Film art

Painting is, in a way, also about not painting, just as writing requires that certain things are left unsaid, outlines that will be completed in the imagination of the reader or in the brain of the viewer examining a painting, instead of the canvas where figures emerge out of loose strokes and a few lines.
— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow

I have long argued that the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and art object. The perceptual experience of art is literally embodied by and in the viewer.
— Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

Art is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter.
— Ali Smith, Artful

At what point does the switch from observation to participation and creation occur? In all engagement with art, there is a liminal space where authorial intention meets the emotional and intellectual investment of reader, listener or viewer. We carry within us the stories we have read, the images viewed, the music listened to. They become us, they change us, and, in so doing, they are transformed into something quite different from what was crafted by their original authors. For, now, they are infused and mingled with our own world views, memories and desires. We switch off the television set, close the book, exit the theatre or gallery, and what we have seen, read or heard plays on in our minds, assuming new life and form. The stories drift beyond the constraints of the frame, page and stage.

Awaiting the arrival of two friends with whom he will dine in the Heritage Club, a university professor admires the portrait of a young women on display in a nearby window. Later, after an evening of conversation, food and alcohol, the professor falls asleep while reading. He brings the portrait’s subject to life in his dreams, entangling himself in a nightmare adventure with her. (The Woman in the Window, 1944)

Screen media like film and television depend on this. The fade out is not so much an ending as a new beginning, as the viewer takes over from the coalition of technicians, writers, designers, actors, producers and directors responsible for what they have just experienced. There is an invitation both to complete the process of creation and, especially in the case of the serial, to return and re-engage. The creative act, the need to suspend disbelief, are highlighted through the use of credits at the start and the end of the narrative. This is an artefact, we are told, and you, the audience, are among the uncredited people responsible for its making. We will give you so much, but you can fill in the rest. Like the novel, in its consumption, cinema is one of the most collaborative of art forms. Consider the back stories of minor characters, or the lives of the protagonists beyond the final paragraphs or the closing credits. How much is hinted at in the original? How much have you made up yourself?

Laura (dir. Otto Preminger, 1944)
Laura (dir. Otto Preminger, 1944)

Seated below the portrait of a young woman, a detective assigned to investigate the subject’s apparent murder falls asleep, succumbing to the effects of alcohol, work and obsession. When he awakens, the young woman herself stands before him, deepening both the mystery he investigates and the intense feelings her portrait has stirred up in him. (Laura, 1944)

Given the pronounced self-knowledge about its own artifice, it is unsurprising that there are so many feature films about the business of filmmaking itself, including The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), (1963), Day for Night (1973), The Player (1992) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). The artist – as explorer, sense-maker and creator – is a figure that recurs throughout film history, from the early shorts of Georges Méliès onwards. We luxuriate in original stories and bio pictures about the triumphs and travails of painters, novelists, sculptors, illusionists, poets, playwrights, actors and musicians. We take pleasure, too, in the cinematic reworking of classical mythology. The tale of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to reclaim Eurydice is a frequent touchstone. So, too, the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion, the recipient of a divine gift from Aphrodite that bestows life on the statue Galatea.

A man traumatised by a tragic death encounters a young woman who bears a strong resemblance to the deceased. He cajoles her to dress differently and to change her hair colour and style, as he gradually moulds her into the image of his lost love. Little does he realise that in seeking to re-create the past, it will be repeated with the same tragic ending. (Vertigo, 1958)

Yet, so often, these secular modernisations explore the dark side of humanity. These are stories of love disfigured by obsessive desire, by the dark arts. The artist-creator gives life only to end up complicit in the destruction either of what they have helped create or of those closely associated with it. Even in more benign examples, such as Professor Higgins’s coaching of Eliza Doolittle, there can be melancholic undertones. For, to the anguish of parents everywhere, the creation of life inevitably carries with it the promise of eventual demise. We are entropic, ephemeral beings and our first breath unavoidably will be echoed by our last.

A flamenco dance company prepares to put on a production of Carmen. The more the dancers and musicians rehearse, the more the choreographer and company lead directs them, the more the boundary between fiction and reality dissolves. Increasingly, the performers assume the identities and characteristics of the roles they play. Carmen – as both character and production – is brought to life with fatal consequences. (Carmen, 1983)

Perhaps because of the fleeting nature of human life in the grander scheme of universal history, art frequently is concerned with time, with pausing and rewinding it, with breaking its chronology and highlighting its kairology. The photograph, the moving image and the portrait all record moments in time, capturing youthful snapshots, enabling us to revisit, at least superficially, our younger selves. But, as Janos observes in John Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time, ‘Art is not a means of pickling.’ Youth itself is not preserved and, unlike the case of Dorian Gray, there is no transference from canvas or screen to animate being. These images – stripped of context as those who had some relation to the subject pass away or lose their memories – take on new meanings for those who now observe them. Ultimately, the connection between portrait and subject is lost.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma, 2019)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma, 2019)

An artist receives a commission to paint the portrait of a young woman, which will be sent to a prospective husband in Milan. Her subject is an unwilling sitter, and the artist is initially required to spend time with her as a companion, painting from memory. The effect of their affair will inform her art for years to come, long after they have gone their separate ways, she as a female painter making her way in a world dominated by male artists. (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019)

To paint from memory is, to paraphrase James Sallis, to paint with the eye of the poet rather than with that of the reporter. Memories change over time, they are re-written and over-layered by the recollections of others, which we internalise, blend and alter. In this way, they become both personal and collective, palimpsests more sensory and emotional than factual. The artist who relies on recall, then, is in some way attempting to make memory manifest. The aspirations and desires of the former and current self meet on the canvas, the image re-captured is idealised, shaded by the desire for wish-fulfilment. Such images are both wistful and hopeful, reflecting on what was, what might have been, what yet could be.

