Visual art and the moving image have always had a complicated relationship. It probably started with the invention of the still camera, which was announced alongside funeral notices for traditional painting methods. We can laugh now, but it remains a sometimes tense kinship, one that now even exists to a degree within the film world itself, where some purists continue to turn up their noses at the mention of digital media.
More complex than the mere nuts and bolts of it all is how our films treat art and the artists that create it. When dealing with a process that is at once profoundly cerebral and (for the most part) starkly solitary, cinema can seem like a bore. You may enjoy Andy Warhol's paintings of soup cans and electric chairs, but who in their right mind is as interested in watching Sleep, the five-hour-plus film he made by watching his friend John Giorno sleep? Sometimes inspiration doesn't translate well across media (though in fairness to Sleep, it scores a higher rating on imdb.com than episodes of Bonanza from the same year). And most often, it simply goes too far, making a rock star or messiah out of everyone who ever picked up a brush.
But these films—the Van Gogh biopics and the art museum documentaries—are films about art. This week, Valley filmgoers have the chance to take in a rather audacious attempt at marrying the two when Lech Majewski's film The Mill and The Cross screens at Amherst Cinema. Based on Pieter Bruegel's 16th-century masterpiece "The Way to Calvary," the film imagines a world where the epic painting is so thoroughly brought to life that you might see the artist himself sketching your very reality as you move through it.
Majewski is himself an artist of some repute, with a Museum of Modern Art retrospective to his credit. Here he works with art historian Michael Francis Gibson, whose book of the same title tells the Passion story, but set in 1564, the year Bruegel painted his masterwork, a sprawling, panoramic view of Christ's ascent to the place of his crucifixion. In Bruegel's work, Christ has stumbled under the weight of the cross, and in that momentary pause the artist tells hundreds of stories drawn from the groups that form the gathering crowd.
What makes Majewski's film so special is not so much its cast—a talented crew including Rutger Hauer as the artist and Charlotte Rampling as the Virgin Mary—as its sets. Designed to recreate Bruegel's brushwork, the backgrounds and vignettes take advantage of some advanced computer mojo to make it appear that the story is taking place inside the master's painting. The result is an ethereal dreamscape that points up both the joys of art and our own possibility for creating it, just by living. Whether or not it works is up to the viewer, but few films have tried so hard to bridge the gap.
Also this week: Pleasant Street Theater highlights a more recent artist with its Les Blank Masterworks Night on Tuesday, Nov. 1. Beginning at 7 p.m., the theater will present two of the acclaimed documentarian's films: The Blues Accordin' To Lightnin' Hopkins and Always For Pleasure. A trailblazing filmmaker whose work is sometimes the only record of fascinating musical byways, Blank has always taken the time to explore the larger social contexts that give rise to our many national musics.
In The Blues, he visits with the great Texas bluesman and travels to performances, barbecues, and Hopkins' boyhood home. Always For Pleasure is an intimate look at Blank's New Orleans—he studied at Tulane—and its unique pleasures. In between Mardi Gras and second-line parades, Blank squeezes in performances by the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair and others. Amherst Cinema Education Director Jake Meginsky will be on hand to introduce the films.
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.