Tiny Furniture: Art Imitating Art

Lena Dunham is all about these days.

There is Girls which she writes, directs and acts in. She likely does other things in it too.

By way of familiarising myself with her and some back-story I watched a 2010 film she also wrote, directed and acted in, Tiny Furniture.

Like Girls it is documenting her life as lived. In this case as lived in 2010 in New York, just come out of a relationship of three years, recently graduated college and wanting to be an artist and needing jobs in the meantime to support that. Familiar enough tropes right? Okay I just wanted to write tropes in a blog post and promise not to do it again!

She is also living with her sister and mother whilst doing that.

And her sister is a poet. And her mother an artist photographer.

But her sister really is her sister, Grace Dunham. And Grace Dunham really is a poet.

And their mother really is their mother, Laurie Simmons. And Laurie Simmons really is an artist photographer.

And the film is so named Tiny Furniture because the mum photographs tiny furniture. And she does so in real life.

The family parallels do end there though. Her husband, their father, is the artist Carroll Dunham and he is not featured in the film. Or if he is I did not see him, though I would not know him if I did see him! Hmmm. Anyway.

Here are some of Laurie Simmons’ photographs of tiny furniture.

Laurie Simmons Long House

Long House (Downstairs Kitchen) 2004

TV Room Laurie Simmons

Long House (TV Room), 2004

Red Bathroom Laurie Simmons

Long House (Red Bathroom/ Blue Figure), 2004

They Might Be Giants

They might be giants. Yes they might. This is a relatively obscure way to start a post – and am I quoting the US band They Might Be Giants who began life in 1982 and are still extant and still, beyond rock-music aficionados, obscure. Though in the Top Trumps of obscure bands with giants in their title the Young Marble Giants, a Welsh band formed in 1978, must be the winner. And I bet that for the very small percentage of you reading this who are familiar with them that an even smaller percentage of you are aware that this group are still going too?!

They Might Be Giants

For some of you reading this They Might Be Giants might have resonated differently conjuring up the 1971 film directed by Anthony Harvey and starring George C Scott and Joanne Woodward. Actually those of you in this camp might likewise Top Trump this having first thought of the play of the same name that this film was based on, both written by James Goldman. If you are not familiar with it I can do no better than quote one line from Wikipedia describing its premise as:

a millionaire who retreats into fantasy after the death of his wife,
imagining himself to be Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional detective.

If that doesn’t make you want to track it down well I don’t know what to say!

All this being what it is, it is the US group They Might Be Giants that I was alluding too.

Obscure though I describe them a larger number of you may be familiar with their song ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ as a title not easily forgotten and though its chart success was modest, both in the US and UK, it did enjoy its fair-share of radio play. For it was catchy in a novelty song kind of way. You may or may not care for it but once heard you might not be able to forget it even f you wanted to.

Its word were pretty obtuse too, see sample:

Filibuster vigilantly
My name is blue canary one note spelled l-i-t-e
My story’s infinite
Like the Longines Symphonette it doesn’t rest

But it is still not their best known song. For even those of you who steer a wide-birth of rock-music may have been subject to another of their songs and on a very regular basis.

That is if you or your children or your partner or all of the aforementioned are/were a fan of the US comedy Malcolm In The Middle which ran for seven seasons between 2000 and 2006 and subject to endless re-runs ever since.

Malcolm in the MiddleFor the song that heralded and farewelled each and everyone of its 151 episodes with its refrain ‘You’re not the boss of me’ was from the catalogue of They Might Be Giants and titled perhaps inevitably ‘Boss of Me’. As a way to get a high profile to one of your songs this has to be hard to beat.

This song was not a single or album-track that someone involved in the show’s production heard and thought would be apt for its theme-tune rather it was written especially for it.

The song begins with the lines

Yes, No, maybe,
I don’t know
Can you repeat the question

Before launching into the refrain at great speed and frequency.

You’re not the boss of me now

And quite a subversive sentiment given that the show was ostensibly a family based comedy and not in the way that The Family Guy is a family-based comedy!

