To Be Continued, Edward Dimendberg

Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. [i]

--Roland Barthes


Cryptic and haunting, the set stills collected by John Divola for publication in this book came into being as aide-mmoire for the art directors of films produced at Warner Brothers in the 1930s. Each was taken by some now-nameless studio photographer and later contact-printed from an 8 x 10 negative in the studio darkroom. These pictures seem quintessentially cinematic. They evoke films encountered on-late night television during a fit of insomnia. They reek of 1930s Hollywood, a decade marked in the history of motion pictures by the advent of sound and the emergence of the narrative film genres still with us today.

These representations of elegant dining and lounge areas, geometrically stylized hallways, and wretched bedroom apartments conjure up the gangster, fallen woman, and mad scientist cycles at which Warner Brothers excelled. They record a technical virtuosity and a sometimes opulent splendor meant to cheer audiences accustomed to waiting in the breadlines of depression-era America. Even if one cannot correlate these photographs with particular films--not unlikely, since most have slipped into oblivion, the first effect they may well produce in a viewer (as they did in me) is a sense of revisiting the familiar. Surely few members of our image-saturated culture would deny acquaintance with these or similar scenes or fail to recognize them as somehow related to cinema.

"You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw," wrote Diane Arbus. [ii] But these images tempt one to invert this statement by the artist about her own aesthetic: You see the movie sets in these photographs and what you notice is their perfection. Rooms furnished by an interior decorator or a particularly meticulous occupant leave just this impression of an artificial coherence, a harmony among the furnishings symptomatic of the activity of a designer rather than the haphazard, idiosyncratic accumulation of objects over the course of an individual or institutional history.

The careful arrangement of details in these photographs evinces an unmistakable consistency in the deployment of objects in the service of a film's narrative. Cut-outs of three women's faces hover above a mirror. Two framed photographs of scantily clad models hang to their right. Four playing cards have been fanned out and stuck between a telephone and a wall. The character who inhabits this space is a gambler and a philanderer, an impression reinforced by his large selection of toiletries and neckties. We could scarcely imagine this as the room of a woman or the domicile of a minister or a family man. Usually understood to involve relations between shots and scenes, continuity also exists within the space of the film set and between those spaces and characters who move through them, the unity of an artificial world generally absent from the spaces of our daily lives.

If one investigates the status of these pictures, the irony soon emerges that none of them ever appeared in a film. To be sure, the interiors depicted in these photographs materialize in the movies whose titles may frequently be read from a slate positioned at the bottom of the frame. Anyone who seeks out these films at the local videotheque (where only a scant few are to be had) will be able to locate the sets depicted in these photographs. Recognizing their typically brief appearances is more challenging than one might suppose, however. The lure of following characters and narrative flow that characterizes most film viewing will distract the researcher from the task. But stop the movement of cinema and these images of empty hallways, seedy rooms, and broken furniture emerge with striking force.


Just like their distant cousins, the production stills taken by studio photographers on a film set, the set stills reproduced here are ancillaries to a finished motion picture. Nowhere in Goodbye Again does one see the unmade bed and open suitcase present in the set still, as if it documents a (too suggestive?) scene edited out of the final film. In Three on A Match, an archetypical fallen woman film, the corridor always remains brightly illuminated; it never shifts into the darkness shown in the set still. The interiors of some of the set stills are missing the characters who inhabit them in the final product, while in others we discover figures whose presence is not authorized by the finished film.

If we conceive of a film as an artificial unity of space and time, these images are temporal outtakes, documents of excluded moments and possibilities. They are scenes from movies never made whose plot details we must invent. Neither the

actual set still nor the finished film provides much assistance in this game, however. The solitary walk of the man with the cane or the gentleman bending to talk with a seated colleague remain shrouded in mystery. It is impossible to scrutinize these images or watch the movies to which they contribute and assign any narrative significance to these set stills, since every interior in these film productions was regularly photographed by studio photographers. The surfeit of these immense image inventories (of which this book reproduces only a tiny subset) contributes to the inscrutability of each set still. They are records of non-events, accidents and chance occurrences, rich with interstitial information.

