Given the post-holiday lull and the unusually inhospitable weather – see: ‘polar vortex’ – I’ve been pessimistic about going art foraging lately. Fortunately, during a recent day of hibernation I loaded up Werner Herzog’s “Happy People” about residents of Siberia living in Neolithic conditions, and my post-holiday disenchantment melted away.
“If these people can make snowshoes from fallen fir trees and catch mink with snare traps, I can’t complain about how long it takes the interior of my car to heat up.” So vortex be damned I drove to Milwaukee to attend the opening of Gavin Brown’s exhibition at the Green Gallery.
Normally I wouldn’t frontload a review with biographical information offering details of the artist’s day job, but in some cases, ignoring such information is an even greater distraction than the alternative. Like when Jay Z went on his performance art jag. If you reviewed “Picasso Baby” without recognizing Him, the all-out genuflection of the art world in those ridiculous videos would seem especially absurd. Or when Dylan had his show at Gagosian, they had to begin the publicity release with an acknowledgement of his cultural significance outside the painting world if only to pacify the elephant in the room.
This is the case, if to a slightly lesser degree, with impresario, gallerist, taste-maker, and now artist, Gavin Brown, whose show, (which seems eponymously titled, though might not actually have a proper name??) runs through March 2. For someone crossing over, Brown appears to have a genuine sensitivity to the psychological possibilities of video. Though his installation is demonstrative and dramatic, it is deftly paced and masterfully controlled. “Gavin Brown,” or whatever the show is called, is a subtle journey that leaves a far less subtle psychic residue.
But to get this resounding impact, one needs to bathe in his work without distraction. This happened to be an impossibility at the opening of the show, when the gallery teemed with revelers, forced inside by extreme cold. The installation features two independent projections: one on the shortest wall of the triangular interior, and another that 360’s the gallery like a lighthouse beacon at about eye-level. This, along with its shrill soundtrack of screaming and pulsating alarms, made it impossible to totally escape the presence of the work at the opening, though visitors using the show as a social engagement tried anyway.
The Green Gallery’s John Riepenhoff speculated that the clumsy Beckett-esque interaction with the audience might have been intentional, symbolic of the artist’s own relationship between viewers and makers. To what degree this is purposeful, it happens to be an incredibly generous metaphor.
A review by Michael Horne in Milwaukee’s, Third Coast Daily corroborates the tenor of the evening.
“At one point the projection was accompanied by many, many minutes of fire alarms or smoke detector signals, a bit hard on the ears in the whitebox gallery. People of a certain height (4’-7’’) might also find the harsh glare of the rotating projector’s lens a bit hard on the eyes as well…But this mattered not to the mostly young and enthusiastic audience. Plus, for escape, the back room of the gallery offered a sparse gathering space for networking, conversation and carbonated beverages.”
More impressive than any statement about the awkward relationship between opening receptions and ideal art viewing, is the full, unadulterated experience of Brown’s work, an opportunity I had several days later when I returned to the empty gallery.
One is prone, even if a veteran of non-narrative video art, to search for continuity. Even moreso in Brown’s piece, as each of the videos is comprised of panning shots of a single domestic interior. A somewhat distressed woman’s voice initiates the disquieting experience to come. One naturally assumes the perspective of this invisible presence and inhabits her throughout.
If the opening was a real model Panopticon, the projector chasing imprisoned spectators around an actual enclosure, the piece without an audience is a virtual prison, the viewer trapped and becoming ever more paranoid with each revolution of the swiveling projector.
One might call it suspense, but there’s nothing building or changing. Besides a book whose cover reads “Keep Calm and Good Luck,” and some devotional statues that might be on lookout, there’s no sign of anything but comfort and safety. But the point of view and the scanning motion, that is, the form of the piece, does what one might normally expect from content. What one expects is some kind of a problem. Some kind of disruption. We grow fearful of what’s outside. When an occasional car rolls up the streets outside the house, it feels sinister and phobic.
What is the relationship between the two shots? They’re of the same prosaic interior, so one can’t help but toggle nervously between the two searching for a sign of incongruity, which, in this context, would be problematic. This creation of this context is Brown’s achievement. Why not expect a welcome guest? Why not a surprise birthday party or children coming from playing outside?
Because we assume the camera’s point-of-view, which is scanning, not looking. And it feels defensive, so we feel paranoid.
Ten minutes in, the persistent continuity is finally broken on the main wall by a series of close-ups: a locked window; a staircase; an airvent; a leaking hot water faucet. Each is accompanied by its own irritating alarm sound. With the broken silence, anxiety redlines to the point that one locks up and comes to, finally resetting and reorienting with the real interior. The one that’s been built out to hide any trace of natural light or hint of the outside world. The one that feels like a bunker that is closing in. And one wants out. At least I wanted out.
