Artists Using Film, from Dali to Mills

Mike Mills as Artist and Filmmaker

For a medium described as “moving pictures,” the relationship between film and the visual arts has never been a fluid or direct one. While the theater produced many of film’s early great directors, and literature its storylines, a relatively small percentage of visual artists have made the transition from their studios to Hollywood’s — or, even, just to some form of independent production. Still, the history of film would not be complete without noting the artists — and art movements — who have placed their expressive stamp on cinema. Today, artists like Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Matthew Barney make compelling cinema that is very much an outgrowth of their visual art. Beginners director Mike Mills is an artist and graphic designer, and his composed approach to visualizing systems and relationships carries over from his print work to his dramatic storytelling.  But just as importantly, film itself has been a subject for artists as their work naturally treats the dominant image machine of the 20th century. Below is a brief look at some of the ways in which visual artists have ventured into, commented upon, and treated as their canvas the world of video and film.

The Artist Films Surrealist Dreams

Entranced as it was by dreams and the unconscious, Surrealism, the early 20th century literary, art and political movement, also engendered bold experiments in film by its visual artists. In the Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton declared film "the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory.” The poet Antonin Artaud was also fascinated by the new medium and the possibility of a "raw cinema," in which images would be divorced from traditional ideas of representation. Writes James Magrini in Sense of Cinema, “… traditional cinema selects plots with explainable events, which follow in sequence along a linear timeline. The cinema also presents its stories by means of realistic depiction… The Surrealists find this cinematic model absolutist and oppressive because it serves as a vehicle for the subversive transmission of conformist/capitalist political values, which are insidiously conveyed by way the film’s stylized, formal structure. The Surrealists seek to subvert this ‘commercialized’ filmmaker’s model, as their interests lie in portraying the dream, not reality. Reworking the traditional aesthetic structures of the cinema, they strive to elicit the dreamer’s experience of the unconscious within the cinema-house.”

Indeed, cinema's oft-remarked kinship to dreaming would inspire several notable Surrealist artists. Artaud himself wrote one screenplay, but it was the artist photographer Man Ray who would attempt to extend his practice to cinema with several short films in the 1920s he dubbed Cinema Pur, or “pure cinema.” Inspired by Surrealism, so much so that he collaborated with one of its most famous artists, Salvador Dali, was the Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel. His first film, the 16-minute Un Chien Andalou, is an avant-garde classic, a confrontational work that jumps through time and space as it unveils a series of mysterious and sometimes sadistic scenarios. According to interviews, the film was inspired by dreams of the two filmmakers. Dali dreamed of ants pouring from his cut-open hand while Bunuel dreamed of a cloud bisecting the moon, an image that inspired the film’s most well-known shot: a razorblade slicing open a woman’s eyeball. The film’s intent was to resist all rational explanation. “Nothing symbolizes anything,” said Bunuel.

The Artist in Hollywood: Truly Surreal

Dali’s dream sequence from Hitchock’s Spellbound

Later, Surrealism’s connection to dreams and the subconscious would draw Dali to another great filmmaker — Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense hired Dali to create the dream sequences for his Spellbound. Dali’s ideas were grandiose. One would require 15 pianos hung from the ceiling, while in another scenario, remembers star Gregory Peck, “There were 400 human eyes which looked down at me from the heavy black drapes. Meanwhile a giant pair of pliers, many times my size, would appear and then I was supposed to chase him, or it, the pliers, up the side of a pyramid where I would find a plaster-cast of Ingrid [Bergman]. Her head would crack and streams of ants would pour out of her face.” Budget concerns kept most of Dali’s ideas on the drafting table, but the film still features a surrealistic dream sequence that is considered a classic.

The Artist Makes a Spectacle of Society

Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle

Drawing its artistic and political ideas from its critique of mass media, the ‘60s Situationist movement used cinema as both an object of analysis as well as a means of expression. Founder Guy Debord, a philosopher and also filmmaker, adapted Situationism’s best-known written work, 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle, into a 1973 film that demonstrated some of the movement’s artistic practices. These included detournement, in which the mass media images of capitalism are appropriated and transformed into sardonic counterarguments that both provide a kind of radical pleasure while exposing the machinery by which society markets to us a manufactured vision of our own lives. Juxtaposing clips from feature films like Johnny Guitar with advertisements, The Battleship Potemkin with the Zapruder tape, the film is an artistic — although not ideological — precursor to the contemporary remix, or mash-up. (More accurately one can see the Situationist influence in the work of filmmakers like Bruce Connor as well as the radical pranksters The Yes Men.)  

The Artist as Film Camera

But not just moviemaking featured in Situationist practice; there was a place in Situationism for movie viewing. In one of the movement’s most beguiling concepts, that of the derive, participants are encouraged to cut loose from their habitual notions of time and scheduling and to drift through the city, randomly and unmotivated, allowing the “psychogeography” of its architecture and city plan to create a new sensory and aesthetic experience. Part of this drift can include a stop into a movie theater, as long as it is unplanned, you enter in the middle, you don’t stay to the end, and you detourne the film you’re seeing by imagining its characters are people other than who they are represented as being.

