Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell: Promising Young Woman (US 2020) starring Carey Mulligan as Cassandra Thomas.

Lupaava nuori nainen.
    US © 2020 Promising Woman LLC. Focus Features a Comcast company presents in association with FilmNation Entertainment a LuckyChap Entertainment Production. P: Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Emerald Fennell. EX: Carey Mulligan, Glen Basner, Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka. Co-P: Fiona Walsh Heinz.
    D+SC: Emerald Fennell. DP: Benjamin Kračun – colour – 2,39:1 – source format: CFast 2.0 – ProRes 4444 (2.8K) – master format: 2K – release format: D-Cinema. PD: Michael T. Perry. AD: Liz Kloczkowski. Set dec: Rae Deslich. Cost: Nancy Steiner. Makeup: Angela Wells. Hair: Daniel Curet. VFX: Stewart VFX – Jeremy Cox – Mammal Studios – Emily Freund. M: composer: Anthony Willis. M supervisor: Susan Jacobs. S: Frederic Dubois. ED: Frédéric Thoraval. Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham-Ahanonu.
    Soundtrack listing: beyond the jump break.
    Film clip: Night of the Hunter.
    Cast listing edited in Wikipedia:
Carey Mulligan as Cassandra "Cassie" Thomas
Bo Burnham as Ryan Cooper
Alison Brie as Madison McPhee
Clancy Brown as Stanley Thomas
Jennifer Coolidge as Susan Thomas
Laverne Cox as Gail
Chris Lowell as Alexander "Al" Monroe
Connie Britton as Dean Elizabeth Walker
Adam Brody as Jerry
Max Greenfield as Joe Macklemore III
Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil
Sam Richardson as Paul
Alfred Molina as Jordan Green
Molly Shannon as Mrs. Fisher
Steve Monroe as Detective Lincoln Waller
Angela Zhou as Todd
Francisca Estevez as Amber
Austin Talynn Carpenter as Anastasia
Emerald Fennell as Host of Blowjob Lips Make-up Video Tutorial
    114 min (Finnkino), 113 min (IMDb, Wikipedia), 108 min (production notes).
    Loc: Los Angeles, California.
    Festival premiere: 25 Jan 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
    US premiere: 25 Dec 2020.
    Finnish premiere: 7 May 2021, released by Finnkino / Universal a Comcast company, with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Juho Lähde / Frej Grönholm.
    Academy Award (2021, for films of 2020): Best Original Screenplay: Emerald Fennell.
    Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Carey Mulligan), Best Achievement in Directing (Emerald Fennell), Best Achievement in Film Editing (Frédéric Thoraval).
    Corona security: max 6 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at a press screening at Tennispalatsi 3, Helsinki, 27 April 2021.

" Revenge is sweet, but it can spoil easily. Please don’t give away Cassie’s plans after seeing the film. "
– Statement from Emerald Fennell, writer / producer / director, Promising Young Woman

Synopsis (Production notes): " Everyone said Cassandra Thomas (Academy Award®-nominee Carey Mulligan) was a promising young woman ... until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. Now, she’s a medical school dropout trapped in stasis. Blonde, beautiful and blessed with a killer intellect, Cassie’s not interested in climbing the corporate ladder or marrying Mr. Right. Instead, she’s seemingly content to while away her days making lattes with her coffee shop colleague Gail (Laverne Cox), much to the profound disappointment and deep concern of her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown). All they want is for their almost 30-year-old daughter to move on with her life, and to move out of their house. "

" By night, Cassie performs a ritual of her own invention. Going to bars and dance clubs alone in the wee hours, she pretends to be dangerously intoxicated, helpless to defend herself from anyone who might wish her harm. Inevitably, there’s a man who decides to make sure she gets home safely.  Yet he also inevitably lets his own desires take priority over Cassie’s well-being, not realizing that he’s simply the latest to fall prey to Cassie’s nefarious schemes—he’s about to be taught a lesson he’s unlikely to forget anytime soon. "

" But whatever small satisfaction Cassie takes from her late-night rendezvous, it isn’t enough to quell the storm of rage and sorrow inside her. Until one day, handsome pediatric surgeon Ryan (Bo Burnham), an acquaintance from her med school days, happens into the coffee shop and upends Cassie’s cycle of destruction. As she begins to develop feelings for him, she’s pulled back toward her own past and the trauma that forever changed the course of her life. "

" Will she balance the scales and find her own kind of happy ending? Or will her mission of vengeance take an unimaginable toll?
" (Production notes: Synopsis).

AA: Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman is a disturbing revenge tragedy wrapped in ultra feminine rom com aesthetic.

It channels scenes, characters and exchanges familiar from romantic comedies but has also affinities with violent genre films: thrillers channeling female rage, horror films about avenging women and maenad dramas by Quentin Tarantino such as Kill Bill.