Out where it was 4 degrees and nearly as oppressive.
I don’t know how many strata of meta Gavin Brown intentionally planned on laying down, but they worked to great effect, getting me just a few steps short of cabin fever.
Not a bad first effort for someone best known for showing other peoples’ art.
Work by Sebastian Alvarez, Jeremy Bolen, Irina Botea, Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Robert Burnier, Marcus Coates, Assaf Evron, Carrie Gundersdorf, Institute of Contemporary Zoology, Jenny Kendler, Devin King, Stephen Lapthisophon, Milan Metthey, Rebecca Mir, Heidi Norton, Okosua Adoma Owusu, Katie Patterson, Tessa Siddle, and Xaviera Simmons with AOO.
Gallery 400 is located at 400 S. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Sarah and Joseph Belknap
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Edie Fake.
Links Hall is located at 3111 N. Western Ave. Reception Friday, 7-9pm.
Work by Hannah Ireland.
Spudnik Pressis located at 1821 W. Hubbard St. Reception Saturday, 6-9pm.
Work by Jake Myers.
TRITRIANGLE is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. 3rd Fl. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Just as divisions in artistic mediums and practices are blurring, so too are the distinctions between artists and designers. The farther we move away from the entrenchments of Modernism, the more this trend is likely to continue. This month, I spoke with three designers of diverse backgrounds working in and around Detroit as a place of inspiration, community and revival. From the elegant reworkings of Modernist forms emphasizing beauty in the handmade of Brian DuBois, to the decidedly analog textural surfaces adorning Chris Schanck’s startling furniture, to the unexpected combination of industrial and natural materials to create incredibly organic and mesmerizing surfaces in the work of Jack Craig, designing on a small scale provides opportunities for spontaneity, chance, and individuality. During our recent conversation, we discussed how small production can return design to richer, more powerful connections with the user.
From left: Brian DuBois, Jack Craig and Chris Schanck in Brian’s shop, Hazel Park, MI
We become disconnected to design through all the filters a product goes through, all the separate hands and intentions that shape the product. Not only does this remove the designer from their work, but it is somewhat antithetical to what design sets out to do: empowering our tangible and lived experience in the world. As the three of you largely manufacture your own designs, how does this inform your work, as well as the conversation around contemporary design?
Brian: The beauty of having a shop space and making your own work is that you’re able to make decisions right there. You understand the materials and the fabrication, unlike if you were in a traditional firm where all you’re doing are pretty renderings all day. Anyone can draw the fancy picture; but its not until you get your hands dirty that you say “oh man, I can’t bend steel this way. I have to go to aluminum.” And that changes up the whole game for your idea.
Chris: There’s a difference in the way Brian works and the way you describe off the shelf mass produced industrial design, and it’s that there’s an unknown or distrust in the perfection of product design. They have no visual history. The way Brian works, there is room for imperfection. If you look at his “Detroit on a Platter”: he walked through the streets of Detroit measuring, taking photographs, doing his citywide site analysis with eyes on the street, rather than fly by on Google Maps. So I trust in that process, although it may be full of errors. There is an authenticity there that you don’t find in an off the shelf product.
B: When people know that you did it by hand, then there is the aura of the artist. When you look at Jack and Schanck’s work, they can’t be mass produced. We’re not at that market of selling through Herman Miller or Knoll.
Jack: I have worked a little in industry. I would agree – the pure intentions of positively engaging the “lived experience” is undeniably diluted by the demands of market and the economics of production. And yes, to some degree, operating outside of industry allows you to preserve a more human agenda. It still has its limitations. I wouldn’t say one is better – they are just different. Our lifestyles are completely dependent on the innovations of industry. Sure there is an over-saturation of product – mostly misplaced propositions for happiness. It is capitalistic and flawed. But to an extent it is also largely self-policing and fundamentally optimistic. Good design has a way of surviving. The bigger issue is the colossal waste generated.
Would you find yourself in line with the designer, the craftsman and the fine artist equally, does it balance differently, or does this matter at all?
B: My background was in Architecture, so mostly (I made) rectilinear forms and hardly any organic stuff. I had to break out of that shell. The furniture I’m doing is more rectilinear, but other stuff I’m working on is a merging of both. But its also about trying to do everything in my shop by myself.
C: It’s the blending of those disciplines and more that is defining the contemporary zeitgeist. Our world is too complex to work with it through only one discipline now. If art contextualizes ideas and design simplifies them it makes sense to find the common ground between our disciplines. If my limits are that it has to be reproducible and has to meet a standard of perfection, than how far can it go the other way if I don’t have those same constraints? We’re on the fringe of a traditional design practice. If it was designed for mass production it would have to meet certain criteria, but if we accept the idea that it doesn’t have to be reproducible and doesn’t have to mimic a commercial form, or process, then what are the limits of that?
