Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nicole Kidman as the Sargent Sitter

I don't quite care for Halloween. I've never been a huge fan of dressing up personally, but I do love when other people dress up in a super clever, or elaborate way. And I especially like when people create tableaux of famous works of art. I'm not talking about the lame people who tape a crappy cardboard frame around their head and call themselves the Mona Lisa. I'm a fan of the elaborate, the beautiful, dare I see, the artistic.


That's why today, when I discovered a blog post, "Nicole, John Singer Sargent Impersonator" on this personal blog called "Wicked Halo" about (not surprisingly) Nicole Kidman and Sargent I was really excited. I can't claim inspiration for the post, so follow the link if you want to see my "source material."
Lady Agnew of Locknaw
In June of 1999, Nicole Kidman was the cover of Vogue. Or rather, a lovely picture of her graced the cover. In her cover story, she was photographed, posed in a number of Sargent re-imaginings by the photographer, Vogue's Steven Meisel. Some of the photos are very clear homages, while others are a little more imaginative. All, though, are absolutely beautiful, and I encourage you to look into them. I'm posting a couple right here for your enjoyment, but check out the link above for all the pictures.

Izme Vickers
John Singer Sargent was not only an extremely talented artist, he was highly successful during his time. His portraits of Europe's rich and famous are some of the loveliest portraits of the 19th and 20th century, and (dare I say it) all time. He studied in Europe and set up shop at different times in France, Britain, and his homeland, the United States. I've always appreciated his conscious realism and his attention to not only detail, but the characters of his sitters.

Mrs Carl Meyer 

In this way, Meisel's photographs pay homage to Sargent in more than one way. Besides being obviously inspired by Sargent, the photograph's seem to capture some of Nicole Kidman's personality as well. To quote the cover heading, she appears both "fearless and fabulous."


Mrs John Chapman
I'm concluding with this lovely picture of Nicole as Sargent's famous, or rather, infamous Madame X. Madame X is one of my favorite paintings and certainly my all-time favorite portrait. It's absolutely beautiful and I love the wonderful story behind it. Not surprisingly, Madame X, a painting of a fabulously gorgeous woman, has been paid homage to in fashion photographs innumerably. Besides Nicole's 1999 shot, I've included Julianne Moore's homage to it as well.
Madame X




Portraits of Influence: Sargent and Film

Just a little update, my loyal followers, I plan on engaging into a small series at the beginning of October delving into the influence of one of my favorite artists, the great 19th century realist, John Singer Sargent. Sargent was one of the most in-demand portrait painters of the late 19th and early 20th century, and with reason- his paintings transcend mere mastery and craftsmanship, and have an uncanny ability to vividly portray the characters Sargent's sitters.
Self-Portrait
John Singer Sargent (1906)
I've been quietly finding evidence of Sargent's influence on the design and appearance of certain films and certain paintings in films and I'll think you'll be interested in reading about my findings. As a quick precursor, it will be a short 3-4 post series, but I'm excited to start this discussion. Try to contain your anticipation.
Lady Agnew of Locknaw
John Singer Sargent (1892)
A beautiful portrait (one of my favorites), it doesn't apply to
my series but it's certainly gorgeous to behold. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"War of Troy" Tapestry in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)

