Last week, the British Film Institute published the fantastic post, 10 great films set in museums, that “strolls the corridors of film history” looking at films like Vertigo, Manhattan (which contains a few of my favorite art in film scenes ever), and Museum Hours along with other essential mentions. Because this relationship between art and film IN film is a real interest of mine, one that’s a driving force in programming Nitehawk’s ART SEEN series, I wanted to share some of my choices that also highlight the role museums play in the world of cinema.
DRESSED TO KILL (Brian De Palma, 1980)
The ten minute, nearly silent opening sequence to Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill glides seamlessly through the the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the interiors are actually the Philadelphia Museum of Art) as the cat-and-mouse game ensues between two strangers. The camera lense becomes its own eye, our eye, as it purveys over the scene, first as Kate watches other museum-goers and then as the mysterious man approaches, retreats, hides, and leads her out into the street and, eventually, into his bed. All the while flashes of modern art provide an incredible backdrop, clean and orderly on the stark white walls. The Alex Katz painting that stares back at them is particularly important as it stoically and silently observes. Featuring a character who will later be revealed as a sexually frustrated housewife, Dressed to Kill plays upon the very idealized and sexy notion that the museum is a place to meet worthwhile partners, showing that it can also be a site for entrapment, false promises, and deadly encounters.
IT! aka CURSE OF THE GOLEM (Herbert J. Leder, 1967)
A perhaps underrated or even known example of “museum in film” is the 1967’s British, It!, a highly entertaining story about how an ambitious young curator uses a golem to climb his way up the ladder. The museum in the film is a mixture of oddities, one exhibition room contains everything from antique furniture to sculpture, but the exterior shows it to be the real-life Imperial War Museum in London. Starring Roddy McDowall as the overlooked curator, It! goes through a fire at the museum’s storage warehouse (an occurrence not unfamiliar to art collectors and museums in the UK) that reveals an imposing statue that remained intact to his discovery that this golem will act as his servant in murder and curatorial promotions. Although it’s true that the art world can be fairly cut-throat, It! takes devious actions to a whole new level.
MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (John Cassavetes, 1971)
In his first film Shadows, John Cassavetes shows his three male protagonists killing time by running around and climbing walls on a rainy day in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But it wasn’t until Minnie and Moskowitz twelve years later that he truly captured the tomb that museum architecture could be. Minnie (the glorious Gena Rowlands) works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, itself a conglomeration of separate buildings, stairways, and tight exhibition spaces. You see Minnie quickly trotting up and then down the stairs as she goes to see the married man to whom she had recently broken off their affair. In the crowded exhibition space that’s at once public and private, he (played by Cassavetes) proceeds to tell her that his wife tried to kill herself. Oh, and his young son is with him. The museum here acts as a mausoleum that houses objects and other sordid ghostly lingerings. Again, like in Dressed to Kill, the surrounding artworks act like bystanders to the thrill and the tragedy of people’s lives.