Studio assistants Neppa and Nirma applying gold tinted foil to Chris’s furniture. Detroit, MI
B: There’s still a lot of decent furniture makers that make their solid wood stuff by hand, but thats all high price point, so I guess its a matter of finding out where you want to be.
J: There is opportunity to operate outside of industry while not existing wholly independent of it. Industry is fine tuned for maximum efficiencies – the quickest and most economical means of production on a massive level. This is a kind of extreme. We’re operating somewhere on the other end – possibly the least efficient means of production. But it is not traditional handmade – its craft imposed on hyper-engineered materials and processes.
C: There are new materials that don’t have form yet, outside of their industrial form. In Jack’s case, he takes industrial materials and makes them beautiful and mysterious. I mean they’re waste pipes that carry our shit! And he turns them into show stopping work.
B: Its application too, like rethinking the functionality of a piece. So having the craft, the design… being able to bounce in all kinds of realms. A lot of it is: “If this is what I want the end product to be, how do I get there?”
Our relationship to materials is always changing, so thinking of certain types of wood or stone can seem like materials with a limited availability, while plastics, and other petroleum products appear to be limitless, even though they there are unsustainable and rely on our oil supply. Yet, the highly processed nature of them, requiring a lot of human intervention, makes them seem like they have no end, like there is an internet effect on them.
“CORK1 Series” by Brian DuBois. Coffee Table, side table, end table and LED light (not shown). Photo credit: PD Rearick
C: With new opportunities in material there is less precedent to draw from. It’s exciting; I tightrope walk of sorts, long way to fall down but worth the risk. But like the Internet we pull from, sample and re-mix historical references in new contexts. My work is full of disparate historical art, design and film references, but I try and avoid any one dominant reference, leaving more room for interpretation.
B: Its important to take the materials and find out what their breaking points are. If you look at Jack’s work, he heated up a (PVC) tube and started bending it and breaking it. In his “Broken Board” Series, he started breaking (the boards) with his bare hands [laughs]. So its also about what can we get from these forms without overly analyzing the fabrication process.
C: Maybe the pink foam is something easy that anyone can shape, so it takes less craft and skill at first. We’ve become babes in the woods when it comes to traditional materials and processes. We approach pink foam with the same naivety as we would primitive materials like stone or wood. I don’t think this is necessarily good or bad, it just means our ways of understanding our world are shifting.
Is furniture design losing its relationship to the concerns of the middle and working classes? With all of the mass produced furniture available at giant retailers like IKEA, does the designer have to choose the market he or she wants to be a part of, or is there still room for all price brackets?
B: When you look at Mid Century Modern furniture, it really holds its value. Many people would hesitate to spend $2500 on a handcrafted coffee table, even though it could last your whole lifetime and be passed down to your children. At IKEA, the designs are OK, but their connections and workmanship are really poor. Its unsustainable and just gets thrown out in a year, goes to landfills and the cycle continues. If people are willing to spend $30 – 40K on a car which depreciates half its value as soon as they take it off the lot, why not spend a fraction of that on some really nice furniture that will last?
C: You must choose your market, and you can operate on a scale of price points. My work exists for two markets, the Art market and the Community market. One trades in the dollar the other in social currency.
As far as IKEA: My grandparents have had the same bedroom furniture suite for over 40 years.
I asked Grandma Schanck about it recently, she told me they bought it when they wed. She’s like “I hate it. Your grandfather picked it out.” So I say, “If you hate it, why did you have it for 40 years?” To me she says, “Because there’s nothing wrong with it.” What do you say to that?! Stubborn, love her to death.
So how important is taste in terms of function? Conceptually, I think IKEA is cool; it could do with more range in attitude but I like that you can change furnishings quickly and inexpensively as you change your identity. I don’t operate in that market, but I love lingonberries, so it’s all good. I would never deliberately try and make anything timeless. I expect my work could be outdated before we get through this interview.
J: I don’t have anything against IKEA. In some ways, they offer an education. I don’t think we tend to get the same design exposure in this country as you would elsewhere in the world. I grew up thinking that turned table legs would be something I wanted in my own home, until a couple of years ago when I started studying (design). I don’t think anyone is at fault for the lack of exposure or education. These mass outlets where different types of furniture are being offered at a cheap level only does good, because its a gateway.
So its a starting point. As Brian said, most people would balk at the price of a handmade piece of furniture because we live in a disposable culture. But its a push and pull, right? Because some of it is a negative.
