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"Hop" into Noir.

NOTHING is created in a vacuum. For instance, the visual inspiration of Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" (1972) was influenced heavily by the caricaturist drawings of German artist George Grosz. His work has come to represent the decadent days of the Weimar Republic caught in amber. Thus, when one of my books addressed this subject, I included reproductions of Grosz's blase cabaret patrons in "The Relicts" (1921), as well as "The Ballroom" (1929), whose floozy party girl was the template for Fosse's Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli).

Sometimes, my own writing or teaching of film also can be so connected. For instance, a text I did on Charlie Chaplin and dark comedy was inspired by Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" (1937). The catalyst for Picasso's abstracted painting of death and destruction was his outrage over the German bombing of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Since this conflict was part of the motivation for Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940), I decided to do a book on the filmmaker's shifting dark comedy perspective on war in "Dictator" versus two of his other films, "Shoulder Arms" (1918) and "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947).

As for the most film-impacting American painter, from my perspective, it has to be Edward Hopper. His works have contributed to defining individual films as well as being a major factor in the formation of a genre--film noir. Indeed, a sort of Zeitgeist occurred in the 1940s between his paintings, particularly his signature work "Nighthawks" (1942, the now often-spoofed picture of three late-night cafe diners), and the birth of this new type of city-at-night genre--think Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, coupled with Hopper's striking use of light and dark.

Linking Hopper with noir is best articulated by noted film historian Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of the Screen (1981). He described an example of the genre as having "... no sense of life outside the frame; all exterior scenes are stripped of any sense of the city density and rhythm. The film's unpopulated streets, the elongated shadows, the angular buildings that guard empty space like grim sentinels, recall the eerie night-time cityscapes in the painting of Edward Hopper." Moreover, Martin Scorsese has expressed similar Hopper links to fellow director Robert Wise's noirish "The Set-Up" (1949), about boxing's shady underside.

Ironically, while Hopper painted in color (obviously), when film noir was at its zenith in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the shadowy genre inevitably was shot in black-and-white. Fittingly, Hopper was an extraordinary film and theater devotee, and sometimes used such settings for his subjects--for instance, "New York Movie" (1939). Appropriately, it was done during what is considered Hollywood's most-memorable year for classics, including "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Stagecoach," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Gunga Din," "Ninotchka," and "Young Mr. Lincoln," among others.

The image is of a bored blonde usherette leaning against the wall under a lobby light on the painting's lush right side, while the left portion of the canvas transitions into the darkened theater. Woody Allen briefly honors the painting in his "Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985). Its setting and subject reinforces the mood of Allen's film--a dejected Depression-era woman attempts a fleeting cinema escape.

Moreover, one could reverse the perspective, and say Hopper paintings are like cinema freeze-frames, in which the viewer feels he or she voyeuristically is stealing a fleeting private moment from an often isolated, forlorn individual under glass. Appropriately, one of Hopper's greatest joys was learning that film's most-voyeuristic director, Alfred Hitchcock, credited Hopper's "House by the Railroad" (1925) as the model for the "Psycho" (1960) home. Again, Hopper helps set the mood.

Given that Hopper individuals are solitary and seemingly caged without a narrative, the viewer scrambles to attempt to decode the ephemeral image, yet ironically often relates to it Thus, Hopper seems increasingly more relevant in this "Waiting for Godot" modern world. Pres. Barack Obama even had, for a time, two Hopper paintings in the Oval Office--underlining the isolation and weight of the position.

Indeed, in just finishing writing a book on how Buster Keaton so anticipated today's Theater of the Absurd mindset, I am including a reproduction of Hopper's "Automat" (1925). Painted during Keaton's heyday, Hopper's work showcases a seated image of a solitary woman in an automat who, metaphorically, is not unlike an automat's trapped-behind-glass selections. The lack of passing people, or a reflection in the painting's dark window backdrop, suggests what appears so hauntingly real might be an illusion--which also plays to Keaton's frequent use of dreams.

Simply put, Hopper is the most cinematic of painters, whose lingering sense of melancholy only increase his endless relevance to all manner of films. Indeed, Ridley Scott even credited the visual conceptualization of his science fiction "Blade Runner" (1982) to "Nighthawks." Thus, Hopper, like the movies, taps into the voyeur in us all.


Wes D. Gehring, Associate Media Editor of USA Today, is Distinguished Professor of Telecommunications at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., and the author of several books on cinema.
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Title Annotation:REEL WORLD; Edward Hopper and film noir
Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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