A brief visit to the man’s elderly grandmother, and the magical few hours they spend in her company, underscores the love a couple feel for one another, helping them both to understand that they are meant to be together. Months later, in the wake of misfortune and misunderstanding, the man paints from memory his impressions of that afternoon. The canvas becomes a vehicle for reconciliation and the renewal of their relationship. (An Affair to Remember, 1957)

It does not take much, however, for idealised memory to be disfigured. The frustrations of the present magnify, shrink and distort the memories of past pleasures like a fairground house of mirrors. An artist obsessed like Pygmalion succumbs to the impulse to possess, conflating desire with ownership. Their art captures the tension between the expression and repression of their emotional lives. Mark (Carl Boehm), incapable of love, will photograph the women he desires in Peeping Tom (1960) even as he murders them. Orpheus will initiate Eurydice’s rescue from Hades even as he will make it impossible for her to return to the world of the living.

An ageing artist is under pressure to complete a series of new canvases ready for an exhibition of his work that has been organised by his benefactor. Learning that he has lost the love of his assistant, and that she has enjoyed a relationship with another man, he throws himself into his work. His expressionist painting captures his desire, pain, anger, frustration and regret. (‘Life Lessons’ segment of New York Stories, 1989)

There are occasions, however, when there is a need to engage with darkness in order to catalyse creativity. Good can emerge from evil, success from failure. The act of creation becomes a journey; one of fits and starts, peaks and troughs, longueurs and accelerations. The artist takes delight in this journey rather than demonstrating any concern for its destination. They revel in the process, with little consideration for the outcome. Creation becomes life itself, yet carries the danger of becoming a self-reflexive trap. Sometimes it is necessary to break the funfair mirrors like Elsa (Rita Hayworth) in The Lady from Shanghai (1947).

La Belle Noiseuse (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1991)
La Belle Noiseuse (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1991)

An elderly painter rediscovers his passion for making art when he encounters a new muse. The girlfriend of a young artist reluctantly agrees to pose for him, displacing his wife as the model for a long-discarded project. Friction becomes a source of inspiration as painter and sitter become lost in the work. (La Belle Noiseuse, 1991)

Unlike much musical performance, theatre, film and television, creation for the novelist and painter, especially those working from memory rather than with models, is a relatively solitary undertaking. At some point, however, if the artist can break themselves free from the creative process, the moment arrives when the work has to be shared with others, when an audience has to be found. Monologue then switches to dialogue, and the work can no longer be considered the artist’s alone. It is opened up to comment and interpretation, to multiple points of views, each shaped and informed by a variety of experiences and ideologies.

A woman with severe arthritis becomes housemaid to a local fish seller. As part of the improvements she seeks to make to his home, she begins to paint. Eventually, her work is noticed by a visitor from New York and she begins to receive small commissions. Media exposure raises the artist’s profile to such an extent that she is soon selling paintings from her home, even to the US Vice President. (Maudie, 2016)

While there is invariably intent in the creation of a work of art, the artist’s motives do not often marry up completely and exactly with the meaning the viewer, reader or listener will derive from that work. This is one of the great beauties of art, one of the reasons that a single work can keep on giving in new and numerous ways – not only to a fresh audience but to the same people at different points in time. To pick up a book or to watch a film once read or viewed at the age of twenty and now revisited as a fifty-something is to read or view something entirely new, filtered through three more decades of experiences and memories. It is a reminder that between production and consumption, we are all artists, all participants in the act of creation.

Trust the art, not the artist; trust the tale, not the teller. The art remembers, the artist forgets.
— Julian Barnes, Keeping An Eye Open

Art’s responses are always perturbable by criticism, by questioning, by context, and by reflection.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

I think I’m in a frame … All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.
— Jeff (Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past

Out of the Past

Inchoately reaching into heartfelt darkness has to do with searching, not finding. It has to do with that land of Un—uncertainty, unfathomability, unknowing—which, turns out, is where writers live most of the time.
— Maud Casey, The Art of Mystery

And then, most important of all: to remember who I am. To remember who I am supposed to be. I do not think this is a game. On the other hand, nothing is clear. For example: who are you? And if you think you know, why do you keep lying about it? I have no answer.
— Paul Auster, ‘City of Glass’

When we want everything and give back nothing
the otherworld will be unlocked, and our whole world taken away.
— Robin Robertson, The Long Take

For more than twenty-five years, in a variety of different rooms and properties, a framed black-and-white movie still has hung near my desk. On the left of the photograph, stands an elegantly dressed women, clutching a revolver in her right hand. Looming over her, projected on to a curtain in a nod to the cinematic medium itself, are the shadows of two men fighting. This represents a key moment in the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947), when the masks come off and the protagonists see one another in their true light. The still freezes that singular moment immediately before revelation and unalterable change.

