Exploring Light and Shadow: Film Noir and Photography

 ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists


ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists

The Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, now on view through March 1, explores how European exiles and émigrés helped create some of the most classic Hollywood films during and immediately after World War II. Film noir is one of the genres from that era that was heavily shaped by these film artists. Noir films present thrilling stories involving intrigue, suspense, disillusionment, and corruption. Characters are often immersed in dark worlds full of tension and uncertainty. As a companion to Light & Noir, the exhibition The Noir Effect looks at a range of contemporary fine art, film, graphic novels, and games that have taken noir in a new direction and redefined it for audiences today. A large section of the exhibition includes contemporary photography by a diverse group of artists who embrace and experiment with the aesthetics of film noir.

Among these artists is the Los Angeles–based photography duo ROUSE & JONES. Partners in life as well as art, writer/director Mitchell Rouse and photographer/producer Brittany Jones began collaborating in 2009, and soon developed a photography series called NOIR based on their love of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The pair’s work combines several elements of film, photography, performance, and storytelling.

Rather than re-creating films that already exist, ROUSE & JONES create a new story in the film noir style using a distinct sequence of techniques. First, they write an original, noir-inspired script that includes setting, action, and dialogue. Then, they ask actors to perform the story, directing the actors’ lines and gestures as they photograph the unfolding scene. Several “takes” of each scene are photographed, shot from different angles and using multiple lighting setups. The actors are encouraged to improvise so that the tension and realism of each scene are heightened.

ROUSE & JONES believe in nurturing the noir genre for future generations; on February 26, as part of the “Light & Noir in Los Angeles” high school residency at the Skirball, the pair will meet with students to discuss their work and share techniques. But before they do, I thought I’d check in with them on SkirBlog and see if they could provide a few more insights into their fascinating way of working:

 

What is it about film noir that you are so drawn to? Why do you think this type of work that draws from noir themes is still so relevant and compelling today?
We love film noir because it’s all about “painting with light,” as the great noir cinematographer John Alton would say. Obviously that’s true of every image ever created, but the noir aesthetic is probably the most dramatic example of how light can be used to tell stories and create emotions. Light and shadow are always “characters” in noir imagery.

Noir themes are still relevant today because they are universal. Noir explores the dark side of man (and world), and those are things that every person faces in their lives. There’s an interesting balance between light and dark within every person, Continue reading

Lost and Found: A Noir Adventure

In November, children and their families participated in “Skirball Playdate: Mildred’s Purse,” a morning-long adventure offered in connection with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950. The program included a special performance by Skirball educator Anna Dresdon, who played the title character based on the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce. Having lost precious items from her purse, “Mildred” asked the children to help her do some detective work. Armed with special hats and magnifying glasses, they all worked together to search the exhibition for the missing items.

Before heading out into the galleries, the young detectives made their own 1940s-inspired hats. SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_1

 

What’s this? A clue on the red carpet? SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_2

 

I found it! One little boy discovered Mildred’s lost Oscar inside the office of Hollywood agent Paul Kohner, which is re-created as part of the Light & Noir exhibition. SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_3

 

Beads from Mildred’s prized necklace were discovered rolling around in the Casablanca section of the exhibition.  Continue reading

Light & Noir: Through the Curator’s Lens

Red Carpet Season is well underway, and if you watched the Golden Globes last night, wasn’t it nice to glimpse a bit of classic Hollywood glamour?

Here at the Skirball, we’re approaching the halfway mark of our own homage to the Golden Age of American filmmaking, Light & Noir: Exiles and Emigres in Hollywood, 1933-1950. As KCRW’s Edward Goldman says, “From the get-go, it’s a winner.” With only about seven weeks to go until the proverbial credits roll on the show, I sat down with curator Doris Berger, who conceived of the exhibition and worked tirelessly on it for more than two years before its October “premiere.”

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light and Noir.

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light & Noir.

 

Is there one particular object in the exhibition that moves you especially deeply?
There are so many objects that move me in this exhibition. It was really hard to decide sometimes what to include and what to leave out. The correspondence of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, to his extended family in 1938 is incredibly affecting—full of humility and conviction to help others. In a letter to his nephew William Wyler, Laemmle pleads for him to do everything he possibly can to help other refugees. Here’s a quote from that letter: “The Jewish situation in Germany has been getting on my nerves for a long, long time. I feel that these poor, unfortunate people need help the worst way. … If you want to do something really big—something that will give you an immense amount of pleasure—issue one or more affidavits, as many as your means permit. … I feel that every person in America, Jew or non-Jew, with a heart, should do his bit, and thereby get an immense amount of satisfaction and possibly save one or more lives.”

