I've always been under the impression that Tarsem Singh's, The Cell was one of the most artistically intriguing films to ever be made. It wasn't a great film really, but the segments done in the minds of our characters were some of the most creative and oddly beautiful that I had ever seen. Sure, I could do without the police banter, and the miscasting of Vince Vaughn as an intelligent and haughty FBI agent--plus can I really buy that Jennifer Lopez's character smokes pot and frolics around in a sexy pair of black underwear while in the comfort of her own home?
Not so much. Still, you can't deny that The Cell has some truly breathtaking segments that are just cool looking.
I had always thought that The Cell was pretty original, that is until I did some research surrounding the artistic inspiration and then I thought a bit differently. This isn't necessarily a problem--people are inspired all the time and Tarsem's visions usually are pushed much further than the original inspirations go. What I find to be interesting however, is that Tarsem and his team rarely if ever, talk about the inspirations that went into the film and instead, the crew talks about his originality. After doing this research however, I've found that inspirations behind the art in The Cell are pretty damn interesting. Exact copies or not---this is the kind of art that makes YOU want to create---which is presumably why The Cell happened in the first place.
Damien Hirst was one of the dominating forces in the British art scene during the 1990s and still today is reported to be the wealthiest living artist in Great Britain. One of his most famous series involved taking actual dead animals, preserving them in formaldehyde and dissecting their bodies.
Most notably this was done with a cow, sometimes halved with its inside being exposed,
and other times broken into pieces.
Look familiar? It was this particular piece that inspired the famous horse scene in The Cell.
I do love this scene, and obviously it IS a bit different since we do get to witness the actual splitting of the horse. But I still find it odd that Hirst is not mentioned in the commentary on this particular scene. It's a pretty blatant "rip off" that the writer seems to get all the credit for--thanks to his insistence on using a horse, and yet I still find it to be one of the most effective scenes in Carl Stargher's head. Mostly, I can never seem to get that wildly fast ticking clock out of my head. Oh and P.S. little Carl Stargher is Lizzie McGuire's brother. Whatever happened to him?
I don't see a ton of influence by H.R. Giger in The Cell, but he is still referenced as a notable inspiration. Giger will be well known to us horror fans, as he won an Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects for Alien. It was in fact Giger's compendium of images, Necronomicon, that was given to Ridley Scott during Alien's pre-production that prompted him to hire Giger to produce the artwork and conceptual designs for the film. Perhaps this is why I fail to see a real correlation between Giger and The Cell. All I see is the alien...in erotic alien sex positions.
I feel very "naughty" when I look at these......*blush*
The only real sort of inspiration I can really see, is from this particular artwork from The Necronomicon.
I can definitely see a tad of inspiration taken for the design of Vincent D'Onofrio's scary alter ego in The Cell.
Although I suppose you could also see a bit of Jennifer Lopez's "slave" gear as well.
It IS a little alien-ish no?
Besides having a sweet ass name, Odd Nerdrum is Norwegian and made a name for himself by doing art that was not so agreeable to Norway's standards at the time. Now however, many realize that his art is pretty neat. Sometimes creepy, sometimes romantic--Nerdrum explains his art by calling it kitsch rather than art. It is these two paintings however that win the award for most direct inspiration.
If you combine what the three strange men (?) (I mean I think I can see their enormous bulges but who knows) are wearing with the position that the people are in the second one you get this extremely memorable image.
My love for this particular scene knows no bounds. In fact, it was this scene that got me infatuated with the film in the first place. It's insanely creepy and surreal, and the way that the three women whisper things and then go back to gaping at the sky, really does wonders on your mind.
The Brother's Quay
The kind of art that the Quay Brothers make, is the kind of art that keeps me up at night. By that I mean, it's creepy stop-animation short films featuring scary broken dolls, and sometimes creepy old men. Their most well known film, Street of Crocodiles is the epitome of this, and when one looks at it, it's not too difficult to figure out where The Cell got some of its inspiration from.
