Blink or you’ll miss it! Art in film has been an integral element in injecting meaning and aesthetic into film scenes. Art can foreshadow events in a film, interpret meaning, character motivations, and in general, shape why the film is taking place. Although cinema can be considered mass art, the incorporation of paintings has shaped the meaning of several films, including Stanley Kubrick’s, A Clockwork Orange (1971), Irish hitman film, In Bruges (2008), and surprisingly, cult slasher flick, American Psycho (2000).
German artist, Martin Cole, has hailed the work of production designers who are able to include art in the background of the shot. In an interview with The Creators, Cole stated that in film, “it is important to isolate art as if it would be situated in a gallery.” Cole’s sentiment has been echoed by filmmakers, especially in the modern era of cinema, as there has been a lot more focus on art and its meanings. Cinema has relied on art to help audiences understand things more clearly when filmmakers are deliberately ambiguous, for example, Michael Antonioni using unclear storytelling and character behaviours in his 1966 art house drama, Blow-Up.
Art has been an invaluable resource to what we see and why we see it. In order to analyse a film, we must look beyond what is happening on the screen, and in the words of American Beauty (2000), “look closer”.
Film: In Bruges (2008)
When Ray is begrudgingly dragged to the Groeningemuseum in Bruges by his partner in crime, Ken, you can be quick to miss his observation of Boschs’s, The Last Judgement. Because of his indifference to the painting, the audience is made to ignore this integral element of the plot. Ray, an exiled hit man after an unfortunate shooting involving a child victim, is sent to Bruges on a “final holiday” before his attempted assassination by his boss, Cockney loud mouth, Harry. Bosch’s painting is extremely important in this film as it highlights the repentance of sin and morality, hence its title. As Harry and Ray both sacrifice themselves after their heinous crimes, the meaning of the painting is brought into strong focus.
Film: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Filmed during the infamous museum hooky scene, Cameron’s observation of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is crucial in understanding his mental psyche and understanding of the world. Cameron, a secondary character to the titular Ferris, is a clinically depressed and surprisingly cynical high school student who is dragged, literally and figuratively by his friends through life. In a moment of deserved isolation, Cameron is able to observe and immerse himself in Seurat’s famous oil painting. Set in a crowd of different people, it reflects on Cameron’s ambitions to find his place in the world. The painting allows him to reflect on his character and how he become so isolated from everyone around him. Senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eleanor Harvey, has stated the “encounter with the painting gives him [Cameron], the courage to understand that he can stand up for himself”. Indeed, this painting was extremely important for Cameron’s character development and scene where he is finally able to confront his friends for their troubling behaviour.
Film: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Infused with ultra violence and sexual aggression, Stanley Kubrick’s 1971, A Clockwork Orange has been marred with controversy since its inception. Alex and his band of “droogs” terrorise London through disturbing and flamboyant attacks including rape and murder. In the infamous “Cat Lady” scene where a woman is sexually assaulted, Kubrick incorporates phallic artworks by brothers Herman and Cornelius Makkink. The latter brother’s untitled paintings of women in compromising positions, inspired by late 60s soft-core pornography highlight the characters’ feelings about women and how they are only seen as sex objects. These compromising positions, along with the expressions of pain, also show that the characters’ have no remorse for their disgusting actions and illustrate the hurt they have caused to those they have abused. The Rocking Machine by Herman Mankkik, featured prominently in this scene, show that Alex and “the droogs” have a very phallic way of thinking and are driven by their desire for sex.
American Psycho. Image via Lionsgate Films
Film: American Psycho
Set amongst the backdrop of Patrick Bateman’s lavish New York apartment, Robert Longo’s untitled piece from his Men in the Cities series is an unsuspecting explanation to Bateman’s violent behaviour. This black and white portrayal of a man in a business suit with an eerily contorted body visually portrays Bateman’s twisted mind. This painting, featured during Bateman’s nefarious murder of his colleague, Paul Allen, emphasises Bateman’s madness and inability to feel any remorse for his lurid actions. Furthermore, it has strong importance in showing Bateman’s desire to be upper class. As the paintings are high art, they show Bateman’s need to have the best of everything and ultimately, be the best in everything. Director Mary Harron stated that “the design had to be upscale, because Patrick would have had a decorator. And of course, the art in the apartment is much hipper than Bateman, elaborating further on Bateman’s superficiality.
– Olivia De Zilva