Upon his return from exile in Siberia, Fyodor Dostoyevsky threw himself into literary activities. With his brother Mikhail, he consecutively edited two influential magazines, first Vremya (“Time”) between 1861 and 1863, which was closed down by government censors, and then Epokha (“Epoch”), which collapsed after the death of Mikhail. Short-lived as the two magazines were, they produced some resonating literary works. In 1861 Dostoyevsky’s own The House of the Dead was serialized in Vremya. Four years later, Epokha published Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a story about a provincial merchant’s wife’s relentless pursuit of intense sexual relationship with a young man in her service, murdering anyone in her way. The novella has since become Leskov’s best known work partially due to Shostakovich’s famous operatic adaptation. Most of the cinematic treatments of the story are the filming or adaptations of the opera with the major exception of Polish director Andrzej Wajda ‘s Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962) based on the original source. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, premiered in last year’s Toronto Film Festival and now just ended its theatrical run, is the first film adaptation of the Leskov novella in the English language. It transplants the story from 19th-century provincial Russia to 19th-century provincial England. The result is a contrived production missing original work’s drama and naturalism, although the film’s atmospheric austerity gives it a unique character and the leading actress’s superb performance negates to an extent the otherwise curious casting choices.

Leskov’s novella can be treated as a prequel to Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, a work distinguished by its modernist structure. To borrow from trendy jargon, the so-called novel is a “hybrid” blending documentary and fiction. Forgoing overarching narrative, The House of the Dead is a collage of portraits of prisoners exiled to Siberia. It is a seamless mixture of memoir, impressions and imagination. The first-person narrative, however, inevitably limits readers’ knowledge of a vast ensemble of characters observed by the main protagonist, Dostoevsky’s alt-ego. There is an eerie sense of realism accordant to our daily experience: people come and go in front of our eyes, and they live and die without our participation. Leskov, working along with this mystery of the quotidian favored by Dostoevsky, nevertheless brings individual will, whim and desire back to the fore. The focus is on a middle-aged provincial merchant’s young wife Katerina Izmailova and her murderous escapade which eventually lands her and her lover positions in a prisoner’s convoy to Siberia.

The title Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk County paraphrases Ivan Turgenev’s short story Hamlet of the Shchigovsky District from Sketches of a Sportsman. Here the Shakespearean reference is made on the merit of spectral viewing: in Shakespeare Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at dinner table (Act 3, scene 4); in Leskov, it is Lady Macbeth who in the finale of the novella in a desperate moment of abandonment sees the ghosts of her father-in-law, her husband and her husband’s young nephew –her three murder victims, and then jumps into the river and drowns herself. One might conjecture that “Lady Macbeth” means a “female Macbeth”.

Free of Shakespearean schematization, Leskov’s Katerina Izmailova is characterized by her naiveté in her pursuit of love. She commits murders in a matter-of-fact and almost casual way as if she is just moving chairs and other obstacles on her way to bedroom. She is oblivious to the severity of her crimes which quietly disappear into daily routines – until suddenly the act of killing is exposed in the most dramatic fashion possible, to the shock of all.

This moment of exposure comes in Chapter 11 towards the end of the novella. Izmailova’s intention of murder, like in previous cases, came at a whim when she suddenly decided to smother her husband’s nephew:

“Katerina Lvovna quickly put her hand over the mouth of the terrified boy, and shouted [to her lover Sergei]:

‘Be quick about it: keep him flat so he can’t struggle!’.

For a space of some four minutes the room was silent as the grave.

‘He’s dead,’ Katerina Lvovna whispered …”

But when the two murderers raised their heads, they started to realize that “the walls of the quiet house, which had covered up so many crimes, were suddenly shaken deafening blows: the windows rattled, the floors shuddered, the chains of the hanging icon-lamps quivered, and fantastic shadows went leaping over the wall”. It was not their imagination – it was a crowd of youth, bored by a church meeting, sneaked into Izmailova property, peeped through the holes in the wooden wall in order to see the two lovers “getting it on” and accidentally witnessed the murder.

Murders are rarely committed in such an unintentionally public fashion. Indeed, the originality of Leskov lies not in this rather banal story of adultery but in the dramatic unfolding of this very moment, this phantasmagorical revealing of a crime to the terrors of both murderers in the house and its spectators outside the house. So it’s curious that William Oldroyd in his film adaptation omits the scene, opting for a conventional plot: the boy’s dead body is discovered next morning and then reported to a skeptical village doctor during whose questioning the murderess’s remorseful co-conspirator not only confesses to the murder but also shoulders the entire blame of the murder after false accusation made by his lover.

The plot discrepancy between the source and the film reflects a change in the characterization of the protagonist, our “Lady Macbeth”. The point Leskov wants to make is that how ordinary a serial killer could be and how daily routines nurture great terror – one doesn’t have to be extraordinary or in an extraordinary position to be evil. Although modern literary scholars are free to analyse the text from a Marxist, feminist or psychoanalytical point of view, the truth remains that this crime, as brazen and horrifying as it is, is seamlessly a part of social life in the 19th-century Russia. By contrast, Oldroyd’s heroine, who is displaced from Russia to 19th-century northern England and whose name is modified from “Katerina” to “Katherine”, has an extraordinarily strong character. Young actress Florence Pugh carries out the role with great dignity and nuances, but it is not meant to be.

A deeper reason is probably that Oldroyd wants to use the film as a commentary on modern race relations in England and beyond. In his adaptation the murderess has an affair with her servant Sebastian, played by the singer Cosmo Jarvis who (from where I sat) looks partially black. In the end of the film, Katherine absolves her role as a murderer by blaming the crime on him who is accused of having an affair with her black maid. There are also a legion of black characters living in this peculiar universe of 19th-century provincial and middle-class England. I don’t know whether this is historically accurate or it is part of multicultural trend in period drama. One thing for sure is that in his quest for novelty the filmmaker let go the terror of banality rich in the original source.

The golden age of Russian literature only occasionally inspired cinematic masterpieces in the West. It can be done with drastic alteration. Two prime examples come from the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson: his Pickpocket (1959), an adaptation of Crime and Punishment, turns Dostoevsky’s signature verbosity into transcendent silence in the Gallic sunshine and shadows; and his L’Argent (1983), an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon, turns the Tolstoian social commentary into the religious anguish of high Catholicism.

In those two occasions, the adaptations are radical but done with great subtlety and the spirit of the original texts are intact. In the case of L’Argent, one might even say that the drama is enhanced. The same thing cannot be said of Lady Macbeth. Besides the unfortunate casting choices, the film also features exaggerated sound design running contrary to the film’s (excellent) naturalist cinematography: it’s torturous to sit through this costume drama that sounds like a sci-fi film when the doors on-screen open like the landing of UFO and our lady in corset moves like a Kung Fu master.


(In Bresson’s L’Argent doors open quietly and people walk lightly, but the drama unfolds magnificently.)



On our way to movie, Bertie, who was again in a melancholy mood, told me the story of his grandmother’s death: how she uncharacteristically talked to herself the night before, and how she left her bedroom door half open before going to bed and never got up.

“As if she knew she was dying!” Bertie said.

Having little patience for soppy sentiments, I pointed out that such reasoning was flawed as it was based on selective memory: people do odd things all the time – only when something went wrong, we start to remember those bizarre moments and decide that they necessarily foreshadowed what was coming: “Probably your grandma often talked to herself or left her bedroom door half open before going to bed. Only your family hadn’t been paying attention”.

Arriving at downtown Silver Spring, I parked our car in front of a Panera Bread restaurant and walked with Bertie towards the movie theatre, AFI Silver. Walking across the American landscape is always an experience of walking across boundaries of colors, and nothing could better illustrate the point than this 3-minute stride: most customers behind the glass of Panera were either black or Hispanic; so were the clienteles of a Red Lobster and a K. G. Kitchen in the same strip mall. AFI Silver, a repertory cinema operated by American Film Institute, was tucked away quietly on a side street behind these busy family diners. Passing a black ticket collector and an Asian popcorn seller, we entered the auditorium. The audience had been exclusively white.

