It’s unusual for a luxury eyewear brand to spearhead a museum exhibition. But the collaboration between Italian brand Persol and The Museum of The Moving Image’s Persol Magnificent Obsessions: 30 Stories of Craftsmanship in Film – the second installment of the three-part, yearly series celebrating the meticulous craft of remarkable filmmaking – works. Not just because the company’s sunglasses are a cinematic wardrobe staple, immortalized in films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Die Another Day, and La Dolce Vita, but because their manipulation of vision moves, theoretically, in tandem with an exhibition that reconciles the visible with the invisible. Using obsession as an over-arching link, Persol Magnificent Obsessions explores ten films in terms of the unseen preparation and resulting nuance that has made them legendary.
The exhibition focuses on one individual involved in the making of each film: actor and director Ed Harris for Pollock, director Todd Haynes for Far From Heaven, director Alfred Hitchcock for North by Northwest, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet for Amelie, composer Ennio Morricone for his collaborations with director Sergio Leone on A Fistful of Dollars and The Good the Bad and the Ugly, costume designer Arianne Phillips for W.E., cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for The Last Emperor, actress Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby, production designer Dean Tavoularis for One From the Heart, and special effects supervisor and technical innovator Douglas Trumbull for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The films themselves are boiled down into parts – displayed as a series of behind-the-scenes notes, sketches, and props – examining how formal elements generate emotional subtext.
For director Todd Haynes’s visual masterpiece Far From Heaven (2002), the formal element is color palette. Guest curator Michael Connor declares Haynes’s obsession “melodrama”: his film is a stylistic homage to the 1950s film genre of the same name, and, in particular, the work of director Douglas Sirk. To achieve the exact look and feel of a Sirk movie, Haynes compulsively constructed a complex color palette for every scene of Far From Heaven, with colors meant to correspond to and signify the sexual and racial tensions embedded in 1950s American culture. On display at MOMI are intricate gradients of color printed above stills from the film, matching the color bars exactly, and revealing Haynes’s extraordinary attention to detail. His rigidly orchestrated palette strikes an emotional chord in viewers: evidently, the literal tone of the film serves as a platform for its emotional tone.
Two actors are also celebrated for their obsessive off-screen work: both Ed Harris for Pollock (2000) and Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby (2004) mastered the specialized crafts of their characters – painting and boxing, respectively. His obsession is “character development”; hers, “physical acting." To illustrate the point, a monumental canvas lies flat across the exhibition space, painted by Harris in the style of Jackson Pollock, and a small video screen shows Swank being hit repeatedly in a training session with her coach Hector Roca. Again, this taxing unseen preparation is in pursuit of nuance onscreen. The work of both actors ultimately extends beyond acting: each learned a separate skill in order to make genuine their film personae. In their movies, Harris and Swank transcend the boundaries of mere performance by adding this layer of depth to their embodiments of beings entirely separate from themselves.
The exhibit’s thematic spotlight on obsession is worth noting in itself. Beyond fastidiousness, it connotes the inexorable nervousness of clinical anxiety – that each of the ten filmmakers is teetering on the brink of mental illness. It is seemingly a commitment to authenticity that drives them to this point, in an anxious quest to resolve the tension generated by the irony of plumbing deep human emotion on a superficial silver screen. It becomes an obsession to make these separate realities – of what you can see onscreen and what you can’t – meet. Persol Magnificent Obsessions makes the claim that they do.
Persol Magnificent Obsessions is open until August 19 at The Museum of the Moving Image, New York.