The proximity of the photo to me over the years has served as a constant reminder. First, of a particular period in my life between 1992 and 1996 when I dedicated myself to postgraduate research and the writing of a book on the evolution of film noir and the emergence of neo-noir. Second, of one of my favourite films, which always rewards me with new insights whenever I watch it and provides a sense of enjoyment that extends well beyond the 97 minutes of its duration. There are certain films – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Apartment (1960), The Awful Truth (1937), Chinatown (1974) and Out of the Past are among them – that I can never tire of, that are always a source of both pleasure and intellectual stimulation.

Out of the Past still

While my academic days are long behind me, I have harboured for many years a desire to reengage with film noir, watching the classic films again, reading about them and the people who made them, possibly even writing about them. There is nothing particularly intentional about this, and I have no clear objective in mind. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has provided a perfect opportunity to scratch this particular itch. Woven into my daily lockdown routine for now is the early morning screening of an old film, most often a film noir from the classic period of 1941-58.

Over the past few weeks I have watched The Maltese Falcon (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), Phantom Lady (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Gilda (1946), The Killers (1946), Crossfire (1947), They Live by Night (1948), Force of Evil (1948), Gun Crazy (1950), Night and the City (1950), In a Lonely Place (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Big Knife (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Killing (1956), Touch of Evil (1958) and, of course, Out of the Past. There are many others I intend to watch again over the coming weeks, too, including Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Big Combo (1955), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

This immersion in noir has reaffirmed my admiration for the writers, cinematographers, designers, directors and actors associated with these edgy films. Access to restored versions of the classic films noirs, and to HD or 4K transfers online and on blu-ray, has enabled me to see and hear detail in these films that I had not noticed before.

As director and film historian Martin Scorsese argues in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), these filmmakers were smugglers, transforming routine material into personal expression, bypassing the censors and the strictures of the Production Code where they could. They were stylistically and thematically innovative, bringing a B-film sensibility to even bigger budget projects. Often made under financial and temporal constraints, theirs are highly creative films, making extraordinary use of lighting effects, on-the-street photography and camera movement – from cars or even, in the case of They Live by Night, from a helicopter.

It is, though, the stories, narrative patterns and thematic motifs associated with noir that have the most enduring appeal for me. Returning to these films out of my own past, I detect synergies and connections with much else that I have written about and reflected upon in the intervening years. Indeed, there is a universal appeal about noir films that renders them modern myths or fairy tales. There is the comfort of familiarity even in their nightmare visions. They take us to dark places, show us the underside of humanity, and, despite the occasional glimmer of hope, do not usually end well. They are also difficult to categorise, the noir label having been applied to them retrospectively, prompting decades of debate among critics and academics about whether noir should be considered a movement, a style or a genre.

In many respects, noir always has been a hybrid beast, adding to this notion of universality. In look and feel and plot and setting and dialogue, noir has borrowed variously from hardboiled fiction, crime photography, Edward Hopper’s paintings, the gangster film, melodrama, the horror film, screwball comedy, the road movie and, on occasion, the musical, western and documentary. It presents a world out of balance, suggested by tilted camera angles, long shadows and edgeland settings such as city waterfronts, small-town gas stations, funfairs and border towns. This is a world populated by archetypal figures – such as the private investigator, the gangster, the grifter, the femme fatale, the man on the run, the war veteran, the corrupt official, the redemptive woman – in which the capitalist project and the American Dream of individual agency has turned sour.

In essence, noir is concerned with alienation, regret and identity. As noir academic Imogen Sara Smith has argued, the phrases ‘in a lonely place’ and ‘out of the past’ would apply equally well to just about any film noir, not just to the two films that bear these titles. The noir protagonist is often attempting to flee some past mistake, hiding their true selves, as with the Swede (Burt Lancaster) in The Killers, closing themselves off from broader society. Or, in the case of the detective, insurance agent and journalist, they are trying to make sense of what occurred in the past, building a story from the clues they find and the interactions they have with others. In either case, on one level, noir is about storytelling and narration, self-reflexively showing how a story is atomised then put together, through voiceover, flashback, interrogation, foreshadowing, even dreams, all of it filtered through a subjective point of view that rarely can be trusted in full. For film noir is imbued with both memory and desire, and while the former is subject to poetic licence and ‘re-writing’, the latter tends to distort the way we see and engage with the world.

In several key films noirs, such as Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, this cocktail of memory and desire colours the protagonist’s recollections of the femme fatale and her actions. Events leading up to the time of narration are presented from the protagonist’s perspective, justifying their existential angst and fatalist resignation, while preparing us for what will follow. In Out of the Past, gas station owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) recounts his former life as New York-based private investigator Jeff Markham to his Bridgeport, California, love interest Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). He narrates his involvement in the case of Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and absconded with $40,000 of his money. Jeff describes his own entanglement in Kathie’s web, their love story played out against a background of fishing nets on Acapulco’s beachfront.

