Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Lech Majewski's beautiful 2004 feature-length video The Garden of Earthly Delights is at the same time a clear piece of storytelling, albeit in a modernist mode, and a remarkably free exercise in the association of images and sounds. The film's beauty is the result of these two layers being carefully and continually linked.

The gimmick (not too strong a word, because it requires sleight of hand to pass it off as plausible; the work occasionally shows) is that a couple videotapes themselves almost continuously, partly because they are creating an experimental video piece based on the eponymous Bosch painting, partly because of the man's habits, and partly because of a dire medical problem which the video helps them come to terms with. We are introduced to the complexities of the situation gradually, with information doled out as it enters the visual field of the camera.

But the film's appeal is not conceptual: it grows from the power and density of Majewski's audiovisual images. One sees the actors handling the camera in a number of scenes, but Majewski gets the cinematographer's credit, and the seemingly casual video work is tunneled through with labyrinthine depth compositions and striking color and texture juxtapositions. Complicated pan-and-zoom movements are bracketed with simple home-movie visual language. The accumulated effect of the subtly larger-than-life imagery is to impart a sense of grandeur to the travails of the game but afflicted couple.

The premise of amateur self-documentation justifies a great deal of randomness and even confusion in what images are presented. It's fascinating that the tiniest dose of narrative is enough to alter our relationship (mine, anyway) to the torrent of sights and sounds. At any rate, by allowing us to piece together a story, Majewski lifts from the imagery the burden of providing unity to the movie, and assigns to it the role of providing entropy.

Enjoying the discipline of providing linkage between form and fiction, Majewski marks each evolution of the story with a small style shift, starting with the surprising pan that reveals the video camera in a mirror. Playing off the essentially exhibitionistic nature of the couple's project, Majewski chooses to reveal the illness story through the surprising mise-en-scene of the woman trying for once to avoid her lover's camera.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is, among other things, a strikingly physical rendering of a heterosexual relationship. The man (Chris Nightingale) and the woman (Claudine Spiteri) disrobe and couple frequently in the course of their Bosch-based charades, and the remote, unattended camera both justifies their shyness and heightens the tactility of the sexual imagery. In addition, the contemplation of death in this movie is expressed in bodily, even chemical terms. The nonprofessional actors are chosen to some extent because their physiques lend themselves to a pictorial allegory of classical male and female beauty. And yet Majewski manages to give the characters psychology, albeit in large strokes that do not compromise their symbolic status. Though the woman is both the visual and narrative center of the film, the man is the more mysterious and ultimately the more poignant character: while the woman confronts death with a philosophical quest, the man reacts with mute pain and withdrawal, and with a desire to cross the gender barrier and merge with the beloved object. That Majewski is as engaged with people as he is confident about form marks him as a major filmmaker and not just a talented one.

I do not believe in a sharp division between film and video: if Bazin could find identity between cinema and the process of making death masks, I think we should be able to appreciate the common ground between emulsion and pixels. But it was my pleasure to see two films last month in quick succession - the Majewski, and Jun Ichikawa's 2008 short feature Buy a Suit - where unpolished video images take on a beauty that is partly due to the narrative utility of the video, to the appropriateness of using an inconspicuous, consumer-affordable recording device for these particular stories. Of course, the beauty is partly due as well to a spatial and compositional authority that crosses media.

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