VIFF capsule reviews: Two documentaries about creativity and Infinity

VIFF capsule reviews: Two documentaries about creativity and Infinity September 23, 2019

The 38th Vancouver International Film Festival begins this Thursday. I will be posting some capsule reviews over the next two weeks, and I’m kicking things off today by looking at two documentaries that both have the word “Infinity” in the title.

M.C. Escher: Journey into Infinity (dir. Robin Lutz; Netherlands)
Sep 27 @ 4:45pm @ International Village 10 / Oct 7 @ 10:30am @ VanCity Theatre / Oct 9 @ 9pm @ SFU Goldcorp

You may or may not know M.C. Escher’s name, but you’ve almost certainly seen his work and the rigorously logical way it plays with perspective: flocks of geometric birds that gradually become the background for other flocks of birds, people who defy gravity by walking up and down staircases at various angles towards one another, rooftop steps that always seem to be going up and up (or down and down) even as they go round and round, and so on. (If you’ve seen movies like Labyrinth and Inception — clips of which pop up here — you’ve seen filmmakers pay homage to him before.) Robin Lutz’s documentary explores the man behind the art, partly through Escher’s letters and journal entries (narrated with typical verve by Stephen Fry) and partly through interviews with his children (one of whom is in his 90s!), and what emerges is an endearing portrait of someone who thought of himself as more of a mathematician than an artist, and was a bit mystified when the Woodstock generation took an interest in his work just a few years before he died. Among other things, we get some insight into Escher’s influences (not surprisingly, he loved the repetitive motifs in Bach’s music and the wall decor at the Alhambra palace in Granada) and the deeply personal meaning that lay behind some of his seemingly more abstract works. We also learn that Escher dreamed of making an animated film some day; he worried that people would find it boring, but the handful of images that this film brings to life suggest that it would have been anything but.

Architecture of Infinity (dir. Christoph Schaub; Switzerland)
Sep 27 @ 1:45pm @ VanCity Theatre / Oct 2 @ 11am @ VanCity Theatre / Oct 10 @ 6pm @ International Village 8

The idea that Escher touched infinity through repetition dovetails nicely with one of the key ideas in Christoph Staub’s documentary on the architectural principles behind various places of worship, i.e. that it is only through limitations that we can get a feeling of infinity. The film begins with children at play outdoors — an image that is repeated periodically throughout the film — and there is a sense in which the innocence that one associates with childhood is lost as people grow up and turn to churches, chapels and other indoor spaces for their sense of transcendence, but there is also a sense in which something is gained, as the windows high up focus our attention on the light coming from above (light that we might have taken for granted otherwise), and as the walls and ceilings make possible a range of acoustics that one cannot find in the open air. (This division between indoor and outdoor spaces is complicated and even resolved somewhat by places like the cemetery in a forest, where the horizontal line of the graves in the ground intersects with the vertical lines of the trees reaching up into the sky.) The film gets more explicitly secular in sensibility as it progresses, so that by the end, churches are being juxtaposed with nightclubs and the like while some of the interviewees extol “art” as a replacement for religion, which isn’t where I would have gone with this material. But on a purely anthropological level, different kinds of spaces do affect us and the way we perceive the world in different kinds of ways, quite apart from our theorizing about them, and this film is full of wonder and beauty that deserves to be beheld.

— For more information or to purchase tickets, check out the VIFF website.

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