C: Sure, there is a relationship, but we all don’t still dress in the dress of the 50’s right? Everything changes and it’s a good thing. I think we hold onto that modern look and ideal because of a time it symbolized, but really that time was shit if you weren’t a white male. I’m bias but I prefer the time we live in now, so what does now look like? I mean It’s all about variety isn’t it? You can rock a Forever 21 top with Prada shoes, just as you can mix your interior with hi and low. The world’s big enough for historical and contemporary worlds to co-exist, in fact it helps us locate ourselves in time.
J: None of us can afford our own furniture, so this conversation is a little funny. [laughs] We are on an extreme pole where we make things for a gallery, so its in the vein of an artist, and our endgame isn’t to bring cheap, affordable furniture to the masses.
“PVC Series: Pressed” by Jack Craig. PVC water mains heated and pressured on stone.
Chris, you mentioned you had a project for a class you teach at Lawrence Tech (University), where you were trying to get your class to address “the failings of Modernism”. Can the three of you elaborate on that idea?
C: Modernism doesn’t address the tastes of individuals. We designers and artists alike are often guilty of making work with a perfect resting or display place in mind for our work. Whether an untarnished white cube, a compliant scenario or an empty level lot. But the world and our aging built environment is a messy and wonderfully imperfect place.
So as a class we locate our work in a very real context. I take my Furniture Design students into the home of a participating family in Banglatown, Detroit. The family welcomes the students and provides them with a specific cultural context for their designs. In addition to pragmatic needs, the students’ work takes shape through a lens of feminine modernity. Where taste and decoration play as important a role as dimensional relationships. The student’s work lives on in the interior of the family’s home.
B: As designers, it’s important to have that client contact, as they may have a whole new perspective. Sometimes you have to ask people what they want from a coffee table or a kitchen table. There has to be something else involved besides making it look cool. There has to be a functionality specific to the person… sometimes the function has more importance than the form, and sometimes meeting in the middle is really hard.
C: What I’ve learned from working with other people that Modernism doesn’t address is that taste matters, no matter how much money you have. I went sofa shopping with the same clients for them to purchase a set of sofas at a second hand furniture shop and it came down to two sets. One was more comfortable but had the wrong aesthetic, and the other was less comfortable but looked the way they wanted. The decision was still made favoring aesthetics opposed to comfort. Theres a trade off made on one side of the spectrum. So when we design work for the couture market, there’s a tradeoff there too, maybe with performance again over look. What’s missing in IKEA furniture is the personality: the chips on the surfaces and being customizable, reflecting you and not just every other person that has the same thing. And thats what our work starts to do. The range of human experience and emotion is far too great for only one type of aspirational design. We want Mozart and Miley, at least I do.
What sort of trends are you seeing right now in design and working in Detroit that you hope continue this year?
C: I think the trends are really exciting right now. We live in a city where the roles of artist, citizen, designer and architect are all blurred into a maker culture. That culture is innovating with social entrepreneurship and practice. The community of makers here is my biggest inspiration, they’re my creative heroes. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be practicing.
“Gold Studio Desk” by Chris Schanck
B: Being here my whole life, you see it in waves. I’m just afraid that this movement doesn’t die down in two years and then its back to totally talking shit about Detroit. The city was always set up for fabrication because of the auto industry, so I think its one of the only cities that has everything you need to make, from materials to labor. To be able to come to my shop and know I only have to drive up to a half hour to get anything I want is a good thing. Rent is cheap here, which is causing a lot of people from other cities to move here. You can get a lot of space for pennies on the dollar compared to NY or Chicago.
J: We are in the middle of a Memphis revival. It’s all faux finishes, large geometric shapes, high saturated disparate colors, and squiggle lines. What does it mean now that we’re seeing it again 30 years later? I’m not sure. The movement originally was characterized by a sort of exuberance, satire, and anti-good taste. I think these things are still present but now that it’s being recycled it means something a little different. It is like because it’s pulled from the ‘80s, it is somehow even more anti-taste. Maybe it’s the design equivalent of the horror genre. It’s pain crossed with pleasure.
What do you have in store for the coming year?
B: I’m downscaling things this year and focusing on smaller projects. I’ve got some lights I’m working on, some tableware, glasses, jewelry, coaster set — just little stuff this year. Its easier to ship that stuff out. I’m still working on my furniture, but I gotta keep scratchin at doors to get my products out there. Maybe this will lead to some larger manufacturing. I always have to be busy, otherwise I go crazy.
C: Jack and I are doing a show this May at Johnson Trading Gallery in NYC.
Then I’m preparing for a show at Almine Rech this September in Paris.
