosque of Cordoba offers illustrative microcosms of the historical processes that witness one value-system overcoming another. Multiple eras of history are visible, sometimes simultaneously in the naked eye of the observer. A glass floor reveals excavated mosaics beneath the church floor from a former Roman basilica, Visigothic ruins sit in display cases nearby, the Muslim arches run along in colour-alternating rows (the oldest of them held up by repurposed Roman and Visigothic columns), and Christian devotional paintings hang from chapel altars. The eras of Cordoban history are stacked before your eyes like a layer cake. Cordoba’s Mezquita-Catedral, perhaps more than any other historical site in Europe if not in the entire world, renders the gradations of historical change with the clear visual demarcations of geological layers in the earth.
Spain itself today still reveals those gradations of historical change in its society, culture, and monuments, though you may have to look more closely to find them than in Cordoba. If Spain at large is a kaleidoscope of regional identities and conflicting histories drawn together into a patchwork state, then Andalucia is a microcosm of that effect as well as an amplification. Spain, it seems, is more Spain in Andalucia than anywhere else.
A mere two weeks in a country with such regional diversity and historical richness as Spain is hardly enough to get a full measure of one of Europe’s most fascinating nations. But the character, history, and artistic heritage of certain of its regions can emerge in even so short a time spent exploring them.
For many, the entry point into Spain is Madrid, the national capital, largest metropolis, and transportation, institutional, cultural, and geographical centre of the country. A bustling modern city, Madrid cannot boast the deep, fascinating history of many of the older Spanish cities (especially those in the South). Though the city site has been continually habitated since pre-Roman times, Madrid has only been a significant centre since the mid-16th Century, when Hapsburg King Philip II relocated his court there from older, less growth-friendly Toledo. Consequently, very few of the city’s landmarks pre-date that time, with the majority of its institutional and royal edifices built in the century or two after this shift. In contrast to the tight-packed, labyrinthine medieval streets of older cities like Toledo, Seville, or Granada, Madrid is laid out in the wide boulevards and plazas of the era of its Bourbon monarchs.
Madrid does aggregate cultural attractions from across Spain’s historic realms, however. Its golden triangle of major national art museums – the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Reina Sofia – bring together an embarrassment of artistic riches (many of them derived from the Habsburg royal collection) from Bosch to Velazquez to Goya to Picasso in a concentrated area. More treasures can be seen in the Palacio Real across the city centre and El Escorial, the devout Philip II’s massive palace-monastery-basilica complex outside the city limits. But Madrid, lovely and easily-navigated and livable as it is, carries the feeling of a relatively recent and governmentally-forced national capital for a nation defined by its resolute regional identities.
Its obvious counterpoint is Toledo. Formerly the nominal capital and base for the royal court, Toledo’s growth was stunted by its unique and picturesque location along the slopes of a commanding hillside, its iconic Alcazar and Gothic cathedral crowning the rise with the aforementioned medieval streets spidering paths to and fro below and around them. A civic construction that makes much more sense as a defensible Middle Ages stronghold than as a sprawling modern Western democratic capitalist economic unit like Madrid has become, Toledo’s skyline is nonetheless lodged in the popular consciousness thanks to its legendary native artist, El Greco, who famously painted the cityscape of his time with swirling, foreboding clouds above it.
And yet Toledo, with its historic sites and strong claim to the title of Spain’s religious capital, is also redolent of the complex web of diverse influences that makes up Spanish history. Philip II put the city’s golden years as Spain’s active heart behind it in 1561, and his father Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and Spain-unifying great-grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella spread their historical legacies and major monuments across the great former Moorish cities of Andalucia (which I will discuss more in a subsequent post). A city now best known for its surviving Catholic landmarks and now purely-touristic swordmaking industry, Toledo’s deeper connection to what can be tentatively but perhaps anachronistically called “Spanishness” can be most resonantly traced through its two most celebrated creative figures: El Greco and Miguel de Cervantes.
In addition to defining the city of his time on canvas, El Greco spread many of his finest works throughout Toledo, where he lived and worked for the better part of his life. His spectacular masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz remains one of the city’s top attractions, and the 400-year anniversary of his death has seen the entire Castile-La Mancha region launch a commemorative cultural celebration of this most famous and iconic “native” son.
But those quotation marks are key to understanding what El Greco means to Spanish cultural nationalism: El Greco, as his frequently-employed moniker indicates, was born in Greece (Domenikos Theokotopoulos is his real name) and resided and trained in Italy before finally relocating to Spain. Operating outside of the royal patronage that most significant artists of his period relied upon (he contributed only a single commission to Philip’s enormous El Escorial project, and that was purportedly a disappointment to his patron) and also failing to secure multiple commissions for the Toledo Catherdral (following a contentious negotiation with the cathedral’s committee over his fee for The Disrobing of Christ), El Greco’s singular and avant-garde artistic vision and thematic daring put him outside the artistic mainstream of his period, though his abilities were recognized by his peers and he had an active workshop nonetheless.
