Commentary: 'Picasso' traces movies' impact on cubism

Docu is must-see for Academy members

"Picasso" picture: Since its early days Hollywood has likened films to art and filmmakers to artists, acknowledging art's impact on cinema.

That connection lives on famously today in MGM's logo as "ars gratia artis" ("art for art's sake"), a motto that was used with an accompanying roaring lion by Goldwyn Pictures Corp. years before the 1924 merger that created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Until now, however, the fact that movies had their own impact on art during cinema's pioneer days has been little known. That's no longer the case thanks to Arne Glimcher's Oscar worthy documentary "Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies," which is screening Sunday, Sept. 7 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

As chairman of the PaceWildenstein organization Glimcher presides over three leading New York art galleries and an international roster of artists and estates. Among the many museum quality exhibitions he's organized over the course of his 50 year career in art was the April 2007 presentation "Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism." Glimcher's also worked for many years as a film producer ("Gorillas in the Mist," "Legal Eagles") and director ("The Mambo Kings," "Just Cause").

Directed and produced by Glimcher and produced by Robert Greenhut (whose many credits include Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters") and Martin Scorsese, "Picasso" was executive produced by Bonnie Hlinomaz. The film explains how Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were significantly influenced in creating cubism at the turn of the 20th Century by the technological revolution and, in particular, by such then new inventions as the cinema and aviation.

The impact of technology on Picasso and Braque is analyzed in Glimcher's documentary through interviews with Scorsese and a wide range of artists (Julian Schnabel, Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, Lucas Samaras, Coosje Van Bruggen, Robert Whitman), authors (Adam Gopnik, John Richardson), art historians (Bernice Rose, Natasha Staller, John Yau) and film historians (Tom Gunning, Kim Tomadjoglou, Jennifer Wild).

Given my own longtime interest in both the history of art and film, an early look at this one-hour documentary about how these two worlds overlapped about a hundred years ago left me eager to learn more by talking to Glimcher. It's one of the year's best documentaries and having already had the required theatrical showings it's a film Academy members should make a point of seeing and seriously considering for best documentary feature.

"As you know, my other life -- I guess my primary life -- is the art world," he told me. "I had been perplexed for years about the origin of Picasso's distortion of the human face. You can look at (his) works and they're almost a joke. You know, two eyes on the same side of the head, the nose twisted, the mouth in the wrong place -- almost cartoonish. On the other hand, they have extraordinary poignancy. So how do they escape being a cartoon and having (instead) this gravitas or poignancy?"

After reflecting on that, he continued, "I thought that ultimately his inspiration must have been film -- the idea that you could simultaneously show multiple facets of a human face or a human figure. The only place that that really exists is in cinema where you can cut across scenes (with) different angles. So I began to research Picasso's involvement with cinema, which has never really been written about, and he, indeed, was a cinephile from the time he was 15 years old. He saw his first movie in Barcelona and went home and made a painting from the movie. That would have been 1895."

Through researching the film, he said, he learned that in 1900 "Picasso comes to Paris for the Exposition Universelle (the Eiffel Tower was built as the main symbol of the 1889 edition of this world's fair) and he sees a 15 meter square screen that the Lumiere Brothers are showing movies on with absolute clarity as part of the Exposition. Cinema is now a sideshow event. It's in carnivals. It's in circuses. And it's even in department stores (which) are using it as a come-on for clients. So cinema is now all around you. When Picasso's there in 1900 they're going to the cinema on a regular basis (and) a lot of the cinemas are in brasseries and bistros.

"Imagine a smoke filled room, this machine that is like some kind of creature from outer space sitting in the middle of the room projecting a beam of light through smoke and on to this wall (and) figures begin to move. The machine is an inspiration. It looks very much like the cubist figures. In fact, one of the cubist paintings ahead is a specific rendering of a projector. That cone of light is visible in all of the cubist paintings. In fact, there's no light source in the cubist paintings. It's as though you opened a door in certain areas of it and light streamed in. So everything is lit from the left or the right or as a normal portrait would be, but it's lit from all kinds of angles."

