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The Fantastic World of M.C. Escher

The Fantastic World of M.C. Escher
Acorn Media
1980 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 50 min. / Street Date April 11, 2006 / 19.99
Cinematography Giulio Battiferri, Elio Bisignani, Carlo Alberto Cerchio
Film Editor Floriana D'Ambrosio
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Directed by Michele Emmer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Once upon a time, M.C. Escher's images launched a thousand drug trips. Until seeing this good but far from exhaustive study I wasn't aware of the esteem they have earned in both art and scientific circles. The prolific artist is more than a collection of coffee table art books -- his graphic images go much farther than simple optical illusions and have inspired learned mathematical analysis.

Maurits Cornelis Escher died in 1972, aged 73 years. Michele Emmer's docu covers some details of his formative period but doesn't really explain how he got into his particular field except to offer that he found inspiration in complicated Spanish mosaic tiles. Many of his images rely on perspective tricks, in actuality, the misinterpretation of perspective clues in two-dimensional representations of 3-dimensional objects. Figures of people, weird birds, lizards and insects defy gravity by walking on the walls and ceilings of impossible but plausible-looking architectural structures.

Other patterns play games with negative and positive space. Repeated mosaics of darkly tinted birds slowly reveal complimentary white birds 'filling in' the empty spaces between them. Demonic bats and heavenly angels alternate on the surface of a globe.

Escher plays with complicated spirals, sometimes interweaving mirrored spiral curves that twist in opposite directions. Some of the images suggest surreal inspiration, as with two faces rendered like curled apple peels, but the content of the pictures is intellectual and not symbolic. The key is the qualities of two-dimensional representations that motivate us to perceive 3-dimensionality: Compound curves and repeated patterns collapse into infinity, or appear to wrap around spherical objects, or alternate between positive and negative space. Escher knows that the human mind has difficulty processing structures as complicated as these; the clarity of some is so intimidating they suggest manufacture by superhuman mentalities. It makes us think how easily primitive men (which we still are) drop their investigation of the world and instead reach for supernatural explanations.

Actually, there is a superhuman order in these images: Mathematics. The Fantastic World of M.C. Escher uses classroom testimony of a few experts (among them Prof. H. S. M. Coxeter of Toronto University and Prof. R. Penrose of Oxford University) to show that the artist was well aware of complex mathematical concepts and used them to inspire his work. Math has a cold beauty that comes with truth, and the unemotional surfaces of some of Escher's artwork reflect that quality while demonstrating the quantifiable (x,y,z) aspects of a curve or a spiral. This reviewer certainly didn't understand everything in the short lectures, but they're clear enough not to be confused with double-talk.

Another professor explains that some of Escher's architectural impossibilities rely on our inability to take in all of a complex image at once. Escher invents staircases and structures from extruded shapes that are patently impossible, but the viewer is never encouraged to regard more than two "corners" at a time. Any section of the image looks perfectly logical -- and then a third, conflicting corner is observed and one's perceived space turns inside out.

Director Michele Emmer presents a fascinating glimpse into the world of Escher that may seem frustrating to viewers expecting a more comprehensive picture. It's mostly a visual overview, using smooth camera moves to study details and patterns in Escher's drawings. Sometimes we'd prefer to just see the entire artwork and choose for ourselves which section to study, but Emmer's technique is frequently effective. The final giant horizontal fresco plays out as a constantly morphing set of illusions -- it parades like a timeline from right to left. Emmer adds this story-telling quality to several earlier artworks by selectively scanning across details. At one point he employs a bit of primitive computer animation that the film credits to Bell Laboratories.

Acorn Media's DVD of The Fantastic World of M.C. Escher is an acceptable but undistinguished transfer. The1980 film was re-copyrighted in 1994 and the video transfer may come from that year. It appears to have been shot flat on 16mm, which is the disc's main drawback. Even though the camera moves are smooth the Escher drawings look the same as the rest of the film, grainy and slightly indistinct. The colors have been pumped, resulting in outdoor shots of flowers that bleed into red and yellow mush. Under these conditions it's not a very attractive film, and some of the best sections deal with B&W artwork. For this subject, we would really like to see razor-sharp images.

The film has a sparse musical score by none other than Ennio Morricone. The packaging doesn't even announce this attractive fact, and Savant only slowly recognized Il Maestro's distinctive sound about halfway through -- we even hear some of his signature choral effects.

The Fantastic World of M.C. Escher is a good exploratory documentary that could really use a refurbishing job, perhaps keeping the track and the interview sections but re-shooting the artwork in a better format. 16mm can look sensational but the generational loss on this transfer element is lamentable.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Fantastic World of M.C. Escher rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 27, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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