Night As A Refuge For Artists In Film
Salamis Aysegul Sentug examines a trilogy of movies that not only embrace the art of night but also celebrate it as a field of creative space where artists and writers venture out.
What happens to us, to the creative ones, when night arrives? For all nottambulas, aesthetic inspiration lies in the nocturnal life. For them, night not only specifies time but also place – a zone of uninhibited creativity.
Many directors have paid tribute to the dark hours. The following is a trilogy of movies that not only embrace the art of night but also celebrate it as a field of creative space where artists and writers venture out.
Martin Scorsese: After Hours
- “Different rules apply after hours”
The film opens with a word processor’s trainee sharing his dream about creating his own literary magazine, a forum that would create opportunity for aspiring writers, the ones “waiting to be discovered”, while the main character, Paul (Griffin Dunne), passively listens to him. The harmonious strains of Mozart‘s Symphony in D Major are playing in the background, in stark contrast to what the night is about to bring to Paul’s ordinary life.
Paul, who has a 9-to-5 job as a word processor, errs in taking a risk and calling the pretty girl he meets in a downtown café that night, after she quotes a passage from the book he is reading. Then, he finds himself in a nightmare on New York’s Soho streets.
Night of a city: Fascinatingly Wild Manhattan
This is a film that takes place over the course of a single night, a night like no other. As a territory of weirdness, it contains all kinds of troubles embraced by the New York netherworld. At the beginning of the film, Paul is warned of this by Dick Miller – appearing as a diner waiter – who tells him “different rules apply after hours”.
The meta-film is intertwined with motifs, repetitive coincidences and an abundance of synchronicity that never feel artificial. To the contrary, Scorsese’s outstanding cinematic skills render them into rhymes of a quirky, dark, but enchanted poem written about night.
Manhattan is depicted as wild and fantastical as Alice’s Wonderland. Among the nocturnal characters surfacing in this Kafkaesque adventure are burglars, murderers, freaks and suicidal lonely people. The main theme, however, revolves around artists, and artists who “are waiting to be discovered.”
As the strange night wears on, Paul strives to return to his safe zone. He does not want to meet interesting people anymore, he does not want to learn about the weirdly alluring after-hours lives of the artists, he just wants to go back to his normal life and live. But while he “just wants to live”, the more he strives to return home, the more he is haunted by the night’s perpetual troubles, and finally, he himself is trapped inside an object of art. The night is daring, the night is devil, the night is surely not for everyone. Yet, the night is the home of artists. Here is a list of the eccentric ones he encounters, the ones who find their place in “After Hours”.
The Artists Of After Hours, Venturing At Night
Kiki Bridges (Linda Florentine): a sculptress who creates paper-weight sculptures in the shape of bagels and the sadomasochistic roommate of Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) – the pretty girl who triggered the night. Kiki is a nottambula, and when Paul arrives, she asks him to help with her sculpture, in which Paul finds quite a resemblance to Munch’s Scream.
June (Verna Bloom): another sculptress, whom Paul meets at a late-night, invitation-only conceptual art show. She is a lonely artist who spends her nights either sitting alone or working in her studio, which is at the back of a night club. She is the one who imprisons him into a Scream-like sculpture in order to “rescue” him from vigilantes who are seeking him.
The cashier who “waits to be discovered”: at the diner where Paul meets Marcy, the cashier dances by himself, which Marcy finds “weird”. However, Paul comments that “maybe he is just waiting to be discovered”.
Julie (Teri Garr): a waitress, whom Paul meets in the bar where she is working. She gives him a napkin with ”Help! I hate this job!” written on it, then invites him over to rescue him from the rain. She turns out to be another one “waiting to be discovered”, an artist who paints portraits of 1960s rock-stars in her lonely, anachronistic life. Her portrait painting of Paul brings him additional trouble.
Pepe: Art sure is ugly.
Neil: Shows how much you know about art. The uglier the art, the more it’s worth.
Pepe: This must be worth a fortune, man.
