Re-creating Marvel’s Cinematic Universe

 

Marvel’s move into the cinematic space has opened its universe to a broader audience, one willing to commit to an ongoing experience spanning years. Representative of a growing audience of consumers, they are drawn to these expanded environments because of the opportunities they offer, namely, sharing with like-minded fans. The ambitious nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its grand mythologising narratives, has tapped into these common desires, earning substantial cultural cachet, which, in turn, has inspired audiences to seek ways to experience these worlds beyond the screen.1

Changes in how audiences respond to cultural trends have seen museums and galleries open up dialogues around popular culture and its place in the broader social context. Museums interpret and interrogate the way we understand the world around us, and they do so through active engagement with all aspects of creative production, including film, fashion, music, performance and online realms. Exhibitions focusing on popular themes respond to cultural trends by offering audiences an opportunity to directly experience and examine these stories, and to temporarily join a diverse community brought together by shared interests.2 ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is a response to this desire to delve deeper into this world. The exhibition — and integrated film program — celebrates the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by exploring the way Marvel has transitioned their storytelling from the comic book to the screen, with an emphasis on the characters of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and the Avengers, through the presentation of over 500 objects (props, costumes, comic books, concept and keyframe art and clips from the films).3 The exhibition addresses three overarching thematics: ‘The Cinematic Assembled’, ‘Decoding the Universe’ and ‘Behind the Scenes’.

Charlie Wen / The Guardians no.1 / Keyframe for Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 / © 2017 MARVEL

‘The Cinematic Assembled’ looks at the films as a holistic, fictional world, dissolving demarcations between individual stories to probe the larger narratives at play. Told within one space across five discrete areas to reflect the Marvel concept of a single universe telling multiple stories, ‘The Cinematic Assembled’ is designed to capture the core of the cinematic experience. Importantly, it concentrates on the characters’ unique personal challenges, one of the aspects of the Cinematic Universe which makes the characters so relatable to contemporary audiences.

Beginning with a nod to the comic books that inspired both the characters and their films — highlighting in particular the street-level hero Spider-Man — the familial relationships binding these characters across the years are explored, beginning with a look at the affectionate, yet fractious, relationship of the Avengers. Brought together for their skills and held together through their mutual respect and shared purpose, the exhibition charts the events that unite them (battling aliens) and the conflicts that ultimately divide them (disagreements stemming from different personal ideologies).

Adi Granov / The Avengers / Keyframe for Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 / © 2017 MARVEL

As the First Avenger, Captain America is the moral epicentre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it is fitting that his story forms the heart of ‘The Cinematic Assembled’. A character whose history straddles World War Two and the present day, his relevance and influence is as important now as it was when his character was first conceived in 1941. With a nod to the exhibit at Washington DC’s Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum depicted in Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2014 and drawing on the stories of Captain America: The First Avenger 2011, this aspect of the exhibition traces the character’s early life through to his recruitment at the World Exposition of Tomorrow 1943, his subsequent service with the Howling Commandos and their battles with the evil, clandestine organisation Hydra, and, finally, his relationships with lifelong friend Bucky Barnes and love interest Agent Peggy Carter.

Stepping beyond the everyday into stranger worlds, ‘The Cinematic Assembled’ then enters the fringes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from its extra-dimensional spaces to far-flung galaxies and mythic vistas. Showcasing the adventures of ragtag space outlaws, sorcerers, gods and monsters, and underpinned by the immense power of the Infinity Stones,4 it explores ideas of legacy and responsibility, particularly through the mechanism of the heroic quest.

Pete Thompson / Dark Dimensions no.3 / Keyframe for Doctor Strange 2016 / © 2017 MARVEL

‘Decoding the Universe’ presents a detailed deconstruction of Iron Man, particularly outside his role as Avenger. Self-confessed genius– billionaire–playboy philanthropist and former weapons manufacturer, Iron Man is one of the most fascinating of Marvel’s characters. Impetuous and with troubled family relationships, he has made many enemies during the course of his high-profile, risk-taking existence. Driven by a push pull need for family — the one he was born into and the one he has built with the Avengers — the exhibition unpacks Iron Man’s need to understand his place in the world and the people around him.