Most importantly, it belongs to a serious lineage of rape movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (the cinema's first classic account of a date rape), Jörn Donner's Manrape (a faithful adaptation of Märta Tikkanen's militant feminist novel) and Jonathan Kaplan's The Accused (with Jodie Foster playing the victim of gang rape).

Emerald Fennell won deservedly an Academy Award for her complex and multi-layered screenplay. Equally outstanding is her grip as a director on genre conventions. She adapts them imaginatively to bring a novel approach to issues that are deadly earnest.

Carey Mulligan is brilliant in the leading role. Cassandra Thomas was a top student at the medical school, but now she is happy to remain a coffeehouse barista. She leads a double life: at night she turns into a decoy, using varying outfits and disguises to attract predatory men.

The cinematographer Benjamin Kračun was influenced by the visuals of romantic comedies, adapting Panavision to a softer image and using a light from above to create a halo effect around Cassie's head. On the other hand, he consulted the colour palette of the music videos of the 1990s, including neon. To represent Cassie, he used Bleu de France.

Prominent on the soundtrack are girls' favourite pop songs of the recent decades, including Charli XCX ("Boys"), Spice Girls ("2 Become 1"), Paris Hilton ("Stars Are Blind") and Britney Spears ("Toxic").

As for the production design, Michael T. Perry created a "suburbia as designed by David Lynch". After the university tragedy, Cassie has returned to live at her parents' home, in the room where she lived as a teenager and in which apparently nothing has changed. Tellingly, her parents give her a pink suitcase as a gift for her 30th birthday.

Costume design plays a central role. Nancy Steiner has created for Cassie's wardrobe a whole array of themes and concepts for her nocturnal adventures, including a lethal nurse dress for the climactic bachelor party.

The dresses are disturbing in their sexuality. They express body consciousness with a touch of the burlesque, but their true meaning is not to objectify Cassie for the male gaze. Instead, they turn the tables for the reversal of the look when Cassie drops the drunken woman disguise.

All through the film, Cassie plays with the stripper image. The males expect her to strip her clothes. Instead, she reveals her cunning plot.


Promising Young Woman shares features with classic revenge tragedies such as Hamlet (the avenger is killed, there is a play within a play, madness is feigned, disguises are important).

Revenge is the opposite of justice. The obsession with revenge leads to the regression, brutalization and degeneration of the protagonist. She becomes a victim of a Wiederholungszwang, endlessly returning to the scene of the trauma.

But much more importantly, of course, the gang rape of Cassie's best friend Nina, the crime that has traumatized Cassie, is the opposite of justice, and even more the way it was processed by all eye-witnesses (who lied about it), the female dean (who swept it under the carpet) and the defense lawyer of the offender (who harassed Nina to drop charges). Horrified, Cassie and Nina dropped out, and with a video of the act circulating, Nina committed suicide.

As we know from news media, a case of a female student being raped at a top university and the rapist being left unpunished is not exceptional. Promising Young Woman is a film "about how we have all been complicit in a toxic sexist abusive culture" (Emerald Fennell).

Like in a dream, Promising Young Woman dives into the escapist world of genre cinema. But it keeps returning to reality with a vengeance.



Lee Isaac Chung: 미나리 / Minari (US 2020) with Steven Yeun (Jacob Yi, father), Noel Kate Cho (Anne Yi, daughter), Alan S. Kim (David Yi, son) and Yeri Han (Monica Yi, mother).

    US © 2020 A24 Films. PC: Plan B Entertainment. EX: Brad Pitt, Steven Yeun. P: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh.
    D+SC: Lee Isaac Chung. DP: Lachlan Milne – colour – 2,39:1 – source format: CFast 2.0 – ProRes 4444 XQ (3.2K) – master format: 2K. PD: Yong Ok Lee. Cost: Susanna Song. M: Emile Mosseri. S: Dmitri Makarov. ED: Harry Yoon. Casting: Julia Kim.
    C: Alan S. Kim (David Yi, son), Yeri Han (Monica Yi, mother), Noel Kate Cho (Anne Yi, daughter), Steven Yeun (Jacob Yi, father), Darryl Cox (Mr. Harlan), Esther Moon (Mrs. Oh), Ben Hall (Dowsing Dan), Eric Starkey (randy boomer), Will Patton (Paul, Pentecostal farmer, Korean War veteran), Yuh-Jung Youn (Soon-ja, grandmother), Jacob Wade (Johnnie), James Carroll (Brother Roy), Jenny Phagan (Bonnie), Tina Parker (Debbie), Chloe Lee (June).
    Translator to Korean: Hong Yeo-ul.
    Motto: "To all our grandmas".
    Loc: Tulsa, Oklahoma – the Ozarks region.
    Languages: Korean and English.
    115 min
    MPA 52483.
    Festival premiere: 26 Jan 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
    US limited release and virtual cinemas: 11 Dec 2020.
    US general release: 12 Feb 2021.
    Finnish premiere: 7 May 2021, distributed by Finnkino, Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Jaana Wiik / Charlotte Elo [the credits flashed past too fast].
    Corona security: max 6 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Press screening at Tennispalatsi 3, Helsinki, 27 April 2021.

