You Ought to be in Pictures

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Lately I’ve been reading Pictures of Nothing, a collection of the six A.W. Mellon Lectures delivered in 2003 by the late Kirk Varnedoe, who spent 12 years as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Varnedoe’s topic is abstraction, and he can be wonderfully acute and lucid. He’s fascinating on the subject of Jasper Johns’ crosshatch paintings, work I’ve always found tight lipped even for Johns, but where Varnedoe draws out no end of plausible meanings.

I mention him now because along the way he points out that the black slab in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey probably had as its inspiration the minimalist sculpture that had begun appearing in the mid-60s. His particular candidate for “proximate source” is Blue Column a 1967 slab sculpture by the Los Angeles artist John McCracken. Whether Kubrick, who lived in England by that time, was aware of it, it looks to me like a plausible possibility.

Though by actual count I’ve seen 2001 about that many times, the obvious connection between The Slab and, say, those big mute cartons by Robert Morris was one of those hide-in-plain-sight links that had never occurred to me. I’ve spent a lifetme looking at art and at movies, but like most people who think about this at all I’m more aware of the ways that movies influence art than vice versa. Are the shock edits in Eisenstein’s Potemkin in any way influenced by the fractured space of Cubism? Could be, but beyond that I’m hard pressed to think of many examples of art being subtly — repeat subtly — pressed into service for a film, so I don’t mean films made by animation artists like Yellow Submarine, a movie that ate whatever came it’s way. But as Varnedoe recognizes, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke needed a form “that was at once absolute and ambiguous, a form that had a tremendous amount of authority and an unruly indecipherability.” So they borrowed one from the most resolute art of their time.

Maybe I was still under the influence of that passage a few nights later, when I happened to be watching John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance on tv. Otherwise I might not have noticed, in the final twenty minutes, a brief shot, about five seconds in all, of a dumptruck at the edge of a high ravine spilling a flow of dark gravel down the slope.
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The truck itself is no mystery. We know that a dam is being built across the river, one that will turn the whole valley into a lake, and we’ve already seen a montage of earth moving equipment under the opening credits. The shot makes sense psychologically, too, as a metaphor for the guilty conscience of the character played by Jon Voigt, who’s on the last stretch of a journey in which he and his friends have killed two men. Voigt is hoping now that all evidence of the crime will be buried when the waters rise. Burial and cover up are on his mind.

What was riveting about the shot is how closely it matched photographs of Asphalt Rundown, a Robert Smithson piece from 1969 in which Smithson had a dumptruck spill dark asphalt down a slope to make the earthworks equivalent of one of Pollock’s pours. (And, says Varnedoe, whose book includes a picture of that work, also a critique of what Smithson, in the era of the Vietnam war, saw as the lethal grandiosity of the Abstract Expressionists.)

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Again, just as Kubrick was borrowing the power and strangeness of what was then new art for his own purposes, Boorman (or whichever part of his film making team proposed that shot) was apparently turning Smithson to his own purposes. (And yes, it’s always possible that the resemblance is a coincidence. If it is, gee, that’s quite a coincidence.) Are there more of these subtle borrowings in movies? I don’t mean lighting effects. Cinematographers are always borrowing from Caravaggio, La Tour, Vermeer and Hopper. And I don’t mean outright collaborations. Hitchcock famously (and hilariously) had Dali design the would-be Freudian dream sequence in Spellbound, an important moment in the history of kitsch. But were there any other directors who tried, say, to subtly adapt one of those Louise Bourgeois spiders? (Maybe Spielberg in War of the Worlds, but those spider-shaped Martian attack vehicles have multiple sources, including of course real spiders.) Or Jeff Koons potted-plant puppy dog? Fellini loved to tell people he was influenced by Stan Lee, who created Spider Man, but just how is not always easy to say.

And yes, we know anime. Animation, which is graphic art to begin with, has been full of references to other graphic art since animation began. Or at least since the best example I know, Disney’s adaptation of that shot from Murnau’s silent Faust

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into Disney’s Fantasia.

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I saw the Murnau film for the first time a few years ago, when I already knew the Disney, and went – ah. But animators are born to the breed. Are there still any other film makers who borrow this shrewdly, the ones who don’t draw to begin with?

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