Photography Art Cinema. Revisited
by Torsten Scheid, FilmDienst 3/2006, page 11-13
Stay expands a traditional connection through new facets
Interwoven between the media of photography and film is a veritable mesh-work of technical, motific, metaphorical and personal interrelationships. Extending from photo-film which, as in La Jetée by Chris Marker (France, 1962) is a montage of single, unmoving photographs all the way to the portrayal of photographic motifs in Hollywood cinema―most recently in Memento (USA, 2000) and One hour photo (USA, 2002)―is the range of filmic-photographic interactions on the one hand, and from the adaption of modes of cinematic production to the imitation of film stills on the other. For instance, with the legendary Untitled Film Stills (1978) of the American artist Cindy Sherman, who later made her debut as a film director with Office Killer (USA, 1997) and thereby, like many others, changed sides: Wim Wenders, Robert Frank and Larry Clark are doubtlessly the most successful of these photographic-filmic border crossers. This brief survey provides only a vague indication of the dimensions of this intermedial field, which in fact extends much further and is constantly being cultivated.
Also as a motif in film, photography has experienced a historical transformation: Photographers were once considered to be technicians who mastered a craft but never achieved the status of artists. Photographer-figures were caught in the allure of beautiful appearance, incapable of penetrating to the actual essence of things. Such depth was reserved for literature or painting. When photography in film touched upon the sphere of art, then most often as its contrasting model, as the metaphor for a superficial access to the world. Coming to mind are Fred Astaire as a singing fashion photographer in Stanley Donen’s musical film Funny Face (USA, 1957), or the restless lifestyle-photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s genre-classic Blow up (GB, 1966). For the doubting Thomas, only that exists which can be photographed. He ultimately enters the world of fantasy and thereby the field of art only unwillingly, when he becomes entangled in the world of his images. The last of his detail-enlargements shows only the photographic grain and has lost all connection to reality. The photograph looks as if it had been painted by Bill, the painter who is both friend and antagonist to the protagonist.
Photography as Art
It was first around the end of the last century that numerous filmmakers discovered photography as a genuine art form. In The Bridges of Madison County (USA, 1995) a sensitive Clint Eastwood stands, camera in hand, on the threshold of artistic status, and in Smoke (USA, 1994) a tobacco merchant ripens into a philosopher through his involvement in photography. Finally, in John Water’s parody of the art market, Pecker (USA, 1998), a provincial tom-fool is hyped into celebrated stardom amid the New York art scene because of his blurred snapshots. This film about a postmodern Kaspar Hauser in photographic art (with clear parallels to Richard Billingham, the British shooting star of the nineteen-nineties), not only takes into account the exponentially expanded significance of photography in the art market, but also attributes to photography an extreme degree of conformity to the “operating system” of the visual arts. This admittedly ironic equation of photography and the visual arts is new. It is repeated with much more earnestness in Lisa Chollondencko’s High Art (USA) from the same year. Artistic photography has finally become established in a cinematic context.
Stay (USA, 2005) could have fitted in seamlessly here. Considering that the films High Art and Pecker establish photography as an ideal art form at the end of the millennium, director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) takes a step backward; he revives an anti-technical, intuitive concept of art, including the customary clichés about madness and genius. This choice documents less an anachronistic notion of art (especially considering that painting is currently experiencing a Renaissance) than instead the appraisal that paintings are more suitable for representing the free objectification of the mind. Stay is not an artist-film but rather a psycho-thriller in which the borders between dream and reality become blurred.
The psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) has saved his girlfriend, the artist Lila (played by Naomi Watts) from committing suicide. Now he is attempting to keep another patient, the art student Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling) from killing himself, but succumbs in that endeavor more and more to a whirlpool of inexplicable events. Any further words would already be interpretation and would reduce the significatory potential of the film. The film is loaded with meaning down to the tiniest details―including the notoriously short pants of the protagonist―or it willingly offers itself as a projection screen for speculations. Line-crossings, subjective camera-views of utterly strange figures, and pan-shots in which space and time shift abruptly all serve to confuse the viewer. One scene switches with no transition into paper photography; other scenes hesitate, repeat themselves. The temporal continuum of the film is caught in loops. Figures merge into each other. Miracles occur: blind people regain their sight, the dead are reawakened to life. If it is the continuity of events which distinguishes dream from reality, then everything which the psychiatrist Sam experiences is a dream.
t is precisely here, in this intermediate world of imagination and reality, that the film brings paintings into play, and with them the Polaroid photographs of Stefanie Schneider. For even if the paintress Lila drips paint all over herself in the film, in fact her paintings are without exception based on photographic models which―thanks to modern technology―have been printed onto canvas.