Laemmle also wrote a simple Christmas card to other family members on which he writes, Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2015

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections, University of Southern California Libraries. On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections,
University of Southern California Libraries.
On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

 

I had the privilege of knowing Marta Feuchtwanger, pictured above with her beloved husband, Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958), the famed German Jewish writer. She and I were friends for two decades in her later years (we met in 1964; she died in 1987). From her I learned of Lion’s celebrated novels and plays, his outspoken opposition to the Nazi regime, his rescue from Nazi-occupied France, and his new life with her in Los Angeles. Their magnificent home in Pacific Palisades is now known as Villa Aurora, and stands as a memorial to the exiles and émigrés who found refuge from Nazi persecution in the United States.

Marta told me how Lion spoke out against Adolf Hitler as early as the 1920s. Continue reading

Light & Noir: A “True Hollywood Story”

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in <i>Light & Noir</i>

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in Light & Noir.

For the European exiles and émigrés featured in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Hollywood was much more than the glamorous place of fame and fortune we often think of now. During those years, in juxtaposition to the turmoil brewing in Nazi Europe, Hollywood was a place where these émigrés could take refuge and start their lives anew.

This clip from the PBS documentary Cinema’s Exiles gives some context about what émigrés were fleeing from. You can watch the full film on the big screen here at the Skirball on March 1.

But, as is still the case, immigrating to the United States was no simple task. In addition to the geographical distance they had to overcome, émigrés also had to comply with the United States’ strict immigration laws. Many of them came on visitor visas that would expire after a certain amount of time. If they wanted to legally extend their stay—and, unsurprisingly, many of them did—they needed to file a Declaration of Intention. Not unlike what is today called a “green card,” the Declaration granted permanent residency in the U.S. And while it wouldn’t automatically grant these émigrés citizenship, it was the first step they had to take if they wanted to acquire it.

On loan from the National Archives at Riverside, the original Declaration of Intention forms currently on display in Light & Noir reveal some lesser-known facts about people we know well by different names. For instance, actress Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express, A Foreign Affair) and director Henry Koster (It Started with Eve, Harvey) were actually born as Maria Magdalene Sieber and Hermann Julius Kosterlitz. Marlene_Dietrich_Declaration_of_Intention

Not every category could be answered as matter-of-factly as one’s name… Continue reading

Top 10 Items in the Femme Fatale’s Arsenal

Group1With the exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect in full swing, noir is in the air here at the Skirball. Inspired by the seductive femme fatales of film noir, I’ve selected ten alluring items from our Light & Noir Holiday Pop-Up Shop that are perfect for the mysterious woman on your gift list. There’s no need to go on a manhunt for a creative Hanukkah present or saucy stocking-stuffer this year. Skip the bedlam at the mall and slip into the boudoir at the pop-up shop for some of these sassy and clever gifts.

  1. The Perfect Red Lipstick
    As the chaotic holidays approach, I heed this advice from Elizabeth Taylor: “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.” Red lipstick (and perhaps a little gin!) really is the perfect pick-me-up. During WWII, cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden encouraged women to wear red lips as a symbol of victory. (The beauty company even released a line of cosmetics for the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, which included the shade “Victory Red” to coordinate with their uniforms.) Personally, I look to locally-based Bésame Cosmetics for long-lasting, classically glamorous shades of red. One of my personal favorites is Red Velvet. Every Bésame product is re-created from popular vintage formulas and lovingly packaged in a retro style. Learn for yourself how to apply that perfect femme fatale look on Sunday, December 7, when Bésame Cosmetics founder Gabriela Hernandez gives a makeup talk and demo in conjunction with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.
  2. An Alluring Perfume
    Perfumer Margot Elena created this irresistible “Femme Fatale” collection of fragrances, part of her TokyoMilk/DARK line. Each fragrance is stunningly packaged in matte-black bottles featuring charming lithograph illustrations for each scent. My favorite is “Everything & Nothing” No. 10, with its light hint of citrus. I’m also a fan of the coordinating hand creams.
  3. Compact Mirror
    A slim, stylish compact mirror is a must for every glamour girl to ensure her makeup is always in place. I myself designed the pattern featured on this cute compact from LucyLu as a nod to the iconic film noir motif of striped shadows. The compact is accompanied by a protective silver leatherette pouch with a magnetic closure, which helps keep the outside of the mirror shiny and scratch-free. Continue reading

Dressed to Kill: Film Noir Fashion

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive.

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive. 

