Thursday, May 30, 2013

Modern Art Masterpieces in "Indiscreet" (1958): Highlighting the work of John Piper, Picasso and Rouault

I just saw a charming little classic romantic-comedy the other night called Indiscreet (1958) starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. 
For its incredible casting, you never hear much about it. I mean, sure it’s just another small plot movie, but it has some of the greatest stars ever in the lead. Of course, if I’m recommending classic films with Grant and Bergman, I advise Notorious all the way, but, as it is, I am here to talk about Indiscreet.
Made in 1958, Indiscreet was made during the end of the Production Code era, so the script is a little dull. Unlike the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies made a few years later, Indiscreet lacks some of the funny situations and sexual humor. But Ingrid is glowing and at the top of her form as, of all things, an award-winning actress in London and Cary is as charming and debonair as always as her American suitor. He would later say this was his favorite film to make. 

The film’s premise is based in the fact that Ingrid’s character, Anna decides to have an affair with Phillip (Grant), even though he tells her he’s married. The catch is, he’s single and the climax of the movie hinges on her reaction. It’s funny, sweet, but truly, kinda not-extraordinary. But don’t get me wrong, its stellar casting and moments of sparkling dialogue make it a nice little, non-extraordinary pleasure at that!
One of the aspects of the film that really caught my eye while watching was Anna’s apartment, which is one of the chief sets of the movies, where most of the important things go down. First off, the focal point is the sitting room, with a centered fireplace surrounded by frames of various colors. It creates this extraordinary canvas, or composition, for the action to play out in front of.
I say canvas because I feel a lot of the film is based in visual. Phillip and Anna’s affair takes them to the scenic locations of London (filmed on location) and Ingrid wears some stunning costumes throughout. The point of the picture is really to watch Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, not to follow the silly plot. It’s all about watching, even indiscreetly (!)

When you look at the set more closely though, you notice Anna’s apartment is covered wall to wall in some stunning paintings and drawings that appear to have been created by some of the finest modern artists of the time. And you wouldn’t be wrong!


According to TCM, a 1958 New York Times article claimed that the British set designers Messel and Furse lent works from Picasso, Roualt, John Piper and Raoul Dufy for the set. So, after I read this, I started examining some close-ups to see how my art history knowledge could help me identify some pieces.

I believe the framed pictures are Picasso sketches, but I’m not sure. I know a lot of Picasso sketches were used, and I think that would be the obvious place to showcase them. You never get a super clear look. There’s also one cubist portrait that could be a Picasso but I’m not sure.

At first, I thought that portrait of a woman might be a Modigliani, but now I’m not sure, what do you think? At some angles, it has the distorted look, but at others, not so much. I also think that Mother and Child painting is almost definitely a Rouault. 


One artist’s works I can identify quite easily are those of John Piper. He’s not very well known in American circles, but he was one of the foremost British Modern painters. He painted some extraordinary pictures of the bombed Canterbury Cathedral during the Second World War and he also designed stained-glass windows for the new Cathedral.


His work is actually featured quite nicely. In one scene, Anna and Phillip are walking through London, and Anna (who is obviously an art collector) spies this modern painting in the window of the Leicester Gallery (a real place, as it so happens). Cue next scene, when Phillip gives it to her. This is almost one-hundred percent a Piper. It has that iconic look of some of his later work. Don’t you think so?
Ventor, Isle of Wight

I think this painting works for multiple reasons. First, it appears to be mainly a composition, much like the set of Anna’s apartment. So in a sense, the balance of color and shape fits in such a room. Secondly, Piper was a contemporary British painter that people would have been familiar with to such a high class contemporary clientele.

I think that landscape of countryside might also be a Piper, but then again, this whole post is speculation. That fireplace painting especially, I really wish I could get a good look at it. If you know better, please let me know.



This is another instance of art being used in a movie to make the set appear more realistic and pleasant to the viewer. The examples used were contemporary modern masterpieces. How neat would it be to see the prop list for this movie? “One Picasso, One Roualt, etc.” (!) Also, the one highlighted piece of the film serves as a miniature composition for the film, a lovely balance of shape and color and movement and overall pleasant, though certainly not awe-inspiring. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pam's Painting of Dunder-Mifflin in "The Office"

I finally saw the finale of The Office last week and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Since Michael Scott left, I'll be honest, I haven't watched it, but when I heard the finale was happening, I thought, "The Office may indeed become a cultural phenomena. I don't want to miss out on this finale, lest, in a rare chance, my children ask about it." Or something like that. 

