Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saul Bass and the Art of the Title Sequence

For a blog dedicated to art that appears in movies, I made one great shameful mistake. Thus far, I've neglected to mention one of the great artists of the last century, the graphic artist, Saul Bass. Besides, designing some of the most iconic logos of our time, Bass completely redefined the idea of the title sequence. You could say his work can be overlooked in all the action of the film, but I don't think that's true. Instead, his art seamlessly becomes part of the film.

I saw a documentary once that included clips of Bass discussing his work. He said that he saw the opportunity to set the mood of the piece in the very first seconds of the film with an exciting title sequence. And in movies like, The Man with the Golden Arm (his first big movie success), Vertigo, and Psycho, he certainly accomplished this. The list of movies that he helped advise artistically and did the title sequences for is truly impressive.

Not only did he create some of the most iconic movie posters for movies, he did the title sequence for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Around the World in 80 Days, Anatomy of a Murder, among many more classic films. His late collaborations included Age of Innocence, Cape Fear, and Casino. Hitchcock was a great fan of Bass's, but the Master of Suspense cannot be given credit for discovering Bass. His work was first utilized in film by Otto Preminger, but really he was a very successful graphic designer and artist on his own.

Many of these have the same iconic Bass look: a simplistic, but elegant, design that echoes the design trends of the late fifties and sixties. Bass seemed transfixed by simple shapes and lines and employed them with surprising diversity and success in his title sequences. His credits could contain the same excitement of the movies, or capture the same mystery, in the case of many of his Hitchcock collaborations.

One of my personal favorite Bass introductions is The Man with the Golden Arm. In that movie, all the elements work together in the credits sequence to make this really thrilling (and I'm not just throwing around adjectives- those titles are exciting) scene, if you will. It captures the movement and even some of the disjuncture natures of the movie's themes.

I've included a number of Bass's posters and scenes from the title sequences for your enjoyment. He is my favorite graphic designer by far, and I just love all his work. Of course, I'm not really alone in that sentiment. He's influenced generations of graphic designers and many title sequences borrow from his basic ideas and designs (think, Catch Me If You Can).There are tons of magnificent tribute posters and even title sequences for modern movies that fans and artists have created that are just fun to look at and enjoy.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Abstract Painting

Recently, there is one movie that has bothered me a lot because it disappointed me so much. I love John Le Carre spy novels and most of the adaptations of his books on the silver screen. Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy was one of my favorite books for a while, so I was really thrilled for its adaptation last year. It had an amazing cast, with Gary Oldman leading as George Smiley, and Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch supporting, among others. Not only that, but it’s such a great story- an amazing complex and deep espionage novel. It was this complexity which ruined the film, because you couldn’t cram everything into a two hour feature. So, while I enjoyed certain elements, I was certainly disappointed by the film overall.

 Still, there were so elements, like the cinematography, which I enjoyed. I loved how the camera would focus in on certain elements and use so interesting angles to help establish the mood of the piece.
And, of course, I also appreciated the glimpse of artwork that appears in the film.

In the story, one of the central characters, Bill Haydon, fancies himself to be the renaissance man of “the Circus” and considers himself to be a talented painter. Smiley admits that he is, in actuality, quite mediocre. One painting in particular plays a small part in the plot because it serves a reminder of Smiley’s unfaithful wife Ann. Bill painted and gave it to her, and it was during this interchange that Smiley discovers a key plot piece, as well as his wife’s treachery.  

After a long night at work, George walks in on Ann and Bill. Bill claims he was giving Ann a painting (she also claims to be an art lover) and makes excuses for his presence in Smiley’s home. Smiley, the quite, but observant, realizes what’s going on and says nothing, even prominently hanging the painting in his home. I assume he was trying to make his wife feel guilty, but instead, it’s later revealed that it only fills him with constant regret.
Abstract Art by Bill Haydon

It’s a very abstract piece, resembling an Abstract Expressionist piece. While I couldn’t find the artist, I’d categorize it as Color Field, considering the time it’s supposed to be from as well as the content. It’s a flat plain of color, but it’s supposed to express the emotion of the artist. I don’t quite care for Color Field, as a genre. I feel Color Field painters just lack the talent and ability to make a more meaningful piece. I appreciate art, usually, but even I fail to appreciate the nonexistent content of the piece. But, I digress…
 Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the artist, but in the scheme of things, I don’t think that’s important. This piece holds depth in the film.

Abstract Art by Bill Haydon seen by George Smiley

You gradually discover, after agonizing through this unfortunate movie that, to Smiley, the painting represents his wife. So, during the first sequence, where he wanders alone- when he focuses on the painting- he’s actually thinking about his wife, who is not there.

Hanging on his wall, it represents not only her missing presence, but also her unfaithfulness to him- an aspect of their relationship which obviously haunts him. The failed marriage, and the painting which symbolizes it, represents the scope of Smiley’s regrets.
So, while I can dislike the movie, as a whole, I did greatly appreciate certain elements, including the use of the painting. The symbolism is terrific, as well as the focus given to the painting. It is a classic use of obsessive love appearing in a painting, as well as representing a ghost-like presence. In this case, it is just a more subtle use of this technique and is done quite well, may I concede.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hitchcock's Rebecca Portrait: The Basis for the Joan Fontaine Costume

So far, most of the artwork I’ve covered has dealt with matter that’s a little creepy. Why does movie artwork have to have such frightening qualities? The reason lies is the motive for putting art in the work in the first place. The artwork put in movies represents negative characteristics in the film: death, obsession, hidden qualities or feelings. The art that represents these dark emotions are not going to be bright and sunny because it defeats the purpose the art is being put in the film in the first place.

Hitchcock Rebecca de Winter Painting

Hitchcock, in particular utilizes the idea of the dark portrait to his advantage. So far, we’ve seen it in Vertigo, Psycho and Strangers on a Train. In the case of the former, the work is given a negative connotation. Without this connotation, the piece would not be essentially unattractive. But when Hitch adds meaning and depth to the piece, the art can take on an emotional context that ranges from the slightly dark to the completely horrifying. We’re going to cover one such piece now. In honor of Oscar-season, I’ll turn to Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, Rebecca, starring Joan Fontaine (as the Second Mrs. de Winter) and Laurence Olivier.
Hitchcock Rebecca de Winter Painting

Rebecca was made in the wake of Gone with the Wind, when a bestselling book was turned into a hugely successful movie. Hitchcock turned to a British counterpart, Daphne Du Maurier (who also authored the original short story that was the basis of The Birds). In Rebecca, the middle-class, second wife of British millionaire, is haunted by the presence of his first, deceased wife, the titular Rebecca. The second wife is never named in the book or the film, and gradually she discovered terrible secrets of the giant country home, Manderley (which was actually a model) and of her own husband, Maxim de Winter.
Hitchcock Rebecca de Winter Painting

In a key scene, during a costume ball, the late Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (played to perfection by Judith Anderson), suggests that the Second Mrs. de Winter base her costume on a family portrait of a de Winter ancestor. It is to this portrait that we now turn.
de Winter Portrait Costume

This portrait is of Mr. de Winter’s female ancestors, dressed in a magnificent gown that tragically Joan Fontaine’s character copies and wears. This is a case where the portrait’s subject does not convey it’s full meaning. The painting is a reminder of Rebecca, the dead wife. It is revealed that Rebecca originally copied the dress in this painting, just as the second Mrs. de Winter did.

This is a mood piece, as it conveys the presence of the ghost of Rebecca. First, it’s shown in dark light and darkness adds creepiness to any mood. I’m going to concentrate on its size though, because this is an important element I haven’t touched on before. Size is very important in art, as it conveys importance. However, as in life, something’s that is larger than life can repel just as much as it can attract. When given a negative connotation it certainly will create a repulsive feeling. So, in Rebecca, this giant female ancestor who literally towers over the characters shows the monstrosity of the ghost of Rebecca. In other words, Rebecca’s presence is as large and prevalent as the sitter of the portrait. A small piece of art is something that, in a film, might not be noticed. But a huge painting, even if attention is not being brought to it, will be noticed purely for the scope of its dimensions.

