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!)