The Question of Influence
Wim Wenders has long admired the work of Edward Hopper, saying in 'Double Take' "I encountered Hopper on my first trip to America, in 1972. I was in New York and spent quite some time at the Whitney Museum. And I had known Hopper a little before, but he hadn't made much of an impact on me until I actually saw the paintings." He would acknowledge the artist's presence in The American Friend and then talked about how much more his influence was evident in The Million Dollar Hotel. The interview is from 2001, before End of Violence and Don't Come Knocking, yet all of the three later films might just be examples of intermedial kitsch because the presence of the paintings too completely superimpose themselves on the film image. While in The American Friendwe sense much more influence over homage; in the later films it seems the other way round. When he says for example that what he admired so much about Hopper was "more than anything else I liked his sense of framing. It was very cinematic and reminded me a lot of classic American movies, of Anthony Mann or John Ford" we see how the paintings influenced his vision. In The American Friend we sense the paintings have passed through the cinematic, and through the world: through directors Wenders admired, and the America they capture. In the later films this appears much closer to kitsch.
Milan Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that in a world of kitsch "shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist". He adds: "Kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence". InThe Art of the Novel, he picks up on kitsch again, referencing The Unbearable Lightness, and says, kitsch is 'the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one's own reflection." Our own take on kitsch in this specific context rests on the absence of the real, the degree to which a filmmaker echoes a work without allowing it to go strongly enough through the profilmic: through the world out of which cinema comes, and also through the ontology of film form. We have on the one hand Bazin's ontological ambiguity of reality; on the other the aesthetic obviousness of the hyperreal. When we look at a shot from Don't Come Knocking or The End of Violence, the meaning of the scene rests more in the painting than from the moment within the diegesis. This might be very self-consciously so as in The End of Violence, where the echo of Hopper is part of the film within the film, but self-consciousness is not at all the same as the pro-filmically imaginative. In the former we have the filmmaker acknowledging his sources and expecting the viewer to nod at the wink, an erudite contract bypassing the affective dimension of the real. What makes it kitsch is that the film doesn't pass through the tension of reality but bypasses it. The artists will have gone through this tension in the creation of their work, but by so directly referencing the already created, does the filmmaker miss the sinews of the real, the nervous tension of the un-given? In one shot from Don't Come Knocking, the central character (Sam Shepard) is chasing after his old sweetheart (Jessica Lange, Shepard's real-life partner at the time) from the past and the shot unavoidably brings to mind Hopper's work at a moment it might have more fruitfully asked us to wonder about the nature of the characters' feelings. This isn't to say that any film that doesn't ask us to lose ourselves in the diegesis fails (of course not), but if we feel that the erudition is more pronounced than the affect, the experience can lead to vacuity. To put the reference into the work and for the viewer to fish it out doesn't seem to us to add up to much of a remark as Stanley Cavell explores the notion. "So many remarks one has endured about the kind and number of feet in a line of verse, or about a superb modulation, or about a beautiful diagonal in a painting, or about a wonderful camera angle, have not been readings of a passage at all but something like items in a tabulation, with no suggestion about what is being countedor what the total might mean. Such remarks, I feel, say nothing, though they may be, as Wittgenstein says, about naming, preparations for saying something..." (Pursuits of Happiness)
Let us call this feeling one of enervation, and contrast it with innovation. Does it feed off old energy and result in erudite exhaustion, or does it generate new energy and lead to affective renewal? If we admire The America Friend and have reservations about Wenders' later work, it might rest here. When Wenders talks about Hopper's initial influence on him we see a filmmaker in The American Friend looking to frame everywhere as if it is America, to find a means by which to look at not just the US but also parts of Germany and France too as if they also possess an aspect of the United States, as though Wenders was seeking a variation on the well-known line in Kings of the Road, about America colonising our sub-conscious, and finds some sort of benign, hopeful, introspective answer in the paintings of Hopper. In The Logic of Images, Wenders says, "for me, cinema is primarily a form. A film must have a form, otherwise it doesn't say anything. 'Form' is something visual, not intellectual." Hopper can give to Wenders' work a possibility in form, but if it becomes so self-conscious it doesn't find form, it too readily possesses it. If a film without a given form arrives at the predictable, a film too formally preconceived can often lead to the arid: to the enervated over the innovative. In The American Friend there is the well-known scene where Dennis Hopper drives through the streets and we might be reminded a little of Taxi Driver(made a year earlier), and sense in the colours the influence of Hopper. We might even wonder about the casting of Dennis in a film influenced by Edward (no relation), and of all the filmmakers Wenders puts into his film playing suspicious characters: Gerard Blain, Peter Lilienthal, Sam Fuller, and Hopper himself. Yet if we believe the film never collapses into the enervation of self-consciousness, into the Kunderan kitsch of gazing into the mirror of the beautifying lie, then it rests on the looseness of its referencing, the playfulness of its echoes. Edward Hopper's influence must never over-determine the film; his work must instead share a problematic with it.
