Friday, January 20, 2006

Picked Flick #66: Dream of Light (El Sol del Membrillo)

My friend and comrade in cinephilia Tim Robey treasures the film Vanya on 42nd Street, naming it as a personal favorite though he has only seen it once—in part, it seems, because he has only seen it once, or even more specifically, because it imbues its viewers with an impulse to see it only once, to savor it as a memory rather than as a living-place or a possession. I can easily see how the empyrean theatricality of Vanya, ranked at #74 on this very list, could engender this kind of self-imposed and almost sacralizing distance, which I take to be a kind of loyalty, and a recognition of those precious instants when cinema shines its light on the magic essence of some other art form. A different film, Victor Erice's Dream of Light, is my own touchstone for this kind of closely harbored adoration. Like Vanya it offers an awe-inspiring marriage between two arts, and does so with such absolute humility and such expert, inviting simplicity that you trust and absorb it immediately. The corroboration of further viewings feels unnecessary, perhaps even undesirable.

Dream of Light is a Spanish film. Its original title, El Sol del Membrillo, translates more directly as "The Sun of the Quince Tree," and several prints name the film as The Quince Tree Sun. Only in America, as far as I know, was the film released as Dream of Light, and this confusion over titles both augments and reflects how elusive and ephemeral the movie is. Tracking it down, looking it up, even invoking it in conversation is a serpentine process, a series of choices that circle the film instead of leading right to it. The subject of the film, also deceptively simple, is the languid, patient process by which the painter Antonio López Garcia commits the image of a quince tree to his canvas. The process of painting, the interplay it requires between eye and mind, its status as a dynamic rather than a static art, was never really clear to me before I saw this movie. That López Garcia labors over a still-life of a tree, not a Pollock eruption or a Bacon abjection or a series of Van Gogh swirls, only enhances the revelation. His eye measures the tree and its bounty of leaves and fruit each hour of each day, so attentively that the viewer gradually shares in this observant acuity, if only for 135 minutes, and with greater and greater admiration for how López Garcia, aided by mundane tools and scrupulous geometrics, translates such seeing into a new, existing object. At least cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who achieved international fame a decade later with The Others and Talk to Her, has got the jump on us here, judging and rendering López Garcia's world with a comparable grace and luminescence.

Happily, and credibly, López Garcia's painstaking devotions to both his subject and his art are not conveyed as something that excludes him from the group. His days percolate with dialogues—with his wife, with visiting friends, with fellow artists, with workers helping to renovate the house behind which he paints. Dream of Light explodes the romantic myth of the solitary artist with zero fuss or fireworks, even as it makes transparent how inward, idiosyncratic, and unlinguistic the work of the painter is. Positioned as one among many kinds of laborer, as one amid a slightly ragtag but genial and hospitable community of talkers, watchers, and creators, López Garcia emerges more fully as a character than do the protagonists of almost any fiction films or documentaries. The fact that Dream of Light blurs that distinction, too, evaporating its relevance almost from the first scene, is another of the major coups of this peerlessly modest but truly singular movie. When I reminisce about Dream of Light, I get so enamored of what I remember (perhaps even wrongly so!) that I feel briefly compelled to seek it out, to watch it immediately and regularly, and to learn how much more it surely contains and reveals. But something keeps me from doing this, and for now, I'll keep listening to that something. But I hope you won't. At least once. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger tim r said...

I must seek this out - but it's so rare and expensive! Sorry to throw such vulgar fiscal considerations into such a lovely bit of flick-picking. What I might do is add a further layer of serendipity to my search by just waiting for it to turn up in an art-house VHS bargain bin somewhere, which is eminently possible around here. Artificial Eye put it out about a decade ago. Imagine!

Did you ever catch that portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet? Worth seeing for Erice's segment alone - it's quite extraordinary - but the hit rate was actually remarkably high. Great stuff from Herzog, Jarmusch, even Spike Lee...

10:56 AM, January 20, 2006  

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