Visual Culture

17 Artists Share the Films That Influenced Them

Scott Indrisek
Aug 24, 2017 8:29PM

The right kind of film can stick with you for years, like a half-remembered dream. I’m still haunted by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), even though I’d be at a loss to lucidly describe its plot. (I vaguely recall a strapping Terence Stamp, who may or may not utter a word during the entire film, and who spends most of its duration seducing every single member of a nuclear family, from daughter to father).

What were some of the feature films that had a similarly impactful, unnerving, or productive influence on contemporary artists working in the medium, I wondered? We asked 17 talents to open up about the moving pictures that left a lasting mark on them, from disaster documentaries to 1970s action flicks and Swedish psychodramas.

Pauline Curnier Jardin

The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928)

Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.


Visitors to the latest Venice Biennale likely encountered Jardin’s immersive installation, resembling a psychedelic cave, in which she showcased a very unconventional take on a Catholic saint’s life. (I previously described it as “an exercise in high camp, one that includes a sort of psychedelic nude ballet and a didactic explanation of racial divisions that uses ice cream as a defining metaphor.”)

Her most compelling cinematic memory also involves a female saint. “My passion for the persona of Joan of Arc started when I symbolically made the decision to become an artist,” Jardin recalls. “I was making ‘performed movies,’ a form of expanded cinema where I was told the story of a movie on stage, performing some scenes myself and presenting others that I had previously shot, with the whole thing looking like a live editing session.

“For one of the first, I took Joan of Arc as my protagonist and as the subject through which I could dialogue with the world. When I found out that Dreyer’s masterpiece addresses a lot of my questions about Joan of Arc, but also about art in general, I decided to write my master’s thesis about this film. For Dreyer, the central question is the supernatural power of faith. In all of his works, he shows and represents that passion is determined by a particular relation to the flesh and to the body, but also by a mystical engagement with the world.

“This film is my inner sanctum. It had a magical function in my life. It operated like a kaleidoscope for me, and it taught me that masterpieces can be created out of radical oppositions: formal ones, but also philosophical and political oppositions. It taught me that a film could be sacred poetry. It’s a film cult and a cult film, a film of faces and masks, a skin-film, a totally grotesque and entirely profound movie. The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn’t end with its main subject burned. It contains a fire that will burn anyone already burning inside.”

Samuel T. Adams

The Corridor, Sharunas Bartas (1995)

Painter Adams runs a D.I.Y. screening series out of his studio. In 2017, he focused “exclusively on 16mm masterpieces” from the likes of Antonioni, Resnais, and Bresson. “About four years ago, enticed by the cinema of Béla Tarr, I started digging into Eastern European cinema,” he says, “and The Corridor was the film that ripped the lid off the rabbit hole.

“Shot in harsh black and white, entirely void of dialogue but with constant buzzing and humming on its eclectic, oozing soundtrack, the film traverses an apartment complex somewhere in freshly independent Vilnius, Lithuania. Bartas’s expression of ‘freedom’ is quite grim: The inhabitants seem to be emotionless ghosts, neither content nor dissatisfied, aimless, as if objects or meager furniture themselves, and it’s clear they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

“Occasionally something happens: Bed sheets are set aflame, a gun is fired out a window, a girl is pushed into a giant puddle repeatedly by two thugs—but essentially time is frozen. The corridor that connects these disheveled humans is a void, the corridor of a forgotten post-Soviet armpit. While this surely sounds quite bleak, and it is, this film is moving-image poetry, purely experiential, a feast for the eyes and ears, no words necessary.”

Trevor Paglen

Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)

Paglen’s next project, facilitated by the Nevada Museum of Art and titled Orbital Reflector, is a satellite that would hover above the earth, a high-tech sculpture in the sky. The artist has previously sent an intensely durable, image-based time-capsule into space. So it’s no surprise that his most notable cinematic memories take place beyond the limits of our home planet.

“Tarkovsky’s classic sci-fi film presents a distinctly ‘un-American’ vision of a journey to the cosmos,” he says. “In American mythology, space is an extension of the frontier–you go to space and plant some flags and build a colony and do some mining. It’s Nevada all over again. Solaris, based on Stanisław Lem’s literary masterpiece, is emblematic of a completely different imagination.

“Russian attitudes towards the cosmos have been strongly shaped by the work of Nikolai Fedorov, a 19th-century philosopher of what he called the ‘Common Task.’ Fedorov believed that all human activities should be organized in the service of a higher purpose. One: We should make ourselves immortal. Two: We should resurrect every human who’s ever lived. To accomplish this ‘Common Task,’ Fedorov understood that we would have to develop spaceflight. First, we’d have to go to space to collect the particles of our ancestors’ bodies that had evaporated from Earth so that we could bring them back for reconstitution.