El Greco did very well as a portraitist, but it is his religious paintings, with their elongated, otherworldly figures and almost Expressionistic flourishes of haunting, spectral paint strokes, that define him in the collective consciousness. Commonly identified with a strongly mystical strain of Catholicism (he was an icon painter in his formative years on Crete), El Greco is the master artist of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain of the Black Legend, that vaunted, lamented Northern European conception of Spain as a land of grim castles overlooking parched plains, dim stone cathedrals, black-clad priests and inquisitors, and deep-seated populist superstitions and mystical beliefs and practices.
First circulated by English and Dutch Protestant propaganda during those countries’ Late 16th-Century conflicts with the Spanish, this pernicious but false idea of Spain finds some support in the fervent Catholicism of its defender-of-the-faith monarchs, from Ferdinand and Isabella’s completion of the Reconquista and expulsion of the peninsula’s Jewish population in 1492 to Charles V’s opposition to Martin Luther and Henry VIII’s potential divorce to the continuing sinister activities of the Inquisition. In fact, El Greco’s very presence in Spain, like that of many of the Italian artists hired as court painters and to work on El Escorial at about the same time, stands as compelling evidence for the international scope and cosmopolitanism of Habsburg Spain rather than to its religiously-stunted insularity.
Additionally, El Greco’s contemporary Cervantes and his literary masterpiece Don Quixote exerts a strong presence in Toledo and further undermines the Black Legend framing of the culture and society of Golden Age Spain. Located in picturesque La Mancha, the home seat of the wandering, delusional, self-styled knight-errant of Spain’s virtual national novel, Toledo is awash with Quixote memorabilia, and the traveller half-expects a tall, thin old man in armour on a skinny horse to be glimpsed on the sun-cracked roads cutting through the plains outside of the city at any moment, a plump sidekick on a burro riding at his side. Although frequently identified as a highly religious text supportive of national church doctrine, Quixote includes in its sprawling narrative plentiful critiques of the society and culture of Cervantes’ Spain as well as the unswerving authority of the Church. Its colourful and deeply humanist pastoral view of Golden Age Spain challenges the discursive prerogatives of the Black Legend.
It is also a text deeply troubled by Spain’s struggles with the non-ethnic Spanish internal minorities that it had spent the past century marginalizing and eventually expelling: not only the Jews in the late 1400s but also the conversos (Jews or Muslims who accepted conversion to Christinanity in order to remain in the country) and Moriscos (specifically Muslims who took the same deal, or their descendants) affected by later decrees. The cultural and artistic legacy of these departed peoples, of the ghosts of Spain’s unmatched social diversity in Medieval Europe, is much more apparent in the former Muslim realm of al-Andalus, now known as the semi-autonomous region of Andalusia. A second set of traveller’s thoughts will consider these ghosts along their historical pathways in the south of Spain.
Despicable Me (2007; Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud)
Call me arch or humourless if you will, but I really did not dig this classically-cartoonish allegory for the deferred ambition of parenthood as much as many critics did, to say nothing of its embrace by the children that were its target audience.
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is a supervillain with a vast secret lair manned by an army of yellow, jabbering, begoggled minions (I believe it’s supposed to be capitalized now, but anyway). Assisted in his schemes of stealing gigantic, immovable objects by a mad scientist ally, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) as well as his Minions, Gru conceives of a grand plan to steal the moon to show up upstart rival supervillain Vector (Jason Segal), who dinged Gru’s supervillain ego by stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Gru’s scheme becomes entwined with three orphan girls (the lead girl is voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), who he uses at first to infiltrate Vector high-security base (he tells them that he’s a dentist) before developing a fondness for them and eventually adopting them. And so Despicable Me becomes a moral fable of balancing personal and professional pride and ambitions with the emotional entanglements and fulfillments of family.
There’s some imaginative cartoon wackiness to Despicable Me, especially when it comes to Vector’s base and the shrunken moon (whose ensmallened effects may be dangerously temporary). You can also feel the tug of the cutesy supporting Minions dragging this world towards an inevitable spin-off (which, along with proper sequels, is very much happening). They never quite take over the movie, but it feels like they’re always just about to; the jaundiced buggers are the film’s obvious entry-point for impressionable children patrons, and its box-office success indicates that they played their intended role to perfection.
But maybe I just need a little more slyness with my feature animation, or just meatier social metaphors buried behind the colourful comedic adventure. Or maybe I just need a few more instances of ironic and/or referentially intelligent humour to cling onto alongside the kiddie pratfalls and maudlin emotional beats (although the French creative centre of the production slides in some digs at classic American canards where they can). I laughed with intent but twice in this film: “The Bank of Evil (Formerly Lehman Brothers)” and “It’s so fluffy, I could die!”. To reduce a film, then, to inherently proscriptive five-star ratings, which I don’t tend to relish doing? Two stars for two real laughs? Sounds about fine to me.