Taking a historical and aesthetic approach to film noir fashion, educator Kimberly Truhler has connected the dots between the realities of American life in the 1930s and 1940s (a harsh economic climate, social and cultural trends, wartime struggles) and the amazing resourcefulness and creativity of cinematic costume designers. Her informative and visually appealing website GlamAmor demonstrates how these classic trends have endured and continue to influence today’s fashion. In conjunction with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Truhler appears at the Skirball on December 7 to give a lecture on “The History of Fashion in Film Noir.” Below, we ask the style maven about the origins of her passion for film fashion history and for a sneak peek at some of the films and designers she’ll be discussing.

What was the first film noir you watched, and what did you think of it at the time?

My father has been a police officer all of my life, and he loved to watch film noir when he came home from work. As a result, I saw movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Thin Man when I was just a child, and I absolutely adored them. I was drawn to the mood and mystery of these films first, and then started to really appreciate their overall style. Film noir was my introduction to classic cinema and it began a lifelong passion for it. I suspect it’s that way for many other people as well. Continue reading

Songs of Freedom: In Honor of Veterans Day

National Jewish Welfare Board, Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces, 1943. Gift of Herman and Polly Alevy, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.102.

National Jewish Welfare Board, Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces, 1943. Gift of Herman and Polly Alevy, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.102.

On Veterans Day, as we honor the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, I was inspired to look into our Museum collection for artifacts that reveal interesting stories of the wartime experiences of soldiers. Of the many items from which to choose, this small songbook struck me as a fascinating example of how World War II American Jewish soldiers doubly identified with the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. United behind a common cause, soldiers and the American people at large shared a deep sense of patriotism. For Jewish servicemen and women, defeating Germany and the Axis powers was more urgent still: the survival of European Jewry was at stake, as well as the defeat of hatred, discrimination, and ethnic persecution.

Two symbols on the cover reveal who published the songbook and hint at its purpose. “JWB” stands for the National Jewish Welfare Board, formed at the start of World War I to support Jewish soldiers in the U.S. military. The JWB supplied ritual objects and miniature prayer books, as well as food packages complete with gefilte fish and honey cake.

National Jewish Welfare Board, Military Passover Seder Menu, 1945. Gift of Isidore and Shirley Erenberg, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.23.

National Jewish Welfare Board, Military Passover Seder Menu, 1945. Gift of Isidore and Shirley Erenberg, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.23.

In 1941, the JWB joined with five other service organizations—including the YMCA and the Salvation Army—to strengthen the morale of the Armed Forces. This consortium quickly became known as the United Service Organizations, or USO—the other symbol on the cover. The songbook, we can gather, was meant to bolster both the spiritual and emotional well-being of the troops.

Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces includes hymns and songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish “suitable for Sabbath and festival days and other social and cultural group meetings.” The book mixes patriotic songs (“God Bless America”), liturgical music (“Sh’ma Yisrael”), and even old-time spirituals (“Go Down, Moses”). The songs reflect the democracy of national, cultural, and religious identities of the soldiers who sang them. Most important in the dark years of World War II, they represented—and served—the cause of freedom.

 

Two of my grandparents— Gloria Forster Clancey and Harry "Pat" Clancey—served in the Marine Corps during WWII.

Two of my grandparents— Gloria Forster Clancey and Harry “Pat” Clancey—served in the Marine Corps during WWII.

 

President’s Greeting: Nov/Dec 2014

The Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958

A rare photograph of the extended Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958.

Memory is meaning. It is how we understand existence. It is how we locate ourselves in time. It is what we learn and how we learn. Amnesia is a tragedy, for in severing us from the past, it severs us from ourselves. Who are we without that frame of reference? How can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

The debut of the Skirball’s new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 prompts these reflections.

Continue reading

Words from the Heart

How do we express love? What does it take to have a lasting relationship, friendship, or marriage? What did your parents or grandparents teach you about unconditional love? These were just some of the questions posed to the public by Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) as they explored the meanings of love and commitment for Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, a multi-phase exhibition on view through October 12 at the Skirball. Sorting through hundreds of responses, Fallen Fruit realized that three different voices emerged—representing wisdom, reason, and guidance on everyday actions. The artists then carefully selected and organized these key words and phrases (using three distinct font styles) to create a commitment document called Love Score. The document is a contemporary take on the ketubbah, a traditional Jewish marriage contract. Densely designed in a style reminiscent of visual poetry, the Love Score provides a unique set of instructions on how to love someone.

Fallen Fruit, Love Score, 2014. Co-authored with the public, this dense text piece takes a few minutes to “decode,” but eventually the words form a harmonious statement about how to love others.

Fallen Fruit, Love Score, 2014. Co-authored with the public, this dense text piece takes a few minutes to “decode,” but eventually the words form a harmonious statement about how to love others.

Continue reading