Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Watching Lust, Part Two


In my last entry, I discussed some of my reactions to the 1956 movie Lust for Life, an adaptation of the 1934 Irving Stone novel of the same name. I ended on a note about the film's bloodless interpretation of Theo, Vincent's brother. How the film depicts Paul Gauguin is far more interesting and far more successful. Played with a fierce, commanding self-composure by Anthony Quinn, Quinn's Gauguin is arrogant, commanding, and clear-eyed, an obvious foil to Kirk Douglas's more emotional and, toward the end of film, even raging Vincent. The different depictions of the two men certainly do point to real differences in their personalities. Vincent indeed was a far more emotionally based individual than Paul Gauguin, who could fairly be called calculating, even scheming. Gauguin should also be called a liar and a weasel, an aspect of his personality that the movie doesn't quite explore. Arguably, in the standoff between the two Yellow House roommates, in the vortex of their deteriorating relationship, the film suggests that Gauguin is the sane and reliable, even if he is also rather cold personally. (The film also suggests that Van Gogh was the much heavier drinker of the two men. Nothing factual points to that conclusion. Nothing factual even points to a great fondness for absinthe on Vincent's part, despite his reputation to the contrary. And Gauguin was the more frequent visitor to brothels--an aspect of 19th century male life, and Van Gogh's life too, that the movie simply declines to explore.)

The real Gauguin certainly was sane and cold, but never reliable. There's every indication that his famous account of Vincent's 1888 breakdown--when Vincent cut his ear off--is a network of self-serving lies, none of them verified by any other source. Unfortunately, the movie seems to rely on Gauguin's account for its lurid depiction of the event. The myth of the Tragically Mad Vincent, something I've complained about in other posts, is fully on display. But it gets only worse when the movie moves on to Vincent's last months in the quiet northern village of Auvers-sur-Oise. Without question, these were not happy months in Vincent's life. He had come to the realization that he would never be truly cured. The power of his painting had self-evidently diminished. The predicted friendship with Paul Gachet--a physician in the village who was both an art lover and had an interest in mental illness--a friendship Theo was counting on to provide support and counsel for Vincent in Auvers, turned sour rather quickly. So it is no great surprise, really, that Vincent would have decided his life and energy was all but spent, that there was no reason for him to continue on. All that said, the movie tries to portray him as not depressed but deranged. In one striking scene, a band plays in the street outside of a bar where Vincent sits desperately clinging to a drink. The music literally drives Vincent crazy as he winces and wiggles and clutches his ears trying to keep out the sound. It is the kind of scene that was likely deeply affecting to audiences when the film was released but which seems pathetically overdone now.

There is more of this Tragically Mad mythmaking in the movie's final minutes. Vincent is painting in a field, at work on what is widely--and erroneously--called his "final painting": Wheat Field with Crows. While Wheat Field with Crows is one of his last paintings, by no means was it his absolute last. In fact, art historians date it as having been completed weeks before Van Gogh died. Viewers of the painting simply would like to believe it was his last because of the strong note of foreboding in it: the threatening blue-black sky and the low-hanging bodies of crows that look like harbingers of death. Of course, people think, just before he died he painted a painting about death. It's too poetically perfect not to believe; but it's also simply wrong. The movie goes one step further. In the movie, this isn't merely Vincent's last painting but Vincent kills himself while painting it. He tries to work, but is struck by another fit similar to what is shown in the bar scene. In the anxiety of the moment, he pulls out a gun and shoots himself. "Now where would he have gotten the gun?" my sister smartly commented. Well, in fact, plenty of frenchmen owned guns in the 19th century, but Vincent was not in the habit of carrying one when he went painting. If, as is commonly held, Vincent shot himself in a field on July 27, 1890--a new biography disputes this notion and claims he was accidentally shot by someone else--he surely took the gun out with him just for this purpose. And by no means was he in the middle of painting Wheat Field with Crows, a controlled and striking painting. This shooting scene is nothing more than melodramatic Hollywood blather.

