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Slipping Away
Portrait of Jennie is a small film, as far as history is concerned. But the dreamlike fantasy has much to say – about tomorrow, today, life, death, and New York.

By Stefany Anne Golberg

The 1940s film Portrait of Jennie begins up in the clouds, with questions: “What is time?” asks a voice. “What is space? What is life? What is death?” A quote from Euripides comes onscreen to the strains of Debussy: 
WHO KNOWETH IF TO DIE BE BUT TO LIVE …
AND THAT CALLED LIFE BY MORTALS BE BUT DEATH?

“Through a hundred civilizations,” the voice continues, “philosophers and scientists have come with answers, but the bewilderment remains... Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side forever.”

Below us, through the clouds, lies the landscape of 1930s New York City in winter. The scene looks like it is being projected onto the canvas of a painting (a cinematic trick thought up by the legendary and obsessive David O. Selznick, the film’s producer). The effect merges cinema and painting, present and past — so that you’re never quite sure if the New York you’re watching is the real one, or the New York of pictures in your mind. The plot of Portrait of Jennie has been described as the story of “a struggling Depression-era artist and the woman he is painting, who is slipping through time.”

New York City is a good setting for a film about time’s slippages. It is a city that erases itself with every new generation. New York is a true Utopia — a No-Place. For young New Yorkers, the city is Tomorrow Land. For older New Yorkers, it is a place of lost dreams.



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