Art Commentary: Art in Cinema

Has art finally come into its own in the movies? At this year’s Oscars ceremony, the first two Academy Awards handed out were for Art Direction and Sound. This is a big change from previous times when the initial Oscar usually went to a Supporting Actor, starting the show out with a bang. It makes sense in a quirky, subtle way: Academy Award audiences know that “style” counts, considering the frenzy over who wears what on the red carpet. [expand]

The point is this: “looks” are important in American culture, even if it relates mostly to fashion and comes at a time when people couldn’t possibly afford the fancy clothes we often obsess over. But let’s consider “style” a bit differently, this time literally concerning art in the cinema and highlighting some Oscar-winning works from both 2012 and 2011.

This year’s Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese) won for Art Direction; it’s a category which includes a lot of visual elements, like production design (by Dante Ferretti), set design, color and lighting. For anyone who has seen the movie, the award was an obvious choice, considering that it was also in 3-D, another aspect contributing to the design. What’s intriguing is that Scorsese has come a long, long way in his employment of stylistic effects. His early shorts and feature films (ie. Mean Streets) used the streets of Little Italy and tenement hallways; no one heard of sets in the mid-1960s and 1970s, at least those directors trained at New York University. Placing one more garbage can on the sidewalk constituted “production design.” Scorsese also used natural lighting as much as possible. (An exception were examples like the red illumination in Mean Street’s bar).

Contrast Scorsese’s elaborate, even decorative, visual style in Hugo, which perfectly captures the movie’s fantasy world (its Paris train station and the protagonist’s living space between the station’s walls) with the realism evoked by most of the director’s previous works. (That’s not to suggest that Scorsese didn’t evoke non-reality. Consider the fight scenes in Raging Bull.) The fantasy style operates particularly well in Hugo because the story is primarily about Georges Méliès, a real-life magician who made illusionary films.

Regardless of the fantasy, the production design was accepted as being authentic for the time it depicted (turn of the last century), which is a great feat, considering that the sets were built from scratch in London; only two scenes were shot in Paris.

Oddly enough, fantasy (particularly dreams) was also a subject/style created through noteworthy production design in two 2011 Oscar contenders: Black Swan and Inception.

For example, Black Swan (production design by Therese Deprez) used colors to symbolize good vs. evil (the white and black ballet costumes worn by Natalie Portman) and sexuality vs. purity (Portman’s pink/red bedroom). Yet we were not sure which scenes were “real.” Props were additionally employed to suggest Portman’s multiple identities, possibly a product of dreams. Thus, mirrors/glass as a motif appeared throughout the film conveying fragmentation of the psyche.

While Black Swan indicated that dreams represented a mental illness, Inception (production design by Guy Hendrix) featured dreams as memory with high expressionistic contrasts in lighting suggesting dark moods. Conversely, pastel colors in exterior shots with Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio often signified an opposing state-of-mind centering on discovery. Mirrors also appeared in Inception, providing another kind of fragmentation:  a reflection of both fantasy and reality.

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