Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Webster Film Series, September 16-18)

In Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, the viewer never has a chance to sit back and absorb the story—not only because there is no story, but also because Fiennes seldom offers an image or sequence that fits into any conventional cinematic vocabulary.


In 1993, the noted German artist Anselm Kiefer began building an elaborate world in a derelict silk factory in La Ribaute, France. To call this work an art installation is insufficient. A better description might be a series of installations embedded within a fantastical created environment, which mimics and mocks both the natural world and the creations of man.

Kiefer’s ongoing work at La Ribaute is the subject of Sophie Fiennes’ documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, and her approach to creating this film is as unusual as the world it documents. She takes a highly observational approach to her subject, favoring long takes at a medium or long distance from the scene being captured, and offers neither narrative nor characters to help draw viewers into the film. Instead, she relies on the inherent visual interest of Kiefer’s created world, revealed through a camera which, somewhat paradoxically, is the opposite of passive and always seems to be drawing attention to itself. It’s a mesmerizing experience and a must-see for anyone interested in the artistic aspects of filmmaking, as well as those who are interested in Kiefer’s work.
Fiennes’ approach in this film is particularly interesting when considered in relation to the conventions of the so-called “invisible” style developed during the Golden Age of Hollywood and still prevalent in the vast majority of commercial films shot in the United States today. In the invisible style, a well-known set of conventions is used to create an illusion of reality such that the story presented on screen can be simply absorbed by the viewer without awareness of the artifice that went into creating it. Tell the truth: When you see a series of angle/reverse angle shots of a conversation between two characters, do you even notice the use of this convention or consider why it is being used, rather than the myriad other ways the same conversation could be presented on screen? If you do, you are far more cinematically aware than the average moviegoer.
In Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, the viewer never has a chance to sit back and absorb the story—not only because there is no story, but also because Fiennes seldom offers an image or sequence that fits into any conventional cinematic vocabulary. Long dolly shots through Kiefer’s created world have no payoff except the view that they present of his work, while static shots of Kiefer and his assistants at work (or simply having a conversation in the library) do nothing to direct your attention to one aspect of the scene over another. This approach allows the viewer to settle into each scene, eventually beginning to notice what a rich and fascinating environment he is viewing. This effect would be lost had Fiennes made the more conventional decision to indicate what is important in the scene and can safely be ignored.
Even Fiennes’ choice to shoot in Cinemascope constantly reminds you that what you are seeing on the screen is a created object. While films shot in more common ratios can simply be absorbed because they adhere to familiar conventions, the simplest compositions in Cinemascope’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio draw attention to themselves because they’re not what we are used to seeing. (For the sake of comparison, older movies and standard-definition televisions use a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, high-definition television uses 1.78:1, and most modern films are in the range of 1.66:1 to 1.85:1.)
This contrarian style of filmmaking is a good match to Kiefer’s approach to art. He first came to public notice with a series of photographs of himself striking a Hitler salute, and has returned again and again to themes that remind the viewer of Germany’s period of National Socialism. It almost seems as if Kiefer, having no personal memory of this period (he was born two months before Germany surrendered to the Allies in 1945), feels determined not only to explore it, but also to remind his fellow countryman of things about their past which they might prefer to forget.
Also relevant to the La Ribaute project is Kiefer’s interest in working with fragile, natural materials and his ruminations on the fate of great civilizations. As the title of this documentary suggests, nothing human lasts forever, and change may be the only constant in our world. | Sarah Boslaugh
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow will be screened at 7:30 pm on September 16, 17 and 18 in Moore Auditorium, Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Admission is $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, and $4 for Webster University faculty and staff. For more information, including directions and the complete Film Series calendar, visit www.webster.edu/filmseries.


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