Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Eaux d'artifice

Eaux d'Artifice (Silk Lilies with Alexander McQueen Kingdom Eau de Toilette, Evian Water), 2004

Eaux d'artifice (1953) is a short experimental film by Kenneth Anger. The film was shot in the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Italy. The film consists entirely of a woman dressed in eighteenth-century clothes who wanders amidst the garden fountains of the Villa d'Este ("a Hide and Seek in a night-time labyrinth"), until she steps into a fountain and momentarily disappears. The actress, Carmilla Salvatorelli (not "Carmello"), was "a little midget" Anger had met through Federico Fellini. Anger used a short actress to suggest a different sense of scale, whereby the monuments seemed bigger (a technique he said was inspired by etchings of the gardens in the Villa d'Este by Giovanni Battista Piranesi).'Artifice 

This is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen. Anger’s film begins with his always opulent title cards and then we are taken to the beautiful water gardens of Tivoli, Italy. Anger shot on black and white film using only sunlight and red filters and then printed the film on color stock to create a blue hue. Shooting required elaborate planning to get the lighting just right to give the flowing water a 3-D quality. We see a woman periodically between the montage of stone faced fountains jets, and streams of dancing water droplets, but she is always at a distance, dwarfed by the landscape. When we first see her she is slowly descending a staircase, but her pace is hastened and by the end she is running until her plumes and period costuming transforms into a fountain. The classical score is equally beautiful serving as the perfect companion.

Thematically central to the Magick Lantern Cycle, light is not only a pre-eminent feature of the films’ visual styles but takes on something resembling a substance of its own. It is a quality of light that Aldous Huxley has described as “preternatural”, a concept that William C. Wees explores in some detail in relation to Anger’s work (in an account that should be essential reading for all Anger devotees). The close-up and slow-motion cinematography of the glistening waters of Eaux d’Artifice often achieves a level of abstraction that captivates through the patterns of pure light created. Frolicking in the darkness they open themselves up, like Rorschach “inkblot” tests, to any number of interpretations and, in so doing, both project and bestow what might be thought of as a visionary power.

However one chooses to read the film – be it as an ode to a wondrous architectural creation, a tranquil meditation on the visionary power of the harnessed elements, or complete filth – its perfect harmony of image and music remains almost unparalleled in execution and affect and is destined to linger in the mind long after the light of the projector bulb is extinguished.
Deborah Allison

Electric Sheep: Was there anything specific that influenced the making of the fire films or the water films?

Kenneth Anger: Eaux d’Artifice was made in the 50s, and the amazing thing is that I got permission from the Italian Department of Antiquities to film in the Villa d’Este gardens, which is about 30 miles outside of Rome. Of course they said, don’t break any statues or anything (laughs), which we didn’t. But I don’t know if they would grant that today. The Tivoli gardens have always been a tourist destination, and as I was filming I had the right to block off certain parts for half an hour. And usually it worked out fine, but a couple of times the American Express bus would come along and they would say, ‘Let us in, let us in, we’re going to be late to see something else!’ I just ignored them until I got my shot. It’s very tricky filming with the sunlight, and the reason why the Tivoli gardens were so wonderful was that it’s full of big cypress trees, which create wonderful dark shadows, so you have shafts of lights which are almost like theatrical spotlights coming down. I had to plan it all ahead according to the time of day. It’s all day for night, shot with red filters on panchromatic stock. It’s the only film of mine which has been chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation. I don’t know what that means (laughs), they haven’t given me any money to actually do the preservation. They do have a copy of it though.

ES: Is it true that you found the dwarf lady in Eaux d’Artifice through Fellini?

KA: Yes, Fellini suggested her, I’d met him socially in Rome. I wanted to change the perspective, the scale of the film. She was a genuine midget, like a young child, only she wasn’t a child. And she was wonderfully cooperative. 

ES: Why did you want that change of scale?

KA: I don’t know if you’re familiar with a famous etcher, an artist named Piranesi who did wonderful etchings of the ruins of Rome and the Tivoli gardens and several other things as they were in the 18th century. But he changed the perspective on everything. For instance, he has a coach and chair and carriages in front of the ruins of the Coliseum, but the horses are the size of dogs, so everything seems much more grand. It’s grand enough as it is, but even more so when you reduce the human scale. He did the same with the Tivoli Gardens, using small figures to expand it in a dream-like way, so I tried to capture that by using as reference a small figure. You can see when she comes down the stairs that her head is actually at the level where an adult hand should be, holding on to the balustrade, so it just changes the scale and it creates a kind of dream-like feeling.


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