Edward Hopper paintings brought to life in F.I.L.M.’s screening of Shirley: Visions of Reality

By Ghada Emish ’19

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Shirley: Visions of Reality places the paintings of American painter Edward Hopper in fictional episodes that are linked to American history from 1931 to 1965. Hopper is one of America’s most effective painters, yet simplest in artistic technique. Shirley offers a meditative account of time, space and memory. This is F.I.L.M.’s third screening the semester. Art Director Hannah Schimek and Director, Writer, and Producer Gustav Deutsch,were present for a discussion after the film was shown. The screening was attended by a large audience who heartily acclaimed the film. 

The idea for the film first came to Deutsch when he viewed an exhibit of Hopper’s works and was struck by how the juxtaposed paintings could function as different scenes of the same narrative that is embedded in American history. 

The music, costumes and popular literature in the film represent the time period when the paintings were finished. Yet the main focus of the film is not the historical events themselves, but the life of one protagonist. This embodies the idea that “history is made up of private stories,” in Deutsch’s words.

Deutsch found the openness of Hopper’s works to “personal interpretation” to be “most striking.” It is as if Hopper himself intended for his art to be part of everybody’s stories. Hopper’s paintings are so minimalistic that they could pass as recollections of memory. Also, Hopper’s subjects “are not very communicative,” said Deutsch. He demonstrates that Hopper’s works can be so much more than fixed moments with no apparent temporal or spatial context by linking the images to self-reflections, intimate confessions and findings, worry, fear and critical decisions. Shirley brings to life the sounds as “the possibility to the images Hopper created,” said Deutsch. 

Time is illustrated through the different notions on the protagonist’s mind. Shirley portrays the intimate yet sometimes fleeting experience people have while viewing paintings. We wonder what was on the artist’s mind, why he made the choices he made in the visual composition, what his characters could be thinking, what their stories are and, if they are on a vehicle, where they are coming from and going to.

Deutsch uses Hopper’s painting “Chair Car” (1965) to portray the journey of the train as emblematic of the passage of time. On the train, we hear the sound of the railroad and the whistle of the train and see the motion of the shadows during the day, all of which indicate the forward movement of the train. This journey, mandated by a certain space and time, joins us with other passengers who are “so close yet so far away,” in the main character’s words. They are strangers, sitting very close by, with whom we only spend a short period of time. They come from different places and head to different destinations.

The tangibility of space is clear in aspects other than things we can actually touch. For instance, the street sounds that penetrate a room when we open a window. We hear footsteps of strangers, trains, cars, thunder, rain pouring, people laughing and chatting, all of which interfere with our own experience of space and time. We get into the subject’s head, we hear her thoughts, which are inseparable from her experience in that particular moment and place.

Deutsch is greatly applauded for paying close attention to the details of the film scenes, the setting of which are Hopper’s paintings, yet retaining the quality and texture of the original paintings and allowing the narrative to be fully expressed. Schimek reflected on the importance of achieving the right amount of light on set, which involved no digital interference during post-production, to recreate the visual experience in Hopper’s paintings. She would go to museums with a color scale to view Hopper’s paintings, but it was difficult to “trust one’s eyes,” in her words, because depending on the lighting installed in museums, sometimes the original color tones used in the paintings were not quite accurately reflected. 

In Shirley, Deutsch demonstrates that although Hopper’s paintings seem muted, they can be greatly insightful if we have the patience to contemplate them. Everybody experiences the emotions expressed in Shirley by its protagonist on a daily basis, which makes them beautifully relatable. 

Thus, Shirley demonstrates the influence paintings have on us as viewers. Further, this influence is definitely eternal, as paintings such as Hopper’s become an integral part of our own stories and experiences. This makes viewing paintings a deeply personal experience. 

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