Grisaille refers to a painting executed in monochrome or almost monochrome, usually shades of grey. The screening of Grisaille I saw was saturated in color, which, it is said for painters, makes more demands on the artist. The film opens with a Robert Duncan passage. There is writing by Bowes, poet Anne Waldman, Gertrude Stein, and others, spoken by five women actors, or models, in the sense of Robert Bresson’s actor as model.
Bowes is doing something daring, regarding these five. The women are to be regarded, beheld, whether their eyes are open or closed, whether what they are regarding is open or closed, such as a book. The frame stays open to their presence, never too long, though often longer than usual. These visages and created images are each a remedy for the mind. We pause with them, revel with them, in a sensual, contemplative, aesthetic way. This is not distracted filmmaking. It is precision artmaking. There is a narrative somewhere, and it is almost unconscious, perhaps part of the remedy. The presences of the women almost halt us into a different sense of time and space. They hold the space, frame, position, terra firma; they stand in as sacred, iconic, angelic figures, almost knowingly, but are free of any such imposition. They read, sleep, exist, speak, perceive. Together, as an ensemble, they create a new “space” for contemplation. They are variations on a theme; studies in persona. Are the characters resemblances of people the filmmaker has known, loved, admired? Or are they presenting current unique qualities or values that Bowes would like to distill and share? If we peer at them, they are peering back, indirectly, internally shaping our view of them, and perhaps ourselves, unselfconsciously.
Almost every image is a screen test of sorts. Each woman is positioned at great ease, yet there is suspense; they are gestating, evolving in time, providing melody, their faces positioned at angles, close-ups, moments held and revealed. They are within a span of time, there to emit their essence as a way of being.
Shadows and light morph. Our intimacy with the actors is juxtaposed as if live paintings are mixed with other actual paintings, drawings, and (very few actual works of) grisaille. Live eyelashes, lips, skin, voice are etched onto screen. All is raw, beautiful, impermanent. A fetching image of a woman with a crow appears to inform the preceding and following images of real women in real time.
The recurrences of the actors, paintings and sketches, plays of light and shadow, images where not expected, are pure Bowes, though one might think of Godard as a compañero in some of these forays. With subtler methods of impression and impact, Bowes drives his own particular poetic sequence, study, sketch, rumination, tableaux, position, edit, allegory, metaphor, story. There is sound: seamless narrations of poetry and music that add poetic context and emotional tones. I could imagine the film with different variations of the same music, or perhaps even without it.
The beauty of this film is a tonic on one’s inner nature in its colors, light, pauses. Emotional layers surface and surge, surface and surge: eyes, sight, mood, lingering states. I have seen excerpts of other Bowes films where he transcends with never before seen imagery, whether in cine-poem, or transcending the frame with the poet Akilah Oliver reading.
Grisaille is almost like several dreams you wish you had. It is more in sync with real time, yet simultaneously illusory; full of color, light and shadow, not a wash, not shades of grey, more in the way of Woolf’s Moments of Being (here, women actually being). The film evokes and demands an intuitive response throughout, so I didn’t have to think mentally. I was restored by the view, as if I’d taken in something pure for the soul, something between art and the best interstices of human nature.