At the same time, he pointed out, "the other thing that's occurring that's really exciting is aviation. Aviation is so important on the scene as an amusement as well as an invention that Picasso and Braque by 1907 are nicknaming each other Orville and Wilbur. They saw themselves as being at the forefront of this new technology. What they were trying to do was create an art movement that in competition with cinema moved. That's really what cubist paintings are about and that is ultimately what the paintings of the '30s and the '40s that intrigued me so much for so many years come from."

Researching this also gave Glimcher an in-depth knowledge of the beginnings of moviemaking. "The entire language of film, I think, is invented by 1914," he explained. "Industrial Light and Magic has done it better and slicker (but) Melies did it already in his early movies. (The French movie pioneer George Melies, who shot 531 short films from 1896-1914, including the 1902 classic 'A Trip to the Moon,' was known for using visual effects.)

"Melies was a magician in the music halls of Paris, which was the community entertainment before cinema, and he was smart enough to see that his future as a magician was limited. He decided to become a filmmaker. So Melies goes from the magic of magic to the magic of film and creates special effects. It's the introduction of a whole new language of film. Time and space will never again be what it was before the invention of cinema and painting has to in some way embrace this technological change, this new era where time and space have collapsed. And it does it by way of cubism."

Focusing on cubism, Glimcher observed, "Mostly, the history of art draws a straight line from Cezanne making sort of cubistic images and flattened spaces of still lifes and mountains and houses (that) become cubed and geometric forms to Picasso and Braque. And that is certainly an influence and he (Cezanne) is the major artist of the time, but the real influence is cinema because what they're involved with is movement."

What interested him, Glimcher said, was "that the artist took from it this aspect of movement and the simultaneity of multiple viewpoints. That changed the history of art and changed the history of how we see and it changed the history of how we perceive time. In a specific painting Picasso can show you multiple times simultaneously as well as through multiple viewpoints.

"I thought this was something that had to be done (and considered) it for about 25 years and then decided I had to do this so I did a book and an exhibition about cinema and cubism. We did the show (in '07) and I called (Scorsese) to come and see the show. (Endeavor agent and founder) Ari Emanuel was in town. Marty was busy doing a movie and I think Ari dragged him over. When I walked him through the show he said, 'I've never thought about this' (and he then became involved with the project). When we finished the movie and he saw the first cut he said to me, 'Of course, I learned a lot about art during this, but I learned more about early cinema,' which I thought was great."

Glimcher didn't want his film to be narrated, he said, because "I don't like narrated documentaries, but I wanted an introduction and a closing and then (to) use Marty in the center like I've used the other people I interviewed to talk about film or art and (their) relationship."

Scorsese isn't known for being particularly comfortable or smooth on camera, but he comes across really well in "Picasso." "It's interesting you say that," he replied, "because I was watching the Convention last night where there was a commercial (in which Scorsese) comes into a bedroom and the mother's trying to get the kid to sleep and he says, 'No, no. That's not how you do it' and he becomes a director. He's so stiff and so terrible in that commercial. But I have to tell you when he came in the day of shooting with me he was incredibly nervous. I was nervous, but I didn't expect Marty to be nervous. I had to clear everything and everyone out of the way and he started out very stiff and very fast."

What's it like directing an Oscar winning director like Scorsese? "It's like when I (directed the 1995 thriller) 'Just Cause' with Kate Capshaw," Glimcher recalled. "We were in Florida and Steven (Spielberg, her husband) would come weekends sometimes. He was an angel and didn't say boo except sometimes he'd say, 'Oh, that was terrific' or something like that. Somebody said to me, 'How can you direct this movie with Spielberg sitting on the set?' But he made it comfortable and we knew each other as friends so it was okay.

"I know Marty, but not as well as I know Steven. So he did the first take for me of the first introduction and it was terrible. I walked up to him. He wanted me to do it again. He was so wonderful to work with in that way. I said, 'Yeah, let's try it again' and he did it again. And finally I walked up to him and he said, 'I know. I'm talking too fast, right?' I said, 'Right. I can't understand what you're saying.' And then he just relaxed and did about nine takes for me. He was fantastic."

Coming on Friday: The conclusion of my conversation with Glimcher and his concern over whether "Picasso" will meet Oscar's new eligibility rules for documentary consideration.

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