In the early 1930s, movies generally were filmed at an exposure of f 2-2.5 using tungsten lighting and Eastman Kodak panchromatic negative stock with an ASA of 20-25. The low contrasts, soft-edged shadows, and shallow depth of field associated with "mid-key" cinematography were the most common result. Photographed using 8 x 10 view cameras and exposure times longer than those movie cameras allowed, the set stills have greater contrast, darker shadows, and greater depth of field than any practice of 35 mm cinematography could deliver at the time. Rich in shadows and highly saturated blacks, they anticipate the "low-key" cinematography that would become associated with film noir in the 1940s. If superior technical quality is any criterion of authenticity, these photographs are more accurate mimetic facsimiles of the film sets than the celluloid images produced by the Warner Brothers cinematographers.

More than sixty years old, these pictures remain remarkable specimens of photographic acuity in which the space of an entire interior can appear in perfect focus, as in the still of the dining room from The Rich Are Always With Us (Collectors take note: they are vintage prints!) Paradoxically, these images made only to assist in the reconstruction of film sets without any aesthetic intent display more visual definition than the actual cinematic images whose production they were to facilitate. Photographed in long shot, they are flawless specimens of an industrial image-making practice, an instrumental photography destined only for the eyes of set builders, camera men, and continuity experts entrusted with reconstructing a set for additional shooting.

The photographic image that is the foundation of the cinematic scene lacks the subjective gyroscope of personal memory. As the theorist of film and photography Siegfried Kracauer observed,

Memory encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance of a state of affairs nor its entire temporal course. Compared to photography, memory's records are full of gaps. . . Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory images are at odds with photographic representation. From the latter's perspective, memory images appear to be fragments--but only because photography does not encompass the meaning to which they refer and in relation to which they cease to be fragments. Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage. [iii]


Devoid of the meaning of a subjective memory fragment, and extrinsic to the smooth progression of practical activities in life, the scene in narrative cinema depends on the construction of a well-ordered spatial and temporal continuum produced by continuity editing. Although a story may have been filmed out of sequence or over the course of several days, a burning cigarette smoked must grow ever shorter in the finished film, and whatever does not advance the story must be eliminated. The logic of continuity replaces that of chance and personal memory. Details must be standardized across shots. In the words of one agent of cinematic law and order,


The cameraman must film series of shots that match visually and technically.Action must match across straight cuts; exposure, lighting, color and other technicalities must match from shot to shot Unexplained gaps in continuity or technical variations will distract the audience and destroy the illusion necessary for effective presentation. While editorial

and technical cheating can repair some mis-matching, the cameraman should deliver visually-perfect scenes,

regardless of the number of shots required.[iv]

 


Divola's collection of set stills instructively recalls the significance of Hollywood cinema in the promulgation of twentieth-century American visual culture. These images are allusions to our collective memory. The menacingly sharp angles of anonymous corridors, ornate light fixtures and furniture, and art deco interior design characterize the most prevalent instances of this cultural corpus of the 1930s. Largely ignored by archives, curators, and the movie studios, the photographs and visual records of this historical style produced as the aide-mmoire of Hollywood cinema remain scattered in dusty boxes, flea market displays, and cellars across Los Angeles. They are to the finished products of the motion picture industry what army surplus merchandise is to the conduct of war.

Fortunate beneficiaries of the passions of collectors, these set stills, like so much of the detritus of the classical Hollywood cinema--the posters, photographs, sketches, interior decorations, and bric-a-brac today just as easily reproduced by designers for the studio franchise store as scavenged--might well be taken as evidence of our postmodern culture's craving for what Walter Benjamin called "aura." [v] These objects occupy a twilight zone between movie kitsch and cultural history, and our critical assimilation of them confronts the dangers of fetishism, snobbism, or aestheticism. If these set stills are not to be approached through the easy nostalgia of a "mode retro" appreciation, dismissed as cultural ephemera, or admitted to the pantheon of collectible fine art photography, how should they be understood?

