The world of Harry Potter aside, still pictures—paintings, drawings, photographs—don’t tend to move. But that doesn’t mean they can’t evoke some of the great moving pictures of our time. Recently, as part of the MIA’s Evolvelle initiative to interpret the museum’s collection in experimental ways, we asked Baltimore-based actor and film historian George Figgs to match some of our most evocative images with memorable films. Figgs, who got his start in the early movies of John Waters, took up the “Still Image to Moving Image” challenge with the quirkiness it required. Here, on Oscar nomination day, a selection of his reflections.
This is a very haunted, unsettling, might I say disturbing work. The subject matter alone is Gothic—a heart drained white. As I understand it, the tradition was regional, folk art, like screen painting or Afghani truck decoration, so it fit within its context as normal. However, when I look at this painting I am immediately struck by the same uneasy, almost depressing aspect present in an otherwise breathtaking and masterful film about the seemingly “living dead.” The Sixth Sense is an unrepentant film about the supernatural, approaching it head on with the same sense of detachment and matter-of-fact innocence and mystery found in Portrait of a Boy. In the painting as well as the film, the man is dead and doesn’t know it! Meanwhile the boy in the film can see the dead. The dead children whose ghosts come to him to be freed from ghosthood echo in this painting. My immediate instinctive impression was that the painting and the film generate the same atmosphere, and exist in the same dimension, wherever that is.
The more obvious pairing would have been Titanic. But the 1997 film, though seen by a large percent of the world’s population, was really an enormously expensive and successful re-enactment/epic docudrama—not strictly speaking a film. No, the film that to me is the only one that artistically synchronizes with this austere and tender work of art is Federico Fellini’s operatic, brilliantly photographed film And the Ship Sails On, which shows the people in steerage with the same tenderness and reality that Stieglitz brought to his photograph. The photo could be very easily superimposed on more than one still from the film. Stieglitz seemed to have the ability to print an image on our brains, through our hearts, as did Fellini, while making the same socio-artistic statement.
It seems the artist, Chaim Soutine, was a determined advocate of visceral realism. His degree of detachment and focus were extreme. I’m sure he was aware of the possible negative reactions there would be to his approach to the subject, but he was only expressing the truth of his vision. The reality of our food. Torn red flesh. Martin Scorcese shared Soutine’s need to show truth to the bone and his unflinching, pit-bull-like focus. In the film, the raw primal nature of the graphic bloody fight scenes combine screaming passion with the cold, business-like detachment of a butcher: the faces battered, swollen, and bloody, the slow-motion trapeze of mucus and blood flying across the screen with the greatest of ease, easily matching Soutine’s visceral realism. So here we have a painting of what was once a steer, hanging next to it a collection of images of what was once a man.
The smooth, cool whiteness. The mysterious detachment in her self-absorbed, thousand-mile stare. The high-fashion, plumed hat-and-gown against the red background—all of this gives the portrait a portentous, even provocative aloofness. It is a standout. There is another such standout in the realm of cinema: the elegant “high noir” mystery film Laura. They hang together on my mind’s wall. In this film, faces—or the lack of them—generate the sinuous plot twists woven into a “trick” knot, every one leading to Laura. The iconic theme song was written by Johnny Mercer to Laura’s visage, which hangs prominently above a mantle. The film’s noir essence is that Laura has been “murdered,” a shotgun blast to the face. The portrait replaces her, since she has no face. The detective investigating the murder, however, falls obsessively in love with the portrait (a whiff of necrophilia). There are three suspects, yet the plot twists itself inside out to reveal that Laura (Gene Tierney) is still alive. Alas, no necro. The detective can now get all the suspects in one room, even Laura herself, and find out whose face and life are in fact missing. And that’s why it’s called noir.
The image of William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar captures the deceptively simple story of “man” crawling toward the afterlife. But the piece depicts life as a poetic reality, more concerned with the imagination than rational thought, lending itself to infinite interpretations. The film that falls into synch with the work and the artist is Dead Man, as Jim Jarmusch tells a strange story about the reincarnation of the poet and artist in the same poetic fashion. The main character in the film is named William Blake, and after Blake is mortally wounded in an accidental gun fight he escapes into the night with what’s left of his life—he is starting his crawl toward the afterlife. It is then that our protagonist is discovered—by a Native American man named Nobody—to be a reincarnation of the poet and artist. Nobody’s only contact with white culture, it seems, has been the work of William Blake, which he encountered while in captivity. When Blake, played by Johnny Depp, tells him his name, Nobody leaps up and shouts, “WILLIAM BLAKE?! I know your poetry: ‘Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night.’ From now on your poetry will be written by bullets in blood.” They then begin a long sacred journey to the other world beyond the endless sea in a carved ceremonial canoe. It is the same haunted voyage, made for the same reasons, as the mystical journey of Nebuchadnezzar.
This ocean nocturne painting by Emile Nolde evokes the vast, dark solitude of the open sea. The mysterious atmosphere hides the secrets of the deep. Nolde’s ship is driving headlong through the waves. The eternal sea has absolute power over life and death. And here is another case in which the painting could be a still from the film. The movement of the viewer’s eye in Nolde’s masterpiece echoes the camera’s periscope-level view in Wolfgang Petersen’s film Das Boot. Both Nolde and Peterson share a unique facility and affinity with the chilly atmosphere—the emotional and spiritual depths—of the wild, dark, vast water. Can its wrath be survived or not? The image of the lurking U-boat is now part of that maritime lore, its skill in matching wits with this raging elemental force of nature forms an important part of the story. Out of respect for this brilliant and acclaimed film, I will not reveal the ending. Film “art” needs to be experienced, akin to sitting in front of Heavy Seas at Sunset for an hour or so and allowing yourself the luxury of absolute immersion, to open your mind all the way, like the shutter on a lens, in order to accumulate the image carefully onto your brain plate.
Andy Warhol was an artist who took the still image and made it move inside your head. He was a sarcastic mirror held up to cultural icons. In essence, he used the impressions already stamped on our minds and flung them back at us for reprocessing. He was especially good at taking images from movies and of movie stars and making them press a play button in our minds, bringing forth a whole new stream of images. Here, he uses the idea of James Cagney, as a glyph, to activate your mind into replaying a scene from the movie, magically turning a still image from the film back into a moving image! Public Enemy, meanwhile, is the film most identified with Cagney, the actor at his Cagney-est.
Evolvelle: A Next Generation Digital Experiment in Community Engagement project is supported by a Museums for America Award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.