Shirley – Visions of Reality
In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman offered a typically pugnacious definition of the difference between a director and a cinematographer: “You say to your cinematographer, ‘I want this to look like a Hopper painting’, and you pray he can do it.” The choice of Edward Hopper – presumably he’s not referring to Dennis – is telling. The late Observer film critic Philip French described Hopper’s paintings as “stills from a movie we can’t quite remember”, so it’s remarkable that it took until 2013 for someone to make those stills into a movie. That movie is Gustav Deutsch’s Shirley: Visions of Reality, released in the UK for the first time on Blu-Ray from Montage Pictures.
The relationship between Hopper and cinema is intriguingly circular. In 1942, he was inspired to create his most famous painting Nighthawks by reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. Four years later, when Robert Siodmak adapted the story into a film, Hopper’s paintings were used as a key visual influence. Cinema loved Hopper because Hopper loved cinema. One of the thirteen paintings used as sources for Shirley is New York Movie 1939, a portrait of a cinema foyer so lovingly detailed that biographers have managed to name the film being projected – Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon.
So Deutsch shows off his knowledge by excerpting Capra’s film in his recreation of New York Movie 1939, but Shirley is more than a collection of Hopper trivia. He creates a narrative to connect the thirteen paintings he stages involving the title character, an actress trying to maintain her idealism throughout the traumas of World War II and the Red Scare. The latter is described in voiceover by Shirley in language that wouldn’t sound jarring in a George A Romero movie – a plague of hate and fear infecting ordinary Americans.
Deutsch is hardly the first director to intuit that Hopper’s paintings say something meaningful about post-War America – Wim Wenders used Hopper-inspired imagery for much the same reason in The End of Violence. But Deutsch takes the connection further. Each of his scenes are set in the same year the paintings they were inspired by were completed, and are ushered in with a news broadcast. Sometimes those broadcasts are absurdly trivial – one of them records the vital story of Mussolini failing to decide what the new Italian national anthem should be – and none of them seem to capture the spirit of the age as well as Hopper’s imagery does. The meaning of the film’s subtitle becomes clear: if you want a vision of American reality between the 1930s and 1960s, forget the news. Look at the paintings instead.
At one point Shirley thinks back to her theatre colleagues, in particular a writer called Clifford. Theatre buffs will quickly work out who she’s talking about: Clifford Odets, the left-wing playwright whose disillusioning stay in Hollywood inspired the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. Deutsch sometimes uses Shirley’s story to think through the same issue of art versus entertainment. Hopper’s paintings are hymns to ordinary, unpretentious American life, but they carry a weight and insight that can’t be dismissed. The fact that Deutsch is Austrian also adds some critical distance to the film’s portrayal of Americana. In an early scene she sits reading a brochure of entertainment options in a French hotel, wondering why “the dancing is in English”. The charming little flourish of jazz that follows her comment provides the answer: for better or worse, entertainment is an American industry now.
Not all of the music is as successfully integrated. The songs by David Sylvian are pretty enough in their own right, but undermine the painstakingly established period mood. A Lynchian break in reality half an hour in also feels extraneous. When you’re watching a modern film that has painted backdrops, you’re already aware of the artificial elements – you don’t need them underlining. Mostly, though, Shirley: Visions of Reality compellingly maintains its own sealed-off world. It’s also an unintentional rebuke to William Goldman. A lot of the credit for its successful recreation of Hopper’s world must go to cinematographer Jerzy Palacz’s colourful, shadowy images, as well as the note-perfect set design and costumes. But the insight and skill with which Deutsch dramatises and contextualises the paintings shows he’s doing far more than just praying Palacz can pull it off.