When I was a student in college, the walls of my youthful worldview began to collapse as I discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Federico Fellini and other directors. My friends and I loved discussing The Seventh Seal, The 400 Blows and La Strada. But one night, after a date at the movies, my girlfriend accused me of taking films– especially “foreign” films– too seriously. The accusation hurt my feelings because I thought she meant there was something wrong with me. She made it clear: that was exactly what she meant.
It was true that when I first saw Disney’s Pinocchio as a little boy, I was so terrified when the whale swallowed the puppet/boy that I turned my back to the screen. I can tell you what the rest of the audience in the theatre looked like as they watched the film, but I refused to look at it. So my girlfriend was right; I certainly had taken Pinocchio much too seriously. But why, I wondered? What was wrong with me? As a young man I knew that there were several things wrong with me, but only later did it occur to me that taking films seriously wasn’t one of them. It was her problem, not mine: she didn’t take films seriously enough. So we broke up.
The painting, The Lives of Women, was inspired first of all by the Del Oro theatre. It had been built in the early 1940’s by United Artists in an Art Deco/Modernist style as what they then called a “movie palace.” Even though it had since been subdivided into three theatres, it captivated me from the first time I saw it and I knew that one day I would have to paint it. I began drawing from a distance with watercolor sketches with the theatre as a kind of welcoming beacon in the night.
Then one evening during a thunderstorm I stood under an awning across the street and drew the marquee, including several people in a queue buying tickets. But in the months it took to finish the painting, I gradually subtracted them from the composition in order to emphasize a feeling of loneliness.
I don’t remember what inspired me to refer to three real films in the painting, except that I l still love all of them, and had seen each one more than once. I even tracked down posters for the films, which I reproduced in the painting.
Viridiana, directed by Luis Buñuel, told the story of a young woman and her unfortunate attempts to help a group of beggars. The Vatican had condemned it as blasphemous, and it had been banned in Spain until the end of the dictatorship after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.
A six year-old girl is the protagonist of The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espiritu de la Colmena), directed by Victor Erice. The story unfolds in 1940 at the end of the Spanish Civil War. After the girl and her older sister see the film Frankenstein, the girl asks, “Why did the monster kill the little girl and why did they kill him?” Then gradually she begins to long for the monster.
Although it didn’t win an Oscar, Miguel Gutiérrez Aragon’s Half of Heaven (La Mitad del Cielo) was nominated as the Best Foreign Film of 1988. It tells us about three generations of powerful women. There’s a cigar-smoking grandmother, who is also a psychic, her daughter, a widow with a baby, who eventually establishes one of the most famous restaurants in Madrid, and the baby daughter, who grows up to be a prophet– a dangerous one– in her own right.
The films have at least three things in common: all are “foreign,” all are about women. Also, the likelihood that all would be shown at the Del Oro at the same time was, and is, non-existent. So even though the painting looks realistic, it’s largely an invention.
One of the mysteries of painting, at least for me, is how often the work that I intend to paint isn’t the painting I end up with. They all begin with some vague feeling or intuition that I can sense, and can respond to, but don’t understand. The painting of a painting, as opposed to the inspiration of it, takes a long time, but the process can be useful because it allows time to reflect on what I’m up to. In the case of The Lives of Women, I didn’t really understand what was doing on until I painted the key, the girl in the ticket booth. Films, I think, are a lot like dreams. When we watch a film in a theatre with other people, we all share a collective dream, even though as individuals, we experience, interpret and often forget the dream.
It’s a wet night in the painting and probably cold. We can imagine crowds in the Del Oro enjoying the films. But the girl in the booth is alone. Her job is to sell tickets to the dreams of others, the ones in the theatre. What, I wondered as I painted, what might be her dreams? One day, would I be able to paint them?