Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Stuff Dreams are Made Of: Maltese Falcon Update

I thought that I'd provide an update to all my fellow Maltese Falcon fans. In case an original Maltese Falcon prop statuette used in the film was on the top of your Christmas list, well, hate to break it to you, but you better take it off. I know, it's a tragedy (what will I ask for Christmas now?). But last week, in a classic film memorabilia auction sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, one of the two original Falcons was up for bid. It was sold at a winning price of over 4 MILLION DOLLARS.
In case you were wondering, I think that amount is more than the "unbelievable value" that Gutman placed on the real Maltese Falcon in 1941. You know, the golden statuette encrusted with jewels. It seems that owning the Falcon is, indeed, the stuff dreams are made of.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The St. Sebastian Icon in "Wit" (HBO, 2001)

Recently I read an absolutely fantastic play. As a quick disclaimer, to describing it as depressing is both an understatement and an injustice. I’m referring to Margaret Edson’s 1999 one-act drama, Wit, which deals with an English professor who has been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer and is forced to face her life and her death. As an expert in the poetry of the metaphysical poet, John Donne (whose Holy Sonnets dealt with his fears and anxieties over death and salvation), she ironically finds herself in the position of so many of the Sonnets. The play is heartbreaking, but profound, and I highly encourage it.
Of course, while I love reading plays, there’s nothing like watching a play be performed as it was meant to be. Or, even, watch a film adaptation of it. Which is what I ended up doing. As it so happens, HBO adapted Edson’s play into a critically acclaimed film starring the wonderfully talented Emma Thompson as Vivian Bearing, the English professor. I believe the adaptation did the play great justice and aptly used the magic of film (opposed to some logistic elements and problems of live theater) to their advantage. Thompson’s portrayal is incredible: she manages to pull off Vivian’s sarcasm (or should I say, wit) and occasional arrogance, while managing to quickly change to despair and anxiety. It is a monumental performance from one of the great (and in my opinion, underrated) actresses of our day.
One of the advantages of film, is the ability to change sets with ease. On stage, a classroom or a hospital room are imitated. On the screen, they are real. I watched Wit with a very critical eye, not because I was looking for art per se, but because I was curious to see how the film balanced out against the play, which, as I said, I just recently read. But of course, art never escapes me, especially when it has purpose. Because, very shortly, I noticed a small icon in Vivian’s bare hospital room. It stood out against the sterile, nakedness of the room, and it caught my attention immediately.
As I said, the icon first shows up in a miniature form on Vivian’s bedside table. Even in its miniature from, with my very basic knowledge of Catholic iconography, I recognized it as an Italian Renaissance painting of the famous martyr, St. Sebastian (more on him later). At first I thought this was curious. After all, one usually expects to find pictures of family or friends in a hospital room, not of a martyred saint. Within a few minutes it made slightly more sense. Vivian flashes back to a meeting with her own professor and mentor, E. M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins). E.M.’s office is dominated by this giant painting (in a wonderful setting) of the same icon that Vivian has in miniature. While certainly impressive and beautiful, it still seemed strange.
Did Vivian keep the icon as a reminder of her great teacher and friend? At first, I thought that this was the likely case. But still, it seemed strange to keep an icon of a brutally killed saint as a reminder of one’s dearest friend. I believe that this was only part of it. I came up with two reasons why the filmmakers chose to include the icon.
The first, and equally impressive (in my opinion) reason, is to show E.M’s influence and presence over Vivian. Remember those ghostly portraits of old that I love to talk about. It’s a similar idea, the painting represents the person. And I would go one step further. The person, represents another person. In this case, E.M. represents John Donne. She first introduced Vivian to Donne. And Donne’s importance in Wit cannot be understated. Vivian constantly compares her moral and mental struggles with Donne’s poems. “Death be not proud” she quotes over and over again. She does not want to submit to the pain of defeat and ultimate loss. St. Sebastian, a saint, whose death is essential in his importance a constant reminder of that as well. The icon, representing Donne, shows that she is constantly pondering Donne’s message of life and death and struggle. This is a classic instance of a painting representing repressed emotions. Vivian may not say it, but she is thinking of these problems all the time. The painting reminds the audience of this.