Paul runs across Pepe (Tommy Chong) and Neil (Cheech Marin), burglars – but certainly not philistines – who are about steal a sculpture. At least, Paul believes so, though it was the first piece of art they have ever bought. At the end of the film, they are the ones who accidentally help him wake up from the chaotic madness of the night.
By showing the ill-fated attempts of an ordinary word processor to survive the city’s after-hours, the film celebrates one’s efforts to push one’s own limits, to emerge from the cocoon and venture on the wild side. The film also celebrates the uncanny beauty of the night that sustains freaks, loners and artists, yet cocoons others.
Jim Jarmusch: Only Lovers Left Alive
In opposition to the up-beat pace of After Hours, Only Lovers Left Alive is a very laid-back movie. It’s a Jarmusch film, after all, with art, music and literature at the centre of its gloomy atmosphere. Although it is a vampire movie, instead of focusing on the horrifying nature of being a vampire, it constructs its theme on love and the appreciation of art.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are vampires who are still deeply in love after centuries together, although they currently live in different cities, both with exquisite – yet very different – lifestyles. The arrival of Eve’s sister eventually brings them to travel across half the world, facing the ontological difficulties of a vampire through the journey.
This movie is perhaps one of the best of its kind in that it helps us to understand what it is to be a vampire and how it is possible to live meaningfully when faced with infinite time.
Yes, it is a vampire movie, so the praise of the night comes from its very nature. It is certainly not for everyone to set a film entirely at night, but Jarmusch makes the audience forget about the need for light. Instead, the light comes from the friction of duality of the characters, as well as from the dichotomy of West and East, where the two characters have settled, in Detroit and Tangiers.
Whether it is the night-time ghost-town of Detroit or a spooky neighbourhood in Tangier, different shades of darkness grasp and reveal the spirit of the night.
Night Of Two cities: Abandoned, Decaying Detroit & Eerie, Colourful Tangier
Adam’s suicidal soul is well-suited to the deserted nightscapes of the ghost-town, where no crepuscular activity takes place.
When Eve visits Adam in Detroit, in order to cheer him up, they go out for a night ride. Adam shows her the Michigan Theatre, where he spills out his hatred against people’s destruction of beautiful things. He is living on the edge of suicide and the reason for his chronic depression is the vulgarity that has so long surrounded him.
The imagery of the two opposing characters is beautifully depicted: one extremely dark and suicidal, the other as peaceful as a night-blooming flower.
The film soon moves to the nightlife of Tangier, with its authentic, peaceful texture and its inspiring music, which nourishes Eve artistically. There, the late hours of the night could be disturbing and dangerous for a woman who walks alone on the streets. After all those years, it seems that Eve has become an expert in neglecting the street vendors constantly offering something, shouting “we have what you want”. In order to get the “good stuff”, high-quality blood from her supplier, Kit (John Hurt), she must venture into the night. And after all, what could possibly lurk in the night that a vampire should fear? Eve meets Kit, who does not want to be called by his real name, Marlowe.
Marlowe – yes, the Elizabethan author Christopher Marlowe – who never enjoys talking about the thing between himself and Shakespeare – also lives in Tangier. The literary spirit is the core of the film.
Life without art would be torture for a vampire
“Eve: Mary Shelley – what was she like?
Adam: She was delicious.”
-Only Lovers Left Alive
What would you do with all the nights in the world? In the fullness of time, you become either an artist or a great art enthusiast. Life would be torture for a vampire without the quest for meaning in art. This is true, at least, for our vampires, Adam and Eve, who surround themselves with collectible musical instruments, artworks and rare books.
Adam’s romantic character is a celebration of vampire aesthetics, his sombre Victorian mansion bursting with relics of past centuries, and his wall of heroes, hung with portraits of inspiring characters. He is surely one of the coolest vampires in the history of film. While obtaining blood from the hospital – yes, he buys his blood from the hospital – Adam disguises himself as Dr. Faust.