It was tea-time viewing but Malcolm Wilkerson and his family was no more a fantasy cartoon than Bart Simpson and his family – both dysfunctional and all the more real for it.

I watched an episode of Malcolm in the Middle recently but can no longer watch Malcolm’s father Hal and see him as a cuddly good-natured father figure. I can only think of Walter White.

Walter White being the actor Bryan Cranston’s latest incarnation. If you don’t yet know what I am going on about then you clearly have not been watching the US TV series Breaking Bad.

Breaking BadThe Walter White character is a father in Breaking Bad too.  He is diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer. Initially and naturally we sympathize with his plight. They also have one teenage son, Walter White Jr, who has cerebral palsy, and now in their late-forties they are about to welcome their second child in to the world.

Walt White Sr is just another everyday saint. Later we will discover that he is an unreconstructed sociopath, perhaps he always was or perhaps his life-threatening condition tipped him into this dark domain.

And the writer’s have played a trick with us because just as with serial-killing Dexter Morgan from the US show Dexter we find ourselves on the side of the anti-hero, or just plain villain, even as the death-count in both cases ever increases at their own hands and for ever more tenuous reasons. The killing has become a habit and the viewer has become an idle non-judgemental witness to it all. There but for the grace of….we are being encouraged to think.

Breaking Bad production photoWalter White you see will need to pay for all this expensive cancer treatment and on his modest salary being as he is a teacher of Chemistry to high-school students this is never going to happen. Instead he decides to put his chemistry knowledge to use in a more lucrative way – as a producer or cook of Methamphetamine!

He having taken a libertarian stance – it is not for him to protect people from themselves and though it might be against the law is it really against any moral laws? The law-of-our-lands allowing us to take other killing substances like alcohol and tobacco, so for this crystal meth we have just a modern day prohibition fuelled by fear more than anything else?

Meanwhile the carnage piles up about him and pity his poor wife Skyler wanting to divorce him but now embroiled in the laundering of more money than any of them could ever spend in a hundred lifetimes, and the threat of death hanging over her and their two children. And yet we find ourselves wanting Walter White to prevail. Well I do anyway. Perhaps I should speak just for myself!

At an earlier point in the proceedings a former boss, Gustavo Fring (known as ‘Gus’), assigns him a new cook in preference to his own choice Jesse Pinkman because Jesse unlike Walter is also a sometime meth-user and consequently a tad unpredictable. He has no formal chemistry training either, rather an acolyte of Walter’s. Gus would prefer Jesse to disappear, literally, and hence the arrival of a new cook, chemistry degree-educated Gale Boetticher.

Gale reads to Walt White a poem by Walt Whitman, ‘When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer’

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This was Gale’s way of explaining to Walt his love for chemistry.  And it resonated for Walt. But not enough to save his life from him!

And what about the similarity of the names Walter White and Walt Whitman; the show’s creator Vince Gilligan is drawing what parallel between them we are left to wonder?

Walt WhitmanThe collection from which it comes from ‘Leaves of Grass’ was first published in 1855 but was a life-long work for Whitman being revised by him right up to his death in 1892.

It is now available for free on Project Gutenberg which likely means you can download it on Tablets and Mobile phones. That is unless you prefer your poetry on paper.

This life-work may suggest to you it is a huge tome and indeed it is. Divided in to 35 books – some poems are brief but most are long.

How should we approach such a work? Chronologically, earnestly determinedly working our way through? Or a lucky dip approach – random choose a poem and if it resonates with us we explore further, but if not and as long as it did not turn us off completely we return again at a later date and random dip again…

There is also a 2009 US film titled Leaves of Grass which I have not seen but it is not Walt Whitman based or inspired (that I can establish anyway) directed and written by Tim Blake Nelson. This is one of these films about identical twins yet not identical – in this case  an Ivy League professor is lured back to his Oklahoma hometown, where his twin brother, a small-time pot grower, has concocted a scheme to take down a local drug lord.  Clear Breaking Bad parallels there!

Leaves of GrassNot inspired by Walt Whitman perhaps but Tim Blake Nelson is a bit of a polymath as there is a film due for 2014 release about another American poet called Bukowski about – who do you think?! What do you mean you don’t know Charles Bukowski?!

