Total art: Saura and Storaro

Belen Maya, in Saura's Flamenco

While I generally prefer films which are messy, with loose ends and imperfections that show that the filmmaker is trying to do more than he dare, occasionally I see one whose conception from start to finish could not posssibly be improved on.

Tonight I put Carlos Saura’s Flamenco on the wide screen–I had been trying to get a copy of his film about Bunuel and Garcia Lorca, but Flamenco was the one that Netflix had in stock.  It goes without saying that the subject of flamenco culture could not fail to be fascinating if handled by someone with Saura’s compassion, but this film, gloriously lit and photographed by Vittorio Storaro in his preferred “Univision” 2:1 aspect ratio, takes a mesmerizing exploration of flamenco’s wide spectrum of styles (”palos”) and raises it to such a heightened visual experience that the audience feels it is immersed in every scene.

After 10 or 20 minutes of watching, you begin to understand that Storaro is showing us everything in his astounding palette of technical mastery:  light, shadow, motion, framing (I especially like the light-dark, ying-yang effect he pulls off when the backdrop of his 2:1 canvas is perfectly bisected into two squares of color), composition, the human face, the subtle emotional effect of carefully calibrated hues (developed by his longtime association with the lighting gel manufacturer Rosco–he and Saura often show us the lighting grids in the frame).  All through this spectacular exhibition (which takes place in an art gallery-like space), you get flashbacks from some of the most powerful images of color cinema: the effortless dolly work from Last Tango in Paris, the stunning close-up interviews in Reds, the pale blue of The Sheltering Sky, the fireworks and dark moods of Apocalypse Now, and the formal compositions of The Last Emperor.

Check out Solea (scene 12) to get the entire picture.  It begins with a static presentation–the group like caryatids in a temple of sorrow around the cantante.  The dancer (we don’t know it yet) in Mayan profile in the foreground of the group.  Then the dancer rises, the light goes to a dark grey, and you see her flesh, black hair, her striking pink and green dress, the pink shoes, the only light beaming upward from the solear (hot spot) on the floor, like footlights in the 19th century.

Or scene 15 (Tangos).  The pale blue lighting makes it feel as though this performance is happening at the end of an all-nighter with the dawn just beginning to break on the troupe.  This time, three women singers in turn are lit directly from above, heads and shoulders glowing with energy to match the intensity of their jealous pleas (”If you want to come, then come/and if not, tell me to go”).  All of a sudden, without warning, the camera is spinning full circle as if in a trance.

As a flamenco novice, I can only assume that the marvelous performances are by the finest Andalucian artists; by cutting from one side-lit close-up of pain and sorrow in a singer’s face to another, then pulling back to show us the barely-lit silhouettes of a dancer in green against the subtly tinted light panels, then revolving slowly around the ensemble, the spectator is literally lost in the moment time and time again.

I remember reading about the choices Carl Sagan had to make in compiling an audio time capsule (the “Golden Record”) that was put on the Voyager spacecraft to take a few tokens of human civilization to any beings who might find it between here and alpha Centauri.  I can only imagine that had the capsule been made 30 years later, a DVD of Saura’s Flamenco would have made his cut.

Tiriti tran tran tran…