The film was the 1980 Les bons débarras (Good Riddance) from Quebec. It’s part of AFI’s summer program celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, Canada Now. The program purports to showcase new Canadian cinema, but almost half of the 26 films scheduled between July 7 and September 13 have more or less achieved “classics” status. Among them, there were Mon Oncle Antoine (1971), The Decline of the American Empire (1986), I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), Léolo (1992), The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and My Winnipeg (2007). Les bons débarras not only belongs to this list, it is one of the oldest and the most critically claimed entries.

The story unfolds in the luxuriantly rugged landscape of Quebec’s Laurentian Upland, showing minuscule details of the banal existence of an ensemble of small town dwellers: firewood choppers, auto mechanics, avuncular policemen and wealthy resort homeowners who live in a world of their own, oblivious to the working-class people outside their fancy homes. The energy of the story comes from the underclass, in particular their obsessions with booze and sex. There are more than one’s fair share of scenes of drunk driving on characters’ way to their sexcapades.

Strangely, this is also a children’s film more than those Shirley Temple films not only because of its story, which evolves around its heroine, the 13-year-old Manon who lives with her unmarried mother Michelle, but also because of its sympathy to children’s moral indifference. In observing the adult’s world’s from a young girl’s eyes, the film never attempts at any condescending moral message for the young or the grown-up. The story itself is told in a freewheeling fashion with a grotesque ending, reminding one of those original Grimm Brothers’ stories in their sincere panache for macabre awkwardness and a disregard for refined narrative structure. The film has a childishness in the primitive sense.

Living in an isolated house outside a small town, Manon assists her mother Michelle and physically well-developed but mentally challenged uncle Guy carving a life out by chopping firewood and selling them to wealthy neighbors. Manon is tired of looking after Guy whose only hobby, besides getting drunk and starting fights in bars, is staring at Madame Viau-Vachon, their customer and rich neighbor who is constantly seen swimming in her indoor pool with the accompaniment of classical music. Manon also detests her mother’s avuncular boyfriend and the town’s policeman Maurice while taking a liking to the young auto mechanic Gaetan who occasionally assists her with her truancy and who seems to be unable to secure a date with Michelle in spite of all his enthusiastically playful groping and kissing. In difference to school, Manon is nevertheless a voracious reader, turning pages even when she was doing dishes. She is also a sharp-tongued commentator who has a tendency to boss her mother around. When she learned that her mother was impregnated by Maurice, Manon upgrades her antics first by running away from home, then falsefully accusing Maurice of sexual abuse and finally driving her uncle to suicide just for good measure. In the final scene of the film, we see the child happily embracing her mother in bed after successfully getting rid of her competitors for Michelle’s affection.

Originally released in 1980, Les bons débarras appeared on TIFF’s inaugural Canada Top Ten film list honoring “all time greats” in 1984 and subsequently in 1993 and 2005. The only other similarly well-received Canadian films at the time were Don Shebib’s Go’in Down the Road (1970), Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971) and Michel Brault’s Les orders (1974). Unlike the other three films, as Steve Gravesstock in his excellent essay for Cinemascope points out, Les bons débarras doesn’t tackle in an obvious way any big topic or theme perceived essential to Canadian identity or history. Genre-wise, it resembles a “coming of age” film, yet the protagonist Manon never did come of age and indeed she was very mature in her own way from the very beginning. It’s an offbeat film about offbeat characters in an offbeat locale doing offbeat things. If it has any ambition, it is its half-hearted intrusions into entertainment genres: the story of the film is pieced together with a string of visual vignettes either in the mode of physical comedy or in the mode of thriller: at one moment we see the idiot Guy comically struggling in his drunken stupor on the country road, trying his very best to bring his case of beer home, at another moment we see him maniacally driving with the young Manon, racing dangerously with a truck. In a similar fashion, at one moment we are amused by Manon’s antic when she stole wealthy Madame Viao-Vachone’s expensive bracelet and put it on her dog; at another moment the same Mano turns from a Robin Hood to a real bully, yelling at her child-like uncle and demanding him to kill himself, which he did. The film abandons temperamental consistence and moral compass, evoking contradictory and unresolved feelings in its audience. New York Times’s Janet Maslin in her 1981 review upon the American release of the film cogently calls it “a meandering movie with a curious kind of staying power”. This staying power derives from what this film is almost but not.

It’s easy to identify Manon as the film’s hero for the simple fact that the child is the most assertive character in the film who makes decision for herself and actively tries to achieve her goals, however impractical or even evil her means are. The adults are more than likely to accept their own places in life, by contrast.

But upon reflection, the film is “meandering” not just because of its lack of clear-cut narrative but also because of its lack of clear-cut relationship between its ensemble of characters who also share similar spotlights in their respective eccentricities.

When the film ended, I complained to Bertie that I still didn’t know what Guy’s exact relationship with Michelle who was seen hugging a naked Guy overnight – hardly a common thing between adult siblings; and in the film not once the word “brother” or “sister” spelt out. Indeed, one can easily impose different kinds of interpretations with the same cinematic materials. The fact that Michelle and Guy are siblings is more or less arbitrary. Similarly, while Manon is unquestionably Michelle’s daughter, her demand of love from her mother resembles that of a lover and has the element of eroticism, which is made evident with Manon’s facilitation of the erotic consummation in a dingy motel of he mother and the young mechanic Gaetan, who in his playful groping is as assertive as Manon self.

And there is Guy, the most mysterious character in the film. According to many critics, Les bons débarras is distinguished by its realism, in particular a realism reacting to a Quebecoise tradition of romanticising the “pristine” rural. I will call this realism “naturalism” which aims at a more unselective representation of a slice of life without moral judgement and which in its merging with ecological or biological determinism contradictorily comes close to mythology. In the film Guy is said to have become an idiot and alcoholic after an episode of meningitis, and his idiocy is accentuated by contradiction with the actor Germain Houde’s handsome face, athletic physique and a pair of expressive eyes full of longings. If half of the film revolves around Manon the Child’s game of love with her mother, the other half revolves around Guy the Idiot’s devotion of love to his object of desire, Madame Viau-Vachon. Such devotion is as pure as that of Little Mermaid’s love for the prince – in fact, in one scene we see a hiding Guy emerging from water like a merman, looking admirably at the Madame in complete silence. This is the love of the sacred for the profane. Guy is a village idiot in a religious sense. Those idiots permeate every single masterpiece of literature in the past.

The contradiction naturalism brings to realism is that in its material concreteness it lets go concrete identities of things and in turn “a slice of life”, as seen in Les bons débarras, turns into myth and achieves a certain degree of universality. Only such universality is unknown with the Quebec film’s relative obscurity.

As well-received as Les bons débarras by the critics, its impact has been extremely limited. When Marie-Jose Raymond and Claude Fournier, two members of the Élephant project which restored the film, asked the audience who had seen the film before, no one raised his hand. Raymond responded by saying how happy she was as this lack of impact justifies her restoration work, but such happiness had to be a bittersweet kind.

Bertie, with his carefree attitude, obviously enjoyed the film even more than I did. What I saw as odd in the film were completely natural to him.

“You are too analytical!” He said and then added: “Understanding is enjoyment, and enjoyment is feeling”.

With these words, we walked into the Panera Bread restaurant next door and treated ourselves with a heartful American meal.





This blog post proposes a new film genre: museum film. It consists of three parts. The first part is a short list of films defining the emerging genre. The second part provides commentaries with the assistance of two texts: the 16th-century museum treatise Incision and the French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematograph (1975). The third part takes a more detailed look at shortlisted films and defends museum film as defined here as a unique genre.

