“In these days of wars and rumors of wars – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” This is the question that starts off Frank Capra’s 1937 movie, Lost Horizon. “Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia – Sometimes the Fountain of Youth – Sometimes merely that little chicken farm.”
Shangri-La, the idyllic, secluded valley, high in the mountains, where there is perpetual peace and people live on for hundreds of years in good health, is the fictional setting for Capra’s movie. But if there ever existed a physical place as enthralling and carefree as Shangri-La, then it must have been found in the alluring magic of the cinema. In 1930s America, going to the movies was a ritual in itself, a passage into another world, where one could leave all their worries behind and, for a couple of hours, take delight in the beauty and glamor of Hollywood.
One avid moviegoer at that time was Edward Hopper, a shy, introverted American artist, whose paintings are often seen as piercing depictions of the loneliness and alienation of modern life. His art was not only influenced by the theater, many praising his works for their cinematic qualities, but he, in turn, influenced generations of movie directors, among them the great Alfred Hitchcock. It’s sufficient to compare Hopper’s window paintings to Hitchcock’s The Rear Window to notice the eerie similarities and the shared voyeurism. They both transformed their audiences into Peeping Toms, able to partake in the most intimate details of other people’s lives, yet always from a distance.
It may come as no surprise then that in New York Movie Hopper combined his cinephilia with his art, inviting us into the interior of a movie theater. While the audience is looking at the screen, we get to see a blonde usherette leaning against the wall, absorbed in her own thoughts. This composition on the one hand reveals a communal experience and, on the other, amplifies the isolation of the usherette, who is neither watching the movie, nor part of the audience. She inhabits her own space, both mentally and physically.
That is not to say that the public is depicted as a crowd, either. Only a couple of figures are portrayed at all, dispersed in the theater like islands of solitude. There is, however, a common thread that binds them: the love of movies. We know from the journal of Hopper’s wife, Jo, that the screen shows “snowy mountain tops” and it’s been agreed upon that the movie still is taken, in fact, from Lost Horizon. I don’t necessarily believe that Hopper was sending us a coded message with this selection – he could have simply liked the movie. But some have noticed the parallelism between the escapist power of movies and the utopia of Shangri-La, both transporting the viewers outside their quotidian space into a fantasy realm, where life is easier and more enjoyable.
It’s also worth noting how cohesive and tangible the movie theater interior looks. You would think this place truly existed, yet it was the result of Hopper studying various New York theaters, among them Strand, Globe, Republican and, most extensively, Palace Theater. As was often the case, the model for the woman was his wife, Jo. In total, Hopper completed fifty-four preparatory sketches for this painting.
Much has been said about the deep solitude and disconnection that the American portrayed, when the artist himself had always denied those interpretations of his work. He claimed that his paintings weren’t a social commentary, but snapshots of everyday life that passed him by. That may be very much true, yet I would say that the loneliness we’re witnessing isn’t the alienation within society. It’s Hopper’s experience of the world filtered through his own lens, however conscious or not he was of it, allowing us to share in – and often, identify with – his desolate vision.