Scenes on the Verge of a Story

Thanks (yet again) to GreenCine, I just caught a webcast discussion of Edward Hopper featuring filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine) and film theorist Richard Dyer. The discussion was sponsoed by the Tate Museum in London, where Haynes is screening a series of films in conjunction with Tate Modern’s Hopper Exhibition. This is one of the coolest things about the Internet; I really like Haynes’ work, but would never had had the chance to know about, much less see, this event. Here are a few notes, which are pretty sketchy, but hopefully will provide some sense of Haynes and Dyer’s observations.

Because I learned about it a little late, I missed the first few minutes of the live webcast, but Haynes and Dyer seemed to take for granted the fact that Hopper’s paintings have influenced many filmmakers. Among the more intriguing comments: Haynes noted that he finds the connection between Hopper and noir superficial and based primarily in the popularity of one of Hopper’s most famous paintings, Nighthawks. His argument was that noir tends to be male-driven, with female characters serving merely as the subject of erotic intrigue, while in Hopper, he argues that women are not viewed voyeuristically or erotically. He essentially reworked Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure” thesis to suggest the ways in which Hopper disrupts visual pleasure.

He later added that many of Hopper’s paintings do resemble film stills, a condition that one (unidentifed) woman in the audience described as “scenes on the verge of a story.” I’m struggling through this idea/concept right now, but it strikes me as just about right (and reminded me fleetingly of Cindy Sherman’s amazing series, “Untitled Film Stills,” at least in terms of the engagement with narrative and banality).

He then connected this concept to the minimalist filmmaking style of Chantal Akerman, specifically her 3.5 hour film, Jeanne Dielman, which Haynes described as “a film about what every other film cuts out.” In the film (which I have seen), we see a housewife engaging in all of the daily chores, such as cleaning, cooking, or taking a bath, all in real time, all with an essentially static camera (as I recall). The film is strangely compelling, and when it was released, it was seen as an alternative to the narrative-driven male gaze films criticized by Mulvey. Given their reading of Hopper, the connection makes a lot of sense. Sirk and Dyer also read Malick’s Badlands and Sirk’s Tarnished Angel through Hopper’s lens, but my details are sketchier here. Certainly Badlands (in part through Sissy Spacek’s amazing voice-over narration) evokes the loneliness and open space associated with Hopper, and which Dyer identified as a specifically American sensibility.

The program concluded with a Q&A that focused primarily on Haynes’ own films. I appreciated Haynes’ observation that as a filmmaker, he is “always interpreting, not creating.” He discussed his awareness of the “culture of channel changing” in the US that allows a viewer to quickly interpret where she is in a story based on just a few narrative and visual cues, explaining that he worked in his films to respect that knowledge and then sometimes to subvert that, as he does with Sirk films in Far From Heaven.

He then discussed his current project, which he’s currently writing, a film about Bob Dylan, a project that seems especially relevant in response to the radical conservatism that engulfs much of today’s political outlook in the US. I’m glad I stumbled into it, and if you did miss it, apparently there will eventually be a transcript of the show at the Tate webpage.

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