succeeded in curtailing
concern for others
Adapted from the book, “The pleasures and sorrows of work” by Alain de Botton, (Random House – 2009) and the passage:
In New York Movie (1939), an usherette stands by the stairwell of an ornate pre-war theatre. Whereas the audience is sunk in semidarkness, she is bathed in a rich pool of yellow light. As often in Hopper’s work, her expression suggests that her thoughts have carried her elsewhere. She is beautiful and young, with carefully curled blond hair, and there are a touching fragility and an anxiety about her which elicit both care and desire. Despite her lowly job, she is the painting’s guardian of integrity and intelligence, the Cinderella of the cinema. Hopper seems to be delivering a subtle commentary on, and indictment of, the medium itself, implying that a technological invention associated with communal excitement has paradoxically succeeded in curtailing our concern for others. The painting’s power hangs on the juxtaposition of two ideas: first, that the woman is more interesting than the film, and second, that she is being ignored because of the film. In their haste to take their seats, the members of the audience have omitted to notice that they have in their midst a heroine more sympathetic and compelling than any character Hollywood could offer up. It is left to the painter, working in a quieter, more observant idiom, to rescue what the film has encouraged its viewers not to see.
And the painting, New York Movie by Ed Hopper.
Reading the history of the painting on Wikipedia I was struck by three things.
One was the note that “Hopper was fascinated by film, and it is said that, when experiencing creative block, he would stay at the theater all day.“
So much community has been lost due to covid and high on that list is the movie theater experience of the big room and the screen, alone in the darkness, surrounded by many.
Though much of this was already lost due to the person next to you or behind you who could not handle the idea that any message they might receive required an immediate response and of course their phone would not be turned off.
Another was the note that fans of the painting and Mr. Hopper have long tried to identify the movie in the painting.
On the one hand easily this is just oh-come-on and just-enjoy-the-painting.
But on the other, for example, when I read an obscure novel and come across an address that lodges in my brain so that years, decades later, reading another novel and this author, for no reason at all that anyone might think, uses that same address and I suspect some form of ‘homage‘ yet one that I may among the few people that get it, I feel I am sitting at a table with both authors.
Picturing yourself at a table with Compton Mackenzie and Jim Harrison is a pleasant picture.
It is a silent picture because if ever I found myself at that table, I am sure that about all the conversation I could come up with would be, “Yes it is warm for this time of year.”
The last thing, I as I read the discussion, was that I noticed that what Mr. de Botton wrote about the painting, that “communal excitement has paradoxically succeeded in curtailing our concern for others” that shows up in the painting, shows up in the discussion as well.
There was one comment though.
Others claim that New York Movie and other paintings of city life are Hopper’s ode to the warmth and endurance of the human spirit in the midst of the dehumanizing existence that is mass living.
Somehow these two statements come can come together as:
While communal excitement has paradoxically succeeded in curtailing our concern for others, the warmth and endurance of the human spirit in the midst of the dehumanizing existence endures.
I like that.
Almost like being at the table with Alain de Botton and Ed Hopper.
And me talking about the cold rain outside my window.
PS – According to Wikipedia, “Josephine Hopper (Mrs. Ed Hopper) wrote in her notes on New York Movie that the image represents fragments of snow-covered mountains.” Which makes me think that the movie must be Lost Horizons which came out in 1937/.