We all have our favourite paintings, be it portrait or landscape, antique or contemporary, and so on. What if a group of paintings were adapted into filmmaking, but with the inclusion of a fictional story, (almost completely) chronologically running through an exclusive series of paintings – you have Shirley: Visions of Reality. Documentary filmmaker, Gustav Deutsch (Film ist.), is the adaptor of 13 paintings belonging to American Realist, Edward Hopper.
In this experimental adaptation, there is fiction. The fictional element of Shirley: Visions of Reality comes in the form of the titular character, Shirley (WiNWiN’s Stephanie Cumming). Shirley is an American actress based in New York. With 13 dates ranging from the 1930s to 1960s, capturing the Depression years to Martin Luther King and the March to Washington, Shirley: Visions of Reality presents its titular character with narrated monologues in co-ordinance with the every changing American culture.
Opening in 1965, Shirley is aboard a train reading the poems of Emily Dickinson. Subsequently, the viewer is transported back to 1931 in a Parisian hotel room, where Shirley is discussing her inevitable return to New York after a holiday in Europe – her desire of escapism is overwhelmingly present, though as an actress, escapism is an everyday convention. Later throughout, art in the form of film is present here and there: the foundation of these occurrences is set with Shirley being an actress; narrated dialogue often refers to popular film; within one segment Shirley is a cinema usherette; and Shirley – lonely – observes a French film in a cinema.
As an actress, Shirley is an expert of fictionalising reality and pretending/lying for a living, of which she legitimately does as it is clear that she does not overly want to continue with her partner, though she stays with him over the decades and produces children – a showing of conformity of the time, perhaps.
Stephanie Cumming successfully sells the story of Shirley: Visions of Reality predominantly using only narration and facial & body expressions. In an art film like this, if Cumming cannot sell a story through narration and expression, then the storytelling simply does not work. One of the very, very few criticisms of Shirley: Visions of Reality, however, would be that Shirley doesn’t seem to age much to until the last few segments. So essentially, 20 years have progressed, but all that is different visually of Shirley is her hair.
Amazingly, though intentionally, Shirley: Visions of Reality must initially be observed like its source material. State-of-the-art cinematography and set design in a Blu-ray presentation looks utterly magnificent on the eye. The truth is that Blu-ray is the only way to watch Shirley: Visions of Reality in full satisfaction. Shirley: Visions of Reality is a legitimate spectacle.
When first watching Shirley: Visions of Reality, the viewer will question how realistic nature of how the backdrop appears, however, though looking somewhat fake, the visuals do not convey the same annoyance of CGI creations presented in superhero blockbusters, for example. When in full immersion of Shirley: Visions of Reality, the viewer will then to begin to love, admire and appreciate the undeniable artistic qualities of award-winning cinematography hero, Jerzy Palacz (Naked Opera).
Like a painting, colour is of a definitively great importance in Shirley: Visions of Reality – from the hair of Shirley to the background wallpapers and business outfits worn by her partner (performed by Carlos’ Christoph Bach), the combinations of bright and vibrant colours possess the same qualities as a character within a traditional fictional film or even the location significance in, for example, New York in Ghostbusters or the roads in Mad Max.
The initial inspiration for Gustav Deutsch to create Shirley: Visions of Reality came way back in 2004 within Cologne’s Museum Ludwig when he observed a retrospective of Edward Hopper’s work side-by-side. Typically, directors often find inspiration and influence from the work belonging to the directorial heroes of yesteryear, though in Deutsch’s case, however, as he intended to produce a film replicating the imagery of paintings, he could only be inspired by a painter, rather than a filmmaker.
Ultimately, Shirley: Visions of Reality is a major player within the “style over substance” category, however, it is always suggestible that the style is the substance. However, a great nuisance with Shirley: Visions of Reality is questioning which is more interesting: the content itself or how to interpret Shirley: Visions of Reality. Is Shirley: Visions of Reality art about art? Is it possible to rank Shirley: Visions of Reality within the group of films posing major references to pop culture? Is the viewer of Shirley: Visions of Reality to show a preference to the visual style, the story presented through narration and so on, or both? Shirley: Visions of Reality poses so many varying questions of film consumption, though essentially, isn’t that what an experimental art film is all about?
Once the viewing pleasure of Montage Pictures’ Blu-ray of Shirley: Visions of Reality has been completed, it won’t be a mystery at all as to why in its native country of Austria, Shirley: Visions of Reality was the undisputed recipient of both the Best Cinematography and Best Production Design awards at the 2014 Austrian Film Awards.
Shirley: Visions of Reality was released by Eureka Entertainment as part of the MONTAGE PICTURES range in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition on 19 March 2018.
Check out the above trailer and let us know your thoughts on this ambitious project in the comments below.