Reviews

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase

Like a semester-long art history course stuffed inside a kaleidoscope.


Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase

Director: Joan C. Gratz
Cast: Jean G. Poulot
Distributor: Gratz Film / Microcinema
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1992
US DVD Release Date: 2009-03-31

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase is a semester-long art history course stuffed inside a kaleidoscope.

Familiar works like the Mona Lisa, Starry Night and The Scream blend seamlessly together as director Joan C. Gratz packs a century of innovation in art into a few minutes. The Oscar winning 1992 short film is even more amazing to behold when you consider that Gratz recreated dozens of pieces by blending and etching multicolored bits of clay.

Gratz’s masterpiece of masterpieces comes to DVD along with three other short films: The Dowager’s Feast and The Dowager’s Idyll and Pro and Con, collaboration with fellow animator Joanna Priestly.

While all of the films are feasts for the eye, there are limits to how much the DVD offers to the brain. So many questions come out of watching Gratz’s work, the most important being: How does she do it? Every artist is entitled to a few secrets, but the lack of bonus features is a shame.

In Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase , Gratz uses the Mona Lisa’s mysterious grin as an anchor to create fully formed recreations of more than 30 paintings. As soon as they become recognizable, she unravels them and uses the leftover colors and shapes as the building blocks for what comes next. A girl lying in bed morphs into a girl sitting up, staring straight at the viewer. Her delicate face becomes the wide-eyed monster at the center of The Scream, which becomes large enough to fill the screen before breaking apart.

The transitions between the works are deliberate, an attempt to show how art developed in the 20th Century. Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase also provides a peek into social history and culture – for example, snatches of commercials and television shows are the soundtrack for the works of Andy Warhol.

In a short interview printed on the DVD case, Gratz explains that her technique involves painting directly in front of the camera, shooting a new frame for each slight alteration. It sounds like a painstaking and tedious way to create work so fluid and weightless.

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase was created in pre-DVD times so it’s understandable that no one was saving footage for deleted scenes or feaurettes. But an on-camera interview with Gratz that included a peek into her process would have gone a long way toward introducing her to an audience beyond art and animation devotees.

What outsiders would have found out is that they’ve probably seen some of Gratz’s work before. She created clay animation sequences for the video of Peter Gabriel’s song “Digging in the Dirt” and won an advertising award for a 1994 Coca-Cola spot.

You can see some of Gratz’s commercial work – including spots for United Airlines and Microsoft – on her Web site, Gratz Film.com. It’s well worth a look.

The Dowager’s Feast and its follow-up, The Dowager’s Idyll are more abstract than Staircase While movement, shapes and flow were key in the latter, they are the focus of the former.

Gratz creates waves and intersecting lines of rich, orange, purple, red and blue in The Dowager’s Feast , while The Dowager’s Idyll seems to concentrate more on shapes, symmetry and creating a pattern only to shatter it. Both pieces recall Disney’s Fantasia, minus Mickey Mouse -- The Dowager’s Idyll was actually commissioned by the Portland Symphony Orchestra and screened during a live concert performance.

Pro and Con carries the most concrete messages of any of the films – the documentary focuses on life in prison, with Priestly building her narrative around an interview with a prison guard and Gratz focusing on an inmate.

The division of labor is interesting considering each animator’s medium. Priestly illustrates the story of the guard, who by most would be considered the safer half of the pair, using hard, sharp-edged materials including pencil sketches, keys and tools.

While the guard’s voice is affable and approachable, the inmate’s voiceover is bitter and threatening.

In a departure from the other works, Gratz’s clay seems as impenetrable as steel as she creates the bodies and faces of men behind bars. Even when the picture becomes softer, when the inmate dreams of women and the outside world, there is no hint of the hope and whimsy that infuses Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase and the Dowager films.

Gratz uses the clay and traditional animation techniques in a way that puts computer graphics to shame. Technology may have her beat as far as visual realism, but in emotional resonance she comes in first by a mile.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image