Dike Blair
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Again: Selected Interviews and Essays
Design:Mehmet Irdel
by Dike Blair

It's fun to be watching a movie scene and spot some recognizable canvases adorning the background, "Look, there's a Motherwell, a Stella, or a Longo!" This pleasure is accelerated to an almost disturbing level in The Cell. Anyone with a glancing knowledge of contemporary art who sees this special effects serial killer thriller will recognize more-or-less direct appropriations of visual art from artists who include: Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, Mariko Mori, and Odd Nurdrum.

We're used to seeing some thinly disguised version of this month's gallery exhibition in next month's fashion magazine, but it's more startling to see the same strategy in a summer blockbuster. An unspoken art world ethic--increasingly antiquated and often violated--finds it unfair for artists with higher visibility to steal (or "borrow," if we subscribe to Picasso's famous quotation) from those with lower visibility. And it is this ethic that gives me pause given the discrepancy in sizes of art vs. movie audiences. On the other hand, artists have never been shy about culling source material from more dominant media (especially film), this is the Age of Sampling, and none of the artists whose work is referenced in The Cell are hurting in the fame and fortune department.

The Cell was directed by Tarsem Singh, a graduate of Art Center in L.A. where he would have come in contact with a lot of visual art. He has previously directed stylish music videos (Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M.) and commercials, but this is his first feature film. The movie's "look" is more compelling than its narrative and, occassionally it's stunning. Clearly, a host of individuals (including Japanese artist Eiko Ishioka) in all of the creative departments contributed to the movie's visuals. But my telephone odyssey through New Line Cinema's PR department led me to its Production Designer, Tom Foden, and one of its Art Directors, Michael Manson, who have worked together on films (Gus Van Sant's Pyscho) and music videos. They were generous in fielding my questions.

Dike Blair: Where did contemporary art quotations in The Cell come from?

Tom Foden: When we came on, Tarsem had already done a bunch of research and come up with a number of images he thought were appropriate. In terms of reference, we pulled from art and photography books, from film--from everything but the kitchen sink.

Dike Blair: Did Tarsem suggest images created by particular artists?

Tom Foden: Not really. For each of the dream sequences we researched a ton of things. I don't really feel you can say we referenced a particular artist, or style of photography, for any part of the film-it was all put in a blender.

Dike Blair: It seemed much more than that. Sequences like the slicing of a horse and the killing vitrine were totally Damien Hirst.

Tom Foden: In that particular instance, we researched Damien Hirst.

Dike Blair: The other most obvious debt would be to Matthew Barney?

Michael Manson: It's funny, initially we had a lot of references to Barney's work but even though that's been mentioned before, I don't think we ever incorporated too much of it into the film.

Dike Blair: The make-up, like the ram horns, Vincent D'Onofrio's emergence from the pool, the baroque costuming-they all seemed right out of Cremaster 5.

Tom Foden: That's the one in the bathhouse? Water runs throughout The Cell because of the killer's problem but we weren't really referencing Barney in that scene at all and, actually, I never saw that particular film.

Dike Blair: Are any of you, Tarsem included, regular museumgoers or collectors?

Michael Manson: Being in the art department it's almost a necessity to keep ahead of what out there. I think most of us are avid museumgoers. Tarsem is quite knowledgeable about art history in general and especially about contemporary art.

Dike Blair: I don't want this to become a debate about intellectual property rights; but was there any notion of crediting, or thanking, the sources of the inspiration?

Michael Manson: I know the legal departments with New Line Cinema were very knowledgeable and understanding of certain things we were trying to present and I would guess they've made all the necessary contacts. Unfortunately I don't think we ever had the opportunity to speak to any of the people whose work we so admired. I think we'd all welcome that opportunity, if they called to say, "The Cell reminds me of some of my stuff." We'd love to say, "Thank you."

Dike Blair: Did you look at Odd Nurdrum's painting?

Tom Foden: There was the one scene with the three mothers that was heavily influenced by his paintings. In actual fact, I think our original inspiration for that scene sprang from a Fellini's Il Casanova.

Dike Blair: And Mariko Mori?

Michael Manson: She's great. Again perhaps it found itself in the costuming. When we all looked at her work we were admiring of the playfulness of her costumes and the situations of her photos.

I think what all of us in the art department have appreciated since the film's release is the fact that the educational level of art was noticed. Many times the American audience is not given enough credit for understanding high concept art. I think Tarsem realized that this wasn't true, that we could make a film with this kind of imagery and that people would get it. They'd know they'd seen things similar to this and were pleased to see a film that was brave enough to show it.

Dike Blair: Well, I'd suggest that 99% of the people leaving the Cineplex have never heard of Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney.

Michael Manson: Perhaps they may not know the reference, but they know when they've seen something spectacular and new.

Dike Blair: So, the film industry has been missing a rich vein to mine?

Tom Foden: I think that's right. That's why you're seeing a lot more video and commercial directors moving into making more daring looking movies--more delving into the subconscious in the way of visual art. When you see a work of art, you're emotionally moved by that piece, you don't always understand why.

There could be a number of places to get pics for The Cell. Here's one site: http://movies.yahoo.com/shop?d=hv&id=1800419994&cf=mm2

Maybe you can match one up to either Barney or Hirst.

Dike Blair: The animation of the sliced horse is arguably more powerful than Hirst's creation.

Tom Foden: That came out of long discussions. We always knew that the horse was going to be a continuing image. There was something very intriguing about taking that image and working it into a moving image. That was actually done by a company based in Paris called BUF. They do incredible visual effects.

Michael Manson: In regards to the animation of that particular scene, one of the wonderful luxuries you have in film or music video is the taking of an idea and taking it a step further by animating it. Damien Hirst has found a beauty in the most obscure and banal things, but remains a still image and we all agreed to take that a step further and to say, "What if we took something similar to this and animate it? How much more value would that have in terms of beauty and shock?

Dike Blair: It's also the imperative of narrative. Does borrowing from filmmakers like the Brothers Quay belong to a different arena?

Tom Foden: Originally we talked to the Brothers Quay to be involved in the film. And they were quite keen to do so but scheduling problems made them unavailable. Everybody is influenced by what they see and the Quays are doing fantastic work, but we tried not to go too much into that world.

Michael Manson: Where the Quay Brothers really did influence us was back in the beginning in our talks when we agreed that what we liked was the absurdity and the cadence to the animation of their puppets. I think Tarsem wanted to visualize that both in terms of how he had characters move and in the editing process.