So, even though the ghost of the unnamed ancestor plays no role in the movie, the ghost of Rebecca certainly does. This painting becomes the ghost-portrait of Rebecca and is a beautiful analogy of her domineering presence in the lives of all the characters.

Finally, the painting also establishes a mood for the set. The large home (again notice size) of Manderley, plays a huge role in establishing the creepiness of the piece. The house is dark and sprawling, full of history and certainly secrets. This pseudo-historic portrait establishes the historically-creepy mood that Hitch desired.In the novel, the portrait is described as more 18th century, but in the film, thanks to the costume’s context clues, I’d say it’s a wannabe 19th century aristocratic portrait. Like many “false” portrait,” it lacks not only the subtlety of an actual period portrait painter, but also much of the background information. It was painted by a certain Mary Beavers, a painter I could find no information about. No matter, it was certainly based on a costume by Irene Lentz, a notorious Hollywood designer. And kudos to Ms. Beavers, as it captures the mood of the film as a whole beautifully. 

Hitchock Joan Fontaine Costume Painting

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Alice Alquist Portrait in Gaslight

So, if you recall from a few weeks ago, one of the reasons paintings or artworks appear in a film is to signify the presence of a character who is not present, usually due to a suspicious death. In the next week, I’m going to cover a few excellent examples of “ghost-art.”

One of my favorite ghost paintings appears in Gaslight, the 1944 Victorian psychological thriller starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury (in her debut film). In the movie, Ingrid Bergman’s character, Paula Alquist, who is already psychologically frail due to the murder of her actress-aunt, Alice Alquist, is almost driven insane by her evil husband. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, because the film’s ending is so deliciously wicked, I can’t help but smiling even now.

Victorian Portrait Empress Theodora

Anyhow, most of the action of the film occurs in the London townhouse of Ingrid’s murdered aunt, Alice Alquist, who was a great star of the stage. When Paula and her husband arrive in the house, it’s dusty and full of old furniture- creating a scary ambiance  Dominating the sitting room is this gigantic portrait of the dead Alice above the mantelpiece, in full jeweled costume as the Empress Theodora, apparently her most famous role. I can’t help but think of that famous Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry in full Lady Macbeth regalia. Most likely, that portrait inspired this movie portrait.

The painting is magnificently creepy, and a constant reminder of the murdered woman. So, it’s taken down, so poor Paula (and incidentally, the murderer) is not constantly watched.  The portrait is put in the attic, where it also plays a key role near the end of the film.

Ingrid Bergman's murdered auntIt’s  obvious that the portrait is the ghostly presence of Alice Alquist. All the action in the film, in one way or another, surrounds her, even after death. She “watches” the torture of her niece helplessly. She is also a constant reminder of the audience of the murder, of the dark history of the house and its inhabitants and most importantly of her own demise, which sheds light upon the depravity of the killer. As a character, Alice Alquist is never seen, but her presence is larger than life. It dominates the life of Paula and her husband, as surely it dominates the room the painting sits in.

Perhaps the inspiration of the Empress Theodora Alice Alquist Portrait Just like in Laura, in Gaslight, the huge portrait above the fireplace is of a strong-willed, beautiful woman who was killed out of no fault of her own. It creates the "realness" of a character who isn't seen. Apparently there is no ghostly presence  as alluring, beautiful or deserving of obsession as a lovely, dead woman. 

I could not find the painter who created the portrait. I assume it was done by one of the studio painters. Since it’s not based on an actor, it may have just been done out of memory or imagination. Like I said before, it's probably somewhat based on the Ellen Terry portrait, seen above. As far as I know, it’s certainly not an actual Victorian portrait. It lacks the subtlety. Still, it creates the perfect mood for the film- opulent, excessive and a bit creepy. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Charles I Painting in Downton Abbey

I apologize for focusing on setting-enhancing art recently, since I’ve found it persisting in many current films, I felt I had to include it. So, pardon me once more, while I turn to television for my next piece. And where better to look for art that in the historically grand Highclere Castle, the filming location for the hit masterpiece drama Downton Abbey which just entered its third season on PBS.