Adam is a musician. He has been composing anonymously for centuries, having given some compositions to Schubert, was a friend of Byron and has been a muse to all the characters in history that have been muses for us. Yet, the degeneration of civilization he sees as the centuries pass has made him put a distance between himself and all kinds of pleasures, including artistic ones.
Opposite Adam, Eve is a joyous character. She can still find beauty in small things. She spends her nights in otherworldly dancing or reading classics, often wandering around the dark Tangier streets. She can read incredibly fast in all languages, and she packs only books for her journey to Detroit.
As this film encompasses us, we find ourselves developing a certain level of sympathy with even the evil side of vampires’ due to their sensible nature and the way they treasure art. With this film, Jarmusch, who is fond of after-hours (another of his tributes to the night is Night on Earth, 1991), fully celebrates the artistic glory of the night.
Jacques Audiard: De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrête (The Beat that My Heart Skipped)
Compared to the other two films, this one incorporates a considerable amount of daylight – but the thing that makes it special is what happens during the nights.
At the beginning of the film, Tom (Romain Duris), a real-estate broker who hates his job, is shown carrying a bag full of rats, which he soon releases inside a building in order to be able to buy it at a cheaper rate. He is a loner at odds with himself, torn between two disparate worlds. Should he follow in his father’s footsteps and continue the dangerous world of crime, or should he follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a concert pianist?
The possibility of salvation arrives: one day, the former manager of his deceased mother offers him a chance to audition to play for a concert. After ten years of not touching the keys of a piano, Tom finds himself in a musical marathon that stretches his boundaries, he began practicing ceaselessly at nights in the pursuit of his childhood dreams. The piano is an escape from the harsh reality in which he lives, but taking control of his life is not going to be easy.
Although he is criticised by his colleagues that ‘the piano thing is making him mad’ and also scorned by his father – who is demanding criminal acts from him for illicit businesses of his own – Tom insists on following his ambition and finds himself a piano tutor, Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), a Chinese student who has just arrived to Paris with no French. Although they cannot communicate through language, they connect artistically, and she becomes his only escape from the dark, aggressive, criminal side of his soul.
Paris Between Two Worlds: The Dark Side Of Violent Days Versus The Bright Side Of Artistic Nights
Tom’s days are spent engaged in criminal acts, such as releasing rats into flats, smashing windows of buildings, and frightening squatters, yet his nights bloom with creativity and passion. Apart from his piano lessons with Miao Lin, night is the only time that he acknowledges his true self and crosses over to his artistic side. The bohemian Parisian nights have the power to make Tom believe that he can truly become the pianist he has always dreamed of being. The nights are a musical journey through not only the imagined future of his realised potential as a pianist, but also through the past, via his mother’s old music tapes he listens to before his practice.
A dualist harmony pervades this film. Even Tom’s musicality centres around subtle contrasts. The bursting hard-core techno during the days’ lone car rides reflects his aggressive business life, while the classical music at night represents a nocturnal inquiry into the art of one’s finding harmony of his life. This dichotomy is seen throughout the film: aggressive paternal assertion versus artistic maternal passion, immorality versus morality, vulgar brutality versus delicate sensitivity, surrender to the evil side versus hope for salvation, dark versus light, and day versus night.
Audiard plays with these opposing forces not only contextually, but also formally; such as the camera movements are shaky during the day scenes and smooth and placid during the night scenes. As opposite of hours of darkness in the After Hours, the nights represent bright side in The Beat that My Heart Skipped but will Tom trust the inspiring sound of the night or surrender to the mundane violence of daylight? Where does the border lie between the dark and light in one’s own being?
To conclude, the night is transcendental, the night is magical, the night is the refuge of the artist. All films in this trilogy are poetic affirmations of how night fuels artistic potential.
But the main question always remains, what is the thing that makes after-hours so special for the artist?
What do you think about night’s contribution to the artist? What other films you could suggest as an answer to ‘how does night fuel artistic potential’? Let us know in the comments below!
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