Just as a quick aside, this painting was not included in the play. It was completely original to the film.
Secondly, I believe that the fact that it is St. Sebastian is very important. I believe that while the painting represents E.M. which represents Donne, is very important to its presence in the room, it is not the only or main reason. For all those familiar with the Lives of the Saints, I’ll give you a quick refresher course. Sebastian was a Roman who was a Christian and he decided to destroy the pagan idols. The Roman Army was not happy about this, and they stripped him down, tied him to a tree, and shot him full of arrows. Yet, he did not die. Eventually, St. Irene came and took him down and ripped out all the arrows. Later, Sebastian was captured again, beaten up and finally died, still a faithful believer in the end.

If you couldn’t get it from my brief description, St. Sebastian’s death was an extremely gruesome, bloody, and most of all painful one. His presence in the room is not only a reminder of Donne. It is a reminder of pain. The painting after all, shows him shot full of arrows. This is an extremely painful moment. Vivian may be considering life and death (ala Donne), but more importantly, despite her witty demeanor at times, the treatment has her constantly in physical and mental pain. This, I believe, is the most important reason, why Sebastian serves as the lone decoration in her room.

If you are curious, Saint Sebastian Bound to a Column by Pietro Perugino, an Italian Renaissance artist from the late 15th century. Perugino painted St. Sebastian many times, and I believe this painting is from around 1490, maybe later. I also believe that the copy that was reproduced for the film was based on an original in the Louvre. But then again, I'm not positive. Still, a marvelous painting used marvelously in an impressive film. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

100th Post: Des Bettany's "Gene Tierney" and other Sketches: the Enduring Importance of Film

I thought long and hard about what I would post for my 100th blog entry. I wanted it to be something interesting, momentous, but more importantly, I wanted the piece I cover to really apply to "The Art of Film," itself. Last week, I managed to find something that applied perfectly.
Somehow, I stumbled upon a site that was devoted to Des Bettany, a British soldier who was a POW under the Japanese during World War II. His life story is quite remarkable, and I encourage you to read it through the link provided below. During his internment (1942-1945), he was able to create a masterful and varied portfolio of art, with sketches and watercolors ranging from caricatures of his captors to detailed and nostalgic landscapes. His work is quite lovely, especially considering he was really only a talented amateur. Later, he did study art in England, and later married and became a beloved art teacher and education administrator in Australia.
Des on the beach
I was fascinated by his life story, and when I began browsing through his work (which is beautifully cataloged on the site), I was delighted to find that Des had drawn and painted some film-related work. These pieces, inspired me tremendously. For one, they are remarkably good sketches. But more importantly, to me, they embodied the whole idea of my blog. Film is not only an art in itself, it inspires art, making it all more enduring.
A lovely nostalgic countryside scene
This painting, contemplating his return home, shows influences
of Art Deco and contemporary designs
But there's something more than that. Film helps people beyond merely entertaining them. Film can comfort us; film can distract us from our problems; film can remind us of our humanity. I think that Des turned to  art, and in a secondary way, his memories of films and stars, to help him endure through the cruel, unforgiving, and bleak world he was living through a POW. His art, which portrays his friends, home, and other comforts, served to relieve his suffering as a POW. I think its a testament to the films of the time that such memories could provide that relief.

In particular, I'm going to concentrate on two particular sketches. The first is a rather lovely caricature of the beautiful Gene Tierney that Des painted in 1942. Gene Tierney is a rather apropos subject for my 100th post because my first post was about Laura, her most famous role. This painting is, I believe, based on a publicity still of Gene from her role in 1940's The Return of Frank James, a western film. Gene, of course, was a strikingly gorgeous woman and would no doubt have been remembered by the lonely Des.

