Friday, June 28, 2013

Reel Connection: Hitchcock's Inspiration for the Bates House in "Psycho" (1960): Edward Hopper painting: "The House by the Railroad"

I'm going to briefly discuss a point I actually mentioned in a previous post about Psycho, but I feel its worth the elaboration. As I have stressed over and over again, Hitchcock, a great art lover, was influenced by the pieces he saw and the artists who created them. He also appreciated the thematic weight, if you will, a painting or sculpture could convey. In this post however, I am going to discuss a profound influence on Hitchcock: the great American realist painter, Edward Hopper.
Hitch touring the house in the famed trailer
Hopper has always been one of my favorite painters. On a mere aesthetic note, his works transport a viewer to the 20s and 30s, when his most prolific work was created. More importantly, Hopper is able to convey stories and feelings in his paintings: most notably the profound loneliness that he felt in large urban areas. Consider, his most famous work, the oft-parodied Nighthawks, where a group of city-dwellers sit in a small diner in the wee small hours, silent, not speaking, not making a human connection. This individual despair, or at last deep sadness, can be felt in many of his works.
Nighthawks (1942)
Obviously, Hitchcock's images, if you will, also told deeper human stories and because Hopper and Hitch occupied the same time it is no surprise that Hitch found himself in front of some of Hopper's work. In particular, he found himself in front of a painting titled The House by the Railroad, painted by Hopper in 1925 (and currently owned, but not shown, by MoMA). If you just glance at the painting (or read the post title), you'll know what it influenced.
House by the Railroad (1925)

The Bates House of course! And this is no mere speculation, Hitch openly acknowledged the influence of the painting on his design of the house. And really, it works. On a mere architectural note, both are uncannily similar Victorians with a tall main tower and small porch out front. There are differences, yes, but in the most basic sense, they are very similar.
Psycho (1960)
Consider also, the Hopper painting is located next to an abandoned railway track, seemingly inconsequential, yet included in the painting's title. The Bates Motel is also near a small pre-interstate highway road, leading to its lackluster business. Both homes are seemingly left behind in the midst of transportation progress.
House by the Railroad (1925): detail
Finally, and most importantly, both houses are lonely, eerily lonely. No one sits in the window of the Hopper house, no one sits on the porch: modern times have left the house alone and abandoned. In a similar way, the Bates House, located high on a hill, far away from everything, is also incredibly lonely. Is it loneliness that drives Norman to his extreme criminal insanity? Or is it the stifling aura of Victorian prudery, inside and out of the house, that creates such a terrifying reaction? Regardless, the lonely house is above all very... just plain creepy. And even if you take out Hitchcock's beliefs about loneliness, about the human condition: you have a scary movie. And what goes with a scary movie? A scary, looming, dark house, to ominously signal to the terrifying events to come. And we can thank Hopper for inspiring this house we love to hate.
The Psycho set in 1960
Of note, the set for the Bates House was used and recycled by Universal for years. It showed up in a Western film, the later Psycho remakes, even in an episode of Murder, She Wrote. It's been moved, renovated, un-renovated, but stands: a lonely reminder of one of the greatest horror films ever made. 
from the Murder, She Wrote episode "Incident on Lot #7"
I have to say, as great as I think this post is, if you enjoy it, you should check out a series of Hopper-related posts that the "Alfred Hitchcock Geek" blog has. While I came up with the concept on my own, I did have to look at his post for some inspiration. If you love Hitchcock, you should definitely check out his posts: they are incredibly well written and interesting. I've included a link to his Psycho post here, and I encourage you to spend a lot of time reading his stuff- I promise, it's worthwhile. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Batman Memorial Sculpture in "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)

