Like the best kinds of creative relationships, fine art and cinema stimulate and draw from each other in equal measure.
Both run deep in their explorations of colour and light and have borrowed from one another to dazzling effects. When it comes to composition in cinema, there is no better place for a director or cinematographer to look for inspiration then to the art world.
Top: Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” (1948). Bottom: A film still from “Days of Heaven” (1978; directed by Terrence Malick).
Days of Heaven
As the most poetic filmmaker of his generation, it’s not surprising that Terrence Malick regularly turns to literature and classical painting as inspiration for his films. An iconic example of this is in his 70s classic “Days of Heaven,” which is set in the Texas prairie lands. The whole movie is essentially a living recreation of “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth, an American painting done in a realist style, held by many to be one of the century’s finest. The auburn tones of the endless field, the lonely farmhouse and the mood of maudlin femininity from “Christina’s World” hang forever over Malick’s tragic love triangle. The moment in the film where this can be felt most vividly is a scene where Abby (Brooke Adams), after marrying a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepherd), languidly walks off into the distance. Framed like a painting, all we see is a woman moving through the dry fields under a watery sky, just like Wyeth’s Christina, who is physically trapped in her broken body. But in “Days of Heaven,” Abby’s pain is more emotional, she’s torn between her heart and her obligation to her new husband.
Left: Francisco Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring his Son” (c. 1819–1823). Right: Film stills of the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006; directed by Guillermo del Toro).
Spanish painter Francisco Goya created some ghoulish visions throughout his career. But none perhaps were quite as disturbing as “Saturn Devouring his Son,” which depicts the ancient Greek myth of Cronus, father of creation eating one of his sons due to a prophecy. Director Guillermo del Toro uses Goya’s visual as a blueprint for a frightening scene in his acclaimed fantasy film, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) ventures into her Alice in Wonderland-style fairy tale world only to come face to face with a true monster, the Pale Man (Doug Jones), who bites the heads off of fairies for kicks and devours children whole. Like Goya’s “Saturn,” Del Toro’s Pale Man is the darkest kind of monster, one beyond any concept of humanity, birthed from the gloomy recesses of the imagination. Throughout this scary sequence one can feel the stain of Goya’s “Saturn” in every facet of the Pale Man, as he awakens from slumber and staggers after his pray.
Top: Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Hunters in the Snow.” Bottom: The opening scenes of “Melancholia” (2011; directed by Lars Von Trier).
Controversial Danish auteur Lars Von Trier may now be better known for saying stupid things at press conferences, but his opulent science fiction film “Melancholia” is a gorgeous creation full of startling imagery, much of it derived from the world of classical painting. The opening credits of the film (see video above) showcase a highly stylish barrage of slow-motion imagery, and Pieter Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow” is magically brought to life as Kirsten Dunst’s Justine moves through an apocalyptic earth. In this moment, Justine becomes a living, breathing Ophelia from John Everett Millais’ immortal painting of the Shakespearean heroine. She floats serenely down a river complete with wedding dress and bouquet (see cover image). Much like Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist, Justine is a woman battling her own inner demons as the rest of the world gets to grips with a rival planet smashing into Earth.
Top: Diane Arbus’ photo titled “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967.” Bottom: The twins in “The Shining” (1980; directed by Stanley Kubrick).
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic-horror bestseller, “The Shining,” is widely believed to be one of the most terrifying films of all time. Perhaps the biggest scare in the movie occurs when troubled child Danny (Danny Lloyd) wanders through the lonely corridors of the Overlook Hotel, and stumbles into two very messed up identical twins who utter the immortal line “Will you play with us forever?” For creating this iconic image, Kubrick looked to the work of New York photographer Diane Arbus and one of her most famous shots titled, “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967.” In the photograph, two young girls with matching faces and outfits stare out at the camera in a spellbinding gaze. What Kubrick did so well was to take the underlying darkness of Arbus’ photograph and mess around with it—playing off the eternal otherness of identical twins to freaky effect.
Top: John Kacere’s oil painting “Jutta” (1973). Bottom: Charlotte (Johansson) laying on a bed in “Lost in Translation” (2003; directed by Sofia Coppola).
Lost in Translation
In “Lost in Translation,” Sofia Coppola expertly conjured up a mood of wistful longing and bruised romance in her jet-lagged modern classic. This feeling is captured beautifully in the very opening scene, as we see the film’s heroine Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) lying sideways on her hotel bed, in just a knitted jumper and underwear (see photo above). This beguiling and sensual moment is a direct homage to American painter John Kacere, who worked in a photo-realist style, focusing on the mid-section of women’s bodies. Kacere’s work “Jutta” (1973) comes to mind when looking at the beginning of “Lost in Translation,” and it actually pops up at one point in Charlotte’s hotel room during the course of the film. We’ve all felt that jet lag feeling, whether we’re stuck in a hotel in a strange city or just at home feeling a pinch of ennui. Kacere and Coppola capture this mood perfectly in their respected mediums.
Cover Image from "Melancholia (2011)", © respective studio. All other images © respective owners.