Adi Granov / Iron Man study, flight with jets / Concept art for Iron Man 2008 / © 2017 MARVEL

Finally, ‘Behind the Scenes’ looks beyond the characters and the narratives in order to consider Marvel’s rigorous creative processes, especially in terms of pre- and post-production. Drawing on Marvel’s rich visual history, it showcases the work of designers, artisans and production teams, bringing together beautifully crafted props and costumes alongside previously unseen set pieces from Thor: Ragnarok 2017, as well as behind-the-scenes interviews and state-of-the-art interactive components.

As the layering of characters, locations and motivations becomes progressively more complex in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the obvious challenge to filmmakers is to continually refresh what has come before, within the parameters of consistency and continuity, while still creating films that enrich the experience of dedicated follower and casual movie-goer alike. An exhibition about storytelling and storytellers, ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ brings together narratives from the screen, from behind the scenes, and from decades of creating comic book characters with complex personas and even more complex relationships. It offers audiences the opportunity to engage with this rich fictional world beyond the screen alongside true believers and new recruits — a world which will continue to evolve and excite for many years to come.

DELVE DEEPER INTO THE EXHIBITION AND THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

Endnotes
1 Marvel has further expanded their universe to include a number of television series, including ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 2013– and Agent Carter 2015–16; Netflix’s Daredevil 2015– , Jessica Jones 2015– and Luke Cage 2016– ; together with the latest addition Iron Fist 2017. Marvel has also produced a series of tie-in comic books, often ‘one-shot’ comics released as a single issue or limited series, beginning with Iron Man: Fast Friends 2008, which interweaves storylines between events in Iron Man 2008; and a series of ‘one-shot’ short films, released as DVD and Blu-ray extras, designed to answer narrative questions not addressed in the feature films; for example, The Consultant 2011 narrates the fate of the Abomination after his villainous rampage in The Incredible Hulk 2008.
2 Kevin Moore, Museums and Popular Culture, Cassell, London, 1997, p.104.
3 The exhibition showcases the work of the many talented people whose creative energies have culminated in the seamless, and seemingly effortless, creations we see on screen; this work includes the concept and keyframe artwork of Ryan Meinerding, Charlie Wen, Andy Park, Rodney Fuentebella, Jackson Sze, Josh Nizzi, Phil Saunders, Adi Granov, Anthony Francisco, Andrew Kim, Aaron McBride, Henrik Tamm, Michael Kutsche and Pete Thompson; costume design by Alexandra Byrne, Judianna Makovsky, Anna B Sheppard, Wendy Partridge, Sammy Sheldon Differ, Mary Zophres and Louise Frogley; and the props developed by Russell Bobbitt, Barry Gibbs, Drew Petrotta, Joey Calanni and Richie Dehne.
4 The Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power scattered across the Marvel Universe. Five of these stones have found their way into the films: the Space Stone (within the Tesseract), Power Stone (within the Orb), Reality Stone (Aether), Mind Stone (in the forehead of Vision), and the Time Stone (in the amulet, Eye of Agamotto, as worn by Doctor Strange). The sixth gem, the Soul Stone, has yet to be revealed. The gems are being sought by the super-villain Thanos (Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 and Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015), as he wants the unlimited power invested in the stones.

CINEMA TICKETS | EXHIBITION TICKETS | UP LATE TICKETS | EXHIBITION PUBLICATION

‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received additional support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland.

Amanda Slack Smith is exhibition curator ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ and Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA

I am Iron Man: The Marvel Cinematic Universe takes flight

 

When the studio launched Iron Man, the film’s post-credit sequence declared a bold, long-term vision — ‘You are not alone, Tony Stark. Your friends in the Marvel Universe are coming out to play’. Unfurling a new animated logo featuring a ‘flipbook’ of comic pages fluttering across the brand, Marvel proclaimed to fans the company’s pride in its comic book roots, and to the industry its intention to carve its own cinematic niche on the steps of Hollywood.1

‘You think you’re the only Super Hero in the world? Mr Stark, you’ve become part of the bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.’

