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Friday, November 11, 2016

Movies About Artists--Lust for Life

Legendary film star Kirk Douglas, who played Vincent in
Lust for Life bears a startling resemblance to the troubled van Gogh.
James Donald as
Theo van Gogh
There have been some very good ones and some very bad ones. Few of them have ever made much money. For film makers, who often see themselves as creative heirs to some of the greatest painters who ever lived, there seems to be a kind of magnetic challenge to bringing biographical novels of their favorites artists to life on the screen. Artist such as Picasso, Pollock, Toulouse-Lautrec, Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and several others which don't come to mind a the moment, have all "risen from their graves" to live again on the silver screen. (Some have very likely also rolled over in their graves as a result.) However, had you been near the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Ois, in southern France around September 17, 1956, the sound you might have heard would have been that of applause. Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo (buried next to him), would no doubt have been pleased as they welcomed the release of Vincente Minelli's film version of Irving Stone's 1934 biographical novel, Lust for Life. 
Had van Gogh been as handsome as the actor playing him
in the movie, he might have had a more successful love life.
Director, Vincente Minelli
During the next few months I plan to highlight some of these cin-ematic works of art about workers of art. There's no "top ten" order, though Lust for Life would, no doubt, be at or near the top. Some I've seen myself. Most, I've not. I'm not alone. Most such films lose money at the box office. Lust for Life lost MGM almost a million dollars. One of the few to actually turn a profit, 20th Century Fox's 1965, The Agony and the Ecstasy (dealing with Michel-angelo and the Sistine Ceiling), with its $8-million budget, made barely $800,000. Irving Stone also wrote the book for that one as well. Even with the best writers and outstanding production val-ues, I guess painting, even on a scaffolding some seventy feet up, is not the kind of excitement moviegoers, now or then, tend to crave. Lust for Life, though beautifully filmed and directed by the highly talented Vincent Minelli (yes, that would be Liza's father, Judy Garland's husband) was downplayed by critics as relying too heavily on dialogue.
MGM was never quite sure who their star was,
Kirk Douglas or Vincent van Gogh.
If you know much about the life of Vincent van Gogh, even if it's just the highlights, there's not much point to going into the plot of the movie. Suffice to say that Minelli hits all thigh right notes at the right time to bring out the best in his two principle talents, Kirk Douglas, and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. Both were nominated for Academy Awards. Quinn won his second Oscar (Best Supporting Actor); and Minelli insisted Kirk Douglas should have won too. Though Norman Corwin was nominated for Best (Adapted) Screenplay, and the film was also nominated for Best Art Direction (below), Quinn was the film's only winner.

Critics praised he film for its fidelity to van Gogh's paintings.
Stone's original work.
The film is about van Gogh, but doesn't really come alive until he and Gauguin try to live and work together in the same small town of Arles, and the same small, yellow house. It doesn't take long before their personalities clash. When the weather turns bad or the Mistral winds blow their canvases off their easels, they are confined to painting indoors, which Van Gogh loathes. Gauguin can paint from memory. Van Gogh can't (or won't). He paints from ob-servation and the feelings associated with it. At a café in Arles, where they hang out and drink absinthe, van Gogh painted the scene, The Night Café (above). Absinthe is highly addictive, and along with Van Gogh’s other mental issues (possibly bipolar disorder or Asperger Syndrome), likely fueled his strong reactions.

Never were two artists more ill-suited for living and working together.
The two artists' arguments lead Gauguin to decide he was leaving Arles, which in turn, caused Van Gogh to threaten him with a razor blade. This led to the off-screen scene where van Gogh cuts off (only a part of) his own ear, perhaps in an effort to cut his own throat, or as self-mutilation. The ensuing scenes are dramatically enacted by Douglas, his physicality heightening his distress, alternating between threatening terror and abject shame. The ear episode brings more psychological trauma for Van Gogh as Gauguin leaves and Theo has his brother committed to an asylum. For a time, Vincent seems to improve as he once more takes up painting, but soon more psychological attacks follow, and Theo has him brought closer to Paris, to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he can be treated by Dr, Gachet.

Medical experts and historians disagree as to whether
Dr. Gachet did Vincent more harm than good, but despite
the circumstances, the portrait is one of van Gogh's best.
It is there that Van Gogh paints what is probably his last canvas, Wheatfield with Crows. It is a foreboding work, dark skies, a road leading to nowhere, and the many crows, depicted in the movie as unintended subjects for the canvas, irritating van Gogh to the point that he jabs black paint on his canvas in their shape, shortly before shooting himself.

Wheatfield with Crows.

Lust for Life was shot on location in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Two hundred enlarged color photos were used representing Vincent’s completed canvases. These were in addition to copies of his works in an uncompleted state which were executed by an American art teacher, Robert Parker. The screenplay for Lust for Life uses an episodic approach to van Gogh’s life, employing a five-part narrative which breaks down Vincent's life, each structured around the letters he writes to Theo, which are narrated in order to keep the film's running time to around two hours. The objective world as seen by van Gogh is depicted in each of the five parts by at least one of his major paintings.

Lobby photos depicting scenes from Lust for Life.
The woman seen above is van Gogh's sister, Christine.
The film was also richly praised for the excellent costume designs of Walter Plunkett as well as the outstanding Art Direction of Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters, Preston Ames. Set Decoration was especially seen as exemplary in its authenticity (below).

Sets inspired by paintings. Vincent's Yellow House in Arles was heavily
damage by Allied bombs during WW II and has since been demolished.
Kirk Douglas said in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, that the role of van Gogh in Lust for Life, “...was the most painful movie I ever made.” It's said it took him quite a while to get over the psychological effect it had upon him. Douglas was considered a sure thing to win the Oscar for Best Actor. He was in Munich, Germany, making Paths of Glory when the Academy Awards were held. He said he'd gone so far as to practiced looking surprised for all the photographers waiting in the lobby at his hotel. He was, indeed, surprised when he learned that Yul Brynner had won for his role in The King and I.

Kirk Douglas practicing to be van Gogh.

Click below for the film's trailer:

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