Perhaps no artwork has better expressed the peculiar commingling of togetherness and aloneness inherent to modern urban life than Nighthawks (1942). The US artist Edward Hopper’s painting depicts four characters’ lives intersecting, if not connecting, in a late-night New York City diner. While there’s very little suggestion of motion in the image, it carries an intense sense of trajectory – of past and present colliding to bring strangers into a single space. The figures populating the frame seem to possess entire lives outside of this scene that can only be hinted at by the artist, and guessed at by the viewer. Is the man sitting solo at the counter resting after a long day of work? Avoiding face-time with his family? Biding time before catching a train? It’s impossible to know, and oh-so human to wonder.
Like Hopper, the US filmmakers Jimmy Ferguson and Catherine Gubernick find inspiration in close-proximity urban disconnection and the impulse to craft narratives about the hidden lives of passersby in Between Strangers (2019). Throughout the short, a nameless male voice recalls the daily, mechanical idiosyncrasies of commuting to the heart of Manhattan. Accompanied by a series of artfully filmed black-and-white New York street scenes, the man contemplates the somewhat paradoxical anonymity of crowded commuter trains, subways cars and city streets. In particular, he reflects on the experience of having seen, but never having spoken to, a man he commuted alongside for some 15 years.
Although heads are captured buried in phones throughout, the film spares the viewer an overwrought or clichéd scolding on our modern lack of connection. (Look no further than Nighthawks for evidence that solitude and alienation predate the smartphone.) Instead, the film offers something much more original and honest. Navigated without judgment or an agenda, Between Strangers interrogates the ‘instinctive decision just to remain strangers’ – an experience that, while often unspoken or even uncontemplated, will nonetheless, for many viewers, be profoundly familiar.
Written by Adam D’Arpino