MOVIE REVIEW : 'Lust for Life': The Film Dates, the Art Doesn't

TIMES ART WRITER

"Lust for Life" is back, and not a minute too soon to satisfy public lust for the world's most popular artist. The revival of the 1956 film (Goldwyn Pavilion through Aug. 14), based on Irving Stone's biography of Vincent van Gogh, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the artist's death in 1890. But that's probably the least pressing reason for a two-week engagement at Landmark's Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion.

As any marketer knows, appetites for Van Gogh are insatiable. A retrospective exhibition of his work in Amsterdam has been the tourist attraction of the summer. Before the show closed earlier this week, Van Gogh souvenirs sold like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" trinkets and scalpers reportedly made a bundle from tourists who were willing to pay anything for a ticket.

The Van Gogh mania also afflicts physicians who are so fascinated with the quintessential mad genius that they publish an unending stream of theories about his illness.

The latest theory suggests that he suffered from Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder that causes vertigo and ringing ears.

In the auction houses, Van Gogh's late paintings have become commodities the likes of which the art market had never imagined. Several thousand readers of the New Yorker probably nodded in sympathy when a character in a recent cartoon hoped he would strike it rich before all the Van Goghs are gone.

With all this so clearly in mind, it is difficult to see the widely praised film--starring Kirk Douglas--with anything approaching the innocence of 1956. "Lust for Life" was rapturously reviewed when it was first released, but cliches are cliches, and now that they have solidified around a gilded icon they are all the more difficult to chip away.

The fundamental problem with "Lust for Life" at this point is that the process of turning an artist into a heroically failed personality is so predictable, it's boring. To watch the familiar episodes of Van Gogh's depressing life is like viewing a noisy parade of his greatest hits. There's his disastrous attempt to minister to the poor, his passion for a cousin who found him disgusting, his desperate pursuit of Paul Gauguin's friendship, mutilation of his ear, and so on.

About halfway through, it seems that the 122-minute film will never end. When Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) splits the scene in Arles, we know he made the right decision and wish we could go with him. Douglas' Van Gogh is an obsessive whiner, a richly gifted but pathetic man-child whose brief life probably would have been shorter without his saintly brother, Theo (James Douglas).

Gorgeous landscapes and paintings provide respite from the film's overwrought emotion. But one thing is missing: "Irises." The $39.9-million "Sunflowers" hangs in the room that Van Gogh prepared for Gauguin in Arles and we watch the $82.5-million "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" being painted in Auvers. But the $53.9-million "Irises" is nowhere to be seen while the artist is incarcerated at an asylum in St. Remy.

This oversight would never occur today, now that the commercialization of Van Gogh is complete, but it's something to be grateful for. We are free to see the real thing at the J. Paul Getty Museum and to know that "Van Gogh: The Painter" is better than "Van Gogh: The Movie."

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