I found the finale funny, but also touching and one of the most touching moments in the whole episode was the very end. At the very end of the episode (spoiler), Pam and Jim decide that they're moving and Pam, just before she leaves the office for the last time, takes her painting of the office building off the wall. So as I watched this all go down, I decided that her painting deserved a post. And here it is. 

To start with, in The Office, over its many seasons, Pam's character changes dramatically. Whatever. But around Season 3, she decides she's going follow her dream and  become an artist and she participates in an art show. So, in this episode, "Business School," she invites all the co-workers to her show and very few come. Oscar and a friend do come, but they criticize her work and it hurts her feelings. Sad. 
Later, Michael comes to the show and he loves her collection of pleasant watercolors. So, he buys the one of the office building and hangs it up right next to the office. And when he does this, Pam gives him a big hug and is visibly touched and reassured, whilst the audience chokes back silent tears. Later, with all this confidence, she goes to art school and by the end of show, she reveals a mural of her coworkers. Just lovely. 

To get technical for a while, the painting is a small watercolor. It is a simple painting of the office exterior and the parking lot. In actuality, the building is located in Van Nuys, California. Originally, the director did not like the paintings that the crew made for Pam. So, the crew had to redo them all. And I think, they looked pretty nice and really fit the character of a slightly amateur artist. 

I loved this painting for many reasons. It's not an incredible painting and it contains no real humor. But, as Michael Scott once said, "there's a lot of beauty in ordinary things". More importantly, it creates this really touching Pam-Michael moment that  really culminated in their sad farewell when Steve Carrell left the show. 

Ironically, seasons later, the new receptionist Erin, ruins the painting during a non-existent "Pam-Erin feud." However, I think the writers decided to forget about it so that they could have this lovely visual of one of the best characters of the show, Pam physically taking something she created of the office, from the office, obviously symbolizing all the non-material things she took from her job at Dunder Mifflin. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Charles Addam's Caricature Titles in "Murder by Death" (1976): Judge a Movie by its Title

I’m going to cover another, more notable title sequence designed by Wayne Fitzgerald. It is from one of my favorite comedy movies, 1976’s Murder by Death.

Murder by Death (written by Neil Simon) has a lot of great things going for it, starting with the incredible cast which features, among others, Peter Falk, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. Of note, it also features the eccentric author, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s).


If you’ve never seen the movie- I (obviously) encourage you to find it and watch it. It’s a jab at the detectives that have appeared on screen over the years, like Nick and Nora, Sam Spade, Poirot, Miss Marple, and Charlie Chan, and pokes fun at some of the usual ploys in mysteries. It is an example of absurdist humor at its best, mixed with some excellent parodies. You’ll laugh throughout the entire film, just cause you can’t help it.


The movie begins with, what I consider to be, an incredible title sequence (I mean- if I didn’t think it was great, I wouldn’t be spending the time writing about it- right?). A gloved hand opens an ominous trunk, as some suspenseful music (composed by Dave Grusin) plays. The trunk opens, revealing a pop-up of an eerie mansion and a bunch of characters in front of it. (Does this “big reveal” remind you of anything? If should- see Auntie Mame post below. I think Wayne may have been recycling a little bit.)



The characters turn out to be beautifully rendered caricatures of the stars of the film. As the names pop up, with appropriate face, the 2-D characters’ eyes move suspiciously, albeit absurdly. It is clear that some murder, most foul is in the air.




The eeriness of the whole sequence may be due to the actual artist who created the piece. If the house looks like the Addams Family house, that’s because Addams Family creator, the great Charles Addams, designed them. Addams, a long time New Yorker cartoonist was hired to help create this title.


You really have to admit, the producers of this movie did right- didn’t they? Not only did they procure an amazingly talented cast, but they went for a top-drawer crew as well. Addam’s work has an iconic look and his notorious dark humor fits perfectly with this film that makes mirth over murder.


Need I also say, on a merely aesthetic note, that merely as portraiture, these caricatures are really great. I know that’s the point- but I feel that Addams really captured the essence of some of these actors and characters, not only their likeness.


