08 June 2011

Edward Hopper:Talking Pictures

 "When I don't feel in the mood for painting I go to the movies for a week or more.  I go on a regular movie binge!" - Edward Hopper

Movie makers from Robert Altman to Steve Martin have  recognized the cinematic qualities in Hopper's paintings their  artificial lighting, the  framing of images, the arraying of characters across the picture plane, and the distancing of the viewer from the action.   Born in 1882, Edward Hopper came to the movies as an adult, a vantage point available to critics only for a brief time.    By the time he painted New York Movie and The Sheridan Theater, Hopper was in his fifties and although he lived just a few blocks from the Sheridan, his cramped Greenwich Village studio apartment was still a long way from the opulent, yet streamlined picture palace.  And, like the best known movie critics, Hopper was a  New Yorker. What better choice could there be for a visual counterpoint to talking about movies.

To begin with, American Movie Critics casts its net widely to include anyone writing in America or writing about American movies.  This seems about right, as the people who made the movies came to Hollywood from everywhere:  Samuel Goldwyn from Minsk and Louis B. Mayer from Warsaw founded M-G-M, Frank Capra from Sicily, and Fred Zinnemann from Vienna.

In 1915 the stars in the sky aligned for Hollywood.   French and Italian companies that dominated the international movie market were forced to suspend production because of war in Europe.  On February 8th, Birth Of A Nation premiered in Los Angeles.  A racist romance of American history, the film couched its story in an array of new techniques devised by its producer D. W. Griffith: close-ups, flashbacks, and panoramic shots. The movie was a sensational hit.  Vachel Lindsay, poet and sometime painter, published The Art Of The Moving Picture, the first serious study of the new medium.   D. W. Griffith was an early admirer of Lindsay's book and invited the author to the premier of his next film, Intolerance.    A day would come when dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein described a Busby Berkley musical as "Babylonian."

All film critics, whether they know it or not, are indebted to Lindsay.  He recognized the creative potential of film and the tensions that would arise when artists and businessmen competed to determine the industry's future.  Lindsay was certainly among the first to remark the flatness and impersonality of action films, the potential of the director to become author, and the emotional impact their immediacy had on viewers.  Movies, he wrote, cut "deeper into some stratifications of society than the newspaper or the book has ever gone."  This idea was echoed the very next year by Harvard psychologist Hugo Munsterberg, when he wrote that movies "furnished art with a means which far transcends the power of any theater stage."   

Film criticism has always been a field with few barriers to entry.  From its beginning, all manner of persons weighed in with their opinions on the power of moving images.  Lopate has organized American Movie Critics chronologically and limits his selections to American-born or naturalized citizens. He reminds us that newspaper critics, writing to daily deadlines, lack the luxury of choice and extended contemplation.  He also points to the persistence of vexing questions. Are movies art, "mere" entertainment, or mind-numbing escapism?  Is the critic a publicist for the movie industry or the provider of a sophisticated perspective to the audience?   

 First generation critics of the 1920s, still mesmerized by moving images, were unconcerned by the lack of sound.  Typical was poet Carl Sandburg's review of German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari (1921).  "The Craziest, weirdest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silversheet of a cinema house," he enthused.   H.L. Mencken, editor of The Smart Set, expressed his annoyance in Appendix To Moronia (1926) at movies as purveyors of ideas, scoffing,  "They were hollow and obvious, but they were not more hollow and obvious than the ideas one encounters in the theater every day, or in the ordinary run of popular novels, or, for that matter, in the discourses of the average American statesman or divine."
In contrast to Mencken's unbowed elitism,  Gilbert Seldes  welcomed the new medium into The Seven Lively Arts (1924).  David Denby calls Seldes the first to employ a "tone of fond exasperation which we recognize as the sound of the movie critic."
The advent of 'talkies' opened a veritable psychiatric couch in the theater. Another German-born psychologist, Siegfried Kracauer, in  From Caligari To Hitle, wrote  "what films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions," atop "layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimensions of consciousness."
 Robert Warshow's The Gangster As Tragic Hero introduced the mythic urban man who emerges from the anonymous crowd, only to fall back into death and "the nature of American loneliness."  To Warshow, the gangster was a messenger from our subconscious.  He was amused when Europeans took the genre literally, expecting to find a gangster on every corner. Much later, at the height of the Vietnam War, Barbara Deming elaborated on Warshow's theme in  Running Away From Myself: A Dream Portrait Of America (1969). For Deming, archetypal characters  express our anxieties on screen, encouraging passivity in the viewer. 

Some critics  have a direct line to our  suppressed desires.   Melvin Tolson, a poet whose Harlem Gallery (1965) is an  urban Spoon River Anthology, asserted that Gone With the Wind Is More Dangerous Than Birth Of A Nation. Having catalogued its many historical inaccuracies, Tolson was incensed that the movie had theUnion Army burn Atlanta when it was the Confederates who torched their own city. Parker Tyler's Magic And Myth In the Movies (1947) applied Freudian theory to everything from Disney cartoons to soap operas.   Tyler viewed the unease that pervaded film noir as suppressed eroticism, suffusing relationships between male characters, as in Alfred Hitchcock's Double Indemnity.  

 The golden age of movie criticism,  the 1950s -1970s, is . more familiar territory.  The New Yorker's Pauline Kael  prided herself on  seeing the movies she reviewed only once, to approximate the experience of the average viewer.   Her reviews were awaited and  her prejudices imitated, including  her hostility to independent filmmakers.  Renata Adler, film critic for the daily New York Times, shared Kael's belief that movies were world historical events, but more negatively.  Adler vigorously dissented from the chorus of praise that greeted Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, disgusted by what she saw as his glamorization of the killers and his lack of sympathy for their victims, concluding, "The book, the movie, the killers, the audience are stalking the family together."   

 A decade that had brought assassinations and televised wars to America needed filmmakers to explore the meaning of violence, not to create modern versions of the Roman circus.  In an excerpt from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), James Baldwin takes down the 1972 biopic of jazz singer Billie Holiday, Lady Sings The Blues, this way: "Lady Sings the Blues is related to the black American experience in about the same way, and to the same extent, that Princess Grace Kelly is relate to the Irish potato famine: by courtesy."  What these disparate voices were demanding was greater verisimilitude and an engagement with contemporary issues.

Lopate concludes with "Reconsiderations and Renegade Perspectives."    Bell Hooks decries the nihilism of  cult favorites such as  Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.   She cites recurring plots of sexism, racism, and homophobia that imply change is impossible and equate  hipness with detachment, countering with playwright Amiri Baraka's "cynicism is not revolutionary."  Carrie Rickey compares the lot of women in current films to that of accused witches in medieval Europe: sink or swim, you lose ( Rat Packs And Pack Males)..

Other critics wrest some enjoyment for their readers from unsatisfactory films.  J. Hoberman of The Village Voice (the Tom Servo of movie critics) mines bad movies for clue sto the dream lives of moviegoers. Of one actress (who shall remain nameless here although Hoberman names her), he writes, "She's a confidently terrible actress, but why limit her performance to mere acting?"  And in Not So Nice Kitty, Manolha Dargis demolishes the film version of the beloved children's book The Cat in The Hat in verse: "Why oh why did they make it like that,/ Oh why did they ruin the cat in the hat."

 AMERICAN MOVIE CRITICS: An Anthology from The Silents Until Now edited by Philip Lopate  New York, Library of America: 2006 

1. Edward Hopper - Soir Bleu, 1914, Whitney Museum of Art, NYC.
2. Edward Hopper - The Sheridan Theater, 1937, Newark Museum, New Jersey.
3. Edward Hopper - People in the Sun, 1960, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.
4. Edward Hopper -Drug Store, 1927, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
5.  Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931,  Museo Thyssen-Bornmeisza, Madrid.
6. Edward Hopper - Automat, 1927, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa.
7. Edward Hopper - The Barber Shop, 1931, Neuberger Museum, Purchase, NY.
8. Edward Hopper - New York Movie, 1939, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
9. Edward Hopper - Room In New York, 1932, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska.
10. Edward Hopper - Compartment C - Car 293, 1938, private collection, USA.
11.  Edward Hopper - New York Office, 1962, Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Alabama.
12. Edward Hopper - City sunlight, 1963, Hirschorn Museum, Washington, DC.
13. Edward Hopper - Two Comedians, 1965, private collection, USA.


Hels said...

Thank you.

It is interesting that university art history degrees traditionally excluded films as a legitimate area of study.. then they started, one university at a time, to add in this "new" genre.

The critics you cited asked the vital questions themselves eg Are movies art, entertainment, or mind-numbing escapism? How can films seriously engage with contemporary issues? How historically accurate do the films need to be? What is the role of the film critic? Did French German Russian and Italian directors/producers/staff create deeper and more cosmopolitan films than Americans?

Jane said...

There are no new questions under the sun when it comes to movies, it seems. I think the university felt the need for films more than film needed universities.

femminismo said...

Perfectly correct! Film has never needed anything but an earnest heart! Thank you for all this information.

Jane said...

Always good to hear from you, Jeanne. It reminds that I look forward to seeing "The Tree of Life" soon.

SKIZO said...


Jane said...

Hello, SKIZO, and thanks. Hopper's paintings have struck many as cinematic and, according to the artist himself, with good reason.