Press notes: " Minari grows, comes in the pockets of immigrants, dies in the first year, thrives in the second, purifies the water and the soil around it. "

Minari (oenanthe javanica) is also known as Korean minari, Java waterdropwort, Indian pennywort. Japanese flat leaf parsley, water celery, water dropwort and Chinese celery.


Minari is an outstanding family drama, settler tale and immigrant saga made by Lee Isaac Chung, an American director and screenwriter born into an American Korean family. Minari is not a piece of autofiction, but it was inspired by Chung's childhood experiences and his need to tell his young daughter about where he came from. The characters of Minari are not based on Chung's family, either, although some elements are based on his memories, including the parents' arguments, a farmer dragging a cross and a grandmother burning down half of the farm.

The story takes place in 1983. The father Jacob has had enough of working at hatcheries, sexing chicks, that is, separating male chicks from females. (A constantly fuming smokestack reminds us of what happens to males). Jacob's dream comes true when he buys a farm in the Ozarks with the business idea of growing Korean produce to the rapidly increasing Korean population in the US.

The rest of the family is reluctant to follow to the new dwellings: a dour, large, used trailer home. Jacob is a young and vigorous man – but also an old-school patriarchal father who has neglected to agree on the new way of life with his wife Monica. She is disappointed to live in the middle of nowhere in a dilapidated trailer. The parents are arguing constantly.


What Chloé Zhao did to the Western imagery in Nomadland, Lee Isaac Chung achieves in the tradition of the settler saga. A different way of looking at things helps create a great and novel American movie.

Minari reminds us of films such as King Vidor's Great Depression drama Our Daily Bread. Nordic parallels can be found in Jan Troell's epics The Emigrants and The New Land. Troell's films take place in the age of American Indian Wars (American Frontier Wars / First Nations Wars). John Ford's settler saga Drums Along the Mohawk was set even earlier in the past, during the American Revolution War / War of Independence.

No violence is involved or needed in Minari, a drama based on a set of several dynamic conflicts. There is Jacob's dream vs. reality. Constantly felt is a cultural clash between Korea and America. The family quarrels stem from a conflict of patriachy vs. equality.

There is also the generation clash. The whole point of Jacob's exercise is to enable a better life for the new generation. Anne and David, the children, are people of the future. The grandmother Soon-ja (Monica's mother; her father has died in the Korean War) is a character from the past, an embodiment of tradition – and also something more complex, mysterious and wilful.

Soon-ja is met with scorn and ridicule by her grandchildren Anne and David. The hard-swearing Soon-ja is the opposite of the sweet and lovable grandmother type who pampers kids with treats in the kitchen. Slowly and reluctantly David learns to love Soon-ja who teaches him card games, bandages his wounds, soothes him to sleep, offers words of wisdom (about over-protection: "hurt belongs to childhood", about scaring away a big snake on a tree trunk: "it is better to keep it visible; the ones who hide are dangerous"), and praises his physical strength ("has nobody told you about that?"). David has a heart condition which is why parents have protected him from effort and exercise. But Soon-ja is the first to detect that a change is taking place to the better. Perhaps it is the Ozarks: the air, the forest, the spring water.

Minari is both a tale of pastoral dreams and a realistic account about the power of the earth. The risks and hazards of farming are met at each stage, from irrigation to market deals. This settler saga is a study in sisu (Finnish for true grit). Sometimes sisu is not enough. When it gets really tough, the strain to the marriage reaches a breaking point. Jacob puts success above marriage, Monica loses faith in him, and they agree to separate. "We came to America to save each other", but their union now seems broken beyond repair.

At this turning-point, the parents learn that David is on the road to recovery and that they are about to get a good deal for their produce. But Soon-ja, alone on the farm, accidentally ignites a fire. The barn and the hard-won crop burn to ashes. Having apparently lost everything, Jacob and Monica realize that they still have what matters most and decide to start anew, together.

Soon-ja has brought minari seeds with her and planted them by the riverside. In the finale we register a beautiful minari crop growing without any effort except finding the right place to plant the seeds.


Well directed, well produced, well acted and well written with special care taken to an authentic mix of Korean and English dialogue, Minari also boasts an attractive score composed by Emile Mosseri. On the soundtrack are also vintage Korean songs about which I would like to learn more. One of them seems to be called "I Love You". All actors are worth praise, but let's single out the formidable Yuh-Jung Youn in the role of Soon-ja.