Not directed or written by Tim Blake Nelson here rather his involvement is as an actor (he also sings!) where he is playing Henry Bukowski. Now details on this film are sketchy so I do not know whether this is Henry his father or Charles himself as he was born Henry Charles Bukowski (well Heinrich Karl actually because he was German-born American naturalised).

This film is not about his poetry in particular though or his life biography rather a period described by IMDB thus:

The story of writer Charles Bukowski’s formative years from childhood to high school

and his struggles with an abusive father, disfiguring acne, alcohol abuse, and his initial attempts at writing.

But Charles Bukowski has been on film and behind film before. He wrote the 1987 film Barfly with the great tag-line:

 Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.

BarflyThe barfly in Barfly was played by Mickey Rourke going by the name of Henry Chinaski but this is clearly autobiographical. And indeed upon Bukowski’s death in 1994 the New York Post used a photo of Mickey Rourke in this Barfly role!

I have only seen this film once and this was with my father. And perhaps this is not the sort of film to see with your father.

Reading this synopsis of the film I now want to see it again. And alone!

Henry Chinaski never cared for the American dream, the thought of needing to become ‘something’ and fit into the system disgusts him. He believes that life is free and yours to live like you see fit, and if that in some cases involves copious amounts of whiskey then so be it. Henry spends his days drinking and listening to the radio, and he spends his nights drinking and fighting against Eddy who he thinks personifies shallowness and shameless self promoting…

Perhaps better than reading poetry is hearing it recited. Perhaps better still performed by the poets themselves.

With Bukowski we can hear such performances and one such was his poem ‘Bluebird’.

Below I share it written then after spoken.

There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do

Whitman’s poems make you want to read more of his poems, Bukowski’s make you want to write your own poems?

They might be giants.

David McCue…Trumping Donald on Canvas

Donald Trump Red Money

Warning: Not for those of a sensitive disposition. This post contains many images of Donald Trump.

Each year Single Malt Whiskey distillers Glenfiddich host a Spirit of Scotland Awards. It has a number of categories including for music, screen, art and writing.

Glenfiddich 2012 Spirit of Scotland

For the 2012 awards there were some controversy. Not for the music award which went to Gaelic folk-singer Julie Fowlis, or for screen which award went to actor Kelly MacDonald, not for art, awarded to the owner of Edinburgh Arts hub Summerhall, Robert McDowell, or for writing where the author Ewan Morrison took the award.

It was for the prime award itself, the Top Scot, which was won by Michael Forbes. You may not have heard of him but ask Donald Trump about him, mmm on second thoughts do not do that. Beyond the expletives and the bluster you will not be enlightened much.

Michael Forbes viewing Michael Forbes

Michael Forbes viewing Michael Forbes

If you don’t know who Michael Forbes is then the Glenfiddich web page detailing these awards describes him thus:

a farmer from near Balmedie in Aberdeenshire,

who became known after his refusal to sell his home

to billionaire Donald Trump for a luxury golf course development.

So you can at least understand Donald Trump taking a personal, very personal affront at this award.

He had previously described Michael Forbes as ‘living like a pig’ and his land as ‘a slum’.

Michael Forbes on land, photo courtesy of the BBC

Michael Forbes on his land, photo courtesy of the BBC

There had been considered Compulsory Purchase Orders (a UK legal statute that allows public authorities to buy land that they believe is in the public interest such as for roads and housing developments without consent of the owners) to remove his and others homes so as not to spoil the view for those visiting this golf course development (titled almost inevitably Trump International Golf Links), a sort of class-cleansing. Apparently Trump thinks golfing holidays for the wealthy are in the public interest!

His response then to the award and Glenfiddich came in the form of a tweet on December 5 ‘We are getting rid of Glenfiddich garbage alcohol from Trump properties’!

Only problem with this is that the Top Scot Award is not chosen by a behind-closed-doors select committee of Glenfiddich staff but by public vote! The Scottish public sided with feisty Farmer Michael Forbes over belligerent bully business-man Donald Trump. As we also saw with the 2012 US Presidential Election in a democracy the people will not always vote the way of wise Donald!

