At 9:30 on Thursday night, when my wife unexpectedly announced she was going to bed, I did the quick math and determined I could squeeze in a short movie and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.
After perusing the options on Netflix, I decided on The Mill & the Cross, a 2011 feature by Polish director Lech Majewski, which at least one critic I read had raved about. This single bit of praise (when I had otherwise not heard of the movie) earned it a spot on my instant queue, and I decided its 95-minute running time met my needs for Thursday night. Little did I know that the movie would have very little dialogue, and long stretches where little to nothing was happening. At least the dialogue it did have was in English, a concession to the native language of its stars: Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Ramplling.
The movie has a very interesting concept that is executed with a great amount of beauty. It imagines, fancifully, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the 1564 painting "The Procession to Calvary" by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Hauer). Since art history was a late-college discovery of mine in the spring semester of my senior year -- the course I took was specifically about Flemish art from this period, and featured Bruegel heavily -- I immediately knew I'd made the right choice of what to watch. (I hadn't realized what this movie was about until I read the Netflix synopsis.)
Here is that painting:
So you can imagine the beautiful landscape that appears on screen, with that epic windmill atop that monolithic rock as an impressive centerpiece. What would seem to be a consummately analog project, however, has a few enthralling digital details that make it burst with a modern sense of freshness. As this busy image is being staged, it is often shown with frozen human actors in the foreground and a matte painting in the background (though an actual set of the background figures into the action regularly). That matte painting is not entirely stagnant, though -- stick figures in the distance, distant cows, and other elements of the background move silently; digital creations brought to life. The effect is mesmerizing.
The frozen actors up front, recreating the painting down to the detail, reminded me instantly of The Pageant of the Masters. If you aren't familiar with this, it's a festival held in nearby Laguna Beach for a couple months in the summer, and it features precisely this: actors fastidiously staging two dozen or so famous paintings. They stand against matte paintings and pose for minutes on end as a speaker describes the circumstances of the creation of the painting and puts it into a historical context. The paintings follow a particular theme each year. The pageant figured prominently into an episode of Arrested Development once.
My wife and attended in I want to say 2006. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I expected to enjoy it. My wife's appreciation of it was diminished by the fact that the combination of her contact lenses and the binoculars lenses meant she couldn't examine anything in detail. Both of us tend to forget that the pageant itself was something of a disappointment, because we had such a nice afternoon and dinner in Laguna Beach leading up to it.
The point of me telling you this is that while taking a break from the movie -- I took a couple breaks to stay awake -- I checked my email, and lo and behold, I had an email waiting for me from Pageant of the Masters.
It's not like it's the first time they've ever emailed me. I do get messages from them from time to time. But they're not the kind of organization that bombards you with spam -- it's way too hoity toity of an institution for that kind of behavior. And I usually get messages from them a couple months before the season begins, not with three weeks left before it ends.
If the fascinating "Procession to Calvary" were one of this year's paintings, I might just have to go.