Sentimentality, Captured Beautifully: 'Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s'

Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland in the early '40s

We’re meant to understand something more about our ability to respond to the images around us. We’re shaped emotionally by images, and new, unconventional readings of history can be enriched by mining through them.

Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Length: 184 pages
Author: Alexander Nemerov
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-11

“How do we remember the Second World War now?” asks Alexander Nemerov in the opening sentence of his most recent book on the War and the permanence of memory. Over the course of five chapters, structured thematically around photographs, film stills, and key scenes from movies either well-known or often ignored, Nemerov seeks to come to a new understanding of art and visual culture during the '40s.

The '40s continues to fascinate us not only because of the Second World War, but because it was a transitional time in modern American culture. To paraphrase Martin Amis, it was really the last “we” decade before history led us into the “me” decade. This stunning book defies easy categorization. It’s billed under art historical non-fiction, American photography, and film history, but it’s really a personal meditation on why we love art and the movies and the enduring power of popular culture to transcend its own moment in time.

An art historian who teaches at Stanford, Alexander Nemerov, has already written two books on art of the '40s. A book on the film director, Val Lewton, Icons of Grief (2005), and another on the painter George Ault, To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America(2011). Both books show us a side of American visual culture that we seem to have forgotten about—neglected, melancholy, poetic spaces of struggle and self-discovery.

The frozen image of the young Ann Carter gazing out of the frosted window in Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944), or one of Ault’s haunting, quietly unsettling paintings of his Woodstock, New York home, like Bright Light at Russell’s Corners(1946) where the solitary white glow of a single lamp filters across a barn and secluded street, give us images of the '40s that are different from the ones we seem to know so well. Nemerov excels at showing us how Americans during this time coped with the grief caused by the War. Among the traces of what’s left behind in paintings, photographs, and films, we can still find something authentic and palpable that can make history come alive for us in a new way.

Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945

Wartime Kiss is structured around a set of key photographs. Nemerov starts out the book by toying with our pre-conceived notions of the '40s and what we think we know so well- Life magazine and its photographs of the War and its home-front pleasures. The first photograph, where book’s title comes from, is Alfred Eisentaedt’s V-J Day Kiss, Times Square, 1945, of the famous image of the sailor kissing the nurse.

The photo is one of those pictures we’ve come to associate with 20th century triumph and joy, a stock image for the barrage of historical montages on television and in magazines. But the emotions running through the scene are not so clear-cut, Nemerov argues. Take a closer look. Look at the way he grips the unsuspecting young woman, locked in the vise of this arms, his face engulfing hers. Nemerov goes to explain that during the course of the day that the photograph was taken, various small riots and felonies broke out all across New York City. The disbelief and delirium of the War ending brought its own share of happiness and violence. Only weeks before, the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first destruction of that kind unleashed on a monumental scale.

Only a few days later, on 27 August 1945, Life featured a new cover, a tantalizing underwater shot of the British-born ballet swimmer Belita Jepson-Turner nose-diving towards the bottom of a glittering swimming pool, her figure poised in the manner of Charles Sykes’s “Sprit of Ecstasy” ornament on the Rolls-Royces—modeled on another English beauty, the model Eleanor Velasco Thornton, in flight. Nemerov’s analysis of the Jepson-Turner photograph adds a whole new meaning to the term “bombshell”.

Death and sex, the fear of annihilation and the promise of lust, are complimentary dualities during war, and there’s often much more to these photographs than meets the eye. “I have chosen these images because they feel to me like a disturbance on the surface of things,” Nemerov explains. “Akin to what Roland Barthes describes as the punctum of a photograph—a piercing, wounding sensation without explanation.”

The chapters devoted to movies are particularly strong, and this where Nemerov does the world, or at least avid film fans, a great service. Through his imaginative vision and investigative zeal he brings us a series of extraordinary casual snapshots by the photographer John Swope of a young Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland when they were dating in the early '40s. One shot is of them lying asleep on the grass up in the Santa Barbara hills enjoying a rare respite from the hunger and fray of studio life. Another is of de Havilland affectionately watching Stewart fly one of his model planes. With these photographs, the actual stories behind them, and the narrative that he creates for them, Nemerov becomes a filmmaker, or a visual dramatist in his own right. Indeed, the book flows in time like a beautifully made movie.

Olivia de Havilland is the source of a good deal of the author’s fascination. Two chapters, the second and the final one, are devoted to her early career and key war-era films. For Nemerov, de Havilland is an emblematic figure. Her cosmopolitan upbringing, her beauty, her talent and her conviction represents much of what was best in all who we admired from that time. I enjoyed reading the bit about Nemerov tracking down an old neighbor of de Havilland’s from her teenage years in Saratoga, California, the 89-year-old Willys Peck, who de Havilland used to babysit, who showed him the great actress’s high school year book with photos of her starring in a school production of Alice in Wonderland.

Joseph Cornell, A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova:
Homage to the Romantic Ballet

There’s also an absolutely brilliant bit in later in the book about the artist Joseph Cornell’s love of movies and his admiration of the Russian dancer and actress Tamara Toumanova, star of the 1944 Gregory Peck film Days of Glory. Cornell made the most incredible confection of a layered, almost snow-globe like picture, called A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova: Homage to the Romantic Ballet(1946), which is in the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. By comparing the Cornell work to the Gregory Peck film and the actress that inspired it, Nemerov shows us how different arts intersect with one another in astonishing ways. The Cornell construction is enhanced by our knowledge of the movie, and the movie is enriched by our reading of the artwork.

Significant parts of the book are devoted to photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Anne Frank, Donna Reed, Judy Garland, and the Cary Grant movie, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). What we’re meant to take from all this is more than merely a cursory “flavor of the Forties”. We’re meant to understand something more about our ability to respond to the images around us, whether from movies, art museums or magazines, we’re shaped emotionally by images, and new, unconventional readings of history can be enriched by mining through them.

Ultimately, it’s hard to describe what great writing is and what it does at times, but you can feel it, and you certainly feel it here with this book. In describing de Havilland’s talent as an actor in 1943 propaganda comedy movie, Government Girl, he writes:

“Watching de Havilland throw darts at caricatures of Hitler and Tojo… is to view scenes made only for that historical moment, only for those years when a poke in the eye or a good stab at a statistical chart might produce the right cackle, the right kick in the back of the seat of the guy in front of you at the movie theater, whose very popcorn-spilling happiness bore the aggressive and defiant stamp of disposability… But in Swope’s photograph… de Havilland is on her own time, which seems to be no time at all.”

Nemerov has a certain kind of intuition for a work of art that few art historians have. To the more traditional-minded advocates of art writing, his approach can seem wildly subjective, desultory, and even fanciful. Art historical analysis as self-indulgent musings. It’s none of this, of course. It’s writing that’s rich and memorable, which is more than can be said for most of what’s published nowadays.

Wartime Kiss is a wonderful book. It’s a pleasure to read and it's thought-provoking, as well. In one of the reviews printed on the back cover, Elisa Tamarkin, a professor of literature at Berkeley, rhapsodizes on the book to say that it’s “a deeply felt meditation on pursuing history as a poetic flight.” Professor Tamarkin has hit on something here. Reading Wartime Kiss is something akin to flying. Beyond the dictum of academic historical writing, Nemerov knows that it’s important to remind us why we turn to art and what it says about us. To be reminded of that, in the eloquent, direct, and unaffected way that Nemerov writes, is exhilarating.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.