By coincidence at the time of Trump’s Twitter Diatribe against Glenfiddich I was watching You’ve Been Trumped the 2011 British documentary directed by Anthony Baxter and described by IMDB thus

In this David and Goliath story for the 21st century,

a group of proud Scottish homeowners take on

celebrity tycoon Donald Trump as he buys up

one of Scotland’s last wilderness areas to build a golf resort.

It was released August of this year and broadcast by the BBC in November causing Trump to Tweet ‘No surprise that BBC is in a major scandal for shoddy journalism. Any network that air’s Anthony Baxter’s garbage has zero credibility’ – conflating a whole range of issues in typical Donald style!

You've Been Trumped Poster

But this post is not a review of the documentary (but you should see it!) but of an artist, David McCue, whose work was featured in the film and the film’s poster. He is a Scottish painter and was commissioned to host an art event detailing Trump’s golfing resort development and various residents resistance towards it. It was titled pithily Triumphant? The Art of the Deal and took place on the farmland of Top Scot Michael Forbes, in July 2010.

David McCue Triumphant ExhibitionIn addition to McCue’s oil paintings the event included a crazy-golf sculpture, selected written correspondence and other related artefacts.

Donald Trump Crazy Putting Golf Sculpture

Donald Trump Crazy Putting Golf Sculpture

The oil-paintings were of both Donald Trump and Michael Forbes and even had I no knowledge of the events inspiring them I think the context would be very apparent! I  find them very striking.

Michael Fobes by David McCueThis first oil painting ‘Local Hero’ makes reference to the 1983 film by Scottish director Bill Forsyth of the same name in which an American oil company seeks to buy up an entire Scottish village so as they can build a refinery without local opposition – very obvious parallels to real life! Burt Lancaster plays the Trump role (Hero or Villain – a rhetorical question!) of oil billionaire Felix Happer.

And I should add many of the locals are in favour of the project as with Aberdeenshire residents today, as it promises jobs and money after all. The resistance comes from a hermit, known only as Ben, living on a beach who also owns that beach, the Michael Forbes figure as it were, played by late Scots Actor Fulton Mackay.

And as with Donald Trump the Felix Happer character believes his great money can persuade everything only to be disillusioned of this notion.

Donald Trump New York Clown

On David McCue’s site though I could find no other work of his beyond this Triumphant Art of the Deal commission. Perhaps it was his first work but I would think it is doubtful that an unknown artist would get such a commission, but possible. I would have to explore further.

Googling did not reveal much about him at all contending as he does with a much more documented American businessman of the same name – perhaps an unintended irony!

There is a very brief article in the Aberdeen Voice which describes him as a ‘Glasgow artist’ and in an interview on his own website he describes Andy Warhol as an adult hero. But much of the rest of that interview is about the Trump project including possible future developments

It is possible that the art works may be recontextualised in the future

His words, not mine! He is meaning that this Donald Trump Golf Development story is not over yet.

But nothing much forthcoming about him or the rest of his works.


Michael Forbes Local HeroDonald Trump - Trump StakesMichael Forbes No More Trump LiesDonald Trump Think Big and Kick Ass

Pablo Lobato – picturing celebrity

Bevan tried to change the nation
Sonny wants to turn the world, well he can tell you that
he tried
I could make a transformation as a rock & roll star

written by David Bowie

Having featured three illustrators recently from Europe (Italy, France and Spain) today I feature one from another continent, America, more specifically Argentina.

Michael Jackson by Pablo Lobato

Michael Jackson

Pablo Lobato is his name and he first came to my attention, as with last week’s featured Cristina Grossi, on the Chicquero blog in a post from June of this year titled Celebrities Illustrated. And it is his illustrations of celebrities that this post will be focusing on.

And he is one of us. A WordPress blogger that is!

His most recent post a striking illustration of Bob Marley. Bob Marley the Rihanna of his time – I shall just leave that there without further explanation!