Though I was a little late coming to the party- I absolutely love Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. I just saw The Dark Knight Rises and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. I could try... but I don't think I could express it properly.
Of course, I'm always watching movies now with one eye open for some artwork to blog about and, as in every respect, Dark Knight Rises did not disappoint. Because, lo and behold, as the film comes to a close, the city of Gotham unveils an impressive, brooding statue of the Batman to honor his memory. And to that statue, I dedicate this post.
I'm not the only person interested in the statue. From checking online, I know that there are many Batman fans out there who fell in love with this statue. I mean, spend a little time on some forums, and you'll find that people are dying for little miniatures of this because it looks so cool. And why not? The statue is as noble, as brooding, as dark as the hero himself.
I'm not going to get all elegiac about Batman on this forum, but I will take a moment to discuss why the statue is so apropos. Throughout the trilogy, its stressed so much that Batman is not supposed to be a man or even a hero, he's supposed to be a symbol for good. So, in this statue, the subject is clearly the Batman, but its not specific in the facial details- so it could be anyone. That's the whole point, right? Anyone can be a hero. And like the Batman himself, the statue is dark, larger than life, and, as I said earlier, very brooding. It's a symbol for justice more than a memorial for a man. So in many ways, the statue encompasses a main theme of the Dark Knight trilogy.
I have to say, you get to feel kind of good for Bruce Wayne (even in this moment of sadness) for a little because finally Gotham appreciates their hero and even dedicates the statue in the midst of what one assumes is City Hall. It's just a shame that he's not there to share in the glory. (Spoiler) At least he's with Catwoman... he's not exactly missing out, right?
Let's talk details for a moment. To begin with, it is no computer animation. Thank God and Christopher Nolan for that one. As usual, Nolan did this the right way: the statue exists, it is real, and even toured with a Dark Knight exhibition that was in LA for a while. I don't know for sure where it is now, but I am fairly certain it is somewhere on the Warner Brothers back-lots. But don't quote me. The piece is tall, it is magnificent, by all respects. I don't know whether it was cast in metal (probably resin) or if it was just painted to look metallic, but I just loved the end result. It really looked like an actual monument to a great hero, didn't it?
I spent a while trying to find the artist, but find him I did. His name is Bryn Court. He is a noted Hollywood sculptor who is extremely talented on his own but also works in zBrush. I'm not going to elaborate on what zBrush is (because I don't know), but from what I can tell its some sort of 3D computer program that helps sculptors. Regardless, it is really good. It fits the piece, it fits the genre of monumental art with that beautiful metallic look, and its just truly an impressive piece. In addition to working on the Dark Knight films, Court did a lot of work on the Harry Potter films, so his work is definitely very available to the general public.

So, I'm not going to bring too much gravitas to Batman- Nolan does plenty of that on his own- but I will say that on its own, this sculpture is a very neat piece of Batman memorabilia. But more importantly, its a piece that, I feel, fits in with the theme and feel of the franchise- which is much more interesting and, I dare say, blog-worthy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Moving Pictures: Hirschfeld Caricature of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

For a brief post, I'd like to share a small caricature that I found whilst searching for pictures of my favorite stars. It's really a caricature of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who are "caught" in a beautiful dance move looking as graceful, elegant and beautiful as they appeared on screen.
This etching was created by the legendary artist, Al Hirschfeld. I actually recognize some of the work he created in his decades long career and I can't help but like it. Hirschfeld was a genius by all accounts: able to capture likeness and personality in a minimal number of lines. For years, he worked in both Broadway theaters and Hollywood studios, capturing the likenesses of some of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. You name one, Hirschfeld probably has a dead-on caricature of them.
Hirschfeld died in 2003, but his work lives on and is still incredibly popular. This sketch, for instance is currently on sale, for quite a pretty penny too. Check out the link if you have a couple grand to spend.
I don't know when exactly he created this etching. He released a few in the 80s and the 90s, which leads me to believe that they were created around then. I actually found the studio shot that he based the sketch on, which leads me to believe that even if he was around Fred and Ginger on set, he didn't create it while there. This publicity shot was for the later Fred and Ginger film, The Barkleys of Broadway (which, coincidentally, I also wrote about). That explains why both look a little more mature and older, opposed to their youthful, ev
en elfin selves that appeared in their early, 30s RKO films. Of course, regardless of age, its so very clearly them.
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Fred and Ginger were so easily cartoon-ized. Fred, with his long face, limber body and trademark top hat and tails was tailor-made for a caricature. Ginger is perhaps a little more difficult, but not by much. Hirschfeld just as aptly got her perfectly: from her beauty mark on the chin, to her high, elfin cheekbones- I just can't help but feel its perfect. And of course: how could you create a piece of art about Fred and Ginger without putting them in each other's arms: dancing as only they could literally in the spotlight.
In a way a prefer portraits like these: simple, but still sharp and fresh; able to capture a person's personality in a few single strokes. And Hirschfeld really is the personification of this aestheticism. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Reel Connections: The Origins of Edna Mode in "The Incredibles" (2004): Edith Head?

