Thursday 12 August 2021

Manic M.C.: "Escher: Journey Into Infinity"

M.C. Escher, the world's most exasperating rapper: his every line doubled back on itself, before disappearing into a blind spot. The Dutch-originated biographical primer Escher: Journey Into Infinity has been compiled with a not entirely inappropriate dash of eccentricity. Its only celebrity talking head is Graham Nash, for some reason, although Stephen Fry's narration of Escher's letters and diary entries does a lot of the heavy lifting, establishing the artist, mathematician and printmaker as a considerable odd bod, at once a dreamer and a control freak, and finally something of a crank who couldn't understand why his trippier work was being seized upon by the longhairs of the counterculture ("How can they reconcile it with their addiction to narcotics?"). Its dottiness is part of its strength; rather than some dry, Wiki-level relaying of established facts, we witness a concerted effort to inhabit the Escher archive (with the blessing of the offspring who appear as character witnesses, the boys the spitting image of their father), and thus to reproduce a particular, leftfield aesthetic. Amid extensive location shooting - encompassing Tuscany, the Alhambra, the Swiss Alps, and a final, whirlwind tour of the United States - director Robin Lutz busily engineers trompe-l'oeil effects and generally idiosyncratic close-ups of striking architectural and natural phenomena. The film approaches the surface of the planet with the same curiosity and playfulness as Escher himself, which is much to Lutz's credit.

Of course, he also has the considerable advantage of decades of visual material to play with: early schoolboy sketches, the Hergé-like apprenticeship illustrations, remarkably detailed studies of eyes and hands and cityscapes, as well as the later, mass-produced masterworks. They're all of an amazing, singular piece; even the artist's nudes are angular in their crosshatching, potential curves sharpened to iris-skewering points. At a whizzy 81 minutes, the film feels light on context: I'd have dropped Nash in favour of at least one art historian, who might have been better placed to connect Escher to other contemporary schools - or point out how and why he was doing entirely his own thing. Interpretation, meanwhile, is left to those of us in the cheap seats. Given that Escher's formative years coincided with WW1, and that his first years of success came during WW2 - and, furthermore, that he relocated his family from Italy to Switzerland so as to rescue one of his sons from a youthful flirtation with fascism - are the better known etchings an attempt to reimpose order on an especially turbulent world? Or are they the polar opposite: some acknowledgement of the limitations of order, where what looks to be an ordered environment finally eludes the grasp of the rational onlooker? (As that noted art historian Shaun William Ryder once put it: you're twisting my melon, man.) Lutz's own camera stays open to all possibilities: as alert to landscape and patterning as its eminent subject, it's a documentary that fills in the gaps in our Escher knowledge, but also sharpens the eye as it goes about it.

Escher: Journey Into Infinity opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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