In fact, Jeff is a willing catch, exclaiming ‘Baby, I don’t care’, when Kathie talks of her violent departure from Whit. Meanwhile, fishing is a recurrent motif in the film. Jeff’s former investigative partner, whom he fights in the movie still hanging on my wall and who is killed by Kathie in the moments that follow that frozen image is called Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). A subsequent victim of Whit’s and Kathie’s scheming is called Leonard Eels (Ken Miles), whose death they intend to use to frame Jeff. Whit’s henchman, Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine), falls to his death when Jeff’s employee, The Kid (Dickie Moore), hooks him with a fishing rod before he can shoot Jeff. Even Jeff and Ann are first introduced while fishing on a lake near Bridgeport. Everyone is caught up in a giant net that they cannot see, reinforcing Jeff’s fatalism in the second half of the film. The film’s narrative, moving forward linearly but also jumping back and forth in time, weaves its own intricate web, too.

After Jeff has told Ann his story, she drops him off at Whit’s property next to Lake Tahoe – later the site of another underworld businessman’s home in The Godfather, Part II (1974). There Jeff is reunited with Kathie, and we see them getting back into character, resuming their old roles under Whit’s watchful eye. Accompanied by Joe, they are sent to San Francisco to work on an assignment with Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming). Jeff and Kathie respectively assume the costume and badinage of the hardboiled investigator and femme fatale. Kathie’s performance even elicits Jeff’s sarcastic observation, ‘Oh, you’re wonderful, Kathie. You’re magnificent. You change sides so smoothly.’ Identities are fluid, switched as easily as coats or hats. Faces are impassive, masks that give little away.

For all that Jeff attempts to portray Kathie as evil incarnate and himself as foolish victim, everything is not as black and white as it seems. Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, adapted his own novel, Build My Gallows High, published under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, with uncredited input from Frank Fenton and hardboiled novelist James M. Cain. Together they introduced many contrasts and oppositions into the film. These include city/country, American/other, society/underworld, high/low, mountains/beach, east/west, north/south, rootedness/restlessness, naturalness/artifice, trust/deception, passivity/action and good/evil. These polarities are reinforced by Nicholas Musuraca’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. Nevertheless, director Jacques Tourneur and the cast of actors tease out the nuanced gaps between these poles. Noir, despite its name, is an examination of the many shades of grey that describe the human experience.

Like Oedipus before him, Jeff is an example of the detective as a flawed man and tragic hero, neither wholly good nor completely evil, given to errors of judgement and reconciled to the consequences. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself and protects those who have the opportunity for a better life, such as Ann and The Kid. Kathie may or may not be willing to flee with him and start over in Mexico, following her murder of Whit, but instead Jeff engineers their mutual destruction bringing their own convoluted story to a close.

Inevitably, noir leaves us with more questions than answers. There may appear to be closure at the end of the film, in this case with The Kid freeing Ann to pursue a life without regret with Jim (Richard Webb). In the days of Hollywood’s Production Code, transgression always had to be addressed, disruption seemingly contained and the established order preserved. This might be achieved through marriage, as in screwball comedy, or, more often in the case of film noir, through imprisonment or death. In the modern era of neo-noir, this no longer holds, and we occasionally see the transgressor getting away with their crimes and the faults of the socio-political order laid bare, as in Chinatown and The Last Seduction (1994).

Nevertheless, there is something powerful and distinctly unsettling about the classic films noirs. The happy ending does not usually fit with all that has gone before. It prompts further reflection and doubt. Because of the way Out of the Past and other noir films play with temporal structure and narrative devices like voiceover and flashbacks, they entangle us with the narrator’s point of view, even as we question it. Yet, if we cannot trust the narrator, why should we trust any aspect of the story? What was truth and what was fiction? We keep questioning, conjuring with the film’s epistemological games, unpicking its story, jumping from one character’s perspective to another. The existential angst that affected the film’s characters is transferred to the viewer, and we, too, flounder in the net.

Noir bookshelf

Adaptation

I was right inside the pattern, merging, part of it as it changed and, duplicating itself yet again, here, now, transformed itself and started to become real.
— Tom McCarthy, Remainder

Repetition. Repetition, not identity. Nothing is repeated exactly, even words, because something has changed in the speaker and in the listener, because once said and then said again and again, the repetition itself alters the words.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men

Someone once said life is all conjunctions, just one damn thing after another. But so much of it’s not connected. You’re sliding along, hit a bump and come down in a life you don’t recognize. Every day you head out a dozen different directions, become a dozen different people; some of them make it back home that night, others don’t.
— James Sallis, Black Hornet

In a celebrated short story by the Argentinian man of letters Jorge Luis Borges, his protagonist Pierre Menard is determined to recreate passages from Miguel de Cervantes’s literary masterpiece Don Quixote. Menard’s approach is one of immersion and appropriation. He intends not merely to copy from Cervantes’s book but to gain so deep an understanding of it that in writing his own version he produces a word-for-word duplicate. This while resolutely maintaining his perspective of a twentieth-century author, aware of the history and cultural changes of the years that separate his own literary efforts and those of Cervantes.