Presenting valid claims for dual citizenship in the republics of photography and film, these pictures incite renewed hostilities in the ongoing battle, as old as the two media, about boundaries between them. [vi] In what sense is a scene in the final film the "original" and the set still a derivative (if not parasitic) copy? Or should we consider the later a more authentic and anterior record of a space and time eliminated from yet somehow buried within the finished movie? Do notions of the copy and the original even make sense given the reliance of both media upon the photographic image? Mute witnesses to other moments of human presence and movement, these photographs explore a temporally intermediate phase between the scenography and the staged event (what film theorists call the profilmic) and its final cinematic form.

When placed in this context, each exposure conveys the impression the photographer was the last person on the set. It emerges as the ultimate record of an artificial cinematic world made before the lights were extinguished and the set destroyed. Lacking comparable artifice and finitude (for these images are the death warrant of the film sets they depict), few "documentary photographs" (a loaded category whose validity I will bracket) match the sense of foreshortened temporality and precarious lifespan telegraphed by these images. In so far as every still photograph is constituted, one might say haunted, by the absence of that which it represents, these set stills are marked by the destruction of their referent and the absence of their particular exposure from the finished film that potentially could corroborate them.

Yet the ability of a photograph to evoke a contingent here and now, the spark of chance that Walter Benjamin calls aura and the arresting detail that Roland Barthes calls "the punctum" differentiate these set stills from the cinematic representations of their identical interiors. [vii] When I notice the slippers tucked under the dresser in the room of the gambling philanderer or the still legible headline of the newspaper crumpled on the floor of the set of Goodbye Again, I realize that someone has placed these objects there. Staring carefully at the mirrors in these photographs, I realize some (perhaps all?) may contain photographic inserts rather than real reflections in glass. Details that one might never notice in a film, in part because of the speed of shots and the comparatively poorer resolution of the cinematic image, momentarily destroy my belief in the plausibility, the realism, of what these images represent.

If there is any sense in which these photographs are subversive of filmic meaning, it may well be their capability to render it suspect and contingent through suspension of the temporal flow of cinema. Lacking the transience of cinematic images, the photograph records with more care that which it represents. While sharing key features identified with the postmodern photographic practice of such artists as Cindy Sherman or Richard Prince, including the appropriation of found images from mass culture, an emphasis upon staged settings and events, and an investigation of the problematic of the original and the reproduction, Divola's selection of these images appears less motivated by any desire to work through the now familiar terrain of the simulacrum than an unabashedly modernist interest in the capability of the photograph to render the cinematic world strange through its elimination of motion. [viii]

In the words of Barthes,


In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does not, however, have this completeness (which is fortunate for the cinema). Why? Because the photograph, taken in flux, is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views; in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favor of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a spectre. Like the real world, the filmic world is sustained by the presumption that as Husserl says, 'the experience will constantly continue to flow by in the same constitutive style', but the photograph breaks the 'constitutive style' (this is its astonishment) it is without future (this is its pathos, its melancholy); in it no protensity, whereas the cinema is protensive, hence in no way melancholic (what is it, then?--It is, then, simply 'normal,' like life). Motionless, the Photograph flows back from presentation to retention. [ix]

 


Lacking the directed flow toward the future, the photograph implies no relation to imminent or subsequent events. A newspaper photograph can represent the same event as a newsreel, but only the latter can record the temporal sequence and pattern of an event. Pathos and melancholy, the effects of what after Barthes we might call the "spectralization" of people and objects resulting from the photograph's extrusion of time, confront the viewer of these set stills. To contemplate these fixed images into which cinematic movement has never entered is to experience a more heightened version of the temporal displacement that Barthes understands as a defining feature of photography.

A blurred figure appears on the right side of the frame. Whether he accidentally wandered into the scene or poses there deliberately as a prank, his spectral presence contrasts markedly with the central position and staged visibility of the basket of flowers, of which there can be no doubt that it appears here to be photographed. Movement and protensity--both essential to cinema--are banished from the still photograph, an idea fortuitously conveyed in the film title on the slate in this image. The inescapable truth of temporality, the chasm that separates photography from cinema, finds here its elegantly concise expression: The World Changes.

