13 of Edward Hopper’s paintings are brought alive by a film, telling the story of a woman, whose thoughts, emotions and contemplations lets us observe an era in American history. Similar to tableaus vivants—a popular theatrical entertainment of the 19th century—the people depicted in Hopper’s paintings become the protagonists in mini-dramas. The “snapshots” of the paintings are extended to a period of six minutes either before or after the events shown. The film shows the episodes – and Hopper’s reconstructed painting – chronologically over the course of one fictive day and night.
The illusionary paintings and colour concepts are by Hanna Schimek.
Shirley is a woman in America in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s. A woman who would like to influence the course of history with her professional and socio-political involvement. A woman who does not accept the reality of the Depression years, WWII, the McCarthy era, race conflicts and civil rights campaigns as given but rather as generated and adjustable. A woman whose work as an actress has familiarised her with the staging of reality, the questioning and shaping of it; an actress who doesn’t identify her purpose and future with that of solo success or stardom but who strives to give social potency to theatre as part of a collective. A woman who cannot identify with the traditional role model of a wife yet longs to have a life partner. A woman who does not compromise in moments of professional crisis and is not afraid to take on menial jobs to secure her livelihood. A woman who in a moment of private crisis decides to stick with her partner and puts her own professional interest on the back burner. A woman who is infuriated by political repression yet not driven to despair, and who has nothing but disdain for betrayal.
Shirley – Visions of Reality (Trailer)
As the starting point for this film, which has at its heart the staging of reality and the dialogue of painting and film, I selected Edward Hopper’s picturesque oeuvre, which on the one hand was influenced by film noir – in his choice of lighting, subject and framing as seen in paintings such as Night Windows (1938), Office at Night (1940), Room in New York (1932) and his irect references to cinema such as in New York Movie (1939) and Intermission (1963) – and on the other hand influenced filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders.
Based on my conviction that history is made up of personal stories and influenced by my reading of John Dos Pasos’ USA novel trilogy in which the life stories and destinies of a few are representative of the wider public and social and cultural history of America, I have chosen an actress as the film’s protagonist – Shirley – through whose reflective and contemplative inner monologues we experience America from the beginning of the 1930’s through to the mid-1960’s.
Here we have three decades, which have seen great upheavals at all levels – political, social and cultural – that have changed the country and its people forever: Pearl Harbour and WWII, the atomic bomb and the “conquest of space”, McCarthy and the Cold War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the start of the Vietnam War, Duke Ellington and the big band swing, Billie Holiday and the Southern blues, Elvis Presley and the rock n’ roll, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the protest song, The Group Theatre, The Living Theatre, Method Acting, The Actor’s Studio and its affiliated movie stars such as Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, the Stock Market Crash, the Depression, Fordism and Interstate Highways, race riots and the Ku-Klux-Klan, the March on Washington and Martin Luther King. These events, names and legends, which are inscribed into our collective memory, evoke images and moods. Shirley experiences and reflects all this as a committed and emancipated actress with left-leaning politics. She enjoys jazz, listening to the radio and going out and loves film. She is a woman with strong opinions and both feet on the ground, even during times of personal or professional crisis. She is attractive, charismatic and likes to play outsider roles such as that of the prostitute Francie in Sydney Kingsley’s play Dead End. Besides art, she is also interested in socio-political issues. As an ensemble member of the Group Theatre and Living Theatre she combines art with her socio-political involvement.
While Shirley and her partner Stephen, a photojournalist for the New York Post, share an apartment on only two occasions during these three decades, their private and professional lives are deeply connected: unemployment as a result of the Depression, disappointment after the betrayal of Group Theatre members in front of the McCarthy committee, repressions as a result of the politically-minded theatre, career retirement as a result of an ill partner, loss of the partner, retirement to the countryside and questioning of the effectiveness of art, emigration to Europe – personal destinies that are pursued in front of and influenced by world-changing events, cultural revolutions and socio-political upheavals.
History is made up of personal stories.