"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Cesare Zavattini on Wonder [Sequences of a Cinematic Life, 1970]

Zavattini with the bambini

I love it when people send me things. Here is something a reader sent me yesterday, in response to my post about the novel and the subsequent film adaptation of Contempt.

No words we can write will ever change the age-old power of the vulgar interests that collaborate to distinguish the film from literature, creating two aesthetic systems and two moralities. We are content with the illusion that one day they will say: “from the very beginning, perhaps twenty individuals understood that the right wasn’t Hollywood’s, that the spectacle which began on the boulevards with the Lumière brothers was the beginning of the sickness.” The first theaters were called nickelodeons: a nickel was the price. And it was urgent to master the medium with a cost so low it could be within the reach of many individuals, like paper and ink, paints; film and lenses should have been brought into the home like sewing machines (then there would have been no producers, the apex of a bourgeois system, “applied” cinema, now defended, like a certain kind of publishing, by a wall of iron, the cliche about work being given to thousands of citizens). A return to man, to the creature who in himself is “all spectacle”; this would liberate us.

Set up the camera in a street, in a room, see with insatiable patience, train ourselves in the contemplation of our fellowman in his elementary actions. We will abandon trick photography, process shots, the infinite subterfuges so dear to Méliès. The wonder must be in us, expressing itself without wonder: the best dreams are those outside the mist, which can be seen like the veins of leaves.

—Cesare Zavattini

Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies [Arne Glimcher, 2008]

If the Met’s massive retrospective and MoMA’s concurrent exhibition of prints aren’t enough to satisfy Picasso devotees this spring, they will fortunately have recourse to yet another venue: the movie theater. Adding fuel to the Picasso frenzy is Arne Glimcher’s documentary Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies, a short but incisive look at how two of art history’s most prominent figures were influenced by the revolutionary medium of cinema. Narrated by none other than Martin Scorsese and featuring interviews with scholars and artists alike, the film doggedly makes the case that moving images exerted a profound influence over the formal development of Cubism, inspiring Picasso and Braque’s invention of a new kind of pictorial space in which, like cinema, reality is viewed from multiple angles at once.

Picasso’s sketches of a cinematograph? You be the judge. [1912]

Occasionally disjointed, the documentary assembles an impressive stream of early film excerpts punctuated with plentiful examples of Picasso and Braque masterpieces (often shown side by side) that fell under cinema’s spell. Film fanatics especially will delight in the early actuality footage of the Lumière brothers and the more fanciful, impish attractions conjured up by George Méliès. Interviews with artists, including contemporary heavyweights such as Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, Julien Schnabel and Coosje Van Bruggen offer intriguing analysis on the aesthetic links between cinema and Cubism, sometimes tying in their own artistic practice as well. (Eric Fischl, for example suggest that Cubist painters emulated cinematic projections by evoking a flickering light source at the edges of their canvasses.) However, those looking for an exploration of Picasso and Braque’s relationship will be disappointed: though the two artists (who were the undisputed Romulus and Remus of the movement) worked so closely together for a period of six years that some of their work was virtually indistinguishable from one another, very little is offered to explain their affinity and the equivalence between their work.

The film makes the case that Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907} was inspired by the serpentine dance of Loïe Fuller.

While the overall premise is of the doc is fascinating, at times the execution leaves something to be desired–at its worst moments, the film plays like an exceedingly well-researched Powerpoint lecture. Rather than allowing the images to construct a vivid sense of the particular correspondences between Cubism and early cinema, the film is overly insistent of its argument, resorting to large-scale generalizations and weak suppositions. However, those that don’t mind its boilerplate History Channel approach will appreciate this in-depth study of the compelling intersection of art and film at the turn of the century.

A still from “The Accordion” [Pathé Frères, 1906] and Picasso’s “The Accordionist” [1911], underlining the conceptual similarity of early cinema and Cubism.

Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies is currently playing at Cinema Village in New York, NY.