Stefanie Schneider’s vague and evanescent Polaroids work towards a painterly impact. The artist, who resides alternately in Berlin and Los Angeles, exclusively uses out-of-date film material. She takes into account chance occurrence, the scarcely predictable waywardness of damaged emulsions. Her associative Polaroids portray a bizarre, film-like world which further enhances the irrealism of Stay. Independently of each other, but not without reason, both Marc Forster and Stefanie Schneider are repeatedly compared with David Lynch. Stranger than Paradise is the title of Schneider’s new photographic volume which, punctually with the start of the film, has been published by Hatje Cantz. The title borrowed from Jim Jarmusch is no accident: Cinema, not artistic photography, is the world from which the former cutter draws her visual models. And whoever has carefully studied the jazzy photographer of her series 29 Palms, CA can recognize beneath the orange-red wigs the cinematic actress Radha Mitchell (Finding Neverland, High Art).
A few motifs from this series, which was presented in an extensive edition by the Lumas gallery, are already sold out. The popularity of the artist is rising. But even if Schneider’s gallery makes this claim, her photography does not in fact play a major role in the film Stay. Instead the presence of the Polaroid photographs onscreen is limited to short photographic sequences, to the―admittedly magical―end credits, and to a few paintings on the set. It is precisely here at the periphery, on the symbolical level, however, that the film unfolds its central meaning―for example, when in Lila’s studio photographs of walruses may be seen, a motif which is familiar to the viewer from a previous scene with the art student Henry. In this new context, the images acquire an impact like the visualization of a strange memory. The pictures do not seem to belong to Lila and already anticipate in an allusive manner the peculiar transformation which her paintings undergo at the end of the film.
The overlapping of the protagonists has a correspondence in the interpenetration of inner and outer worlds: In another scene, in which Henry visits a table-dance bar, there is a photographic sequence. The flood of sharply highlighted, ever-changing images cannot be unambiguously situated, however. On the one hand, it can be read as a projection in the depicted space; and on the other hand, it presents itself as the stream of consciousness of the protagonist, whose blurred scraps of memory it portrays.
Art as Key
The photographs do not function in Stay as props for the plot, but instead they are metaphors for the interpenetration of dream and reality. They are not so much motifs as rather means of representation. On the one hand, they are almost seamlessly integrated into the portrayal, but on the other hand―as works of art―they play a key role in the reception of the film. Whoever considers the cinema to be simply an escapist pleasure must have the impression, with regard to Stay, of being in the wrong film. Stay repudiates all expectations regarding genre and demands a fundamental shift of attitude. One can argue about whether this claim is justified, but the film demands to be viewed as a work of art. Not in the sense of contemplative immersion, but in terms of an active reception. Meaning cannot be derived directly from the film. Meaning is an addition made by the viewer. If Stay has a special message, then it is this: Everyone constructs his or her own film. In fact, in Stay there is a short scene which takes place in the art academy and may be understood as an interpretative instruction. On the basis of a painting, the professor offers a lesson which can be expressed in two simple formulas. First, everything is significant. And second, everything is somehow connected with everything else. The individual elements of the film must be decoded and set into relationship with each other.
After the Film is Before the Film
With director Marc Forster and photographic artist Stefanie Schneider, two coequal partners are at work. The photographer brings her style-generating aesthetic into the cinematic representation. She appears as the author of her images, not as the executor of instructions from the director. This status is also evident in the participation of the artist in the press conference and in the fact that the premiere party took place in Stefanie Schneider’s gallery Lumas. Whoever came early or stayed late could here take an unobstructed look at the pictures and review the film at leisure. With regard to the photographs, one is inclined to see the film a second time. But also in the retrospective photographs after the film, the puzzle-game continues. “This is the way it was,” each photograph seems to say. But were things really that way? In fact, the poetically blurred Polaroid photographs do not provide a documentation, but rather an interpretation of the film from an artistic perspective which is lost in reverie. On the one hand, they make selections from the cinematic plot, and on the other hand, they transcend these happenings.
The film photos become autonomous and make reference, not to filmic “facts,” but to other possibilities―to that which might have been, to the inherent fictionality of the film.