On Beauty and Commissioned Cinema: Luca Guadagnino’s Stunning “Here”

30 Jan

I am, admittedly, about a week late to this short. Here hit the web last Tuesday, which might have something to do with the lack of immediate effusive praise: Oscar nominations tend to hog all the attention, especially when it comes to those of us that spend our days writing about the movies. Unfortunate, because I would venture to claim that this 15 minute jewel from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) is plenty more attractive and tightly produced than many of the features up for this year’s Academy Awards. It’s a gorgeous and calmly reverential piece of commissioned work that absolutely entrances, further making the point that beauty really is entirely inexpressible in words.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try out utmost. There’s an aesthetic perfection all over this film, not simply an enticing attribute but the entire point of the production. The Luxury Collection is a group of almost impossibly chic hotels and resorts under the Starwoods label, and their collaboration with Waris Ahluwalia is both out of love for art and a desire to showcase their properties to a wider audience. Here was shot at three of these hotels: The Equinox in Vermont, the Phoenician in Arizona and the Royal Hawaiian. They’re pretty stunning.

But before we get into the details of this film’s pristine images, let’s talk about commissions. They tend to throw a wrench in any attempt to categorize short film as theoretically distinct. Funding and interference might be the biggest obvious difference between short cinema and its feature counter-part. These smaller films aren’t made to sell tickets as part of a theatrical release.  There is no overriding studio structure that manipulates a production to get big box office, or Oscar nominations. The content of a short is (almost) never determined by a producer and his or her assumptions about what the general public wants to see.

Yet there are also music videos and commissioned shorts like this one that are designed to advertise something specific. Rather than shooting for the general appeal of a mass-audience studio picture, Guadagnino and Ahluwalia were tasked with a very precise mission: show the beauty of The Luxury Collection’s hotels. Does that somehow hurt Here’s artistic credentials? It’s certainly a more explicit kind of commercialism. Do we need to put a film like this in a separate category, alongside TV commercials and away from the kind of short film work that gets nominated for Oscars?

Before making that call, let’s look at the film itself. (Ideally in HD and full-screen, of course)

It really does feel like a master class in creating cinematic beauty, taking the initial goal of showcasing these hotels and expanding it out into the broader reaches of cinema. Our character is a quintessential Hitchcock blonde taking a mysterious trip across the country, led along only by a series of minimalist clues. Up the Hudson by train, across a marsh in a tiny boat and into the mountains of Arizona, we follow her relaxed pursuit with interest but without anxiety.

Agyness Deyn has the poise (and hair) of Tippi Hedren and the wardrobe of Grace Kelly, though the latter has been brought up to a more 21st Century speed. Every little detail of the film’s visual style is perfectly arranged, from beautiful little props that would have fit perfectly into North by Northwest to the equally Hitchcockian focus on transportation in style. Here is a breathtaking evocation of the great director’s Hollywood hits.

Yet there is another strand of cinematic tradition that becomes equally obvious as Guadagnino’s short moves forward. Blogger Angela McCormack at Portable does an astute job listing as many Wes Anderson references as she can find, and there may very well be more lurking in this lush film. Of course this is no surprise: Ahluwalia and co-composer Jason Schwartzman are both Anderson regulars, while co-creator Tilda Swinton will be appearing in his newest film this spring . Beyond the bathed yellow scene in the Vermont hotel and the appearance of a hawk, Here has captured the spirit of Anderson’s work and used it to temper the power of its Hitchcock influences. The props may be given the legendary director’s focus, but they have the quirky younger man’s ornate sense of style. Deyn’s mildly amused characterization is reminiscent of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum, not so much burdened by malaise but just generally unimpressed.

Sure, Guadagnino could have his actress appear just as wowed by these luxurious locations as we in the audience undoubtedly are. Yet that could easily undercut the artistic style of the short. Deyn and her wardrobe are part of the beauty of this film, part of the lush atmosphere that we presumably can expect at a Luxury Collection hotel. That’s the idea, anyway. And here we are again, back on that tricky issue of commissioned art.

I’ve focused on the referential aspects of Here more than describing the surface level of beauty that remains the most impressive element of the short, partially to stress that no film so conscious of its influences can be written off simply for having an explicitly commercial element. I also tried to avoid talking about the details of its aesthetic value because it frankly isn’t as easy to explain. Beauty is not only subjective but also often beyond words. On some level that’s why we have visual art in the first place, and it speaks to Guadagnino’s strength as a director of elegant cinema.

Here isn’t just beautiful, it’s about beauty. It’s a meditation on the relationship between travel, discovery and the extraordinary potential of any new encounter. Financed and inspired by The Luxury Collection, it adds the influences of Hitchcock and Anderson and turns out something much more complex and compelling than any commercial.

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One Response to “On Beauty and Commissioned Cinema: Luca Guadagnino’s Stunning “Here””

  1. 35andupcynicismonhold January 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    hello, there,

    i like how you put it, that it’s commercial but not hardsell, not in-your-face kind of attempt.^^ :)

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