Thursday, April 26, 2007
Aesthetics of Sky
When Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club came out (1999), a friend and I had a vigorous discussion in the lobby of the cinema about its romanticization of poverty. She thought the film treated Cuban beauty too lovingly, as though to suggest that the film’s protagonists were compensated by visual charm for their material griefs. I thought the film did romanticize the way of life it depicted but that the romanticization was mostly on the inside, not the lens, of the life depicted. Among the most ardent believers in the virtues of poverty are poor people formed by certain historical and cultural conditions powerful in the hemispheric American mid-twentieth century. Obviously, there was an ideology of poverty's virtues in post-revolutionary Cuba, but I was also thinking of people like my father, whose rendition of an impoverished childhood in the rural Northwest would put the most sentimental postcard painters in the shade, and of his unwillingness to believe that any material comforts made any real difference to life. It would simplify romanticism to see it as an outward imposition only, and would condescend to the poor in a Malinowskian sort of way to suggest that because they were suffering they could not be romantic (or could not be susceptible themselves to the ideologies of romanticism). Our argument concerned the cityscape and antique accoutrements of 1990s Havana more than the Cuban landscape and weather conditions, but I was reminded of Camus’s remark that being poor on the beach is forever different from being poor on the blacktop (or words to that effect), which moves on to the possible relations of hardship and natural beauty. These concerns came up again when another group of friends went to see Chantal Akerman’s De l’autre côté in Berkeley in 2003. Akerman’s film reflects on circumstances on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, mostly from the perspective of Mexican illegal immigrants hazarding the journey north in conditions of intensifying deadliness. The film is very quiet, and contains long, patient shots of incredibly beautiful Southwestern skies and light patterns (as in the still above). We talked again about whether the film was too beautiful. What would it mean if the beauty was too beautiful, but was on the “inside”—if it was not the film that was particularly aestheticizing (we do see these skies all the time in the Southwest; these are the Southwestern skies, unless you want a filter to suppress them), but the actual landscape that was, at the minimum, too beautiful? There’s a traditional notion of beauty that goes along with that, and it emphasizes the indifference of beauty in being able to persist in such things as the reflections in knives and the shadows on cell walls—in which the disinterest of beauty may be “aesthetic” but not anaesthetic, and may sharpen as well as relax hardship.
Image: Chantal Akerman, De l'autre côté