Minari was shot on location in the Ozarks. The interiors were shot in the challenging circumstances of an actual vintage trailer. Even the fire was real, no visual effects were used. All this pays off in a feeling of authenticity. The cinematographer Lachlan Milne shot the film resorting to available light, preferring "the magic hour" in the morning.

This was my first cinema visit in six weeks. I enjoyed the splendid scope cinematography from the middle of the first row of Tennispalatsi 3. Nature is the hardest challenge for digital. In Minari, the challenge is being met beautifully.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

The queer gaze of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) : Sant'Anna, la Vergine e il Bambino con l'agnellino / Sant'Anna Metterza / La Vierge, l'Enfant Jésus et sainte Anne / Sainte Anne en tierce / Sainte Anne trinitaire / Anna selbdritt / Pyhä Anna kolmantena / Anna själv tredje. 1499–1517 (unfinished). Oil on poplar wood. 168 x 130 cm. Leonardo painted and exhibited for the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence and took the painting or a copy with him to France. It remained a work-in-progress. Original owner after the painter's death: King Francis I of France. Le Musée de Louvre. High Renaissance (1494–1527). A controversial restoration took place in 2011 and looks very different. This is a photo of the painting before 2011: itself retouched, digitally altered with increased brightness and contrast for better viewing on screens. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition. Public Domain. Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) (contested): Salvator mundi. Reproduction of the painting after restoration by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a research professor at New York University. 1500. Oil on walnut wood. 65.6 x 45.4 cm. Louvre Abu Dhabi. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) : Ritratto di Monna Lisa del Giocondo / La Joconde / Mona Lisa. 1502–1517 (unfinished). Oil on poplar wood. 77 x 53 cm. Subject: Lisa del Giocondo (Lisa Gherardini, 1479–1542). Painted in Florence. Original owner: King Francis I of France. Le Musée de Louvre. Photo: from cropped and relevelled C2RMF.jpg retouched. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) (contested) : La scapigliata / La testa di fanciulla (detta La scapigliata) (unfinished). 1501–8. Oil, umber, and white lead pigment painting on poplar wood. 24.7 x 21 cm. Galleria nazionale di Parma. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519): A sketch of the head of Leda for two oil paintings on Leda and the Swan (both lost). 1503–10. Red chalk on red prepared paper. 20 x 15,7 cm. Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, Milano. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) (contested) : San Giovanni Battista / Saint Jean-Baptiste / Saint John the Baptist. 1513–1516. Oil on walnut wood panel. 69 x 57 cm. Le Musée de Louvre. Photo digitally retouched: C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Disputed: Bacco (su un precedente san Giovanni Battista) / Bacchus. "Generally considered to be a workshop copy of a Leonardo drawing. According to Kemp, it may have been begun by Leonardo as a figure of John the Baptist." 1510–1516, later repainted and altered. Oil on walnut panel transferred to canvas. 177 × 115 cm. Le Musée de Louvre. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). "This painting was first described in the French royal inventory as Saint John the Baptist in the Desert, then at the end of the 17th century, possibly as the result of a restoration, as Bacchus in a Landscape. Like Leonardo's half-length portrait Saint John the Baptist, it is a syncretic work. The index finger pointing upward toward a divine sign and the deer are Christian symbols. The thyrsis, the crown of vine leaves or ivy, the bunch of grapes, and the panther skin are attributes of Bacchus." Photo and data: Wikipedia.

In art, there are looks and gazes in various directions and dimensions. In live performances, we watch and respond, and performers look at each other and us and act and react. We watch television and films, and sometimes the performer or moderator looks back, addressing the camera = us. In a painting, the subject can be imagined to return the look. In Rainer Maria Rilke's poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, dedicated to Rodin, a headless statue notices us and summons: "you must change your life".

John Berger's famous argument about the "male gaze" was about European nude oil painting since the Renaissance: "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." (Ways of Seeing, p. 47).

The "male gaze" discourse was adopted in film criticism by Laura Mulvey, and her essay has become newly topical in the Me Too movement, also in Finland in a book by Anu Silfverberg.

The issues are big. Are we identifying with a subject? Are we reducing the other to an object?

Most art is beyond identification and projection, in realms of metaphysics, philosophy, religion, history, social awareness, etc., or applying narrative strategies outside identification and projection.

Before the Renaissance, Western art was transcendental for a thousand years, and Byzantine art even longer. When the focus shifted back to the human individual, psychology was revived, along with issues of identification and projection.


John Berger's thesis is persuasive about Western art from the Renaissance to Modernism. But it is rewarding even about artists outside his argument such as Leonardo.

(Berger discusses nude oil paintings, and no nude oil painting by Leonardo exists. He painted only two, both featuring Leda and the Swan, now missing believed lost. In both, Leda, the Queen of Sparta, was portrayed as a mother with her infant children and their father, Zeus, disguised as the Swan.)

Berger's thesis helps us define why Leonardo is different. He is different because of the absence of the "male gaze".