Tomorrow is Halloween, so I thought it would be apropos to discuss a "monster" film in the spirit of the season. Of course, you know I'm not big fan of horror films, but I'm fascinated by psychological drama and the monstrosities that exist in normal humanity. After all, what is The Godfather besides a film about all people's inner monsters that may come out due to circumstances? But I'm going more grotesque, more... horrifying for this post. I'm going to write about Billy Wilder's classic noir Sunset Boulevard starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A nice view of Norma's tapestry collection
Sunset Boulevard has become one of the more popular and well-known classic films because it continues to fascinate audiences with its story of the faded, jaded film star pulling a young man down with her in her descent to insanity. It's an enduring masterpiece that openly criticizes the darker aspects of an audience's fickle fascination with film and its stars, as well as a system that tolerates such self-indulgence. In short, Sunset Boulevard will always be prevalent because we, as film audiences, haven't changed. We're still crazy about a star one day and can't remember their name the next. "Fame," wrote Emily Dickinson, "is a fickle food upon a shifting plate." Fame's nature has not changed and it is certain that the fame-crazed Norma Desmonds have not disappeared either.
"I'm ready for my close-up"
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Perhaps the most iconic scene in the film is its dramatic conclusion. Norma, by this point, has descended fully into madness after killing Joe. The press flock her house- she has the fame she has so desperately desired for- and she slowly descends her grand staircase, symbolizing her descent from her euphoric high to the lows of insanity. Max, her devoted butler, lures the delirious Norma down the steps by pretending that she is once more the star, and he the director. Joe's voice over takes over the screen during part of her descent, while she walks between the stunned reporters. "The dream she clung to so desperately," he says conclusively, "had enfolded her." It becomes clear by the end that Norma thinks that she is on the set of a new film that she's starring in and she makes a small soliloquy to the Paramount staff which reveals how the only thing she values is her film career. Finally, and most famously, she turns serious once again and utters that famous line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up" and the camera fades away. It's pure cinematic brilliance and one of the best scenes that Wilder ever directed.
Once, while I was rewatching this scene, I ignored Norma (it was very difficult) and instead chose to notice the background: Max sadly realizing the madness he has encouraged, the reporters and Hedda Hopper moved by the tragedy of the scene they are observing but required to report, and the house. That terribly fabulous, or should I say, fabulously terrible house. Decadent, outdated, extravagant, all the adjectives apply to it. Filled with the exotic and bizarre, including the monkey and the organ, the most notable features are the objects d'art that hang upon the walls. For the most part, they're publicity shots of the real Gloria Swanson from her silent days. However, I turned to a different piece to investigate.
The Desmond Mansion was designed to look overly decadent, and cluttered,
representing the self-centered, cluttered mind of Norma herself. 
The view of "the Descent"
See the tapestries behind Norma
The walls of Norma's grand staircase are lined with tapestries. One tapestry in particular caught my eye because it looked authentically Medieval, or at least, a replica of a Late Medieval tapestry. So I started making an extremely broad search based on very little. The art director, Hans Dreier (bottom, right), is credited for his incredible sets for the film, which he won an Oscar for. He was apparently inspired by some of the notorious decorating styles of other former Silent stars to create an atmosphere of decadence and insanity, as well as the obvious feeling of clinging to the past. According to Sam Staggs' book, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard, Dreier turned to Paramount's extensive prop closet, full of real antiques and replicas, to fill the Desmond mansion and create, what he called, "an abode of spectres" reeking "of sex and melancholy."

From this, I gathered, that the tapestry could be one of four things: (1) a real Medieval tapestry owned by one of the Hollywood elite borrowed for the film. (2) An antique replica of a tapestry, probably from the 19th century, purchased by an art director in Europe specifically for Paramount's prop closet or (3) a contemporary replica of a tapestry commissioned or found for use of a period film and then stored in the prop closet, or (4) a replica commissioned specifically for Sunset Boulevard.
I'm pretty sure that the tapestry is a replica, but I'm not positive. It's age, however, is unknown. If I had access to Paramount's prop records I could probably search it, but I'm not sure. There is also a chance that the tapestry currently is in the Getty collection (J. Paul Getty's widow lived in the "real" Desmond mansion) at the time) and it's possible the tapestry belonged to her or at least her husband. The interiors, however, were created on a soundstage, so it would have been transported.


The Tapestry in the Scene
(See more complete detail above)
Detail of the "War of Troy Tapestry"
Victoria and Albert Museum 
While all this seems vague and speculative (because it is) I have identified the tapestry, though. It is from a late 15th century Belgian tapestry portraying the events in the Trojan War. The original panels from the "War of Troy" tapestry currently reside at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they are prized. It is believed that these particular panels were part of a larger series about the Trojan War, which eventually was displayed in the court of Charles VIII of France. It's dating is fairly easy as the soldiers and events are dressed in contemporary 15th century costume, not traditional classical armor and such.
The Complete Panels of the War of Troy Tapestry
Only the final two sections appear in Norma's tapestry in the film
I know it's a replica for multiple reasons. First, the set's tapestry is assuredly based on the War of Troy tapestry. You can check details and shapes and they're all the same. At the same time, I know its a replica, because the film's tapestry obviously does not have the detail in the original. In addition, the field area near the bottom is longer. Most importantly, Norma's tapestry is bordered (unlike the original) and contains only 2/3 of the Victoria and Albert collection's tapestry.
War of Troy Tapestry (Detail)
This view is similar to the one behind Norma
Here's my guess, if I were to offer one. I can't promise that it's any good, but it's something. I think this was an antique replica, made for American or European tourists around the 19th century. There's obviously great craftsman ship in the piece. The re-makers cut some corners with the very fine detailed but they maintained the same designs (which actually are still extant, which is apparently very rare). I think that in the '30s or '40s, during some on-location film, some art director was scouring the area for antiques and possible props (a common occurrence), stumbled upon this, thought it was really cool (which it is) and locked it in the prop closet until Hans Zeier came along.
Norma's decadent, overdecorated, bizarre mansion
 full of pictures of herself and crazed memories
The tapestry fits for a lot of reasons. Superficially, it has that air of decadence needed for the Desmond mansion. Medieval objects usually do suggest a Gothic atmosphere. But Troy's story fits Sunset Boulevard in some way. Heroes and past heroes vying for fame (just as Norma vies for a chance to appear on film again). The madness of war versus the madness of fame. An emphasis of trickery and manipulation (Norma's manipulation of Joe equals Odysseus). And most of all a kidnapped and misplaced love (Joe is Norma's Helen).  Whether it was chosen for these thematic reasons or more superficial reasons is unknown.
Another view of "the Descent"
I always think its interesting to identify props that appear in key scenes like this, especially when the prop is an intricate piece of art like this tapestry. Whether you think the tapestry represents the decadence of Norma's existence or the flawed beauty of her pursuit of fame is purely up to you.

