October 6, 2011

Capturing Keifer’s Artistic Alchemy

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Sophie Fiennes’ deeply philosophical documentary, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, is an intimate look at the artistic process of German artist Anselm Kiefer. The film follows him as he creates his work, and also provides a thorough perspective of what he has accomplished thus far. Kiefer left Buchen, Germany in 1993, and began creating elaborate modern-art installations in an abandoned silk factory in the South of France. The film is an aesthetic masterpiece, but due to its esoteric theme and style, it is also very polarizing. The film’s level of thoughtfulness and depth at times breed confusion. Audience members may find themselves perplexed or even just plain bored.

The opening scene begins the movie on a very polarizing note. The first seventeen minutes or so simply pan through different parts of Kiefer’s installations (though without background knowledge, one might be wondering why they’re watching twenty minutes of concrete and underground tunnels). Initially the shots resemble those of a horror film. The pairing of dimly lit tunnels with the dramatic screech of violins creates an effect that is unsettling and frightening. The eerie glow of the single hanging light bulbs only enhances the bizarre quality of the atmosphere. Though the perspective soon moves into daylight, the combination of the installations and the ever changing emotion of the music produce a sinusoidal emotional effect; one moment the audience feels frightened and trapped in the tunnels, while the next they may be relieved to enter the serene haven of a wooded grove. This theme of emotional confusion is prevalent throughout the film and is one of the things that make it extraordinary.

In addition to utilizing light and darkness to incite a reaction, Fiennes also introduces movement after moments of intense stillness and quiet. During the first scene, the camera pans over a pile of mirror shards in one of Kiefer’s tunnels. The glimmering effect is breathtakingly beautiful, but as the shot continues, more shards begin to fall from out of thin air. The uncertainty of where the shards are falling from transforms the appreciation of beauty to an uncomfortable sensation of confusion. A similar effect is created later in the film when the camera is panning through a derelict room full of shelves. Suddenly, ceramics start shattering on the floor. After a few seconds, the shot reveals Kiefer himself smashing teacups on the ground.

After the initial period of inspection, the film moves into an important stage. Most of the film consists of sequences where Kiefer and his assistants are making art. The artistic collaboration that occurs in the midst of their work is the only part of the film where a plot develops. While these scenes are dynamic, and at times incredibly unique and beautiful, the nature of them makes the film somewhat inaccessible. Only someone who is very interested or well versed in modern art would be able to fully appreciate these scenes. To the layman, they are boring and confusing.

One thing that makes these sequences so fascinating, however, is the variety of mediums and the scale of the project. The site is made up of buildings, underground tunnels, a crypt, wooded areas, greenhouse-like structures and stacks of concrete blocks. Along with other installations, the site resembles a small villagesmade up of different structures. The number of mediums used is astounding, and creates a level of artistic intrigue within the film.

The film also includes an interview with the artist. During this interview, the film takes a dramatic turn towards philosophy, and away from the mechanics of art. Kiefer makes some interesting points about art and life. Audience members who have been deterred from the film may like this part better, because the dialogue facilitates introspection and thoughts about the human condition. Kiefer’s statement on boredom is particularly interesting, and can apply to Cornell students in a big way. Kiefer argues that boredom is something ever-present and unappreciated during childhood, which becomes cherished as one grows older. As students who are always busy with schoolwork, extra-curriculars and social lives, the appreciation of boredom is something many Cornell students can definitely identify with. Kiefer also makes interesting biblical references (including one to Lilith that gives the film its title) and his interest in “books and the sea.” While the discussion is interesting, it also alienates the audience. The topic is so arcane that the audience does more head scratching than analyzing.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is a typical Cannes Film Festival entrant: artfully stunning, but original to the point that it might cause disaffection among the general audience. While the film is breathtaking and emotionally complex, it is only effective if the audience member is truly invested in the experience. To a typical moviegoer, this film might come off as pedantic and even a little pretentious. Due to the film’s style, nature and theme, finding a large demographic, to whom it would appeal, might also be hard. If someone is interested in modern art, then this movie is an absolute triumph and a feast for the eyes. But my feeling is that more people will leave this film saying “I wish I had brought a pillow” than the small percentage that will leave saying “I was I had brought tissues.”

Original Author: Sarah Finegold