The Academy of Muses: Sink or Swim, by Scott Nye
The effort to reconcile our personal behavior with our public responsibility is an increasingly necessary struggle. Especially in America, we cherish freedom (or its illusion) while acknowledging that if we were to suddenly drive on the wrong side of the road at a high rate of speed, the effect would not be worth the gesture. Lately, liberalism has had to contend with the value of free speech in a time when public address can quickly cause acts of violence. This sort of inspiration is at the heart of José Luis Guerín’s new film, The Academy of Muses. Organized around a lecture by real-life philology professor Raffaele Pinto, it questions whether those women who inspire great art can also claim responsibility for the artist. If they can claim this position, is it inherently feminist for restructuring presumed power, or patriarchal for putting in their hands something they did not intend? And if this is a proven formula, might it be possible to organize them and refine the process?
Guerín (who wrote, directed, shot, and edited the film) is less interested with the moral implications of all this than the comedic and aesthetic, but one can draw certain morals from laughs and form. Pinto, in what turns out to be his second acting role to date (he was in a TV movie in 1990), nicely builds off the classroom persona a teacher must form to build a pompous character incapable of retraction and marginally addicted to the results of his intellectual experiments. The mere suggestion of an “academy of muses” naturally leads him to close encounters with his female students, not all of whom are exactly caught up in whatever aura he emanates, and his wife’s initial bemusement at her aging husband’s propositions gives way to bitterness and spite. The affairs that do arise create the sort of jealousies every man is sure he can contain, but few have yet mastered.
Guerín throws us right into an in-progress classroom lecture and discussion without much warning, and aside from a wonderfully peaceful excursion to the country, the debate hardly lets up for all ninety-two minutes. What makes the intellectual pondering relatively buoyant is not specifically the subject itself but Guerín and his cast’s way of sort of talking around it. Guerín films most of his conversations through glass at angles that emphasize reflections of the world outside of the car or home or coffee shop or whatever locale he has chosen. We can’t always make out specific faces, objects, or bodies, but the rush of movement beyond Pinto’s self-constructed bubble is at much at the fore as he and his students. Sometimes these reflections seem to bring out traits in the characters – the images over one will be bright and bustling, while those over another will be stiff and linear. They, too, have a way of directly confronting the dilemmas before them before laughing off their implications, urging things on past the point where their actual beliefs intersect, hoping the outcome will spark a greater understanding. My fellow dudes who have gleefully played “devil’s advocate” know this practice is rarely as enlightening as we initially feel it to be.
On first view, The Academy of Muses feels somewhat slight in its rush to transform an intellectual debate into drama, lacking the more overt beauty of similar recent exercises like Museum Hours, Certified Copy, or La Sapienza, but the emphasis it places on dialogue means non-Spanish-speakers (read: me) will have to work all the harder to tease out the intent, import, and larger meaning of each statement. That which seems narrow at first approach sometimes reveals itself to be vast and expansive later on.
The Academy of Muses opens at Anthology Film Archives in New York on September 2nd, with future playdates scheduled in Oklahoma, Miami, and more. It will play on October 2nd in Los Angeles at Cinefamily. Check grasshopperfilm.com for more info.