Hopper and Bacon in Film
A Shared Problematic
Who are the most important modern painters on the cinematic image? We can propose Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon. "I like many, many painters" David Lynch says "but I love Francis Bacon the most, and Edward Hopper." (Guardian) The transformative element in David Cronenberg's work, in Videodrome, Scanners and The Fly can seem to owe something to Bacon. Wim Wenders from the very beginning of his career was influenced by Edward Hopper, saying that his first feature Summer in the City partly took its title from the Hopper painting of that name (Double Take). Yet we can see that cinema has not only been immensely influenced by these two great post-war artists but that a dimension of their work suggests the divide which has been a vital tension in film since the early years. This is the question of the long take versus the cut as we see Bacon a master of the edit within the canvas, while Hopper suggests the serenity of the long take. We can go further still and wonder if while Bacon indicates the decompositional image, Hopper suggests the composed frame.
We should also keep in mind that Bacon and Hopper aren't only artists influencing cinema, but that they themselves were influenced by film. A brief word about the latter first. As Philip French explores in the Guardian "Hopper loved the movies. 'When I don't feel in the mood for painting,' he said, 'I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge.' The cinema returned the compliment by turning to him for stylistic inspiration, and film noir became his great love and the area of his chief influence. He created a world of loneliness, isolation and quiet anguish that we call Hopperesque." Art and Popular Culture quotes Bacon saying "I've been very influenced by the films of Bunuel, especially Un chien andalou because I think that Bunuel had a remarkable precision of imagery. I can't say how they have directly affected me but they certainly have affected my whole attitude to visual things - in the acuteness of the visual image which you've got to make." What is no less unequivocal is the influence of Eisenstein, and most especially the moment in Battleship Potemkin, which was the basis of course for 'Study for the Nurse in the film Battleship Potemkin'.
Yet what interests us here is thinking about the artists as coinciding with cinema, seeing in film form preoccupations evident in the artists' work. If Lynch is a marvellous combination of Bacon and Hopper it rests partly on his compositional precision meeting nervous collapse. If there are moments early on in Blue Velvet that bring to mind Hopper's paintings, how can we not think of Bacon when we see in Lost Highway one character morphing into another? If in Blue Velvet there are instances that suggest the tranquillity of Hopper it rests on the widescreen, long take. When we see the central character Jeffrey walking through the woods this is the aloofness Hopper shares, but when evil Frank is on screen Bacon's freneticism is invoked.
Clearly, we don't want to reduce this article to one of suspect or obvious connections between the painters and filmmakers, but an interesting question might be whether artists in one discipline can be perceived potentially as minor figures in their own art form yet a major figure upon another. There is no mention of either Bacon or Hopper in Gombrich's The Story of Art, while there are numerous references to Van Gogh and Picasso. This could reflect its original publication date in 1950. Yet, in updated editions Hockney and Lucian Freud are mentioned: artists far less influential in film terms. Is Hopper a minor figure in the history of painting yet a major one in film, and Bacon a provocation in the fine arts who is nevertheless of immense import to cinema? We wouldn't want to exaggerate, but it might be a useful line of enquiry. In French's article, he namechecks filmmakers (or their cinematographers) undeniably influenced by Hopper: George Stevens, Wim Wenders, John Boorman, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick. Those influenced by Hopper in painterly form would mainly be the super-realists. Robert Hughes doesn't see this as leading to great art. "Speaking of Eric Fischl he says, "Fischl's style of painting comes out of thirties realism - mainly Edward Hopper, with a retrospective dash of Winslow Homer, though without the pictorial and formal control of either. Despite its many solecisms of drawing and awkwardness of figure-composition, it has much the same emotional appeal to over-shrunk American collectors that pictures of orphans by Sir Luke Fildes did to Victorian philanthropists." (The Shock of the New) If Hopper's impact in art often leads to poor painting, in cinema it frequently arrives at significant filmic works.
