In 2011, Leanne Shapton, the illustrator and writer, published a series of watercolors called “A Month of…,” which was posted online in monthly installments grouped by theme. The eighth and final collection, “Sunday Night Movies,” included thirty-one illustrated scenes from films that Shapton had watched on Sunday nights. A year later, the Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly asked Shapton to expand that theme into a longer book of paintings.
Here, Shapton presents a selection from her forthcoming book, and explains some themes in the series that became apparent to her only after she was finished.
The first subject I learned to draw, that I drew over and over, was a head in profile.
When I was ten, my father had his caricature done at the Canadian National Exhibition. It was a particularly good one: his large nose, glasses, wrinkled forehead, beard, and front teeth were all exaggerated but—no question—it was him. When the artist asked my father what he did, he replied, “Collect Studebakers,” so the artist drew a tiny body in a convertible beneath my father’s enormous head. Anyone who saw this drawing marvelled at its fidelity.
I’d sit and stare at it, mesmerized by the swift likeness. From then on, I practiced drawing heads in profile. My sketchbooks were filled with make-believe people with giant foreheads, aquiline noses, rubbery lips, and Barrymore chins. Their skulls were proportionally too small until I took life-drawing classes in my twenties.
I love looking at people in profile. It’s gratifying to stare, whenever I can, to follow the lines of noses, the expanses of cheeks, the concavities beneath eyes, the pudginess to the sides of a person’s lips. As a woman, I love looking at the cruder planes and hollows of men’s faces. I automatically, unfairly, distrust people with small noses. When I draw people in profile, it’s like sitting down to a favorite meal: there are the parts I savor—the undercarriages of noses, upper lips, and lower lids—and the parts I salt—foreheads, necks, ears. It might be due to my right-handedness, but I struggle with drawing profiles from the left, or facing east.
While working on the “Sunday Night Movie” series, I would watch movies with an eye to nothing deeper than what might be fun to paint. After making seventy-six paintings, I noticed that I had repeatedly been drawn to particular elements: letterforms in titles, women’s faces in the center of the screen, and moments when two actors face each other, and are seen in profile. I asked a screenwriter friend how she describes such a two-person scene. It’s called a “two-shot,” she told me. It seems that my attraction to profiles has matured into an appreciation of the two-shot.
I now realize that, when recollecting my own history of love, I visualize a series of two-shots. For a long time, I sought out the dramatic, and, looking back, I tend to see scenes from my life not from the limited, gravity-bound, first-person perspective I had but as something more sweeping and cinematic. Through filmic compositions and structure I’ve found a way to press my past into a mental album.
One relationship seemed framed by Antonioni: a view across the piano nobile of a Venetian palazzo as a man picks his way through tables and into a two-shot with me on the balcony. Later: a drawn-out, early-morning fight in the Chelsea Hotel over distance, betrayal, and bad timing, concluding in another two-shot, this one framed by a door left ajar, before cutting to a shot of my finger pressing the door-close button in the elevator.
Another affair ends with a version of Bogart and Bergman’s famous “We’ll always have Paris” two-shot, as an ex and I wander an empty Toronto street with too much to say and no action to take, the foggy tarmac replaced by a maple tree.
Finally, a more “Brief Encounter”-like frame: a country-house bedroom, and a sweet and simple coming together when my request for assistance with an eyedropper (two-shot with Visine) turns into the relationship that leads to marriage.
Sometimes I’m aware of being in a two-shot as it happens. I recognized one last weekend when, sitting on some stone steps out of earshot of sleeping guests, I gave romantic advice to a friend. And a few days ago, I confronted a friend about her depression in a two-shot over a steak sandwich.
The symmetry of the two-shot promises harmony or discord: a long goodbye, the moment before a kiss, a confidence shared, a spar of wit, explosions of hostility and hurt. There is a lot of blame in two-shots. Blame, and grace. The two-shot thrills and rivets; the audience, held captive by the filmmaker, listens and watches. Two-shots are cross-sections of intimacies that come only rarely, that ask and then answer, “How will these two people continue?”