Solaris is very much in this tradition. As the cosmonauts encounter the alien world, there are no colonies or flags or mining; instead they encounter an eerie and deeply alien landscape that is constituted of their own distorted memories and ancestries. A journey into the cosmos is a journey into one’s own self.”

Larissa Sansour

Persona, Ingmar Bergman (1966)

Swedish actress Bibi Andersson and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann on the set of Persona, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images.

Palestinian filmmaker Sansour uses sci-fi tropes to explore the intricacies of our current world; her work is currently included in “Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction,” on view at the Barbican in London through September 1st. “Ingmar Bergman was always a major inspiration,” she says. “Persona, from 1966, has influenced my own work. The film is a masterclass in acting, screenwriting, and direction, stretching filmmaking to its limits.

“The hauntingly captivating dialogue between two women, one of whom has ceased to speak, creates a psychological horror, magnified by intense close-ups, minimalist set decor, and often motionless choreography. As intimate secrets are exposed, and the personal identities of the two women slowly begin to merge, the insanity at the core of the film becomes violent and almost unbearable to witness. The abrupt cuts from stylized studio and location shots to archival footage, with images of the crucifixion and the slaughtering of a lamb, further demonstrate Bergman’s experimental conviction and confidence.”

Nina Katchadourian

Touching the Void, Kevin MacDonald (2003)

This September, a survey of the artist’s career will open at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, including a great deal of inventive photographic and video work made in a very impromptu “studio”: onboard airlines during domestic or international trips. She cites this 2003 documentary as being especially important to her. “As an extension of my long-standing obsession with true shipwreck accounts, I’ve also gotten interested in mountaineering disaster stories,” Katchadourian explains.

“Even though it’s narrated by the survivors themselves, this unforgettable film is one of the most nerve-wracking I’ve ever seen. As the story goes on, you can’t believe things can get worse—and they always do. There are some terrible mistakes: After falling off a cliff in a storm, roped together, the guy on the upper part of the rope eventually cuts the rope because he decides the guy on the lower part of the rope must be dead. He isn’t. Without revealing too much, I’ll disclose that one of the most mundane things imaginable ends up saving his life: a pop song that he hates and just can’t get out of his head. I find a lot of hope in the idea that something deeply annoying could come along in a different context and be life-saving.”

Stanya Kahn

Pink Floyd: The Wall, Alan Parker (1982)

From the campy, semi-improvised apocalyptic narrative Don’t Go Back to Sleep to Stand in the Stream, a moving film-essay on view at MoMA PS1 through September 4th, Kahn has defied labels and expectations. When asked to select a movie that had a particular impact on her life, she found herself torn between eclectic options. “Enter the Dragon, which scarred me for life after seeing it too young at age six?” she pondered.

“The Marx Brothers oeuvre that I watched in all-day marathons to beat the summer heat as a kid? Paper Moon? Young Frankenstein? The Harder They Come? Yellow Submarine? Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert with my mom at age 11? Liquid Sky at 15? Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex? Holy Mountain? Every Cassavetes film? Killer of Sheep? Born in Flames? Naked Spaces: Living is Round? Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, or Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles? The Right Way? Crystal Voyager? Pain & Gain?”

Finally, after a “panic of picking,” Kahn made a decision. “Last week, in a spontaneous pop-culture education moment on a long car ride with my 12-year-old, I played the entire record of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. He prefers Young Thug, but listened intently. I hadn’t heard the album since probably 1983. I first saw the movie at age 13, on opening night and (stupidly) on my first acid trip. Pre-dating popular music videos, but post-The Who’s Tommy, The Wall’s editing and sound design make seamless shifts between live-action and animation, between the images formed in our minds from listening to the music and the images onscreen.

“Full of existential crises—namely those that stem from the blurring of socio-political terror (for example, the rise of fascism) with personal anxiety and depression—The Wall might hold up as a perfect rock film for youth living in the nightmare of Trump times.”

Olaf Breuning

Assault on Precinct 13,  John Carpenter (1976)

Known for absurdist cartoons, over-the-top faux-travel videos, and elaborately staged photographic tableaux, Breuning fondly recalls discovering this action-flick about besieged cops decades ago in his native Switzerland. “I was around 20, and had come home late at night and turned on the TV after a wonderfully boring country-disco night,” he says. “It was playing the scene in Assault on Precinct 13, where criminal intruders were shooting the windows of the police station. And the sound! Carpenter has a very good, unique use of sound. I just stared at this scene. Over the next few months I became addicted to his movies.”

Gregor Hildebrandt

Bonjour Tristesse, Otto Preminger (1958)

Still from Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.