One of the problems we want to escape, however, is an intermedial hierarchy: that some might insist it be enough that a reference from one art evident in another, 'lesser' art can pass for a remark. But, keeping in mind Stanley Cavell's comment about the remark, we think not. In The World Viewed, Cavell reckons talking about point of view shots and close-ups and so on doesn't add up to a remark, saying "they are at most the uttering of a name, which, as Wittgenstein puts it, is a preparation for going on to say something," To notice an allusion to a painting in a film won't add up to a remark either: it is merely the conjunction of names. But by proposing that the problem between an artist in one form is a problem evident for an artist in another might, we hope, move towards a remark? Here is a Bacon comment, when being asked about how often he works from either paintings or photographs. "Well, with painting it's an easier thing to do, because the problem's already been solved. The problem that you're setting up, of course, is another problem. I don't think that any of these things that I've done from other paintings actually have worked." (Interviews with Francis Bacon) Here is Lynch talking about sound in Lost Highway. "If you have a room, and it's really quiet, or if there's no sound, you're just looking at this room. If you want a certain kind of mood, you find the sound that creeps into that silence: that starts giving you a feeling." Both statements are addressing a problem; a problem of the real in painting and the real in film. In painting, of course, there is no real and there is no sound in the manner in which Lynch would seem to be addressing it. But if Bacon believes that working from painting hasn't been for him as successful as working from photographs, we don't have to agree with him (who would deny the 'success' of his 'Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X ' ), but see perhaps why he might wonder whether he has been successful, taking into account Lynch's comments. Lynch is saying that there he is working with given spaces that are in the world and then taking things out. "...There are sounds that kill a mood. So it's getting rid of everything that you don't want, and then building up all the things that are gonna support it and make it whole." In different ways they are both talking about what to extract from the real, with Bacon wondering if he can extract anything from a painting perhaps because it has already passed through the creative hand of another artist. The problem has been worked through in a painterly manner: the photograph has not yet had that reinterpretation. It is as though the photograph for Bacon can still work a little like the real world for Lynch. A person might already have production designed the room, but it is still 'real' enough for the filmmaker to add and subtract as necessary. What we have here are two artists in different fields concerned by a similar problematic.
As our early quote makes clear, Bacon was an important influence on Lynch, and both artists have been fascinated by sound. This might seem absurd since painting is a mono-sensorial medium, but few artists more than Bacon invoke its possibility, even its necessity. If paintings could speak, Bacon's would be a cacophony of screams. If he wanted to work from photographs perhaps this partly resided in photography technologically suppressing sound, painting ontologically eschewing it. The photograph we see will possess sound it cannot access. If we think of Robert Capa's famous photo the falling soldier, we cannot hear the scream that no doubt came out of his mouth, nor the crack of gunfire that killed him. But they are the absent presence of the photograph as they are not of the painting. Even if we accept with Michel Chion in Film: A Sound Artthat one of the differences between a photograph and a moving image is that the moving image without sound is as he says a 'deaf cinema' while we wouldn't be inclined to think of a deaf photograph because a still frame at one 24th a second could not emit a comprehensible noise, nevertheless a sound is suppressed in that fixed frame, that single shot. Think of the final similarities between the famous image of the Viet Cong boy shot in the head and the filmed footage of the same incident. The sound is silenced in the fixed image; it is not absent from it. When we look at Goya's execution sound is not an absent presence, it is an aesthetic eschewal. We can imagine the sounds of gunfire and the screams of those being shot, but they are not missing from a painting in the way they are missing in a photograph. As Susan Sontag says in On Photography (albeit to argue with the point) "While all modern forms of art claim some privileged relation to reality, the claim seems particularly justified in the case of photography." Painting has never had sound; photography as moving image developed it. This is partly what we mean by an absent present.