Brian DuBois and Chris Schanck earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI in 2011. Jack Craig earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook in 2012. Thanks to the three of them for taking the time to meet with me and discuss their work and ideas. Thanks also to Brian for hosting us in his shop. For more of their work, check out the following sites:
Guest Post: This essay is part of series by David Carl
One hour, one minute, and 39 seconds into The Godfather, Michael stands outside the hospital where his wounded father lies. Seven minutes and 6 seconds later he stands outside the same hospital and lights a cigarette for Enzo the baker. In the course of those 7 minutes everything has changed in the life of Michael Corleone.
I’d like to move slowly through the hospital scene, lingering on a few specific images that provide us with visual clues to this transformation, and say a few things about the techniques Coppola employs to create what I consider to be the scene of maximum dramatic tension and suspense in the movie. It is significant that this moment of maximum drama is also the moment of transformation for the movie’s main character.
Before examining the hospital scene in detail I should point out that, at one level, nothing really happens in the scene. Instead, the action is devoted to avoiding what could happen, or what will happen if Michael doesn’t take firm and decisive steps to prevent it. We might say that the action in the hospital scene is internal, rather than external. The action takes places within Michael, and within us, as viewers and interpreters of this internal action. For other than brief interactions with a nurse who remains virtually faceless throughout the scene, with his speechless father lying in bed, and with the civilian baker Enzo about whom we heard but who we did not meet in the scene in the Don’s office during Connie’s wedding, Michael plays the scene alone.
Throughout the hospital scene there is no actual violence, though the end of the scene is punctuated by the violent moment when Captain McKluskey, brilliantly played by Sterling Hayden (see Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Johnny Guitar, Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, and Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye among others), breaks Michael’s jaw. Coppola creates the moment of greatest suspense in the movie through suggestion and possibility, rather than through direct action. In comparison, the scenes in which Luca Brasi is garroted, Don Vito is gunned down in the street, Michael shoots Sollozo and McKluskey, Carlo beats Connie and Sonny beats Carlo, and Michael’s hitmen eliminate the enemies of the Corleone family, are all more intense “action sequences”, but they lack the suspense and excitement of the hospital scene created by the tension of the possible as opposed to the actual.
As I said, the hospital scene begins at 1:01:39 and ends 7 minutes later at 1:08:45. It consists of a total of 72 cuts and shots. Walter Murch, who was a close friend of Coppola’s during the shooting of The Godfather and worked as the editor and sound editor on several of his movies said this about editing Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:
“. . . at the end of it all, when the film was safely in the theaters, I sat down and figured out the total number of days that we (the editors) had worked, divided that number by the number of cuts that were in the finished product, and came up with the rate of cuts per editor per day—which turned out to be . . . 1.47!” (Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye)
Granted, Murch’s example from Apocalypse Now is offered as one extreme of the editing process; but if Murch’s average did hold true for this particular scene in The Godfather it would mean that an experienced editor, working 8-hour days, would have needed 7 weeks to edit the hospital scene. That’s a minute of film per week. Averaged over the entire movie, that would mean it would have taken 3 and a half years to edit the entire three-hour movie. These numbers help us appreciate that each of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene is part of a carefully choreographed and well thought-out vision of the effects the scene is intended to achieve. Some cuts last nearly 30 seconds, others last an instant, but every one of them has been constructed to lend to the overall impact of the scene as a whole.
The scene starts with the hospital entryway: the archway framed by feeble but colorful Christmas lights offers virtually the only bright colors in the movie for the next 7 minutes. This façade may remind literary viewers of the arch under which Dante passes as he enters Hell which bears the warning, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. And for Michael this scene does represent the end of one particular kind of hope.
Of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene, this initial view of the archway framed by twinkling Christmas lights is the longest at 28 seconds. The scene opens with a view of this archway, allows a taxi to pull into frame and deposit Michael into the scene without cutting, and ends with Michael moving toward the building he is about to enter. The camera angle makes Michael look small in comparison to the looming, ominous archway and staircase he is about the climb. Small and virtually lost in shadow, Michael approaches the staircase. Seven minutes later, when Michael is again on the stairs, the camera angle is shifted and medium close-up shots are used so that Michael looks larger and more significant.
We linger for a full 28 seconds on this shot to build suspense, which the music in the soundtrack emphasizes, and because it is beautifully composed. The use of light, shadow, color and camera angle create a beautiful image of a threatening façade that Michael must penetrate as a first step in his own journey toward replacing his father and becoming the Godfather. This archway serves as a frame through which Michael will pass and, in the course of a few minutes, be transformed, entering into a stage of his life that his status as a “war hero” and his relationship with non-Italian Kay suggested he had been able to escape. But his passage through this eerily lit archway into the hospital is also a passage into a life that neither he nor his father had ever wanted or expected him to take.
