How artists are inspired by cinema: 10 lessons from film

From Purple Rain to The Exorcist, we ask several artists to pick a favourite film and share its creative impact.
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Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash.

The big screen has influenced generations, profoundly changing the way we see the world and each other. But how has it impacted creative practice in the arts? ArtsHub speaks with a number of artists to discover what films they turn to for inspiration, and how these have influenced them creatively.

Khaled Sabsabi

Khaled Sabsabi has a reputation for making large scale video installation – films that capture the human spirit, empathy, identity and community. Given that sensitivity to the lens, we were interested to find out what films have impacted his work.

Sabsabi was swift and conclusive in his choice: ‘Favorite film? Well I think it changes all the time from deep and philosophical to the triple cheesiness. Now on this winter day, I would have to say Purple Rain – yeap triple mozzarella. Why? Seriously, it’s Prince – artistry, genius, enlightened and gifted. Plus the film is an 80’s B-grade film. Please don’t judge me, it is cold.’

Purple Rain (1984) was Prince’s acting debut playing “The Kid”, a quasi-autobiographical character. The film was developed to showcase Prince’s talents, and the film contains several concert sequences.

The film grossed more than $US68 million at the box office in the United States and over $80 million worldwide. The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, the last to receive the award.

Joan Ross

It has been a busy couple of years for Joan Ross. She was the recent recipient of the 2018 Mordant Family VR Commission for ACMI, the 2017 Sulman Prize (Art Gallery of NSW), and 2016 Glennfiddich Artists Residency Prize. Often working with video to explore the legacy of colonialism in Australia, we were interested in what narratives in film inspire her.

Ross said she can’t go by Twin Peaks (1990), the American mystery drama first screened on ABC television and created by Mark Frost and David Lynch. While it was followed shortly after by the cinema release, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), it was the series that was labelled cult and affected an entire generation.

Ross explained: ‘I’ve just been re-watching Lynch’s Twin Peaks first series over a few days. It’s been like a long surreal movie, and my resonance is beating. I think when this first came out we all loved the white picket fence and cheesy music pressed against Lynch’s darkness and calls for help, that is, his ongoing insistence about world issues, humanity and spirituality against the backdrop of the complexities of human nature, the dark and the light. But what I love now, is how this is not a mix that brings about grey, on contrast it brings about a palpable excitement.

‘His constant philosophical references about these issues, had a marked influence on a whole generation. He was like an ad man for philosophy and spirituality,’ said Ross.

She continued: ‘The series is cluttered with the most profound philosophy, scenes so beautiful and transcendent, but in such simple ways. It is so consistent and smoothly done it is mesmerising. The calm of Agent Cooper is probably what I love the most. He embodies so much warmth and cool like a diamond cutting through lava.

‘Once I stopped trying too hard to understand, I saw a profound work of art working on many levels simultaneously, allowing for human error and failure while upholding love as its key.

‘What influences me is the oppositions, the unexpected and the clichés mixed with lack of clichés; how it takes me where I didn’t expect to go, and the incongruity of it all is just mind-blowing!’

Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin arrives at the home of the possessed Regan in The Exorcist; Photo: Warner Bros

Mikala Dwyer

2015 Redlands Konica Minolta Prize winner and 2017 Biennale of Sydney participant, Mikala Dwyer can’t go past The Exorcist (1973). The film and the book – the first book Dwyer remembers reading – had a profound impact on the Sydney artist.  

She said the film inspired her because it taught her that, ‘possession is the best pathway to knowledge.’

Adapted from the book of the same name by William Peter Blatty (1971), written in response to the real life exorcism of Roland Doe in 1949, the plot follows the demonic possession of a 12-year old girl. Directors Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn turned the film down, which was directed by William Friedkin. The film earned 10 academy award nominations – including the first ever horror film to come up for Best Picture – and became one of the highest-grossing films in history, grossing over $US441 million worldwide in the aftermath of various re-releases.

Danish film, The Seventh Seal (1957)

Gareth Sansom

Gareth Sansom’s painting ‘The Seventh Seal’ (2013, AGNSW Collection) takes its title from Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film of the same name, The Seventh Seal (1957). It is just one painting among many across a lifetime influenced by Bergman’s film.

For an artist at the start of his career, the film had a profound effect on Sansom and has remained an enduring favourite. He first saw the film at Melbourne’s Savoy cinema in 1962 aged 20, with fellow RMIT art students Robert Jacks and George Baldessin. He admits he saw the film three times in the first two weeks of its run.

When asked the question of inspiration by ArtsHub, Sansom steered us to an early ABC Radio interview, adding he still felt the same. ‘To be bought up on Hollywood movies as a kind to suddenly find a subtitled European movie – It had enormous impact on me as it was dealing with something very basic and set in a complex way,’ said Sansom.

Listen to the full interview.

The Seventh Seal explores a man’s personal relationship with death – interpreted as a cloaked figure – played out over a chess game.

Sansom added of its affect on him: ‘I was quiet young very impressionable I was already exhibiting my work and I was interested in something that was different …I was a bower bird; I was grabbing anything I thought would help me build an iconography – style is a dirty word now … but at the time all artist had a style and I thought I had to have a style to be recognised.’

‘I like the device of a high horizon, and you see that in the Bergman’s landscapes – there is foreground activity, but also stuff happening where just the silhouette is going up. I do paintings with a figurative element in them and that often happens in the upper peripheral vision in the same way that Bergman used it – that has crept into my iconography as a device, said Sansom.  

Adding that if all else fails in the construction of a work, then ‘bring in the Bergman horizon.’

