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 and she has dropped 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) – we see him and Kathie reunited, getting back into character and resuming their old roles under Whit’s watchful eye. As they are sent on their assignment to San Francisco, accompanied by Joe, and working with Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), they assume the costume and badinage of the hardboiled investigator and femme fatale, respectively. 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, changed 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, adapting his own novel, Build My Gallows High, published under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, together with uncredited input from Frank Fenton and hardboiled novelist James M. Cain, worked 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, The Last Seduction (1994) and the TV series Killing Eve (2018- ).

For all that, however, 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. As a result of the way films like Out of the Past 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