Nick Fury to Tony Stark in Iron Man 2008

Arguably, Iron Man was the cinematic move Marvel fans had been longing for. The comics of the Marvel Universe had built a strong and loyal fan base through the idea of a shared, interconnected space. Unlike their industry counterparts who had developed separate worlds accounting for multiple storylines, Marvel differentiated themselves in the 1960s by creating a collective space where characters, whether street-level heroes from Brooklyn or gods from Asgard, could intermingle.2 A methodology conceived by Marvel staffers Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the famed Marvel ‘Bullpen’ over 50 years ago,3 this approach has created a rich and complex communal history, one which not only built familial relationships within the Marvel world, but also with audiences.

Iron Man 1968 #1 / Comic book / Published 10 May 1968 / © 2017 MARVEL
Tales of Suspense 1959 #39 / Comic book (cover, detail) / Published 10 March 1963 / © 2017 MARVEL

The Marvel Cinematic Universe was conceived to translate the comic book experience into a cinematic realm. Currently scheduled in a series of three narrative chapters, known colloquially as ‘phases’, the films distil years of complex storytelling into an interconnected and cogent narrative with each successive film expanding to include new characters and frontiers. Often working with independent filmmakers skilled in directing both feature films and television series, the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have become known for their playful sense of humour and a willingness to take genre-melding risks; Marvel grafts the action–adventure Super Hero narrative to wide-ranging genres, such as the techno thriller (Iron Man 2008), the espionage drama (Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2014) and the heist film (Ant-Man 2015).

Launching in 2008 with the charismatic Tony Stark in Iron Man, ‘Phase One’ delivered another four self-titled films: The Incredible Hulk 2008, featuring brilliant scientist Dr Bruce Banner and his dual personality, the enraged Hulk; Iron Man 2 2010, introducing former Russian Spy Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) alongside the titular hero; Thor 2011, an interplanetary Asgardian prince and his brother Loki; and Captain America: The First Avenger 2011, featuring Steve Rogers as the failed army recruit turned government Super Soldier Captain America. Culminating in the ensemble film Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 — united with marksman Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) and under the guidance of Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. — the Avengers became the ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ and, in a mere 143 minutes, they saved humanity from alien enslavement and punished the villainous Loki.

Adi Granov / End battle no.2 / Keyframe for Iron Man 2008 / © 2017 MARVEL

A bold collective piece with a cathartic level of old-fashioned, smashysmashy, good-versus-evil pummelling, Marvel’s The Avengers was the result of four years of cinematic groundwork that set the tone for the next phase. Balancing the creative energies of its changing roster of directors with a recurring cast and narrative continuity, which was, by now, an audience expectation, Marvel’s The Avengers was proof that a unified big-screen universe was possible, an achievement that sent similar franchises scrambling to emulate it.

Phase Two successfully built on Phase One’s groundwork, continuing the template of several singular hero-centric films and again concluding with an ensemble piece: Iron Man 3 2013, Thor: The Dark World 2013 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2014 were followed by the collaborative Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015. Two additional films featured fresh faces: the quirky space opera Guardians of the Galaxy 2014, with its cast of comic alien characters led by roguish half-human Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord), and Ant-Man 2015, featuring former thief Scott Lang, who shrinks to the size of an ant with the help of a high-tech suit. The success of these two films, showcasing largely lesser-known comic book characters, is testament to both the versatility of the Marvel back catalogue and the willingness of audiences to trust the unknown, based largely on brand alone.

Adi Granov / Iron Man study, flight with jets / Concept art for Iron Man 2008 / © 2017 MARVEL

By 2017’s end, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have released 17 films over a nine-year period. Recent films Captain America: Civil War 2016, Doctor Strange 2016, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 2017 and Spider-Man: Homecoming 2017 have witnessed a further expansion of the Universe and a procession of new characters — a post-origin story of Spider-Man (co-produced with Sony Pictures); Black Panther, aka King T’Challa of Wakanda, who will be seen again in Black Panther 2018; and Doctor Stephen Strange, an egocentric former neurosurgeon with an interest in the mystic arts.

With each successive film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows ever more intricate as it expands, its success heavily reliant on the company’s long-term release schedule — now stretching to 2020 — designed to strategically introduce a rolling array of characters, settings and adventures. Developed concurrently, and up to a decade in advance of release, the films comprising the Marvel Cinematic Universe represent an all-encompassing cinematic vision.