The Jetty, a film by Chris Marker

Merilyn Fairskye

Photography and filmmaker Merilyn Fairskye is a big cinephile. The thought of choosing just one film was a near impossibility for her.  ‘Oh no, how can I possibly pick just ONE film??? There have been many that have left their creative mark, but how to choose?’ she pondered.

Fairskye’s work has been presented in over 180 exhibitions and festivals, including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern London; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival, Doha; the International Film Festival Rotterdam (6 times); Videobrasil; Kassel Documentary Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival.

Her feature-length art film, Precarious, was nominated for the 2012 Al Jazeera Documentary Channel long-form film award.

She said: ‘Films swap places back and forth depending on what I’m currently thinking about. How can I bypass the utterly compelling first three minutes of soundtrack of Francis Ford Copola’s The Conversation, or the luminous, slow imagery of Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, or the mosaic structure of Michael Haneke’s very bleak 71 Fragments?’

‘If I must chose just one, then it probably has to be La Jetée, directed by Chris Marker (1962). Almost entirely composed of black and white stills, it is a beautiful, haunting and richly layered film that I have watched over and over again as it prompts me to consider both how much, and, how little, is really necessary in the making of a powerful work of screen art.’

The Jetty – referring to an outdoor viewing pier at an airport – is a 1962 French Left Bank science fiction featurette that tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. It won the Prix Jean Vigo for short film.

Beauty and the Beast; courtesy Disney

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

Since being awarded the 2015 Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award, Sri-Lankan born Sydney based Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran has been on an enviable trajectory showing in the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, the 2016 Kuandu Biennale (Taipei), The National (2017), The Dhaka Art Summit (Bangladesh. 2018), selected for 2018 Encounters at Art Basel Hong Kong, and most recently the 2018 Indian Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur.

The film he picked was Beauty and the Beast (1991). It’s a bit of a secret, but I’m a huge fan of Disney,’ Nithiyendran told ArtsHub.

‘As a child I was obsessed with animation and the imaginative grand narratives and drama central to them. I’d watch them religiously! I think I’ve watched Beauty and the Beast multiple times as a child and adult.’

He continued: ‘I remember being really interested in this view of the beastly and the anthropomorphic representations in the film. I also loved the humanising of the inanimate objects… teapots, candlesticks, brooms. Weirdly, the links seem to me own work seem really clear as I’m writing this.’ 

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

Locust Jones

Currently travelling in Europe, Locust Jones is an artist working across mediums with a rigorous interest in dissecting current news and world affairs footage. Last year he produced a five-metre long drawing over four hours, creating raw and powerful imagery as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s Conversation Starters program.  Its scale had an almost cinematic quality; its production managed by the most keen eye and direction. It is not surprising that he is also a cinephile.

‘The film that came to me immediately with this question was un chien andalou by Louis Bunuel – and Clockwork Orange was also in the running – but upon a moments reflection it became evident that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is the one,’ said Jones. 

‘I thought of it while walking in London today. It’s great how time and place informs and memory cells ping into life when prompted by some deep sub conscious … also Le Samurai by Delon is another fave, I’m standing in a queue to the catacombs and I thought of this film from many years ago.

‘I do like noir and ultra violence, so I think Jack in The Shining is the one I will go for because of the underlying themes and the pressure of life placed on him Jack Torrence) to create a masterpiece of writing, but madness takes over and all work and no play make Jack a dull boy…’ said Jones.

Based on a 1977 novel by Stephen King, production for this horror film took place almost exclusively at EMI Elstree Studios with sets based on real locations. Kubrick often worked with a small crew, which allowed him to do many takes – sometimes to the exhaustion of the actors and staff – and the film used the newly released Steadicam giving it ‘an innovative and immersive look and feel’.

Duck Soup; Paramount Pictures

Alex Seton

Alex Seton works across sculpture, video and installation, but is best known for his marble carving. He is interested in the performative object and inviting interplay and exchange between objects, bodies, and ideas, so it is not unusual that he would be interested in film creatively as well.

When asked what film most influenced him, Seton explained: ‘Not having a television in my childhood I watched many black and white films at my grandmothers. It was the films of the Marx Brothers, specifically the anarchic satire and theatricality of Duck Soup (1933) that made me sit up and pay attention.

‘Harpo Marx was fascinating to me – this irreverent nymph and joyous agent of chaos made me feel anything was possible – made me feel leading a creative autonomous existence was possible,’ he added.

Duck Soup was the last Marx Brothers film to feature Zeppo, and the last of five Marx Brothers movies released by Paramount Pictures, before they wrapped up their contact with the mega company under some tension. At one point the Marxes threatened a walk-out on the set, which crippled relationships between them just as the film went into production.

The original film in the Star Wars trilogy, A New Hope (1977) inspired many, including Glenn Barkley; Lucas films

Glenn Barkley

Artist and curator Glenn Barkley has a quirky take on making – a place of collisions and playful discoveries. As his gallery Sullivan + Strump describe: ‘His work operates in the space between these interests drawing upon ceramics deep history, to popular song, the garden and conversations about art and the internet.’

It is not surprising then that Barkley’s choice of film is perhaps one of the most iconic in popular cinema. ‘It’s Star Wars: A New Hope – the greatest movie ever made. (It) made me aware as a five year old how magical the movies could be.’ 

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) was written and directed by George Lucas and is the first film in the original trilogy and the beginning of the Star Wars franchise. It earned $461 million in the U.S. and $314 million overseas, totalling $775 million. It surpassed Jaws (1975) to become the highest-grossing film of all time.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina