More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
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Art has - though in no way uniquely - spent more than a century in both learning from itself and oftentimes rejecting its previous practices or cosy beliefs about what art is or is for.
In an imaginary 2020, The Square (2017) is squarely and falsely predicated on the notion that the director of a gallery and his or her board typically could have decided to put on an exhibition (we see it being mounted), but without knowing why it would be of interest or how 'to sell it'. Contrary to which, in the last sixty years the so-called art-world has rarely not understood - though there have been some notable mistakes - how to publicize its practitioners and to encourage viewers into all sorts of galleries to see their work.
How well does writer / director Ruben Östlund show that he understands and has observed the world of galleries and their ways of operating ? - probably as well as IMDb has, in giving us this one-liner about the film :
If that sounds like Guido Anselmi, trying – as the phrase used to have it – ‘to wing it’ in Fellini’s 8½ (1963), then that is exactly what Christian Jules Nielsen* (Claes Bang) evokes, rehearsing in the toilet – so we realize – pretending to abandon his printed speech and speak impromptu. Other film-references early on are, patently, La grande bellezza** (The Great Beauty) (2013) and, arguably, Holy Motors (2012) - for its ending, and its nature as episodes, very loosely strung together ?
This is fine, because (although this can be overplayed, and is not exclusively so) film is meant to be referential in its nature - except that The Square never seems to have anything of its own to say, other than this small idea of a show that is being installed, but without clear ideas of promoting it (enter what IMDb calls 'PR Guys', Daniel Hallberg and Martin Sööder, in the mode of Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997)) :
The film is not about those who work with art***, but it feels as little close to showing them as Elisabeth Moss' (Anne's) vacuous interview with Christian (for which he is woken from a nap), or the equally vapid interior of the head of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) in Nocturnal Animals (2016)...
If this is satire (please see below), rather than the naivety of insulting the viewership with a weak premise (and the latter can sometimes be passed off as the former), then it is a shame that it does not have the conviction of Roy Andersson. Except, that is, in the attention-grabbing, 'stand-alone' scene with Terry Notary that is made into the film-poster : even so, it is a high-energy episode that depicts another débâcle for Christian****, but without troubling to relate it to ‘the main action’ – unless generously seen as a depiction of the reign of Chaos, or an unannounced dream-sequence [and so more in the vein of 8½ than the explicable exactitudes of divine wrath that Lorgos Yanthimos would treat of in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)].
Now Playing Antonio Salieri, Enrico Fissore - Prima la Musica, Poi ... #antoniosalieri, #enricofissore https://t.co/0vMXLsr20T— BBC Radio3 Music Bot (@BBCR3MusicBot) March 21, 2018
On the other hand, no one would take the premise of this entertainment of Antonio Salieri’s at face value – we are not meant to engage on a literal level with the fact that the poet is required to write a libretto in four days, and for an opera whose music has already been composed, and no one could seriously so construe the intentions of Salieri and his own librettist, Battista Casti. Yet, on this sort of construction (as with Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals, managing, but significantly not making, art), it no more matters that Ruben Östlund has written real things that happened to him and to others into the setting of, say, a traditional three-ring circus (almost inevitably, back to Guido as circus-master in 8½), or of a cheese-shop with no cheese (Monty Python).
Cabaret (1972), comsummate, acerbic satire, does something useful with the conceit of a sort of circus-master, but the lack of credibility about the art at Morrow’s gallery, when she is supposed to be successful (an issue that writer / director Tom Ford misjudges, by making the work with the film's artistic team), sadly means that it boots nothing to show her as shallow and uncreative in relation to her ex-husband’s novel. However, it is Python that is closest to The Square, not for cramming more names of cheeses into one sketch than a stick can be shaken at, but perhaps for the haphazard way that (according to The Pythons Autiobiography by The Pythons) The Meaning of Life (1983) came into being.
The difference is that, amongst other things, the best sketches from that film – it is, essentially, a sketch-film (though not as is And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)) – and from four t.v. series have stood the test of time. Whoever Elisabeth Moss is meant to be (other than someone called Anne, who conducts a brief interview), it is unlikely that we will find her repeatedly saying the word Cunt !, or the bedroom tussle, on our mind next year, let alone amusing us.
Or even wanting to hear the trite question asked of her whether picking up her handbag and putting it in the gallery-space would make it art – trite, in terms of a century of debate about what art is, not least with Duchamp’s ‘ready mades’ such as Fountain (1917) (if, that is, he really was the R. Mutt who signed the original work (now lost)).
Even so, the biggest debt (not nearly repaid) is to Michael Haneke's Caché (2005), and to obsessively trying to figure out how and why one has been wronged, countless of the cost.
Film-references and others :
* Caché (Hidden) (2005)
* Funny Games (1997)
* Nocturnal Animals (2016)
* [ ] Songs from the Second Floor (Sånger från andra våningen) (2000)
* [ ] The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
* [ ] Untouchable (Intouchables) (2011)
Nude descending a staircase ~ Duchamp
* To IMDb, he is just Christian, because it can rarely give you detail that is in the body of the film – or tell you better than [ ] watching the closing credits what that piece of music used was (so IMDb does not mention the most obvious thing that we hear, i.e. Gounod, arranging Bach, in ‘Ave Maria’…)
** What a shame not to be re-watching, in Screen 1 at The Arts Picturehouse, the immense beauty of Paolo Sorrentino's clever, insightful and thoughtful film instead ! The flamingos, Jep Gambardella effortlessly taking down artistic pretension, La scala sancta...
*** Gerry Fox does such an excellent job with that in Marc Quinn : Making Waves (2014).
**** Please, please, please ! Of course, there is so much very obvious hypocrisy in the film (at which self-contented people in the screening happily laughed, but - awful realization - don't say that, as he is 'Christian', that this is some sort of re-working of Pilgrim's Progress...
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)