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):

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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.

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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

My real job is to love.” – Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle finished his beer on stage halfway through the TIFF event, too shy to ask for more – but he managed to hold on to his brilliance to the end. This is the first part of his Little Red Audiobook from the event compiled especially for you. Enjoy!

1. On career choice:“Don’t fucking trust the system; just do your own shit.”
01.Just do your own shit by untimelythoughts

2. On the philosophy of life: “You do what you can, not what you want. This is a very important concept.”
02.You do what you can by untimelythoughts

3. On the dichotomy of thought and action: “How did we do the trick? In Chinese, we say “wenxi, wuxi” (arts vs. actions), a traditional division of labor.”
03.Wenxiwuxi by untimelythoughts

4. On who holds the authority: “A person’s authority comes from the objects he works with. Many of you spend much more time online or on computer than I do, and you are the ones who shall be telling me how to do.”
04.Objects and persons by untimelythoughts

5. On style coming from restrictions and obligations: “In the West, you are probably going to build a cave [to create the style], but for us, style comes from restrictions and obligations. That’s the cultural dichotomy of the image-making between the West and East. “
05.Dichotomy by untimelythoughts

6. On “persons and things” in cinema: “There are only three people in cinema: actors in front of camera; audience behind it; and those who are in between – most of time it is me. My real job is to love, to be trusted, to be a bridge, to be a hollow tube.”
06.Three people in cinema by untimelythoughts

7. On what it takes to be a great artist : “The function of art is to be subjectively objective. The real artist has the ability to put all of himself in, and stand back.”
07.Little Britain by untimelythoughts

8. On purity: “What you see is what we shot. I believe as an artist you shall put as much in there as what you wish to share with the audience. Editing is only secondary – I’m such as a purist!”
08.Such a purist by untimelythoughts

9. On the lure and danger of impact-making in art: “The balance between organization and impact sometimes went wrong.”
09.Balance by untimelythoughts

10. On Toronto: “Toronto is a kind of oasis, not Miami as you said.”
10.Oasis by untimelythoughts

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Sunday. A dark day at noon. The snow and rain were both falling at once, a scene almost reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, but this was Toronto in April. At the corner of Bloor and Bay, I spotted this lonely glove – probably one of the last orphaned gloves of this winter – and again I felt a bit sad: gloves should have come in pairs; they take care and are expected to be taken care of by a pair of hands. But everyday in Toronto’s winter I spot lonely gloves abandoned by careless hands and lying desperately at street corners. I always wanted to take pictures of them and keep an album as their virtual funeral home. However, in the end, this is the only picture I took this winter.

The last paragraph and its sentimentality do come as mannered and unnatural, but it is so only because I, an anonymous person, put them into words – and words are things, words are objects,  words are inevitably artificial. It takes a real artist to unify “objective” lyricism with philosophical aloofness.

There are two ways: aesthetics of anecdotes and aesthetics of drama.  Feng Zikai’s art belongs to the former category, probably consistent with a Chinese tradition. In relating his failure to go into details, Feng said:

“At times a vague and fleeting vision would appear before me. I would take up my brush and immediately set to capturing it in ink, but I would only manage to sketch an outline before the vision faded. All I had caught on paper was a rough impression; the face [of the figure depicted] would be incomplete. But that is why it was a true expression of my vision, and there was no need to add any more details. Once I tried altering a painting that I had done some earlier, but I only succeeded in making a very different picture from the original that had come to me; the painting was ruined.” (see Geremie R. Barmé An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai)

Realism (or naturalism), I believe, is the result of dramatic passions very particular to the time and space they are allowed to be practised. Feng Zikai claimed an disinterest in and ignorance of science,  but he did manage to depict objects sympathetically, either in image or in words. His feelings are those of small ones, and they show up in his art as humorous anecdotes, but I doubt he is very far from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey where gothic architecture and myriads of details are ruled by drama, passion and history but come down to lyric humor of modern life.

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