Gravity, Titian and the Nature of Looking

still from film GravityThe big event film of the moment is Gravity and ‘film’ is always an aspect of our contemporary visual culture that offers rich source material for those of us who are a bit opinionated (oops). This film is a mainstream Hollywood offering with two big ‘A’ listers, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, playing second fiddle to the 3D imagery of our beautiful planet. ‘Gravity’ is not an art installation, but the first 20 minutes or more are so compelling visually that you almost disengage with the narrative of the film and just soak up the shots in a floating, mesmerized trance. The British film critic, Mark Kermode, who is not a fan of 3D, said that this was one film you really should see in 3D. Furthermore, the general view of the professional critics is to see it on the biggest screen possible. That said, ‘film’ is so much more than a series of shots. It was fascinating to see the 3D shuttle and the weightless astronauts and viscerally thrilling to glimpse the Earth from the enormity of space, but once this waned, the rest of the film was disappointingly formulaic.

Titian - Portrait Man in Blue
‘Portrait of a Man in Blue’ – Titian, circa 1512
Oil on canvas
32 x 26″ (81.2 x 66.3 cm)
National Gallery, London

This now brings me to the point of Titian. Titian you are thinking, what? Well, not just Titian, but artists like Dürer, Vermeer and Hockney too, and all the artists who consciously experiment and play with perspective. Because as we know we do not see our real life world in lens-photographic-cinematic focus. The human eye is rapidly adjusting and re-adjusting as we look around ourselves. Our attention and our eyes focus and re-focus as we register and respond to our visual environment. And, this all happens as our outrageously, sophisticated brains process the raw visual data supplied from the optic nerve – looking and seeing is so much more than registering light. When we watch a 3D film and the objects come out of the screen at us it is more like Titian’s depiction of the sleeve in the painting ‘Portrait of a Man in Blue’ than looking at someone in real life. The artist chooses to draw our attention to the magnificent, costly silk sleeve by making it appear slightly larger than we would expect. Another striking example showing a heightened three dimensional form in a two dimensional representation is ‘Portrait of a Woman’ by Palma Vecchio. As we look at each painting in its entirety we see realistic looking people in attention-grabbing fine robes, but if we deliberately move our focus around each image we see that the proportion of the nearest sleeve is exaggerated. It looks more as if the sleeve might break out of the surface of the canvas. Although the representations are not quite 3D, neither are they how we would see the sitter in reality.

La Bella by Palma Vecchio
‘Portrait of a Woman’ (La Bella) – Palma Vecchio circa 1520
Oil on canvas
37 1/2 x 31 1/2″ (95 x 80 cm)
Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

In the 21st century with the luxury of affordable digital photography, photographic images are everywhere and by a process of osmosis we are accustomed to seeing our 3D world rendered into a lens mediated 2D version. It’s normal, we take it for granted unless the lens distortion is so extreme it makes the subject look bizarre. And, this is the point where I return to ‘Gravity’ where the level of the 3D special effects is so good that we accept it as a near truthful account of what astronauts see and experience. I think perhaps this is why most viewers have been enthralled by the spectacular visuals, and they are beautiful, but in the end for a whole film to be outstanding there needs to be a strong script, believable characters, hopefully an unpredictable narrative and a sympathetic score, not just great 3D wizardry used effectively.

James McAvoy – Three Days of Rain, Macbeth and Filth

McAvoy-Filth-Sept13For me visual culture absolutely includes film, I love the big screen and will go whenever I think a film might be aimed at just a bit more than the teenage-boy demographic. I love intense or spectacular and preferably both and that’s probably why ‘Melancholia’ directed by Lars von Trier is one of my favourite films. Now, I’ve just been to see ‘Filth’ directed by Jon S Baird from the novel by Irvine Welsh and starring James McAvoy. It is challenging, adult viewing, funny in parts in a grotesque, outrageous way with the black humour lessening the pain of watching the meltdown of a very flawed human being.

My daughter (half Scottish) is a huge McAvoy fan and we’ve seen most of his films and some of his stage work. For my sins I’ve hung around the Apollo Theatre Stage Door with her waiting for her to meet ‘the Star’ and get his autograph after seeing him in ‘Three Days of Rain'(2009). He was very pleasant to the fans and signed all the programmes that were excitedly shoved in his face.

So, Mr McAvoy a ‘nice kinda guy’ actor becomes, in ‘Filth’, Bruce Robertson – a totally repugnant and disgusting character, brutal, slimy, misogynistic, homophobic and most of all treacherous. And, he does look terrible, as McAvoy himself said his face looks “like a bag of smashed crabs”. No doubt some of his fans won’t like this, but commenting in a BBC Scotland interview yesterday, he also said, “audiences just can’t have it easy all the time”. The character of Bruce Robertson is central to the film and McAvoy gives an amazing energetic yet intense performance portraying an alcoholic, cocaine snorting and pitifully disturbed individual. There is also great support from a rich cast including Joy McAvoy, James’ sister.

What intrigues me about the sentiment of modern film/theatre goers is that there are people outraged by contemporary portrayals of disintegrating, deranged individuals in a gritty film such as ‘Filth’, but who will watch a not dissimilar moral breakdown in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and find it acceptable. Earlier this year on 4 April, my daughter and I saw McAvoy play Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios in London. It was another dynamic performance with plenty of ‘blood’ splattered around so much so that as we took our seats, close to the action, a member of the production team came to explain that any red splashes on our clothes would wash off!! But, it wasn’t the visual effects that were shocking it was the menacing, terrifying and manic central performance by McAvoy. In this production there was a scene where Macbeth stalks round a room knowing that hiding in a wooden cupboard is the child son of Macduff. He circles the wooden casket and you realise that he is going to murder the boy, and then suddenly it happens he repeatedly thrusts his knife into the cupboard with intense, dark glee, killing the boy. It was stunningly shocking.

Macbeth 2012 Trafalgar Studios

As humans we make culture in order to express aspects and qualities of our humanity and it isn’t all going to be pretty, pretty and smelling of roses. Shakespeare certainly liked to delve into the darker side of the human psyche and explore our foibles. This film is a hard-nosed, 21st-century look at our imperfect nature in our imperfect world. A film like ‘Filth’ with characters like Bruce Robertson give us a magnified, supercharged reflection of a real world. It’s controversial, harsh and at times a difficult film to watch, but if you’re outraged then engage, respond and talk about it.

And, finally a little plug – James McAvoy supports the charity Retrak helping the street children of Africa – take a look, Retrak