The second painting I would like to mention a painting of a star that the site identifies as either Ginger Rogers or Lauren Bacal. I am almost certain that this painting is of Ginger Rogers based on her appearance in the Astaire/Rogers musical Roberta. In that particular film, she danced to "Smoke Gets your Eyes" in a slinky black dress like the subject of this painting. I don't know, something about it to me just screams Ginger, and I would say (with almost certainty) that it's her.
Sketch of Des by a fellow soldier/artist
Ronald Searle
Des's work is absolutely wonderful. And his paintings of Hollywood stars are a reminder of, not only the contemporary popularity of the films and the stars of the day, but also the power that film has. It inspires beautiful art, like Des' work. It even inspires beautiful writing. Like mine.

I'm so glad to have reached 100 posts and I'm so glad I've been able to share this much with my reading public. It's been a little more than a year that I've been doing it, and I've had an absolute blast. I hope you, my readers, enjoy my work as much as I do. Here's to the next 100!

The Changi POW Art of Des Bettany

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Crawley Sisters of "Downton Abbey": The Living Sargent

I recently read the excellent news that Downton Abbey, the hit British period drama, has been renewed for its fifth season, even though here in the States its fourth season is two months short of release. While I certainly greatly anticipate the coming season on Masterpiece on PBS, I hadn't really thought about Downton until recently. Because, as you well know, I'm in a John Singer Sargent mind I began attempting to view Downton through a Sargent-point of view. Which, as I'm sure you can surmise, is not to hard. Some of Sargent's most famous portraits are of the Edwardian aristocracy; among whose members the fictional Crawley's would not doubt be part of. And while countless aspects of Sargent's work can be applied to Downton, in specific, I found one similarity which I found fairly interesting.
The Achenson Sisters
John Singer Sargent (1902)
Sargent painted quite a number of beautiful group portraits of sisters, mother and daughters, etc, and therefore, if in fact the Crawley's inhabited real history, he would have no doubt painted them, posed in a unique Sargent pose. I've always been vaguely amused how merely suggesting that a group of women would be posed together in a Sargent-like manner conjures up a very clear image. I remember once reading it in a Patrick Dennis book and was stunned how easily I pictured his description of a group of sisters, all with the simple Sargent analogy.

The Misses Hunter
John Singer Sargent (1902)
Downton clearly tries to evoke the graceful, elegant times that Sargent so aptly captured in his paintings. In various publicity stills of the Crawley Sisters (Mary, Edith, and Sybil) posed together, you can see vague similarities to some of Sargent's paintings. While I rarely believe in coincidences with art and film, the similarities here are vague at best and thus I believe it is partially through my Sargent mentality that I see what I see. But certainly the beauty of the subjects, the costumes, and the various poses, do seem faintly reminiscent of Sargent. If the photographers intended this, they did a very subtle job of it. If they did not, they certainly managed to capture the feelings of the times, artistically at least, very well.
The Wyndham Sisters
John Singer Sargent (1897)

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Gigi" as Sargent's infamous "Madame X"

Besides pleasing scores of wealthy clients, Sargent's brush managed to capture some fairly objective views of the upper class at the turn of the century. To anyone vaguely familiar with his work, Sargent's paintings are the benchmark of what the late 19th century looked like. His are iconic images, recalling the viewer to his times, and thus, when such evocative pictures serve as inspiration, we are brought back, almost by magic, to the magic of his times. Of course, period films hold the same potential for "magic." Of course, there's no law saying that one can't influence the other, and indeed, I believe that to be the case in many instances. Through film, we are influenced by the trickles of art that inspires such movies.

