Mystery and the Artist: John Huston’s ‘Moulin Rouge’; Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘The Mystery of Picasso’; Corinna Belz’s ‘Gerhard Richter Painting’

© 2012 by James Clark

Like Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, John Huston was a film artist locked into a time and place where being beyond the pale involved pressures not merely implacable but imperial. Therein, his work poses absorbing questions about the function of such heavily guarded (thereby compromised, distorted) panache. What, for example, are we to make of Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s Jane Avril, holding forth, in Moulin Rouge (1952) (in a serpent-motif dress bringing to mind Bjork’s swan dress many years later), with a cabaret song that might have been written by Marcel Proust? “Wine can make you true/ But a man can make you truer.”

That surprisingly audacious “great personage” film carries a welter of overtures that were not supposed to reside in its era of presumed relatively uncomplicated interpersonal meanderings, despite efforts from the likes of Hawks and Wilder. (That a volcano of complication like Eugene O’Neill’s stage play, Long Day’s Journey into Night [written in 1941 but not produced until 1956] was very much to the fore, helps us to chart that era’s notion of such matters being only acceptable to the dangerous neurotics of Manhattan. Sydney Lumet’s domesticity-to-the-fore film production of O’Neill’s masterpiece garnered acting awards at the Cannes Festival in 1962. One of his principals was Dean Stockwell, who, a generation later, added very undomesticated touches to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.) Sure enough, we have a pathetic cripple (in the form of [more than merely gifted] artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) whose vicissitudes tug at our heartstrings. Sure enough, on his deathbed, he hears his hitherto unencouraging father beg for forgiveness in the course of announcing to him that his work has been embraced by the Louvre. “I didn’t know…” the elder pleads. We even have a bit of Eisenhower-era whimsy in the form of dream-like figures from the good old days at the titular cabaret, paying him one last bouncy visit and making him smile. This, of course, (somewhat) constitutes the freighting of bathetic gratifications everyone was supposed to settle for at that historical juncture. However, enfolded in that last scene’s being a humbling of Lautrec-Père, for betting on the wrong horse, there is an earlier scene where Lautrec verbally slashes at a painter-friend, for worshipping “Leonardo” because the latter’s name was on a plaque signifying him as the painter of the Mona Lisa, as, more pointedly, signifying having made it big. (Lautrec’s dealer had the annoying [to Lautrec] habit of announcing, due to nibbles by arts hotshots, “You’re made, Henri!” [in being smiled upon by the likes of supposedly infallible employees of that A-list museum].) Such level-headedness would entail a less giddy comprehension of the nod toward resurrection in the final reverie. With a hooker he hoped to induce into a long haul, he was heard to marvel that the Mona Lisa is a treasure no one on earth could afford to buy, but that (in riposte to the money-mad gal’s sneer, “What good did that do [the manufacturer]?”) the artist was richly rewarded in having accomplished the marshalling of sensuous powers to the point of such potent grace.

In a strangely related film project from out of the era intrusively shaping Huston’s work, namely, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956), we do receive a far less ambiguous presentation of that full-blown “mystery” no one was supposed to care about. (As a prelude to this turnaround, it seems apt to mention that, whereas Huston’s feature made so much money he was able to undertake a subsequent extravaganza regarding Moby Dick, Clouzot’s documentary [attracting a grand total of 37,000 viewers] did not come close to so much as breaking even.) At first blush that may seem an indefensible proposition, insofar as, by contrast with Huston’s vehicle being a chromatic breakthrough and kinetic tour de force, Clouzot’s color is on-again-off-again, and his camera lingers upon black-and-white disclosures of the director and artist, discussing, in a dingy studio, how to proceed with producing vignettes in black and colored ink on a semi-transparent canvas. In Moulin Rouge we see the hand of designer/illustrator, Marcel Vertes, describing dance hall moments in pencil on a table cloth, supposedly capturing the soul of Lautrec’s bohemian predilections. We delight in the quick and accurate rendering of the goings-on, from the disposition of a duly-impressed insider at the blossoming of a talent with big prestige and even bigger financial clout. (Oh, to run off with that marketable swatch of linen!) In the work by Clouzot, we see a 73-year-old, stripped to the waist (Lautrec is always impeccably dressed, in reflection of his presence as a rich dandy), not unlike a superannuated brick layer on a warm day; but we also remark the sinuous athleticism of Picasso’s body and the primordial severity of his face in semi-darkness, almost resembling that of a cave. Whereas, with Lautrec, we have the sidebar of his almost incredible and certainly lethal consumption of cognac (which he jokingly and revealingly describes to an alarmed waitress as his most notable accomplishment), with Picasso there is nothing but him, his inks (weapons) and the glowing blank sheet, a challenge not unlike a bull facing a matador.

