Traces that Resemble Us: Jeff Wall and Straight Time

Traces That Resemble Us is a collaborative project between The Cinematheque and the Monte Clark Gallery to explore the films that inspired the work of 12 prominent Vancouver artists. Each Thursday from November 12th to December 17th, The Cinematheque will be screening two films, each one curated by one of the 12 artists. The Monte Clark Gallery will be holding an accompanying exhibition of the artists’ works from November 21st to January 30th.

Ulu Grosbard’s hard-boiled 1978 crime drama Straight Time was renowned Vancouver photographer Jeff Wall’s pick for the event. Dustin Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, a criminal recently released from prison and trying to get straight before his parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) needlessly sends him back to jail. When Max gets back out, he is completely fed up with the justice system, and decides to return to a life of crime. Both actors give standout performances.

Hoffman makes his character fascinating and complex with a subtle, ambiguous performance. Walsh’s fantastic portrayal of a detestable, sadistic parole officer ensures that we are always uneasy about him. Even when he is not doing anything particularly suspicious, we get the sense that he has dark plans ruminating at the back of his mind. One of Jeff Wall’s works on display in the accompanying Monte Clark Gallery exhibition, Man in Street, was perhaps influenced by the former gritty, mysterious character: Wall’s subject bears a similar appearance and enigmatic air to Dembo.

jeff wall man in street
Jeff Wall’s Man in Street (1995)


Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time
Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time (1978)

Something interesting that Wall kept coming back to in his introduction for the film was the importance of the 70s for colour cinematography in cinema. The cinematographer for Short Time, Owen Roizman, worked on some key films for this period, including The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Network. He does an excellent job in Straight Time, with his objective camera creating a great sense of realism. Close ups during heist scenes build an urgent intensity, while longer shots of Max walking alone convey his sense of alienation. Given how much Wall emphasized the importance of colour in films of this period, it’s unfortunate that the print at this screening, an original 1978 35mm, was faded, though I did appreciate that they managed to acquire a print from the original theatrical release. From what I have seen in trailers and stills, Roizman’s use of colour works with the urban landscape to a gorgeous effect somewhat reminiscent of Wall’s In Front of a Nightclub.

In Front of a Nightclub (2006) by Jeff Wall

One filmmaker that Wall specifically mentioned as being important to the innovation of colour cinematography in the 70s was Terrence Malick. Malick’s two films released in the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, use the power of their images rather than dialogue to convey meaning about characters, relationships, and emotional tension. This makes his films much more visceral experiences than simply narrative ones. Malick’s emphasis on creating meaning through image is apparent as an inspiration for Wall, a photographer who has often mentioned the strong cinematic influence in his art. He even sometimes refers to his work as “cinematography.” Straight Time, too, has hints of a Malick influence, particularly near the end, when long shots of Max in the barren desert convey his loneliness in much the same way that the endless fields in Days of Heaven do for its characters. We are always aware of Max’s isolation, not because of what is told through dialogue, but because of what is conveyed visually.

days of heaven
Screenshot from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978)

Jeff Wall’s photographs tend to leave a lot to the imagination. They give you the outlines to a story, forcing you to imagine what lead up to the moment in the picture, and what will happen afterwards. In much the same way, Straight Time is simply one part of a larger story. Just before the end of the film, we are literally shown photographs: mugshots of Max from throughout his years as a criminal pop up onscreen one after another, telling years of his life story in just a few pictures. The narrative throws us into one particular moment in Max’s life, only giving us clues about his past and former relationships, but leaving us to fill in the rest for ourselves.

Though the film is certainly interesting and very well executed, its narrative is that of a fairly conventional crime film. The romance plot, the mysterious, hardened criminal, the old friend whose wife wants him to cut ties with his past criminal friends:all things you have likely seen before. However, the film is worth seeing if only for the tremendous performances as well as the beautiful cinematography. Wall once said: “I like the composition of a picture, the dance of colours and shapes across it, more than I like the subject – so perhaps it is fitting that for this event he chose to screen a film notable for its great craftsmaship rather than for its fairly average narrative.

What I have no reservations over recommending, though, is the work of Wall himself. I have yet to encounter any other photographer whose pictures are quite like his – almost more like paintings than typical photography. While most in his field focus on capturing a specific moment in time, Wall spends months meticulously building every component in his frames before shooting (look again at In Front of a Nightclub, for example, which was completely built in a studio). Many of his photographs, up until recently, were displayed in galleries in fluorescent light boxes, similar to those with ads in them at bus stops. Here is what is often viewed as Wall’s most significant work, 1979’s Picture For Women. It is inspired in part by Edouard Manet’s painting Un bar aux Folies Bergère. Be sure to check out his work currently on display at the Monte Clark Gallery.

picture for women
Picture For Women (1979) by Jeff Wall

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