What Menard produces are passages that are exactly the same, in terms of vocabulary and register of language, as those in Cervantes’s own two-part novel. Yet they are wholly different too – precisely because of the disjunctures of time and place between the two authors. For the narrator in Borges’s story, the francophone Menard’s text is the greater, subtler achievement. He has had to imagine himself into another era, another location, another language entirely. His is an exercise that is simultaneously creation and re-creation. An adaptation that results in replication. It is also one that provides commentary on the historical, geographical and personal context in which it is written no matter that no overt reference is made to it.

For a translator, as Kate Briggs acknowledges in her book-length essay This Little Art, it is impossible to exactly reproduce source material. Translation is always an act of co-creation, of at least two levels of lexical selection and decision-making. It is impossible for the translator to get completely out of the way. They will have to filter the author’s original text through their own understanding and interpretation of it for the benefit of the new reader in a completely different language. They will have to ponder the meaning of paragraphs, phrases, single words, and render this in a way that makes sense to the reader while approximating the intentions of the author. You can read Menard’s story in the original Spanish, as written by Borges, and then in Andrew Hurley’s English translation. One story, two texts, one of which has two creators behind it.

Briggs questions whether it is legitimate to claim that you have read a book if you have not done so in the language in which it was first written. Can we ever claim to have read The Tin Drum or The Divine Comedy if we have only spent time with the English translations? When we do not have direct access to the linguistic nuances of Grass or the poetic devices deployed by Dante, is our appreciation of their work somehow poorer, watered down? Or do we, instead, take pleasure in the fact that a co-creator has opened up a literary universe otherwise closed to us? Accepting, of course, that they too are a presence in the book we read; the translator a shadow, a dæmon, that accompanies the author in this alternative version of the text.

Translation and adaptation do not have to relate only to the conversion from one language to another. They can take the form of what Briggs calls r_e-mediation_, a shift from one artistic mode of presentation to a different one entirely. This can entail not just a change of medium, but of language too; a transformation across cultural boundaries. Radio, television and film provide numerous examples of adaptation within and between media.

Consider these examples:

  • Jon McGregor has reimagined the events leading up to the narrative of his highly-regarded novel Reservoir 13. In a series of short BBC radio plays, The Reservoir Tapes, characters from the local community featured in the book are interviewed by a journalist.
  • The popular Danish–Swedish television series Broen/Bron (The Bridge) has been adapted several times, relocated to the US–Mexican, British–French and Estonian–Russian borders. Each iteration, in their way, examines connections through similarity and the appreciation of difference.
  • Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed explores concepts about identity and performance. It not only adapts the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, but nods and winks to its two sequels too.
  • The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing traces a lineage. Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key inspired Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo. This, in turn, provided a model for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Each one of these works by Hammett, Kurosawa and Leone are alluded to in Miller’s Crossing in a hermetically sealed world that is a celebration of the film medium itself and of the tradition of the hardboiled novel. Art about artifice, artifice about art.
  • Roman Polanski’s Chinatown reworks the myth of Oedipus for a 1970s audience despairing of the violence, corruption and impotent leadership that informed society and politics at the time of its making.
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo reimagines the Pygmalion myth through an adaptation of D’entre les morts, a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It is a film about obsession, fragmented identity and creativity. Another self-reflexive work about artifice.

Many films, of course, are based directly on novels, biographies and plays, as well as paintings, operas, cartoons and video games. They take source material and re-mediate it, sometimes with the input of the authors themselves. It is a co-creative endeavour, transforming one perspective of a story into something else again. On top of the author’s original vision are layered the ideas and insights of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, art directors, designers, choreographers, actors, stunt people, editors and musical directors. This is a process that applies to all films and television shows that are not documentary in nature. For these depend on screenplays, on the written word, regardless of whether they have been adapted from another medium or not.

Reading a novel, our own imaginations take on all those roles, painting pictures, hearing voices, filling up our mindscreens, mobilising our other senses. The reader is a creative partner with the writer. In the cinema, the viewer abdicates some of these roles while seated before the screen, but resumes them as the credits roll and their brains carry on processing what they have seen and heard. They still share in the act of creation. With the novel and film there is a willing suspension of disbelief and, concurrently, an eagerness to fulfil this co-creative function. The novelist, for example, can take things so far, but at some stage the reader needs to build on the words they have read, filling in the gaps, giving the characters faces, hearing the birds, smelling the flowers, tasting the food, making the story their own.

Intriguingly, with corporate and political writing, there appears to be a reinforcement of disbelief. An unwillingness to participate, to translate, to lend meaning to the manifesto promises or vision statements. The novel and film both engage, while the bureaucrat’s prose, invariably written by committee, disengages. It is filled with empty words signifying nothing. The manifestos lie there unadapted, unrealised; the business plans dormant for the duration, never translated into meaningful action. They are texts in search of co-creators, of enactors, rarely closing the circle. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most powerful works about politics and business do not emerge close to home but are, in fact, to be found in the various domains of fiction: the novel, film, theatre, radio and television.

The work of anthropologists and the study of myth and fable have revealed the universality and timelessness of our stories. Frazer, Propp, Campbell, Lévi-Strauss and Warner, among many others, have helped illustrate how these are filled with archetypes and rudimentary structures that we repeat endlessly, revising and revisiting generation after generation. Every story is a translation, an adaptation. Our stories are always communal even when they appear extraordinarily personal. But in their retelling we grant them a new context, provide fresh insights about the contemporary culture in which we produce and situate them. So, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is transplanted to twenty-first-century London in Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. The Tempest is both staged and lived in a modern prison in Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Viking gods and heroes are revived for a fresh audience in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. The Odyssey is spruced up in Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s epic poem.

The lure of the tales envisaged and told by the Ancient Greeks has remained strong, as witness Wilson’s mammoth undertaking, the late work of poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, or Stephen Fry’s most recent publication, Mythos. The Greek tales help us understand who we are, help us come to terms with the repetition of the same mistakes, the same lessons unlearned. One tale of protest in the face of injustice, of the outsider on the inside, remains particularly pertinent. In terms of their sequencing, Antigone is the third instalment in Sophocles’s cycle of Theban tragedies. Its heroine confronts the empty rhetoric and hypocrisy of the political leadership, the abuse of power by a tyrant, and the nationalism and fear of the other that informs their ideas.

Antigone’s story has been revisited, translated, reconceptualised, on numerous occasions. In 1944, for example, the French playwright Jean Anouilh premiered his own version, which was as much a commentary on the Nazi occupation of Paris as it was a reimagining of Sophocles’s Thebes under the reign of Creon. More recently, partly in response to US foreign policy during the second Bush administration, Seamus Heaney published his version of the play in 2004 under the title The Burial at Thebes. It was followed, a few years later, by Ali Smith’s children’s book adaptation, The Story of Antigone, illustrated by Laura Paoletti. This sought to provide a new bird’s-eye, or drone-like, view of Antigone’s story as it unfolded. Finally, there is Kamila Shamsie’s remarkable modernisation in the novel Home Fire.

This 2017, multi-narrator retelling examines the story from the contemporary perspective of a group of British Muslims. The familiar story twists and turns against the background of rising nationalism, overseas conflict, homegrown terrorism, religious and political fundamentalism. The shadows of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Brexit and Trump loom large. This is no Menard exercise in reproduction and duplication, but one in which the author willingly serves as conduit to the world around her, allowing current affairs to shape and influence her narrative. The reader brings their own experience of that world with them to the book. They look into its dark mirror, responding to the shifting perspectives, forced to question their own values and their role in society.

It is a text twice translated. Shamsie’s own reimagining of Sophocles’s play is then internalised and adapted by the reader themselves. A story, like all great narratives, as old as human civilisation itself yet somehow sparklingly new too. In the past, our future is already written.

The novel is a form that takes time, flips time, gives us time, renews old matter, reminds you what life is and how layered and dimensional it and language and thought and being are, allows understanding, allows fellow-feeling, analyses the notion of structure while being a structure of its own, demonstrates transformation, is micro and macro, by which I mean works on us synaptically and symphonically, and as a form always at the vanguard of its own form never stops finding the form to meet the needs of the time in which it is written and therefore the needs of all our time-cycles, the ones we’re here on earth for, the ones that went before, the ones still to come, all from the pivot-point of the present moment, the no-time and the always, that each novel engages in and holds us through.
— Ali Smith, ‘The Novel in the Age of Trump’

The fragmentation of the arts and humanities in the twentieth century has often revealed itself as an obsession with novelty for its own sake, rather than originality that expands on what we already know and accept.
— Peter Watson, A Terrible Beauty

All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another.
— Kate Briggs, This Little Art

Telescope

I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.
— David Mitchell, The Bones Clock

But my mind was like a puppy that wouldn’t remain on the sidewalk and I got tired of tugging the leash to bring it back.
— Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

That is a shared promise of telescopes and literature: to create an illusion of interstellar or interhuman travel within the confines of your own skull.
— Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs

Could you stop time? Could you stop time playing itself through you?
— Ali Smith, Winter

Through poetry and song, Kae Tempest filters their observations of people and environment. Their work in verse, on stage and in fiction are filled with arresting images. In The Bricks that Built the Houses, they construct a book on top of the foundations of their earlier album Everybody Down. As a Whitstable dweller, I was fascinated to learn that Tempest had spent time in the town, enjoying the benefits of a residency at 57a while working on their writing.

This knowledge made me sensitive to the influence of Whitstable and its seafront on the novel, even though it is very much of and about southeast London. Clearly, the book’s beach scene could have taken place there even though other potential destinations are mentioned in an exchange between Harry and Becky. But what really resonated with me was a half line, appearing earlier in the novel, when two of the principal characters first meet: ‘shining like sunlight on water reflecting back on itself and becoming heat’.

I realise, of course, that as the reader I bring my own baggage to this response to a short phrase many others would skim over. But that is the joy of the creative process, and it demonstrates how much a reader, a viewer, a listener, is invested in a work of art that someone else has crafted. They do not merely serve as receivers, as empty vessels to be filled by the artist. They too are active and engaged in the creation. Each reader, for example, brings a degree of freshness every time a book’s pages are cracked open. Your signifier may not be my signified.