Yet the main thrust of this article concerns the influence of Bacon and Hopper, and the question of the long take versus montage. However, sound is a vital aspect of the editing; indeed we often talk of the sound editor, as the person who puts sound together, and here we might think of artists who invoke sound in their work, thinking of them in terms of artists who might be inclined to share some of the same problems as filmmakers interested in montage. Whether it is Kandinsky or Pollock, Bacon or Turner, painters can give us a sense of sound, but our very use of the word sense indicates a different relationship with audio in painting than when we think of photography. It isn't that a sense is invoked. Sound is present but in its absence: it is not sensed. This is partly what Sontag is getting at when she says on photography that "like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made." But unlike language, its grammar is simultaneity and instantaneousness. If a photograph is worth a thousand words it also has an instant grammar: the thousand words form an immediate order with the click of a button. It neither demands the order of words nor the skill of aesthetic perspective. Anyone can take a photograph. Yet what it possess that literature and painting do not is an indexical relationship with the real. If the photograph is very easy to achieve, when one wants to do artistic things with it, its stubborn easiness can generate its own problems.
Let us say we want to convey in a photograph a man preoccupied, recovering from his wife's death. Literature can relatively easily reflect the man's thoughts and feelings, and even painting has the chance to offer a symbolic representation of his thinking. We might assume photography is the easiest of the three arts, but that will depend on what we have asked the photograph to do. It would surely be easier for most people to convey a few thoughts about a man whose wife has died rather than for a photographer to convey this in an image. The consecutiveness of literature can explain the past and the present, and even the painter could symbolise grief or time passing with a relative ease next to the photographer's task. In 'The Angelus' by Millet, for example, where a man and a woman in a field stand over a small basket, Salvador Dali reckoned the painting represented a dead baby in the basket, that the woman was a praying mantis, and reconfigured the painting as 'The Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus'. Dali would take full advantage of the iconic elements of painting that made it a medium far less tied to the real than photography would have been in the 1930s. Of course, today with advances in digital technology the photographer could be as symbolic as the artist, with the notion that the camera never lies very hard to justify in an age that has given us Photoshop. Yet our point at least half-remains in the idea that we believed of photography that the camera never lied as we would not make that assumption about a novel or a painting. Its relative incapacity to lie was part of its inability to express.
If we think of Bacon and Hopper we would wish to do so not because we can see signs of their work all over cinema (though that isn't negligible), but because by thinking of them in the context of film, we ask all sorts of question about the art form itself that may not be asked if we either stay within a notion of cinema specificity, or insistently point up their direct influence. This is why we provocatively see them as artists of different techniques. Bacon, of course, makes his interest in editing evident in his fascination with triptychs, painting almost thirty of them from the forties to the eighties. Hopper was instead fascinated by compositional precision, suggesting human solitude through empty space. It was as though Bacon was always trying to create in painting the frenetic activity that comes naturally to cinema; that cinema wanted from Hopper a stillness that could seem quite natural to painting. Bacon however was never trying simply to tell a story. When asked why he wanted to avoid narration, he replied "I don't want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said - to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you." (Interviews with Francis Bacon) The triptych can give to painting montage and a sense of movement, but in Bacon's work he refrains from giving it narrative. This is why his paintings stop short of the figurative and are a frenzy of the figural. His figures are lumps of sensation: they aredesire; they do not have desires. The figurative Hopper shows people usually who do have not desires at all but instead yearnings, perhaps regrets. They look towards the future and think about the past. They aren't so much trapped in their bodies, in their nervous systems trying to explode out from time as we see in Bacon. They are instead trapped in time, a problem that needn't play havoc with our atomic structure. Think of 'Morning Sun', 'Nighthawks' or 'Automat' - these are very contained, controlled and composed paintings, a useful source for filmmakers looking to understand how to film isolation, loneliness, solitude, yearning and regret. Bacon's are more inclined to capture lust, greed, hunger and anger, a much more frenetic set of feelings that might be more usefully caught in a montage sequence than the long take.
