Credit: Filmoteca de Catalunya
by Milo Garner Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

Magnifying The Quince Tree Sun

May 8, 2024

A quince tree in full fruit, September 30. This is the moment. Antonio López García prepares his canvas; he sets his easel; he colors his palette. The sun rests lightly on the tree. It is this the artist wishes to capture. This particular quality of light, on this particular tree, from this particular angle. He hammers nails into the ground as markers for his feet, so when he returns to his painting he will perceive his subject from the exact same angle and position. In such an action begins the mania of artistic reproduction. López seeks not only to paint the tree in his garden, but to crystalize a moment. A fixed angle, a fixed subject; fixed in space and time. Though in this attempt he must find himself in a contrary motion: the requirements of his craft require time to be fulfilled, and yet the requirement of his art requires that time be frozen. López must paint against time. He must take a past and make it present.

Therein lies the struggle of still life, in a life that – even in the stillness of a quince tree – moves always. It is here that Víctor Erice finds his film: a protagonist who must defy the changing light, the passing seasons, and such other intrusion upon the ideal image; an artist’s struggle against and through time. But all the while, Erice traces a parallel capture: the film itself is a portrait of the quince tree and its painter. One not against, but in time. Where painting is the art of space, cinema is the art of time. To paint is to render a representation of space absolutely; the cinematic representation of space is only ever fleeting. A film must begin and end, it must be given temporary life whenever it is played; a painting exists always to be looked at. Therein lies this film: at the interstice between the immortal and the ephemeral.

“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.”

So writes T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, the great poetic statement on art and time. We can see in Eliot some fragment of Erice, who at the time of shooting The Quince Tree Sun had made only two features in the previous 20 years. Using not words, but images, each time approaching his subject – time – from a new angle. In The Spirit of the Beehive, we find ourselves at the fore-edge of time; the film is set in the past, but imagined as though in the present. We experience the narrative in the forward-motion, through the eyes of a child who finds herself abstract to a newly Francoist Spain. She exists in the penumbra, between truth and fiction. The point at which the objective and the subjective overlap is an indistinct line; she watches Frankenstein and notices the film bleed out into her life. This, again, is the nature of live-action filmmaking. Construed elements of the real arranged into fiction: one cannot say that a film is wholly unreal, because it borrows so significantly from the actual. In this ambiguity lies much of the tension in replicative art.

Ten years later, El Sur: another story about an imaginative child in Francoist Spain, but this time expressed in the memorial. A voiceover will recollect the events of the past; those lapses in reality are not necessarily the direct experience of a child, but the warped memories of an adult. She peers back, and this is what she sees. Here we exist at the reverse extreme of time, a past in abstract, expressed in fragments. And if the motion is generally linear, from the oldest to the youngest memory, it is not wholly so; there is a zigzag pattern, a layer of associations. So we arrive at The Quince Tree Sun, a film that takes time at the middle pivot: moving from the immediate into the remembered. At the film’s beginning, the quince tree is exactly as López intends to paint it; as the film moves forward, it becomes an increasingly abstract representation of this first tree. We see none of this in López’ painting, which continues its attempts to keep back the clock. We see all of this in Erice’s film.

Credit: Filmoteca de Catalunya/Mubi

“And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.”

Eliot continues, reflecting again the reinvention implicit in each movement in art, by which the tools one has previously mastered must be thrown aside for the new work; one must always start from a beginning; the canvas must be blank – inarticulate – before the lines take shape. But the metaphor of shabby, deteriorating equipment becomes literal for López. His subject, the quince tree, does not remain so stalwart as he. As the fruit grows heavier, the branches begin to bow; the leaves expand; the rain clouds gather above. López finds solutions to this problem of time. He paints on the tree itself, little white marks, to record the degree each quince has lowered over time. By using these marks, he can correct dusky time: he can paint the quince where it ought to be, rather than where it is. He can restore what was lost, and make immortal in art what is so clearly not in life. Even the rain clouds he makes contest with. He moves a tarpaulin shelter over his subject and his painting, to allow him constant access to the tree, whose leaves will stay dry in the rainfall. But the sun remains out of reach. The weeks wheel on; that early autumn light is soon to vanish. For all his mastery in arresting time, time prevails. López is forced to abandon his painting altogether. He dashes across the courtyard, painting in hand. Should he stand too long in the rain, even his faulty record would blear across the canvas.

“And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.”

And so, López must himself fight to recover the lost and the found. He is himself the man he cannot hope to emulate: he has himself twice before painted the quince tree. But what was painted then is, in the intervening years, a figment of the past: for so far as a painting might exist in space, the act of painting exists entirely in time. He has recognized his failure; or rather, the failed cooperation of the sun. So he begins his enterprise again, now in pencil. The lines are sharper – more precise – but the color is removed entirely. He is no longer reliant upon the hue of sunlight, only on the tree itself, its edges and contours. So he begins again – now a beginning in total abstraction – appealing to his increasingly byzantine markings in order to reproduce the tree in its previous form. His line drawing begins on October 26 – he is drawing a quince tree one month in the past. His efforts are valiant. On December 3, he spots the first fallen quince. On December 9, several having fallen, he himself removes one from the branch. Still, he persists. He arranges a mirror: here it seems López is appealing not to the quince tree itself, but to his own sketch. The drawing must become a self-producing work, being more alike to the original than the original itself. At last, on December 10, peering down at the quince detritus, López concedes. He pulls three more quinces off the tree – as though to prevent any temptation to return – and takes in his canvas; disassembles his easel; puts away his pencils.

“But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Erice will frequently return to images of the fallen quinces, covered in their painted marks, succumbing to black spots and further time. An image of decay; had López begun his painting now, it would be a memento mori. But the film does not end. Erice holds, for 20 minutes longer, onto this painter and his quince tree; through the winter, and into the spring. And it is this principle that determines the shape and the meaning of his film. This is a long film – not, in its objective measure, remarkably so, at 134 minutes, but rather in spirit. We spend vast stretches of time watching López paint, or listening as he talks (or sings) with an artist friend; or as he fields questions from a Chinese admirer through the intermediary of a translator. It must be that we feel the elapsing of time; it is only in the feeling of time that we can understand the creative act.

Credit: Filmoteca de Catalunya

While the moment of inspiration might be just that – a moment – the creative process is of a different kind altogether. It can only be depicted in such a manner as this. Peter Jackson, when editing together his eight-hour Beatles documentary Get Back, comes upon a similar realization. While we can awe at Paul McCartney discovering the riff to that eponymous track in what seems to be a spontaneous instant, the construction and development of the song and the album around it is a task measured in weeks. One not obstructed, but defined by the dead-time, by the abandoned material, and the waiting around. Erice expresses a similar preference. That we ought to wait with López as he steadily paints this tree; that we should not rush to the essential moments; recognizing that each moment is in some equal measure essential. To leave the cinema after having seen The Quince Tree Sun ought to feel as though you have, yourself, spent several months painting and drawing in a Castilian backyard. Anything less would defy the heart of the project.

But there it is again, and again, in all different manners: the question of time. Depicted in form, depicted in subject. We come, then, to our beginning. For as much as this is a film about painting, about drawing, about the creative act and process, it is also an inverse film about cinema. Late in the film are several shots of the quince tree at night, after most of its fruit has fallen. The first shot in this sequence is built of shadows: a shadow of the tree, and a shadow of a film camera. The camera is angled down, peering at the fallen quinces. The legs of the tripod accord to nails, alike to those first hammered in by López months ago. An artificial light fades an orange beam in and out of frame. A shot of the camera’s eye. A shot of a fallen quince – the sight of the camera – marked with white paint. Here we see an entirely different mode of capture, thrown from the implicit into the explicit. Where painting is a form out of time – a form solely composed of space – cinema is an immediate mode. It exists always in time, and must – necessarily – trace time. It is, therefore, not a mode that can, as López had intended, render forever a single moment. It is definitively opposed to this production. And while a film can be paused, or halted, and while a frame might be grabbed and reproduced elsewhere, we cannot say that a single frame represents a film in much the same way we cannot say a single chord represents a piece of music. It is a form that exists in a definitive motion. It, therefore, must, by this process, capture a series of moments (in whichever order); it must contain and express time. So a painting of a quince tree approaches the absolute quality of painting if it is to subtract time from the quince tree, and crystalize it into space alone. And a film of a quince tree approaches the absolute quality of filmmaking if it is to subtract space from the quince tree, and crystalize it into time alone.

By the end of Erice’s film, there isn’t much left of the tree as it began: the quinces have fallen, and rotted away. It feels as though it might be a film about futility and decay. Another kind of memento mori – all things wither away into dust. We see López lying, as though asleep, on a bed. He is being painted – it is an old painting, now revisited. We wonder if the artist might add the new lines on López’ face; is this painting a reverse of López’ quince tree? A work made to resemble not its beginning, but its end? Perhaps this is the impression gained as we look upon Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in which souls must either rise or fall, there at an ending of endings. Indeed, the film fades to black several times in its closing portion: each could make an ending. But still it persists. It persists until the winter ends. We see the quince tree once more, now with fresh buds: this is a film about circles. This is not a film about the end of time, but a film in which time has no end. A constant motion, a constant creation, in and out of being.

We return once more to Eliot:

“Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.”