J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Deutsch at AFA: Shirley—Visions of Reality

In the interests of full disclosure and saving potentially disappointed viewers’ time, one particular Edward Hopper painting Gustav Deutsch does not recreate in his avant-garde tribute is the one many people will most want to see: The Nighthawks. Evidently, that would be too obvious. You will not see Automat or Chop Suey either, but Deutsch and his design team do justice to New York Movie, perhaps the most iconic painting represented in Shirley—Visions of Reality (trailer here), which screens as part of Show & Tell: Gustav Deutsch at the Anthology Film Archives.

Shirley opens with the title character traveling through Europe, bathed in the warm glow of Hopper’s Chair Car. She will soon return to America, where over the coming decades she will join and quit several radical theater groups, fret over McCarthyism, protest for civil rights, work a variety of odd jobs, and wrestle with depression. Each scene is practically a frozen tableaux accompanied by the woman’s voice-over monologues.

Serving as his own production designer and editor, Deutsch has created some absolutely gorgeous images. The film is a true triumph of set decoration, costuming, and lighting. There is good reason why key scenic artist-head painter Hanna Schimek is credited immediately following Deutsch.  Nor can cinematographer Jerzy Palcz’s contributions be overstated.

Unfortunately, as arresting as the visuals are, the title character’s dramatic ruminations are nearly as tedious. (Her vitriol directed at Elia Kazan is also misguided, but predictable.) Frankly, the film would probably work just as well or better relying solely on ambient noise and era-appropriate musical selections. However, it must be conceded the use of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” with A Woman in the Sun was rather inspired.

It is hard to really evaluate Stephanie Cumming’s lead performance, because she and her most prominent co-star Christoph Bach are more like props than thespians. Nevertheless, her voice-overs are more anesthetizing than stimulating. In contrast, Rutger Hauer and Michael York contributed legitimate, intriguing performances to The Mill and the Cross, Lech Majewski’s cinematic adaptation of Bruegel’s painting The Way to Cavalry, the most obvious cinematic comparison.

It is all lovely to look at, but Shirley’s ever-so-deliberate pace is more closely akin to video installation art than sit-down cinema. Nevertheless, it is an accomplishment in design craft. Recommended for Hopper fans who appreciate films light on narrative and heavy on mood, Shirley—Visions of Reality screens this Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (7/12-7/14) at the Anthology Film Archives.

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