Van Dyck Charles I Highclere Castle

As the ancestral home of the aristocratic Carnarvon clan, Highclere Castle, an excellent example of Victorian architecture, is filled with art. However, I’m going to focus on one painting which has captured my attention multiple times throughout the series.

In the dining room there is a magnificent portrait of a monarch who looks like Charles that hangs, usually above Lord Grantham, in the dining room. It’s most apparent during the breakfast scenes, when light fills the room and the painting creates a glorious air about the room.
Highclere Castle

The painting is an equestrian portrait of Charles I pained by Anthony Van Dyck in 1633.Titled, Charles I with M. de St Antoine, it is, I believe, the first equestrian portrait of Charles I. It depicts Charles a gallant and grand monarch. It is, I believe, the first equestrian portrait of Charles I and depicts him as a brave and gallant monarch. The painting has a theatrical air and was supposed to impress visitors to St. James Palace where it would have hung originally.

Downton Abbey Charles I
In Highclere (Downton, for you TV viewers), the painting is surrounded by Carnarvon ancestors of who lived during the English Civil War (of the 1640s). It creates an air of history, of grandness that the makers of Downton would to convey. Also, to me, Charles I reminds me of the supremacy (or attempted supremacy) of the monarchy. Charles, of course, was tragically beheaded, after attempting to ignore the changing tides of English politics. Shocker there, as this is a key theme in Downton.

Granted, Julian Fellows didn’t have much work to do in including this painting. It already hung there, but nevertheless, it contributes, as does the entire house, to the mood of this stellar series.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Elephant in Les Miserables

I know that if you just came back from the critically acclaimed motion picture musical Les Misérables- you’re probably thinking two things. The first is how great an adaptation the movie is. The second is about that elephant that appears in it. Well, even if you’re not thinking about the elephant, you are now- so I’ll fill you.

So, in the film, in the turbulent scenes in the Place de la Bastille, amongst the crowd- there’s this huge, ruined elephant statue. This Elephant actually existed in the time of the drama; it hasn’t just been made up for the show or the movie. It’s actually known as The Elephant of the Bastille. And to this sculpture, this excellent example of public art and incomplete art, I dedicate my post.

The Elephant was actually immortalized in Victor Hugo’s novel because the street urchin actually lives inside the Elephant. This is not exactly impossible, though it is improbable. I will explain in a second- but first- you need a little history.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Napoleon was in charge of France. This is pretty well known. Napoleon, perhaps realizing that power and glory are fleeting, returned to France from his glorious conquests and decided he would transform Paris and fill it with monuments to himself. Unfortunately, he was impatient, and often, mere molds or plans were left and few were complete. The Elephant is one of these.

Napoleon desired to have a monument that would show his military power and eventually, in 1808, decided upon the Elephant. I’m guessing this is because there was a slight Egypt craze going around Western Europe after Napoleon visited. Remember, this was the time the Rosetta Stone was discovered. I once saw this exquisite set of Egyptian style china that was simply breathtaking. Anyhow, he wanted this giant elephant to fill the Place de la Bastille, which was empty, except for a fountain. If you recall, angry French revolutionaries tore down the old Bastille. So Napoleon envisioned a giant elephant, astride a fountain, at the center of the square. The elephant was supposed to be made of metal made from cannons captured in battle, but, that didn’t exactly work out.

In the initial plan, there was also supposed to be an observation platform at the top, from which visitors could ascend and be greeted by a beautiful view of the city.

So, at this point, a few engineers and architects took over. Jacques Cellerier was put in charge initially and had the water pipes organized for the fountain in 1812. Jean-Antoine Alavoine then took over the project and finished the main pool, the base of the Elephant. He realized that the public needed to see what was going on, so he ordered another man, Bridan, to build a plaster model to stand in the square.

Around this time, Napoleon was tragically defeated at Waterloo, and his ambitious plans were put on hold. Alavoine attempted to gain public support for the completion of the project, but the public and the local government weren’t interested and it was lost in bureaucratic standstill. Actually, it started to rot and rats started living inside it. Not exactly the magnificent monument to glory… Finally, residents’ complaints were heard and it was torn down and replaced by the July Column, which still stands today.

