The relationship between fine art and movies has always been an uneasy one. Avant-garde films are invariably banished to the cult circuit, mainstream movies dismiss high art as pretentious mumbo-jumbo, and the hard-core art crowd sneers at big box-office films as strictly for boobs. (Mind you, we refer here primarily to the decades prior to '80s post-modernism, which made every manifestation of culture part of one big, happy family.)
Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound," a romantic thriller set in the psychoanalytic community, is a case in point. Released in 1945, the film was seen in its day as incredibly sophisticated because it featured a dream sequence with imagery designed by Salvador Dali. Of course, Dali's fellow Surrealist, Man Ray, would've been a much hipper choice for this gig, particularly since Dali was a shameless careerist available to the highest bidder, and he'd pretty much been disowned by the art world by that point. To movie people, however, Dali was a real artist, and the curtain painted with giant eyeballs he made for Hitchcock was culture with a capital C.
"For evidence of how far behind the arts Hollywood always is, look no further than the dream sequence in 'Spellbound,' " says experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, one of 100 artists and filmmakers featured in "Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945," an exhibition opening today at MOCA's Temporary Contemporary that explores the relationship between art and film. "It reduced what even Dali was capable of to a very crude level and was obviously a piece of junk, yet it's regarded as a high moment in Hollywood movies."
What constitutes a piece of junk is apparently debatable, however. Artist John Baldessari, who's based much of his work on film stills and created an installation for "Hall of Mirrors," says, "For me, the high point of this exhibition will be Dali's backdrop from 'Spellbound.' " (The backdrop, which measures 17 feet by 38 feet, is on loan to MOCA from Marius Olbrychowski, a local collector.)
This exchange gives some idea of the can of worms curator Kerry Brougher is opening with this show, which is organized in three roughly chronological sections.
The first section explores the cultural loss of innocence that followed World War II, which led to a self-consciousness in film, and the dismantling of the traditional relationship between film and viewer. The second section looks at reductivist strategies of the '60s and early '70s, which saw the production of a flurry of works examining the origins of optical devices involved with film (the projector, film strip and screen, etc.). This section also looks at themes of psychoanalysis and voyeurism, which Brougher feels have been key to much art and film created since 1945. The last section explores the current tendency for both filmmakers and artists whose work draws on film to relate to movies of the past with an ambivalent mixture of irony and nostalgia.
"Film is presented in the show in various ways," Brougher explains during a meeting at MOCA. "There are installations incorporating film by Carolee Schneemann, John Baldessari, Michael Snow, Judith Barry, Douglas Gordon, Chris Marker and Raul Ruiz, among others. We're also building a theater in the [museum] where we'll screen Stan Brakhage's 'Text of Light,' a film shot completely in an ashtray, John Whitney's 'Catalog' and Chris Marker's 'La Jetee,' which takes film into the realm of photography in that it's made almost entirely from still images. And, of course, we'll screen clips throughout the show."
Central to Brougher's interpretation of cultural history is the belief that "a generation of artists and filmmakers came of age in the '50s who'd grown up with movies. It wasn't a novelty to them, and that enabled them to ask questions like: What is film? How has it affected our lives? Is it as glamorous as we thought it was?
"For instance, the photographer Weegee came to Hollywood in 1947 and shot irreverent pictures that were published in his book, 'Naked Hollywood.' We'll show some of Weegee's pictures next to images from the Billy Wilder film 'Sunset Boulevard' and assemblages by Bruce Conner that pay homage to movie stars. This part of the show explores the creepy quagmire of Hollywood, and it includes work by Mimmo Rotella, whose collages of the '50s were made from movie posters he tore off of walls, Ray Johnson's images of movie stars from the '50s, and a clip from Kenneth Anger's 'Scorpio Rising,' a film that approached the idea of the icon in a highly original way for its time."