DELVE DEEPER INTO THE EXHIBITION AND THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

Endnotes
1 Martin Flanagan, Andrew Livingstone and Mike McKenny, The Marvel Studios Phenomenon: Inside a Transmedia Universe, Bloomsbury Academic, New York, 2016.
2 Steve Rogers was raised in Brooklyn in New York City.
3 The Marvel ‘Bullpen’ was a moniker created by Stan Lee to describe the core group of Marvel’s in-house comic book creators in his editorial page ‘Bullpen Bulletins’, a news update published in most monthly Marvel comics.

CINEMA TICKETS | EXHIBITION TICKETS | UP LATE TICKETS | EXHIBITION PUBLICATION

‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received additional support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland.

Amanda Slack Smith is exhibition curator ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ and Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA

Marvel and the moving image

 

As the gatekeeper of one of the richest holdings of comic book narratives in the world — over 8000 characters developed over nearly eight decades — Marvel’s move to the cinema screen was inevitable. They’d been dipping their creative toe in other media since the 1940s; under the name of founding company Timely Comics, they produced the 15-part, black-and-white film serial Captain America 1944 (Republic), while in the 1970s, CBS’s The Incredible Hulk 1978–82 and The Amazing Spider-Man 1977–79 were produced by Marvel Comics as live-action television series. However, even with these forays, Marvel had yet to find the right formula that would showcase their characters on screen with the same care and fidelity as depicted in their comics.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, amid a series of complex company mergers, Marvel continued its push into the moving-image market through a number of animated television series. The popular Saturday morning slot on the children’s network Fox Kids proved particularly effective for the Marvel-produced X-Men 1992–97 and Spider-Man 1994–98, and successfully embedded these characters, alongside Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk, into the wider pop culture lexicon. These series attracted a broad, non-comic book fan base and, in doing so, created a bridge between the comics and the films to come, a relationship that would develop in the 2000s to embrace the desirable teenage and young professional markets, which were primed for the forthcoming plethora of Super Hero films.

In the 1990s, Marvel licensed a number of premium characters across several major studios to capitalise on the growing interest in comic book film adaptations. It was an incredibly successful strategy. Of the 50-plus Super Hero films released in the ten years after September 11, nearly half — including their sequels and spin-offs — were based on characters from Marvel’s comics. The popularity of these films saw beloved Marvel characters reach new audiences in ways they never had before.1

By 2003, Marvel were seeking a more sustainable model. Although the company had enjoyed a global boost to their brand through several highly successful film franchises, the licensing of individual characters from one universe across multiple studios allowed little opportunity for the expression of character interconnectedness, a quality intrinsic to the Marvel Universe. This lack of a shared narrative also meant lesser-known characters were unlikely to be developed. In addition, over time, earlier licensed characters had begun drifting away from their central narratives. In the 1970s, Marvel had toyed with the idea of going into film production themselves, but the costs were prohibitive and the idea was shelved,2 but, by the mid 2000s, times had changed.

Adi Granov / Cover artwork for Black Widow: Deadly Origin 2009 #2 / Comic book / © 2017 MARVEL

By the end of 2006, Marvel had secured the necessary financing for their own major independent movie studio and began working on plans to bring together their fan favourites and rising stars — Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Falcon, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange and the team from the Guardians of the Galaxy — into their eagerly anticipated vision of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stepping into the arena with their debut film Iron Man in 2008 — drawn from a comic originally set during the Vietnam War (1959–75), but now adapted for the events unfolding in Afghanistan — Marvel brought to a wider audience the audacious charms of a reckless industrialist–billionaire–playboy–philanthropist and began a cinematic phenomenon that continues to this day.

DELVE DEEPER INTO THE EXHIBITION AND MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

Endnotes
1 Marvel co-produced Spider-Man 2002 and Spider-Man 2 2004 with Columbia Pictures, and X-Men 2000, X2: X-Men United 2003 and X-Men: The Last Stand 2006 with Twentieth Century Fox.
2 Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Harper Perennial, New York, 2013, p.215.

CINEMA TICKETS | EXHIBITION TICKETS | UP LATE TICKETS | EXHIBITION PUBLICATION

‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received additional support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland.