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

But what you may also note about this post is its date – 6 November 2009. Regular readers (are there any of you?!) will know that November 6 is a special day but that is not what I am alluding too, rather that the last post was over three years ago. Is he no longer illustrating or more likely has he given up the ghost on WordPress blogging for lack of page views and user feedback?! (I am in no way projecting my experience upon him here!).

We may be able to discover as there are links on his blog to his Facebook, Flickr and Twitter accounts. And also ‘My Reps’ – a link to his management company website.

His Facebook page though does not link back to a professional portfolio business type page thingey rather a personal page where we/I learn that his TV likes include Modern Family and Music likes Lou Reed. Listed among the Other, being his other interests, are American Caricaturist Al Hirschfield and another American illustrator, cartoonist and author Bob Staake.

But this is getting me and more importantly you nowhere. I say you because for myself there is great pleasure to be found in getting lost, going astray, the best car journeys etc etc…but you are just a flitting reader of this blog-post and I have already likely trespassed too much upon your time…

So perhaps his Flickr page will be more illuminating. And yes his work is featured and recent – he is alive and illustrating! His work his grouped into Sets and we can see that his work has featured in The New Yorker and the 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival among others.

Flickr page

Flickr page

He has also done twelve pieces based on the Western Zodiac. I do not believe in Astrology but here is his Scorpio, my star-sign! Star as in astronomy not celebrity!



If you do believe in Astrology and want to see yours and the rest or if you just believe in his illustrations then please follow this link.

Finally I would expect no dead-ends from his management company, Anna Goodson Management, and I was not disappointed – is that two double negatives making a positive?!

Anna Goodson Management Website Home Page

Anna Goodson Management Website Home Page

On clicking the ‘Artists’ hyperlink we come to this striking representation of the Anna Goodson Management client-base, with intriguing glimpses of yet more illustrators that I hope to explore further at a later date.

Clients of Anna Goodson Management

Clients of Anna Goodson Management

And Pablo Lobato being referred to just by his first name here, Pablo. If you name your child Pablo do you predispose them – boy or girl! – to become an artist genius?! At least to place the name and idea and grand possibility of Piccasso into your heart and mind…

His client page includes a link to his own website but we are greeted with this message – moving on!

His website down

This client page provides a brief bio about him

Soon after finishing his studies, Pablo started working as a graphic designer for different magazines. This, however, only lasted five years, since total boredom drove him back to his first passion – illustrations. Today, Pablo has made quite a name for himself in Argentina where he lives and works.

And it provides a good number of his works. I won’t have to go Googling today.

As Lobato has a fascination with celebrity I could just have featured a dozen or so of his illustrations without comment but as if I can keep my words to myself! I could also have featured them without name too and set up this post as a competition to see how many of them you recognise and to which then you could submit your answers to me by Email with the first to submit all correct answers to receive a lovely celebrity themed prize from me. But I’m a bah humbug and I ain’t giving any prizes away!



Pablo Lovato Beyonce


One famous person illustrated was also illustrated and featured in my post about Jorge Arevalo – namely Amy Winehouse – the link is to his illustration by way of comparison.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse

He also features Heads of State such as Obama, Chavez and Merkel. Are Heads of State celebrities? Is Obama? Perhaps some of them aspire to and would be better leaders if they did not.

Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un

Not all of his work is celebrity-fixated. He does very good illustrations too of jazz-ensembles – not that Jazz and Celebrity cannot be synonymous but come on let’s be realistic here! – and you should check them out.

I have focused in the main on celebrities from music and the movies but he also illustrates sporting and fashion stars too.

Finally more of the population of Celebrity-Ville where only the famous and infamous are allowed.

