While film has always been a huge passion of mine, I chose to study History of Art at University. To my absolute delight, I came to find that the two disciplines are in constant conversation with each other. Art inspires film. Film inspires art. Hell, film is art.
Like the two-dimensional art (paintings, drawings, photographs, etc.) I studied in school, every scene in a film is thoughtfully composed. Instead of an ornate gold frame in a lit gallery, you have parted red curtains in a dark room. The silver screen is the filmmaker’s canvas, and they control what the spectator sees. Since film is quite obviously a visual art, filmmakers are just as concerned with light, composition, and color as the masters I studied in class.
Do you know what the great tradition of art is? Stealing. Not in a bad way, but in a “I’m so inspired by this work, I want to make it my own” kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, creativity and innovation are the other great traditions of art. Yet I find it nearly impossible to look at a work of art—be it a painting or a film—from an isolated perspective. I think it is far more fun and interesting to play a little game of spot the artist’s influence.
Hey, if you don’t believe me, take it from director Jim Jarmusch:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.
I mean, why wouldn’t we (why shouldn’t we) learn from the masters? Consider it an education. With these wise words from Jim in mind, here are five films that I suspect may have benefitted from a little pillage of art’s past:
Marie Antoinette & Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Loosely based on Lady Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette presents the infamous French Queen in a more sympathetic light. Set against delicious art direction and a rollicking pop soundtrack, Coppola’s Antoinette embodies youth. It’s clear from the abundance of Louboutin shoes and echoes of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” that Coppola’s goal was not to make a historical biopic, but rather to place the often demonized Queen in a more relatable context. Instead of a heartless Queen, Coppola gives us a displaced child/teenager thrown into a mad world. While many were not enthusiastic about Coppola’s vision, I’m with Roger Ebert on this one: “every criticism I have read of this film would alter is [sic] fragile magic and reduce its romantic and tragic poignancy to the level of an instructional film.”
Clearly, I’m a fan of the film for many reasons, but the first thing that struck me was the film’s luscious aesthetic. It oozes Rococo. Historically the Rococo style is primarily associated with the reign of Louis XV, but I would argue the style remained significant during Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s time on the throne. Rococo art was came about as a reaction against the grandiose and imposing Baroque style that dominated French art and architecture in the seventeenth century. Where Baroque favored heavy and symmetrical forms, Rococo evoked lightness and frivolity. The asymmetrical, graceful, and curved forms of the natural world inspired Rococo artists. Pastel colours reigned supreme on the Rococo canvas. Wait, am I describing the painting on the right from Rococo master, Jean-Honoré Fragonard or Coppola’s film? I think both would be the correct answer. Moreover, it is the playful and witty spirit of the art direction in Marie Antoinette that makes it a sort-of modern Rococo.
Road to Perdition & Edward Hopper
Now let’s move out of the light of Marie Antoinette into the dark of Road to Perdition. Directed by Sam Mendes, Road to Perdition is a screen adaption of a graphic novel of the same name. Set in Chicago during the Great Depression, the film explores the tenuous relationship between a father and son as they go on the run (they’re on the road to Perdition…) from the mob. I know, that is perhaps the worst film synopsis ever. The film is just so good, and I would never forgive myself if I spoiled it for an innocent reader! Anyway, the film sounds bleak, right? Well, the film does a remarkable job of conveying that bleakness visually. After a hugely successful collaboration on 1999’s American Beauty, Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad Hall paired up again for Road to Perdition. With two Academy Awards already under his belt for his work on Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) and American Beauty (1999), Hall won his third Academy Award for Best Cinematography posthumously for Road to Perdition.
In an interview with American Cinematographer, Mendes said that the work of Edward Hopper served as a visual
inspiration for the film. If you have a look at Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” on the left, I think you can appreciate the influence the modern artist had on the film. Of course Hopper’s painting and the above movie still share a common subject matter and setting, but their similarities go far beyond any objective analysis. On first glance Hopper’s paintings seem to offer a quiet slice of Americana. And yet, as your gaze lingers on the painting, there is an undeniable air of tension and melancholy. Figures appear isolated, surrounded by empty space where only shadows gather. Hall’s photography in Road to Perdition speaks in the language of shadow and space in a very similar manner to Hopper.
Quick Fun Fact: Hall was one of the first cinematographers to embrace lens flares, and use it as a stylistic technique. Pretty cool, right? Personally, I love a good lens flare.
