Melodramatic Interiors: Talking About the Movies with Dawn Clements 


Whitney Biennial artist Dawn Clements draws interior spaces, often from movies, and most often from melodramas. I arrived at her Greenpoint studio to find a round table set with vintage fabrics, a bowl of tiny pale green apples, piles of dried figs and boiled eggs, two slightly chipped cups for coffee, and a plate with a yellow cube of butter identical in size to two hunks of broken baguette. "Is this a still life... or breakfast?" I asked. "Oh," she said, surprised, "Breakfast."

A sizeable corner of her studio is stacked with DVDs and videos. Clements and I nibbled on figs while talking about melodrama, favorite actresses (On Jeanne Crain: "She feels a little fidgety sometimes, the way she moves her shoulders") and her large-scale drawings ("Everything gets really abstracted, because all of the decisions have been made by the filmmaker, really, in terms of values of lightness and darkness. Sometimes there are moments when I'm drawing something and I don't really know what it is").

Dawn Clements: A movie that I've wanted to work with for a long time is Earrings of Madame de...

The L: Do you have a clear idea yet of how you'd like to work with that yet?

DC: Yes, actually. There's that opening shot where the lead actress, Danielle Darrieux, is sitting at her vanity table deciding what she's going to wear for the evening, opening her drawers and looking at earrings and necklaces and saying, oh that's not right. But it turns out she's not looking for something to wear for the evening but for something to sell, to make a bit of money. The funny thing is that you don't see her face—you just see it from her point of view, as far as I can remember, at least until she goes to the mirror.

You know, I don't think she's ever named in that movie, she's one of those. Like the way Joan Fontaine is never named in Rebecca.

The L: So what appeals to you about that scene, to use as inspiration for your work? Is it the point-of-view? I'm trying to get a sense of your process, of why that works for what you're doing...

DC: Yeah, point of view. We're not looking at her but we're looking at what she sees. And I'm interested in these possessions that define her, in a way. But not in a completely shallow way. She's actually aware of the history of all those things. It's a beautiful movie.

The L: I feel like there are some strange spatial elements in your work, too, that have to do with time?

DC: Yeah, in that movie, too, definitely. I don't think the camera shuts off either; it goes into the closet and moves across to the vanity table.

You know, working from the movies, I'm usually working from shots, or piecing together a series of shots, in a way that seems to be putting together a seamless space.

The L: Like the Ophuls camera?

DC: Yeah. What I'm looking for in movies, in terms of my own artwork, are scenes that describe 360-degree spaces. Like in the Joan Crawford movie Sudden Fear, the director David Miller gives us all 360 degrees of his room, which is unusual, but they're not giving it to us all at once.

The L: So, is the time that it takes to understand the layout of that space then absorbed into the narrative of your picture?

DC: I think so. Often times it happens that the first wall might be shot at 10 in the morning in the narrative, and maybe you don't see the fireplace across the room till it's nighttime and the fireplace is on, so that's two very different kinds of lighting.

The L: Do you think that works emotionally as well? Are parts of the drawing then more emotionally loaded than others, or is it strictly visual?

DC: Well that's interesting. That may be true. I generally don't think about that so much. Actually, I know that that's true.


The L: You often include lists in your work...

DC: Oh, true. I include the time codes a lot. There are a lot of numbers in my work. And those usually refer to where I'm freezing the frame. Because sometimes in the movie you might see one wall at, say, five minutes into the film but then you don't see the next wall, even the adjoining wall, until an hour into the movie. And movies are made of a lot of different shots. And, at least in classic Hollywood cinema, all those shots are pieced together to give an impression of a seamless whole. Of course, avant-garde and experimental film exploits those ruptures, but in classic Hollywood film we're not suppose to perceive the seams. But movies of course are very fractured.

And I guess I to do that in my work, too, piece things together so that it looks like one seamless whole, one big room. But if you look at it closely enough—maybe not even so closely!—there are a lot of fractures in my reconstruction of the work.

The L: So, how do you compare your relationship to classic Hollywood cinema with experimental film's, which you said was exploiting the ruptures? Are you then, as well?

DC: I guess I'm acknowledging the ruptures, or the fractures. I'm trying to put it back together to make a whole, almost mending it. Taking this thing that's been all broken apart and kind of darning it back together again.

The L: But where you can actually see the seams? Quilted?

DC: I don't think that I ever point to a break. But I don't think viewers can really avoid sensing the breaks.

The L: Before we get back into classical cinema, I noticed your drawings from Last Year at Marienbad. Is that something you're working or you've worked with often? How does your interest in that film relate to some of the things that you're talking about?

DC: You know, I remember seeing that film in college and I didn't really get it. I felt like nothing really happened, or I didn't understand what was happening. And then I revisited it when I was older and I just loved it. Maybe all of those things that I found difficult about it started to become what I really loved about it. It didn't have a narrative that I could define, and I loved the slowness about it. I liked the way the camera moved through those spaces. And all those characters who seemed real but also seemed masked. And they're not named, either, in that film, are they? I think it's just Man and Woman.


The L: You've mentioned several incidents of characters who aren't named. What appeals to you about the unnamed characters?