These few words in Tempest’s novel have me telescoping back and forth through time, drawing in layers of cultural allusion and personal biography. At the most rudimentary level, I walk on Whitstable’s beach several times a week. I have lived in the town for most of this century. While it bears no resemblance to the Spanish beach location where I resided as a young child in the early-to-mid 1970s, moving there still felt like a homecoming after so many years living away from the coast in the middle of England.

At a certain time of the year, at a certain time of the day, the sun glistens on Whitstable’s waters in a way that I find wholly captivating. The light is magical, ever-shifting on the fluid surface. It is not a phenomenon unique to the area, I know. Indeed, it is something that has drawn the admiring gaze of painters, photographers and filmmakers around the globe and throughout the ages, no matter the hemisphere, the waterway or coastal location. Every time I see that shimmering light in Whitstable Bay, though, I am reminded of very specific images from my film-viewing past. Intriguingly, one influences the other, and both involve a formal play with time within the context of the film’s structure.

During the early 1990s, I spent many hours closely studying the films directed by Martin Scorsese. One of these was an adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence, the film version of which was released in 1993. In a key scene, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) stands on the Newport shoreline observing from a distance the object of his restrained passion, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen stands by a railing looking out across the sparkling waters as the sun gradually sets.

A voiceover narrator informs the viewer that Newland gives himself this one opportunity. If she turns, he will go to her. In so doing, the film implies, he is ready to relinquish his membership of the closed New York society to which he currently belongs. Willing, too, to abandon his marriage to May (Winona Ryder), Ellen’s cousin. Ellen does not turn, and Newland walks away, entering another sliding door.

In the final sequence in the film, an elderly Newland sits in a Parisian street below Ellen’s current home. A flash of sunlight reflected from her apartment window suddenly transports him back in time. Once again he sees the sun-drenched sea but, in his mind’s eye, this time Ellen turns to him opening the way to an alternative life to the one he has lived.

Every time I see the sunlight dance across Whitstable Bay I am reminded of these two scenes. Then my recycled memories jump cut to another film that Scorsese and his collaborators overtly borrowed from: Black Narcissus, a 1940s production written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Set in a convent in India, this is another tale of disappointed love, suppressed emotions and alternative lives. It is vividly realised in Academy Award-winning Technicolor by the masterful cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

It is less a complete scene that I recall, rather a still image from it. While praying in the convent chapel, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) remembers her life before becoming a nun. She is in love, back home in Ireland, fishing. The water shimmers, moving gently in the breeze. She stands in a lake, in medium shot, rod in hand, surrounded by mirrored light.

All these images and reformed memories assail me, triggered by the simple play of light on water. Reading Tempest’s words in the past couple of days dredged them to the surface of my consciousness once again. A Russian doll assembly of childhood memories, images from films, cultural allusions and flashbacks within flashbacks. A telescoping of times and frames of reference. Everything is shaken up and reordered as I move across the beach.

It reminds me of Lillian Boxfish’s nighttime walk in New York in Kathleen Rooney’s wonderful novel. The octogenarian time travels across the decades as her journey stirs up memories from different moments in her life. It reminds me, too, of the late Michael Jacobs’s passage through the streets and galleries of Madrid as he recorded them in Everything is Happening. With each new location, he seems to find himself occupying the same space at multiple points in time.

For me, though, there is that added dimension. The thin boundary between fiction and reality has collapsed entirely, and I find myself simultaneously on a beach in Whitstable, in reconstructed memories and in filmscapes that are nothing more than fantasy. Now I have Tempest’s novel to add to the mix too. More baggage to carry to the place where artist and audience co-create.

That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once.
— Ali Smith, Winter

The only things which the mind cannot examine are memories of the future.
— Han Kang, The White Book

Time is not outside us, but inside. Only we live with past, present, and future, and the present is too brief to experience anyway; it is retained afterward and then it is either codified or it slips into amnesia. Consciousness is the product of delay.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men

We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration—our reality amplifiers—the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected

Ambiguity detected

The appeal of the detective reflects a desire for resolution of ambiguity in a complex world. The narrative momentum, the reflection of the detective, the surprises and the twists, are all satisfying to us in this way. What I would love to see you explore is the morality and philosophy of the detective as the ‘one good purposeful person’ even when riding boundaries of social acceptance, pushing into the noir world and even playing the antihero. As much as we need the resolution of ambiguity, we need the satisfaction of detectives to whom we can look up in times of ambiguity.
— Simon Terry, Blog comment

Desire is the engine of life, the yearning that goads us forward with stops along the way, but it has no destination, no final stop, except death.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

It is human to clutch at simple answers and shunt aside ambiguous, shifting realities.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

In Together, his study of cooperation, Richard Sennett highlights a transformation in sociable behaviour that characterised the medieval era. Education and commerce witnessed the emergence of the professional, and with it a shift in ethics and behaviour from chivalry to civility. The aristocratic knight was usurped by the lawyer, the doctor, the banker, the merchant, as the Renaissance paved the way for our modern world.

Even as the relevance of the knight and his chivalric code faded, though, the figure persisted as a cultural archetype. Tales of King Arthur’s court, for example, and the legendary adventures of its knights, particularly the quest for the Holy Grail, endure today. The ethics and philosophy of the early middle ages are not entirely lost, for they remain packaged in narrative form. The myth of the solitary hero is maintained even in an age where collaboration and cooperation are the norm.

