Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 28, 2018 8:26 am 
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(Finally was able to watch this.)



A glossy update, in a retro documentary style, minus the dominant voice

According to Vanessa Thorpe in the Guardian, the makers of the ambitious BBC arts series "Civilizations" faced "major hurdles" in filming, with tourists, bureaucrats, security staff and "cultural sensitivities" all "standing in their way." They believe they faced greater obstacles than the 1969 series they were commissioned to update. I looked at one episode shown as part of the SF film festival, number 2, which is about the representation of the human figure from its earliest days till now.

The question title, "How Do We Look?" is misleading in its suggestion of a personal, self-conscious sense of the culture of the visual. Actually, the representations of human form through history come from sources we mostly know very little about, other than what we see. Did ancient Egyptians really see themselves as stiff and upright, or were they just waiting for artists to come up with another way of drawing, like the fascinating, and engaging Roman funerary portraits on top of Egyptian-style coffins in the Fayum Mummy Portraits? This is a rapid survey, not a deep delving, but it could have delved deeper.

Just as we still owe a lot to the beautiful idealized forms devised by the Greeks and the Romans and their incorporation into modern sculpture promoted by the influential 18th-century archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, so this glossy, handsomely realized documentary hour owes an awful lot to the traditional ceremonial style of the docs it's updating. In fact it comes on initially very much like the "Encyclopedia Britannica films" shown in US schools in the Fifties, which droned on in a singsong fashion so we'd know we were being lectured about important things, and could zone out.

In the effort to keep us from doing that, a string of impressive and appropriate experts are shown, British whenever possible, with nicely lit, sharply focused sculptures. Toward the end, the film skips from classical style modern sculpture to an African American painter who does updates of people found on the street in a style adopted from "high art" he's viewed at the Met. Particularly noticeable, and amusing, is chief "presenter" (one of three in the series) Cambridge professor Mary Beard, resplendent in a big orange scarf (to unify multiple appearances over time, perhaps), whose toothy, over-emphatic style of delivery, striving for a sense of dramatic revelation, has been compared, not without reason, to Margaret Rutherford, as Vanessa Thorpe notes.

Starting with Mexican Olmec sculpture, none of the usual highlights are missed in a survey that privileges western classical art because, it shows, the world has done so. Something new to me is the information that even traditional Buddhist sculpture was influenced by the Greco-Roman (along with the Lincoln Memorial in Washington).

One thing that's missing here is a defining individual voice. What made the 1969 series so memorable was the aristocratic, establishment tones of its ever-present showpiece spokesman, Sir Kenneth Clark. That assurance Clark had, his regal authority, is lacking here. So is this really an update, or a dusting off, with something important, the unifying element of a strong sensibility, missing? The old one, note, dared to call itself "Civilization." Now it's safely pluralistic, not one but many "Civilizations." Timid and PC, but you can't get away with a white male presenting mostly western art as "civilization" anymore, you need females, people of color, and a bIt more exotic stuff. (Still slighted: Africa, which remains largely invisible.)

Of course there have been some new discoveries, which are incorporated, and these are always of immense value. One thing undoubtedly new is the more recently discovered Chinese Han dynasty tomb figures, with a representative of the beautiful new Asian Art Museum of San Francisco to talk about them, its Director Jay Xu. But they do not seriously alter our understanding. Is it surprising that sculptures were made by and to celebrate the rich and the powerful? One was hoping for some more pungent observations and keener insights. Perhaps a more overt critique of Sir Kenneth's version would have helped us see the value of an update.

Civilizations,"How Do We Look?", 64 mins., debuted 24 Apr. 2018, no. 2 of nine one-hour episodes, BBC Two, PBS, presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, a series of documentary films on the history of art. Viewed as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival on a PBS Press Room video (of which the sound fell out in the last ten minutes).


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