I firmy believe simplification is often a feature of our time. I think we can notice it everyday: the social media, the marketing, the expression and communication forms, the attitudes, the availability of the interfaces, it all aims to somekind of ultimate simplicity, to make us feel comfortable, to here and now, to lead us, to the user experience.
It’s a peculiarity, often a notable feature. But when it comes to art, not everything is easy. Like our feelings, art also moves through complex and conflicting paths, questioning itself and dealing with difficult, unfamiliar, foggy fields.
I wanted this article to be about some works of art that attempt to explore these unknown territories. Here are some ways to deal with complexity.
Modernity doesn’t know what innocence is anymore
Stalker – Andrei Tarkovskij
On paper, Stalker should be a sci-fi movie. The Zone is a fenced territory where, after an unclear extra-ordinary event, the laws of physics act unnaturally. A writer and a scientist turn to a stalker, namely an abusive guide, to reach a room inside this territory, which is said to make the most intimate and hidden wishes come true.
The location has clearly nothing to do with the genre. Unlike his work Solaris – which, while not belonging to the genre, had a classic sci-fi scenography – in this one Tarkovskij choses to shoot in natural environments without special effects. In fact, except for the Stalker always rolling the dices (the only way to move in this territory, which is not linear but spiral-shaped, not a direct path, but an indirect one), we basically see three people walking in single file through the woods.
The choice isn’t fortuitous, of course, and neither it is due to low budget. Tarkovskij looks for a mimetic, conceptual science fiction, one the viewer can identify with. Science fiction is his tool (almost a mere container) to deal with a particular complex reflection, a reflection on the modern man and on the meaning of life.
Into the Zone the two guests are forced to only go by surnames, the Professor and the Writer (same goes for the Stalker): losing their name they come to be universal categories of modernity. Their pathways are opposite, but sharing a conceptually identical nihilism – they confront each other through a cathartic travel, with a mystical meaning long lost, but also with some sort of candor (and maybe innocence and pureness) represented by the Stalker.
The film infinitely leans toward this comparison, through complex and magnificent dialogue, often more important than the plot itself, and also through the interpretation given by the camera: rather simple elements (like rain, fire, nature) are seen by the viewer like something new and mysterious, acquiring an almost impossible emotional effect.
In this extraordinary miracle worked by the director, in which what is clear and natural becomes something new, the Zone represents life itself: “traveling through it, men either break or survive. – says Tarkovskij himself – Whether they can survive depends on their own feeling of dignity, on the ability of telling the essential from the temporary“. That’s how Stalker becomes a realistic movie, leaning toward the truth.
A phylosophical point of view, but seen through graceful eyes and with an acute spiritual feeling.
In the context of this Zone/Life, I like to think that the room that makes wishes come true is for Tarkovskij what the monolith is for Kubrick. They both are the ultimate mystery, the unknowable, on one hand the opaque black surfaces that doesn’t reflect and is impossible to see through, on the other hand the entrance of a room framed from the side – not casually – without revealing its content. Both films represent an initiating path toward the search for a deep truth, a path toward the understanding of men and existence.
A class investigates death
Dead class – Tadeusz Kantor
I decided to focus on a different field for this second piece: theater. By choosing a favorite director of mine, Polish Tadeusz Kantor, and attempting to introduce one of the most importand and complex (but not equally known) pieces of theater of the 1900s: Dead class.
We are facing an old, dusty classroom, full of old people that are carrying children mannequins on their backs. Their young self, a doppelganger heavy with their past, almost like a necrotic excrescence. Something that cannot be ignored – but nonetheless lost.
The class goes back to the old rituals, the jokes, the impertinence, the near-mechanical mechanism of their scholastic past. In fact, the show opens with an oral test, and every student picked by the teacher collapsing on the ground.
And yet, in its repetition, the mechanism falters, the actions become out-of-sync and more and more grotesque. Everyday life is fleeting, slowly shattering. The characters are not single entities anymore, identity passes from one to another. As if they were crazy (or acting), or possessed by other entities or different memories each time. They are a patchwork of their childhood residues, constantly re-assembled and broken down again.
