Faced with a piece like this recent one from The Guardian, one can’t help but ask whether claims about filmmakers “working from” the styles of painters have any explanatory value. What kind of causal weight does one grant to a remark like Martin Scorsese’s that in the visual style of his debut feature Mean Streets (1973) he had Caravaggio in mind? Or consider the effort among some critics (here and here) to determine whether Pedro Costa’s visual style in In Vanda’s Room (2000) or Colossal Youth (2006) owes more to Rembrandt or Vermeer. A skeptic will insist that a distinction or two needs to be made.
For critics looking to provide the curious viewer with a helpful frame of reference to initially encounter a work, or to create associations between various artists (and even arts) in order to legitimize a filmmaker in the marketplace, language comparing painting and cinema might be useful. The expression “strategic discourse” comes to mind.
But the move “from painting to cinema” becomes an issue when the aim is to isolate and clarify the causes of a filmmaker’s art—that is, when one wishes to explain a film or a group of films. Claims like, “Costa developed this look by working from principles and techniques borrowed from Rembrandt,” should raise doubts.
On the surface of it, there doesn’t appear to be a problem. Yet, if we accept that the aesthetic history of cinema amounts to a series of artistic solutions to specific problems that arise (as art historians E.H. Gombrich, George Kubler and Michael Baxandall might), then to what extent can a filmmaker’s art “be like” or “draw on” a painter’s? Both a painter and a filmmaker work with two-dimensional surfaces, and therefore share problems associated with creating the impression of three dimensions on a flat plane. Even 3-D films have to address these problems. Filmmakers, for their part, have the added problem that their pictures move (however one wishes to construe this process). How to create a sense of time and space in individual takes linked through editing leads to a whole array of tensions and difficulties that painters never address directly. In the case of a Pedro Costa, this means editing together separately composed takes, and considering the relations between them. And what of sound-image relations? Certainly, one might strain to link something a painter does or something a viewer of painting perceives (like sounds evoked through visual representation) to what a film viewer perceives, but this would fall short of accounting for the problem-solutions arrived at by a filmmaker.
What value, then, is there in positing that filmmakers inherit the same problems as painters? At best, they might share, first, a set of quite general interests or principles and, second, lighting solutions. However, in order to explain a movie, we need more than this. After all, with lighting solutions “borrowed” from painters, filmmakers still have to deal with the limitations and “quirks” of their own tools, which are not the same as those of painters. Even where filmmakers borrow such solutions there is a translation process that intervenes. They don’t use the same solutions as much as they approximate them. So, painters and filmmakers, in cases like this, deal with similar, but ultimately distinct, problem situations. To argue differently is to lose details critical to one’s explanations.
Still, the question is tantalizing: can painters be sources for ideas about editing and staging in successive shots? Appeals to painters may not give historians of film style a set of proximate causes qua problem-solutions, but they may well furnish some slightly more distant explanatory matter.