She is from Seattle. She is from Dubuque, Dayton, Dover. She is going to San Francisco, Chicago, New York. To Paris. She will be an actress, writer, artist. She will be herself.
At one point in Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013, written and directed by Gustav Deutsch), Shirley is directed by Steve, the photojournalist who is her companion, how she should pose while he photographs her. The man who at that moment, she notes, becomes a stranger once he sees her only as he chooses. She permits him to do so but at one point decides how she will be seen. She slips one strap of her dress off, then the other, lies back on the couch, her legs visible. “Someone I created for his imagination,” she thinks. “For him.” It may be the way he wants to see her, but it is she, not he, who has chosen how he will see her. Shirley, who has been seen by every American male the way he chooses, by Edward Hopper, and now, Gustav Deutsch, will make it her story, not the one they write, even if they are the ones who write it.
Each scene in the Deutsch film, except the last, is a copy of a Hopper painting, thirteen episodes in Shirley’s life from 1931 taken from the moment she boards a train on her way to New York to embark on the boat that will take her to Paris until the last in 1963 when she once again boards a train to take her to JFK so that she might fly to Rome to join The Living Theater. Each scene except the last takes place on August 28. Shirley is an actress, a leftist, an independent woman whose independence she questions. She has worked in the Group Theater, acted along with Elia Kazan in Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty and later under Kazan’s direction in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. When she cannot get work as an actress she works as a secretary and as an usherette rather than sell out and go to Hollywood.
At the beginning of each scene, a radio gives the news of the day, a technique like one John Dos Passos uses in U.S.A., a work Deutsch credits: reports of the Depression, Mussolini, Hitler, the cremation of Trotsky in Mexico, the Second World War, Che Guevara in Cuba, the Korean conflict. This was Nietzsche says. This is part of the story. The radio news also cites 23,000 actors out of work in the Depression, Joe McCarthy targeting communists in the Theater Guild, Ingmar Bergman talking about The Magician, which has just opened in New York. Culture, the news implies, must seek its place in a world it resists in the only way news permits.
On August 29, 1963 – the one day of Shirley’s life that does not take place on August 28 – she listens to Martin Luther King on the radio in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. She hears him say, “I have a dream,” but at this point in her life nearly thirty years after she had gone to Paris to follow a dream that has not been realized, her life-long companion Steve just deceased, she understands that she must nevertheless keep what drives her if her life is not to be lost. Her silence throughout the film evidence of a world in which she has no place but one in which she must live. The This was that is Shirley an absence Deutsch must make speak.
In the first scene in a hotel room in Paris (a copy of Hopper’s 1931 painting, Hotel Room) Shirley hears the night life of the city, opens the window, looks out. She recites a French poem, hears music, dances. She practices phrases of French, looks at the program of activities on board the ship she will take back to New York, turns out the light. A clock strikes midnight. Paris has not been what she expected it to be. “I can’t imagine Paris,” she thinks. “I can no longer imagine Greenwich Village.” Every scene in Shirley’s life Deutsch highlights may be this one.
Shirley goes to windows, opens them, closes them. We do not know what she sees, whether she looks out to see what is there or whether in some way what is out there is a window onto life, where she might see what life is, what it might be, what she wants it to be. The window that is always blank in Deutsch’s film or Hopper’s paintings, that suggests what is outside cannot be seen. The window that like life must be opened or closed.
In Paris in 1931, the noise of traffic outside, the revelry of night life tells us what Shirley sees. And later, elsewhere, in other rooms, places, the sound of trains, machinery, thunder, seagulls, cars, dogs, surf, wind, phones link image intimately to sound. It not only visualizes what Shirley sees but also dramatizes how she feels. A subway roaring outside. The cries of seagulls. A clock striking midnight. They are readings of Shirley at any moment.
Shirley is in a hotel in Paris. She will be in a motel, an office, a movie theater, a summer rental on Cape Cod, a room in New York, an apartment in Albany. There is no place Shirley can call home. She may have a dream, a vision of what her life is to be, of what America needs to fulfill its promise, but there is no place it can be realized, somewhere she can say, yes, at last, I’m home, America is back. In New York at the height of the McCarthy fear, a fire marshal condemns the building that an Ubu Roi play of Alfred Jarry is to play in so that it cannot be performed. There is no place in America for Ubu Roi. Nor for Shirley.