Part I: Museum Films: an Inventory

  • Russian Ark (2001), feature film, Alexandr Sokurov (Russia), The Hermitage (St. Petersburg)
  • Une visite au Louvre (2003), dialogue film, Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet (France), Louvre (Paris)
  • Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (2007), feature film, Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan/France), Musée d’Orsay (Paris)
  • Visage (2009), feature film, Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan/France), Louvre (Paris)
  • Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), documentary, Werner Herzog (Germany/France), Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (southern France)
  • Museum Hours (2013), feature film, Jem Cohen (US/Austria), Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna)
  • The Great Museum (2014), documentary, Johannes, Holzhausen (Austria), Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna)
  • Art and Craft (2014), documentary, Sam Cullman, etc. (US), various American regional museums
  • The New Rijksmuseum (2014), documentary, Oeke Hoogendijk (Netherlands), Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam)
  • National Gallery (2015), documentary, Frederick Wiseman (US/UK), National Gallery (London)
  • Faux Départ (2015), documentary, Yto Barrada (Morocco), various Moroccan fossil-producing villages
  • Sector IX B (2015), installation, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (Senegal/France), IFAN Museum of African Arts (Dakar)
  • Francofonia (2015), feature film, Alexandr Sokurov (Russia/France), Louvre (Paris)

(For blog editor: the following posters can be included if so desired)

Part II: Commentary

A simple definition of “museum film” is “art films representing museums”. The definition apparently excludes educational films often shown on the premises of museums with regular intervals and commercial films using museums as background. However, as seen in Part III of the blog, the boundaries between three types of films are not absolute. “Museum”, “art film” and “museum film” are all fuzzy concepts with specific historical and philosophical connotations.

The élan of palaeontologists, archaeologists, Egyptologists, connoisseurs, dilettantes, thieves and other misfits render their lives a treasure trove for comedies, thrillers, fantasies and horrors. Opposing the loftiness of tombs, cathedrals and museums, they are our heroes in their quick moves and their cheekiness. In Howard Hawks’ screwball Bring Up Baby (1938), a palaeontologist played by Cary Grant commits himself to an awkward love affair to secure the museum funding. On the other end of the spectrum, absolutely charming robbers from Peter Ustinov (Topkapi, 1964), Peter O’Toole (How to Steal a Million, 1966) to Pierce Brosnan (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1999) target museums for monetary or erotic gains. And we have Mysteries of the Wax Museum (1933), One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and The Mummy Returns and Night at the Museum franchises. None of them is a museum film.

A museum film must satisfy at least two criteria: (1) its protagonist is a museum; (2) it is an art film. The first criterion delineates the material base for a specific cinematic aesthetics: it must be spatial as well as object-oriented. The second criterion applies to the aesthetics itself: it must possess transcendental qualities. As it can be argued that all films are spatial and object-oriented even with the presence of strong characters and narratives and as the standard for transcendental art is relative, museum film discussed here is simultaneously a description and an idealization, a prototype in want of further development and an archetype maintaining an inner posture. My commentary, in turn, looks at historical formation and the aesthetics such formation entails. The two primary texts that I depend on were written not by theorists but two visionaries who happened to be preeminent practitioners of the trades: 16th-century Flemish physician Samuel Quiccheberg’s Inscriptions; or, Titles of the Most Ample Theater (1565), the first European treatise on museums and French master filmmaker Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography (1975).


Quiccheberg began to work with the collection of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in 1563. Inscription, the first known European treatise on collecting and museum, is foremost of a schemata of collection classification. It was written mostly in short descriptive notes followed by longer paragraphs which Quiccheberg called “digressions”. Three features distinguish this otherwise mundane text: (1) universalism, or the comprehensiveness of the projected collection; (2) spatiality, or a dynamic spatial schemata associated with the object-centred schemata; (3) practise and performance – in Quiccheberg’s using the word “theatre” to describe his museum.

In the Quiccheberg scheme, objects are divided into five classes. Objects in the first class, representatio, pertain to the material culture of the royal patronage – the owner of the projected museum. They include historical, genealogical, geographical, military artefacts as well as portraits. Objects of the second class, artificialia, are three-dimensional art and artifacts including sculptures, coins, exotic ethnographic objects, antiques and weights and measures. The third class includes objects related to the physical world and natural history – biological humans included . The fourth class includes useful tools. The fifth class, representation, is “art and science” proper and is distinguished by its two dimensionality: paintings, maps, charts, diagrams. Interestingly, tables and cabinets that house those two-dimensional objects belong to this class.

This scheme appears to arbitrary and overwrought. But let’s imagine that the University of Toronto’s Anthropology Department is a Quicchebergian museum, the first class will be the internal archive and documents of the department. Students documents and submissions belong to the first class as they correspond to the “military” part of the first class. Much of the archaeological section’s research collection belongs to the second class. Much of the physical anthropology collection and some of the archaeological section’s collection belong to the third class. Research publications and documents from all sub-fields belong to the fifth class. The interesting bit this scheme reveals to us is that the Quicchebergian scheme externalizes the internal with its inclusion of the first class objects. In other words, it is inherently reflexive. By contrast, the archives and student files of the Anthropology Department are inherently external to the department. It is to be noted that the Quicchebergian system is a Leviathan system in a Hobbes sense when he put the royal patron and indeed the central government in a presiding position – and the museum in its abstract conception is a model of the universe with the royal patron playing an analogy of the Creator. Meanwhile, they still belong to one of the five classes. They are inside and outside simultaneously.

Another interesting bit of the scheme is more apparent: the scheme includes artefacts, natural objects and indeed abstract constructs such as ideas as the treatise proposes an extended version of the museum that also includes library and other parts of the royal estate. Comparing it with large scale modern museums, the Smithsonian’s and indeed Royal Ontario Museum have some resemblance to the scheme which contradicts the prevalence of the division of natural history museum, art history museum and ethnology museum.

To use trendy terms, Quicchebergian presented his schemata as an assemblage or a network of things. In fact, he provided a set of abstract maps – or to be more precise, diagrams – to demonstrate how to “walk through” the collection. Since there are five classes, we are able to create two pairs of dualistic oppositions with the fifth serving as a starting point or the governing principle (Figure 1-4):

(Figure 1: Natural history perspective with dualisms of (1) knowers/knowledge (2) tools/resulting artifacts)

(Figure 2: The Leviathan perspective or socio-political constructivism with dualisms of (1) 2D representation/3D reconstruction (2) nature/artifact)

(Figure 3: Modern representational perspective with dualisms of (1) two types of agency (2) two types of structure)

(Figure 4: The schemas are not only diagrams but also maps as evident in their expanded views that include other physical structures and objects)

To an extent, the Quiccheberg system can be compared to the Linnaean taxonomy emerging about 150 years later (Figure 5). Both systems accentuate the contrast between physical morphology of a diverse collection of individual objects or organisms and a unified diagrammatical system or a visual representation of an inner structure. However, the Quiccheberg system is at the same time less developed and more sophisticated. Less developed in the sense that Quiccheberg didn’t create a useable binomial nomenclature for objects. In other words, the translation from objects to a scientific language had been incomplete. MoSre sophisticated in a sense that Quiccheberg’s system is inherently dynamic when he introduced an odd number of classes that equivocally retains strong symmetry and destabilizes such symmetry with a dominant principle arbitrarily chosen.

(Figure 5: A typical textbook representation of the Linnaean schemata)

In his conceptualization Quiccheberg was responding to the surging quantity and diversity of collectible artifacts in the 16th-century Europe. An underlying sensibility is “more is less”: the more one knows about something, the greater sense of ignorance one feels. The purpose of the schemata was simultaneously to contain and to open up for further amassing. The reciprocal close/open dualism is physicalized in the reciprocal place/space dualism. The key is to create a continuity of objects in space. The insurance of such continuity comes from the fact that any single class of objects can be an beginning or and end for a perceptual act which can be visualized in a circular system.

A more profound contradiction can be detected in a tradition on which the Quiccheberg museum was built: the German ideal of Wunderkammer, or “curiosity cabinet” which purported to inspire a sense of enchantment. Such enchantment, by the 16th century, had been demoted to the domestic sphere and became something befitting for women, children, the demented, the primitive and the less educated. Quiccheberg in his design faced the dual purposes of preserving a sense of wonder and a sense of rational order inherent in his assemblage of objects. The dual purposes, in turn, were achieved by approaching and locating an object or a set of objects in a continuous circle that can be “cut” in different ways: a “cut” corresponds to rationalization while the circle the cut resides corresponds to wonder. Meanwhile, any class of objects when designated as the principle class can be viewed as a source of reduction for other classes. Context is created by putting individual observers into the circular system. In particular, the royal philosopher-kings to whom the treatise dedicated could put themselves outside the entirety of collection (by walking through and out of the museum and contemplating about it) and put themselves inside the entirety of collection (when their own kinship, genealogy and portraits were “inscribed” into the system) simultaneously. When one is looking at one’s own portrait, one is looking at from outside the world in which the portrait resides. A dream-like sense of wonder is thus inspired.

