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COMMENTARY : The Film’s Ravishing Imagery May Violate Reality of Artwork

Times Art Writer

“Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh” may be the most ravishing film ever made about an artist, and that’s precisely what makes it dangerous. The images of art and life are so passionately beautiful and the extracts from the artist’s letters to his brother Theo are so affecting that viewers are likely to be seduced into thinking that they are actually learning something about Van Gogh’s painting.

But the central lesson of “Vincent” is that artworks interpreted on film have about as much to do with the real thing as fashion ads do with adapting fabulous-looking clothes to ordinary bodies. Film glamorizes art by purporting to “bring it to life” in moving pictures while the “art” of advertising photography consciously removes its subject from the reality of imperfection.

Unlike advertising artists, however, makers of art films rarely set out to create deceiving images. Their imaginative interpretations are largely the product of their medium. To film paintings is to enlarge and distort them, smooth out their surfaces, crop them and turn static objects into active ones.

In truly creative hands, such as those of Paul Cox, director of “Vincent,” the possibilities for invention seem almost limitless. Cox converts splotches of pigment into churning water, transforms mere details into wondrous landscapes, creates blurred, painterly strokes with a camera and so deftly moves from paintings to real landscapes that he occasionally causes viewers to question what they are seeing.

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Not missing a trick, Cox also creates some dreadful tableaux, using actors as “Potato Eaters,” for example. Results resemble Laguna Beach’s kitsch horror show, “Pageant of the Masters,” but these passages of life-into-art will undoubtedly reassure people who need to know that Van Gogh’s paintings do not merely record a deranged artist’s visions.

The tableaux are about the only break in the visual fabric of “Vincent,” however. Interweaving images of art and life in a glorious tapestry of romance and color, the film wraps the devastating story in pictorial splendor. This makes for a powerfully coherent film but not a very illuminating one for those whose knowledge of Van Gogh extends beyond the ear-severing episode.

On the subject of painting, “Vincent” is essentially a magnificent obfuscation. That isn’t the worst thing a film can be, but--perhaps because of its brilliance--this film that aims so surely for truth suggests that the authenticity of its script is matched by the veracity of images. Instead, “Vincent” transforms rather small, extraordinarily energetic, often disturbing paintings into sumptuous panoramas. As the artist soars to ever more rarefied stardom in the marketplace--commanding multimillion-dollar prices at auction--his work becomes as big, beautiful and magnanimous as, well, a movie.

So what’s a film maker to do? Probably no more than Cox has. As long as artists are perceived as suffering--and bankable--heroes, they will be irresistible subject matter. And as long as recalcitrant artworks sit still and demand a lot of time from those who would know them, film makers will re-create them. But as filmic versions of artists’ lives reach new heights of technical achievement and supply enthralling contexts, it is increasingly important to know the difference between an original and an interpretive reproduction.

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