The narrative of Moulin Rouge offers up a raft of rather studied wildness and independence; but the premium upon the latter seems only to somehow emasculate the former. The two couples of apache dancers, whom we encounter first off, evince indeed a quite fiery kinetics—speedy gymnastics as bound up with confident precision partnering, highlighted by, on the part of the ladies, high-kicks accentuated by dresses raised to disclose the groin (an area frequently visited by violent splits), and, on the part of the two men, solidly balanced twirls and attitudes of disconcerting nonchalance. True to the Montmartre drill, the visage of each one is blighted by the indulgences each prefers—the star of the troupe being known as “La Goulu,” the glutton. Also coming with the territory are white-water levels of self-assertiveness—so pronounced that the quartet’s bohemian titillations are crowned by painful grimaces and even more painful smiles. Although we subsequently see the lower-wattage self-adoration of Jane Avril—pausing in her song-poems to let the audience more fully grasp how marvellous she is, in recherché attire and hours-devouring make-up (Japonism for social climbers)—and a bevy of can-can girls, virtually anonymous in their homogeneous costuming and corps de ballet patterning, it is especially the apaches that absorb Lautrec (who goes on to feature their gritty exotica in his poster for the club). He basks with wry satisfaction in his easy companionship with the two ladies—offering them, after their performance, a glass of cognac which, in light of their smarting from the upstaging and other acts of sabotage against one another in what just transpired, they proceed to splash into each other’s face, precipitating a noisy brawl, which he proceeds to sketch. The packet of invention that is Henri emits, at his ringside table, a catchy blend of clever smugness and noblesse oblige, more fully exercised in conversation with Jane, whose (brief) amorous links to lawyers, generals and bankers prescribe a register of badinage and wit omnipresent in the context of a chateau. Holding court at that table, Henri is the picture of delivery of regal mastery of every situation. After the show, as he rises to leave, the whisper of discordancy comprising his heavy fluency about cognac becomes a stinging gale as we find there is virtually nothing to his physical presence beyond what we could see at the table—his legs bulbous stumps, so immersed in a ruined gusto as to bring to mind the troubled energies of the apaches. Right there, we are stung by a quite horrible task of bringing coherence to a scene of such incoherence. The pretty malaise of Jane Avril’s upper-crust artistry (“Away, away, the river goes rolling/ Away, away, our love remains true/ It’s April again and everyone’s singing/ To your seventeenth year beside a riviere”) leaves something to be desired here. But in being brought up to speed about Henri’s cruel plight, the question for us becomes, “How does one attain to wholeness, integrity of sensibility (and its pithy nonchalance), in face of such Intensive-Care-level inducement toward brittle preoccupation with one’s social wellness?

On the way home that night, a Jockey Club wag calls him with impunity a “midget,” a situation, we can be sure, that Picasso, the bullfighter, would promptly turn to carnage. Such a simplification of the surround finds its material exemplar in the studio/atelier contrived by Clouzot, as including a dash of interpersonal no-nonsense eyes-on-the-prize by painter and auteur. The major setting of The Mystery of Picasso is the compact bull-ring/ work-surface, as shot from behind in order to render not simply the outcome but, most importantly, the action of Picasso’s brush strokes. Whereas Lautrec was intent on capturing in the figures on his tablecloth (and, later, on his tableaux) the essence of their kinetic forces, in stillnesses implying a range of motion as strange as it is lively, Picasso, thanks to Clouzot, comes to us as less a fabricator of arresting vignettes as a shooting star taking our breath away and crashing to earth as depositing histories pungently redolent of elemental darkness and light.