This is even more true for the series of "Incidental Subjects" photographs reproduced by Divola in this book. Here human figures occupy film sets, unstaged and apparently photographed without their knowledge. Adjusting her gown (or staring worriedly at the ground?), a woman (an actress?) seems oblivious to the presence of the photographer on the set of Ex-Lady. Her bent head and self-involved behavior imply a spontaneity that conflicts with the microphone boom, lights, and support beams visible at the top of the frame. The woman sleeping on top of a bed on the set of Gambling Lady seems even more unaware of the presence of the camera, whose activity in this series of images involves surveillance no less than the mechanical recording of walls and interior details.

Capturing the two women sitting in arm chairs in an enormous salon, the photographer who takes their picture (clandestinely?) could well occupy a different room, so great is the apparent distance between his camera and these women. Compelling because of the candid poses of the subjects, all of these photographs also mildly disturb because their voyeurism strikes us as bordering on being an invasion of privacy. Nowhere more so than on a film set does the privilege of being off camera, of just being oneself, seem more intrinsic to maintaining a sense of personal dignity. "The 'private life' is nothing but that zone of space, of time, where I am not an image, an object," writes Barthes. [x] Is not being an "incidental subject" as much a moral category as an aesthetic description?

The "Hallways" series reproduced here recalls the concern with typology and the perception of multiple images of a single object-type one associates with the legacy of conceptual art in the water tower photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher or Edward Ruscha's gas stations. Or one might remember Ernie Gehr's film Serene Velocity and its exploration of the anonymous space of the corridor with a zoom lens. Exhibited to striking effect in three horizontal rows of twelve photographs each at the Patricia Faure Gallery in Santa Monica during an exhibition of Divola's set stills in October 1995, the depth of each photograph receding into space drew the gaze of the spectator and formed a striking counterpoint to the flat surface of the wall.

Divola's gallery installation of these photographs as a multiple series underscored a generic quality more pronounced in the hallway images than in the other set stills. Here space captures one's attention, whereas in the series of other images it is the particular details and furnishings of each scene. Depicting corridors in police stations, hospitals, jails, office buildings, private apartments, and ocean liners, they reveal a stunning visual constancy. Light strikes the walls of the corridors in exactly the same spots; the lamps hanging overhead are often in the identical style. Unlike the real corridors one might have occasion to traverse, these draw attention to themselves through a conspicuous and artificial uniformity.

More so than the other set stills reproduced in this book, the hallway photographs insinuate our former bodily presence in these spaces and suggest that they once surrounded our bodies as we walked through them. But where? In a film or in real life? Their uncanny effect is to blur such a distinction by reminding us how cinema projects the body into a space no less than a film strip onto a screen. By conjuring up our memory fragments of movies, buildings, and institutional environments, the hallways invoke the tension between the stasis of photographic representation and the fluid dynamism of cinema, memory, and spatial passage. They remind us that we experience architecture in a state of distraction inflected by our thoughts and preoccupations, as Benjamin noted. [xi]

One authorial presence evident in many of these set stills, especially those in the "Hallways" series, is that of Polish-born art director Anton Grot (1884-1974), a denizen of Warner Brothers from 1927 to 1948 who frequently worked with director Michael Curtiz. [xii] 1986), 102-104. Some photographs, such as those of the sets designed by Grot for Curtiz's Dr. X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum, bring to mind the geometrically dynamic architecture and foreshortened perspective of German expressionist cinema. In their depiction of a shallow and artificial space, the opposite of the deep focus cinematography that emerged in the late 1930s, Grot's hallways present themselves as a visual analogue for the provisional existence of the set still. The truncated depth of these images evokes the limited life of each set on the studio sound stage.

An artist by training, Grot brought an unusual degree of creativity and dedication to his work, and even designed false ceilings to create shadow patterns on set walls. He created the sets for Footlight Parade and Mandalay depicted here. It is difficult to discern a similar visual signature in the work of other art directors on these films, and Grot, more so than more eminent film professionals such as directors Michael Curtiz and William Wellman, emerges as the Hollywood "auteur" of Divola's selection.

In the "Evidence of Aggression" series the set stills present film interiors in the aftermath of violence. A lamp, disheveled books, and the broken legs of a table litter the floor in one scene that lacks a slate, as if to suggest the violence unleashed upon it is timeless and beyond language and explanation. Axes and a broken door appear in another. Perhaps the most fascinating of the series is the image from Larceny Lane (1931) of a hole in a wall beneath a mirror in which a man's profile is visible. Offering the titillation of viewing the cinematic scene in a state contaminated by debris, these stills are quasi-pornographic records of spatial defilement. Smashed furniture and doors are metonymic substitutes for absent shattered bodies.

What may well disturb and frighten most about these images is their suggestion that violence--no less than visual continuity--can be systematically produced and documented on demand. They record the debris of scenes of struggle with an eerie nonchalance. Two paintings hang crookedly on the wall in the scene from the saloon in Public Enemy, silent witnesses to brutal conduct. Or consider the image from Miss Pinkerton, its visual symmetry of doors ajar, overturned chairs, and inverted books a marvelously balanced composition, a reef growing upon the wreckage of some earlier catastrophe. As in the set still from The Public Enemy, a painting of dogs hangs upon the wall, as if to contrast the complexity of human violence with the presumedly more benign sociality of animals.

When approached as memory images from the cinema of the 1930s, these set stills reveal the jumble of both photography and film production, and then also the irreducible contingency described by Benjamin, Kracauer, and Barthes of the former. Even violence, these photographs suggest, cannot escape the strictures of continuity and the spatio-temporal continuum demanded by the industrial mode of Hollywood and the photographic medium. Writing of the visual culture of Weimar Germany, a period coterminous with the Warner Brothers film sets depicted in these photographs, Kracauer saw the social project of photography as banishing the fear of death (our own or that of others). He writes,


For the world itself has taken on a 'photographic face', it can be photographed because it strives to be

absorbed into the spatial continuum which yields to snapshots. . . The camera can also capture the figures

of beautiful girls and young gentlemen. The world that devours them is a sign of the fear of death. What the

photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and

parcel of every memory image. In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalized. Seemingly ripped from the clutches ofdeath, in reality it has succumbed to it. [xiii]


The set stills reproduced here suggest a momentary truce between our fragmentary memory images of spaces (real and cinematic) and the temporary coherence secured by the photograph. They scale back our belief in the representational veracity of photography and cinema by reminding us of their contingency. Drawing sustenance from the act of remembering as well as the moving distractions of the Hollywood cinema, they render an eternalized present of the 1930s with a deathly smile and radiate a melancholy beauty.

 

--Edward Dimendberg is Film and Humanities Editor in the Los Angeles office of the University of California Press. He lives in Beverly Hills, California, and teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. He is co-editor (with Anton Kaes and Martin Jay) of The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (1994) and has published essays on film and the built environment in October, ANY, and Film Quarterly. His book Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

 



[i] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 38.

[ii] Quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973), 31.

[iii] Siegfried Kracauer, "Photography" (1927) in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. and ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 50-51.

[iv] Joseph V. Mascelli, The Five C's of Cinematography (Hollywood: Cine/Grafic Publications, 1965), 158.

[v] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), and "A Short History of Photography," trans. Stanley Mitchell, Screen 13, no. 1 (Spring 1972).

[vi] For the traditional view of cinema as an extension of the mimetic function of photography see Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957), and Andr Bazin, What is Cinema?, vols. 1 and 2, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971).

[vii] Barthes, 32-51.

[viii] See Douglas Crimp, "Pictures," October, no. 8 (Spring 1979): 75-88 and "The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism," October, no. 15 (Winter 1980): 91-101.

[ix] Barthes, 89-90.

[x] Barthes, 15.

[xi] Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," 239-240.

[xii] See Leon Barsacq, Caligari's Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions: A History of Film Design, trans. Michael Bullock, rev. and ed. Elliott Stein (New York: New American Library, 1978), 211-212, and Donald Albrecht, Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies (New York: Harper and Row,

 

[xiii] Kracauer, 59.