Such dialectical sense of wonder is quintessentially theatrical. And it is not by accident that the main title of Quiccheberg’s treatise is “Inscriptions or Titles of the Most Ample Theatre” (Figures 6-7).

(Figure 6: Original title page)

(Figure 7: Translated title page)

Quiccheberg acknowledged in the treatise that he called his museum “theatre” after Italian philosopher Giulo Camillo, the author of L’Idea del Theatro (The Idea of the Theatre). The “theatre” as used by Camillo has the connotation of “memory theatre”. It can be said as a kind of demonstrative system of philosophy played out by objects in philosopher’s mind’s eye in an almost automatic way. Modern philosophers or physicists would call it “thought experiment”. In borrowing the word from Camillo and in emphasizing the performativity of his system of knowledge embodied by the museum designing, Quiccheberg also stressed the subtle difference between his “theatre” and Camillo’ theatre when he suggested that his “theatre” also referred to “amphitheatre”. Such usage first off suggests the physicality of Quiccheberg’s “theatre” which is not just a mental construct but also a physical construct. It also suggests the nonlinearity or circularity of his theatre. The objects to be observed weren’t lined up horizontally in front of the audience but enwrapping them and absorbing them (Figures 7 and 8).

(Figure 7: “theatre”)

(Figure 8: “amphitheatre”)


One of the reasons Samuel Quiccheberg’s text was attracting renewed attention is that more and more museums are now trying to re-create Wunderkammer. However, the origin of contemporary practice of creating enchantment, according to Bruce Robertson in his preface to the English translation of the Samuel Quiccheberg treatise, is not Quiccheberg but French Surrealism. Surrealism, it is to be noted, is distinguished by its assemblage and fusion of the living and the dead, its manipulation of functional and ethnographic artifacts, its circular visual motif, its inversion of the internal and external, its “automatic” theatricity and its purported anti-rationalism that often assumes scientific postures and working with scientific objects (Figures 9-13).

(Figure 9: Object, Meret Oppenheim 1936)

(Figure 10: Automatic Drawing, Andre Masson 1924)

(Figure 11: Un Cadavre , Georges Bataille 1924 & 1930)

(Figure 12: The Fair Captive, Rene Magritte 1931)

(Figure 13: Le beau monde, Rene Magritte)

Visual excess of the Surrealists is a response to the calamity of the Great War. By the end of the Second World War, however, the excess finds its relief theoretically in the emergence of structuralism and cinematically in the emergence of the French New Wave: the former tugs away Surrealists’ visual program in its philosophising while the latter inherits Surrealists’ propensity for the accidental, the bizarre and the violent: it forges an art cinema both in its verbosity and in its infusion of pop sensibility. But it is outside the New Wave, art cinema finds its true transcendental practitioners in the silent and restrained poses of Carl Theodore Dreyer, Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson. In this blog post we will leave Dreyer and Renoir aside and pay attention to Robert Bresson’s style and ideas and his relevance to museum films.


Known for his austere style and limited output, Robert Bresson (1901-1999) created a series of cinematic masterpieces based on literary sources: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) is an adaptation of Diderot’s novel. A Man Escaped (1956) is based on André Devigny’s memoir as a member of French resistance; Balthazar (1966) was inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Mouchette (1967) are based on Georges Bernanos’ novels; The Trials of Joan of Arc (1962) follows faithfully the transcriptions of the trial. Last but not least, Pickpocket (1959) is a sublimely Gallic reinvention of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The filmmaker’s Notes on the Cinematograph (1975) is a slim collection of adages in the style of Blaise Pascal’s Les Pensées. It can be alternatively viewed as a book of contemplation or a book of instruction, not unlike Quiccheberg’s Inscriptions.

If one is forced to use one sentence to describe the entire volume which is composed of fragmented thoughts often expressed in a cryptic way, one might say that it is a war against theatre, or rather, a war against reproducing theatre on screen. I will humbly reproduce a collection of selected adages from the book for further illumination (“Figure 14”):


  1. “Two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theatre (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.”
  1. “An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak its language.”
  1. “Cinematographer’s film where the images, like the words in a dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relations.”
  1. “A cinematographer’s system does not regulate everything. It is a bait for something.”
  1. “Flatten my images (as if ironing them) without attenuating them.”
  1. “Your imagination will aim less at events than at feelings, while wanting these latter to be as documentary as possible.”
  1. “No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement.”
  1. “Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism.”
  1. “Your film – let people feel the soul and the heart there, but let it be make like a work of hands.”
  1. “Catch instant, spontaneity, freshness.”
  1. “The power your flattened images have of being other than they are. The same image brought in by ten different routes will be a different image ten times.”
  1. “Montaigne: The movement of the soul were born with the same progression as those of the body.”
  1. “Not artful, but agile.”
  1. “Things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them.”
  1. “The persons and the objects in your film must walk at the same pace, as companions.”
  1. “Your film is not made for a stroll with the eyes, but for going right into, for being totally absorbed in.”
  1. “To an actor, the camera is the eye of the public.”
  1. “Cinematography films: emotional, not representational.”
  1. “Wondrous, wondrous, wondrous machine! –Purcell”
  1. “Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion.”
  1. “Hollow idea of ‘art cinema,’, of ‘art films.’ Art films, the ones most devoid of it.”

(Figure 14: A pocket collection of Bresson’s notes)


The above collection begins with an adage against theatre (#1) and ends with an adage against art film (#21). But what is really being opposed? The objection to the “art film” designation can be interpreted from adage #13, “Not artful, but agile”, which indicates that film is not representational but physical. It can also be deciphered in Bresson’s curious choice of word for film and filmmaking: cinematograph, which literarily refers to “kinetic writing” or “writing with physical movements”. In Pickpocket, a free and brilliant adaption of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s verbal brilliance is abolished in favor of physical virtuosity. Three stylistic signatures are: (1) the extensive use of the back shots of actors who often walk away from the camera (Figures 15-18); (2) the perspective
vertical to viewers’ eyesight such back shots naturally entail (Figure 16-18); (3) the focus on skillful manual operation, in this case, a chain of operations of co-ordinated pickpocketing in public space with recreated naturalistic soundscape (Figures 19-23).

(Figure 15)

(Figure 16)

(Figure 17)

(Figure 18)

(Figure 19)

(Figure 20)


(Figure 21)

(Figure 22)

(Figure 23)

The essential difference between theatre and cinema for Bresson, from evidence collected here, is that theatre assumes a dualism of stage and audience paralleling each other (Figure 7) while cinema assumes the disintegration of this duality by putting audience into the screen – done here by demanding actors turning back to the camera and leading the audience towards the depth of perspective. The emotional and erotic climax achieved in this process is not in souped-up dramatic expressions but in the cool and methodological maneuvers that demand great self-control and systematic sensibility: the emotional focus is often not on facial expressions but on hands when one works (even as a pickpocket) and on the lower body (when one walks). We’ve already seen similar conception in Quiccheberg’s museum, or, “amphitheatre”, although in his case the emphasis in on mapping out a physical space with classes of objects in a bid to facilitate such physical movements and manual operations.

The cinematic illusion of walking in depth inevitably involves the symmetry and the consolidation of 2-D and 3-D – something tackled by Quiccheberg in Inscription (Figure 2). The aesthetics of representing 3-D (or even 4-D if we include the temporal lapse a cinematic moment or a museum walk naturally entails) within the limitation of 2D is also profoundly associated with capturing wonders and enchantment in a rational system. Bresson addresses the dynamics in adage #5 and #11. By extension, we know that a single object yield multiple views (adage #14). Simple examples demonstrating the point can be found in optical illusions such as the Necker cube (Figure 24) which immediately produces two very different views with the same image (Figure 25). It is conjectured that leading audience into the depth of a dynamic space within the limitation of a fundamentally two-dimensional or rational system is both Quiccheberg’s intention and Bresson’s intention.