Of course, both Hopper and Wenders are artists of solitude, sometimes the figures are sliding into loneliness, on other occasions seguing into self-containment. It is the tension between these two places that is vital to both artists, and perhaps because sentimentality or machismo threatens at either side. To avoid both the sentimental and the macho demands formal precision. If we think of Hopper's 'Automat' and the aforementioned moment in The American Friend, they have little ostensibly in common. Yet spatially both indicate the solitary through the nature of the framing. In Automat we have a woman sitting alone at a table in what seems like an empty cafe. There is a chair opposite her, a radiator near her and a bowl of flowers by the window. Yet every object seems discrete, separated out as if no warmth can emanate. However, Hopper's is not a cold painting; more that it is searching out the coordinates of solitude. How does one frame and place objects in such a way that the need for human warmth is contained by a mise-en-scene reflecting its absence. In the scene from Wenders' film, Dennis Hopper's character sits in the car with the radio to his ear, with Hopper slightly off-centre in the frame, clearly alone in the vehicle. In Hopper's painting the woman is very much on the left-hand side creating a lot of empty space, or space for her emptiness, on the right. Painting can 'teach' a filmmaker how to frame solitude or loneliness partly because of its limitations. Edward Hopper had no possibility of the counter-shot to show people's reactions to another character's isolation as cinema does. But for a filmmaker to place dead-centre a character sitting alone, and then offer the counter shot of someone with a sympathetic look on their face, would be to fall into the sentimental - it wouldn't have been framed partly because the director knows that he has shot choices that can make clear the feeling he wants to evoke in the audience. Yet the feeling might be too clearly expressed, while the limitation can suggest nuance. Taking from painting the limitations of the form can lead to the filmmaking image being nuanced in its meaning. We sense this in Wenders' earlier work: from Alice in the Cities to The American Friend, fromKings of the Road to Paris, Texas. Wenders would seem to have absorbed Hopper's influence as a way of being in the world and as a way of seeing the world as it coincided with his own. When Wenders says "no other medium can treat the question of identity as searchingly or with as much justification as film" (The Logic of Images) this is partly why film shouldn't be slavishly imitating art works, but equally, an aesthetic sense that incorporates framing and light from painting can augment the pro-filmic relationship. On the website In A Lonely Place, the writer succinctly brings together various images from the film and compares them to paintings by Hopper. The similarities are evident, but not categorical, and what we see so well is the sensibility between two art forms rather than the homaging of one into the other. As he shows a shot of Nastassja Kinski looking into the mirror in a bright pinkish red jumper, so the writer also shows us 'Morning Sun' by Edward Hopper, where we see a woman sitting up in bed, wearing a wispish pink nightgown, looking out of the window. Other images include one of an empty diner contrasted with Hopper's 'Gas' (3), showing a man standing next to one of the three petrol stands.
There is little here that resembles Hopper's paintings, but that is the very point: we find the similarities in sensibility and not in empirical detail: a semblance rather than a resemblance. The filmmaker escapes kitsch partly by eschewing the obvious and finding the allusive. In his later work, Wenders settles for the resemblance, evident in The Million Dollar Hotel where high angle shots of the hotel ape Hopper's 'Night Windows'. Wenders may say: "Many shots in Don't Come Knocking owe a lot to the American painter Edward Hopper; Butte calls to mind his art all over the place. In fact, the entire uptown area looks like one giant outdoor studio in which Hopper might have painted his pictures of lonely and isolated figures in empty cityscapes: same brownstone buildings, same big windows, same lampposts, same advertising on the walls, same abandoned train tracks. Even the colors and the light are straight from his canvasesall of which is not without irony." Wenders adds, "Hopper was an ardent moviegoer who would leave his studio each time he had an attack of what I'd call "painter's block." That his paintings in turn provoked me to see them in Butte and evoke them on film is a sort of strange full circle." (Zoetrope: All Story) Yet this is the strange circle of kitsch, with the images of the film devoid of the haunting indeterminacy of the Hopperesque influence because it is too assertively expressed. In both The Million Dollar Hotel andDon't Come Knocking the paintings assert themselves on the image, suggesting a hierarchical relationship indicating film is secondary to painting, the real somehow weak next to the painterly. The tension between the two art forms is lost. Film is not of course as Bazin notes so well in 'In Praise of Mixed Cinema' a pure art form, but its impurity needn't make it subordinate. In some of Wenders' later films this sometimes seems to be so.
If Wenders is a filmmaker who would appear to have become less interested in the tension between the world and the image than in his earlier work, what are we to make of Peter Greenaway, a director who has never had very much respect for cinema, believing it has too often been a narrative form for telling stories? Would Greenaway prefer a painterly form offering kitsch? Perhaps so. When he says, quoted in a piece by Mark Brown in the Guardian, that film is "always going back to the bookshop", we might wonder if Greenaway is shopping at the same store, buying coffee table art tomes for source material. In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover Greenaway doesn't only unequivocally imitate a Hals painting, he even has the painting on the wall in the very scenes of its imitation. This is self-reflexivity as kitsch, all the more ironically so considering the film is itself an examination of eating and defecating. When at the end of the film the book-loving lover of the Wife is killed by being force fed-his own books, we might wonder if Greenaway, who insists he doesn't want to live beyond eighty, will be the first aesthetic euthanasiac: consuming vast canvases as he has already consumed them for his filmmaking work?
We are being facetious here, but only to try and capture something of the arch knowingness evident in Greenaway's cinema that can leave it arid of affect. Just as we can talk of intermedial kitsch, so we can also talk of intermedial claustrophobia, with the filmmaker's respect for the painterly form so pronounced that their own image-making is stifled: the film never quite becomes a film, and the viewer remains a static spectator within an ostensibly moving image. Some might insist it is unfair to criticize Greenaway for doing what he very deliberately wants to do, but while he believes he is furthering the possibilities of the cinematic form, our sense is that he is constricting it. Taking into account our remarks on Wenders, we see the film image usually at its most expressive not when it resembles painting but when there is a semblance to it. Don't Come Knocking is far more directly indebted to Hopper than The American Friend, but it is as though in The American Friend Wenders absorbed Hopper to open up the film image and not constrain it in the fine art tradition. In Nightwatching, Greenaway takes Rembrandt's painting the Night Watch and turns it into a conspiracy movie meeting biopic, with the various figures in the painting possibly involved in a murder, and Rembrandt's life a miserable round of hard work and poverty.The film directly replicates the painting and echoes and mimics numerous other Rembrandt works to give us a high-brow knowingness offset by a vulgar sensibility. We mean by this not only Greenaway's interest in all things scatological; more especially the cliches he adopts as if unaware of the nuance cinema is capable of and assumes that intelligence comes from the application of light and mise-en-scene. When he says that "this is probably a very unpopular thing to say but all film writers should be shot" (Guardian), he makes clear his contempt for aspects of cinema no less vital than the visually aesthetic. "We do not need a text-based cinema. We need an image based cinema" he adds. This is the sort of lazy assumption anyone from Eric Rohmer to Jean-Marie Straub, Michel Chion to Gilles Deleuze have problematised. Film is an audio-visual medium, and one reason Greenaway's films often seem so static and deadening rests on the feeling that he privileges some elements over others. While he hardly ignores sound (Michael Nyman's work has been vital to the films' energy), it is as though the scene awaits music to give it force. We notice this in the opening sequence of Drowning by Numbers: Nyman's music gives it a yearning complexity the scene itself doesn't possess. If we talk of semblances over resemblances it rests partly on what is beyond our immediate ken; what a film evokes but cannot quit invoke. Greenaway's quest for an image-based cinema appears to us more an attempt to subsume cinema under a painterly category that film so brilliantly at its best easily goes beyond. It is not that it is better than painting; just that it can do many thing painting cannot. Greenaway's films do little more than what painting already does, and thus while we can admire his work its importance is negligible. By appealing so strongly to the properties of painting, he misses out on many of the properties of film. He could learn perhaps from reading Hermann Broch's fine article on kitsch, 'Evil in the Value-System of Art'. "Kitsch is always subject to the dogmatic influence of the past - it will never take its vocabulary of reality from the world directly but will apply pre-used vocabularies, which in its hands rigidify into cliche, and here is the nolitio, the rejecting of good will, the turning away from the divine cosmic creation of values."
There are those who very understandably and philosophically have been calling into question film as film, insisting that now film is no longer a chemical process but a mathematical one, our relationship with images has changed. We should accept that pretty much all films are animated today. It is a point Lev Manovich makes, "cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation. It is no longer an indexical media technology but, rather, a sub-genre of painting." (What is Digital Cinema?) This would be Manovich coinciding with Greenaway and could provide the latter with a technological and philosophical justification for his position. Yet one of the most obvious examples of film as a sub-division of painting, one that goes beyond even Greenaway's respect for the painterly, and Wenders' admiration for Hopper, is Gustav Deutsch's Shirley: Visions of Reality. Here we arrive at a halfway house that is a no man's land. As it replicates a series of paintings in film form, the homage is unequivocal but the enervation pronounced. It paradoxically arrives at the antithesis of Hopper's work as Hopper managed to give to painting an astonishing sense of fresh air, with the influence of cinema on his work generating a feeling of space in the image. By contrast, Deutsch's film arrives at a claustrophobic aesthetic that makes the images indebted but contrary. Perhaps we will have to accept this is the future of the cinematic image, but that doesn't mean we have to be happy with it. Then again, just because the technological means are available, this doesn't mean that the viewer wants a particular type of image just because the technology makes it available. We have already gone through three phases of 3D (the fifties, the eighties and the last five years) and still most films are made in 2D. Manovich might be right that in a strict sense film is becoming a sub-genre of painting, but maybe many are keener that it retains a strong relationship with the cinematically real.
In Robert Altman or Jean-Luc Godard's work we notice directors eschewing constraints while drawing from painting. Both directors may on occasion directly replicate paintings in film form, as with Da Vinci's The Last Supper and Goya's The Nude Maja in MASHand Passion respectively, but in Altman's case it is a joke; in Godard's a question contained within the context of a film within a film as Godard constantly and insistently questions the nature of film production. As Altman would say: "I thought it was a little arch, as did many other people, but then so what? This is not so serious?" (Altman on Altman) In reproducing works by Delacroix, Rembrandt and others Godard wanted his cast and crew to contribute. "He thought that even those who had no particular artistic education could offer useful ideas on such subjects, if only they would speak thoughtfully and honestly - indeed if only they would speak." (Everything is Cinema) The power structure didn't quite allow this to happen, but there was at least the intention. Instead of knowingness; Godard sought the untrained eye.
Yet in both instances, we might still be in the realm of resemblance over semblance, and it is in McCabe and Mrs Miller, for example, and Made in USA where we notice innovation over the dangers of enervation: the sense of a painting rather than its recreation. In McCabe and Mrs Miller we can see that the lighting shares similarities with Rembrandt's luminous distribution in The Anatomy Lesson, but this isn't quite a homage to the work; more a comprehension of the sort of light evident in a turn of the century frontiers town that would be using the same lighting sources as in Rembrandt's time. How to capture the low-lighting levels of bars and brothels that suggest the clandestine and the paranoiac? Rembrandt seems a very good source. But it is close to a coinciding of sensibility rather than aesthetic theft. In Made in USA we see a wall that has over time been subject to numerous posters put up and torn down, and Godard's image isn't too unlike Jackson Pollock 6 by Robert Weingarten. Both are examples of time working on the image and creating work. Godard's wall suggests the layers of time in the flyposters slapped up and stripped down. Weingarten painted a series of works based on the spattered floors where Pollock had created his paintings. What we find in the comparison is a certain relation to time and sensibility; no direct sense in which Godard is drawing upon the work of Pollock; more that we see in the Weingarten painting a coincidence of colour and temporality.
The whole point behind our exploration of intermedial kitsch is to escape from the notion of aesthetic hierarchy into the coincidence of problematics. What does an artist in one art form find in another that helps them with their own work? This is the difference between a problematic and an homage. The latter takes somehow for granted the superiority, temporal and/or aesthetic, aspect of the original. The former does not. And this is partly why we are inclined to see greater depth and texture in a work that bears a semblance to a painting rather than a resemblance to it. When we look at Hopper's painting and think of Wenders' use of the frame to convey solitude, we go beyond the immediacy of the comparison to the reflection of the problem that sits behind both artists' work. When we see the resemblance on screen that process is perhaps foreshortened: the connections too immediately there as empirical gesture over phenomenological impression.
To conclude, let us say a few words on Antonioni, and think of a passage from Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed. "The works of Pollock, Louis, Noland and Olitski achieve in unforeseen paths an old wish of romanticism - to imitate not the look of nature, but its conditions, the possibilities of knowing nature at all and of locating ourselves in a world. For an old romanticist, these conditions would have presented themselves as nature's power of destruction or healing, or its fertility." Cavell adds, "for the work of the modernists I have in mind, the condition presents themselves as nature's autonomy, self-sufficiency, laws unto themselves. (Not how the world is, but that it is, is the Mystical.)" How might we think of this remark in the context of Antonioni, a filmmaker whose work is often compared to Abstract Expressionism? It is not that we feel Antonioni wants to ignore the reality that he films. He is quite keen on occasion to point up the real world out of which he extracts his images, saying, for example, of The Passenger, "the color is the color of the desert. We used a filter but not to alter it; on the contrary, in order not to alter it. The exact warmness of the color was obtained in the laboratory by the usual process." (Architecture of Vision) Yet he will on occasion remind us that while a film gives us the sense of a three-dimensional surface, it is always a flat screen. Whether it is a moment when Monica Vitti passes through a passageway in Red Desert, or David Hemmings moving around his apartment in Blow-Up, Antonioni uses a long lens to flatten the image and give the impression of abstract work. He seems neither to want us to forget it it is a pro-filmic space that he films, nor forget either that it is a flat surface upon which the work is projected. This tension allows Antonioni to acknowledge the painterly in film form without giving himself over to the recreation of painterly images. It is a proper tension, and at the same time a certain type of resolution.
Just as Cavell can say that the modernists indicate the autonomy of the artwork as it goes beyond representation, so Antonioni working in film which has a direct relationship with photographic reality as painting does not, can say that it is and is not a world. It is in the world and of the world, exemplified in Francois Truffaut's claim that great films tell us something about the world and tell us something about cinema. Dan Yacavone in Film Worlds picks up on Truffaut's comment and says, "the best cinematic works, narrative and non-narrative alike, not only express truths about experience of the "world" and cinema together and simultaneously, but what is so expressed in each such case is (almost invariably found to be) interesting, profound, and revealing, as opposed to superficial, cliched and trivial." He gives none other than Wenders as an example. This "arguably marks the most fundamental difference between Wenders' Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and Wings of Desire...and his later The End of Violence, The Million Dollar Hotel and Land of Plenty." We would replace Land of Plenty with Don't Come Knocking, and link the weaknesses of these latter films with the knowing references that undermine the exploration of a problem and replaces it with a knowingness of intent and expected reception. If we believe that the painterly The Red Desert and Blow-Up are great films as The End of Violence and Don't Come Knockingare not, we cannot, of course, say that Antonioni is working realistically and that Wenders isn't. No, our claim is that the film must go through certain problematics that allow the nature of the question to remain stronger than the ease of the referential answer. That moment in The Red Desert seems less to homage abstract expressionism than to be a coincidence of perception. If Antonioni so admired Rothko it was because he could see it was "painted anxiety", just as we could see Antonioni's work as filmed anxiety. Jon Beasley in Not Critical, for example, offers colour grids to give us a sense of Antonioni's compositional colourism that can take images from the world but also suggest a colourism within it.
Antonioni claimed that "I am very interested in the dynamics of colour...In Red Desert, I had to change the appearance of reality - of the water, of the streets, of the countryside. I had to paint them with real paint and brush. It was not easy. Violating reality is easy when you are in a studio, but it becomes a problem when you are outside." (Architecture of Vision) The director would seem to need this ready tension between the real that he films and the vision he wants to impose upon it. He manages to find in the world the colours that he can utilise for his work. Sometimes this will, of course, he says involve altering what he finds but it is often simply good noticing, seeing in the world the already Antonioniesque. In reference to the former, the website Another Nickel in the Machine notes of Blow-Up, "The shoot for the film began in April 1966 and wherever the filmmakers went they left their mark on London. Antonioni thought the roads were a bit grey in Woolwich and had them painted black, and it was said that even pigeons were dyed so they were just the right sort of pigeons. The Rolls-Royce, once owned by Jimmy Savile, was originally white and the director had that re-sprayed to black." Antonioni adds "When I was making Blow-Up there was a lot of discussion about the fact that I had a road and a building painted. Antonioni paints the grass, people said. To some degree, all directors paint and arrange or change things on a location, and it amused me that so much was made of it in my case."
The reason why so much is made of Antonioni's transformations rests partly on his remark about location versus the studio. We have a sense of a filmmaker playing God in a very different manner from the way Hitchcock couched it. This isn't the filmmaker manipulating the viewer with narrative ingenuity in a very artificial, often studio-bound world, but imposing on real locations an imprint as aesthetic vision. Antonioni's vision was so pronounced that even when he found a reality that matched his perspective people assumed that he had altered it. "Most people thought that Antonioni was only up to his old particular ways when they watched Hemmings drive his Rolls Royce down a long terrace of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, all painted entirely red. The buildings, however, really were that colour and were made up of dozens of properties all owned by the motorcycle spares company, Pride and Clarke, and every one painted red." (Another Nickel in the Machine)
It is a great example of a filmmaker who was looking for the Antonioniesque and was as happy to find it in the world as readily as alter the location to generate it. This isn't the artist creating from an art work to produce a cinematic image, as we believe Wenders does so completely and troublesomely in Don't Come Knocking, but the Italian master imposing the Antonioniesque on the world that even when another is responsible for the original work, fits so neatly into the director's viewpoint. It returns us to Kundera's comments about kitsch; in Antonioni's oeuvre there is little sense that reality is denied. It is augmented, altered; and the exaggeration that is already there made use of. But Antonioni believes in the world, not only in its reproductive potential as art. When Carmen Gray in The Calvert Journal talks of Peter Greenaway's casual relationship with the real it is a remark that wouldn't be fair if applied to the Italian director. Talking about the British filmmaker's film, Eisenstein in Guanajauto, she says "is Russia right to put no stock in his portrayal of Eisenstein?"
We wouldn't want to claim that reproducing an artwork in itself leads to kitsch or an empty intermedial reflexivity. This would suggest Tarkovsky's use of 'The Hunters in the Snow' in both Solaris and Mirror would pass for kitsch, as well as Pasolini's reproduction in film form of Montegna's 'Christo Morto' in Mamma Roma, or Robbe-Grillet's of Mondrian in Eden and After. (Robbe-Grillet's later Magritte-soaked La Belle captive might be another issue.). It is a question of whether we believe something new can come out of a combination of the cinematic and the painterly, the real and the reproduced. Central we might suppose is tone: is it ironically utilised (as we find in Altman's use of 'The Last Supper' or at the beginning of Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty (using Goya's 3nd of May. 1808) or does it serve an enquiring purpose: an imagistic equivalent to Heidegger's notion that questioning is the piety of thought? If it is instead a ready assumption, if we feel that we can tick off the knowing reference and sense we are being culturally coddled, the purpose is properly kitsch. It has not gone through the problem of painting but instead arrived at the solution of cultural assimilation, of cultural capital as a means by which the viewer can be epistemologically aggrandized - art indeed with a Capital A, but does it add up to a proper remark?
© Tony McKibbin