All the Vermeers in New York
These girls, these paintings, as eternal as they suggest themselves to be …
All the Vermeers in New York – a low-budget feature funded (somewhat surprisingly) within PBS’ American Playhouse series (1982-1996) – is very concretely about art and society: the material world that surrounds art, including literally the picture frames, the floors, the guards and galleries … And, above all, capital itself: deals, off-shore investments, loans. In its expanding, concentric circles, it’s also about the art world as a space of lifestyles and manners, interpersonal hustles. At the centre of all this, is the art itself just a blank?
The film has a style that appears offhand but is, in fact, fantastically elaborated and sophisticated: a combo we see in several of Jon Jost’s narrative projects of the 1970s and ‘80s. There are wonky camera moves, overlap-replay edits (Godard), a wandering lens-gaze and focus, raw sound recording, long takes, shots held after the actors exit (Ozu) … Form, and our awareness of it, is a total adventure here. Jon A. English’s modern jazz score is almost overwhelming, in the best possible way.
Jost and his actors (collaborating and improvising somewhat in the Rivettean mode) create a pleasing serendipity of plot-and-character structure. An artist is introduced into the story, and then dropped; certain charter trajectories converge; a woman’s singing practise is gradually revealed. A scene of a friend’s crying is particularly well done. Emmanuelle Chaulet from Éric Rohmer’s L’Ami de mon amie (Girlfriends and Boyfriends, 1987) and Claire Denis’ Chocolat (1988) is well cast as Anne, a spaced-out denizen of the art/celebrity scene. Stephen Lack (remember his exploding veins from David Cronenberg’s Scanners ?) is also good as Mark, a loquacious broker (those monologues!) who falls for the woman (Anne) who looks like a woman in a Vermeer painting …
The fictive impulse here is intriguing. In Jost’s films, the fictional drive deliberately comes and goes, pulses and ebbs (in much of his subsequent work, it ebbs away altogether, alas). All the Vermeers offers an initial set-up (man picking up a woman in a museum) that is like an anthological scene from Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) but suitably emptied out, attenuated, abstracted. A similar ambivalence – a cagey and generative trouble with fiction, as I’ve called it elsewhere – attends the ultimate haemorrhage and possible death of Mark (an echo of Godard’s Masculin féminin ); or the final (and missed) romantic dash cued by a phone call …
Thematically, it’s an elusive project; there’s nothing – mercifully – particularly schematic about it. The intersections of personal and social life are not presented as high satire but, by the same token, it’s neither a purely humanist-individualist portrait nor a rigidly materialist, sociological dissection. There is a social world viewed from a clear-sighted political perspective and, alongside that, people’s messy drives and behaviours: one never cancels out the other, and the various levels and their articulations float pleasingly. Babette Mangolte’s fascinating The Cold Eye (1980) gives us more of an insider’s tart view of the art world (criticism and theory included in its daisy-chain, hump-along workings of desire, production and possession); Jost’s angle is more indirect and distant, but still scores a bullseye.
It comes around (after the stunning final sequence-shot, the one element Jost always had in his mind from the start) to what seems to be an art history quotation: that so much can hardly be contained in the name of Vermeer. Jost’s intention is not merely to parody the nothingness at the centre of the contemporary art world (subject of a hundred facile parodies – most of them well deserved!), but to actually value the sublime beauty of art such as Vermeer’s.
Jost is one of those avant-gardists who left his heart in the annals of that art (in painting, sculpture, music, etc.) he sincerely and passionately holds to be great and masterful. By comparison with that, so much cinema – even its art and experimental spheres, let alone the commercial, mainstream ones – turns out to be so much empty junk. It’s not a world-view I share, but it sure gets Jost’s creative juices going in this remarkable period of his career.
© Adrian Martin 1991