This German artist’s mixed-media paintings and sculptures often allude to music, using its physical remnants (cassette tape, cut vinyl records) as a medium. But he’s long been influenced by cinema, as well. “I had a profound experience when I watched this Otto Preminger film,” Hildebrandt says. “Juliette Gréco is singing the song ‘Bonjour Tristesse,’ while Jean Seberg dances–first with an admirer, and then with her father. At the end of the scene, which was initially in black and white, the film zooms into the colorful past. The voice-over thoughts of Seberg’s character overlap Gréco’s song.

“It is, for me, a perfect excerpt from the film, where several things come together in peculiar synergy. This scene was a pivotal moment for my paper works, in which I complement an image with a fragment of soundtrack. In a similar way to the admirer in the film, who can’t hear his dancing partner’s thoughts, the beholder doesn’t have access to the song present in my work.”

Julieta Aranda

Dead Man’s Letters, Konstantin Lopushansky (1986)

“This is a fairly obscure post-apocalyptic Russian science fiction film,” says Mexico City-born Aranda, an artist who develops nuanced multimedia installations and collaborative projects like the e-flux video rental program. “I watched it when I was 13 years old, at the bequest of my geography teacher at the time. This was a man to whom I gave a lot of headache–not only am I terrible at geography (because I lack a sense of orientation), but at the time I was the epitome of a problematic student. So off to the movies I went….and a different teenager walked out of the movie theater.

“I was already interested in science-fiction as a literary genre, and had thought about becoming a writer, but after this film, I decided to become a filmmaker. Clearly I am not a filmmaker now, so something happened along the way, but that is a different story. At least for the next dozen years, the memory of this film was a guiding light for me. I took pains to track a downloadable copy of it, and was afraid to watch it, as I was worried about realizing that one of my foundational works was nothing more than a coming-of-age piece (anybody that has re-read Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf in their thirties knows what I am talking about). But that fear was unfounded; the film is superb.”

Baseera Khan

Girl’s Trip, Malcolm D. Lee (2017)

For a show early in 2017 at Participant Inc. in New York, Khan presented multimedia works that explored gender and Islam, and staged a performance in which she struggled to ascend a climbing wall whose handholds were body-casts of her limbs. Her choice for a salient and influential film was rather surprising: a 2017 comedy featuring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish on a journey to New Orleans. She itemized her responses to the film as follows (Artsy isn’t responsible for any spoilers):

“Note #1: I bootlegged a copy with a laugh-track and live theater commentary.

Note #2: Grapefruits, need I say more?

Note #3: I’m wondering about the dynamics of four as a comedy routine. Aren’t there four people in a barbershop quartet?

Note #4: This film resolved itself in the patrilineal status quo, but broke said status quo with moments of real, totally believable comedic circumstance: women that risk performing against their beauty and power to reach a collective balance.

Note #5: Pee showers and ziplines in New Orleans—an example of the unexpected.

Note #6: Sister-solidarity by way of opposing teams of sisterhood fighting for the loyalty of the same man.…This is an example of what we as a creative legacy of writers, artists, and musicians have to keep pushing against, until industries allow for more meaningful narrative twists-and-turns that bend toward feminist intersectionality.”

Shana Moulton

Twin Peaks (television series), David Lynch (1990–91)

Moulton’s video art mixes lo-fi effects with fantasy and absurdity to stir unexpected emotions. She says that “although there were some films that had a massive impact, nothing was as life-changing” for her as the original Twin Peaks television series, which debuted in 1990 (followed by a film in 1992, and a Showtime reboot earlier this year).

“Growing up in a small town near Yosemite National Park, I’d had zero exposure to any contemporary art or experimental film, unless you count Fantasia or Escape to Witch Mountain. Twin Peaks aired when I was around 13 and it was the first thing to, in the words of David Foster Wallace, ‘ring my psychic cherries.’ It was my first mature contact with the sublime, and my first obsession. I expressed that obsession by scrapbooking all Twin Peaks magazine articles, collecting all associated merchandise, imagining Laura Palmer was my best friend, and making a home-video reenactment of the Black Lodge scene from the final episode. I played both Laura and BOB and directed my cousins and my little brother in the other roles. Making that home video planted the seed for my own Whispering Pines.”

Cécile B. Evans

It’s All About Love, Thomas Vinterberg (2003)

Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes in It’s All About Love. Photo by Sundance/WireImage.

“This is a wonderfully terrible movie that introduced me to my favorite genre of cinema: the unbridled follow-up film, a genre exclusively populated by men,” says Evans, whose own eclectic work has dabbled with artificial intelligence, dance performances modeled on those of North Korean performers, and a digital reanimation of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. “A director follows up on their first wildly successful film—which in Vinterberg’s case was Festen—and is suddenly gifted with budget, actors, an army of visual effects, and unrelenting support to live their genius.