Amanda Slack Smith is exhibition curator ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ and Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA

Creating the Cinematic Universe

 

We live in a complex world. We know this because we are told so on a daily basis.

From podium-pounding political leaders to experts of all kinds, an unending stream of dire predictions infiltrates our lives through our ever-present electronic devices — global warming, overpopulation, financial instability, prejudice, terrorist attacks. The chatter is so constant it has become the white noise of our mundane routines, blending with our myriad personal challenges, uncertainties and insecurities, and influencing the way we view the world and those with whom we share it.

It’s an exhausting barrage. It disrupts our sense of peace and undermines our need for hope. It is little wonder that we escape to daydreams and fantasies to momentarily forget these competing realities, and to find control amid the chaos. Storytelling has been the release valve for our fears and anxieties for centuries. One of the most powerful forms of communication, storytelling gives shape to our lives and meaning to our experiences. No matter how destabilised our world, or how overwhelming the news and events confronting us, storytelling brings light to the darkness and certainty to the confusion, validating our feelings and illuminating pathways during difficult times.1

Once told around campfires, these stories are now found in numerous realms, but none quite so prevalent as the world of film and television. Communicators to the broadest of audiences, film and television have become the go-to forms of entertainment for our daily unwind, the fluidity and mutability of storytelling shifting and adapting to meet our needs in an ever-changing world. Whether solemn dramas or lighthearted comedies, these stories model ways for us to consider events and change in our own lives; they allow us to see how we might react and process similar circumstances or, simply, to find cathartic release through the experiences of others.

I don’t like bullies;
I don’t care where they’re from.

STEVE ROGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER 2011

On September 11 2001, the World Trade Center in New York was attacked. As a result of the horror felt around the world, our stories changed to meet this new emotional landscape. Audiences withdrew from the hyper-violent film spectacles popular in the 1990s,2 and instead gravitated to stories offering respite from the fear and frustration played out in the daily news. Stories of seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things became a cinematic mainstay. Tales of adventure and overcoming adversity dominated the box office in a resurgence of back-to-basics heroic escapades that saw characters running towards danger, rather than from it.3 Heroes (with a capital ‘H’) were in demand and, alongside the fantasy juggernauts of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001–03) and the Harry Potter series of films (2001–11), another phenomenon was beginning to emerge — the Super Hero film.

Ryan Meinerding / Keyframe for Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 / © 2017 MARVEL

Presenting scenarios of good triumphing over evil, the Super Hero film aligned moral fortitude with muscle. Vigorously defending the social order against those who would disrupt and destroy it, these Super Heroes embodied the aspirational qualities of courage and determination with an innate sense of rightness. Dispensing justice with a sock to the jaw, Super Hero films tapped into the broader cultural need for grand mythological narratives, and they did so with a satisfying level of inherent retribution.

While Super Hero films were not new to the screen in the 2000s, their success with audiences to this point had been mixed. With Richard Donner’s Superman 1978 and Tim Burton’s Batman 1989 (both Warner Bros.) as notable exceptions, Super Hero films were generally plagued by clunky character adaptations and B-grade movie aesthetics. By the late 1990s, however, studios began to shake up their pulpy interpretations of what comic book adaptations could be.

Buoyed by the critical success of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 1997 (Columbia Pictures) and Stephen Norrington’s Blade 1998 (New Line Cinema), studios began hiring directors and screenwriters who were more sympathetic to the comic book source material than their predecessors. Perhaps more importantly, they were also open to seeing the worlds these stories inhabited as parallel to — rather than as parodies of — our own.

DELVE DEEPER INTO THE EXHIBITION AND MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

Converging with changing audience appetites and studio realignment, technology represented another important factor contributing to the rising popularity of the Super Hero film. From the early 1980s, the quality of computer-generated imagery (CGI) used in films improved exponentially. Some 20 years after the first human CGI character was featured in the Michael Crichton-directed science fiction–horror film Looker 1981, the first virtual actor award was presented to Andy Serkis for his role as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 2002.4 This technological leap meant the fantastical worlds created by comic book writers and illustrators were finally able to be transformed into a combination of emotionally resonant characters and dazzling visual effects, which not only intrigued audiences, but also captured the style and tone fans had been craving.

