© Shamoni Sarkar
The bright red lipstick matches the red beret. The black leather jacket balances out the redness and gives everything an air of casual coolness. I step out of the house feeling like one of Woody Allen’s breezy new heroines.
Then I see Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. Suddenly I am self-aware— aware of everything that goes on inside my head as I put together my looks for different occasions. My look is done, undone and redone, until it fits with a mood: relaxed, worried, thoughtful, or Woody Allenesque. When the look complements the inner mood, I hear a voice of approval, and then I’m ready to go. I construct little film stills of myself ever so often. I am my own actress.
But what is the point of all this acting?
In Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Liv Ullman’s character Marianne reads aloud to her husband Johan from her diary. She has written of a childhood spent on being pleasing and obedient to her parents, but completely ignorant of who she was or what to make of her own life. The greatest deception, she writes, came at puberty, when her mind was flooded with thoughts of sex and secret wishes to become an actress. At her father’s insistence she finally became a lawyer, but, like everything else she had done in her life, her lawyer self was also an act. Even in her relationships with men, she invented herself, because she did not know what to present to them otherwise. When she finishes reading the entry she looks over at Johan, only to find him fast asleep on their couch. If acting is a lie, then Marianne has been lying her whole life. Now, when she finally reveals the truth about her lies, there is no one awake to acknowledge her.
Sherman’s film stills are also all about acting: trial runs, dressing up and recreating oneself. But, like Marianne in Scenes from a Marriage, she uses acting to get at a truth (or many truths). At first though, the film stills are deceptive. Each of them reveals itself to us at two levels: as a photograph and as cinema. As a photograph, each film still has a mood. Untitled 56 (1980) evokes “icy” or “cold contemplation”. The woman looks into the mirror, and her reflection looks back at us. We want to know what she is thinking, and whether she is using the mirror to validate her thoughts. But it is Sherman framing herself and posing for us. It is Sherman acting the part of a cold, contemplative woman. She has created everything that makes the photograph. But then what is true about it? Is she not doing exactly what Marianne says she has been doing her entire life— playing roles and acting?
At this point of doubt, the photograph becomes cinema by taking on a story. This woman could be plotting murder! I am reminded of the icy blonde heroines in Alfred Hitchcock movies. The Sherman of Untitled 56 could very possibly be a version of a Hitchcockian heroine— she is beautiful, someone who always gets what she wants, but who is generally unpopular and is about to unwittingly fall into a bad situation.
Almost all the film stills have elements running through them that we have learned to read from the cinema. They all have pointers that originate in fiction. For example, there are waiting women such as in Untitled 50 (1979) and Untitled 15 (1978). We also recognize and articulate that they are different kinds of waiting. The waiting woman in Untitled 50 seems wealthy but lonely. We assume that she is waiting for an uncaring husband to come home. But she seems disinterested and bored as well, waiting only because there is nothing better to do. In Untitled 15, the high heels, the short dress and the necklace with a cross all suggest a young small-town girl that has come to the city to chase her dreams. As she looks down from her window, she could be looking out for a man, for a friend or just for the dreams that she came to follow. There are many other pointers in the film stills, both concrete and suggestive. Though they exist in real life, we learn to identify them on screen. One notes short black hair, bonnets, staircases from which women look down or up, and shadows. They give the story to the initial mood set up in the photograph, turning it into cinema.
When we see the film still as a whole, i.e. as one-dimensional mood and cinema coming together, we realize that we cannot really separate the camera from life, or acting from truth. We associate Sherman’s film stills with other filmic moments we have seen and probably did not even consciously remember. The cinema seems to be our only filter. In fact, even if we were not told that they were “film stills”, we would still associate them with cinematic images.
But then is the mood fictional as well? Don’t we at least know, from our own lives, about the pain of waiting or the discomfort of coldness? And don’t we then make cinema by giving stories to these vague, but true, moods? So in a way, isn’t it all true, including the cinema? And so it would seem that Sherman is getting at the truth, or rather a truth, in each film still.
This still does not answer the question of why we dress up, or imagine ourselves in a certain way. Why do we want to dress up our moods? The search for a truth does not seem like a plausible reason because we cannot explain why we lie (or act) to get to it. We do not know why Marianne would need to write in her diary about her life of acting, or even why she would want to read it out to Johan. The only way she is able to get at her truth is by admitting that she has been acting. But does this revelation mean that she has stopped acting? And if she has not stopped acting, she has not been able to find that elusive truth.
In an interview with New York Magazine, Cindy Sherman says that she wanted to “try on” all her film still roles. She herself is unsure about why she did them, but she wonders if maybe she actually did want to be her characters and not be herself. However, she also says that she was uncomfortable with the idea of going to work dressed like her characters, because she felt she wouldn’t be wearing her “normal armor”. “Normal” suggests that there is a real Cindy Sherman, but “armor” once again suggests dressing up. Perhaps there is a certain Cindy Sherman she is most comfortable being, if she were to choose among all the other possible Cindy Shermans. And maybe this is the self she wears when she is not dressing herself up for her art.
If one looks at Untitled 56 again, one notices the way the side of Sherman’s face is framed, as if she handled the light in such a way that it looks like a part of her hair. But of course it isn’t, because one can see through its transparency to the way her hair actually curls, away from her face. And then, one notices the circular black object near her chin, which looks like a flashlight. Perhaps the light from that, and the natural light from the sun (which illuminates a part of the hair) create the effect that we see. But one can only guess. What is clear, though, is that Sherman has ‘played’ with the photograph. She starts from a truth, whether it is a mood, or a certain mannerism, gives it a story, and then turns it into something completely different in the photograph, by introducing something unnatural into it. But there is always a truth in them, or in her, which never gets lost. This is why she is able to keep working and changing roles, without letting go of her mysterious core. Similarly, there is something true about Marianne (a certain way of being perhaps) that she must have recognized in herself, or else she would not have been able to admit that she had been acting.
Maybe the answer is that we want to know all of our possibilities, and so we allow life and screen to overlap, sometimes to the extent that we cannot differentiate between them. We want to know how we can dress up our truths because we do not want to remain static. But even if we resign ourselves to this answer, questions still remain. Do we really have a truth to dress up? If so, could it ever be lost under the layers of costume?