Sleeping Beauty & The Limbourg Brothers
When I was little I would watch Disney movies on repeat, and back then the viewing platform of choice was VHS, which meant that we had to manually rewind the tapes before we could watch it again (I think this is Generation Y’s equivalent to having to walk two miles to school). Due to outright laziness, I would often watch films through the credits until the very end of the tape, and in doing so I made a wonderful discovery. Two words: special features. And let me tell you, the special features at the end of Sleeping Beauty were great. Now let’s not dwell on what type of child would enjoy watching “the making of” special feature, but the very valuable information I gleaned from it.
Eyvind Earle, the illustrator responsible for the background art in Sleeping Beauty, approached the film with a mind towards medieval and gothic art. As the story is set in medieval times, the animators wanted their modern artwork to incorporate stylistic elements of that historical time period. Gothic art is all about verticality. With little regard for realism, two dimensional gothic art appears very structural and detailed (much like the architectural style). The image on the right is from an illuminated manuscript illustrated by the Limbourg Brothers, and it is an archetypal example of gothic pictorial style. The landscape and figural elements all exist on a distinctly horizontal or vertical plane. While there is some use of linear perspective, the depth of field still remains quite shallow. Earle and his fellow illustrators beautifully blended these gothic tenets with a modern and stylized aesthetic.
Labyrinth & M. C. Esher
Ah, another film from my childhood. This trip of a movie stars David Bowie as a kidnapping Goblin King who steals the infant brother of a very young Jennifer Connolly, thereby luring her into a fantastical and frightening maze-riddled world inhabited by creatures beyond your wildest dreams. Oh, and it was directed by Jim Henson (yes, of Muppets fame), produced by George Lucas, and most characters are played by puppets. Does it sound a bit strange? That’s because it is. While the film was a disappointment at the box office, it has since achieved cult status. And how could it not? With musical numbers like “Magic Dance”…
While almost everything in Labyrinth looks utterly foreign and strange, one scene may seem familiar. I can only imagine that Henson or one of his fellow collaborators was staring straight at a print of M.C. Escher’s “Relativity” while working on the conceptual art for this staircase scene. The impossible laws of gravity that govern the world of Escher’s print suit the labyrinthine rules of the Goblin King’s world.
There Will Be Blood & Caravaggio
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a visually stunning film. The film follows the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview, a callous oilman determined to strike it big at the turn of the twentieth century. It is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil! Set against the great Western landscape, the film looks and feels like a proper American epic. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, There Will Be Blood is on point in every department, but I want to focus on the film’s cinematography. Director of Photography, Robert Elswit won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for his considerable achievements on There Will Be Blood. Elswit designed shots that revel in light and dark, space and confinement, close-ups and great expanses. Anderson and Elswit forwent digital to shoot in film, as it was crucial for the distinct look they wanted to achieve. Of course film is able to capture colours more vibrantly because of its reaction to light. The quality of the blue skies and the red-orange fires in There Will Be Blood is truly phenomenal.
While much of the film is shot in broad daylight with the endless desert stretching out of frame in every direction, I find the film’s night shots to be the most memorable. The high contrast shots of a pitch-black night that blazes with fire really serve to heighten the drama. Interior scenes bathe in diffused shadows, embodying the moodiness of the film. More than once the warm glow of fire casts light on Plainview, literally and metaphorically. Plainview’s character can at times seem shrouded in ambiguity, but the camera betrays his greed and power in these scenes. For me, Elswit’s photography is all about chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is an art term for the interplay of light and shadow. And who is the master of rendering light and dark? Caravaggio, of course. Caravaggio’s paintings are wonderfully wrought with drama, and that drama is bought by his unparalleled skill in manipulating light and dark. The genius of Caravaggio, however, is not simply his technical ability; it is the way Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro resonates on a psychological level with the subject matter. Elswit’s photography has a distinctly Caravaggio-esque quality, and is able to capture the Planview’s true character.
Bonus: The Dark Knight & Francis Bacon
Fun fact: Christopher Nolan, acclaimed director of The Dark Knight, is a Raindance Alumni. Another fun (though unrelated) fact: Nolan drew inspiration from the art of Francis Bacon for the character of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Pretty cool, eh? Watch this great video from the Tate Britain to hear about it from Nolan himself:
Are there any artists you are inspired by? Have you spotted any possible influences in your favourite films? Let us know your thoughts and comments below!