The distinctive "Leonardian gaze" emerged around the year 1500 in paintings such as Sainte Anne trinitaire, Mona Lisa and Salvator mundi. The artist was then about 50 years old. After them, the look never left Leonardian paintings, not even ones whose authorship is contested and disputed. It is so characteristic that retroactively a void can be felt in Leonardo's previous paintings except The Last Supper.

Looks and gazes form a complex web. There is the artist's look at the model. The artist may emphasize surface likeness. Or the artist may focus on character and define it with insight like the painter Mikhailov does in Anna Karenina. There is the look of the subject. The look of love can be selfless like that of Madonna and child. Or the look can be one of desire, of a woman watching herself being looked at like in Berger's thesis. Or something else.

In one respect I agree with Dan Brown, the author of the best-selling mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code: that Mona Lisa seems to be Leonardo's self-portrait as well as the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (Lisa Gherardini). The looks and smiles appear to be hers as well as his.


In his essay "Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci" (1910), Sigmund Freud took as the starting point a remark from Codex Atlanticus where Leonardo discusses birds, including the kite (nibbio): "Questo scriver si distintamente del nibio par che sia mio destino, perche nella mia prima ricordatione della mia infantia e mi parea che essendo io in culla, che un nibio venissi a me e mi aprissi la bocca colla sua coda e molte volte mi perecuotesse tal coda dentro alle labbra". ["It seems that it had been destined before that I should occupy myself so thoroughly with the kite, for it comes to my mind as a very early memory, when I was still in the cradle, a kite came down to me, he opened my mouth with his tail and struck me a few times with his tail against my lips."]

Unfortunately, Freud used a German translation where "nibbio" had been mistakenly translated as "vulture". His interpretation based on vulture mythology collapsed. An authoritative critique is Meyer Schapiro's "Leonardo and Freud : An Art-Historical Study" (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 17, No. 2 (April 1956).

As usual in Freud's essays on culture, there is an embarrassing disregard of accuracy in some of the detail. But it is equally clear that the main argument survives and is in fact strengthened by criticism. It remains an unsettling fact that Leonardo's earliest memory of infancy is of a big bird moving its tail against his mouth.

Soon after Freud has published his essay, an eerie observation was made by Oskar Pfister about Sainte Anne trinitaire at the Louvre: a riddle image / image-devinette / Vexierbild of a vulture hidden in Madonna's dress, its tail touching the mouth of the Child. ("Kryptolalie, Kryptographie und unbewusstes Vexierbild bei Normalen", 1913). Once detected, it cannot be ignored.

I don't know what to think about this. In Italian and German the relevant bird-words (uccello, Schwanz, etc.) do carry a sexual double meaning. Leonardo was always fascinated by birds and flying, and when he saw caged birds for sale, he bought them to set them free. His only nude oil paintings were about Leda and the Swan.


Freud's Leonardo essay was his personal favourite, and in it he introduced pioneering ideas about narcissism and sublimation. Leonardo was not sexually active, and he was able to sublimate his energy into a drive to knowledge. Curiously, although he was a pioneer in anatomy, his drawings of female inner organs and sexual intercourse were way off the mark.

Leonardo loved beautiful young boys but evidently only as a joy to behold. According to Giorgio Vasari's pioneering biography (in Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori) Leonardo himself was a beautiful man, not only in appearance but also in manners, a lover of beauty and knowledge in all forms, also a man of exceptional physical strength who could break an iron lock with his bare hands.

Freud's hypothesis about Leonardo is that around the time of the painting of Mona Lisa and Anne Trinitaire he met a model whose look and smile evoked his mother and his dearest memories of infancy, and he re-lived his own psychological course of development that had begun with an overkill of mother love. Leonardo was the first-born child of his single mother Caterina di Meo Lippi. When his father's new wife Albiera Amadori failed to conceive, they adopted Leonardo who thus received a double blessing of motherly love.

In the Anne Trinitaire painting, Mary sits on Anne's lap in a mother-grandmother symbiosis. Because they seem to be of the same age, they also appear as Leonardo's tribute to his childhood paradise of two mothers.

Freud proposes that Leonardo came to identify with his mother and love beautiful boys the way his mother loved him. This hypothesis of a possible trajectory of homosexual development is today probably politically incorrect and may make anyone who dares mention it ostracized in circumstances of cancel culture. But ever since I read Freud's essay 25 years ago I have not been able to forget it when thinking about Leonardo. I cannot help remembering it even in thinking about Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alexander McQueen.

Freud has interesting speculations about Leonardo's obsessive focus in his notebooks on seemingly trivial details while ignoring great events. He is puzzled by Leonardo's proverbial slowness and tendency to leave everything unfinished, a conspicuous trait already registered by Vasari. Psychological reasons may lie in the background, but I find that Leonardo was also ahead of his time: an unfinished quality can be a strength, as has been generally acknowledged in art since the 19th century. The essay, the sketch, the work-in-progress has been getting increasingly valued. The revelation of the non finito was a Renaissance phenomenon, stunningly present also in the work of Michelangelo, such as the Rondanini Pietà.