The first cut is to an empty hospital hallway. Throughout the hospital scene empty hallways are used to create tension and suspense. Some of these shots only last a few seconds, but they have a significant dramatic effect. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia about how George Lucas helped Coppola add these empty hallway shots in after the scene had been shot to build dramatic tension. This footage was found among originally discarded strips of film.)
As with the shot of the entryway, this shot starts with a fixed view of a stationary location into which motion is introduced by means of a side entrance. In the first shot an arriving taxi; here, Michael who is now inside the hospital. The taxi’s entrance is from the left of the screen; Michael’s entrance balances this motion by coming from the right. These establishing shots first introduce the audience to the setting, and then allow action to move into the frame that has already been established by the stationary camera.
There is something beautiful about the nauseous hospital green of the cramped corridors through which Michael walks and through which he and the nurse maneuver the bed bearing his helpless father. The camera work is confined to these narrow passageways, which restrict our view, leaving us with the impression of the ominously unseen. This sense of the ominous is further increased by the eerie music of the soundtrack and the bizarrely repeated word “tonight” that echoes through the building, though whether as part of the external soundtrack or an inexplicable part of the ambient sounds of the hospital I can’t say. It is one of the strangest phonic devices in the entire movie. Although there is no dialogue in the movie for several minutes, these sounds are accompanied by the ambient noises of an empty building with its eerie creeks, slams and footsteps.
When I watch movies I am particularly interested in walls and doorways. Doorways, of course, are obviously important: they are both passageways for the entry and exit of characters in a scene, and they are also excellent frames for action. Just as the movie screen itself is a frame that allows the director to establish a specific shot for the audience’s contemplation, so too are doorways frames within frames. They serve to further highlight a specific image or action that appears on the screen. The most famous example of this in the Godfather, and one of the most famous in the history of cinema, is the final image in the film, during which the door slowly closes between Kay and Michael as he is receiving the loyalty of his new mafia retainers who kiss his hand and address him for the first time as “Don Corleone.” We see here most explicitly, if we did not realize it before, that the Godfather of the film’s title is not the character of Vito played by Marlon Brando, but the new Godfather played by Al Pacino.
This closing door in the final scene of the movie is more than just a symbol—it is also a physical portrayal of one of the main themes of the film: the gulf between the personal and “business” that grows wider and wider over the course of the film as the old way of doing business is gradually overwhelmed by a new way which threatens the family values that underlay the criminal empire under Vito’s control. Michael speaks of “my business” when talking to Kay, whereas Vito always spoke of “the family business.” This is characterized in the film by the never shown but often alluded to drug business, which is the precipitating crisis in the Corleone family’s fall under the old Don and rise under Michael.
Because doors are on hinges, they are not stationary frames, but swinging ones, which open (as in the scene in the hospital when Michael opens the door to his father’s room) or close (as in the final scene with Michael and Kay) in order to build tension and suspense or introduce a sense of possibility or finality. One might say that the door Michael opens in the hospital, to reveal his father whom he must first help and eventually replace, finally closes in the final scene of the movie when Michael’s transformation from “civilian” to “Godfather” is complete.
Once Michael enters the hospital we have a series of shots, some stationary, such as the medium close-up of the half-eaten sandwich, suggesting a hasty departure, and some tracking shots, such as of Michael’s movement through the hallways, that start to build up a sense of dramatic tension. A realization is dawning on Michael, as it is on us the audience, that all is not right here. What started out as a routine visit to the hospital has transformed into a crucial moment for Michael.
The realization is marked first by the close-up of Michael’s face, in which Pacino’s eyes and mouth express the first signs of concern. This is immediately followed by a shot of Michael running. In all of these shots, the camera remains stationary, which means that characters move towards or away from it, coming in and out of focus and obscuring the camera’s line of vision with parts of their bodies.
After his hurried motion through the hallways Michael slows to a walk as he approaches the fateful door to his father’s room. Here we have the cautious opening of a door onto a new world which I have suggested is the compliment to the closing door between Michael and Kay at the end of the movie.
Until this point, the hospital scene has been silent except for the soundtrack and ambient noises. The first spoken lines, by a minor character in the film, are a question and a statement: “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here,” the nurse says. Her comment is more right than she realizes. Michael is not supposed to be here. He has tried to stay free of the “family business,” but the pull of family, and perhaps of business as well, is more powerful than he knew. In response to the nurse’s question he must assert an identity which his military uniform during the wedding scene and his relationship with Kay, obviously strained in the scene immediately preceding the hospital scene, has tried to deny, “I am Michael Corleone,” he says, as if acknowledging it for the first time. “This is my father.”
