Tableaux Vivants. Parlour Games and Anachronism in Film
Lecture: 25 Sept 2008
This lecture investigates the role of paintings in feature films while shedding
light on the long-forgotten phenomena of "tableaux vivants", or the practise of using actors
and props to re-enact famous images. Inherent to the idea of tableaux vivants was the
doubling of an already existing reality, appropriating the painted model as accurately as
possible, and the shift from imitation of nature to imitation of art. A popular leisure pastime in the
19th century, this parlour game nearly faded into oblivion before it was
rediscovered by film directors and video artists, who seized on either an image’s particular
spatial and temporal structures or its choreography of colour in film. The question of "tableaux
vivants" in film focuses on a system of pictorial communication regarded as ‘secondary’;
it draws on codes of meaning set outside the filmic system. The efficacy of kind of secondary
visual system lay in its expansion of filmic aesthetic itself, shattering the traditional
conventions of film, moving images, narrative flow, etc. The awkwardness of a tableau rendered
on film acts prevents its degeneration into pure spectacle. As a filmic, "tableaux vivant" image,
a painting’s potential is revealed in its disruption.
To explore this potential, the director would have to preserve the pictorial difference of the painting while providing
this alienated system with room to develop. With the productive surplus generated by "tableaux
vivants" in feature films comes the danger of either divorcing the secondary image completely,
thereby becoming an autonomous, independent element or the subject’s inability to step out
of its assigned niche to occupy the film. Doing so builds a tension between various pictorial
systems, a tension that remains productive until the situation is dissolved to benefit
the image. The older pictorial system appears the more powerful one, a thesis
explored further in the lecture. The lecture pursued these anachronisms with two examples of films from different
genres Giulio Antamoro’s Cristo
(1916) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s
(1962) in an attempt to clarify the contemporary
relevance of this media phenomenon.
Film examples presented during the lecture:
1916, 95’, b/w, silent
This example of early Italian cinema tells the life of Jesus from annunciation to resurrection in three
parts, each of which is described as a "secret". Italian director
Giulio Antamoro began preparations for the film as early as 1914, hiring
and filming more than two thousand extras for the mass scenes with special
effects all of which were shot on location at the original sites in Egypt
and Palestine, among others. Shot as a series of so-called tableaux vivants,
the film draws direct reference to pictorial, visual arts motifs.
Cristo theatrically re-stages, for example, The Annunciation
da Fiesole (Fra Angelico), The Transfiguration
by Raphael, The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci or The Removal from Cross
by Rembrandt as a play.
The film premiered 1916 at the Teatro Augusteo in Rome,
in the presence of Queen Elena and other prominent guests.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
1962, 40’, b/w and colour, sound
takes place on the set of a monumental Passion film.
An extra greedily gobbles down a huge piece of Italian soft cheese just before his take as
good thief at Calvary, then dies on the cross in the middle of the shoot from exhaustion
and a massive stomach cramp. In this short film, Pasolini casts a satiric gaze on the
world of film and the relationship between the first and third worlds. For the very
first time, he used a specific Kodak colour film to render the colours seen in
paintings by painters such as Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo da Pontormo. Despite
the many prominent film personalities with roles in the film, including Orson
Welles, Mario Cipriani and Laura Betti, Pasolini’s long-time associate, La Ricotta
was confiscated by authorities and Pasolini was arrested for insulting the Church charges
for which he was eventually acquitted in 1964. La Ricotta
belongs to the
larger, episodic film Ro.Go.Pa.G.
(1963), a collaborative project directed
by Roberto Rosselini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti.