By upgrading the melodrama with art-historical references, Griffith's Broken Blossoms paved the way for the stretching of genre films from formulaic narrative to more aesthetically complex works. Whether the narrative deals with the biography of a famous artist (the biopic) or with a famous battle (the historical film), it is possible to elevate genre to the ''art'' film. As the scholar Charles Tashiro has pointed out, some historical films depend on pictorial citations as period sources, including William Dieterle's Juarez (1939), with its literal restaging of Goya's 1814 painting Executions of the Third of May 1808, and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), which is informed by eighteenth-century portraiture and genre paintings ranging from Joshua Reynolds to John Constable. Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan (1967), though it does not recall any specific picture, is steeped in the colors, landscapes, fabrics, and atmospheres of impressionist painting.

American biopics devoted to the life of an artist, such as John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952), about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956), about Vincent van Gogh, can be considered art films in a very loose sense. These films tend to recycle society's cliches about artists—notions of genius, madness, recklessness, inner torment, exile, and romance. Films as different as Legal Eagles (1986) and Modigliani (2004) suggest that making art goes hand in hand with living intensely, talent with struggle. As is apparent from the character of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), Hollywood traditionally represents artistic figures and environments in a self-destructive or corrupting light; painting specifically is the equivalent of excess, color, femininity, vice, and solipsism. The French director Maurice Pialat takes a more sociological and existential approach to his subject in Van Gogh (1991), where art-making is still all-consuming and self-destructive yet leaves room for friends, family, and colleagues. As conceived by Pialat, Van Gogh is subjected to the value judgments of his period about the artist—entailing notions of femininity, creativity, and individuality—but he is not the embodiment of corruption and decadence.

The Hollywood musical, with its emphasis on costume, color, and set design along with music and dance, is a genre that evokes the relation of art and film through visual style. In An American in Paris (1951), for example, the set designs evoke the style of French impressionism. In another genre, film noir, chiaroscuro lighting and Gothic architecture show the influence of German expressionism, a sensibility that migrated from Europe to Hollywood. Another notable instance of generic reference to visual art is in the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, which from Psycho (1960) onward includes references to the paintings of Edward Hopper (1882-1967), an American artist famous for his deserted diners at night, lonely motels, uninhabited vistas, and isolated individuals.

And in a science-fiction film with noirish underpinnings like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), the eclectic mix of architectural citations from various periods and styles endows the film with a strange nostalgia for a more authentic historical past in such a way as to calibrate the loss of memory and a jaded sensibility.

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