Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Bromeliad" Michael Newberry

I just watched the now-classic movie The Dark Crystal again for the first time since it was released in 1982. Conceived by Jim Henson, the fantasy adventure features a cast consisting entirely of puppets and animatronic creations. A cutting edge achievement for its time, while it does suffer from just a little bit of muppety mawkishness, it also excels in one of the essentials of fine art, integrated stylization. Visually, the film is a cinematic benchmark.

A critic of the director Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M) said of his 1924 silent film Siegfried that the director's insistence on the use of man-made sets, where entire forests were created from papier-maché, lent the film a stylistic perfection where virtually each of the movie's frames could be appreciated as if it were a painting, complete unto itself.

The same can be said of the lovingly crafted works of Jim Henson and crew in The Dark Crystal. The movie is set on a world, Thra, orbiting three suns, where an alien race of wingless vultures, the Skeksis, have wiped out the indigenous human-like race, the Gelflings, whom they enslaved for labor and sustenance. The orphan, Jen, believing himself the last of his race, sets off upon the death of his master to find the lost shard of the Dark Crystal in order to end their rapacious tyranny. Not only do Hensosn and his crew create several human- and beast-like alien races. They create and entire landscape and an alien ecosystem with which to populate it. The effect is marvelous. While a few real but exotic plants such as papyrus sedges are used, almost all of the plants and funguses and indeed all of the animal species are creations of the human imagination. The filmmakers' performance as creator gods results in a visual feast that leaves the audience of this 93 minute film only wanting more. While the film was a success, especially overseas, it was unfortunately viewed as too dark for its target audience. Henson's followup work, Labyrinth, with David Bowie was a silly, saccharine, derivative flop. His death in 1990 prevented a followup.

But Henson's vision lived on in the Jim Henson Company. Purposefully designed with an adult audience in mind, their science fiction show Farscape, with its lavish designs and ingenious alien creations, was the artistic heir to The Dark Crystal. While Farscape did resort to the expedient of CGI for scenes such as ship maneuvers in outerspace, once again its use of puppets and puppetwork to portray aliens gave the series a unique stylistic feel. Farscape as art is comparable, perhaps, only to the earlier episodes of the original Star Trek before budget cuts required its producers to replace lovingly crafted matte paintings with obscure red skies and innumerable episodes shot on the Vasquez Rocks. At its best, the visually dense and highly layered imagery of Farscape achieved, as an act of will made real, the level of fine art of The Dark Crystal and the manmade forests of Fritz Lang.

Primed by such thoughts, seeing the painter Michael Newberry's recent work, Bromeliad (below), my first impression was as if once again I was viewing an alien landscape, created not by nature, at random, but by the focused mind of an otherwordly demiurge. I am particularly fond of Newberry's still lifes. His Big Fish, Little Bird (left), is cool, sleek, modern, technological. In startling contrast, Bromeliad is warm, textured, intimate, organic. Color and form are emphasized visually. But the effect is tactile. Newberry the shaman induces synesthesia. We can feel the mineral sand dollar shell like some delicate skeleton. The waxy leaves of the sharrp-bladed bromeliad are like the cold, thick, scaly flesh of some caged reptile. The softness of the cloth is rivaled only by the erect carnality of the blossoms, like blood-flushed lips, both Hermes and Aphrodite, inviting our embrace.

While the bromeliad is green, the painting itself is quite warm. The outcome of having nothing beside the foreground leaves in actual green tones is to give the plant an almost animal-like vibrancy. Theoretically, dark cool colors retreat. Here, paradoxically, they pounce. Like the serpent heads of the hydra or the tendrils of some alien man[eating plant we can see the bromeliad reaching out of the canvas. The effect is savage. The plant is not located in space. There is no horizon. It is reaching out into space. And we are its prey.

Visit Michael Newberry on line at

Watch the trailer for The Dark Crystal:

Watch the teaser for the 2011 sequel, Power of the Dark Crystal:

Watch a clip from Fritz Lang's classic, Siegrfried:

1 comment:

Mike@ said...

Thanks for the memories on The Dark Crystal, I remember how much that movie moved me when I saw it as a kid.