With this work (and with all of his works, actually, with his own theatrical style, which it’s not surprisingly named the Theatre of Death) Kantor deals with the meaning of remembrance, strictly tied to death, to war, to the seance, to decadence and the macabre.
Thus this show investigates death itself in its most extreme features.
“Theater” says Kantor “(…) is where the trace of us passing from the other side to our life are revelad“
Through this transfigurational meaning, the Failing Student also becomes the Distributor of funeral posters, the Cleaning Lady, with her broom-scythe, is also the Death – who will bring on stage, after a grotesque childbirth ritual, a mechanical Cradle rather similar to a coffin, with two metal spheres creaking against each other with a frightful sound. Birth and death, cyclically, two complementary elements in this noisy and creepy circus.
A piece that greatly overcomes his own creator’s expectations, offering meanings that Kantor didn’t even supposed.
On anti-human music
Of Natural History – Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: an odd name borrowed from an avant-garde movement almost unheard-of, born in the early 1900s.
Behind this name, a musical collective in their last transformation after Acid Rain and Idiot Flesh, praising Rock against Rock: reconstructing rock by destroying it. Of Natural History is the peak and synthesis of this avant-gard itinerary.
The band learns all the lessons: Frank Zappa’s polymorphism, John Zorn’s darkest allucinations (no wonder the violinist, Carla Kihlstedt, is a collaborator of him), the rock patterns of King Crimson, Mr Bungle’s extreme editing. Add in irregular industrial rhythms, ancient instruments and newly created ones, metal aggressiveness with a progressive attitude, childish tunes, unlikely samplings, irony opposed to a vexing unease.
Welcome to no man’s land, where you can’t manage to trace the path.
The road already cracks on track 2 (The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens The Discussion), and we find that we are lost and defenseless, so we go on blindly, while the landscape keeps changing without rules around us. We will find hells of sounds, wonderful choral and theatrical bits, odd tribal forms, extreme contrasts and sounds sharp as knives.
But the terribly ambitious complexity is not limited to music, it involves the concept itself. Of Natural History is an ecologist record, an anti-human one. The baseline are John Kane’s theories, affirming that humanity leans toward the assimilation of the structures of inferior creatures, and in conclusion the record depicts the apocalyptic implications of the human presence on earth through characters and paradoxical stories. All of this results into the sarcastic final dialogue with a Cockroach.
Of Natural History, maybe more than any other record, deserves the definition of experimental rock (in my opinion, a term which is used and abused, a disturbing masterpiece that really creates new music.
A kaleidoscope of existences
Sacro GRA – Gianfranco Rosi
It’s possible that I will receive some critics for choosing to include Sacro GRA in this selection of pieces. The first documentary earning the Golden Lion for best movie raised some doubts between the movie critics. Not a movie, not a canonical documentary or social report, it appears to choose poetry over reality (similarly, in my opinion, to Silvano Agosti’s documentary style).
And yet, in my opinion, Sacro GRA is a greatly important work, dealing with human nature itself.
Roma, Grande Raccordo Anulare (the GRA, the most extensive urban highway in Italy). We follow some marginal existences: a paramedic, an impoverished noble man sharing a studio apartment with his daughter, an eel fisher, a botanicist fighting for the survival of palms, a landlord renting out his mansion as a photo story location, two prostitutes. Small invisible worlds for most people, surrounded by the continous noise of the cars running over the most extensive urban highway of Italy. During a production that lasted two years, two years spent on a mini-van, Rosi crosses these lives through the objective lenses of the camera and the participating eyes of a director. He creates oxymorons. He plays with the narcissism of the subjects, with a underlying complicity.
He gives his character a distressing kind of beauty.
He compares the followers of the Divino Amore, who see the Virgin Mary on an eclipse, to the red edges infesting the palms.
The result is a documentary made of entangled movies, where the genres overlap, an optical tool fragmenting existences and creating new shapes. It all happens under the shadow, between the metaphysical and the iperrealistic of this anti-human environment which is the Grande A.
Clearly, this marginal reality is a subject that tends to expand creating a human landscape, touching us as it investigates any of us one way or another. A holy place waiting for revelation.