In face of the first few productions on the shimmering field of action, we are induced to devote all our attention to the masterful, rapid conjuring of figures from out of an abysmal void, in their attitudes and aptitudes— luxuriant heft of a nude woman model and wizened men admirers, the greens and blues of the surround spilling forth to further define the juxtaposition. But the seemingly random, “automatist” surrealistic exercise soon reveals its investment in much more complex regions of consciousness. (Clouzot had advised us before the Picassos began to take shape, “To follow the painter’s thoughts, we need only follow his hands”—thus singling out preoccupations coming up against difficulties from out of widely creative primal gestures.) The first instalment of this full disclosure launches with mercurial black lines constituting the head and body of a bull with notably wide, innocent eyes. In a flash, a matador comes to light, caught in the bull’s horns. As flamenco guitar music rises to a pounding level, the figures of both man and beast pour blood red. The Plaza de Toros and spectators coming next only increase discomfort and its cogency. This scene is followed by a looming portrait of a king and queen with anxious visages, and each becoming the other. The exhilaration of probing dynamics has come to plunge into a saga of conflict, the rapid drumming here giving added scope to a gravity essentially affixed to the lightness. At this point, Clouzot lights his pipe, Picasso tends to applying new canvas and then goes on to flash out a chicken eating a fish, the face of which has been coaxed toward that of a human. A crew member snaps a still photo of it. Amidst this complication, Clouzot does some technical adjustments pertaining to color values.

This leads us back to Huston’s pushing the range of Technicolor to new limits in order to endow Moulin Rouge with settings and props of such deliciousness as to make not just ours but also Jacques Demy’s eyes spin. The bite of such chromatic sizzle in rude circumstances would have emerged as a means of destabilizing somewhat the screenplay’s migrating to very conventional havens. Feeling no compunction to satisfy bourgeois taste, Clouzot and Picasso go about their business, of exhuming long-denied excitements and dilemmas, with the unassuming deliberations of a construction crew. Theirs is not an esthetic of indirect illusion, but a direct mechanics hearkening to a vein of thermal poetry. Whereas Huston’s minty scenario has nowhere to go but smack into the middle of ages-old consolations, the cyclotronic handiwork of Clouzot and Picasso looks far ahead, to those sagas affording utterly contingent wonder and precluding melodramatic satisfactions. In quipping, with regard to Corinna Belz’s taking up Clouzot’s role with regard to his Picasso, that he liked her documentary (Gerhard Richter Painting [2011]) because it was “boring,” the titular artist was giving us a cocktail bar/ vernissage coverage of the, as it happens, venerable project of expunging bathos in art, as cruising just offshore from the official art world and its militantly-honed, barracuda-level careerism (as presumably justified by being a monumental avatar of “good causes”) which is far from a stranger to bathos.

Somewhat more akin to Lautrec’s field of interest, Picasso’s second series of action paintings tends to occupy itself with odalisques and the circus—two mainstays of salon artists and tempered radicals alike. The action thread allows the reassembling of forms in order to obviate any stolid insistence upon such genres. For instance, the fine black lines of a horse come about, then a man tipping a cowboy hat to that horse. The hat becomes the thighs of a nude woman, and then we have her riding her mount in a circus ring. In this vein of exploding clichés, he returns to a conjuring of pain and horror in the bull ring, beginning with a brown mass that quickly becomes a matador’s bloody arms and legs and the locomotive-like bull. Subsequent introduction and closure of the dying man’s face plays into a crew attending to slaughtering the hapless killer. The final show is a telling misstep—“Very bad,” Picasso concludes—involving quick changes upon the subject of a beach line (perhaps hearkening to the work of the Fauves) with a water skier, adjacent to an outdoor circus. A tour de force of sorts, with astonishing overpainting, it brings to us a series of primitive visitations on the order of the previous bulls, smothered in an avalanche of matter. Then he signs his name on a clean canvas, with a look of both hopefulness and chagrin.

From out of his near-bullfighter’s physical fate, the protagonist (Lautrec) of Moulin Rouge struggles with a mighty rehab exigency. This effort is both abetted and undermined by a strain of patrician benignity. Jane Avril asks him (apropos of a recent boyfriend), “Have you ever had to contend with the legal mind, Henri?” In fact, he’s freighted down with his own set of stilted, pseudo-verities, condemning his attempt, to come up for air, to a form of suffocation, which he speeds along by means of a suicidal drinking binge. Though his Montmartre homeland—sooty, richly weathered and spiked by a vigorous palette of highlights—exudes earthy verve, Henri presides over a cordon sanitaire which constitutes his posh atelier and also his fatal distance from deriving any significant change from his quirkily radiating surround. Telling his mother, in flashback, “I’ll be lonely anywhere” (but “I shall try to make a life for myself” [as a painter, in Paris]), does not portend a resilient embrace of his conundrum (not, in fact, as unique and horrific as, from the perspective of lavish privilege, he imagines). Soon after being the recipient of that trash-talk on those edifying streets, he gallantly assists a hooker in eluding the legal mind, stiffly accedes to her plea to stay the night—his glorious bathroom being the main attraction—and falls in love with her. Her capping off the initial contact—“It [yours] isn’t a name… It’s a town!”—deftly marks off the gulf and at the same time touches upon his underdog enthusiasms as abstract and feeble. He hands over a wad of cash (to get her licensed for and started with a pushcart) and she disappears for days, marking an end which, after some ethical pique and muttering, he can’t begin to fathom. “I want to be good to you. I want to give you things.” His precious solidarity with the proletariat—“The streets of Paris have taught you to strike first… draw blood first…” (How does this jibe with the millionaire who called him a midget? Picasso’s unsentimental relation to bulls comes to mind)—comes to ruin during his thinking to impress and satisfy her at a cordon bleu restaurant. And, after being called by her “my rich cripple from Montmartre,” he takes a first step toward suicide by turning on the gas, notices work to be done on his canvas, turns off the gas and proceeds, more crippled by his superficial engagement with sensual beauties than by his ruined legs.

Though a thorough professional at the lithographer’s studio, apropos of that poster graphic now ready to face the world and make some waves—“I mixed the paint. I shall blend the ink”—and a confident innovator (creating diffusion with toothbrush spatters [“Seems to work…”]), his only moments of confidence about people come by way of figures of easy fun and ridicule, like Jane Avril. (A flashback shows him, as a young boy, before the accident that left him forever old, amusing his Dad’s self-styled nobility by producing satirical vignettes of those with lesser families.) By now chronically drunk, he meets and presumes to save from suicide at the Pont Neuf (its being something “new,” in the way of conveyance, which is in fact very old, quietly [and not altogether dismissively] commenting on his endeavors) an in fact self-possessed woman—the prospect of suicide being a vision from out of Henri’s bathetic meltdown. She musters a genuine interest in and care for him; but his alcohol-inflamed paranoia has effectively corroded that former will to give life a go, and he meets her overtures with smug and rude cynicism, prompting her to find someone else. He soon manages to kill himself with a flood of cognac, but not before poising himself upon that above-mentioned self-satisfaction in being above self-satisfaction. His lost chance had come by a portrait of the beloved hooker, and she had remarked about it, “Her eyes told me there were worse things than cold and hunger.” In face of such a brave reminder of what he once could do, from someone with so much to share, he could only get into a cheap snit about a supposed invasion of his privacy.

We have the chance to supplement this fascinating and painful miasma, with regard to some moments in the company of artist, Gerhard Richter, in his studio, splotching (among other things) thick icings of acrylic paint across sidewalk-scale canvases, with a wide board, not so unlike the day-job of a cement installer at a construction site. But no one would mistake that eminence grise of pictorial and moralistic complexities, amounting to nine-figures-annual-oh-la-la, for an unlettered laborer, as, that is, someone for whom body language is paramount. In his Giorgio Armani attire, which he slips into in the course of papal tours through museums and commercial galleries, he unwittingly prompts realization that, unlike Armani’s embrace of the dramatic, kinetic situations implicit in his haute couture, Richter is about being an infallible, conclusive judge (ein Richter) of a visual mathematics the liturgy of which he doles out to communicants worthy of attaining to confirmation of his life-enhancing reliquaries. The film spotlights the good, the bad and the ugly of its protagonist, and, in so doing, includes for further consideration the raging Angst of Moulin Rouge and The Mystery of Picasso.

Eschewing Clouzot’s lightning rod in the form of a luminous, semi-transparent surface, director Corinna Belz generally positions her camera behind the artist and in full view of the worked surface. In this way, she hopes to make sparks fly in observing the taking place of a series of abstract paintings (in contrast to Lautrec and Picasso’s figurative constructs). Belz recognizes that the revelatory essence of Richter’s output consists of deposits of the elemental acrylic magma being introduced to other such components—first, by means of large bevelling apparatus, and then, as the paint solidifies, by smaller, sharper squeegees—to leave for us sometimes wondrous (always absorbing) compositions of interlaced, nuanced colors, forms and textures. In recognition that that kind of wizardry is in effect, Richter remarks, “The tools do what they want.”

Although the aspect of “chance” impingements sails throughout the film and serves notice that such creativity encompasses material happenstance as harnessed and thereby fuelled by conscious force, the historical saga coming to light thereby sets in more stark relief (than do the episodes with Lautrec and Picasso) a remarkable tension besetting work strenuously given over to dynamics. Richter replies to the director’s question, as to when he knows a painting has been completed, that it is a matter of knowing when all the “wrong” features have been resolved. Such a constructive consideration, however, seems to land his work AWOL, far from the welling up, that takes precedence in the cinematic apprehension. He also subscribes to the rather overly used mantra that true painting cannot be rendered in words. Such a spiritual stance rings true with regard to the uncanny heartland of action (much of the studio work being encompassed by the highly tentative strains of Anton Webern and John Cage). But its implied disappointment with that leaden substantiality to which descriptive speech and literature are wedded gets messed up somewhat by trading in “completed” objects. Notwithstanding a rather dispiritingly cute first scene showing Richter unable to make a tripod behave for photo-documentation—“Nice, but it’s crooked”—we are promptly ushered into his tackling two large canvases (for the sake of an imminent public offering under the auspices of a New York broker/dealer), consisting of a set of manoeuvres making abundantly clear the presupposition that there can come a time in this thrust when each of the two paintings will be evocatively complete along lines of pictorial cogency having risen above every vestige of gestural travesty. Travesty here could also be termed bathos. But in the course of his welcoming us into his wondrous efficacy (assistants fuss with floor-plans and mock-ups of display areas recalling condo showrooms) there is unfortunately a whole lotta bathos going on. A clip shows an earnest young Richter in the 1970s assuring an interviewer of the urgency of personal and social “morality” in art. (Though famously standoffish regarding “ideology,” there would be the not so easily eluded matter of elementary socialism which functions as an obligatory passkey for getting into the game, and which would weigh upon even an ambitious artist/ refugee disgusted with East Germany. That coercive instinct always at flood level in the art world does nothing so much as obviate every instinct toward serious problematics, relegating it to the likes of Armani and the presumed fascism of design. It would be enough to confine a maverick sensibility to the production of dynamic gestures reduced to solutions for a market that will only tolerate obeisance to a bathos-friendly bedrock.) Joining the septuagenarian in the present is his young trophy wife and their toddler. Displaying a born-leader’s genius for double-talk, he intones, “Belief is important, but so is skepticism.” Family photos—linking to his extensive output of still-life’s depicting photo-based portraiture overlaid by films of gesso to reduce human history to a landslide of wayward matter—prompt more fatuous simplism from this ascetic bartender with a repertoire of cocktails speaking to myriad self-styled heroes. He points out a photo-based work of his, showing a Nazi death-camp strewn with victims’ bodies and further defaced by insensitive prison guards. In close-up, he gives us some camera-savvy, gratuitous gravitas and declares (as if looking for a tax loophole), “It never leaves me.” Similarly, he mentions that, on escaping the East German brand of correctness and piety, he was never to see his parents again. Though flipping out the catchy axiom, “You have to distrust parents,” he gives us some Family Values emoting that might even sway the Tea Party.

Driving in Cologne near the sublime and beloved Cathedral with its twin towers, he decries the ugliness of the streets, gored by systems of roadways and hemorrhaging cheap facades. Seamlessly, he lectures the city’s art museum staff on necessary lighting changes for a show of his, being mounted there. Thus exuding a low-key crusade, he leads us into contact with an extensive cast of players sustaining the socioeconomic cocoon within which his toiling represents a sacred inspiration, eliciting movie-star-level batteries of flash and video-cameras, reverential interviews and testimonials, and hordes of big talkers and big spenders (delighted to be in on a skeptical coup and, at the same time, a surreptitious windfall of tolerance for simplistic and timorous habits).

Gerhard Richter Painting discloses the mystery of art in its evolving to a reactionary bailiwick wherein canny developers can gratifyingly market to a vast clientele for benediction of their adulterated, curtailed (as with Lautrec’s legs) and violently elitist consciousness. The problematic drama implicit in Moulin Rouge and The Mystery of Picasso—whereby the hoi polloi are to be carefully engaged over a most strenuous scope, and not zoned (as by cordon sanitaire) into historical backwaters where their rude proclivities can stagnate harmlessly—reaches us with remarkable incisiveness in Belz’s film. As a rather forbidding vehicle in an already forbidding genre, it won’t be widely seen (and ironically it will mainly attract those unprepared to hearken to its more than pseudo daring). But it joins the other two works as a repository of exciting refinement regarding the artfulness of dynamics.