The filmmakers made a model of the Elephant at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, where some scenes were filmed. It is truly impressive and the model is not entirely inaccurate.

It’s an interesting piece of historical art that lends itself to the drama, hence why Hugo put it in. It adds scale and magnitude to the great drama. Failed art, but nevertheless, pretty cool and definitely worth knowing about. In this case, it was Napoleon who dreamed the dream- but once again- his dream went unfulfilled.  

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Orient Express-Lalique Panels

One of my favorite movies is the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express. It’s hard to hate with its stellar cast (including Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Martin Balsam and Lauren Bacall), its sparkling and witty dialogue and mostly its beautiful, lush scenes. The film itself, in the words of its director Sidney Lumet, is homage to the films of Old Hollywood. It is simply one of those movies that’s not the most clever, or most action-packed, but it’s a treat for the eyes- one that never tires me.

Lalique Panels

In case you didn’t know, the movie is an adaptation of the classic murder mystery by Dame Agatha Christie. It’s a hallmark Christie novel- an exotic locale, a cast of varied stereotypical British and foreign subjects, and Christie’s famed Belgian detective- Hercule Poirot. Poirot, whilst traveling in style from Istanbul to London via the Orient Express, has a case thrust upon him by his friend, the director of the train line, when a mystery occurs aboard the train, which incidentally is trapped in the snow- keeping all the passengers and the murderer (!) on the train. The inevitable search for the killer and solution follows, in one of the most famous moments in Agatha Christie fiction.
Albert Finney (Poirot) Lauren Bacall

Interestingly enough, since the almost all of the action occurs on the titular orient express, many of the scenes were filmed on actual Orient Express carriages. If you did not know- the Orient Express was a line that ran trains across the continent in lavish style, most notably in the 20s and 30s when train travel reached the pinnacle of its popularity. The Orient Express has remained famous for a few reasons. The first is that the Orient Express was par none when it came to quality travel, service and elegance. Many of the cars were lavishly and beautifully decorated, each a work of art in itself. These factors are what initially endeared it to the public, or at least the exclusive group that could afford it. Secondly, multiple films and books take place aboard the train, including the Bond classic, From Russia with Love. Finally, and least importantly, in the last forty years or so, the train was completely restored by some wealthy Brits, and now runs its former route at a great cost to its passengers.
Albert Finney (Poirot) Martin Balsam

Now, when Lumet filmed the movie, the Orient Express was still running, but at a much lower quality than in the 30s (as pictured in the film). However, he managed to get together some old carriages that still reeked of their former glory, prettied them up, and created a lasting impression of the train for those who cannot afford the elegance of the restored Venice-Simplon Orient Express.

Poirot In the film, Poirot interrogates the suspects onboard the Pullman Carriage on the train. Specifically, it was Pullman 4146, a former member of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express line. Evident in the film, and in 4146’s partner if you will, 4141, are these beautiful panels, to which I, after much introductory work, dedicated my post to.

Rene Lalique, Pullman Coach 4146These panels are known as the Bacchanalian Maidens, and, as you can tell, adorn the carriage throughout. They were designed by the revolutionary glass designer, Rene Lalique, who most famously worked in the Art-Nouveau style. According to the restored train’s companion book, Lalique designed multiple items for the train in the “Cote d’Azur” style. These panels, the Maidens, if you will, adorned the mahogany walls of the carriage, as apparent in the film.
Lalique also designed jewelry, clocks, vases, all with a combination of glass and other materials.

Now, obviously, these panels were not created for the film. They were created for the train which appears in the film. Therefore, this artwork serves to further enhance the setting. Originally, they enhanced the beauty and elegance of the Orient Express. But in the film, they help create the ambiance of graceful beauty that was stressed throughout the entire piece.
Poirot, Rene Lalique, Pullman  
Still, they are important to appreciate for the artwork they are in themselves. Furthermore, the appreciation of these panels creates a greater appreciation of the bygone elegance of the Orient Express. 
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