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.
Eben Adams, the film’s main character, is an artist who paints in the old style and isn’t having much worldly success. When we first see him, Eben is wandering Central Park. He is hungry, lightheaded and searching for inspiration. New York is a cold place in the winter, he tells us, yet there is a type of suffering for the artist that’s worse than poverty or winter. It’s more like, Eben says, a winter of the mind, a dreadful feeling of the world’s indifference. Eben’s mind is full of winter when he has a sudden awareness of something extraordinary. Out of the cold shadows of Central Park, Eben Adam sees Jennie. She is a girl the first time they meet, cheerful but wistful too. Jennie tells Eben that her parents are performers at the Hammerstein Theater. Eben points out that the Hammerstein Theater closed long ago. Jennie tells Eben he should stop painting things and try painting people instead. He will paint her portrait, she tells him, it’s been decided, and she sings Eben this song:
Where I come from
And where I’m going
The wind blows,
The sea flows —
And nobody knows.
Later, Eben realizes that Jennie’s clothes were different than the clothes of most city kids he sees. They were more…old fashioned. Eben goes back to his studio and sketches Jennie and, by sketching her, brings her to life.
From the moment Eben first sees Jennie, time begins to slip. Each time they meet, Jennie is a little older; Eben starts to wonder, then, just who Jennie Appleton is. He embarks on a journey of the city’s past, visits the old places and starts asking questions. Eben meets the doorman at the Rialto who played Hammerstein’s back in the day, and a nun at the convent where Jennie was sent after her parents died. These people remember Jennie. They tell Eben that Jennie is dead. The old New Yorkers are alive but speak like ghosts. They live in 1934 New York, and also a New York that is no more. The old New Yorkers pull Eben deeper into the labyrinth of slippage.
The portrait of Jennie progresses but slowly — weeks, sometimes months pass between the moments when Jennie appears. When she does, it’s never for long. And there is always the premonition of death. Eben’s artistic depression turns into obsession. Finishing the portrait of Jennie is all that matters. He’s not fully alive whenever Jennie is gone. Winter turns to summer which turns back eventually to winter. Time doesn’t progress but curves around him. Love and art orient Eben toward the future. And yet Eben knows that Jennie is a ghost, and that their future has already passed. The portrait of Jennie brings Eben to life — but love seems to lead him toward death. Who knoweth if to die be but to live … and that called life by mortals be but death?
Portrait of Jennie itself is a work that has slipped through time. In the 1940s, the film was declared a sentimental miniature with extraordinary special effects. But for Robert Nathan, who wrote the novella upon which the film was based, Portrait of Jennie could only be“lost” to history if time were moving forward. “It seems to me that I have always wanted to say the same things,” Nathan once said. “That life is one, that mystery is all around us, that yesterday, today and tomorrow are all spread out in the pattern of eternity, together, and that although love may wear many faces in the incomprehensible panorama of time, in the heart that loves it is always the same.”
“How beautiful the world is, Eben!” says Jennie, as she looks at the sunset over the Hudson River. “The sun goes down in the same lovely sky. Just as it did yesterday, and will tomorrow.”
“When is tomorrow, Jennie?” Eben asks her.
“Does it matter?” replies Jennie. “It’s always. This was tomorrow once.” • 29 October 2014