New Points of Entry for Dreyer

The last few weeks, I spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, which wasn’t good for my blogging but was good for my reading, and fortunately my love for the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. For cinephiles familiar with the lack of resources on Dreyer, the last few months have offered a bonanza:

• The Masters of Cinema label I helped form and Criterion have released Martin Koerber’s beautifully restored Vampyr (1932) on DVD with a lot of shared supplementary materials. MoC includes a commentary by Guillermo del Toro; Criterion includes Dreyer’s original script. I managed to see the restored print at UCLA a couple of years ago (with German subtitles that required a live translator), so it’s great to finally have this version on DVD, and the extras on both editions offer many extended hours of enjoyment.

• The Danish Film Institute has announced a new website devoted to Dreyer. It claims the site is a work-in-progress that won’t be finished until 2010, but even its preliminary offerings are fascinating. Apparently, it’s digitzing “relevant materials” from the manuscripts, letters, production-related documents, newspaper clippings, personal notes and records, books, images, and research materials in the DFI’s Carl Theodor Dreyer Study Centre in Gothersgade, Copenhagen. You’ll want to bookmark this.

• James Schamus, co-writer of many Ang Lee films and CEO of Focus Features, is also an academic who teaches at Columbia University, and he has just published a new monograph entitled Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud: The Moving Word that elaborates and expands upon his essay in Jytte Jensen’s 1988 book that coincided with a Dreyer exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Gertrud was a shock to many in 1964 for its actors’ statuesque poses and adagio pace, but a few perceptive critics recognized it as Dreyer’s final masterpiece, and their number has grown over the years. At the time, Jonas Mekas wrote: “From all the films shown at the [NYFF] festival, [Gertrud] was by far the most perfect artistic statement, the most perfect expression of an artist’s moral and aesthetic attitude. . . . It is so far above the other films shown at the festival that it isn’t even fair to discuss it within the standards of the festival.”

Schamus focuses on one of the film’s most striking but equally mysterious images–a background tapestry portraying a naked woman being attacked by wolves, a scene Gertrud had previously dreamed–and uses it to address his own concentric circles of themes and associations. As you might expect from a professional dramatist, Schamus is particularly sensitive to Dreyer’s attitudes on adaptation, especially his commitment to the authority of a text, an original text (like the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trials, or the real woman–Maria von Platen–who inspired Gertrud‘s playwright) and the inspirations as well as restrictions, even oppressions, that arise from written source materials.

In a dense and associative style (intensified by his short chapters), Schamus explores some pretty fascinating ideas, such as the urge for realistic art to achieve a separate life of its own, the way in which words and texts preserve patriarchal systems, the way images can wage war against such texts (particularly in Dreyer’s cinema), issues of ekphrasis and interpretation, even the history of hysteria. In an interview last year, he remarked, “I try to place my students in relationships to texts and to intellectual traditions that they don’t necessarily think are the norm for film studies and film theory,” which is a good description of the paths he charts here, some of which seem more useful for continued Dreyer exploration than others. I particularly enjoyed his sections on the probable inspiration for the tapestry (The Decameron) and Botticelli’s series of paintings that combine different narratives into a single space in opposition, Schamus points out, to Western single-point perspective: “Gertrud is an extended meditation on the emptiness of Albertian [single-point perspective] space,” Schamus writes, “and on the constituent disconnect between word and image that emptiness always calls on us to overcome as we try, from the margins, to fill it with story.”

• Speaking of exhibitions (and reaching a bit further back in time), in 2006/2007 the Ordrupgaard Museum near Copenhagen and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània in Barcelona (CCCB) co-mounted a long overdue exhibition focusing on the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) and his influence on Dreyer. The filmmaker himself acknowledged his debt to the painter (and James Whistler)–particularly in reference to the visual style of his first film, The President (1919)–in Jørgen Roos’ 1966 documentary included on both of the new Vampyr DVDs, but his friend and interpreter Ebbe Neergaard wrote about the similarities between the two artists as early as 1940, and many critics, such as David Bordwell, have pointed out that Hammershøi’s minimalist aesthetic, low-key interiors, and uncanny merging of realism and abstraction also resurfaced in Dreyer’s two last films, Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). In his essential 1981 book length study, Bordwell suggests Hammershøi’s visual style “might be regarded as the reductio ad absurdum of the entire chamber [art] tradition,” noting that the artist “spent years painting pictures of chairs, bookcases, sofas, blank windows, open doors, figures quietly reading or discreetly turned from the viewer, even completely empty corridors and parlors.” (Bordwell also goes on to suggest parallels between Brueghel and The Passion of Joan of Arc, Böchlin and Vampyr, and Flemish masters and Day of Wrath, and uses Hammershøi and Dreyer to articulate his ideas on cinematic tableau.)

I don’t believe the exhibition has traveled much (and its award-winning design may not be portable), but thankfully the Ordrupgaard Museum has published a handsome catalogue entitled Hammershøi > Dreyer: The Magic of Images, which not only includes many featured paintings and film stills, but a number of intriguing essays. Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark sets the historical stage for Dreyer’s encounter with Hammershøi’s work, namely the painter’s comprehensive 1916 retrospective in Copenhagen, which Dreyer almost certainly would have attended, and highlights the prominence of mothers, psychological complexity, and sense of isolation in both artists. Casper Tybjerg (known for his Dreyer DVD commentaries) quotes references to help encapsulate the filmmaker’s sense of the unspoken and the absent as being paradoxically evocative: “The two artists shared an understanding of how, through simplification, reduction, and meticulous composition, they could open doors for the spectator’s imagination…” Annette Rosenvold Hvidt reverses the dominant paradigm by suggesting that Hammershøi might have been influenced by photography in his use of soft edges, washed-out colors, and “blurring materiality.” Jordi Balló (whose CCCB also curated another “dialogue” in 2006 between Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami) highlights similarities (“interiors which are, at one and the same time, protection and prison”) as well as differences (Dreyer’s cinematic use of field as well as counter-field) to discuss the exhibition’s challenges:

“One of the most interesting and innovative questions arising from the museographic challenges of recent years stems from the repeated inclusion of films in temporary exhibitions or in the permanent collections of museums. The presence of film is, first and foremost, a result of the ineluctable conviction of experts and public alike that film is an essential part of the history of images, and it cannot continue to be marginalized from any visual discourse that seeks to obtain a broad, fair and balanced vision of the iconographic dialogue which includes art from 20th century onwards. The fact is that exhibiting film and painting is not the same, and cinematic narrative cannot be reduced to its single iconographic function.”

As a footnote, I should mention that Hammershøi (who is widely unknown outside of Denmark) was also the subject of a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and the show’s website offers several fascinating video analyses of his paintings that are well worth watching.

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