Shirley recites a French poem and practices French phrases in the hotel room in Paris. In a movie theater in New York she will recite the lines of an actress in the film. In a hotel lobby in New Haven, she will recite the lines of Sabina, the maid in Thornton Wilder’s play, The Skin of Our Teeth, she is to play. In each instance she is not speaking to anyone but herself. In each instance, she is not speaking for herself. At no point does Shirley speak for herself.
What she thinks about Odets going to Hollywood – “a communist in Hollywood!” – Kazan naming names to the McCarthy committee, Steve photographing her, reading Plato early one morning on Cape Cod we understand only from an inner monologue Shirley carries on with herself. “[T]he ‘third person,’” Jacques Rancière (2009: 40) says, “who haunts the dialogues, the confrontation with the Unknown, with the anonymous and meaningless forces of life.”
Paris is not what Shirley imagined it to be. Greenwich Village she fears is no longer how she remembers it. In a hotel room in New York she is planning to leave Steve; their different lives she feels not manageable. She leaves Group Theater. On the porch of a brownstone at the end of a day, she thinks, “As soon as I named what I was seeing, it changed.” One morning on the Cape she asks herself if she needs professional help. Reading Plato she tosses the book away. There is doubt, always doubt, but if there is no doubt there can never be resolution.
Shirley hears music. In Paris it is ragtime. In New York John Cage. On Cape Cod Ornette Coleman. Whether it is a hotel room in Paris, a theater in New York, in a western motel being photographed by Steve, looking out from a brownstone in New York, rising at seven a.m. on Cape Cod to read Plato, she hears it. It that must be danced.
Hopper liked film and, in particular, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, film noir. He was influenced by cinematic methods such as cropping and angles of vision. His paintings, Tyler Parker notes, “are like camera shots consciously framed.” In Shirley: Visions of Reality, Hopper is an analog in its choice of lighting, subject and framing. At the beginning, Deutsch notes, the film was to be a dialogue between painting and film. Shirley is recorded digitally. “In its rigidity,” Deutsch adds, “you might say its [sic] closer to painting.”
Hopper glimpsed what would become his painting, Office at Night, while on a subway late at night. His model for the woman in the office, as it was for most of the women he painted, was his wife, Jo. The model for the journalist in the office, was Hopper himself. The scenes of his paintings are often inside narratives, stagings, if you will, of his marriage; an erotic subtext they could not openly express. As in many of his paintings, particularly those involving women, the perspective is that of one who sees into windows from the street or train. That of a spectator, witness or voyeur.
In Office at Night, Jo named the woman she played Shirley, but Hopper’s women are not Shirley. Emily Dickinson was Hopper’s favorite author as she is for Shirley, but they read her for different reasons. Hopper was conservative, stubbornly American. Shirley questions America and wants it changed. Hopper’s paintings refuse narrative. Shirley’s life cannot be told.
If Hopper is a palimpsest for Deutsch, Shirley is one for them both as well as for every American, man or woman. Deutsch’s film may be successive visions of Shirley, ostalgie if you will for a leftist vision of an America gone, a dream of a woman we will never have, desire for one we will never possess, but Shirley escapes our framing. She has lived a life decided by others, which, as an actress, she must embrace if her art is to change the decisions others make. Women know the roles they must play but even on stage they want us to see the woman she is. We are her spectator, witness, voyeur. “The silence of images,” Rancière (2014: 44) writes, “that show the absence of what the words say.”
Robert Buckeye is author of five books of fiction, including Still Lives, a novel about the Kent State shootings, and Fade, a novel of Bratislava, and has written articles on literature, art and film. He divides his time between Vermont and Bratislava.
Rancière, Jacques (2009), The Aesthetic Unconscious, Cambridge, UK & Malden, MA: Polity Press.
____ (2014), Figures of History, Cambridge, UK & Malden, MA: Polity Press.
 When we see Shirley in the chair-car of a train at the beginning and end of the film, she is reading Emily Dickinson. A copy of the book that features Shirley looking out a window on its dust jacket. For Shirley Dickinson must be a guide. For Hopper she is little more than an appreciation.