Adi Granov / The Avengers / Keyframe for Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 / © 2017 MARVEL

Endnotes
1 Ira Chernus, Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, Colo., 2006.
2 Action–thrillers dominated cinema screens in the 1990s. Films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991, Speed 1994, Mission: Impossible 1996 and Independence Day 1996 were part of a trend toward big budget, big explosion films featuring themes of domestic and foreign terrorism.
3 Family-friendly fantasy and adventure franchises, such as the Star Wars prequel trilogy 1999–2005, The Mummy series 1999–2008, Pirates of the Caribbean series 2003–17, Chronicles of Narnia trilogy 2005–10 and the Shrek series 2001–10, were prominent in the 2000s.
4 Andy Serkis was presented with the Best Digital Acting Performance award at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards for his role as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 2002.

CINEMA TICKETS | EXHIBITION TICKETS | UP LATE TICKETS | EXHIBITION PUBLICATION

‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received additional support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland.

Amanda Slack Smith is exhibition curator ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ and Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA

Film Noir rises from the ashes

 

Cynical and seductive, film noir was born in the ashes of the Great Depression and fuelled by disillusionment and the paranoia of the postwar era. In March-April, the Australian Cinémathèque presents a curated program exploring the classics as well as their modern counterparts.

Film noir is one of the most visually seductive and enduring cinematic styles, conjuring evocative images of hard-eyed femme fatales lounging in smoky dive bars, and the down-on-his-luck private eye chasing petty criminals through murky alleyways. Sexy, smart and sinister, film noir rose to prominence in the 1940s and 50s, offering the viewing public escapism from the communal anxieties, paranoia, and feelings of alienation that had begun to build in the 1920s with the Depression. Further influenced by the disillusionment of those fleeing the rise of Nazism in Europe, World War Two, and the threat of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, these films resonated with the prevailing social discontent of the era.

As stylish as it was cynical, film noir married the aesthetic of German expressionist cinema — which employed unusual camera angles and explored the ways that light, shadow and contrast could strategically enhance the narrative — with Hollywood’s highly romanticised Depression-era crime films, to create an identifiably North American cinematic style. With its realistic settings and penchant for low, dramatic lighting, film noir was a natural choice for many studios unable to fund the big-budget musicals and comedies also popular at the time — a decision further supported by the development of lighter and more portable cameras and associated equipment during World War Two, which made location shooting an affordable alternative.

Production still from M – A Town is Looking for a Murderer 1931 / Director: Fritz Lang / Image courtesy: Praesens Film

The development of film noir, literally ‘black film or cinema’ as coined by French critics, was further enhanced by the paperback novels of this period. With their sharp, witty dialogue, edgy, venerable characters, and twisting plots of betrayal and greed, novelists Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain encapsulated Hollywood’s fascination with their dark themes of moral ambiguity and corruption, and attracted the attention of accomplished directors, including exiled European filmmakers Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger, alongside their North American counterparts John Huston, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray.

Production still from The Big Sleep 1946 / Director: Howard Hawks / Image courtesy: Roadshow Entertainment

‘Film Noir’ considers a history of this distinctly North American sensibility. It brings together a selection of pre noir films from the 1920s and 30s, including beloved ‘American Gangster’ stories (such as Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties 1939 ) and influential German expressionist films (Fritz Lang’s M 1931), alongside film noir classics (Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944 and Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep 1946). It also considers contemporary cinema with the themes and aesthetics of film noir (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver 1976 and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive 2011) and its ongoing international influence (Ivan Sen’s Goldstone 2016).

Production still from Taxi Driver 1976 / Director: Martin Scorsese / Image courtesy: Park Circus
Production still from Double Indemnity 1944 / Director: Billy Wilder / Image courtesy: Universal Pictures– see this seminal classic screening on 1 & 5 April & 21 May
‘How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?’

[Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) musing about the woman (Barbara Stanwyck) who led him astray in Double Indemnity 1944.]