Interestingly, concurrent with the shift from chivalry to civility was the democratisation of words. No longer was the written text the preserve of Latin speakers, monks and the clergy. The printing press enabled the dissemination of ideas to a wider readership. With the printed book, knowledge could be quickly codified and shared at an unprecedented scale, and in contemporary as well as archaic languages. Stories, like genes, had always been carriers of culture. Now, though, they could be written down and read by many people in diverse locations, not just verbalised and heard in communal assemblies.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Raymond Chandler was a purveyor of words whose interests straddled the boundaries between the chivalric and the prosaic, whose hardboiled narratives exposed the darkness and corruption hiding behind civilised veneers. In his 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, Chandler focuses on a particular type of modern professional: the private investigator. Like Arthur’s knights, this is a figure who constantly embarks upon quests, for missing items, more often for missing people, thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers, murderers.

‘The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.’ Chandler sets out the template for his own series of Philip Marlowe novels, in which the intrepid detective, time and again, ventures into the mean streets in service of both client and a personal sense of honour and morality. Yet, for all of Chandler’s protestations, there remains an impression that the detective is themselves tainted, their heroism a deceit, self-perceived and projected for consumption by others.

The lineage, extending back through Arthurian legend and on to Ancient Greece, does little to dispel this unease regarding the ‘heroic’ detective. Whether it is the myth of Oedipus, the first detective, the tale of the Fisher King or the story of Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974), there are shared motifs, common themes. The realm is corrupted, a wasteland requiring regeneration, with the central figure either implicated in its decline or impotent to effect change. Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, but commits the crimes of patricide and incest. Gittes uncovers Noah Cross’s criminality but is unable to bring him to justice, a passive bystander to the death of the woman he loves, herself the victim of Cross’s incestuous abuse.

Joseph Campbell’s hero adventure model, with its foundations in Jungian theory, suggests that each journey is one of self-discovery. We venture into the labyrinth and find ourselves at its centre. The Minotaur is our shadow, part of our identity. This applies as much to the knight’s quest as to the detective’s investigation; their curious pursuit, assimilation and assessment of clues.

Sometimes the Minotaur, the darkness, triumphs. In Angel Heart (1987), for example, Harry Angel discovers that it is himself he has been seeking, that he is responsible for the horrific crimes he investigates. Similarly, in Memento (2000), Leonard Shelby is the true object of his own search, his memories conveniently corrupted or discarded as he transforms into serial executioner. In Blood Simple (1984), the venal private investigator Visser, enacts and fabricates crimes, falsely apportioning blame, murdering at will.

Even Chandler’s own creation, Philip Marlowe, becomes executioner in Robert Altman’s 1970s reworking of The Long Goodbye (1973). His personal code of ethics have become so skewed, his sense of betrayal so intense, that he feels able to take the law into his own hands. A move echoed by Richard Bone in Cutter’s Way (1981), even if he holds his dead friend’s hand to the pistol that murders the corrupt patriarch.

In many respects, the 1960s and 1970s shifted the game. Chandler’s knightly detective was shown to be out of time, an anachronism unsuited to a context of political intrigue and investigation, public inquiries, impeachment proceedings and warmongering. The establishment was rotten at its core, and the true detectives were shown to be investigative journalists, like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, wielding typewriters and pens rather than guns.

A new pattern was revealed that continued through the subsequent decades, amplified in recent times by cyberleaks and whistleblowers. The more that is revealed, the more new questions arise. Answers obfuscate rather than illuminate. The simple is rendered complex. The detective is as ill-defined, as difficult to pin down as the mysteries they investigate. Lew Griffin both writes and is written, a fiction within a fiction. In Pynchon’s novels, his male detectives lose themselves in drug-induced hazes while his female investigators lead themselves to the edge of paranoia.

Yet, for all that, there is something appealing about this investigative figure. Or at least those who have ventured into the labyrinth and either conquered or integrated the Minotaur. Their thirst for knowledge, inherent curiosity, pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities, as well as their aptitude for narration, for working out loud, have much to commend them. What they lead us to in most cases, though, is not the resolution of ambiguity but rather an acceptance of and comfort with it. They are not heroes, just regular folk, like you and me, deriving temporary and contextually convenient understanding of an ever-changing world. Civilians retaining a hint of the chivalric, the romantic, in the modern day. As ambiguous as the ambiguities they detect.

Ambiguity asks: Where is the border between this and that? … But ambiguity is inherently contradictory and insoluble, a bewildering truth of fogs and mists and the unrecognizable figure or phantom or memory or dream that can’t be contained or held in my hands or kept because it is always flying away, and I cannot tell what it is or if it is anything at all.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

The immediate result of this formal change is that the detective no longer inhabits the atmosphere of pure thought, of puzzle-solving and the resolution of a set of given elements. On the contrary, he is propelled outwards into the space of his world and obliged to move from one kind of social reality to another incessantly, trying to find clues to his client’s whereabouts.
— Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler

There’s no completion in patterns,For patterns are constantly restitched in new patterns.There’s no completion in history, which kneelsbare and mute at the feet of the future.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds