The Forgotten

The Forgotten

In the absence of anywhere else to write this, I'll put it here. I've been obsessed in the last three weeks with this painting of Christ and the woman of Samaria, finished sometime before 1504 by Juan de Flandes after the mathematical revolution in perspective by Masaccio and before, or slightly parallel to, the gaudiness of the High Renaissance. This painting sits somewhere between these two points, and is simpler than what was standard for either (in fact it reminds me most of all of the scene opening Casa de Lava where the doctor hangs an IV on a nearby tree). What is striking is that the painting maintains the general aesthetic credo of the Renaissance, designed around a simple pyramid built around the trinity and suggestive of religious transcendence as it guides the eye naturally up; but what tops the pyramid and gives it its shape is neither a crucifix nor some natural setting nor even an individually personified representative of godliness (Christ, Mary, etc.) but a manmade well pulling water forth from the earth. That is to say it is a strikingly sacrilegious painting: what it deifies is a manmade achievement, the ability to transform the earth so as to be useful to human community. (From this there is undoubtedly a leap to be made to connect the image to the developing commercial capital of the Netherlands, the Italian city states, or the Spain in which Flandes worked - the painting was itself commissioned by Isabel I, who had some ten years prior financed Columbus' voyage to the New World - but that's for another to say.) It's an image completely evacuated of any mystery, but it's for this reason that it's an easy painting to take for granted; flipping through a photo collection of various late Medieval and early Renaissance paintings, it stands out only for its simplicity. Life narrativized through action and not character. And so it is as well with De Seta. There are too many devices in his films to be properly called minimal, nor subdued (they're very loud), but they are largely conceptually simple films of community and labor. Most of all they're not sentimental and in this they are very far from the strand of naturalists in the American avant-garde from Brakhage to Dorsky with whom De Seta may otherwise by compared, a difference marked very probably by the relative incompletion of the project of primitive accumulation in Sicily at the time of his filmmaking which left the rural working community something other than the total alienation of the American films. Anyway I emphasize this film not only for its similar verticality to the Flandes painting but likewise for the tension evident in its climatic image (evidently the defining one of his career) between the human climber scaling the manmade wooden pillar in contrast to the huge mountain in the background. In both his "little history" of photography and his essay on mechanical reproduction, Benjamin uses the same metaphor for the aura abolished by photography, that of being under the imposing shadow of a tree branch. Photography repeats for aesthetics what other machinery achieved elsewhere in agriculture in that it proves the capacity to change the world by finding one's place in it. The athletic achievement of this film places it in a lineage from Lloyd to Matt Barney, but only in this context, so counterposed against the natural backdrop, does it do real justice to human achievement.