Vasari registers the contemporary astonishment at the Mona Lisa smile. Freud offers a compendium of later reactions to the Gioconda mystery.

"What fascinates the spectator is the demoniacal charm of this smile. Hundreds of poets and writers have written about this woman, who now seems to smile upon us seductively and now to stare coldly and lifelessly into space, but nobody has solved the riddle of her smile, nobody has interpreted her thoughts. Everything, even the scenery is mysterious and dream-like, trembling as if in the sultriness of sensuality." (Richard Muther: Geschichte der Malerei, 1909)

Freud continues:

"The idea that two diverse elements were united in the smile of Monna Lisa has been felt by many critics. They therefore recognize in the play of features of the beautiful Florentine lady the most perfect representation of the contrasts dominating the love-life of the woman which is foreign to man, as that of reserve and seduction, and of most devoted tenderness and inconsiderateness in urgent and consuming sensuality. "

"Müntz expresses himself in this manner: 'One knows what indecipherable and fascinating enigma Monna Lisa Gioconda has been putting for nearly four centuries to the admirers who crowd around her. No artist (I borrow the expression of the delicate writer who hides himself under the pseudonym of Pierre de Corlay) has ever translated in this manner the very essence of femininity: the tenderness and coquetry, the modesty and quiet voluptuousness, the whole mystery of the heart which holds itself aloof, of a brain which reflects, and of a personality who watches itself and yields nothing from herself except radiance....' " [Eugène Müntz : Léonard de Vinci, 1899]

"The Italian Angelo Conti saw the picture in the Louvre illumined by a ray of the sun and expressed himself as follows: 'The woman smiled with a royal calmness, her instincts of conquest, of ferocity, the entire heredity of the species, the will of seduction and ensnaring, the charm of the deceiver, the kindness which conceals a cruel purpose, all that appears and disappears alternately behind the laughing veil and melts into the poem of her smile.... Good and evil, cruelty and compassion, graceful and cat-like, she laughed....' " [Angelo Conti : "Leonardo pittore" in Conferenze Fiorentine, 1910]

Freud gives the floor to Alexandra Konstantinowa:

"During the long period in which the master occupied himself with the portrait of Monna Lisa del Gioconda, he entered into the physiognomic delicacies of this feminine face with such sympathy of feeling that he transferred these creatures, especially the mysterious smile and the peculiar glance, to all faces which he later painted or drew. The mimic peculiarity of Gioconda can even be perceived in the picture of John the Baptist in the Louvre. But above all they are distinctly recognized in the features of Mary in the picture of St. Anne of the Louvre." [Alexandra Konstantinowa : "Die Entwicklung des Madonnentypus bei Leonardo da Vinci, 1907]

Freud again: " But the case could have been different. The need for a deeper reason for the fascination which the smile of Gioconda exerted on the artist from which he could not rid himself has been felt by more than one of his biographers. W. Pater, who sees in the picture of Monna Lisa the embodiment of the entire erotic experience of modern man, and discourses so excellently on "that unfathomable smile always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo's work," leads us to another track when he says: "

"Besides, the picture is a portrait. From childhood we see this image defining itself on the fabric of his dream; and but for express historical testimony, we might fancy that this was but his ideal lady, embodied and beheld at last." [Walter Pater : Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873]

"  ' Herzfeld surely must have had something similar in mind when stating that in Monna Lisa Leonardo encountered himself and therefore found it possible to put so much of his own nature into the picture, "whose features from time immemorial have been imbedded with mysterious sympathy in Leonardo's soul.' " [Marie Herzfeld : Leonardo da Vinci, 1906]


"Mysterious sympathy". "That unfathomable smile". "The peculiar glance". "The charm of the deceiver". "The kindness which conceals a cruel purpose". "Indecipherable and fascinating enigma". "Two diverse elements are united in the smile". "The demoniacal charm of this smile".

There is certainly more than one set of contradictions beyond Leonardo's mystery paintings. I propose that one of them belongs to the spectrum today called non-binary. The androgynous quality of Leonardo's John the Baptist has struck viewers forever. Leonardo's homosexual preferences were never a secret, nor his asexual practices. He is on record of abhorring the very idea of sexual intercourse.

A Leonardo paradox is that he is the greatest symbol of mainstream culture, and yet his paintings frankly challenge received sex and gender roles.

Freud was a pioneer in proposing a constitutional bisexuality in human psychology, but at the time of writing the Leonardo essay he was partly stuck in the past in viewing homosexuality as abnormal, while at the same time affirming there was nothing neurotic or pathological in Leonardo.

