By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
It should not become as a surprise that Gustav Deutsch(Vienna, 1952), better known from his work with found footage of obscure sources, had decided to do a film about Edward Hopper’s paintings, recreating the story of Shirley’s (a fictional lead character) personal life through the 30’s to the 60’s. “I am interested in the meaning that is given by the image”1, were his words about Film Ist. a Girl & a Gun, and that reflection could easily land in fertile ground when referring to this latest film. Shirley: Visions of Reality, it’s probably 2013’s definitive masterpiece, a film which digs deep into Hopper’s universe and uses it to spark a story which speaks about an era, its politics, its mood but more importantly, an intimate personal journal through one of America’s most convulsed periods.
From Kinsey’s research footage to Edward Hopper paintings, the labor of Deutsch has always been to infuse new life to the image, recalling the poetic possibilities of it and constructing a new erotic rapport (dispensing of the hermeneutics of the image2) with the viewer. If using Kinsey’s research footage in Film Ist. a Girl & a Gun, served him well for the reinterpretation of the imprints in celluloid first used as scientific material, the recreation of Hopper’s paintings on set (through a remarkable art direction and production design) could be seen as a parallel development of a technique which, as found footage does, serves itself from the image source (in this case, the paintings) to create an environment and an atmosphere ideal for a primal idea: Shirley, masterfully interpreted by dancer/coreographer Stephanie Cumming, inhabits the paintings of Hopper through several vignettes which are the setting for her story, her reflection on arts and politics, of her role as a woman in that time, of the detachment of her love life. Hopper paintings by themselves are imprints of the pulse of American life in the era: “The stark light, spare setting and lone female figure create an atmosphere of unease and emptiness which characterized this genre’s particular brand of human disconnection. Self-imposed solitude, the result of the individual’s disappointment in human interaction, was a societal ill that defined the American experience as depicted by both Hopper and the auteurs of contemporary fiction and film. Hopper’s interest is not in telling a story, however, it is in the single image and its evocative possibilities.”3
Carefully composed throughout all its elements, Shirley: Visions of Reality features Hopper’s most outstanding works, such as New York Movie (1939), Office at Night (1940), Hotel Lobby (1943) (an outstanding sequence), Morning Sun (1952), Woman in the Sun (1961) and Chair Car (1965), among others, all of which share the same dark, desolate setting. Deutsch creates the character of Shirley and her internal monologues to make a fresco of that particular American period of time. The internal world of Shirley is universal, since it reflects on the changes of the country: The prewar era, the post war depression, Kennedy, etc. The internal world of Shirley is also personal, as she encompasses her thoughts with her own personal ghosts, on her role as a theatre actress, as a lover, as a woman. Such an achievement, on which the intimate and the universal play analogue roles inside the framework of a recreated work of art, is something that has been rarely achieved in cinema, and it’s what makes this film a power to be reckoned with.
Caring about every single element of his film, Deutsch chooses musicians and sound sculptors David Sylvian and Christian Fennesz to score its film, and carefully goes through pieces of music to create a fantastic soundtrack. In one of the best vignettes of the film, Woman in the Sun, Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman makes an appearance, and it’s a wonderful companion to the shot: Cumming’s naked facing the sun, reflecting about her life, while this milestone of free jazz plays as a soundtrack, reinforcing both her freedom and loneliness. This is a moment of real genius.
A work to be revisited over and over again, Shirley: Visions of Reality will endure the passing of time as one of the greatest experiments of the synergy of arts.
1Gustav Deutsch, about Film Ist. a Girl & a Gun, quoted on Orphan Film Symposium | Department of Cinema Studies | New York University.
2Susan Sontag referred about the concepts of hermeneutics and erotics in art in Against Interpretation (1966), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, USA.
3Dara Mitchell, Sotheby’s Director of American Paintings, on Hopper’s Hotel Window (1965)
Director: Gustav Deutsch
Producer: Gabriele Kranzelbinder
Screenwriter: Gustav Deutsch
Cinematographer: Jerzy Palacz
Cast: Stephanie Cumming, Christoph Bach
Editor: Gustav Deutsch
Design Producer: Veronika Merlin
Music: Christian Fennesz
Sound: Christoph Amann