Obviously we are not at all claiming this as some sort of formula for film feeling. A director might want to use the long take to explore lust and arrive at a fresher aesthetic than someone more predictably using fast cutting. Catherine Breillat's use of lengthy sequences in Virgin or A ma Soeur! to capture men's lustful demands works much better than a fast cutting sequence showing the men determined to get what they want. There is a surgical creepiness in the non-cutting with Breillat accepting that these are men with strong desires, but she is more keen to show how manipulative they will be in trying to satisfy their needs. We also don't want to claim that Bacon and Hopper should be used directly as sources for the filmmaker, even though some very distinctive images can be created and reconfigured out of a clear homage to each painter's work. There is the moment when the titular Carol in Todd Haynes' film sits in the diner that resembles a number of Hopper paintings where solitary women look out of a window or in on themselves, from 'Automat' and 'Compartment C 293', to 'Hotel Window' and 'Room in Brooklyn'. In an interview with the Telegraph, interviewer Tim Robey asks about a moment when the character Therese (Rooney Mara) packs a suitcase and Haynes says "Yes, that's a direct Hopper moment!" Bernardo Bertolucci utilises Bacon's paintings over the opening credits in Last Tango in Paris, and we might see Brando's figure in the film as a variation of the bodies in them. Numerous reviewers have noticed the similarity between the house in Hitchcock's Psycho and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, and Hopper's 'House by the Railside'. The moment near the end of Lost Highway where Fred and Pete are morphing into each other brings to mind numerous Bacon paintings.
That is all very well and good, but filmmaking that would merely borrow from painting becomes hierarchically and historically debilitated. It would be feeding off an earlier art form and knowing its place. Instead by seeing itself as a manifold art form it acknowledges aesthetic problematics elsewhere and wonders how they might be solved in cinema. When we think about the body horror that Cronenberg was so central to in the eighties we might find in numerous remarks and in Bacon's paintings a problematic shared rather than an image structure borrowed. When Bacon says "I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror. (Interviews with Francis Bacon) this is no less a question for film. How does one film violence, how much horror do you want to present, and how much of the scream do you want to articulate? This opens up the obvious problem of the explicit and the implicit in new and interesting ways. This has nothing to do with the horror movie scream, the shocked moment where the damsel in distress on screen is met with the damsel in distress in the audience. No, this is closer to the muffled scream of the muffled horror - a tension within the nervous system, perhaps, rather than an external tension based on categorical dangers. The horror of Lynch and Cronenberg may be explicit, but if their work has value much of its lies in their capacity to suggest not normal heroism against abnormal villainy, but the internal terrors that make a body collapse mentally and physically - as well as the extreme actions without clear motivations, and a feeling that any sense of self rests on a precarious mythology. Bacon like Cronenberg and Lynch does not take the given as the fact, but sees that sensation is more fundamental than self, saying "well I think the difference is that an illustrational form tells you through intelligence immediately what that form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact." (Interviews with Francis Bacon)
Very few filmmakers give us this sensation over the fact and not least because cinema is a very 'factual' medium. It deals not in the symbols of the page of the novel, nor the iconic possibilities of the painting, but the apparent recreation of the real world. Though of course advances in computer technology weakens this 'image-fact', to use Andre Bazin's term, it has still too rarely been used to generate sensation as Bacon would describe it. For Bazin he believed in the ontological relationship film has with reality. He was suspicious of those who wanted to tamper too much with it, saying, for example, "The meaning [in Soviet Montage and in Hollywood decoupage] is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator" ('The Evolution of the Language of Cinema')" We can understand Bazin's reservations, but also see that filmmakers from Cronenberg to Lynch, Philippe Grandrieux to Apichatpong Weerasetakhul have wondered whether the image is so stable, and others including Jia Zhangke, Olivier Assayas and Carlos Reygadas have deployed CGI within often apparently realist contexts.
