Although its whimsical title makes it sound as though it could be a follow-up to Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a comic imagining of a meeting between the painter and Albert Einstein, Arne Glimcher’s documentary Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies essentially puts forth an academic argument. Glimcher’s thesis proposes that Cubism, the revolutionary abstract painting and collage style pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, grew out of a reaction to cinema. The neutral tones and deconstructed forms that defined Cubist painting were an attempt to convey motion in the manner of a film’s rolling celluloid, at least according to Glimcher and the cadre of art and film historians assembled in the film.
To state his case, Glimcher retraces cinema’s early roots to a point where it crossed paths with Picasso. He places Picasso at the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, where he would have seen a host of early films displayed, as well as the “Serpentine Dance” of Loie Fuller, which itself became a popular subject to depict on silent reels. Through mostly second- and third-hand accounts, he portrays Picasso as an early cinephile. When he meets Georges Braque, the two find more common ground in their love for cinema than in their current artistic styles (interestingly, Braque found Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to be offensive). As they develop the style that would come to be known as Cubism, they incorporate much of the techniques on display in the local cinema house.
Glimcher, an art dealer by trade who turned to filmmaking later in life, views this project through the lens of two passions merging together. Indeed, he has devoted considerable time and resources to making his case, not just in the film, but in an exhibition at his New York gallery in 2007 (with the more scholarly title of “Picasso, Braque, and Early Film in Cubism”). Of course, to what extent he projects his thesis onto the facts remains unclear by the film’s end. Much of the factual arguments he extols are tenuous at best, hypothetical at worst. As for the interpretive clues in Cubist painting that Glimcher offers as evidence, it could easily be counter-argued that the brilliance of the style lies in maximizing the amount of visual information contained within a painting in order to defy a simple visual interpretation.
The more interesting note that Glimcher sets forth surrounds the history of early cinema. This is what presumably tickled Martin Scorsese’s fancy in the project, and the collection of rare and restored clips is indeed impressive. Contrary to popular wisdom, and notably the influential theories of André Bazin, Glimcher convincingly makes the case that the appeal of film has always been in its ability to heighten reality rather than accurately depict it. Heavily focusing on the work of Georges Melies, the film demonstrates how early cinema succeeded by defying audience expectations of the real. The paradox that cinema, the most effective means available to show reality in its purest form, resists its natural tendencies is what Glimcher claims drives the artist’s towards further abstraction of their own work.
The cause and effect here becomes rather murky, but again, what stands out is the retrospective on silent film coupled with cinematic theory. For instance, Scorsese discussing how the idea that “a strange thing happened,” as written in the screenplay of The Departed, gets translated into the now iconic final shot has little to do with Picasso and Braque drawing inspiration from the frayed edges of early celluloid — one of the more unconvincing visual arguments proposed — but it provides both an intriguing look into Scorsese’s own artistic process and a fascinating nugget in support of the idea that cinema’s aim is to bend and twist reality in order to convey abstraction.