I speak mostly of the notable scene where J Lo is investigating all the "scenes" of the living dolls. Creepy, dusty surroundings, dolls with broken arms and faces--it may not be a literal inspiration but it still harkens back to the Quay Brothers...only more naked and scarier. Also, Carl's real life dolls found in his apartment could be considered cousins of the dolls in Street of Crocodiles me thinks.
Nine Inch Nails
Surprised are you? Didn't you know that when I use the term "art" I also mean things like music videos? Remember music videos? They were once integral parts of an artist's music career, and now they are lost somewhere on MTV2 and play only at 3 AM. Sigh.
While the Brother's Quay, Street of Crocodiles inspired in some ways The Cell--it was actually Street of Crocodiles (and Joel-Peter Witkin!) that inspired the Nine Inch Nails video Closer--directed by Mark Romanek. In my opinion--Closer carries most of the inspiration behind the dolls scene in The Cell.
I couldn't remember this video very well until I saw it, and then I remembered that I did remember it but I had blocked it out because it scared the crap out of me. I guess I didn't do well with monkey's tied to crucifixes and beating hearts tied to chairs...
It looks to me like the set design in the doll chamber was influenced directly by the set in Closer. Most notably this whole contraption of a wheel with cables, that opens up a sliding panel, revealing people behind it.
Nine Inch Nails
In the Cell these aren't weird old men however, these are scary dolls, and also a really muscular man/women.
Also, a neat thing in Closer---is this image of the two girls bound by their hair.
Which is actually an image taken from Fantastic Planet.
Which is what J. Lo chooses to fall asleep to in The Cell! Crazy I know.
I had forgotten how fucking scary Marilyn Manson is. If you read my story up top, you'll notice that one of my fears growing up was gothic people. No offense gothic people, but you scared the crap out of me when I was little... (and maybe still sort of today....). Marilyn Manson is like the grandaddy of my terror though. I remember back in the day, while watching MTV, Marilyn Manson always popped up on TRL and then I would run screaming into the next room.
His two Floria Sigismondi directed videos The Beautiful People and Tourniquet however, are what I think are the strongest inspirations for the design of the dolls in The Cell.
And while, there aren't any really scary tall people in long coat things in The Cell--it's really just the atmosphere, and the kind of brutality that exists in both of these music videos that really harkens back to The Cell. It's that gross dirty, sick, sexual, violence that really gets to you. A clear marker of tone if you ask me. Here are some more shots of creepiness thanks to Marilyn Manson.
It feels funny to put Madonna next to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails--but if you remember, Madonna's videos had their own special brand of creepiness to them as well. And believe it or not, Mark Romanek who directed Closer and The Perfect Drug for Nine Inch Nails, also directed Bedtime Story for Madonna. It is Bedtime Story, that contains another almost mirror image of a scene from The Cell.
This rotating cube, that contains visions of Madonna, can also be scene in one of the last scenes in The Cell, when Vince Vaughn and J. Lo are searching for the key to the lost girl's whereabouts.
There's also this very familiar color scheme happening in Bedtime Story,
that reminds me of the giant purple cape scene in The Cell.
Also, there are a few shots of Madonna in a pool with some creepy skeletal animals.
Which definitely echoes a few of Carl's dolls in The Cell.
So as you can see, inspirations comes from a million things apparently. Maybe that's what I love the most about The Cell, it really does feel like the best parts of the creepiest nightmares. For your viewing pleasure, I have also decided to include a few more of my favorite images from The Cell. Perhaps you'll be able to find other instances of inspiration?
Good grief, I think I'm unapologetically in love with the surreal scenes inside the mind of Carl in The Cell. How about you? Watch this video of J. Lo's first trip inside of the mind of Carl and try to tell me it's not the coolest looking thing ever....tons of rip offed images or not.
And while "Closer" is undoubtedly a cool video, most of *that* imagery was borrowed from photographer Joel-Peter Witkin.
Everyone thieves! : )
You have me just about convinced to watch The Cell (and maybe The Fall as well)!
I never found the prospect of a surreal detective thriller starring Jennifer Lopez to sound that intriguing, but I'm definitely in if it's packed with that much bizarre imagery, appropriated or no, and references to Fantastic Planet.
And speaking of Joel-Peter Witkin, I wrote not long ago about the appropriation of his images in Jacob's Ladder:
I'm not well versed on Joel Peter witkins Andreas, but when I did that quick google search I did have Jacob's Ladder flashbacks. So cool! Thanks for posting.
Floria Sigismondi is the artist who designed "The Beautiful People" and "Tourniquet" videos for Marilyn Manson :) She's an incredible talent, and if you like this kind of dark, twisted aesthetic, I really encourage you to seek out her fine art work! Ms. Sigismondi has had a lot of commercial success directing music videos (most recently Katy Perry's "ET" clip), and she is also the brain behind "The Runaways" biopic. Check out more of her work on her website:
Check out more?! I'm terrified of it! : )
Heheh it is neat though, and I will give it a look...while peering from behind my hands!
There is so much hating on The Cell, and I've always liked that movie. I actually saw it at the drive-in (!!) on a double bill with Hollow Man and it freaked me out so much. The dream sequences are so scary, especially the people in the sand.
thanks for doing all the research. I always thought of the Cell as a bunch of art drawn out into a movie. I suspected the director took existing paintings or images that he liked and stretched them to fit his particular visualization. But I never felt like researching it.
I do like the movie, mostly for the imagery, & Vincent D'Onofrio. Why JLo & Vince Vaughn r in it, I have no idea. It's like a giant feast for the eyes, some sweet like candy, other bits savory, & still some parts served up rancid.
I saw his other movie (can't remember the name) the story was definitely neglected in lieu of the imagery.
Love it! I always just assumed Tarsem was a big Dali fan, but clearly there's a whole lot more going on artistically. Makes me really want to revisit this film.
Quite possibly my favourite psychological thriller of all time. Second only to Se7en (let's be real...there's a wider range of acting in that one). However, it's the first (and to this day, only) film that's saved by the imagery. D'Onforio (spelling?) is a master in this work of art and Jennifer Lopez is her most inspired acting-wise (say waht you want...but she definitely found the line between "acting" and being subtle...something I don't think she's done since).
My heart breaks every time I think of this film...it's that gorgeous. Tarsem is a superhero. His ability to splice all these elements together shows his incredible vision. I need to check out every single reference you've dug up and see if I can find some of my own...makes for a fun project.
Thanks for this write-up. Came here from Fascination with Fear as soon as I saw the gaping ladies image in the sidebar! So glad I did :)
Great post, lots of new names to learn about; thank you.
I definitely want to watch The Cell again. I think it is one of Jo Lo's more interesting films (I can't remember the other one, maybe I am just making it up?). It is a shame she has ensconced herself as the Queen of Romantic Comedies.
Totally genius. I would never have noticed the painters in there. I did get the NIN thing, mostly because I was 16 in 1994, but not the Madonna cube. You're awesome!
I really liked your post on The Cell. I was wondering if you know, who is the author of the painting, which Vince Vaugh finds in Stargher's apartment? The one, were a man is being tortured and his entrails are being pulled out.
The other inspiration that is noticeable in the film is the art of Francis Bacon. Here you will find some of his paintings (including a white dog):
All the best,
The production designer of the Cell, Tom Foden, was also the art director for Romanek's Closer video for NIN.
I have seen this film only two days ago. All I can say is that it is a much deeper film than one might consider it to be. The idea of entering someone else's mind with use of some "experimental technology" is not that surreal when you look at it from the Freudian or Jungian perspective of treatment. The sequence of memories and visions, the house, the changing rooms, floors / levels (especially going down the stairs to reach the deeper level), the monsters, the victims, the scared child ... all these are in this context the internal world within someone else's mind- all real to that person (the patient) and also real, for the time of the encounter, to the therapist who through the conversation (and sharing of the mental space with the other) discovers the inner world of the patient. It is indeed easy to get lost in this inner world of the other as not everyone is 100% familiar and confident of all contents of their own inner world ... The splitting of the horse was quite something as there is a psychological process of defence called splitting when two different views on reality, the good and the bad, co- exist without any mutual awareness just like the split parts of the horse - all separate but each still alive even though separated from the rest. Then the changing role of the therapist: first as a newcomer and a disorientated guest, then as an ally and then as a hostage compassionate towards the aggressor (the tear) who becomes the idealised saint supporting the process of death of the evil integrated with the innocence of the boy within the evil man (the shated wound). We do not know if the criminal woke up from his comma. He could have died, but he could have been as well healed through the integration of his shadow and baptised with a powerfull new chance for a better life (hopefully after a long semtence in a prison) where the previous baptism activated the evil and the new one removed it from his inner world. The concept of working with "patients in a coma" was also very symbolic to me as often people suffering from mental illnesses are perceived from the perspective of being in "their own state of a trans" like "coma" that keeps them unable to do anything, imprisoned in their own body ... The Cell is not only a complex story inspired by contemporary art. It also has a great potential for psychological understanding of the process of healing inside a very profoundly disturbed mind.
Look up artist Elizabeth McGrath (Blood Bath McGrath). She makes really adorably creepy diorama/shadowbox sculptures that reminded me a lot of the images in the scene where you see all of his victims in their 'tanks'.
As for Giger influence, the stairs scene was most likely inspired by Giger's painting "Schacht".
Found this while trying to answer the same question. I like many of your parallels to artists. The splitting of the cow was interesting too. I had the opportunity to view an art exibhit where various body parts had been plasticized. (Think it was also featured in one of the new Bond movies.)
As for Giger, I don't really see it... what I was specifically trying to see was if the art was based off Brom and would recommend checking out his work.
It's unfortunate when an artist won't give credit to their inspiration.
Have you been able to find any information about the tarot card seen towards the end of the film, before Catherine reverses the process to bring Stargher into her mind for the final therapy session/confrontation? My guess is that the card shown in the film is 'The Hermit'.
how about Rene Burri's work? i can't exactly point to any particular scene in the cell, but this photograph: https://content.magnumphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/cortex/par148563-teaser-story-big.jpg always reminds me of the cell when i see it...
Great post man! I am an artist myself and I had almost the same reaction as you (and other commenters) had after I saw The Cell. At first I was blown away. I recognized some pieces and the definite, and near constant allusions to the Brothers Quay (animators) but I went along with the movie, suspended my disbelief (and put up with Vince friggin' Vaughn) and just got into it. But I couldn't understand why I had never heard of the movie, or why my artist friends were not all talking about it. (I saw it long after it came out.)
Then I started researching it, like you did. Not only is almost every visual in the movie directly or indirectly attributable to some other artist, so is every shot in the movie (the cinematography), much of the costuming, production design, set & sculptures, visual effects, cinematic effects, post production techniques, and almost every other aspect of the movie. That isn't influence, homage, or even "borrowing" from other artists, it is downright plagiarism. Especially when he is referred to as "original" and doesn't mention any of the artists he stole from.
Not every artist steals. Good artists never steal anything. You can be influenced and explore the same ground as other artists, but you have to do it in your own way to be creating art and not copying someone else's art. You have to put some of yourself into everything you create. That is why nobody ever talks about Tarsem, because if you take the stolen, borrowed and referenced out of this beautiful movie you have nothing but a few static shots of Vince Vaughn and J-Lo talking to some good B actors.
I encourage you and all the other commenters with their interesting and insightful questions to continue to research and explore all the artists and artisans Tarsem "borrowed" from to make this gorgeous movie. See the real art as it poured from the hearts and hands of the original creators, and not Tarsem's recreations, altered to fit his film. That is where the gold is here.
Tarsem is a distraction, though he did a wonderful job in collecting a HUGE and fine array of artists and artisans for us to explore. I don't know how he wasn't sued blind though. I guess because the movie never got too big. In fact I bet many of the artist he "referenced" don't even know their art was pinched for this.
Great review though, it was awesome to hear you went through the same journey I did!
The scenes with the peacock always reminds me the photographic work of Pierre et Gilles.
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