(Figure 24)

(Figure 25 Two views of the Necker cube)


Let’s not take the word “illusion” necessarily as a word contradicting “truth” or “reality”. Let’s assume both a museum and a film try to create a space or a place of illusion that allows their respective audiences to look at objects within that space simultaneously in multiple ways – and this can be understood either as allowing different individuals to perceive the same thing differently at the same time or the same individual to perceive the same thing differently at different times. Let’s also assume “truth” or “reality” is the sum of different perspectives and as long as the object to be observed has new audience, such totality or truth can never be truly achieved, then how the Quicchebergian museum perspective profoundly different from the Bressonian cinematic perspective?

The answer is intuitive and simple: a museum has its objects fixed and its viewers moving while a film has its viewers fixed and its objects moving. I will forgo a multitude of philosophical nuances the difference entails, let’s name the two directly contradicting perspectives after different characters the two contexts entail: Quiccheberg’s treatise was dedicated to kings and princes while Bresson’s film is almost a tribute to pickpockets; we thus will call the first paradigm the Princely paradigm and the second one Pickpocket paradigm. It’s sufficient to declare here that we can act as tailors to stitch museum and film together, or as democratic mediators who treat princes and thieves equally. Museum film is an artistic demonstration of this equality.

In the following section, I will introduce and briefly comment on some of the films appearing in Part I. They are not synopses or production notes but notes pertaining to the museum-film complex.

Part III: Museum Films

Russian Ark (2001), feature film, Alexandr Sokurov (Russia), The Hermitage (St. Petersburg)

This is the paradigmic film for the museum film genre. Originally designated as a promotional film for the State Hermitage Museum, the film developed into a representation of and a commentary on the 300-year Russian history with a virtuosic single-take of a walk through the thirty exhibition halls of the museum with actors re-enacting historical scenes from different periods in different halls. The key visual element is the unbroken “vertical” walk into the depth of space with the camera. The inclusion and omission of the Hermitage’s artifacts suggest a systematic approach to Russian history that is annotated by many visitors’ personal views presented in the film.

Une visite au Louvre (2003), dialogue film, Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet (France), Louvre (Paris)

The film is a visual recreation of a chapter from Joachim Gasquet’s book Cézanne in which the young Gasquet describes a trip he accompanied Cezanne to Louvre. It is a focused reproduction of fourteen paintings and one sculpture on screen with Cézanne’s comments to Gasquet narrated by voice-over. Profoundly static, it takes advantage of the fact that film audience are not supposed to move around and “enforce” the exhibited artworks in a different way than in an actual museum visit. Such enforcement can be seen by the two filmmakers as a process of creating a new artwork based on the old masterpieces. It echoes Cézanne’s remark: “The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read”. It also emulates the artistic practice of Cézanne who had studied human forms and nature not by sketching in the studio or in the field but by studying artworks in the museum.

Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (2007), feature film, Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan/France), Musée d’Orsay (Paris)

Partially commissioned by Musée d’Orsay, the director was asked to create a film based on one of the museum’s collection. The chosen artwork is the Swiss Post-Impressionist Félix Vallotton’s Le Balloon (Figure 26). However, the actual artwork doesn’t appear on screen until the very end and that is done from the viewpoint of a red balloon floating outside the glass of the museum from above – the angle, however, coincides the angle suggested in the painting itself. The film is about the daily routines of an ordinary Parisian middle-class single mother played by Juliette Binoche and her young son who forges a friendship with a cheeky red balloon – an obvious homage to the children’s classic Le Balloon rouge. The sanctity of an art museum is enshrined by the mundane life in an average Parisian household.

(Figure 26)

Visage (2009), feature film, Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan/France), Louvre (Paris)

This is a film fully commissioned by the Louvre for permanent exhibition purpose, the fist of its kind. The filmmaker was asked to improvise on a painting and to utilize the museum space. True to his aesthetics, Tsai chose the network of backrooms, boiler rooms, storage, basement and the sewage system of the Louvre as the main space where the actions carried out (this incidentally echoes the glass pyramid designed by I. M. Pei). The film involves long takes of people walking away from the camera to the depth of the basement or other less than glamorous parts of the museum or zigzags out of the sewage system under the premise (Figure 27). In the end of the film, one of the protagonists played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (of The 400 Blows fame) eventually emerges from behind the chosen painting, Leonardo Da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist (Figure 28).

(Figure 27)

(Figure 28)

Museum Hours (2013), feature film, Jem Cohen (US/Austria), Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna)

An American woman visits the city of Vienna for the first time to see a dying friend. Between hospital visits, she visits the Kunsthistorisches Museum and forges a friendship with a lonely security guard. The two of them discuss their personal lives and also the paintings: each brings their own perspectives to the artworks in front of them. While obviously not a trained specialist on art, the very observant security guard has been physically around the paintings for a very long time and formed unique views on them. The key artist discussed in the film is the artist whose works are among Kunsthistoriches’s greatest collection: the 16th-century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the greatest landscape painters who often depicted landscapes from an angled point of view and depicted the people from behind (Figure 29).

(Figure 29 The Hunters in the Snow, 1565)

Art and Craft (2014), documentary, Sam Cullman, etc. (US), various American regional museums

Mark Landis, a soft-spoken and very lonely Missouri man, spends most of time in his apartment. With his TV set on playing old sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, he uses cheap materials he purchased from Walmart to make exquisite copies of artworks of famous artists. The filmmakers follow Landis’s adventures when he dresses up as a priest or the offspring of billionaires to donate his paintings to museums. Almost all museums accepted his donations which eventually lead to embarrassment. A closer look at Landis by the filmmakers, however, reveals that his forgery is a peculiar but genuine art more than many original artworks. In the end of film, Landis gets his own personal show–of his forgery art–and becomes a recognized artist. If Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage sabotages the meaning of art space, the film sabotages the meaning of art.

Faux Départ (2015), documentary, Yto Barrada (Morocco), various Moroccan fossil-producing villages

The site of the documentary is not exactly a museum: the story unfolds in some North African villages once on the bed of a pre-Cambrian ocean and renowned for the discovery of fossils. The monetary motive makes forging fossils a local industry. The forgery, meanwhile, is an hybridity of the real and fake. The camera pays intense attention to the craftsmanship, or sometimes the lack of it, of the process of forgery.

Sector IX B (2015), featurette film, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (Senegal/France), IFAN Museum of African Arts (Dakar)

A researcher of African origin, inspired by French anthropologist and Surrealist Michel Leiris, walks around the IFAN museum and observes the artworks with renewed imagination. While many artifacts in the exhibition are carefully labelled and indexed in aesthetics terms, the researcher discovers that a hallucinatory perception of African objects advocated by Leiris is inseparable form the grasp of the underlying network of use values of the artifacts.

Francofonia (2015), feature film, Alexandr Sokurov (Russia/France), Louvre (Paris)

The film presents a dilemma: history and art contradict each other while creating each other. The magnificent artworks exhibited in Louvre are often the results of war and looting, yet under the threat of German aggression during the Second World War those artworks faced looting and destruction. The film pays tribute to the two low-key historical figures who nevertheless achieved one of the greatest feasts against looting in history and in art history: the Louvre director Jacques Jaujard who staged as audacious as meticulous an evacuation of artifacts before the fall of Paris and the German apparatchik Franz Wolff-Metternich, a Francophile who passively resisted his superior’s order to transport the Louvre collection to Germany. One of the key visual triumphs of the film is the photograph of paintings with camera, something not as easy as it appears to be. The film also acknowledges the artificiality of the re-enactment of history by including footages of filmmaking into the flow of the story: the point is that the reproduction or re-enactment is itself a genuine art and a genuine part of history. Sokurov also utilized the new drone technologies and included many close-up aerial views of the museum and the city: it’s an observation of details with patterns in mind. Individuals such as Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich are of a quiet and almost unnoticeable type, but the solemn responsibility of defending great art, artifacts and civilization fell on their strong shoulders. Great men (or villaina) such as Napoleon (who were responsible for the acquisition of many masterpieces in Louvre) and Hitler (who had the intention of looting) were portrayed as buffoons.