As Michael and the nurse are moving Vito’s bed, the soundtrack introduces the sound of Enzo’s footsteps. Waiting for the person who these footsteps precede, we see the striking close-up of Michael’s face, the right side obscured by another doorframe, as if to suggest the dual nature of the character who is being faced with a life-changing decision—a decision which will gradually lead to the eclipse of the “right” side of his character, as the left, “sinister” side comes forward; in literature the left side is the side of “Satan and all his works” which Michael claims to denounce during the baptism scene at the end of the movie—at the very moment when it is most apparent.
This shot of the left half of Michael’s face is followed by the gorgeously composed shot of an empty hospital corridor we first saw as the second shot of the scene. There is nothing unusual about this shot, which is precisely what makes it so striking. There is an exit sign, a bulletin board visible at the far end of the hallway, a fire extinguisher, a pair of benches and a hospital cart for wheeling patients. The shot is lit by hospital lighting that gives an eerie glow to the sickly green but immaculately clean walls and floor. At the end of the hall is a staircase, from which we expect, given the expectant tension on Michael’s face, to see some unknown figure emerge at any moment. But the hallway remains empty. Again, nothing happens, but it is precisely this “nothing” that carries the tension and suspense of the scene.
Perhaps this shot feels so real because it is not a set, but an actual hospital. But now seen with the added intensity created by this scene in the movie, it is a hospital corridor as we have never seen it before. It has become, due to the dramatic tension of the film, almost hyper-real, and we as viewers have been brought to a heightened sense of observational awareness. We are looking at the corridor of a hospital we might never bother to notice if we actually found ourselves waiting there for a doctor or a sick friend. As an object of dramatic and aesthetic contemplation the film doesn’t merely ask us to look at this hallway, but educates us in the art of seeing as well, training us to become more observant and better seers of what we are watching and by extension, of the world around us.
Now the cuts come more quickly, building dramatic tension, and culminating in the shadowing figure of Enzo’s back as it emerges from the staircase, his arm cocked and hand concealed as if holding a weapon. He is dressed in the long black coat and hat we’ve come to think of as the gangster’s uniform in the movie (as opposed, for example, to the military uniform worn by Michael earlier in the film, or the tasteless civilian garb of characters like Freddo, Carlo, and Mo Green). But with the next cut we see the innocent face of Enzo, carrying not a gun, but a bouquet of flowers for the injured Don. Enzo has come to show his respect, and to express his gratitude for the Don’s help in resolving his emigration problems. And here Michael repeats the nurse’s question from a minute ago, “Who are you?” It seems that the hospital scene is intent on confronting Michael with this central question of identity: who is Michael, and how will he come to realize who he really is? Enzo’s offer to stay and help if there is going to be trouble, “for your father, for your father” he repeats, is the first sign of loyalty to Michael that we will see symbolized by the kissing of his hand at the end of the film. This gesture too is mirrored by Michael, who kisses his father’s hand after telling him, “I’m with you now.” Only Michael’s kiss is quite different from the kisses of deferential respect he will receive at the end of film, or that Vito receives from Bonasera the undertaker at its beginning.
Michael’s “I’m with you now; I’m with you” brings a tear to his father’s eye, which in the context of this scene looks like a tear of paternal love for a son he thought had grown away from him, but by the end of the film, especially in light of the scene in which Vito confesses his aspirations for Michael, that he might have become a judge or a senator, may be read as a tear of sorrow that his favorite son was unable to resist the pull of the “family business” and make a new life for himself in America, just as the dreams of Bonasera the undertaker in the possibilities of America are dashed by the assault on his daughter and the impotence of the American justice system in the face of this crime.
At 1:07 we have the beautiful shot of Enzo’s face, waiting on the steps outside the hospital for Michael. Now Michael will exit through the archway he passed under only 6 minutes earlier. Six minutes which, whether he knows it or not, have completely changed his entire life. Now the colors of the Christmas lights are complimented by the color of the flowers Enzo carries. Flowers of gratitude for the Godfather’s favors and protection, but also flowers which may remind us, because of the link between Enzo and Bonasera in the first scene of the movie, of something ominous and funeral. Significantly, Michael will briskly toss them away when he comes out of the hospital to prepare Enzo for the illusion of being a mafia bodyguard. Flowers have no place in this new world he is preparing to take up residency in.
This transformation is given visible expression in the famous scene of Michael lighting Enzo’s cigarette and noticing, without surprise or elation, but rather with a kind of detached observational objectivity, the steadiness of his hands. It is as if Michael is realizing, despite years of attempting to deny it to both himself and those around him, who and what he is. The steady hands are a sign of this internal identity, brought forth by the crisis threatening his father’s life that he has just faced and overcome.