I'm back to discussing character inspiration because I enjoyed it so much. This time, I'm going to talk about one of my personal favorite animated movies, Pixar's 2004 comedic masterpiece, The Incredibles. In specific, I'm going to cover the much-discussed origins of one of the favorite characters: Edna Mode. 
Everyone has seen The Incredibles by now, so I'm not going to insult anyone with a film summary, but I will indulge in a little character summary. A very brief summary. In the Incredibles universe, Edna Mode is a successful avant-garde fashion designer. Her specialty, however, is designer the "super-suits" of the superheroes that exist within town. It's her "shadow-work," if you will, and also apparently her greatest pleasure. In the film, after she's been retired from "hero-work" for years, she returns to redesign suits for the whole Parr family, the titular Incredibles. 
Edna is perhaps my favorite Pixar characters. She's such a burst of energy and brings so much humor to every scene she's in. First off, her appearance is ridiculously hysterical. She's a tiny little ball of energy, with a ridiculous bob, giant circular glasses, and her little utilitarian outfit. 
But perhaps, it's not so ridiculous. Because, there is one real-life woman who certainly acted as the inspiration for Edna Mode, and I wouldn't dare call her ridiculous. Actually, I lied. There are two possible candidates, but, in my mind, there is only one. Decide for yourself. 

1. Anna Wintour: Editor-in-Chief of Vogue

Not to insult, Ms. Wintour, but I personally feel that she had minimal influence on Edna's appearance. Granted, she is in the fashion field, a lioness in the fashion field, if you will. And certainly, she does have that iconic little bob. 
But, to her credit, Ms. Wintour is too chic to be the direct inspiration of the Edna character. And to be clear,  she already inspired another of my favorite film characters: the infamous Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada. I think one character inspiration is enough for any noteworthy figure, don't you?

2. Edith Head: Legendary Hollywood Costume Designer

I'll be honest, the moment I started this post, I didn't plan on giving a completely unbiased presentation of the evidence. That's because, in my mind, when you compare the real-life genius, Edith Head to the animated-genius Edna Mode, the likeness is uncanny. 

I mean, the likeness is... incredible, don't you think. The black bob, the circular glasses, the dowdiness, not to mention the incredible quality of her work. I'm talking of Edith Head, mind you. While, Edna is certainly funny to poke fun at, Edith Head is certainly no laughing matter. 
Recognize it?

I can't pretend to have a knowledge of fashion, but at the same time, I can't help but admire Ms. Head's work. It reeks of sophistication and class. It's living art. 

Edith Head is by no means an unknown figure. During her career she won scores of Oscars for her work. She also designed for some of the great directors, notably Alfred Hitchcock, and some of the most beautiful leading ladies of the day, including Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, and Lucille Ball: just to mention a few. You could say, she designed for the real-life superheroes of her day: the legendary stars of Hollywood's golden years. 

So to sum it up, while Anna Wintour made of made a slight impression on the animators, I think it's clear that to design a super-designer, the animators turned to a real-life superhero in the world of Hollywood fashion design: Edith Head. 

I really enjoyed discussing character inspiration, though I must admit the logic behind my arguments are certainly not original. I do feel that they are put together best here, but I just must make it clear that I am not the originator of these arguments.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Iconic Otterson Vase Painting Frasier Crane's Apartment in "Frasier"

Sorry for the delay since the last post- I went away for a week, but I'm back. I thought I'd start my summer with a nice light post. And nothing is nicer and lighter than watching reruns of  Frasier in the wee small hours, right?
But seriously, whenever I do watch Frasier I'm always captivated by the one painting that hangs in his beautifully decorated apartment. I'm sure you know the one I'm talking about. The small square painting of two blue and white vases in front of a reddish-orange background. It hangs on the wall near Daphne's room in that fabulous apartment.

