I first came across Cindy Sherman’s photographic series, Untitled Film Stills (1977), when looking for photos of film noir titles. The series is designed around fakery, seeking to recreate the feeling of stills from 1950s and 1960s American films but also, in producing the illusion with general key-notes as to the roles of women in these films, comment upon the basic norms prescribed in Hollywood of the time. The still in particular that fooled me is below. I’ve put it alongside two others from Robert Aldrich’s 1963 film noir, Kiss Me Deadly, to highlight the point. They create an unusual narrative together.
The likeness is uncanny to say the least and it is only one of many aesthetic styles that Sherman created for the series, mimicking both the filmic style and the cheap production methods of such images to create some sense of accuracy and authenticity. The series is at its strongest when dealing with more pulp genres such as film noir and horror, possibly because the roles for women are more readily codified in ways outside of sheer domesticity. With images in kitchens, households and in general domestic roles, Sherman’s reading of film culture is broad but telling.
In one photo, a women clutches her face in fear (or confusion) whilst stood in the stairway of a basement dressed in a white sleeping gown. The image evokes both the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the narrative of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The contrast between the pristine white and cleanly dressing of the woman with the dank surroundings became a common trope in 1960s thrillers and arguably heightened in cliché in the 1970s when Sherman was making her photographic series, perhaps partly explaining the interest in the evolution of such visuals. What was it that was in the image deemed worthy to sell a film? Sherman’s genius is in capturing the randomness of such photographic cinema stills which seemed, aside from showing a particular performer for a curious public, seems to have been driven mostly by the chances of the photographer.
When learning of Sherman’s series, the ideas of Roland Barthes instantly came to mind and in particular his theorisation of “The Third Meaning.” Barthes found this meaning, not in typical photographs but in stills from films. Significance rather than signification became heightened in this third meaning where the new context played with the initial two meanings of the informational and the symbolic. The placement of these two gives rise to a new, almost ineffable meaning derived from a contrary context. Barthes writes that:
I am not sure if the reading of this third meaning is justified – if it can be generalized – but already it seems to me that its signifier (the traits to which I have tried to give words, if not to describe) possesses a theoretical individuality. On the one hand, it cannot be conflated with the simple existence of the scene, it exceeds the copy of the referential motif, it compels an interrogative reading (interrogation bears precisely on the signifier not on the signified, on reading not on intellection: it is a ‘poetical’ grasp); on the other, neither can it be conflated with the dramatic meaning of the episode… (1977)
Sherman’s photographic series in some ways proves Barthes’ theory as it is almost entirely built upon such ineffable associations sewn into culture and the assumptions around the narratives of popular culture. If the latter is being activated, it is at least being subverted. It is even more fitting that the series and Barthes’ book became available in the same year. The viewer interrogates Sherman’s images because there is an uncanny feeling to them in that they are both recognisable but not quite recognised. We can see why we draw the likenesses back to certain films but we cannot fully say what this new interpretation makes us feel as the likeness will never be static.
Are the clichés accurate of life, of film itself or neither? There is variation within the wide-variety of stills but the essence of the work is that viewing will be an experience in flux, cascading with keynotes from western popular culture yet never fully finding a place within such recognition. The characters of the images never existed and yet everyone in some way has known them, intimately and excitedly.
I knew a face,
In the headlights; white,
Fearful of the next reel,
When the third act would end.
Grapefruit crushed on lips,
Tied to a radiator, wailing,
Hysterical, hit me again Sam.
Mother’s in the basement, Geiger’s bookstore,
Sales on, raining; take a rain-check,
Dorothy Malone come-on stares.
Insurance scam ankle bracelet,
Nothing real, especially the promise,
Of something better than,
Pushed out of that last train carriage.
The face returns, eyes hollowed,
Like a painted falcon,
Gold underneath black eyes, the good ol’ days,
Lights up, fantasy over, back to colour,
You’re better than the vamps though,
Alive to my touch and hitchhiking,
In that lonely place.