DOUBLE INDEMNITY 1944 PG

Walter Neff is a tough-talking insurance salesman who falls in love with the unhappily married Phyllis Dietrichson. Together they plot the perfect crime: the ‘accidental’ death of Phyllis’s tycoon husband so they can cash in on his hefty life insurance. The only person standing in their way is Neff’s boss Barton Keyes, who smells a rat! Billy Wilders Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir. The screenplay, inspired by the real life murderess Lorraine Snyder, was written by Wilder alongside detective writer Raymond Chandler and is equal parts hardboiled and tawdry. Told through a mosaic of flashback narratives, it takes place in a lonely Los Angeles, framed by sharp shadows and a mood of deep cynicism.

See this seminal classic screening on Saturday 1 & Wednesday 5 April plus Sunday 21 May 2017

The Australian Cinémathèque also presents two silent masterpieces with live musical accompaniment as part of Live music and film: Film Noir. Joseph von Sternberg’s thrilling Underworld 1927 is a forceful prototype for the American gangster film genre. The film will feature accompaniment from David Bailey on the Gallery’s 1929 Wurlitzer organ while Brisbane post-rock instrumental group hazards of swimming naked will provide a new live score for F.W. Murnau’s beloved The Last Laugh 1924, an emotionally powerful treasure of Weimar cinema.

Daniel Crooks: Motion studies

 
digital-blog-Imaginary_Object_23
Daniel Crook / Imaginary Object #23 2006 / Lambda print / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

Daniel Crooks: Motion Studies’ currently showing at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 25 October traces the Melbourne artist’s sublime ‘time slice’ projects, from his early works in digital video through to his more recent sculptural forms.

‘The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche.’ 1
Gaston Bachelard

There is a shimmering moment, just on awakening, when a dream skims over your consciousness. A drowsy dance on the borders of awareness, a liminal moment — a reverie, as philosopher Gaston Bachelard calls it — when the mind is open to all possibilities, unfettered by the logical demands of the waking world. It is in this pliable drift that you will find the eloquent and striking spatiotemporal works by Daniel Crooks, one of the leading contemporary artists working in moving image today.

Known for his signature ‘time slice’, which creates a lyrical dislocation of time and space through the displacement of thin slices of pixel material in the video sequence, Crooks celebrates moments of the seemingly mundane, embracing the repetitive cadences of commuters traversing urban spaces or engaging with elevators, trains and trams, to reveal an eddying, dreamlike choreography at odds with the restlessness of the fast-paced modern life from which they are drawn. Using customised computer software and a precision camera motion control — devices he built to allow him to control the movement and speed of the camera during filming — Crooks harnesses the power of digital production and editing to give shape, structure and meaning to the material recorded. Creating expressive beauty in motion, the warped fluidity of his work alters the viewer’s perception of time with clever contextualisation. While Crooks intercedes to offer a fresh perspective on the explicit treatment of time as a physical, malleable material, he retains the familiarity of the core imagery, tethering it to a world that people know and experience every day.

‘Daniel Crooks: Motion Studies’ is the artist’s first solo exhibition at GOMA. It traces his time slice projects from his early works in digital video through to his more recent sculptural forms — a new area of practice made possible through an Ars Electronica Futurelab Residency in Linz and a recent Creative Australia New Work grant from the Australia Council, both in 2014.2

Born in 1973 in Hastings, New Zealand, Crooks completed a Postgraduate Diploma at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television in 1994 and has lived and worked in Melbourne since then. Originally planned as a whistle-stop on the way to New York, Melbourne ‘lured him in’ and has become his home base amid a growing schedule of national and international engagements, including such prestigious accolades as the Basil Sellers Art Prize, Inaugural Acquisitive Award, from Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum in 2008, and the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission in 2014; group exhibitions at the Barbican Centre and Tate Modern in London and the Singapore Art Museum; and solo shows in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Netherlands.