Sources
The Victoria and Albert Museum Collection: War of Troy Tapestry
http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/the-war-of-troy-tapestry/

Close-up on Sunset Boulevard by Sam Spaggs
http://books.google.com/books?id=iEpdlKas2d4C&dq=Hans+Dreier+Tapestry&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Legacy.com: "Billy Wilder's Hall of Mirrors"
http://www.legacy.com/news/legends-and-legacies/billy-wilders-hall-of-mirrors/472/

Monday, October 28, 2013

Happy Birthday Edith Head!

This morning, Google alerted me that it was the fabulous Edith Head's birthday. As you know, I appreciate a great costume design just as much, if not more, than the next guy, and I absolutely love Edith Head's designs. Maybe because she was able to match the elegance of her leading ladies with her gorgeous clothes. Or maybe it was those subtle sophisticated touches that exist only in bygone times. Regardless, I'm a huge fan.

I've included some pictures and links to films I've posted about that Edith Head designed for. The posts are not about her designs, but in case you were just in an Edith kind of mood, you could read about some of her filmography. Of course, you'll only be reading about very little of it on here because her career was so esteemed and respected, the list of her credits stretches from ceiling to floor. No matter- I hope you enjoy the links, or at least the pictures, and have a fabulous day!

Grace Kelly's Costumes in Rear Window


Kim Novak's Costumes in Vertigo




Anne Baxter's Costumes in The Ten Commandments


And of course, I'd be amiss if I didn't include my post about her cartoon-homage...
Edna Mode in The Incredibles


Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Chinatown" (1974) Poster: A Nouveau Touch of Noir

Anyone who knows my taste in film knows that I'm a great lover of film noir. I've gone so far to extensively read the work of the great pulp writers: Raymond Chandler (my personal favorite), Dashiell Hammett, and James Cain to gain a greater appreciation for the films. That's why its no surprise that I sought out Roman Polanski's great "neo-noir" Chinatown (1974), which stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
Originally, my love of noir came from my fascination with the era: the cars, the clothes, the lifestyles. But later, as my film tastes matured, I grew to appreciate the subtle aspects of noir which so many others have learned to appreciate before me: the smokey scenes, the flawed hard-boiled hero, the secretive and seductive femme-fatale, all of it. Chinatown, of course, did not disappoint. In fact, I would say that Chinatown transcends the genre of mere homage-film and serves as a modern noir all to itself. It contains more then the mere trappings of the great noirs of the 40's and 50's because it's more than just a costume drama: it contains that distinct aura of gravitas found only in such films. Maybe, it's just me, but a film like The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Double Indemnity (1944) contains deep philosophical messages about the harsh nature of life on a very accessible medium.
Oddly enough, I was familiar with Chinatown's fantastic poster before I was acquainted with the exploits of Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray and the LA water crisis. But then again, perhaps its not so strange. The design is so striking: beautifully captivating and simple that its hard to forget.

I started doing a little analyzing of the poster, in an attempt to lock into an art genre. It certainly isn't pure Art-Deco because it lacks the linearity of Deco. Which is kind of surprising to me, because I always associate Art Deco with the era of the original noirs. I would say, that the designer and artist (Diener-Hauser and Jim Pearsall, respectively) owe more the posters of the Art Nouveau period.