Andy Warhol: Hollywood as Subject

Andy Warhol, 1962, Marilyn Diptych

“It's the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented,” Andy Warhol is said to have once stated. “They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and how to look how to feel about it.” Appropriately, then, the 20th century artist most identified with cinema is Warhol, who not only made movies but portrayed movie stars and adopted the language of the film biz throughout his art practice. In Warhol’s silk screens, stars like Marilyn Monroe were reduced solely to their frozen images — empty signifiers in America’s commodity culture. He subverted traditional notions of fame by gathering a group of rebellious misfits, cast-off society girls, and downtown dopers and dubbing them “superstars.”

Andy Warhol: The Subject as Hollywood

Dennis Hopper Screen Test

And, cleverly, he made finished movies out of what’s traditionally discarded when the real movie begins: screen tests. Comments filmmaker Ric Burns, who studied Warhol for an American Masters bio, “They were three-minute screen tests. But they were not screen tests for anything because there was no movie that was going to be made. They were the movie. There's Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper. The list goes on and on and on. Baby Jane Holzer. Edie Sedgwick. Gerard Malanga. Everybody in the Factory, every crazy person who walked in the door. They're overcranked, which means they're shot at one speed and projected at another speed, which means they're all slightly slowed down. Slowing them down, so that you're watching someone blink, so that you can see the blink take place, are ways to make you see the object world, the real world, in a way that you wouldn't see. And what you're doing is you're watching somebody. There's no cross-cutting. There's no different camera angle. All the frame flashes and the light leaks, the accidental jerks of the camera are included in there. Why? Because he's not interested in the fiction that you and an actor and a filmmaker are typically making up in the course of making a movie. He's interested in two real things: The real thing that's before the camera and the real thing that's watching the movie.”  Recently musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips set a collection of Warhol’s Screen Tests to music. You can see Dennis Hopper’s here.

Andy Warhol: Film as Concept

Other Warhol films included the short Blow-Job — a study of a man’s face receiving oral sex — and Empire, an eight-hour study of the Empire State Building at night. His classic 1966 film Chelsea Girls gathered many of his superstars for a series of performance-oriented and psychologically charged vignettes, juxtaposed with each other by dual 16mm projection. Later, Warhol would move away from such overtly experimental works and, acting as a producer, handed the camera to Paul Morrissey, who made more narrative tales of the underground (Flesh, Trash, Heat) and, later, arty B-movie riffs on classic horror (Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein).  Summing up Warhol’s film career, critic David Bourdon wrote, “More talked about than seen, more emulated than admired, Andy Warhol's films will probably survive as legends rather than as living classics that people will want to see again and again. Currently, there is a fairly broad consensus that he is among the most important, provocative and influential filmmakers of the sixties…. to art and cinema connoisseurs.”

The Artist as Intimate Film Subject

Vito Acconci, Theme Song

Presaging the current YouTube generation, in which every element of personal biography spawns a video blog, were artists for whom film and video were mediums to explore the contradictions between the personal and the public. In conceptual artist Vito Acconci’s 1970s work, culminating in his classic The Red Tapes, the artist’s direct address to the viewer is almost uncomfortably intimate, creating a space completely other to the standard methods by which Hollywood binds the viewer to its characters. In his Theme Song, he whispers, “Of course I can't see your face. I have no idea what your face looks like. You could be anybody out there, but there's gotta be somebody watching me. Somebody who wants to come in close to me ... Come on, I'm all alone ... I'll be honest with you, O.K. I mean you'll have to believe me if I'm really honest...” The French conceptual artist Sophie Calle explored the nature of intimacy with No Sex Last Night, a quasi-documentary feature that documented her cross-country trip with an American photographer she barely knew. Constructed intimacy is also the theme of artist photographer Laurel Nakadate’s I Wanna Be Your Midlife Crisis. In this video project, Nakadate turned middle-aged pick-up artists into her art collaborators. Following this work, Nakadate has expanded into full-length narrative features, first with her Stay the Same Never Change and, last year, with The Wolf Knife. Both are sometimes painfully intense portraits of young teenage girls, their relationships and the scary world outside of their emotional bubbles.

The Artist Confronts the Film Machine

Powers of 10: Based on film by Charles and Ray Eames

Perception and science co-mingle in a singular short film directed by husband-and-wife designers, photographers, artists and filmmakers Charles and Ray Eames. Their mid-20th century American modernist furniture has never been out of style, and their films, which often explore scientific principles, are still shown in both museums and schools. Perhaps their most famous film is Powers of 10, an exploration of orders of magnitude in which the universe is depicted in escalating views, telescoping from an atomic particle to the cosmos itself. It’s a dizzying montage that has been referenced in many films, including the Coen Brothers recent Burn after Reading. Keeping the 1973 film alive for new audience is a website, Powers of 10, run by the Eames Office. Subjects ranging from nanotechnology to astronomy are covered on the site, and, recently, a contest was held for filmmakers influenced by this beautiful short. Another influential blend of art film and science is The Way Things Go, by Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss. Depicting a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of physical and chemical reactions, the short is a single, 30-minute take that is increasingly jaw-dropping, funny, and for physics students, educational. It’s another oft-referenced work — most recently by the pop group OK Go.