Interestingly enough, I discovered a publicity still from Gigi (1958) that has led me to believe that Gigi was inspired by, at least in some way, by Sargent's work. Gigi is one of my favorite movie musicals: visually stunning in its wonderful Technicolor, an incredible score by Lerner and Loewe, and a talented cast, led by Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, and Louis Jordan. Thank heaven for Gigi, it provides a lovely and idealized view of the lives of the upper class during la Belle Epoque, the term used to describe turn-of-the-century life in Paris during the time of Maxim's and the Folies Bergere. 
Gigi is, in its most basic form, a multi-part love story. Mainly it concerns Gigi's change from a girl to a woman and her desire to be loved, not as a courtesan, but as a woman. But it's also a love story about prewar Paris and the beauty that once was.  It's nostalgia in its most beautiful and musical form, and rather pleasant. 
The ever-dapper Maurice Chevalier
Gigi (1958)
Anyhow, there is this one scene, when Gigi decides that she's going to be a courtesan to Gaston, and she's revealed wearing this absolutely gorgeous, elegant white dress. It's in this moment that Gaston realizes that she is no longer a girl, but is a grown, and quite attractive, woman. At first, he's disgusted by her change, but later realizes that he cares greatly for her, and returns to her. There are a few more ups and downs, but I'm not going to spoil the happy ending.
Gigi (1958)
Maybe its my fledgling interest in film costume design, but when I was looking up stills of Gigi in that stunning white dress I came across and incredible publicity still from Gigi which was obviously a copy of Sargent's Madame X. (You can see it above of the post) And thus, we finally arrive at the inspiration of my post.
Gigi (1958)
I've always been fascinated by Sargent's most famous painting, Portrait of Madame X. As a little back story, Sargent was always fascinated by the subject, a most singular lady named Virginie Gautreau. After many studies (which I'll shortly return to), he finally came to the painting we know and adore so much... almost. When he first showed the painting in 1884, Madame X (named so to protect her identity) was wearing one shoulder strap off her shoulder in a very provocative and sensual manner. People were outraged, there was scandal, Sargent repainted the strap and then went on to England and America where he would meet most of his success. But he always considered Madame X his finest piece, his magnum opus, and I'm inclined to agree with him. I'm so drawn in by her stunning beauty but also her aloof manner which Sargent so aptly is able to paint. I consider it as one of the greatest portraits ever painted.
Portrait of Madame X
John Singer Sargent (1884)
While Sargent's Madame X scandal played out a few years before the fictional Gigi is set, no doubt you recognize similarities- not only between Sargent's works and Madame X in particular, but also between Madame X and that Gigi publicity still. Gigi appears as Madame X is white. The details are almost exact, down to the stance and the crescent moon crown, a symbol of Diana, goddess of the hunt.

While I do not believe that the similarities are coincidental, I did find another Gigi publicity still bearing striking resemblance to one of Sargent's studies of Gautreau. In it, she lounges on a couch, beautifully at ease with the world. While I think that this fairly common situation was certainly not intended to copy Sargent, I firmly believe that, in attempting to create a feeling of 19th century Paris, the filmmakers turned to one of the greatest artists of the time documenting the elegant people that would populate Gigi. And who can blame them?

Sargent's study for Madame X
Gigi Publicity still
As a quick aside- I'm swamped with schoolwork lately, so I may not be able to get as many posts out in November as I'm usually able to. I still have a few more Sargent posts that I want to release and then I'll probably celebrate my 100th post and do something special for Christmas to finish off the year. Keep reading my faithful followers!
"Thank heaven for the Art of Film." 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Reel Connections: The Miss Piggy Portrait in "The Muppets"