“In It’s All About Love, the result is unsettling and unhinged. The film is set in the future, where Claire Danes is a Polish figure skater who is divorcing Joaquin Phoenix. She wants to retire but suspects she is being cloned, and needs Joaquin’s help. Adding to their sense of urgency, people keep dropping dead from ‘not enough love,’ and Joaquin’s brother, played by Sean Penn, has escaped to an airplane that is permanently in flight, where everyone seems to have eschewed the smoking ban.

“As a sidebar, the whole country of Uganda seems to be losing gravity, its people saying self-conscious things like ‘We’re not angels. We’re ordinary people.’ That’s just the set up. At some point in production, Vinterberg called Ingmar Bergman and asked him to help finish the film. He declined. The studio tried to bill it as sci-fi apocalyptic but Vinterberg insisted that it’s merely ‘a dream.’ It was an utter flop, and one of the best worst films about the human condition. It’s changed the way I approach my own projects and I sometimes re-watch it when I’m nervous about an idea.”

Those curious about the influence of this big-budget disaster on Evans’s own work can find her this fall at the Ural Industrial Biennal; the 7th Moscow Biennale; or the Museum Leuven, where she has a solo up through November 19th.

Tomáš Rafa

The Shop On Main Street, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos (1965)

This Slovakian artist’s powerful “New Nationalisms” (which remains on view at MoMA PS1 in New York through September 10th) presents a series of visceral documentary films tracking, among other things, the resurgence of right-wing and populist movements around the globe. When asked to suggest a movie that has inspired him, he chose this 1965 feature that the Criterion Collection dubbed a “scathing exploration of one cowardly man’s complicity in the horrors of a totalitarian regime.”

“This film had a strong influence on me,” Rafa explains. “It showed how xenophobia and fear manipulated people against the Jews during World War II, in the (first) Slovak Republic. Unfortunately, we’re witnessing a very similar attitude these days against refugees and minorities—the Roma people—in Central Europe. I’m afraid history is repeating itself.”

Sanford Biggers

Network, Sidney Lumet (1976)

Working across media, Biggers has wrought new meaning out of quilts, African iconography, and pop culture figures like Fat Albert (whom he appropriated in the form of a massive inflatable sculpture). He looks to Network, a classic drama about the world of broadcast journalism, as a “film that becomes more relevant every few years, as contemporary society echoes its satirical descent. I frequently think of the absurdity of the movie’s premise when it was released in 1976—yet how prescient it was in foreseeing televangelism, the meta-celebrity of reality TV, and the news media as a corporate and political distraction-strategy.”

Guido van der Werve

Big River Man, John Maringouin (2009)

Photo by John Maringouin. Courtesy of Lightshow Creative.

The art world is rarely seen as a bastion of physical fitness, but this Dutch artist is an exception; a 2011 performance work in New York involved him leading a 30-mile run. He cites a 2009 documentary about an epic-minded athlete as a personal favorite film.

“It’s about a Slovenian swimmer, Martin Strel, who made it his mission to swim all the big rivers in the world,” van der Werve says. “He swam the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Yangtze. The last and longest one left was the Amazon. This documentary is about him swimming that river.

“I’m not a big fan of artificial narratives in movies. To me, watching Strel swimming through beautiful nature and observing everybody involved—his relatives and guides—really moved me. They were all just there, participating in the action, because it was their sport, mission, or job; nobody was in the movie for a fake reason. The film is quite dramatic but also very funny, which in the end creates a great balance. As a performance artist who is interested in feature films that exist for a reason other than entertainment, this movie did everything right.”

Jesper Just

Un Chant d’Amour, Jean Genet (1950)

“This is a peculiarity, the only film from renowned French writer Jean Genet,” says Just, a Danish artist whose own films occasionally and adopt or subvert the tropes of mainstream cinema. “Set in a French prison, the film depicts an unorthodox homoerotic love triangle between a voyeuristic prison guard, an older Algerian prisoner and a young prisoner, without any of the three ever fully consummating their desires. One scene in particular, in which the men express their desires alone, from either side of a wall, influenced my 2013 piece Intercourses. Whereas Genet stripped his film of sound, sound became imperative in my piece to help create a sense of space and orientation, but this same longing—in which an architectural structure becomes a character, an insurmountable obstacle or conduit for repressed homosexual desire—was extremely influential to me.”

Marc Hundley

Strangers in Good Company, Cynthia Scott (1990)

“Except for one actress, everyone in the all-female cast is a non-professional, using their real name,” explains Hundley, whose romantic, earnest work often alludes to pop and folk music favorites, from the Smiths to Joni Mitchell. “This film has everything, except men!” The New York Times approvingly referred to Strangers in Good Company as a “gentle Canadian film” that “feels less like a drama than a vacation, and an outstandingly tranquil vacation at that.”

Scott Indrisek