I get inspired by images. The images can be anything. They don’t necessarily have to be science fiction or fantasy images to inspire me. Mundane images of everyday life will cause me to come up with science fiction or fantasy scenarios.
I’ve read fantasy and science fiction since I was old enough to read. It’s part of me now. It’s in my blood. Art, though, is more than just fantasy illustration. I love all art, from the old masters through to modern art. I have a particular fondness for the twentieth century “ashcan” school of art; this was a particular type of realism championed by artists such as Edward Hopper, who is easily my favorite twentieth century (non-fantasy) realist.
Most of what I write about is illustration based on text. Most science fiction and fantasy art is inspired by science fiction and fantasy writing. Much of the best fantasy art has come out of the necessity to illustrate fantasy stories or novels for pulps or paperbacks.
Hopper’s paintings make it happen the other way around for me. His paintings offer up mysteries that my mind cannot help but try to solve. Just like his famous painting Nighthawks (which I have written about previously), Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie offers up a tantalizing series of mysteries and asks the viewer to solve them.
This painting inspired me to try to solve that mystery. As I am a writer as well as an illustrator and a life long science fiction fan, I decided that the painting’s mysteries needed to be more fantastic than mundane.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, here are my nearly thousand words, inspired by Hopper’s masterpiece:
NEW YORK MOVIE
It was an hour and-a-half into the main feature and Lilly was bored.
She stood at the foot of the stairs leading to the balcony, leaning against the wall, listening to Gary Cooper’s voice as it came from the speakers.
It was a great movie but she’d seen it three times. She could almost quote the dialogue. She’d been a movie usher for three years and she’d seen them all.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She looked down at her crisply starched trousers, the ones with the red stripe. The slacks were nice. They were comfortable, but the matching blue jacket didn’t fit quite right and sometimes she felt like it was choking her.
Her shoes were pretty, and she loved them, but standing around in them for three hours at a time was hell on her feet. And she had to stand here. She couldn’t nip out for a quick smoke in the back alley. Not that she would. The back alley was where the projectionist usually went for a smoke and she didn’t like the way he looked at her.
She shifted her flashlight from one hand to the other, then held it under her arm when she noticed a bit of lint on her slacks. The lint turned out to be a bit of candy that was stuck to the fiber. She had to use a lacquered nail to pick it off. She made a disgusted noise as the sticky remnant came free of the fabric.
Her flashlight slipped from under her arm and dropped to the floor, rolling on the carpet. She uttered a curse under her breath as she followed it, stooping to pick it up before it rolled any further.
As she stood, she looked up at the screen. Gary Cooper was speaking earnestly to Ray Milland, his dusty Foreign Legion jacket looking just about as uncomfortable as hers.
That was when he turned and looked at the camera.
That was odd. Lilly didn’t remember him doing that before. Copper turned back to Milland. Milland was speaking now but did Cooper seem distracted? He seemed to be. Odd that she didn’t notice that before. Cooper was usually the more focused of the two.
He did it again. Lilly stood up straight and stared up at the flickering screen. Cooper turned away from Milland and he seemed to be scanning the audience.
This had not happened the last time she watched the movie. She was certain of that. Had the projectionist made a mistake? Had he slipped on a gag reel or something?
Cooper held up a hand to stop Milland. “Hold on, Ray,” he said.
Ray? The character’s name was John. What was going on?
Cooper walked forward and his steely gaze looked out into the audience. He seemed to be searching for someone in particular. “Excuse me,” he said from the screen. “Who’s crying?”
The audience looked at each other, confused. Lilly stared in open-mouthed shock at the screen.
A woman stood up shakily in the middle of the theater. “Me,” she said in a weak, mousy voice. “I’m the one who was crying.” The audience turned to look at her. Lilly did as well. She remembered her. She was small and thin and bespectacled. She’d come in and sat by herself.
“Why are you crying?’ Gary Cooper asked, his face a mask of loving concern.
The woman glanced around nervously at the other patrons. She shook her head. “I’ve been in New York for a week and…” she stopped, her finger twisting a handkerchief. Her voice had an accent that Lilly thought sounded southern. “…I don’t know anybody here and I can’t find a job and… and there’s just so much noise and so many people rushing this way and that… I just… I just thought I’d escape for a few hours. But when the picture started I just… I just…”
Cooper held up a hand, shushing her gently. “Don’t cry. It’s alright. Listen, why don’t you tell me where you’d rather be right now?”
“Alpena, South Dakota,” the woman sobbed.
Lilly’s brows raised. South Dakota?
On screen even Cooper seemed a little nonplussed for a couple of frames, but he quickly recovered (he was a great actor, after all) and gave her his trademark smile. “Well, then what are you doing sittin’ there? Go on. Get back to Alpena. Go back to the family that loves you.”
“Really?” the woman said staring at Cooper’s giant monochromatic face. “For real?”
“For real,” Cooper said, smiling. “Go on, now. Pack your things and head on home!”
“I will!” the woman said and she ran to the aisle, clumsily climbing over moviegoers that were in her way. Halfway up she turned and waved at Cooper. “Thank you, Mr. Cooper! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” Cooper said.
The woman dashed out of the theater past Lilly “I’m going home!” she said excitedly as she ran out the door.
Back on the screen Cooper smiled in a satisfied way. “Another happy ending,” he said.
The music swelled. The scene faded to black and a title card came up proclaiming: THE END.
The theater lights came on and the moviegoers stared at each other, blinking in confusion. Then they began to get up from their seats.
One older man turned to his wife. “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Lilly couldn’t help but agree. And she’d seen them all.