Friday, December 09, 2005

Chiaroscuro

I hadn't actually been intending to watch a videotape last night, Bush, but I needed one to test out the reconnection of our VCR/DVD player (finally!) and believe it or not, I couldn't find a single tape or DVD in all our unpacked boxes. So I went down to the local rental establishment to obtain one of each. Quite an eye-opener down there: it has been a while since I visited a rental store because we have been seduced by the convenience Netflix. Our old haunt is transformed. Where just a couple of years ago there were rows and rows of videotapes and just a few rows of DVDs, the video area is reduced to just a couple of desultory shelves, mostly for the sale of odds and ends of used tapes. A kind of junkyared. A sign of the times, I guess.

Anyway, that's not what I started to talk about. I needed a tape, and picked out, almost at random, a 1966 movie by Derek Jarman, Caravaggio, not really intending even to watch it, just to use it for my test. Well, Bush, I'm glad I did. It's not often that you come across a movie that's almost purely lyrical, like this one. By that I mean that it works more on image, association, rhythm and tone than on word and narrative.

Best of all, Jarman managed to capture the visual power of Caravaggio himself, the dramatic interplay of light and shadow that is the essence of chiaroscuro--the title, incidentally, Bush, of my first novel: a murder mystery set in the art worlds of New York and Los Angeles. (I've always thought that the mystery genre is the literary equivalent of chiaroscuro: it's melodrama, contrasting the light and shadow sides of human nature or, as you might prefer it, Bush, good and evil). Jarman's stark use of highlight and shadow, his understanding of Caravaggio's love for the dramatic power of the diagonal thrust of form in a painting, his ability to mime the rhythm of a Caravaggio work, as well as the tonality, the occasional, brilliant flash of color, the overt sensuality and the ubiquitous decadence result in a movie in which every frame is a visual poem in homage to the master.

The recurrence of images, too, works much as metaphor does in poetry. Drapery, fruits and vegetables, straw and wood form a kind of visual thematic undercurrent. The knife, too, with which the artist plays, is wounded, wounds, and kills. It's his tragic umbilical to life itself. Coins, too--from the coins counted out on the rough kitchen table as the deal plays out for the sale of the young Caravaggio by his parents (the source, in Jarman's narrative, for the fury that fuels the passion of his work)--to the coins with which he pays his lover-model, piece by piece, as the young man grabs them and thrusts them sensually in his mouth: their fist kiss is an oral exchange of coins. To the final imaqe of the use of coins to close the eyes of Caravaggio's corpse.

Especially provocative, in the context of a sixteenth century setting, is Jarman's casual insertion of images from other periods: a Renaissance grandee toys idly with a credit-card slim calculator over dinner, the young model is shown fixing his motorcycle--and throughout, we hear the sounds of modern traffic, the roar and whistle of passing trains. It's fun, funny, purposefully strange and--as I see it, Bush--it helps the movie transcend the centuries in a light-handed kind of way.

As for the narrative, the story is told in flashbacks from Caravaggio's deathbed: the painter's struggle with his rage, his contempt for authority, his rejection of religion and the church, his sado-masochistic fascination with the erotic, seamy side of life--and his consuming passion for painting. At the end, we're witness to his angry refusal of repentence or redemption other than through personal conviction or through art. It's a profoundly irreligious movie, Bush, deeply engaged in the complex moral problematics of life itself--the profound, perennial struggle of body and soul, human mortality and the singular, inevitable truth of death. I don't think you'd actually like it. But it would be a salutory experience for you, of that I'm sure. Try it one night, in the White House screening room.

1 comment:

David said...

I think W is waiting for the bio-pic of Thomas Kinkaide.