Elton John

Elton John

Diane Keaton

Diane Keaton

Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen



Fame, (fame) what you like is in the limo
Fame, (fame) what you get is no tomorrow
Fame, (fame) what you need you have to borrow
Fame (fame)

written by David Bowie, John Lennon and Carlos Alomar

Jorge Arevalo in The New Yorker, and beyond

Jorge Arevalo Illustration of Audrey Tauto France

Audrey Tautou

I came upon Jorge Arevalo, well I nearly passed him by. If you read or have ever read The New Yorker then you will know that in amongst the endless words which you pretend you are swimming with but have long-since drowned, in amongst all these words are occasional pictures and photographs of which to serve as some relief from those words but are as often and quite rightly demanding our attention too. I must admit I usually but glance at them eager enough to keep up with those words but on this occasion I was distracted enough by an illustration to decide to explore its creator’s work further.

This particular issue was the October 22, 2012 one and the illustration in question was not even attached to a written piece but in the Goings On About Town which I usually rush through as not actually best placed to gad about New York what with being on the other side of the Atlantic and all. More particularly it was in the Movies Opening section illustrating ‘Nobody Walks‘.

Nobody Walks Jorge Arevaldo IllustrationWith the web an easy enough task to delve deeper and or wade wider and his own website  was quickly stumbled upon. It greets us with a photograph of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin). Clicking on we see his illustrations. There is not much detail on his website and perhaps there does not need to be.

His site does detail his clients, the list is not that long but again perhaps it does not need to be including as it does in addition to the aforementioned New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.

He has a number of books published of his portraits and illustrations too – I am not going to detail them as I have enough to gabble on about here. But if you like what you see here and want more of his work then there are links to his publications on his site too.

Juliette Binoche by Jorge Arevalo

Juliette Binoche

I’ve not included all the photos as what would be point of that when you can visit his site on his own terms and what-have-you, but instead a list of those not featured here who you may want to see illustrated in this fashion – Kate Moss with and without Pete Docherty, Chet Baker, Kate Hudson, Sasha Grey, Martin Scorsese, Lady Antebellum, James Franco, Kanye West, Jonas Brothers, Garrincha, Jane Reno, Jackie Kennedy, James Brolin, Elijah Wood, Chloe Sevigny, Pharrell Williams, Grace Coddington, Stacy Peralta and Alexander McQueen. A lot. Or enough.

Meryl Streep by Jorge Arevalo

Meryl Streep

Miles Davis by Jorge Arevalo

Miles Davis

The ones I have included I have kept my responses, bubbles of thought to a minimum  –  as I’m not you and you’re not obviously me therefore and it follows you will respond in your own unique way so I don’t think you are much interested in my view overmuch. We are all narcissists together on the world wide web after all. But anyway bravely, foolishly I include a few of my thoughts in words however invisible they may be to you between Arevalo’s portraiture.

Amy Winehouse by Jorge Arevalo

Amy Winehouse

Disgracefully I have never written about Amy Winehouse – her music, her voice, her life – what’s that about (?) but then I read your blogs dear subbers and you’ve not written about her either – what really is up with that?

I like the unfussy statement of Arevalo’s portraits. A kind of a doodle but super-charged in full colours.

Mad Men by Jorge Arevalo

Mad Men – y’know those Ad Men

Mad Men by Jorge Arevalo
More mad men…

Mad Men by Jorge Arevaldo
Mad Women…

His time frame stretches from Dean Martin to Miley Cyrus, the young at heart Dean to the old head on young shoulders Miley …

This picture of the Olsen Twins captures their innate spookiness well I feel.

The Olsen Twins by Jorge Arevalo

The Olsen Twins

The next of the singular time-defying Grace Jones and it looks like she is singing I’ve Seen that Face before!?!

Grace Jones by Jorge Arevalo

Grace Jones

Some of his illustrations are a bit more busy but no less bold.

The Black-Eyed Peas by Jorge Arevalo

The Black Eyed Peas

Charlotte Casiraghi by Jorge Arevalo
Charlotte Casiraghi, some minor European Royal

So if this has wetted your appetite, piqued your curiosity, stirred wonder in your hearts…you know what to do.

Letter from An Unknown Woman

Letter from an unknown woman

By the time you read this letter I may be dead.

I have so much to write and perhaps so little time

This is a review of the 1948 movie Letter From An Unknown Woman. It starred Joan Fontaine has the unknown woman Lisa Berndle and Louis Jourdan has the object of her passions Stefan Brand. The screenplay was by Howard Koch and the director was Max Opuls. It was based on a 1922 Novella of the same name by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig who was also involved in the story telling for the movie.

