Before it’s anything else, film is a visual medium. So it makes sense that film directors might try their hand at other visual media, and sometimes very successfully.
Before he became a film director, Stanley Kubrick was a photojournalist. Before he became a film director, Steve McQueen was a video artist. Before he became a film director, Julian Schnabel was a painter. Painting remains what he’s primarily known for, actually. But that’s the point: There’s a lot more back-and-forth between film and other visual media than you might think.
In 1948, Kubrick took this photograph of a scientific researcher. It ran in Look magazine.
Might it have been somewhere in the back of Kubrick’s mind when he made “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)?
What prompts these thoughts is the announcement that this September Anthology Editions will publish Jim Jarmusch’s “Some Collages.” Jarmusch is the director of such distinctive, deadpan, and decidedly offbeat films as “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), “Mystery Train” (1989), “Broken Flowers” (2005), and “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013). The collages are also distinctive, deadpan, and decidedly offbeat. To make them, Jarmusch layers newsprint on buff-colored card stock, with generous borders. The collages are notecard size. In film terms, they’re shorts rather than features.
Can any connection or resemblance be discerned between Jarmusch films and Jarmusch collages? Well, both are visually simple and unadorned, and display a matter-of-fact taste for the surreal.
The connection between media for McQueen — “12 Years a Slave” (2013), “Small Axe” (2020) — is more direct, video art differing from feature films far less in kind than degree (running time, reliance on narrative). The connection for Marjane Satrapi is more direct still, or at least it is for her first and best-known film, “Persepolis” (2007). That animated feature is based on Satrapi’s graphic-book memoir, from which the film derives its gray-black look. Her 2011 feature, “Chicken With Plums,” is an adaptation of her graphic novel of the same title. But it’s live action, so there’s nothing like as strong a visual resemblance.
With David Lynch, it’s more a matter of affinity than connection. Lynch studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and he’s continued to paint. Anyone who’s seen “Blue Velvet” (1986) knows how painterly Lynch’s films can be. He’s less interested in his characters than in the tableaux he can put them in. Lynch’s movies are like no one else’s, but his paintings are. Francis Bacon strongly influenced him as a student, as did Surrealism. His recent painting recalls ‘80s Neo-expressionism.
Which brings us back to Schnabel, one of the chief Neo-expressionists. Where Lynch is a filmmaker who paints, Schnabel is a painter who makes films. The two vocations come together in Schnabel’s most recent feature, “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018). Willem Dafoe plays Vincent van Gogh. There is a long, and generally soggy, tradition of filmmakers making films about … filmmakers. (Fellini’s “8½” is an exception that proves the rule of sogginess.) Here we have a painter making a film about … a painter.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.