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Making art with moving images

03 November 2017

Stephen Brown sees new films about Bill Viola and Hitchcock

Pietà: an image from one of the works by the video installation artist Bill Viola in Bill Viola: The road to St Paul’s

Pietà: an image from one of the works by the video installation artist Bill Viola in Bill Viola: The road to St Paul’s

THE film Bill Viola: The road to St Paul’s (Cert. PG) is about to have one-night screenings at various cinemas over the coming weeks.

It is directed by Gerald Ford (Leaving Home, Coming Home: A portrait of Robert Frank, The Fundamental Gilbert and George) and features two permanent video installations at St Paul’s Cathedral. They are the first art commissions of their kind to be displayed in St Paul’s, and are on long-term loan from the Tate Modern. The artist is Bill Viola.

I first came across his work when the late Canon Bill Hall arranged, via his North-East Arts and Recreation Chaplaincy, for one of Viola’s works to be exhibited in Durham Cathedral. There is something deeply transcendental to his output, slowly meditative and yet, at the same time, confronting us with those truths about ourselves — birth, death, and everything in between — that evokes awe and wonder in the beholder.

Martyrs was completed and on show first in 2014. Viola uses four naked models/actors on different plasma screens to depict aspects of witness to their beliefs, even if this leads to suffering and sacrifice. The elemental properties of earth, water, air, and fire, crucial to life, have also the potential to deprive us of it. At some point or other, Viola tells us, we all turn our backs on this life. We may embrace it or do so unwillingly. Either way, dying can still be beautiful. In the case of Martyrs, no one takes away their lives. They lay them down freely as they resolutely move through death into the light.

Last year, Mary was also placed in the cathedral. Resembling an altar triptych, the Holy Mother is a woman for all seasons. The metaphors are wide-ranging. Peaks, wildernesses, rain, and snow as well as flowers relate the impact of Mary’s life on today’s world. Viola says: “Mary is the Christian embodiment of a universal female figure present in nearly all spiritual and religious traditions. She maintains an infinite capacity to absorb and relieve the pain and suffering of all who come to her. I see this piece as the embodiment of the feminine principle, related to ideas of creativity, procreation, inner strength, love, and compassion.”

Viola has deep interests not only in Christianity, but also in Sufism and Zen Buddhism. One feels that he is not ready settle down with one faith alone. We can rejoice at his catholicity, one that seeks and unites religious traditions. A cathedral surely includes this aspiration among its aims. Visitors won’t necessarily be claiming allegiance to Christianity, but many will hope to experience a sense of the numinous there.

Bill Viola: The road to St Paul’s has taken 12 years to reach its completion. The director first began filming when Viola was measuring the relevant dimensions of St Paul’s. Clips from several video installations allow us to build up an understanding of Viola’s spiritual preoccupations. The film well demonstrates how these appeal to people of very different spiritual traditions and cultures.

Bill Viola: The road to St Paul’s will first be screened next Wednesday (8 November) at Picturehouse Central, corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street, London W1, and subsequently at other venues.



THE shower scene in the 1960 film Psycho has 78 camera/lighting set-ups and 52 edits. Had we realised that this thriller is, among other things, the director Alfred Hitchcock’s examination of his Catholicism? Film personnel in an impressive new documentary 78/52 (Cert. 15) think so. Marion (spoiler alert) steals $40,000 and drives from Phoenix, Arizona, towards California. Heavy rain forces her to stop at a motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). During a shower, Marion is fatally stabbed. Norman, discovering the carnage, deposits the body in a swamp.

Several 78/52 participants suggest that, for all Psycho’s innovations, Hitchcock had frequently chastised us for failing to see how unsafe the world is. Joseph Cotton’s character in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) calls the world a pigsty. We are a fallen race, forever needing redemption. Marion’s attempts at cleansing her sins are doomed. Neither rain nor bathwater can do it. She tells Norman that tomorrow she will be driving back to Phoenix. This act of repentance preludes what in effect is baptism.

In the shower, Marion finally looks happy; but breaking God’s law (adultery, theft) cannot go unpunished. Hitchcock concludes the murder scene with Marion tearing down the shower curtain, thereby deliberately replicating a similar shot straight out of The Ten Commandments (1923).

This is where Hitchcock’s true Catholicism manifests itself, the director, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), says. Sin cannot be washed away by water alone, but also requires blood (see 1 John 5.6). Marion has made a moral decision, and look what happens to her.

Some cineastes interpret this as Hitchcock’s despair at an uncaring universe. Others argue that Psycho forces us to acknowledge our fragile mortality. Camera positions mean that we look into the eye of death and it looks back at us. Hence the spiralling close-up of Marion’s lifeless eye. It is only one of many God’s-eye points of view which we are invited to share throughout the film. Hitchcock gives us the cinematic equivalent of a “Thou, God, seest me” Victorian sampler.

What this documentary never touches on is resurrection. Nobody picks up on the choice of city where the film begins. It is Phoenix, named after the mythological bird that rises from the dead. Marion’s intention was to return to the site of rebirth. Nor does 78/52 make any mention of the final two shots of Hitchcock’s movie. Mrs Bates’s decomposed head superimposed on Norman’s mad face is a Golgotha moment in which the place of the skull swiftly gives way to a dissolve of Marion being raised from the swamp. Justice triumphs, though sacrificially. It is an Easter story, one in which Hitchcock refuses to be distracted by any references to Christmas despite the opening caption “Friday, December 11th, 2.45pm” heralding its imminence.

All subsequent references to dates and times through dialogue, calendars, or newspaper headings make no earthly sense. Is Hitchcock, in his inimitably thrilling way, taking us on a rollercoaster adventure where, momentarily, sequential time (chronos) yields to eternity (kairos)? However provisionally pessimistic we are about life, Psycho is telling us that all shall be well when this world’s ride comes to an end.

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