I did a little research and I was able to find out a lot about this piece. Because of Frasier's popularity, this piece is one of the most iconic pieces of artwork to appear on television because of its appearance in almost every episode and its prominence on the set.
The piece was originally painted by a Hollywood set designer by the name of Jack Otterson in 1939. I couldn't find the title or story of its origin, but I think it was probably a hobby piece done by Otterson, not something that he would have used in his sets. During the first season, the makers of Frasier borrowed out the piece which currently belongs to an art gallery in the City of Angels (Thomas Fay Art and Artifacts, to be precise). In the later seasons, the show just used a copy, created by a certain Ken Kaminsky.
Actually, this piece became quite popular to copy because its not a super complicated painting. Pretty basics shapes and colors, right? But still, I feel its pleasing to the eye and certainly not terrible. Because of this, you can buy many amateur copies off ebay and such if you so chose. Or, if you're feeling really artsy this summer, you can try to copy one yourself.

My next post will be a little more fulfilling, I promise. But I had to put something out here- so here's something. Also- if you have any comments, suggestions, etc... let me know. As Dr. Crane always said, "I'm listening."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reel Connections: The Origins of Disney's Evil Queen in "Snow White" (1937): Joan Crawford, She, or Uta

As of yet I have yet to mention the most notable art in Hollywood in the past and present: animation. I love animated films, but in all honesty, I lack the knowledge to blog truthfully about animation processes and such.  So I haven't. But recently I realized that I can however recognize connections in a movies, especially animated movies, with historic examples of fine art. So, I will be posting about animated films, in a way at least. These posts will be found under the category of "Reel Connections:" clever, no?

To begin, I'll start at the very beginning, with the first full length animated film, Disney's 1937 masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even if you don't like the movie, or even any animated movie (do such people exist??), you have to admire the artist effort that went in to all Disney movies, especially those early films. They are so flawlessly beautiful and appealing to the eye.

When I first saw Snow White, like many, I was terrified by the Evil Queen. I mean, for a children's movie, Snow White is very dark. The Queen attempts very violent murder, transforms in a terrifying manner, and is just so plain mean its hard not to be scared. Where did Disney come up with such a character, a woman, supposed to be beautiful (the second fairest in the land, remember), but so ugly inside?

The answer to that rhetorical question, is not clear. As far as I can see, there are three distinct sources. I'll start from least exciting to most exciting.

1. Joan Crawford

Love or hate her, Joan Crawford was a star. And in 1939, despite the slight bump in her career, she would have been very recognizable. And if you look, notice the protruding lips, the high cheekbones, the slight sensuality. Apparently, Disney wanted a more complex villain: a beautiful, yet evil woman in the vein of some interpretations of Lady Macbeth. If this is indeed, true, a perfect model for contemporary beauty would have indeed been Joan Crawford.

2. She (1935)

In 1935, a crazy Art-Deco sci-fi film was released titled She, based on a series of science-fiction novels about a fantasy land. In the story, the land is led by, you guessed it, an evil queen, named mysteriously She Who Must Be Obeyed, abbreviated to simply She. The Queen was played by a certain Helen Gahagan, and the costume certainly looks very similar to that of the Evil Queen. Doubtless, this character played some influence on Disney.

Now, I'm sure you are thinking, this is all well and good, but what about the fine art connection. Are you ready?

3. Uta of Naumburg

This was the "aha" moment. This was the real connection, if not one of the many reel connections.

In 1935, the Disney brothers visited Germany. During his trip, Disney supposedly stopped at the historic Naumburg Cathedral where he would have viewed a lovely statue of Uta and Eckhard dating from Medieval times. Uta and her husband were founders of the cathedral and honored by this lovely statue on the wall. Take a look.

Notice Uta's strikingly beautiful face? Her dramatic cape? Her cold, aloof personality? Her distinct medieval appearance? When I first saw this statue, dating from the 13th century, I knew instantly, that this statue played some part, if not the main part, on Disney's design of his first Evil Queen.

Historically, the twelve founders of the Cathedral were honored with lifelike statues of themselves, similar to the most famous pair, Uta and Eckhard. They were created by the unnamed Naumburg Master and recognized for their stunning realism and striking ability to convey character.