Books discussed:

Bresson, Robert. 1997. Notes on the Cinematographer. Los Angeles, Calif.: Distributed in the U.S. by Sun & Moon Press.

Quicchelberg, Samuel. 2013. The First Treatise on Museums : Samuel Quiccheberg’s Inscriptiones, 1565. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute.

An extraordinary thing happened in last night’s Bach Collegium Japan concert: an accident. Five minutes into the heat of the opening Brandenburg Concerto No. 5’s first movement Allegro, a loud snap could be heard from the stage amidst the sound of music. One of the strings of Ryo Terakado’s violin was probably broken. He continued to play on the rest of the violin without a glitch. When Maasaki Suzuki, leading the ensemble from his harpsichord, enteredthe frenzy of an IMG_0106extraordinary cadenza, Terakado calmly walked off, adjusted his violin backstage, and retuned at the beginning of the second movement Affettuoso to the approving applause of the audience.

In this age of near perfect technologies and techniques, an accident is indeed extraordinary – and marvelous. Reading great violin teacher Samuel Applebum’s intimate interviews with great string artists The Way They Play, one reads many accidents happening to these greatest of violinists, cellists and violists. Great pianists or singers of the past were also prone to mistakes, which hardly ever happen to young virtuosos today. But it is exactly at the unexpected moments of accidents, we witness true music-making.

       Not only the word “Baroque” refers to the ideal of dynamic opposition in art, it itself is a dynamically oppositional concept. For lazy listeners today who treat “classical music” – which shall be more properly referred to as “modern music” – as background music, “baroque music” might evoke a stylish convention favoring proportion and harmony of the whole. But for an attentive listener, it is exactly the opposite: “baroque” is about individual risk-taking, about improvisation, about an ideal external to music but contingent to immediate concerns of the person. Such is the case particularly to Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which is considered the origin of solo keyboard concerto with its fanatic ending of the first movement in solo cadenza and with a strong undertone of uncertainty and discordance beautifully accentuated by Bach Collegium Japan.


      The concert also includes Bach’s Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major, BWV 1055R and Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079. It ends with a perfect rendition of one of Bach’ earlier cantatas, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My heart swims in blood), BWV 199 with soprano Joanne Lunn.

Fan 2015-10-24 Saturday

The 2015-2016 season sees Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s The Decades Project that focuses on musical works composed between 1900 and 1920, in other words, an era ending with the carnage of WWI. The idea is to grasp through music greater intellectual trends of one of the most creative periods of human history. Tonight’s concert, with “sea” as the theme, is the first of the series that also includes Sibelius, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Ravel, Elgar and Nielsen. There are two works in the program: Claude Debussy’s tone poem La mer (1903) and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony (1903-1909).

If one wants to describe Debussy in a cheeky fashion, one might say he manages to turn “program” into “diagram”. From the symphonic repertoire of late Classical and early Romantic periods to the descriptive and narrative music of late Romantic period, the verbal linearity of programming eroded the contrapuntal complexity of the late Baroque period. Debussy’s La mer seemingly follows such descriptive program in its depiction of the sea. In reality, this is an highly nonlinear piece of music as there is no real development required for a linear thesis. It installs in one’s mind’s eye a total picture of the sea – in its wavy monotones punctuated by outbursts of the terrifying and the exuberant. The mundane and the mythical are continuous on the sea. And in repetition not in logic argument, a thesis comes into being. A man of reason may say this is wrong, yet his rationality cannot disprove the aural confirmation of the music!


For the very first time – this is a truly historical moment at the same time juvenile and profound – Toronto Symphony Orchestra replaces usual wordy program note with diagrams


There are many sympathetic sentiments with Debussy in Vaughan Williams’ youthful choral symphony A Sea Symphony, yet it still tries very hard – in the fin-de-siècle confusion – to cling to a very British sensibility that is at the same time introspective and grand, pastoral and imperial. Such a complex composite of sensibility is carried on by a text  from an American Walt Whitman whose free-flowing poetry breaks the limit of traditional poetic forms. It’s noteworthy that it took a young Vaughan Williams seven years to finish the work (as if it is his PhD thesis). Here is what the composer Simon Whalley says about the work:

“Vaughan Williams’s first symphonic essay started life as a series of choral settings of poems from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Like many talented young composers, he poured out original ideas but at first lacked the musical maturity to structure his arguments successfully; it took six years to be completed. The result is a marvelous, broad canvas of sea pictures, powerful in its sheer enormity of thought and variety of musical responses to his chosen texts.”

The problem, of course, is that prolonged variety can become monotonous, unless one is captured by the mythical heart of such monotony. Soprano Erin Wall and baritone Russell Braun gave an engaging performance along with the chorus. Pity the English lyrics are hard to follow even with printed text in hand. Despite my preference for the diagrammatic over programmatic, I found myself still read the lyric in order to capture the meaning of music. A shame indeed.



Youth is often associated with progress and progressiveness. Such impression is often confirmed by imagery of history and news: the main participants of the 1960s counterculture were pictured as bell-bottom-wearing, pot-smoking, rock-n’-roll singing long-haired anti-authoritarian young hippies who engaged in sit ins and teach ins; more recent occupy movement also has a distinct air of a student movement; the 1919 event that brought China from culture classicism to the vernacular modern is officially called May Fourth Youth Movement. The cult of youth has only drastically exacerbated since the beginning of the new millennium when youth met YouTube: their ubiquity has since become overwhelming.

But such impression might be mistaken. Let’s leave the domain of humanity for the domain of arts that is floating just a bit above the all living things. Let’s take a look at two arts – one could be older than language and the other didn’t’ appear until the 20th century: music and cinema – through the lens of two authors living almost a century apart: the French author Romain Rolland and the Francophile author Susan Sontag.

Careful reading of Sontag’s A Century of Cinema (1995) one detects a curious sense of death. This piece, indeed, is the obituary for one of the youngest art. One is tempted to call this elegy for a premature death, but one would be wrong. Susan Sontag nailed the truth of this death with her very first sentence: “Cinema’s 100 years seem to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline.” The word “inevitable” is really the key: there is nothing premature for cinema’s death. Cinema is old.

But how so? Missing here from Sontag’s (abridged) essay is technical analysis of film as a total art: it is a Frankenstein or a cyborg of an art that is the assemblage and re-assemblage of other others, from literature, theatre, plastic arts to music (especially music I would say as music can be called “motion sound” just as film is “motion picture”). Cinema is a youth made of old flesh and bones.

Sontag wasn’t able to overcome cinema’s death and the perception of cinema died as youth because she couldn’t intellectually transcend her own death: my reading of the film suggests that this is not only an obit of cinema but also an obit of herself. I would call it “auto-obituary”. This is partially evidenced by Nancy Kate’s excellent documentary Regarding Susan Sontag.
Is there a secular belief in resurrection? Isn’t art a religion for the secular for many? It’s curious that Susan Sontag couldn’t rise above herself as Romain Rolland (seemingly)  able to do in the last turn of the century when he sketched the immortal life of spirit as seen in the transformative power and in the transforming of arts throughout centuries in his essay The Place of Music in General History (1908). To make a point, I paraphrased Rolland in The Place of Cinema in General History.

If there is any failure on Sontag’s part, it is a failure of negotiation between art and life. As her dearest form of art, film, is formally too close to life – unlike music with its strict formalism. Such failure of negotiation, I would suggest, is a necessary part of modern life. It is not a failure after all. Susan Sontag is not very far from cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School where Adorno and Horkheimer declared the death of “culture” – curiously because of the appearance of film as a total art and as a totalitarian art. Their obit of culture, Dialectic of the Enlightenment is in fact a birth notice announcing the birth of a new culture which is now often called “postmodern”. Susan Sontag’s obit of cinema is also a birth notice of a new art.




Rachmaninov’s obscenely popular Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with an ending. So is Symphony in E of Hans Rott, an obscure composer whose triumph came before his career even began. The youthfully glorious symphony was finished in 1880. On 17 September of the same year, the 22-year-old young man visited Brahms to show his work. Probably out of displeasure over the fact that Rott was a student of Anton Bruckner, Brahms told him that he had no talent whatsoever and should give up music. Within a month, Rott went insane while on a train, claiming Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. He was sent to a mental hospital next year and died of tuberculosis three years later at the age of 25.

Youthful failure also underlies Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but it proceeded it instead of following it. The music came after the 28-year-old composer had his consultation sessions with the psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl, a student of Jean-Martin Charcot, to have his depression brought on by the critical failure of Symphony No. 1 overcome. The brooding resolution appeared in the beginning of the music is no incident – in fact, Rachmaninov wrote the first movement last.

Inner resolve, it is said, is what the young Hans Rott lacks. But this doesn’t change the fact that his Symphony in E is a sublime piece of music. Kant’s concept of the sublime, I’ve heard, is an exuberant sense of narrow escape from death – or failure. In Rott’s case, it is rather a narrow escape from success and life, a brilliantly sunny morning before the eternal darkness. The chronology is reversed, but the transcendence to the other shore is the same. The inner resolve is never lacking: it lives in the music, disregarding personal histories.

The sublime and the inner resolve appear when one is crossing from the muddy daily life to transcendence, and back. Failure in the crossing, in the case of Rott, or near failure, in the case of Rachmaninov, footnote the beauty of this process of individual histories – they subsequently become part of lore, part of myth. So is success, as in the case of Yuja Wang’s dress.

 The young pianist, whose transparent and absolutely aristocratic performance of  Rachmaninov’s easily muddy Piano Concerto No. 2 with the graceful accompaniment of Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, appears to be indifferent to audience and critics. From the audience seat last year in her sweeping performance of Rachmaninov 3, it seemed me that she was playing only for herself – her returning to the stage for standing ovation was extremely reluctant. But this is only the appearances, as her often flashy dresses and high heels, her lively responses in interviews, and her consistent tweets (in one deleted entry she angrily responded to a negative music critic’s “inability to perceive”) show: she is listening to the muddy public.

But she agrees with Michael Tilson Thomas’ assessment of her: “You don’t need the public. The public needs you.”

They need each other and that’s when Yuja Wang succeeds, as Mr. Thomas said of her artistry: She will play as a soloist but also as an accompanist when important things are happening in the orchestra. That is an unusual quality for a card-carrying virtuoso.”

Rachmaninov is yet to completely recovered from the reputation of being vulgar and populist: Alex Ross’ superb 2010 book on 20th-century music The Rest is Noise doesn’t even mention his name.

Hans Rott’s Symphony in E remains obscure, although the fire of the music enlightened Gustav Mahler who in his youthful Symphony No. 1 “Titan” paid tribute to his friend by incorporating Rott’s theme.

Mahler famously said that “a symphony must include the whole world”. This titanism is called by Paul Henry Lang as “hysterical” and “often mars his best efforts”. Lang, however, praises the external impression of Mahler’s gigantism could create: it “has something grandiose about it”, only this great impression could not be separated from “performing apparatus” – which is not available by listening to music recording alone. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 needs a great organ, several choirs of children, men and women, an oversized orchestra with multiple solo instruments, along with bells, mandolins, etc.

Yuja Wang was genuinely surprised by her on-stage mini-skirt caused in Los Angeles: Why are they paying so much attention to what I wear? And why do they have rules about what classical musicians should be wearing?

But she is determined: “. I’m just being myself. When I’m 40, I’m not going to wear a short dress, so I might as well do it now!”


, ,

The Ardèche River flows quietly across Pont d’Arc into southern France’s open air and sunshine. Looking at the grand vista, a voice from the famed Chauvet Cave says: “This is just like a Wagner opera.”

The voice belongs to the German filmmaker Werner Herzog who brought his small crew and Teutonic sensibility to the picturesque French country. After all, this documentary about upper-Palaeolithic paintings would be shot deep in cave where loaded meaning of the word “dream” is less likely to evaporate, not unlike those beautifully preserved graffiti from 30,000 years ago.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) is said to be among the first documentaries using the new 3-D technology, of which Herzog is not a fan. “This is an imperative, not a decision.” he explains. 3-D, in fact, is an unnatural way of looking: “3D will always have one major problem, and that is when you look as a human being, normally only one eye looks dominantly at things. The other eye is mostly ignored. And only in specific cases – if somebody approaches you – all of a sudden the brain starts to use both eyes for establishing depth of field and understanding space.”

A sense of fluidity was attempted in this 3-D documentary on the 2-D inanimate cave paintings. But are they really inanimate? Many animals – bison and horses – depicted by primitive “artists” have extra heads and legs, indicating movement. The cave paintings, thus, are the earliest animations. To be more precise, they are the earliest cinema. Herzog must have found his artistic forefathers here.  The caves, cave paintings and the archaeologists are his objects.

“The upper-palaeo men lived in a world of fluidity.” one French archaeologist explains in the film. By “fluidity”, he means “animism”. The material world and human’s immaterial souls are one and the same. The universe, landscape, animals, plants, objects, human bodies and minds are constantly transforming into each other. “We are not homo sapiens – we are homo spiritual.”

As soon as the fluidity stopped for a moment in the human mind, an unbridgeable gap between word and image, sound and silence, order and chaos, contemplation and action, rationality and irrationality… emerges. The awkward contradiction can be found in those bison with eight legs in the moment of fear arrested by tranquility. It can be found in the film itself: a film documenting homo spiritual – not homo sapiens – is too wordy to enwrap us with awe (unlike those by Frederic Wiseman). Is the omnipresent neo-Renaissance music by Ernst Reijseger, which I enjoyed, an anxious attempt to recreate primitive sensibility? Or is it imposing a 19th-century Teutonism to palaeolithic cave dwellers (and us)? At one point in the film, Herzog even traveled “across the valley” from France to Germany to check out the Venus of Hohles Fels. He also had one German experimental archaeologist performed the Star-Spangled Banner tune on a recreated palaeolithic flute. Paintings are still here, but music is what has been lost and forgotten.

I suspect the filmmaker is attracted more to music than to painting. I suspect all good filmmakers are latent musicians. I suspect an attempt at depicting painting is preferrable than an attempt at depicting music. We can extend our taste in visual arts to the primitive ages (the nude female figure in Chauvet Cave resembles a Picasso, Herzog tells us); our taste in music, however, is much more limited. Painting is horizontal; music is vertical. Painting is material; music is vaporous. Painting is edgily; music is edgeless.

Another Teutonic filmmaker (albeit Russian) Alexander Sokurov whose sensibility travels between music and paintings once said that he wanted to create an edgeless feel in his films. His Russian Ark, a 96-minute non-stop one-take, is a 96-minute “vertical” walk across the gigantic Hermitage Museum. In fact, it succeeded in three-dimensionality without using 3-D technology.

Sokurov’s museum film successfully advocated a historical holism with its use of quirky details.  For audience, one of the greatest difficulties in understanding this film is not its lack of linear narrative, its incoherent dialogues (people are often murmuring in the film), and its lavish attention paid to objects, but to recognize who’s who and what’s what. Most of the historical characters – Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II – was not explicitly pointed out. There is one figure often appeared suspiciously behind the Frenchman on the margin of the screen. He was never explained or developed, but people who are familiar with Russian history know that in the 19th-century, foreigners were often spied on by government agents. The dinner of the Nicholas II with his family looks tranquil and mundane to an innocent spectator, but the experience of the scene will be enhanced if one knows that this was the last dinner before he and his family were captured and executed by the revolutionaries – the actual seizure of the palace, however, is not shown in the film.

