Did movies inspire cubist artists?
There is much to learn from “Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies.’’ First, a wealth of sharp professorial minds and great artistic eyes is no guarantee of equivalent documentary moviemaking. Second, when making a sort of thesis statement, it helps to have a thesis. This movie just has a title, like “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay’’ or “Debbie Does Dallas.’’
The film, directed by the art dealer Arne Glimcher, lasts slightly more than an hour, and what a chaotic hour it is. The movie wants to argue the profound ways in which the cubist paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were influenced by the arrival of motion pictures at the dawn of the 20th century. Attempting to make the case for that influence are artists (Chuck Close, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl), writers and curators (Adam Gopnik and Bernice Rose), and Martin Scorsese. The film asserts much (with timelines and datelines and lots of footage) but fails to completely persuade. As a dissertation, it would have a terrible time defending itself. Glimcher and Rose, a producer of this movie and once a curator at Glimcher’s Pace Gallery, made a more cogent case in a joint 2007 appearance on Charlie Rose’s talk show.
This documentary juxtaposes scenes from silent movies by Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, and the Gaumont Film Company with paintings by Picasso and Braque — mostly Picasso — asserting that they might not have been possible without the advent of cinema. That’s a notional consideration for a number of the participants who pontificate, muse, and lecture before Glimcher’s camera. Many of them wind up talking about Braque and Picasso’s influence on their own work. Why not a movie about that? It might sound more conventional, but it’s a lot easier to believe.
The movie’s secondary consideration — filmed motion’s effect on painting — is more general and less puzzling. “Braque and Picasso’’ is always interesting but either for parenthetical or tangential reasons. Scorsese explains why he dislikes digital cameras and digital projection, considers the irony of the intangible cinematic dream being captured by machinery, and reveals that he labored over the notorious final shot of that rat in “The Departed.’’ Meanwhile, a brief passage on the dancer Loie Fuller, whose filmed skirt dances were pioneering (and gorgeous), suggests Glimcher wouldn’t know a good movie idea even if it tried to hypnotize him with a nimbus of spinning fabric.
To some extent, the academic content is arguable. Maybe you can see silent cinema in cubism and cubism in silent cinema. (With respect to the latter, I more saw surrealism.) But is there any debating Glimcher’s poor filmmaking (he also directed “The Mambo Kings’’ and the execrably swampy 1995 whydunit “Just Cause’’)? At some point a film projector obstructs Bernice Rose while she speaks. And what about the choice to play a laugh track over so much great silent footage? Did Braque and Picasso go to the movies or to a live taping of “Friends’’?