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Watching movies for the wallpaper

Loving (Photo: Focus Features)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

I’m an incorrigible snoop, in movies and in life. Bookshelves are an easy target, because they’re on display. When they’re the bookshelves of fictional characters, they usually tell you more about their creators than the characters themselves. So on one end of the spectrum, you have something like François Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, in which all of the books and magazines burned on screen were personally selected. (This is generally true of all the directors of the French New Wave, who were very picky about book-related matters.)


Filmmakers can be very fussy about their shelves, sometimes coming into conflict with verisimilitude. How believable is it that Michael Fassbender’s sex addict character in Shame has a paperback of Don DeLillo’s Underworld displayed so prominently? One film I saw at Toronto earlier this year, The Dreamed Path, must have been shot in the director’s apartment, as it seems unlikely that the characters would own several books by the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer.

Coop's bookshelf, featuring The Time Machine and one of his many copies of White Oleander (Screenshot: Interstellar)

On the other end, you have the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in which a bookshelf figures prominently. Perhaps there’s a good reason why Coop, the astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey, owns several copies of White Oleander, or why none of his books seem to be in any kind of order, with some even upside down. (Related: IMAX is a heck of a format, ain’t it?) Nolan cares enough to hide a clue about the plot—a copy of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine—on Coop’s bookshelf, but the rest is filled out with the kind of Oprah’s Book Club picks and Penguin paperbacks that an art-department intern could run out and buy on short notice.

Another thing I probably pay way too much attention to (along with phone numbers, makes and models of cars, etc.) is wallpaper. In that regard, I’ve come to believe that Jeff Nichols is our great living wallpaper auteur. Like Nichols’ sci-fi chase film Midnight Special, which opened earlier this year, his new drama Loving is chock-full of homey wallpaper patterns, bearing the kind of imagery one might find printed on paper towels or dinnerware—usually bouquets and branches, often in earth tones or with a subtle pink or blue.

Midnight Special (Photo: Warner Bros.)

In other words, Nichols is a wallpaper naturalist, as evident in the still at the very top. (Unfortunately, what you can’t quite make out in the still is the ancient Egyptian-themed pattern on Ruth Negga’s blouse, which is really something.) Often in American indie films, wallpaper serves as a cheap gag about tackiness; think the matching shirt and wallpaper combo from Garden State, for example. But with Nichols, it gives a subtle definition to interior spaces, and places them socio-economically. He’s very specific about cars, too: Midnight Special has several memorable (and believable) vehicles, including a customized ’72 Chevelle and a late-’90s Isuzu Trooper; in Loving, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, with some great false teeth) is an amateur drag racer.


Though I’d consider Loving a minor effort (especially compared to Midnight Special, which is one of the year’s best), it speaks to the fact that Nichols has matured into the kind of filmmaker whose work can be identified from a single shot. Visually, his movies tend to have a lot of negative space. Their identity is a mix of sparseness and Americana: empty rural highways, isolated farmhouses, and quiet kitchens and living rooms hung with muted wallpaper patterns.

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