One art form “borrowing” from another is nothing new, whether it be an homage or a rip-off. In film, for example, a filmmaker might mime something from another visual art (typically painting) to make a point. Here’s some examples (which are interesting in their own right but really a set-up for an obscure one)…
Robert Altman did it in M*A*S*H (above) for the sake of irony. An army dentist prepares to kill himself and his buddies have a send-off dinner. They ask the army priest to deliver the last rites, and he arrives just in time to see the party inadvertently strike a famous pose. (By the way, his reaction shot is the icing on the cake.) 1
Terry Gilliam was both funny and literal in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: the dinner-time arrival of the goddess Venus recreates Botticelli’s painting, the humorous implication being that this is how she comes to dinner daily.
Ken Russell’s recurring theme of blurring fantasy and reality is key to his use of Fuseli’s The Nightmare in Gothic, his version of the circumstances behind the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In real life, she claimed that her book was born out of a nightmare she had. Russell visually represents it, asking, in a sense, was that nightmare caused by the demon on her chest? 2
Director Herbert Ross and writer Dennis Potter’s depression-era Pennies from Heaven has a mood so similar to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, it made perfect sense to see Potter’s characters momentarily become the painting. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve yet to see if this homage is in the original BBC version.)
The source materials for all the images above are very famous to begin with, common images in the popular consciousness. Sometimes, however, the filmmaker doesn’t hit you over the head with the reference; sometimes the inspiration is not as well known. For example, George Cukor had keen appreciation for the grace of Degas’s Dancers Lace Their Shoes, which he used as the inspiration for a Cinemascope tableau early in A Star is Born, throwing in a gruff stagehand to modernize it. This shot does little more than establish the backstage mood at a live event, but it sure looks gorgeous on the big screen.
Here’s my favorite reference in a film. I came to this backward, meaning when I saw the film I had no idea what it was referencing. However, in this post I’ll unfold the information in real chronological order.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was published in 1937, and his tale of the doomed Lennie and George immediately entered the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, photographer Dorothea Lange was in the midst of documenting the day-to-day plight of migrant workers and other victims of the Depression (her most famous photograph is Migrant Mother) and took this picture, which she called Toward Los Angeles, California.
Two years later, Lewis Milestone directed the first film based on Of Mice and Men, starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie. This scene is very early in the film; in fact, it isn’t in the book (it occurs a few hours before Steinbeck’s first chapter). George and Lennie, on their way to a workranch, get off of a bus, being told by a dismissive driver that their destination is “just a stretch down the road.”
Like I said, I came to this in reverse: I saw the film in grade school and a few times after that on TV, and then, about ten years later, in some trendy boutique in the Village, I came across Lange’s picture on a rack of postcards. I experienced major déjà vu, and it took me months to recollect where I had first seen it.
I think Milestone’s allusion to Lange is way more sophisticated than the others listed above. All the others have their merits and fit into the filmmakers’ purpose, so they’re perfectly fine (Hell, this isn’t a competition). But Milestone referenced a largely-unknown photo that was only two years old. (As opposed to the others who were sometimes reaching across centuries.)
The film uses Lange’s image as a way of infusing some topical documentary into the narrative, but I think it runs deeper, a kind of mixed-media mind meld. Even though Steinbeck and Lange were contemporaries using their respective skills to chronicle the times, in 1937 Steinbeck was the more famous of the two. It isn’t a far reach to think that Lange imagined Lennie and George when she took her picture a month after the book’s publication. (That’s the cover to the first edition to the left, with artwork depicting–you guessed it–two guys walking down a road.) And then Milestone’s appropriation posits a possible back story to Lange’s photograph (especially since he staged it so the scene/shot would resolve with the recreation of her Toward Los Angeles, California).
I’m spelling this out explicitly because in 1940 when John Ford directed his film of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he and Director of Photography Gregg Toland also borrowed imagery from Lange and photographs taken by the WPA—and that artistic give-and-take has been fastidiously chronicled. You can’t read five sentences about Ford’s film without the writer going on about that. Look, I dig it and all, but I’ve never read anywhere that director Lewis Milestone did it, too—a year before John Ford did!
Yeah, I’ll admit it: as much as I love Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve always had a soft spot for Milestone’s Of Mice and Men. The cast is exceptional; the filmmaking both technically sophisticated 3 and elegantly simple; and Aaron Copeland’s original score is pretty damn brilliant. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and Netflix it. (And fer Christ’s sake, stay clear of the 1992 Sinise/Malkovich version, unless you want to see the oxymoron of all oxymorons: Malkovich’s thinking man’s Lennie. Yeesh…)
BACK TO POST 1 Thanks to Altman’s love of gritty cinematography, it’s hard to truly appreciate the amount of detail in this frame grab—and all of its humor. This production still, although from a slightly different angle, reveals two particularly nice touches: the shape of the tent’s wall-of-gauze creates a marvelous frame-within-the frame, and the red cross on the top of the tent is an extra allusion to religion.
BACK TO POST 2 Ken Russell’s work does not lend itself to extreme simplification, and odds are I’ve misrepresented his intent with his use of Fuseli’s painting. My apologies to the Russell fans out there, especially to Michael Worrall, an old friend who helped me considerably with this post.
BACK TO POST 3 If you want to see something really cool, check out this clip, which is a slightly longer version of the clip above. It includes George’s conversation with the bus driver, half of which is shot on a soundstage. After the insert shot of the bus driver’s foot on the brake, it cuts back to the conversation, only now the actors are in a real bus. It’s really cool; in fact, if I hadn’t pointed it out, I wonder if you would have noticed it?