The words and messages in Caves of Forgotten Dreams (in essence another “museum film”) are loud and clear, too loud and clear. Fortunately, we are not entirely deprived of quirkiness. I’m not too sure about the albino crocodiles in end of the film – it’s too self-consciously metaphoric to be of interest, but we do have this young French archaeologist who was an acrobat specializing in monocycle and juggling before coming to Chauvet Cave. The 21-century, after all, continues a tradition of disorderly beauty occurred long before the palaeolithic graffiti artists walked into the dark cave.

 The cave museum (Chauvet Cave of Ardèche, France):

The palace museum (Hermitage of St. Petersburg):

, ,

I would otherwise not have attended the Munk Debate on China, for any talk on this subject had to be empty and ritualistic, but the venue of the event intrigued me: Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s home turf. I walked into the hall with the anticipation of attending another concert, and it was another concert all right.

The soloists were British historian Niall Ferguson, Chinese government advisor “David” Li Daokui, Time Magazine’s Fareed Zakaria, and last but not least, Henry Kissinger.

What they had to debate was immaterial. The two sides of pro and con never had any chance of contradicting each other in a meaningful way for the simple reason that the question (“If the 21st Century Will Belong to China?) was entirely devoid of substance. There wasn’t any attempt to define the phrase “belong to” (or “dominance”) except for in a brief moment the prominent guest speaker Dambisa Moyo raised the issue in her question about China’s possible transition from soft power to hard power.

How they debated was more interesting, musically speaking. This was a battle of national accents in English: Kissinger was heavy with his vintage German accent, and his political idealism, be it real or realpolitik, belonged to another time altogether. Zakaria with his Indian accent and wit was often sly, but at times genuine and convincing. Ferguson’s Scottish accent accentuated his theatricality: he loved to entertain the audience with gestures, drama and big history. Despite his admirable composure, Li Daokui’s Chinese accent and his youthful voice betrayed an anxious desire to be known to the world and the inability to do so, a fate all Chinese share with their country, a country that is at the same time old and young. This quartet performed beautifully on the instrument of English language. The audience seemed to have enjoyed it. What they enjoyed, I believe, was the smallness of all those accented details rather than big talks or big ideas.

Just a week before, in the same venue, pianist Yuja Wang delivered an intellectually and emotionally overwhelming Rachmaninoff 3rd with ultimate clarity, coolness, composure, articulation, poetry and power. The audience were awe-struck – the five-second silence before the eruption of volcanic applause and ovation was other-worldly. I heard an old lady behind me heaving a long sigh: “This … this was exceptional!”. Later, a young woman walking out of the concert hall commented that she had never witnessed such response from the TSO audience – and they gave standing ovations quite readily. The audience that night tried very hard, with their applause, to match the poetry and vision Miss Wang brought them. Some of them joined the young pianist in her charming small talks during the intermission.

Yuja Wang’s performance, however, offended the critical establishment who love their Rachmaninoff soppy (John Terauds of Toronto Star was the only critic who gave a positive review) . Universally, critics failed to realize that what they heard from Yuja Wang was a 20th-century Rachmaninoff, a real contemporary of Prokovieff, not a 19th-century Rachmaninoff who made big statements with torrents of tears and assumed emotions. Emotionalism was not emotion. Real emotions, real ideas, and real idealism could only be conveyed by presenting facts with a personal touch of poetry. It could never been re-enacted by mannerism, however impressive the gestures might look.

Yuja Wang, of course, doesn’t have to be frustrated with critical establishment’s inability to perceive, as she was in one of her deleted tweets. In fact, passionate negativity is often more helpful than half-hearted praise. David Hurwitz, who despises Yuja Wang’s wonderfully arsitocratic recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 with Claudio Abbado, actually led to my discovery of Roger Norrington’s recording of Mahler Symphony No. 1, a lean performance without rubato and mannerism yet ultimately intimate, moving and exuberant. Mr. Hurwitz hates Norrington’s approach for good reasons, good reasons I understand.

Paul Henry Lang, in his Music in Western Civilization (1969), said of Mahler : “It is sad, however, to be compelled to admit, in the face of the deployment and adroit handling of such forces, if such unsparing energy, inexorable will, and intellectual effort, that the only great thing in these creations is the intention, that as a matter of fact the composer of these gigantic works was at the bottom of his heart a lyricist … but otherwise there was no soil under his feet … his smile is lifeless, his irony bitter, and his humor forced.”

The New Yorker ’s Alex Ross in his most enjoyable book on the 20th-century music The Rest Is Noise (2007) didn’t talked about Rachmaninoff in any significant way except for on page 484 he mentioned that John Cage and Morton Feldman walked out of a 1950 Carnegie Hall concert because they “wanted to avoid hearing Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which ended the program”.

Yet now it is probably the time to look at the old in new light. Mahler’s assumed gigantism doesn’t contradict his lyric smallness. Rachmaninoff’s perceived emotionalism hides his modernity. Behind China’s long history and enormity, there is a bouncing and vivacious youth who doesn’t care much about who is talking behind him.

Of small: Tarkovsky’s little violinist

Of big: Tarkovsky’s Bachian universe:

, , , , ,

The dilemma was if or not to acknowledge my distinguished neighbor, to tell her that she was one of the greatest artists of our age; that I had been listening to her for years; that her recital in my remote hometown S some 15 years ago was the first piano recital I attended ; that it was probably also the starting point of my career as a lone concert-goer; that her art was part of my spiritual life, thus part of me.

In the end, I didn’t say anything. When I came back from the intermission, having to squeeze past her to my seat, I merely mumbled “excuse me”.  But in a brief two-second eye contact, there was this moment of “I know you know I know”. Later I had those questions in my conscience: “Did she expect me to acknowledge her openly? Was she relieved when I didn’t?”

The artist in question is the great pianist Angela Hewitt. She sat almost next to me in last week Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Finland-themed concert with cellist Anssi Kartunnen, soprano Karita Mattila and conductor Hannu Lintu who brought out the best of the orchestra.

Art, if anything, allows artists and their audience share intense personal feelings together. This is especially true between musicians and listeners in a live concert. But this personal communication, generally speaking, is confined to the sound of music flowing from the stage to the auditorium. Visual elements are restricted to the performance itself and concert etiquette. The only performance the audience participate, in most cases, is the applause and bravoing, an art in itself. As a rule, there is no verbal communication between musicians and audience on a personal level, unlike standing comedy.

But I couldn’t help observing Ms. Hewitt from time to time, especially during the performance of Ravel’s La valse: she tapped her fingers; when the music stopped, she gave a warm standing ovation to Mr. Lintu’s superb music-making. It was touching to see a great artist generously appreciating another as an anonymous audience member. When the applause subsided, Ms. Hewitt quickly disappeared into the exiting crowds.

Deep personal connections are often established impersonally. Art is a vehicle to solve individuals’ ambivalent desires to be known and to stay unknown. Art is the common ground of the public and the private. Art is the gateway between the sacred and the profane.


16. On art as escape (from art): God gave blood to penis and brain, but not enough for both – filmmaking is about intense engagement; it is a very physical process, like making love; it takes a lot of energy: that’s why I need to get away from it – by doing collage.
16.Art as escape by untimelythoughts
17. On Gus van Sant: intimate but distant, personal but intellectually reserved – a true artist.
17.Gus van Sant by untimelythoughts

18. On getting a sense of specific spaces:
18.A sense of space by untimelythoughts

 19. Physical, not aesthetic: “Why shaky cam? Cinema Verite? No, ask my doctor.”
19.Shaky cam by untimelythoughts

 20. “I’m not kidding but I’m kidding.”
20.I’m not kidding but I’m kidding by untimelythoughts



 11. On filmmaking: “Just do it, because we have to exist.”
11.Just do it by untimelythoughts

12. On location shooting in his own tiny apartment: “Because this is the state of my life”.
12.This apartment is the state of my life by untimelythoughts

13. On universal pigeons: “They shit on everyone.”
13.Universal pigeon by untimelythoughts

14. On films as roadmarks of life journeys: “You never go back, because you can’t!”
14.Journey by untimelythoughts

15. On solitude: “It’s really useful to lose your credit card and passport.”
15.Solitude by untimelythoughts