But to be fair, it's no less blather than most films of the day would have shown you. Or that most films show you now. Is Lust for Life worth watching? Yes, it still is. But please don't think that it transmits an accurate, or even sensitive, interpretation of the life of the artist. The real Van Gogh was far more complicated than the writhing, raging, movie cut up. The real Van Gogh was both more lucid and, for those who knew him best, more maddening a man.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Watching Lust, Part One


Recently, I spent a week at my mother's house in Cobb Island, Maryland helping her out as she recovers from a rather serious surgical procedure. One of my sisters, who also lives on Cobb Island, felt it was about time I watch Lust for Life--the 1956 movie based on Irving Stone's bestselling Van Gogh novel--so she ordered it off Netflix for us. As I've mentioned in a past entry, I purposefully avoided Lust for Life, in both its novel and film versions, when I composed my novel Days on Fire. I firmly believed that a 21st century rendition of Van Gogh's life needed to be imagined and crafted independent of an early 20th century one. (Stone's novel appeared in 1934.) But having more or less completed my project, there seemed no point in hesitating any longer, so I watched the film with my mother and sister, quite curious about what aspects of Van Gogh's life and character the moviemakers--including Kirk Douglas, who plays Van Gogh--would choose to emphasize.

It should come as no surprise that Lust for Life the movie is very much a piece of its time. (This is true of just about any work of art, and is surely true too of my own novel. It's just hard to see that when something is both so new and so close to you.) The movie engages in just the kind of bowdlerization and heroic mythmaking that we've come to expect from the 1950s. And of course it takes several shortcuts in order to tell its story in 122 minutes. It completely ignores Vincent's childhood years in Brabant (a rural region of south Holland) as well as the crucially important, formative years as an art dealer in The Hague and in London. (Arguably, everything that came from his life, both good and bad, was a reaction to the disappointments of that time. Certainly, this is when his sarcastic ideas about the art business were formed.) Instead the movie picks up when Vincent is about to go off to the Borinage, a mining region in southern Belgium, where he tried to make a go as a lay preacher. I suppose this is as good of a place to start as any if you want to introduce tension into a movie. And I certainly understand having to cut something out to get your movie down to size. But, still, I felt the inherent absences caused by the moviemaker's choice. Don't get me wrong. Some aspects of the movie I admired but others I chuckled at. Some I thought were ridiculous. There are undeniably lovely scenic shots of Arles and other locations in southern France. And some of the testy artistic debates with which Gauguin and Vincent (repeatedly) engaged is fairly suggested by the movie, which does an admirable job summarizing the contrasting principles upon which each man based his work.

However, a good deal of what is depicted is terribly contorted and finally plain wrong. Sien, the prostitute who Van Gogh met (probably on a street corner) in The Hague and lived with for over a year, enters the movie not in The Hague but in an Amsterdam bar, the very night after Vincent is rejected by his cousin K and her family. While this makes for an efficient segue from one romantic interest to the next, it's a serious distortion of the facts of Van Gogh's life. He met Sien not only in a different city but after several months had passed, months that gave him necessary time to get over his fierce--and blunted--passion for his cousin. Moreover, in the movie Sien is portrayed as a distraught, underemployed cleaning woman, rather than what she really and infamously was.

While such a tidying up of history is to be expected in a 50s movie--or any movie--I was more surprised by how diminished are the roles of Theo and of Vincent's father. Vincent's father, the Reverend Theodorus Van Gogh, appears in exactly one scene, a drastic diminishment of the man who, in both positive and negative ways, was perhaps the most important influence in Vincent's life, at least until he met Gauguin. Theo appears in many more of the movie's scenes, but it's a fairly bloodless, antiseptic interpretation, as Theo's function seems to be simply to tell Vincent what to do--i.e., where to live, whom to meet--without seeming all that engaged in his brother's existence. In the movie, Theo is always smooth and always right. Vincent does what Theo says and thereafter thanks Theo for his advice. In reality, the brothers disagreed often, especially as to where Vincent should move, and what he should do, next. One of the most fascinating aspects of reading the Collected Letters is to watch the push and pull of their relationship, to see not just the affection Vincent felt for Theo but also the bouts of anger and disillusionment. To see Vincent openly bullying Theo or attempting to manipulate him. At the same time, Theo was Vincent's most reliable and informed sounding board on all things artistic. And Theo was hardly the impeccably cool, uninvolved customer. The nearly two years they lived together in Paris severely tested the young brother's patience and almost exhausted him; yet at the same time he was as dependent on Vincent as Vincent was on him. It is no accident that he died shortly after Vincent did.

(Next post: More mythmaking--and Vincent dies!)