Gregory Crewdson and Edward Hopper

As a segue from my post on Psycho where I mentioned Edward Hopper, who is, to me, one of the best American Realist artists to date, I’d like to talk about Gregory Crewdson, a photographer who is strongly influenced by Hopper, as many others were.

I first encountered Crewdson’s photographs at an exhibition in the Public Art Gallery in Dunedin, which is a very fine establishment (with free entry! and choral performances too! ). It was his Brief Encounters exhibition. You can clearly see Hopper’s influence in the scenes staged in Crewdson’s works. Again, small town America is the subject, with surreal shots of American suburbs, the pavements lit by lonely streetlights, creepy family dinners, the silence that looms over it all. And these photographs, like Hopper, make you wonder, they incite imaginations of the stories behind these unnamed characters. The technique that Crewdson uses makes the photographs seem like paintings, but not quite, which adds to the surrealism of the scenes. There is a disquieting element to his works, again, much like Hopper, detailing the dark side of the “American Dream” and the imperfections of idyllic suburban life. Silent despair, anxiety, insecurity, isolation are undercurrents running through both Hopper’s and Crewdson’s works. We can only thank them for peeling away the facade and showing us the dark heart beneath normalcy. The following are absolutely masterful, sweeping, dramatically lighted, painstakingly crafted works from some of Crewdson’s sets. It’s no wonder he’s attracted big names to play his characters, such as Tilda Swinton, Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow to name a few.

Why is this girl barefooted, what is she holding, and is she has she just exited the cab behind her, or is she running away. From what? If she is returning, what is she returning to?

Is this a happy scene? A mother observes her newborn. But what runs through her mind?

Man. Close encounters of the third kind?

If you are interested in learning more, this blog does a better commentary that I could ever aspire to. And here is the trailer for Crewdson’s Brief Encounters documentary, providing fascinating insight into his work.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters Trailer from Benjamin Shapiro on Vimeo.

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we’re all in our private traps

This week, I’ve been catching several wonderful films. I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave.

Psycho really delivers in terms of directing style (it is my first Hitchcock film, I am ashamed to say) which is dramatic, a little crazy and in your face. Is it strange that I found Norman Bates handsome? The Bates House was also fantastically creepy, silhouetted against the night sky. Interestingly, the Bates House was inspired by a 1925 Edward Hopper painting, House by the Railroad, below. I do love Edward Hopper’s paintings which are so depressing but unforgettable.

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You can clearly see the shadow of this building in the Bates House. It’s such a haunting structure. Granted, the killing scenes in Psycho were pretty hilarious, but Norman Bates’ final, manic grin, when the last vestiges of sanity left him…classic. Another Hopper painting I love is Nighthawks:

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Painted in 1942, it’s like these people in the diner are frozen in time, like spiders encased in amber. And you wonder, what was life like for them? Was the red headed woman a demure wife? Was she a spitfire? What were her hopes, her dreams. What is that lone man thinking of? Is it midnight, or is it late evening? I can look at it forever.

My favourite conversation from that film, apart from the one where Marion is being interrogated by that freaky, Stephen King worthy policeman (Tak from Desperation, anyone?) was this:

Norman Bates: What are you running away from?

Marion Crane: Why do you ask that?

Norman Bates: No reason. No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison. You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.

Marion Crane: Sometimes… we deliberately step into those traps.

Norman Bates: I was born into mine. I don’t mind it anymore.

Marion Crane: Oh, but you should. You should mind it.

Norman Bates: Oh, I do…

[laughs]

Norman Bates: But I say I don’t.

Gravity was a real spectacle, an exhilarating immersion in space.  It was pretty realistic except for the sounds of debris hitting the satellite…there is no medium for sound to travel in space, which means we shouldn’t be hearing anything.  My big issue with the film, visually spectacular as it was, was its characters. Character, specifically. Question. Aren’t astronauts supposed to be the cream of the crop, rigorously trained, shouldn’t they be able to keep relatively calm and think? Ryan Stone must be the most useless astronaut in film history. I could forgive her the first part where she floats away and is too panicked to answer George Clooney (I’ve forgotten his character’s name; give me a break, it’s George Clooney, I was too busy listening to his honey smooth voice and admiring his perfect hair). But god. How helpless and panicky can she get? I was actually rooting for her to die, so we could get on with watching George Clooney spacewalk till he asphyxiated.

I wish they hadn’t killed off George’s character, who was the star of the show to me. He is the epitome of a astronaut you see? Calm, collected, experienced. His character was a little one-dimensional, no one can keep his head that well under such pressure, especially when floating away into the vastness of space. I don’t blame Sandra Bullock, she did a great job bringing out the anxiety and fear of being helpless in space. But I do blame the director and the writers. Tension is good in a film. It’s what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, what drives plot. However, to create tension by making your character slip up so many times, by making her a helpless, clueless individual who clearly would never have gotten the OK for going into space is a cheap and lazy move. My wonderment at the visuals was almost overshadowed by my distaste and frustration with Ryan.

The star of the 3 films was undoubtedly 12 Years a Slave. It is entirely deserving of its awards. Many people have gushed over it and offered great reviews, so I shall not speak further except  to declare my unending love for it. It was superbly acted, the victims, heroes, villians were well fleshed out, the filming was impeccable. The hanging scene where Solomon desperately holds onto life is one that shall remain with me for a long time. I loved how drawn out it was. Brutal, revealing, unflinching, beautiful, gorgeous film. Steve McQueen, kudos to you. I have always wanted to visit the South, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, with dark, lush willow trees, haunted forever by the spectre of cruelty, blood and America’s original sin.

(this gif just gives me chills)