The image fact is capable of dissolution in various forms, and we can do worse than look to Bacon to understand an aspect of this process. When we view a painting like 'Three Figures in a Room 1964' we see a human restlessness that couldn't countenance the fixity of an image. Sylvester asks Bacon what is illustration when saying, "when you get a photograph taken with a high-speed camera that produces an entirely unexpected effect which is highly ambiguous and exciting, because the image is the thing and it isn't, or because it's surprising that this shape is the thing: now is that illustration?" Bacon replies that "the texture of a photograph seems to go through an illustrational process onto the nervous system, whereas the texture of a painting seems to come immediately upon the nervous system." (Interviews with Francis Bacon)
This leads to us to see Bacon as a sensational presence in cinema; Hopper a reflective one. When directors have so often gone to Hopper for inspiration or influence, they are often looking for an evocation of a past (Pennies from Heaven, Carol, Hammett), or a reflection on the present (Paris, Texas, The Driver, Heat). Looking at the connection between Walter Hill, Michael Mann and Edward Hopper, Peter Labuza utilises a series of still images from Hill's The Driver and a series of Hopper paintings, saying "to me, they [Hopper's paintings] suggest silence and a pleasure for it. His characters are internal; not necessarily unknown as much as searching for a tranquillity the city often deprives them of. Hill's The Driver works the same wayhis people aren't necessarily against connection but they prefer things to work in terms of minimum interaction and complication. There's a contempt for excess." In films influenced or inspired by Bacon we would expect an aspect of that excess. If we think of the differences between action films like Point Blank, The Driver and Heat and work by Lynch, Scorsese and Philippe Grandrieux, we see the compositional precision in the former against, more generally, the excessive element in the latter. Whether it is the head in the vice in Casino, the brutal killings a the beginning of Wild at Heart, or the abuse of the prostitute in La vie Nouvelle, the Bacon influence is evident and the image pushed beyond representational necessity. This doesn't mean that the deaths in John Boorman, Hill and Mann's films aren't violently shown; more that they contain the deeds within the notion of a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. This isn't a clich; it is a containment. There is both a man and an ethical system. In different ways, Scorsese, Lynch and Grandrieux dissolve both the ethos and the man. Instead, we have a nervous system with demands: a sense beyond sense. One reason why Joe Pesci proved such a useful actor for Scorsese was because in Raging Bull, but especially Good Fellas and Casino, his persona was so unreliable, as though reliability rests on the coordinates of a social contract in which the individual complies, while the unreliable insists on a nervous state they have to accommodate.
It is to the latter that Bacon has so brilliantly and consistently attended. As Gilles Deleuze says in his book on Bacon: "The task of painting is defined as the attempt to render visible forces that are not themselves visible... Force is closely linked to sensation, for a sensation to exist, a force must be exerted on a body, on a point of the wave." (Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation) This is undeniably a vital dimension of modern painting, and why some might view Hopper as an anomaly in 20th century art: one of the few great artists still concerned with representation over sensation. Yet this is also why perhaps he has been so important for film: a medium given to representation and capable of reflection. If a director wants to understand something of the possibilities in the long take, to comprehend how to express alienation, loneliness and solitude in cinema, Hopper can suggest how these states can be captured without cutting to shots that would make it categorical. His style can indicate its presence without overstating the feeling. Equally, a filmmaker who wishes to understand the horror without showing it, who wants to capture on film the tension within bodies without quite saying it belongs to the self, might see in Bacon's work an explicit visualisation without quite falling into representational obviousness. The filmmaker may wish to emphasise the horror through the cutting, leaving the violence done to the body all but off screen, yet the sensation readily captured. If Hitchcock utilised Hopper for the Bates' house in Psycho, we might say he also offered a problematic shared by Bacon in wondering how best to show Marion's death in the shower. He creates a sensation in the viewer yet not quite a representation. It consists of constant cutting that gives punning purpose to the moment.
To conclude, we can't help but think of the influence of early cinema on Bacon when he talks of Edweard Muybridge's work. "Well of course they were an attempt to make a record of human motion - a dictionary, in a sense. And the thing of doing series may possibly have come from looking at those books of Muybridge with the stages of a movement shown in separate photographs." (Interviews with Francis Bacon) We sense in Bacon's work a montage effect, a variation on Cubism and Constructivism which suggests the cut over the long take. Hopper was always closer to the notion that art was a window onto the world. That is an over-simplification of course, but one that appeals to many of the artists' admirers. In a brief article in the New Yorker, Jeremiah Moss notes that this is what many people find in Hopper's work. Curator Carter Foster says "Hopper had to have real details. He had to go out and look for it in the world. He was walking the streets of New York constantly, absorbing the world and putting it into his paintings. So the real was very important. But to turn it into something poetic, he had to do something to it." Thus a notion of realism remains attached to Hopper's work as it does not to Bacon's and we can do worse than think of the two artists' distinctive visions to understand a little about the tension between editing and the long take in film.
© Tony McKibbin