DC: That's a good question. I'd like to know. I guess we're so used to naming everything that we see, and people that we see. When there's a character played by a famous actress like Joan Fontaine in the movie Rebecca—no one in the movie ever comments on the fact that she doesn't have a name, or asks what her name is—but then when you start telling people about the movie you say, "Oh I don't remember her name." And it turns out she doesn't have a name. I guess in that movie it's interesting because she's always in the shadow of the dead wife, Rebecca. But in a movie like Madame de... Is it that she's just the property of her husband? And then Last Year at Marienbad is a kind of existential narrative. Man and Woman and all these people are just people, they're all of us.

The L: Is it easier, in all those films, for the viewer to identify with an unnamed character? If the character is not named are we that character, in some ways? Like what you were saying about point-of-view, in Earrings especially. If the character's unnamed...

DC: Oh, we become her. Oh, interesting.

The L: Besides Ophuls, who are some other directors who you love, who inform your work?

DC: Oh I love Resnais, and Douglas Sirk, and Fassbinder, and Bresson. I love Anthony Mann, and of course that's a whole other genre, but I really think Anthony Mann's westerns are really melodramatic. The connection between the men is very intense and emotional.

The L: Have you ever read what Manny Farber says about The Far Country? He talks about space a lot, about the porch. It's really fascinating.

DC: Oh, I haven't. But I like the way westerns deal with space, inside and out. Like John Wayne in The Searchers, how they frame him in the doorway of that house; the inside really gets blacked out and the outside is so bright.

The L: So you think westerns are related to melodrama in some ways?

DC: Yeah, some of them get melodramatic in some ways. But then I start to get a little uncomfortable, because how do we define melodrama? Because there's something maybe not so classical about melodrama. Maybe aberrant. It's a little too much, you know? And I guess I like that about it. Because I think too much is real. It's so artificial, it's so fake. About melodramas people say, "No one really talks that way." But we do think people feel that way. Maybe that's what I like about them, that they express things that we can't say.


The L: Who are some of your favorite actresses?

DC: I love Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyk. And I love Lana Turner. With all those actresses, I don't know, I think they just grab onto a role and they own it and go all the way with it. All three of them, especially Crawford and Stanwyck, they worked practically till the day they died... and never walked through a role.

The L: What's your favorite era of Joan Crawford?

DC: I like the late 40s and 50s. I like 'em all. But I particularly like it when she left MGM, starting with Mildred Pierce.

The L: Do you like Autumn Leaves?

DC: I love Autumn Leaves!

The L: I thought you might.

DC: In fact I did a drawing of the interiors of that bungalow.

The L: When you talk about artificiality of delivery, I think of those later Joan Crawford movies, like Autumn Leaves, Johnny Guitar or Female on the Beach. Her delivery is so stretched out, not real at all, yet it's so meaningful and so moving. And I'm not sure why.

You said melodrama was non-classical, but I would almost describe it as sub-classical. It seems to follow the classical form, in some way, but then it's almost like experimental film sometimes. Especially in some Minnelli films, it gets quite abstract.

DC: I'm just thinking about what classical is. It has idealized proportions—like classical architecture in ancient Greece, or the Renaissance with its proportions—and there's drama, in a grand sense. But it has a kind of perfection about it, where the proportions are really considered and nothing is out of place, and I think there's a great beauty in that.

So if you think about the Renaissance, and then you think about Mannerism, which follows that, all of the sudden there's a movement away from maybe Leonardo di Vinci and Rafael to Pontormo and Rosso Fiorntino. And they're still dealing with similar subject matter, with religious subject matter, but the color in Mannerism gets keyed up, and the figures get all stretched-out and distorted.

One of the things that I love about art history is that often times there seems to be this cycle: you have a classical period and then you have a period of mannerism. In the 16th century the first quarter was The Renaissance and then you have Mannerism. Then in 1600 you have Baroque, which is working with the more distorted forms of Mannerism but returning to classicism again, and to a kind of rationalism again. Then after Baroque you have Rococo, which is this stretching out of things and exaggerating things. Then, after the Rococo, there's a return to classicism again, and it goes on and on and on. And I love that about art history—there's always an action and a reaction.

So for me, I think of melodrama as that kind of excess of emotion—it's not restrained. And it's not perfect; it really goes too far. It goes too far in so many ways—maybe the way people are dressed, the way people feel, maybe the narratives are really outrageous. That might be an aspect of melodrama that a lot of people may not like, because it's not real: It's not really the way people talk; it's not really the way people dress; things really wouldn't happen that way—all of these reasons why people would say it's not real. But they're just talking about our exterior life. I think melodrama captures an interior life in a really amazing way, that I think is as real as anything the classicists want to put out there. I think if Joan Crawford is screaming or is expressing some kind of excess of emotion, well, ok, if you saw someone doing that in real life you'd probably call the ambulance, but people really do feel that way sometimes, it's just we don't do that socially. But of course it's all out there in the movies, because that's the only way we can experience it. Because how do you express emotion in the movies?

The 2010 Whitney Biennial closes on May 30.


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