I discovered a John Singer Sargent connection quite by accident the other day. I was a really big fan of The Muppets (2011), starring Jason Segal, Amy Adams, and all my favorite Muppets. My love of the film came from my love of the Muppets, which came from my mom, who made my sibs and I watch all the classic Muppet movies. Truth be told, after Disney, the Muppets probably introduced my earliest love of film.
Miss Piggy as Mrs Hugh Hammersley 
by Peter Savieri 
When I watched that fantastic little film, besides feeling really great about life, I was struck by the one scene. Kermit, contemplating a return, goes into his... portrait gallery... and begins reminiscing about his old entertaining days. He's full of regrets about the "pictures in his head" and as he views old paintings of his old friends, he recalls the great times with them. As he's remembering/singing, the paintings come to life, and the sitters become "real" and join him in song. It's a song that's very sweet and very sad, but certainly very excellent.
The Muppets (2011)
Towards the end of the song, as Kermit slowly and sadly finishes, he lifts a sheet covering one painting, very briefly. The audience gets a quick glance of the painting: it's a gorgeous portrait of Miss Piggy, decked out in red, looking stunning as always. And then the scene comes to a very melancholy close. Wonderful!
"Pictures in my Head"
The Muppets (2011)
Besides being just another instance of the wide versatility of the Muppets, it's a scene that's full of paintings: made for the Art of Film! So I began doing a little research about the paintings in the film and I was delighted by my findings. Before I continue, I'm including the link to my source, written by the artist himself, available on one of the best Muppets sites: Tough Pigs: If you're interested in the Muppets, the movie, or, in particular, the artistic process: check out the article.
Scene of the Miss Piggy painting from the film 
First of all, only the painting of Miss Piggy is a "real" painting. The other portraits must have been created digitally. According to the artist, Peter Savieri, originally all the paintings were intended to be painted the "old fashioned way" but for some reason, probably budget constraints, they decided that they just wanted the Miss Piggy portrait to be the real deal (only the best for Piggy of course).
Mrs Hugh Hammersley
John Singer Sargent (1892)
According to Savieri, the filmmakers had one portrait in mind for their "Piggy Portrait." And this is the Sargent connection: because the painting they were so enthused over was Sargent's Mrs Hugh Hammersley, a lovely portrait from 1892, currently residing in the Met. It's a gorgeous painting, typical of Sargent's style at the time. His sitter is portrayed gorgeous, wealthy, and very much alive. It's fashionable portraits like these that made Sargent so fabulously popular.

Savieri, who also was influential in helping redesign Piggy's character a little bit, was absolutely thrilled to be commissioned to do the painting. He loved the designer's Sargent inspiration, and he obviously borrowed heavily from the master of portraits for his own. Obviously, the red palette was used, as was Piggy's position. What struck me most, though, was Piggy's gaze. In Sargent's portrait, Mrs. Hugh Hammersley has this slightly aloof look and she holds her head back in almost an act of alluring defiance. Piggy shares these same characteristics, which just so conveniently, fit perfectly into her character.
Maybe it was just me, but the defiance I perceived from the portrait reminded me of the famed Scarlett portrait in Gone with the Wind. The sitters are certainly somewhat similar: defiant, independent, vain women, so its certainly not too much of a stretch. Perhaps it's Kermit's connection to the painting that reminded me of this as well. Recall, that portraits of beautiful women often represent feelings of strong, but absent love. In Rhett's case, the absence came from Scarlett's cold personality, but Kermit's separation from Piggy was physical. Remember, paintings have a strong but limited emotional context, so these repeated motifs: love, ghostly presence, etc: are easily found in all films: even one as seemingly simple to understand as The Muppets. Maybe my Scarlett connection was simpler: at first viewing, Piggy's sumptous red dress reminded my of Scarlett's infamous scarlet dress at Melly's party. Either way, I had a GWTW connection.
I just had to include a picture from the Devil Wears Prada parody from The Muppets
which was one of my favorite scenes from the film. 
Savieri wrote that he is a huge Muppets fan, and according to his article, he felt like he was giving back to the Muppets, who had given him so much in his childhood. As a fellow Muppets fan, not only do I envy his first hand experience in working with that great film, but I'm so impressed by the quality of his work (according to him, it took less than a week). His passion for the Muppets shines through and its a fitting and beautiful tribute to the Muppet's tradition of parody and homage. I'm sure even Miss Piggy would approve of her own-screen, portrait treatment.
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