Granted, it's true, pure Nouveau, but it's closer enough. I'm especially struck by the Japonisme of the piece, which was quite common during the Art Nouveau period. Of course, this is more a reflection on the title (Chinatown) than actual design motifs. But, the flowering, easy, smokey waves and the simple, beautiful woman are clear signs of the Art Nouveau influence. Even the font of the title reminds one of the typeface used by many Art Nouveau graphic art. It's not the elegant, flowing Art Nouveau of Mucha, but despite its simplicity, it's surely belongs on the genre. I'm reminded of the cigarette ads for Job by a lesser-known Nouveau artist Jane Atche. The simplicity of design also echoes a mix of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
What really came to mind was the classic The Great Gatsby original cover art by Francis Cugat. Chinatown evokes Cugat with the faceless features, and smokey ambiance of the design. They're also pieces that reflect the piece that they're advertising. It's really not much of a stretch.
Chinatown is a great film and it deserves the great poster design that it received. I would suggest that among film-fans, Chinatown's poster has become an iconic piece of later movie graphic art and deservedly so. The poster most definitely suggests sensual mystery, which is, in essence, the perfect description for the film itself. And can you get much better than that!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Reel Connections: The Round Table in "Camelot"

I recently saw the classic musical Camelot (1967) starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero. I've always had a great love of lore surrounding King Arthur, and perhaps that love allowed me to overlook and ignore some of Camelot's faults. I know this is the minority opinion, but I enjoyed Redgrave and Harris' performances. Certainly, they were not the greatest musical actors ever, but they did much more than mere justice to Lerner and Loewe's beautiful music. Of course, that soft spot I have for musicals makes me lose some of my critical guard. But despite some of its falterings, its beautiful story, its lush set, gorgeous costumes, even great acting, serves to elevate it to a musical classic (if that was ever in doubt).
Like I said, Arthurian lore has always fascinated me. Perhaps part of this love come the near-tangibility of the Arthur-legends. They're so full of magical objects and enchanted places that anyone with half an imagination yearns to find the real sources of Camelot, Avalon, Excalibur, the Holy Grail, and of course, the famous Round Table.
Camelot (1967)
So when I was watching the film, I noticed something about the film's Round Table that I thought I should mention. Towards the end of Act I, after King Arthur has knighted Lancelot, he has an inkling that something might be going on between Guinevere and Lancelot. He tries to disavow himself of these ideas, and am inspiration soliloquy of sorts with Excalibur, his trusty magic sword. He finishes his declaration of trust in both his ideals and his trust sword, and the camera slows pans out and its revealed that Arthur is standing in front of his Round Table. A grand orchestration of "Camelot" begins to play as the camera pulls back, the knights file in, and the audience leaves Act I with an image of Arthur enjoying the fruits of his labor and vision: his knights surrounding his glorious Round Table.
Richard Harris as Arthur
Camelot (1967)

Perhaps it was because there was such emphasis on the scene that I noticed the Round Table as I did. If you look at it, it seems to be striped green and white, coming out a central design. At one end, there is a large block-y square, near where Arthur stands. I have a unique perspective from a lobby still above that gives a better view of this.
The Winchester Table

Winchester Castle

Alone, this is not unique alone. But like I said, I'm a little more familiar with the Arthur legend than most. For a while, one of the candidates for the "real" Round Table is a round table that sits, mounted, in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. It is painted a glorious green and white, with a lovely central design, and a large block towards one end, where actually an image of King Arthur is painted.
King Edward I
Winchester Castle Great Hall
Unfortunately, Arthur enthusiasts have been around for quite a while. King Edward I, as it so happens, was a great fan of King Arthur and longed to be compared to him. The table's wood dates from his reign and it is assumed that he commissioned it for a tournament. Centuries later, King Henry VIII commissioned the recognizable paint job on the table.

I think that it is fairly clear that the designers of the film's Round Table turned to this copy of the Table for the inspiration. I don't know whether the Table's authenticity had been disproved by the 1960's, but even if it was, the makers would have known how recognizable it is. Furthermore, their modified design,  which is not a direct copy of the design on the Winchester Table, is based on a historical piece, of sorts, even if its not the real deal. You know that I always think it's interesting when you can point to the origin of a prop's design, and I think in this instance, when a prop's design was based on a prop of sorts from the Middle Ages, the story is quite fascinating.
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