May 11, 2012

Passage illustrated III - the Flemish painting

Who says that passage into the unreal is restricted to movies as destinations? Whatever generates its own fictional world is a candidate. It could be a painting, for instance:

This is from The Dutch Master, a 1993 film that was intended as the flagship production of a collection of erotic shorts. Whatever its credentials in that genre may be, it uses an old dramatic device, namely: the interpenetration of the real world and the world of some sensually stimulating piece of art.[1] But in contrast to, say, Flaubert's 1834 novella Omphale, in this film it is not a fictional character who steps out of an unreal world into reality — it's the other way round. The protagonist, Teresa (Mira Sorvino), walks into the painting.

Passage in this case is established in a gradual buildup: when she first encounters the painting, Teresa is just fascinated and pleased by it; later on, the picture seems to come to life for short moment, and one of the characters smiles at her; then further into the film there is a scene in which she is practically invited into the picture and then walks in; after that she begins to make the passage deliberately and from her own initiative.

1) From the three excerpts in the video above, it remains unclear whether Teresa actually walks into the painting or whether she remains physically in her everyday world. In other words, the story leaves it open whether she's not simply imagining or daydreaming to be inside the painting, while physically still sitting on the museum bench.

Whenever there are other people with her in the room at the museum, the painting remains just a painting. It comes alive (and invites her in, so to speak) only when she is watching it alone. So there is no way to decide, from what the film shows, whether we are supposed to think Teresa is 'just imagining' all this, or whether, in this film, things such as stepping into the world of a painting can happen. Needless to say, in the real world, such things don't happen anyway. It's only because we're already in a story, the story of the movie, that we can even ponder the possibility. What the question comes down to, then, is whether the world of The Dutch Master is just like the real world but contains a protagonist who is prone to daydreaming, or whether that movie world is a fantasy world in which people can travel between reality and paintings.[2]

The movie artfully leaves that question open until the end. While Teresa becomes more and more involved with the painting, her real-life friends and family become more and more irritated. (Though there is a notable lack of concern; they're just irritated, nobody's really worrying.) The climax of this conflicting development is reached when Teresa disappears at the day of her wedding, leaving her fiancé, her family, and the wedding guests waiting for her in front of the church. The final sequence of the movie then suggests that she has withdrawn into the painting for good. If Teresa remains missing, that is, if she in fact has vanished from the world outside the painting, then what we've got here is a fantasy world in which passage into the unreal is possible.

2) There is no interaction between Teresa and the characters in the painting; they simply ignore her. When she is inside the painting, it's like a holographic film. She stands in the middle of what's going on, but nothing she does seems to impact the scene in any way. She's watching from inside the room, but she's still only watching. On the other hand, the physical elements of the picture do seem to impact her: when one of the characters blows some smoke from his pipe towards her, she coughs.

It's different when Teresa is outside the painting. One of the characters smiles at her and invites her into the painting with a nod; and there is also a brief scene when Teresa steals into the museum by night and it's dark, and she points the flashlight to the painting. The people in the painting act bedazzled. So the rules of interaction are frustratingly limited: The fictional characters can communicate only with her, and only when she's outside; the real-world characters can't interact with the characters in the painting at all.

There seems to be a parallel here between the indifference of the people in the painting towards Teresa and the lack of concern for her increasingly becoming distant in her everyday world. As I've observed above, none of her colleagues or her family seem really to worry, they're just puzzled. And while the narrative sometimes mentions something Teresa said or claimed, in all of the plot she doesn't utter a single word. (It's a romanticist cliché: the artist, or in this case simply the imaginatively gifted person, is estranged from her world, withdraws into a world beyond it which is associated with art and eros, but where real fulfillment isn't possible either as long as there are ties to reality etc. etc. But I don't really want to go into an interpretation of the story here. I'm only interested in the phenomenology of passage into an instance of unreality.)

3) We have now discussed two general questions: does the story involve passage into the unreal? and: what are the rules of interaction between the real and the unreal in this particular fictional world (i.e., the world of The Dutch Master)? Let's also take look at the elements of passage I have extracted in my previous postings about Die Einsteiger and Sherlock Jr.. I have identified three such elements: first, a setup-and-recognition structure; second, a departure sequence and an arrival sequence; and third, what I've called shifted transfer: the characters transfer into the instance of unreality at a different time than the audience does — while the characters have already arrived at the destination location, the audience's perspective is still at the departure location. Can we identify the same elements here, where the destination isn't a movie, but a painting?