The Artist Takes on Moving "Pictures": Robert Longo

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

In the ‘90s, along with a slew of credit-card-clutching twentysomething first-time filmmakers inspired by Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez was another group: visual artists. Specifically, a certain brand of ‘80s art star got behind the camera in the ‘90s as not just the motion picture frame but the motion picture industry was seen as a new arena of exploration. Many of these artists hailed from what was sometimes known as the “Pictures” movement. Associated with such alternative art spaces (as Hallwalls) and galleries (as Metro Pictures) artists like Robert Longo, David Salle and Cindy Sherman, whose visual work explicitly referenced the tropes of cinema, ventured into both Hollywood and the independent world. On one level, this was not such a large step. Longo, for example, was best known for his “Men in the Cities” series of paintings depicting elegantly attired urbanites frozen in whiplash moments. The series was partially inspired by the ending of Chris Marker’s film La Jetee, and, indeed, Longo had used a still frame from the film as part of his live performance work Sound Distance of a Good Man. But beyond the visual imagery, Longo’s work dealt specifically with the relationship between culture and institutional power, referencing capital, industrial production and monumentality. So, Hollywood moviemaking became a natural interest. Longo’s foray into features was Johnny Mnemonic, a piece of pre-Matrix cyberpunk based on a William Gibson short story and starring, yes, Keanu Reeves as a kind of memory mule. Not working as an action film but also not carrying over enough of Longo’s striking sense of design and composition to satisfy his art world audience, the film was Longo’s sole venture behind the camera.

The Artist Takes on Moving "Pictures": Cindy Sherman

One of artist photographer Sherman’s most noted early works was a series called Untitled Film Stills, which feature the artist herself in a series of poses and situations that look like snaps from lost B-movies. The work is witty, mysterious and intelligently critical in its deconstruction of media-constructed female identity. So, when it came time to do a movie, Sherman selected a genre in which female identity is observed, leered at, and mutilated: the serial killer movie. Office Killer starred John Hughes leading lady Molly Ringwald in a satirical shocker recalling films like The Honeymoon Killers. The movie, however, was poorly received, leaving most critics searching for the visual wit of her photography. David Salle also faltered in his debut, adapting a Howard Korder play, Search and Destroy, a mordant satire of the film business. “Rampant cynicism is its subject, and the film itself may be an object lesson in that regard,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times.

The Artist Takes on Moving "Pictures": Julian Schnabel

Trailer for Julian Schabel’s Basquiat

Funnily then, the ‘80s art star who made the most successful transition to the big screen was Julian Schnabel — the only one of the group whose work was largely abstract, not figurative. Through his first three films — Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — he confidently portrayed the psyches of, respectively, a visual artist, a poet, and a paralyzed fashion editor and novelist.

New Artists, New Films

Doug Aitkin, Sleepwalkers

If conceptual artists’ use of film and video in the ‘70s was often raw, slyly confessional and defiantly messy (the work of Vito Acconci, for example), then today’s artists are often embracing Hollywood-level production value, not running away from it. Today, some of the most exciting contemporary art is being made by artists exploring all of the medium’s hypnotic powers. Douglas Gordon, for example, recalls Andy Warhol with his 24 Hour Psycho, in which Hitchcock’s classic is slowed down, frame-by-frame, so a single viewing takes one day. Christian Marclay’s masterful The Clock also explores filmic time — this time, literally, with a day-long installation comprised of film clips from across the history of cinema, each one referencing the exact second the viewer is watching the piece. In his Sleepwalkers, Doug Aitken created city spectacle from talking-heads drama, projecting scenes from his work on various building surfaces around the Museum of Modern Art, thereby forcing the viewer to pound the pavement to discern the entire narrative. Eve Sussman’s The Rape of the Sabine Women explores the ancient myth through a lavish video opera set in both Greek islands and Berlin airports. Denmark’s Jesper Just more explicitly references the film musical. His I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire is a stylish, Sirk-like drama set in everyday spaces (ranging from parking lots to strip clubs) in which people communicate through song. For the Berlin-based, South African artist Candice Breitz, Hollywood stars and recording artists (Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Whitney Houston) become pliable objects to be deconstructed and critically fetishized. In her Re-Animations, for example, she takes films such as Dirty Harry and Basic Instinct and edits together the sections during which the stars (Clint Eastwood, Sharon Stone) speak. The results are surprising — in each case, the pieces last only seven minutes. In an interview, Breitz said, “Warhol said that when you go to the movies it’s to see the superstars. We know who the goodies and baddies are and who’s going to fall in love with whom. What I’m doing is giving people just what they want – the essence of pure superstar. Of course, what I can’t answer is how that feels.” For her Despair, the L.A.-based artist photographer Alex Prager used an actual movie star — Bryce Dallas Howard — to explore her titular emotion in a Technicolor-drenched piece of old Hollywood suspense.

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