If we apply the term "queer" to Leonardo, it does not sound wrong, but we should not banalize him by labelling him a "queer artist". He belongs to the great tradition of classical antiquity and the context of fellow artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Their identity politics is not a matter of limitation but of liberation in their search of a wider, opener and more universal sense of human experience.

Leonardo's worldview was based on empirical observation and rational experiment. Most of his paintings have religious subjects, but even in them, Leonardo focuses on the human, not the superhuman. He does have a profound sense of the sacred, a reverence of the mystery of life.

Leonardo's genius as a painter involved a talent for orchestrating a symphony of multiple looks. That's why his portraits are unfathomable and inexhaustible.

In our age, understanding better than ever the complexity and variety of sex and gender, it is also easier to appreciate the queer gaze of Leonardo.

Guia Besana: Mona Lisa at Le Louvre. Photo credit: Guia Besana for The New York Times, 28 July, 2014.

As a film historian I have kept returning to Leonardo da Vinci particularly since 2012, when I started to systematically revisit art history as a reference point to the cinema's transition into the digital era.

Digital cinema was being justly celebrated for being bright and clear. But Mona Lisa is an excellent example of the opposite of bright and clear. It is almost an apparition, a dream vision emerging from mist.

Leonardo was a master of the Renaissance device of sfumato ("in the manner of smoke") where everything is shrouded in subtle haze.

He was also one of the pioneers of the chiaroscuro ("bright dark") which is a way of painting with light: the figures are not conveyed in the manner of clear line drawings but emerging from light and shadows.


As a man of the cinema I have also been troubled about the trend of restoration overkill. In exhibitions of old masters I find the relentlessly glossy surfaces of restored oil paintings uncanny.

I preferred the Sistine Chapel before restoration. In Michelangelo's paintings, eyes are all-important. In restoration, the twinkle in the eyes of his figures has disappeared.

I also preferred Rembrandt before restoration. I understand the urge to do something to the dark patina accrued over centuries. But with the removal of the darkness something else disappears, too. The paintings are now ghosts of their former selves.

The original glory of Leonardo's paintings is now only possible to fathom by straining the imagination. We can read from old testimonies, recorded by contemporaries such as Giorgio Vasari, how they looked and register what is missing. Mona Lisa has been cropped and changed in a successsion of restorations. For instance she has lost her celebrated eyebrows.


The strange smiles in Leonardo's paintings after the year 1500 have affinities with predecessors in Ancient Greek and Etruscan art. The smiles seem to suggest long-forgotten secrets among artists separated by millennia.

Soon after Leonardo's death, Mannerism started, a current characterized by an increasing awareness of the paradoxical and the alienated. Representative figures included Dr. Faustus, Don Juan, Don Quixote and Hamlet. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

It is tempting to reflect Leonardo's strange paintings of the 1500s with regard to Mannerism. But my personal response is that they are not predecessors of Mannerism. They look back to something primitive and original that had been repressed during the Gothic centuries. The Rinascimento of Leonardo seems to refer, besides a return to a natural focus after a thousand years of a supernatural one, also to the rebirth of ancient, pre-Christian secrets on many levels.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Hemingway 1–3 (2021)

"A smiling Hemingway and his three sons in Bimini after a rare four-marlin day. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston ." Photo and caption: Anglers Journal: "Fighting Big Fish with Ernest Hemingway", 25 March 2019.

Hemingway : A Writer (1899–1929)
Hemingway : The Avatar (1929–1944)
Hemingway : The Blank Page (1944–1961)
    US 2021. PC: Florentine Films / WETA (Washington, D.C.). P: Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick, Ken Burns. Co-P: Salimah El-Amin, Lucas Frank. Assoc P: Vanessa Gonzalez-Block, Jonah Velasco. A
    D: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick. SC: Geoffrey C. Ward. M: Johnny Gandelsman. Add M: David Cieri. Soundtrack selections: J. S. Bach.
    Narrator: Peter Coyote
    Voice actors: Jeff Daniels (Hemingway)
    Meryl Streep (Hadley Richardson)
    Keri Russell (Pauline Pfeiffer)
    Mary Louise Parker (Martha Gellhorn)
    Patricia Clarkson (Mary Welsh Hemingway)
    With Patrick Hemingway (son of Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer).
    With writers: Stephen Cushman, Paul Hendrickson, Mary Karr, Michael Katakis, Akiko Manabe, Edna O’Brien, Tim O'Brien, Leonardo Padura, Amanda Vaill, Mario Vargas Llosa, Abraham Verghese, Tobias Wolff.
    With biographers and scholars: Susan Beegel, Mary Dearborn, Marc Dudley, Verna Kale, Miriam B. Mandel.
    With Senator John McCain.
    With psychiatrist Andrew Farah.
    Archival: Sylvia Beach, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, A. E. Hotchner.
    "The filmmakers were granted unusually open access to the treasure trove of Hemingway’s manuscripts, correspondence, scrapbooks and photographs housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston" (Production information).
    6 hours
    Premiere: 5-7 April, 2021 PBS.
    Via Tom Luddy, a Florentine Films screener viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 17–21 Jan 2021.