I say that this is a review but that was made-up. I have already told you a story!

It is the full text of the letter from the unknown woman to a well known musician. I looked for the text of this letter online but could not find it. I don’t mind if a copy does exist already though as writing out the letter myself introduced new cadences and subtleties to me. I have recorded it verbatim, at least word-for-word, hopefully the spirit too. Though really you need to hear this letter read out by Joan Fontaine. Well really you should watch the film. But I thought the letter was worthy of being recorded too, as if I had traveled back in time with my pocket sized copier and scanned away undercover of the night. But no need for the science fiction as movies are science-fact time travel. Except that this movie is eternal. In movies like this past present and future is all as one.

The letter punctuates the film so if I presented it as it is some of its meaning would likely be lost. Equally I do not want to give too much distracting context to it either so have tried to be as spare as possible. The orchestral accompaniment by David Tamkin adds to the letter’s narration too. If only we could all live our lives with scored music punctuating key events!

By the time you read this letter I may be dead.

I have so much to write and perhaps so little time

Will I ever send it? I don’t know.

I must find the strength to write now before it’s too late.

And as I write it may become clear that what happened to us had its own reason beyond our poor understanding.

If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn’t even know who I was or even that I existed.

I think everyone has two birthdays, the day of his physical birth and the beginning of his conscious life

Nothing is vivid or real in my memory before that day in spring when I came home from school and found a moving van in front of our building.

I wondered about our new neighbour who owned such beautiful things.

I didn’t see him that day or for many days thereafter but I could listen to your playing.

Yes I was blushing.

Her first encounter of him

And hard as it may be for you to realize, from that moment on I was in love with you.

Quite consciously I began to prepare myself for you.

I kept my clothes neater, so you wouldn’t be ashamed of me. I went to dancing school, I wanted to become more graceful and learn good manners for you.

And so I would know more about you and your world I, I went to the library and studied the lives of the great musicians of the past.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - at Music Library

Though I was not able to go to your concerts I found ways of sharing in your success.

And as the months went by I began to know your friends, many of them were women, most of them.

But I really lived for those evenings when we were alone

And I pretended you were playing just for me.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - Stefan playing piano

And though you didn’t know it

You were giving me some of the happiest moments of my life.

Then came a great day for me

In the building where we live Thursday was rug-beating day.

She uses it as an opportunity to return his rug to his apartment and to look around it in his absence.

In the next scene her mother advises her she is re-marrying and they will have to move away – and a significant distance (Vienna, Austria to Linsk, Poland).

‘What is there to keep us here’ the mother’s unintentionally cruel and not-at-all rhetorical question.

Suddenly I knew I could not live without you.

I did not know what I had in mind or what my parents would do when they found me missing.

All I wanted was to see you once more

To be near you again, to throw myself at your feet and to cling to you.

And never leave you. Nothing else. Nothing else mattered.

She returns to her old home without her mother knowing.

These rooms where I had lived had been filled with your music and now they were empty.

Would they ever come to life again. Would I?

Only you could answer and so I waited. Waited. For what seemed endless hours I sat outside your door. And tried to keep myself awake.

Afraid I might fall asleep and miss you.

But then.

He returns with a woman. Holding hands. Laughing.

And so there was nothing left for me. I went to Linsk.

You who have always lived so freely.

Have you any idea what life is like in a little garrison town?

I was eighteen now and was expected to take my place in society.

She is introduced to its society.

The Lieutenant was right. Linsk was a musical town.

So twice a month that summer we listened, the Lieutenant and I.

The Lieutenant proposes marriage to her. Not as awkward and hopeless as that of Parson Mr Collins to Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but as successful. She rebuffs him by telling him she is engaged. She is not. She returns again alone to Vienna this time with her parent’s knowing and reluctant blessing.

My poor parents, to them this was the end. Only it was a new beginning.

Vienna when I saw it again seemed to have taken on a new splendour.

All the time I had been away I had thought of it longingly as your city. Now it was our city.

