The Lovers by Jim Burns
The Lovers
Jim Burns, 1981

Jim Burns is a well-known British science fiction illustrator and has done the art work for the covers of many SF paperback books. The Lovers struck me the first time I saw it in a book of Burns’ work, and it stayed with me because I immediately started wondering what the story was behind this scene. This painting draws you into it by the intense stare of the woman looking directly at you, the viewer, and thus seems to make you part of the story that must lie behind the moment in time captured by the picture.

What exactly is the situation here? The car’s styling shows it’s set in the future, and it’s obviously on another planet with a huge moon and the ruins of a futuristic city in the background. But what is your relationship to the couple and why is the woman staring at you? Is it something you just said? Why are you in the middle of an overgrown jungle on the outskirts of an abandoned city? It occurred to me that the story you imagine in interpreting the picture might depend on whether you’re male or female. Men might think that the woman could be their ex or maybe their current (or wish she were their current), and women may think the same about the man and interpret the stare as hostile. It’s not clear whether the man is looking at the woman, or at you. Which is it? And why is he over on the other side of the car with his collar turned up and, it appears, his hands in his pockets (holding a gun?), but the woman is on your side of the car? How is it that all three of you are at this place together? Did you ride in the car with them, or follow them there, perhaps secretly? Is it as simple as you surprising them at some secluded lover’s lane, or is this how women always dress in the future? (Beam me up, Scotty....) What did you say (or do) to bring on that icy stare? Perhaps you have a choice of some kind to make, and you’d better make the right one. Will there be serious inter-planetary repercussions if you make the wrong decision? And where do turtles go when they die? If the world were made of ice cream, would it melt? If dollar bills grew on banana trees, would George Washington be yellow?

Art doesn’t answer any questions, it just asks them. And as Yves Montand said to Barbra Streisand in the movie On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, “The answers make you wise, but the questions make you human.”

Only one thing is certain to me after pondering the meaning of this Jim Burns painting. If I ever get to be the producer of a movie in movie heaven using this painting as a starting point for the screenplay, I’ll have David Lynch direct with Bogie and Bacall playing the two characters we see looking out at us from this picture.

       —Zimmerman Skyrat,