The early germinations of Crooks’s time slice project can be traced back as far as his formative years at school, through those who encouraged his interests in photography and geometry. However, it was his time at the Victorian College of the Arts that saw these ideas coalesce during the creation of his graduation project in 1994: a painstaking stop-motion process that required repeated photographing of microscopic movements to create a sense of movement over time. As Crooks describes it:

You’re working at this glacially slow pace and looking at all the individual static moments that make up any kind of movement. So as soon as you go into the real world, you just start seeing that everywhere. You see those moments when a hand floats for a moment and then stops moving. When you look at people walking, you see the infinitesimal lift of the toe that clears the ground as they’re swinging through, and the tenth of a millimetre that it misses by, and it’s all just perfect.3

His epiphany came a few years later while working with timelapse pan photography: having received a New Media Arts Residency at RMIT in 1997, through the Australia Council New Media Arts Board, to build the early iterations of the precision camera motion control devices he uses today, Crooks began digitally slicing the still images he was capturing into thin strips before reassembling the image and spreading these across the frame. By experimenting with the width of the slice, the angle of the view and the temporal resolution of the camera Crooks was able to determine the ‘plane of cohesion’ — a point from the camera where objects joined seamlessly across the multiple slices to create an undistorted image, as he puts it ‘a kind of spatio-temporal depth of field’.4

digital-blog-1-Train No

digital-blog-2-Train No
Daniel Crooks / Train No.1 (still) 2005 / Three-channel digital video, 4:10 minutes, 16:9, colour, stereo / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

The result was a sense of movement, a jitter, as Crooks describes it — an unfolding poly-ocular view of a moment with a depth of interpretation hitherto unseen. He quickly began to explore the technique with moving image, creating some of his most important early video works such as Elevator No.4 2003 and Train No.1 2005 incorporating these syncopated movements. It was also during this time, while filming the camera motion control device to check its calibration, that Crooks noticed the Lego block he had used as a measure was creating a fascinating helical image. Replacing the block with a piece of white crumpled paper he found in the studio, Crooks made another serendipitous discovery: by capturing timelapse images of paper spinning on top of the device he was able to create high-resolution swirling helical structures with a stunning depth of field. Highly sculptural, Crooks captured these malleable extrusions in his ‘Imaginary object’ series as both photographic and video form, varying the width of the displaced pixel slices to turn his humble crumpled paper into temporal objects with textural characteristics reminiscent of milk, silk and marble.

digital-blog-Daniel Crooks_Static No
Daniel Crooks / Static No.12 (seek stillness in movement) (still) 2010 / Single-channel high-definition digital video, 5:23 minutes, 16:9, colour, stereo / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

With each successive time slice work, Crooks has continued to push the boundaries of the process. His more recent works, such as Static No.12 (seek stillness in movement) 2010 and Static No.19 (shibuya rorschach) 2012, largely eschew the staccato rhythms of earlier works to embrace a fluidity in which the footage begins to stretch and melt to the edges of the screen. Most recently Crooks’s practice has also seen the actualisation of a goal he has held for a number of years: the ability to extend beyond the screen the temporal forms that have emerged through his practice, to be realised as three-dimensional objects. Constructed from sequences of two-dimensional slices through a combination of motion-capture technologies and depth-sensing cameras, Crooks likens the process to capturing movement ‘in the same way the surface of a lake experiences the body of a swimmer or a boats hull over time, I’m looking for a way to capture a sequence of cross-sections’.4 The resulting series ‘Truths unveiled by time’ reflect the warped extrusions of movement apparent in many of his time slice videos alongside the tactile and dimensional qualities of his ‘Imaginary object’ series.

digital-blog-Daniel Crooks_Truths unveiled by time 3_2014
Daniel Crooks / Truths Unveiled by Time #3 2014 / Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene plastic / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

Since the inception of Crooks’s manipulations of video through to his recent move into sculptural works, he has continued to challenge both the medium and outcome, creating extraordinary meditations on the relations between temporal and spatial displacement. This exhibition allows the viewer to trace the evolution of this practice which, like the works that it has created, moves with a graceful fluidity through time and space.

Endnotes
1  Gaston Bachelard, La Poetique de l’Espace (The Poetics of Space), Presses Universitaires de France, 1958, reprinted by Penguin Books, New York, 2014.
2  Crooks attributes the use of the phrase ‘time slice’ to Tim Macmillan, who created the first multi lens camera through which to capture extreme slow-motion 360-degree views of a single moment. Created in 1980, the technology is now more commonly known as ‘bullet time’ and is often used in Hollywood films such as The Matrix 1999.
2  Lawrence Weschler, A Conversation with Melbourne Video Artist Daniel Crooks, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art University of South Australia, Adelaide, 2013, p.7.
3  Weschler, p.12.
4  Discussions with the artist, June 2013.