Pinkus, Assaf. "Gothic Symulachra"

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The "Damn the Torpedoes" Admiral Farragut Statue sculpted by Vinnie Ream in "The More the Merrier" (1943)

For my fiftieth blog post, I’m choosing to write about a great little film that stars one of my favorite comediennes of the ’40s, the lovely Jean Arthur. I’m referring to a brilliant little film from 1943, The More the Merrier costarring Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea and directed by George Stevens. The More the Merrier features a wonderful example of existing public art playing a large part in a film. But we’ll get to that later.
I think The More the Merrier has more or less fallen into relative obscurity. If people are going to watch a Jean Arthur film, they chose more well-known films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, or You Can’t Take it With You, films with better well-known supporting casts. But Jean Arthur, a brilliant comedienne who brightened every film she was in, makes The More the Merrier worthwhile. The More the Merrier doesn’t really lack in any way, it’s more a victim of time and neglect, but it really highlights Jean Arthur’s strengths: her comedic wit and her ability to convey independence and innocence.

The More the Merrier’s plot hinges on the housing shortage in Washington, DC during WWII. Jean plays Connie Milligan, a confident, independent working girl, who believes it’s her civic duty to let out part of her spacious apartment. Unbeknownst to her, she lets it to the elderly, troublemaking Mr. Dingle (Coburn), who then lets out half of his half to a handsome young devil, Joe Carter (McCrea). It’s a situation that spells romantic-comedy any way you look at it.
The film begins when Mr. Dingle, who is actually supposed to talk about the housing shortage in city, arrives in Washington. As he’s walking the streets alone, he passes Farragut Square, where he spies a statue of the famous Admiral David Farragut. Reading the inscription, Farragut’s famous quote: “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!” Dingle is instantly inspired. 
He composes a little song about the quote and then acts according to this new mantra. Basically, this attitude prompts him to try to set up the lovely Connie with Joe after he rents half of her apartment. You could claim, without too much exaggeration, the statue moves the entire film forward. Just the kind of piece I love!
(As an aside, Farragut is one of my favorite Civil War figures. He worked himself up the US navy, eventually becoming an admiral. He is most famous for his quote, “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!” which legend states he uttered during the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War.)
Farragut Square as it appears today
Farragut Square is obviously a real place in Washington, D.C. and that statue actually stands in its center. It is not too much a stretch of the imagination to think that Dingle could have passed it. There is a catch though- no inscription, past the name “FARRAGUT” appears on the statue. There is certainly no quote, despite the fame of that particular quote.
Coburn reading the quote
The quote was added in by clever camera work. In one scene Dingle looks at the statue, cue close up of statue, followed by a separate shot of the inscription. In fact, when you think of it, the quote appears on stone that exists only at the base of the statue. I think Stevens could have photo-shopped it in a little nicer! Still, even though the statue is re-purposed a little, it is really not that much of a stretch. 

The Farragut Statue as it appears today
This statue is a real example of monumental art. It features the famed Admiral, clutching a telescope, standing atop a pediment, that features, as I said earlier, only his name. It was sculpted by a very interesting figure, Vinnie Ream. Vinnie famously sculpted President Abraham Lincoln when she was only 18 during the Civil War. Vinnie was one of the earliest and most important American female artists, who achieved great success during her lifetime. Her statue now sits in the Capitol Rotunda and earns her lasting fame. Vinnie won a commission from the US government, facing stiff competition from many other Washington artists. The statue is a massive ten foot bronze that Vinnie worked for years on, basing her work on photographs she received from the Admiral’s widow. Interestingly enough, the bronze was melted down from the propellers of Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford. The monument was received with great popularity and acclaim when it was unveiled in 1881 by President Garfield. The result is the heroic, impressive statue of one of the most heroic and impressive figures in American naval history.  
Vinnie Ream with a model of her Lincoln Statue
But I digress: the statue embodies an idea, a philosophy that plays an important role in the film. More importantly, it embodies a spirit that Stevens believed all Americans should take during the war. It seems that Stevens believed, in typical American fashion, that in times of trouble, you just got to “damn the torpedoes”, do what needs to be done, and everything will work out. Dingle’s actions serve as a microcosm of this spirit. This would have struck a nice chord with the contemporary, wartime American audience.
In the film itself, it propels forward the plot at several points in the plot, as it provides a setting for the quote itself that inspires Dingle throughout. Dingle is so humorously unashamed to do what he thinks is best, even when it gets him in trouble. This philosophy creates trouble, and thus humor, but it also accomplishes things that need to be done because…spoiler alert, his ends justify his means in the end!

In my own way, I’m also inspired, just as Dingle was, by Admiral Farragut’s words. You, my loyal readers, can be assured, when times are tough (or more likely, short), I’ll “damn the torpedoes”, and keep posting away! 
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