These titles are noteworthy for a few reasons. First, their iconic artist (who also designed the movie poster) makes the work of artistic merit. Secondly, and I consider, most importantly, they fit perfectly in with the dark humor of the movie and provide the perfect tone for the film. It’s funny, for sure, but when you think about it, some parks are a little dark too. Like the film itself, the titles are quick-moving and eye-catching, signaling to the audience that what they’re about to see is going to be a fast and funny comedy.



On a housekeeping note, I’m trying to find a really great movie-piece to write a post about- so don’t worry, something will come along. All these asides-posts have been pretty easy to complete during exams time- but once they’re over- we’ll get into the deep stuff again!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Kaleidoscope Title Sequence in "Auntie Mame" (1958): Judge a Movie by its Title


Recently, I re-watched one of my favorite all-time movies. Really, the movie that made me love movies- 1958’s classic comedy, Auntie Mame. It’s one of those great film that manages to make you make you feel so happy, and uplifted and sentimental all at once.

Based on a popular play which in turn was based on a bestselling novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame tells the story of a young orphaned boy who is raised by his eccentric, albeit lovable Auntie Mame played to perfection by Rosalind Russell. Young Patrick brings fulfillment to Mame in his youth, while she teaches him how to “Live, Live, Live” and eventually rescues him from some of the most beastly, bourgeois, babbity snobs on the Eastern Seaboard. 
 
If I may, I’ll digress briefly to sing the praises of Ros Russell. Really, she was an extraordinary woman. Not only was she a talented versatile and beautifully elegant actress, she was also an exceptionally kind and caring women who was recognized over and over again for her extensive charity work. On screen, Rosalind Russell is always so vibrant and funny that it’s hard to look away. I feel today, her talents often go unappreciated and it brings me great sorrow.


But anyhow, Ros first played Mame on Broadway and she was hugely successful because the part is really the culmination of all her other roles: lovable, loud, and elegant. To begin with, Dennis’ story is hard to screw up; and perfected by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Auntie Mame easily became an eternal classic. Eventually, Warner Brothers bought the rights and produced the movie, which is equally excellent. It’s one of the lovely movies from the fifties, with glittery sets, incredible Technicolor and of course, an amazing story and cast. Everything I love about old movies is front and center in Auntie Mame.


Typical of films of the era, Auntie Mame also starts out with an incredible title sequence backed by a lush score written by Bronislau Kaper. The titles begin with the red-gloved hands of Auntie Mame offering forth a kaleidoscope.  The camera zooms to the kaleidoscope and from then on, the title play out in front of a changing, colorful kaleidoscopic background. Visually, it’s actually quite stunning.


The whole inspiration behind the title sequence is that Mame allows people to view the world from a more colorful and an exciting perspective. And what’s more colorful and exciting than a kaleidoscope. It’s a simple concept, but it really works with the theme of the film. In essence, Auntie Mame is not complicated, and nor is the title sequence.

On a practical note, the film exhibits the bold, vibrant colors that Technicolor was able to offer to movie makers of the time, giving Auntie Mame, like many films of the 50s, a beautiful, bright look that's very common in movies of the era. There was just something about technicolor that made everything look great... wasn't there?

To return to the music, I feel it adds a lot to the title sequence and the movie itself. It’s just simply rich and throughout the film, Kaper added little subtleties to it so it could fit more cleanly into the time specific time period of the film. For example, there’s really this lovely brassy, rich sound when Mame redoes her apartment in blue in the very beginning that I feel just fits the art deco, sophisticated atmosphere.


The sequence was designed by the prolific art director Wayne Fitzgerald. Wayne worked for the studios in the ‘50s and ‘60s, creating some fabulous work that was really basically unnoticed. Later on, after making some friends in high places, he ventured out on his own and continued designing great work. You’ll see more of his genius later.


More likely than not, Wayne Fitzgerald himself did not actually create the fabulous moving pieces of art; he was more likely only the designer. But I guess, he is the real genius behind the work. Once again, some faceless artist actually made the pieces we see today, immortalized forever on screen.

If you get one thing from the whole blog, understand this. The art that appears in films is truly a work of art, regardless of the medium in which it appears. Art in movies is important, even in subtle ways. Nothing is without a purpose. Title sequences like these are first visual delights. But on secondary levels, these sequences set the tone for the entire film and mentally prepare the audience for what they are about to see. In the case of Auntie Mame, the film is a colorful, vibrant, joyful piece. And just as it should be, so is the opening title sequence. 