PBS advance publicity:
HEMINGWAY : A Writer (1899–1929)
"Hemingway, yearning for adventure, volunteers for the Red Cross during World War I. He marries Hadley Richardson and moves to Paris, publishes The Sun Also Rises and finds critical and commercial success with his second novel, A Farewell to Arms."

HEMINGWAY : The Avatar (1929–1944)
"Hemingway, having achieved a level of fame rarely seen in the literary world, settles in Key West with Pauline Pfeiffer but can’t stay put for long. He reports on the Spanish Civil War and begins a tempestuous romance with Martha Gellhorn."

HEMINGWAY : The Blank Page (1944–1961)
"Hemingway follows the Army as they advance through Europe. Afterwards, he tries to start a life with Mary Welsh, but is beset with tragedies. He publishes The Old Man and the Sea to acclaim but is overcome by his declining mental condition." (PBS advance publicity)

AA: The American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) is one of the most recognizable personalities in the history of world culture, and his life and legend have been covered in countless books, articles and programs.

The publications have been myth-making, and during the last decades often myth-breaking. The Hemingway film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and written by Geoffrey C. Ward represents the most distinguished trend in current biographical research.

Beyond hagiography and the "dark side of the genius" discourses, the perspective is wider and higher. We are invited into a quest to make sense of a man who was more than the sum of his contradictions.

I like the intelligent and emotionally mature approach. During the last decades, the genre of the portrait documentary has mushroomed in biography channels, dvd bonus materials and streaming services. Many are quality productions, but some suffer from dramaturgical clichés, facile soundbites and clip predictability.

This portrait is different. Ken Burns, the master of the rostrum camera, is at it again with huge Hemingway archives of photographs, home movies and documents to which the producers had privileged access. This treasure trove is subjected to the Ken Burns effect (familiar to art documentary aficionados also from the works of Luciano Emmer and Alain Resnais). The result is a richly visual moving picture experience.

The film-makers had in extenso access also to Hemingway's manuscripts, both hand-written and typewritten, and they apply the Ken Burns effect to them, too. We get a special insight into Hemingway's writing processes via illuminated and animated manuscript pages.

We get rare glimpses into Hemingway's mind as he follows his daily discipline and transforms experiences into thoughts and thoughts into words. The film-makers' approach has an affinity with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach: by hearing the original works and seeing the authentic artifacts we enter an inside track in an approach that has parallels with Materialästhetik.

The Bach association is also relevant because the soundtrack consists largely of Bach, a composer in whose polyphonic structures Hemingway found an inspiration to his own "grace under pressure" approach.

I love also the way in which original book and magazine layouts, cover art and illustrations have been integrated into this portrait of the homme de lettres.

New in this project is the double perspective – equal emphasis is given to the female look in a saga of an alpha male. The film's testimonies do not support the allegiation that Hemingway was a misogynist, on the contrary. There is an eye-opening close reading of his first short story, "Up in Michigan". The empathic account of a woman's first sexual experience was considered too daring at the time.

Hemingway's four wives are prominent in the narrative, their words voiced by Meryl Streep (Hadley Richardson), Keri Russell (Pauline Pfeiffer), Mary Louise Parker (Martha Gellhorn) and Patricia Clarkson (Mary Welsh Hemingway). Among the most moving testimonies is the real-life farewell letter of the Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky who was the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. The double perspective changes the way we view Hemingway. There are affinities in this double perspective approach with recent high profile documentaries such as Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019) and Aalto (2020).

Received ideas about Hemingway's conservative macho sexuality were dealt a blow when his novel The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986. Hemingway was ahead of his time in discussing gender diversity and intersex.

The art of the close-up is cultivated in the interviews made for the movie. The witnesses and the commentators, from Edna O'Brien to John McCain, get enough space to have their voice heard and their presence felt. This is the opposite of the soundbite approach.

We learn that Hemingway was not just a man's man. He loved being in love with women. But he definitely was a writer's writer who has inspired countless young colleagues. A beautiful vignette is devoted to J. D. Salinger who met Hemingway in the liberated Paris in 1944.

Hemingway was famous since the beginning for his "iceberg theory" as a writer, of lasting value for writers and film-makers. It does not diminish him to observe that the same theory was already essential for Chekhov. Simplicity was the greatest art for both. It is also the hardest art.

"My only hero is the truth" said Tolstoy in the Sevastopol Tales, inspired by Thucydides, and the same ethos inspired Hemingway, although he could not always resist the temptation of the tall tale.

The motto also applies to this deeply felt documentary.