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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lust for Life

In 1956 Kirk Douglas played Vincent Van Gogh in Vicente Minnelli's Lust for Life. Douglas was born to play Van Gogh--just look at his self-portraits and see how much they looked alike.

Douglas was also an actor who could capture intense emotions, as I have discussed. Here he plays Van Gogh in all of his mania, from his desire to help people (which led to his being a missionary in a coal mining region of Belgium) to his vivid paintings, with thick brushstrokes and bright colors.

Van Gogh's story is a tough one. He was mentally ill, and knew it (he had himself committed--he painted one his best pictures, "The Starry Night" from his room in an asylum) and only sold one picture in his lifetime, despite having a devoted brother who worked in art gallery. Of course we all knew he sliced his own ear off. Again, Douglas throws himself into the role, and was nominated for an Oscar (Yul Brynner won).

Winning an Oscar for the picture was Anthony Quinn as Paul Gaugin. The center of the film is when the two live together in Arles, where Van Gogh made some of his best paintings. Van Gogh longed for friendship and companionship (we see early on his spectacular failure at trying to propose to his cousin) but Gaugin was a person who didn't need it. At first they are like the odd couple of post-impressionists, and constantly fight about art (it's not many movies that has a serious discussion of Millet). But after Gaugin says he is going to leave is when Douglas takes his razor to his ear.

Lust for Life had the benefit of the cooperation of many museums, so we actually see his artwork (think of Pollock, Ed Harris' film, which was not allowed to show any of Jackson Pollock's work). Van Gogh was a giant in the art world, despite his lack of success while alive (he died at 37) and it's so important to actually see the work. We also see the inspiration. I gave a little gasp when he walks into the pool room that would become "The Night Cafe," a painting I've seen a few times (it's in New Haven, Connecticut). The garish colors are immediately recognizable.

Lust for Life (an interesting choice for a title for a man who committed suicide) is a good film, especially for fans of art. If a viewer didn't give a fiddler's fart about art, it might drag, as there are long sequences that are just Van Gogh painting or talking about painting. It also violates Chekhov's rule of the gun. At the end, we see Van Gogh painting "Wheatfield with Crows" and he can't take it anymore, scrawls a suicide note, and pulls a gun out of his pocket. We have not seen him with a gun before then, and I can't imagine why someone would feel the need to be armed in the middle of a wheatfield while painting. It's a weird moment.

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