Perhaps Enzo is framed so beautifully because he is the final image of the life Michael could have had and rejects, partially out of love for his father, and partially to fulfill a destiny he was born to and could not avoid. Earlier I referred to Enzo as a civilian. This is how other characters refer to Michael, despite the fact that he first appears in the movie in a military uniform, when they are preparing him for the meeting with Sollozo and McKluskey. But they are wrong and the uniform is right: by the end of the hospital scene, Michael is no longer a civilian, if he ever really was one in his heart. He is “with his father”, and forever separated from the world of bakers and undertakers represented by the beautifully shot Enzo standing alone on the hospital steps. Enzo now represents the world that Michael can protect or exploit, do or extract “favors” for or from, but it is not the world he will occupy. Enzo is an image of the Michael who could have been.
Finally we have the dramatic climax of the hospital scene, where Michael and Enzo stand on the stairway outside the hospital and Michael reaches into his coat for a gun that isn’t there in order to scare off the hitmen who have come to kill his father. Here too we have a moment of suggestion rather than actual action. Michael scares off the men with his confidence—with the threat of violence rather than the act of violence.
At 1:08:45 the hospital scene ends, with the smoke from Enzo’s cigarette partially obscuring Michael’s face, as if to again emphasize the internal transformation with external visual cues.
In many ways The Godfather is a violent movie and also a movie about violence. But is there not another kind of violence, done to the movie itself, by the viewer who engages in the type of analysis I’ve been doing here? What about the hermeneutic violence performed on the film by the critic? We have lingered over details that would be almost invisible to an audience watching the movie as it was intended to be experienced, in a theatre, without the luxury of a “pause” button and the high resolution of dvd and Blu-ray technology. There is a sense in which this kind of analysis performs an act of violence on the film, tearing apart and looking in isolation at images which were intended to be seen as part of a smoothly flowing whole. But there is another sense in which this kind of artificial viewing attempts to recreate, in order to more deeply understand and appreciate, the acts of creation that gave birth to the film as a work of art in the first place.
When we recall what Walter Murch said about averaging 1.47 cuts a day while editing Apocalypse Now, and then think about the 72 cuts that comprise the hospital scene, we can appreciate the painstaking care and attention that goes into creating each scene in a great movie, a care and attention that both warrants and demands our own thoughtfulness and reflection at their most attentive. When we watch a movie we discover the same truth we encounter when we read a great work of literature or philosophy: there is great pleasure in the having of an idea. And it is in the service of this pleasure of ideas that we perform such acts of analysis and interpretation.
David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for Curious Oyster Seminars, and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Forecasts and Predictions, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.
Oh Internet, I love you so much! You are so good to me, bringing the world’s knowledge right into my living room. I’ve written previously about film archives, Google Books, and online galleries. To me, this is the promise of the digital age. Today, I’d like to tell you of two new archives I’ve have recently discovered.
The Internet Music Score Library Project, also called the Petrucci Music Library, is an online archive of mostly sheet music. This library is based on the wiki model, so it is a collaborative project. All of the works are copyright free with the exception of contemporary works, which are uploaded with the express consent of the composer under the Creative Commons License. The library is vast and easily navigable. One of the things I find most interesting about this site is that the scores are of two types: newly typeset and also scanned. Of course, the new ones are easy to read, clear and dark. Probably, these are the best to play from. But the scanned ones are the most fun because they are complete with the cover art. Some of the scores are more than a hundred years old and the marking from their library of origin are equally as fascinating. The original illustrations on some of these compositions are art works in their own right. Sadly, you can’t search “vintage cover art,” but it literally seemed as if every third score had some amazing images. Even if you are not a musician, these illustrations are worth a look-see.
Musopen is similar to IMSLP, in that its aim to provide the world with copyright free music scores. But Musopen also has a considerable library of classical recordings available as well. Along the right hand side is a fun list of the most popular listens. I played the most popular of the day, the 1st movement of Winter from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as performed by the US Air Force Band. Maybe this has something to do with the Polar Vortex, who knows. Over the last few years, Musopen has launched a few highly successful Kickstarters to fund even more copyright free recordings. According to Wikipedia, they have successfully recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and set them free in the world. Their last Kickstarter was to record the complete works of Chopin. Musopen is a non-profit and based in California and seems to have a more lofty goal than IMSLP.
Of course, there are plenty of places to listen to classical music and to download scores, but what sets these two sites apart is that they are so comprehensive and so easy to use. You can queue up a piece of music, then pop over and look at the score.