Well, there is clearly some setup going on: the painting is explained in some detail by a museum guide, who fills the audience in on historical background and sharpens the eye for some detail that might easily go overlooked without a bit of experience. (Would you have noticed the statue of Mercury on the cupboard in the bedroom?) We also get some detail views of the painting before it comes to life, and when it does, the scene with the drunken woman rolls up once or twice as a kind of movie in a picture frame before Teresa actually witnesses it from inside the painted room. Many of these things are repeated in the passage sequences and clearly contribute to our understanding that we (together with Teresa) are now 'in the picture', thus they constitute the recognition end.

Moreover, since this is a painting we're talking about, there is a clear sense of a static frame present all the time, even when we're inside the artificial world. The number of rooms is limited to three, and most of them are already in sight at least partially from the viewer's perspective at the museum. The wooden, rectangular frames of the room and the windows, cupboards, and the like add to this sense of a mostly static, changeless room. All the animation comes from the people moving around in them. And even that seems to happen mostly in a scripted sequence that unrolls every time Teresa steps in. Thus even though she has now entered that fictional world, it is still somewhat different from the real world: it's in 3D, and it's animated — and yet it feels static and rigid to some degree.

It is more tricky to locate the departure sequence than to find the arrival sequence. That is mostly due to the gradual buildup I've mentioned. The departure sequence, I think, is distributed over several scenes in the movie. It begins when Teresa's fascination with the painting sets in and ends when she is drawn into the picture for the first time and sets her foot into the room inside the painting. The film marks the actual transfer with a simple fading of the museum setting into black, which then re-occurs on the trip back. Let's compare this with the corresponding departure sequence in Die Einsteiger, as I have analyzed it in my earlier post: it begins when the 'video integrator' device is switched on, then there is some blinking and beeping, a suggestion of the characters being drawn into the device, and finally they vanish. The corresponding marks in The Dutch Master are the first viewing of the painting, the smile and the nod of the man in the painting at Teresa, and finally her stepping in.

Compared with that, the arrival sequence is relatively short. It consists mainly of another iteration of the movements of the drunken woman (as they had happened before, when Teresa watched them from the outside). After this, Teresa makes another step forward and approaches the man with the pipe who remains seated in the room, and from that moment, we're immersed in a story that wasn't already visible on the painting when it was still frozen. The arrival sequence is over.

What about shifted transfer? This element is missing here. The perspective of the audience moves immediately into the destination location when Teresa gets up from the museum bench and the camera turns its direction into the painting. There is no discernible lingering of the audience's point of view outside. (There is no shot of the painting after Teresa has moved in, with her standing in front of the fictional characters, or some such thing.) So it seems that shifted transfer is not a necessary element in tales of passage. It might be featured, but it doesn't have to.

I think there is a good reason that this particular film doesn't use shifted transfer. I have remarked above that the movie leaves it open whether Teresa actually walks into the painting or whether she just imagines that she does. These two options are meant to remain open until the ending of the film, and shifted passage would have been a too strong indicator for one of them, shutting out the other. More precisely, if the director had used shifted passage, and the camera (and with it we, the audience) would have remained in the museum setting after Teresa had stepped in, then we would have seen either an empty museum room or Teresa inside the painting, both of which would have clearly indicated that she actually did step into the painting (as opposed to merely having daydreamed it). And that would have defeated much of the expositional strategy used in the plot of the movie. Compare this again with Die Einsteiger. There, the intention is exactly not to leave it open whether passage is possible in its fictional world. Passage into movies is the main plot device. So it's important to make it clear that it really happens.

[1] A painting that is a version of Pieter de Hooch's 'Young woman drinking', with the interior of the room very similar, but the people in the picture somewhat changed. (The painting is actually not in New York, but at the Louvre in Paris.)

[2] When the question is posed this way, some might reply that it is neither: it's a symbolic world, in which the museum, the painting, and the act of passage stand for an artistic or erotic inclination in the protagonist that is awakened. (And that may well be a sound interpretation of the director's intentions.) But even so: in order to understand a symbol, one needs first a grasp of its literal meaning, and this is what we're concerned with here. This is an investigation in the mode of phenomenology, where we're interested in the way things are presented, not in their symbolic meaning (if there is one). When we just look at what's manifestly happening (the analogue to looking at the literal meaning of a symbol), we're faced with the two options I've listed.

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