Madame Spitzers is where I found work. It was the kind of establishment where one learns many things.

A Haberdashery. Madame Spitzer commented that she was not like most young women she had known.

Madame Spitzer spoke the truth, I was not like the others.

Nobody waits for me. Off I went. Not home.

To the only place that ever seemed like home to me.

Night after night I returned to the same spot and you never noticed me.

Until one night.

He notices her, they talk. Or they try to among all the other people who want to talk to him. They then eat out together, he talks a lot about himself, she does not say much about herself. He is known about town, she is almost a shadow. He buys her a single flower, a white rose and asks ‘Is it your flower?’ She answers ‘From now on it will be’. They head for the park under cover of the dark, but it hosts a fun-fair which is awake and which they join and talk some more. As the night progresses she listens less and asks more questions though still shares little about herself – ‘Tell me when you climb up a mountain’ she asks ‘what then? ‘Well, you come down again’ he answers. They then dance. And dance and dance. And dance.

They then return home and eventually embrace and kiss and scene fades to darkness and we can imagine what we may.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - Lisa and Stefan together

Next scene he appears at the shop and informs her he is going away for a short while.

Two weeks. Stefan how little you knew yourself. That train was taking you out of my life.

We now see her in hospital having had a baby. Their baby. He does not know. He is also married. She won’t tell the hospital the father’s name but has given his name Stefan to their baby.

And I wonder why I never came to you for help. I wanted to be one woman you had known who asked you for nothing.

My deep regret is that you never saw your son. There were times during those years I prefer not to remember.

This I can assure you, whatever the cost he repaid me a thousand times. You would have been proud of him too.

And he was almost nine and as much for his sake as mine I married.

You know who my husband is. Johann Stauffer married me knowing the truth about us and our child.

The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by each intent on his own problems.

So many faces that one might easily have been lost. I know now nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured. Every step is counted.

And at an Opera showing of Mozart’s The Magic Flute Stefan Brand comes to her attention again but now known not for his concert tours but his pleasure trips. They say of him that his talent was not enough or even that he had too many talents. They are both shown sitting in separate opera-boxes in the dark.

Suddenly in that one moment everything was in danger. Everything I thought was safe.

Somewhere out there were your eyes and I knew I could not escape them. It was like the first time I saw you, the years between melting away.

She exits her box but he has seen her and follows her though he does not fully recognize her now, saying to her ‘I feel that you understand what I cannot even say’. She returns to her husband and they ride by coach to their home. Her husband takes the opportunity to remind her of decency and honour fearing she will return to Stefan Brand and advising her against ‘all this romantic nonsense’.

Next scene sees her nine year old son going on a fortnight’s vacation (notably traveling alone on a train). But they had first mistakenly entered a quarantined carriage and were advised to move to another one. Quarantined from typhus it transpires. We see someone later being stretchered from the train. Meanwhile she has made a late visit to the father Stefan’s home. ‘Is it too late for supper’ he asks, adding ‘You are here and as far as I am concerned all the clocks have stopped’.

He lifts her veil, they kiss. But it is clear to her that he still remembers her only from the night before at the opera and earlier memories are still not stirred. So while he is in another room fetching champagne she leaves.

I had come to tell you about us and to offer you my whole life.

But you didn’t even remember me.

I don’t remember where I went.

Time moved past me. Not in days and hours but in the distance it put between us.

When I could think again I went to my son. But it was too late. He died last night of typhus without even knowing I was there.

Now I am alone. My head throbs and my temples are burning. Perhaps God has been kind and I too have caught the fever.

If this letter reaches you, believe this, that I love you now as I have always loved you.

My life can be measured by the moments I have had with you and our child.

If only you could have shared those moments.

If only you could have recognized what was always yours.

Could have found what was never lost…

If only.

The final page of the letter from the unknown woman

The film reprises ‘If only you could have recognized what was always yours. Could have found what was never lost’.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - Stefan final scene in tears

We see him leave his home and turning around see her. Her ghost or a flickering memory.
Letter from an Unknown Woman - final credits