Friday, December 18, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Lust for Life"

One of the greatest piece of hooey ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public was the insistence that great artists are only made through great suffering.

Of course, when you consider that this claim is most vehemently championed by artists themselves, one realizes several things. First, that this precept has been employed over the years to justify any number of instances of damaging behavior in the name of art. Second, that it was often those around the artist who suffered even more than he did.

Lastly, it creates a bias to see the only legitimate art as that which casts a mournful attitude toward the human condition. After all, if all those great artists suffered horribly, they wouldn't be creating paintings and art works of joy and sunshine, would they?

"Lust for Life," the 1956 biopic on Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, is an enthusiastic adherent to this philosophy. Based on a historical novel by Irving Stone and directed by Vincente Minnelli -- who was best known for film musicals like "The Band Wagon" and "An American in Paris" -- the drama is a full-bore leap into the troubled life of the great artist.

Kirk Douglas, who was a prototypical Hollywood lantern-jawed hero type, gives a vibrant and unexpected performance as Van Gogh, portraying him as a mass of fears and obsessions. The painter seems not to possess an ounce of regard for anyone but himself, even pursuing marriage with an older cousin who labels his persistence "disgusting."

I liked the movie well enough, and the cinematography (by Freddie Young and Russell Harlan) of the landscapes and people who inspired Van Gogh is wonderful. I must confess that the continued wallowing in his misery got to be a bit tedious at times.

The central relationships in the film are between Vincent and his brother Theo (James Donald), an art dealer who supported him, and with Paul Gauguin, a French painter played by Anthony Quinn. Quinn won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance, despite a rather limited screen time.

The two are an interesting contrast. Gauguin declares that he wants no one to love him, because attachments distract from his painting. Van Gogh is the epitome of neediness, on the other hand. The sequence where they briefly share a house in the south of France is essentially one argument after another, until the showdown where Van Gogh cuts off his own ear.

Minnelli is sly to the point of squeamishness about portraying this infamous bit of Van Gogh lore. Douglas is shot almost entirely from his right side for the remainder of the film, although it appears they used some sort of make-up to portray the damaged ear. He also does not include anything about Van Gogh giving the severed ear to a prostitute, which is the gruesome detail that made the injury memorable in the first place.

Interestingly, some recent examinations of the circumstances of Van Gogh's injury have concluded that it was not self-inflicted. Gauguin was an expert swordsman, and -- consistent with Quinn's portrayal -- was quite a hothead. It seems likely, or at least possible, that Gauguin cut off the ear during a quarrel, and they concocted the story about Van Gogh slicing it off with a razor to save him from prosecution.

Since the screenplay (by Norman Corwin, also nominated for an Oscar) was based on a work of fiction about Van Gogh, it's hard to say how much the film reflects the real artist. Douglas, in a reddish-tinged crewcut and beard, certainly bears an astonishing resemblance to the painter's many self-portraits. But the film often seems more interested in his misery than his ingenuity.

Finally, I'd like to comment on the film's title. "Lust for Life" seems an almost comically incongruous name to describe the life of a man that was essentially a litany of failure, poverty, loneliness and poor health.

It's interesting that most people who encountered Vincent Van Gogh during his lifetime regarded him as strange or even dangerous -- they called him the "red madman" in the neighborhood around the Yellow House where he and Gauguin lived. I think if he lived today, he probably would have spent much of his life institutionalized, or munching on a regimen of mind-altering prescription drugs.

Which isn't to say that Van Gogh wasn't a great artist. It's just that people, and movies, that try to conflate artistry with suffering are generally misguided. It's a paint-by-numbers mentality.

3 stars

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