Mame famously said, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death," and these sequences are certainly completely satisfying to the classic film fan!

Note: Title sequence clips appear in no particular order

Thursday, May 16, 2013

New Theme: Judge a Movie by its Title

Get ready, faithful readers. I'm announcing a new ongoing "series" of posts I'm going to start. I'm devoting some time to the artwork of the title sequence at the beginning of a movie. As you know, I love how titles can just set the tone for the whole film. They're a wondrous mix of art, music and words: and I can't wait to start seriously posting about them, in addition to my usual movie-art posts as well as my "Moving Pictures" series.

I've already covered a few title sequences. If you wish, enjoy my Bedknobs and Broomsticks post about the Bayeux Tapestry- inspired titles, as well as my homage to the immortal graphic artist, Saul Bass.

Out of curiosity- do you recognize my inspiration for my series title-picture?

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Murals of Parks and Recreation


For the last few years, one of my favorite shows has been NBC’s Parks and Recreation, starring Amy Poehler. I mean, that show is so darn funny, I can’t help myself. It has such an excellent cast and the humor is never old- how can you not love it? I also pride myself on watching Parks and Rec from the beginning- before it was a thing. It makes me feel pretty great about myself. It’s the little things in life- right?

If you've never lived and seen the show, it centers around the dysfunctional Parks Department in the fictional small town of Pawnee, Indiana. Led by Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), an unflappable Civil Servant, the department manages to accomplish some great things, with some great humor. I'm not going to summarize five seasons of a hit TV show on here- but my advice is to watch it as soon as possible!

Anyhow, I’ve always been so impressed by the use of art in Parks and Rec. The writers really appreciate the meaning that can go in the piece and the humor that can come out of it. Much of Parks and Rec's in absurdist, and therefore, the art that appears in the show is hysterical because it is so absurd.
 
Titled "Trading Post"
I don't know what they're trading, but all the babies around are kind of freaking me out. 
I’m not the first person to recognize the creative genius that goes in the murals that appear in Pawnee’s City Hall. At first glance, they appear to be average civil murals from the New Deal portraying historical stories about the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. But once you start looking at them- you realize how crazy and even offensive they are. The history of Pawnee apparently was full of xenophobia, bloodbaths and racial tension. Part of the humor involved with the murals is that everyone in Pawnee just takes the stories for granted, but to an outsider it’s just insane. Which is obviously, the point of the murals, but I digress.


For instance, one mural shows a seemingly happy wedding between a White woman and a Wamapoo Indian in a beautiful gazebo. But zoom out and you can see the Native Americans and the US Calvary battling it out. As Leslie Knope admits, it was beautiful until “word got out and the reception turned into a bloodbath.” Just another day in the history of Pawnee.

Some of these murals are so outrageously offensive you can hardly believe it. For instance, in one titled Pawnee Zoo, there’s a zookeeper feeding animals in cages. Except one of the cages is occupied by a Jewish man, whose ethnicity apparently puzzled the people of Pawnee. You know it’s wrong, but you can’t help yourself from laughing. How can they get away with this?? 
 
"Ice Floe"
A Pawnee woman is sent out on an ice floe for asserting her rights
I read an article about the creation of these murals. Because it’s for TV, these pieces of art have to be more than creative, they have to be created quickly and well. Which they always are.
It’s apparently a multi-step process.

The writing department gives production designer, Ian Phillips ideas about murals they want to appear in the show. He creates a rough sketch and sends it to two people in his art department, Robin Richesson and Benton Jew. They create an illustration, which Phillips must approve before he sends it to the actual artists themselves, Stan Olexiewicz and Bridget Duffy who paint the actual painting. So, their work, the work we see on the telly, is the culmination of a large group effort. For any art snobs out there, the paintings are usually painted on canvas with acrylics
"The Trial of Chief Wanapo"
The NBC website states that the Army missed twice before hitting the Chief in the shin
I’m not going to lie, some of my favorite humorous moments come from these paintings. And I feel these people should receive such credit for creating such funny pieces that just fit in with the humor of the show so well. It’s just another example of seamlessly fitting art and media together for an incredible result.

If you interested in reading a full interview with Phillips, check out http://www.fastcocreate.com/1679180/meet-the-man-behind-parks-rec-paintings-forks-in-twilight#1. Also on that site are pictures of almost all the art that’s appeared in Parks and Rec over the last couple seasons. 
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