It’s not blood, it’s red

Watched two Vincente Minnellis this week, without having planned it. BELLS ARE RINGING (top) was a rewatch. The combination of the timeless and simple source material — Cinderella — clever-clever screenwriter/songwriters (Comden & Green) — a crazed aesthete for a director — and the comedy powerhouse that is Judy Holliday — make this one that shouldn’t be missed if you like any of those kind of things.

We’d never seen LUST FOR LIFE. We didn’t initially take to Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh, although he certainly looks the part. He rants a lot, and it feels like the usual Kirk schtick amped up to eleven, rather than anything new or insightful. We admitted the thing was extremely beautiful. We pondered at the fact that Vincent’s letters to Theo (James Donald) were read on the soundtrack by Donald, not Douglas.

Slowly, the film gets better, or its better qualities come to dominate. Donald is the emotional centre, the one who can enlist our sympathies most strongly, so that’s why he gets the VO. And there’s more going on with the imagery than “just” beauty or even an attempt to mimic the look of specific Van Gogh paintings.

When VVG, close to his first crack-up, sits in a gloomy bar, Minnelli shows us his tormented face and then his POV.

We don’t know yet that Minnelli plans to use the image of the lamp as a symbol for when VVG’s mind overheats. It returns later, precipitating the ear-lopping.

What it does here, instead, is suggests the artist’s ability to find beauty in unexpected circumstances. Combined with Kirk’s glowering features, it suggests that he’s oppressed by this ability.

And then the ravishing landscapes, the film’s incessant picturesqueness, start to take on an added value. They go by too fast for us to really study them, seize them with our minds. We feel like the artist, struggling to capture fleeting beauty before it vanishes forever. (No replay function for real life.)

The lantern having assumed a prominent role, Minnelli can simply pan away onto it when VVG is about to make with the straight razor. Exactly as Tarantino does in RESERVOIR DOGS.

Lacking the ability to make Kirk’s ear disappear, Minnelli has to simply avoid shooting him on one side after the bandages come off.

Fiona remembers her art teacher inveighing against Don McLean’s song Vincent and its bogus sentimentality. I remember my art teacher answering a question about why VVG cut his ear off with the line, “He wanted to see what it looked like.” Quite a logical answer. He was an artist, he painted self-portraits… Not true though.

Kirk quietens down in some scenes. James Donald continues to quietly engage. Anthony Quinn brings the entertainment, and doesn’t overact. And he makes things a bit less formal.

The ending had an unexpected emotional impact, especially for Fiona, bringing back her feelings at her own brother’s death. “My poor brother,” says Theo, which is simple and absolutely right. What else can you say?

We’re inclined to look at some more cinematic Vincents. There are lots! The Richard Curtis Dr. Who episode is the worst thing ever, though — way beyond Don McLean.

15 Responses to “It’s not blood, it’s red”

  1. jwarthen Says:

    With several estimable directors to choose from regarding Van Gogh, you might miss LOVING VINCENT, with its plausible use of the excellent Flynn.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Maurice Pialat’s “Van Gogh” is my favorite as it reproduces the world in which he lived more fully — and foregoes the ear business completely. Altman’s “Vincent and Theo” is a snooze. MGM went to great lengths to promote “Lust For Life” as a special film apart from standard studio product. Tie-ins with museums were arranged and the film was put into limited release for a long period before “going wide” It’s OK, but Minnelli’s artistry is explicated more fully in “Some Came Running” “Gigi” and “Two Weeks in Another Town”

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Van Gogh has become a bit like Joan of Arc in terms of how many works of art he’s inspired. Joan of Arc had Dreyer, Preminger, Bresson, Rivette among others. Van Gogh has Minnelli, Pialat, Altman, and Kurosawa.

    I like both Minnellis and I think Lust for Life is a great movie, unlike the other Hollywood artist biopic movies, it manages to be more truthful and understanding of an artist development, and it has all these amazing exchanges between Van Gogh and Gauguin about Millet, who Van Gogh likes but Gauguin has contempt for in a way that’s not clear who’s supposed to be right (it’s only fairly recently that the art world has come around to Van Gogh’s view on Millet…who was so important for Agnes Varda in The Gleaners and I). My favorite part of LUST FOR LIFE is the entire early section showing Van Gogh’s time as a wandering preacher living among the poor and going down the mines…the use of color in this part (so clearly inspired by The Potato Eaters) is great.

    I agree with David E. that Pialat’s is much the greater movie, but in terms of adding a female love interest that didn’t exist in reality, and making its Van Gogh a randy hetero (like all Pialat male characters) it’s a bit more Hollywood than Minnelli. Likewise Altman’s Vincent and Theo is not one of his best (got some strong stuff nevertheless). Van Gogh was a huge inspiration for Altman…The Potato Eaters for instance was a big reference point for the look of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (apparent in the opening scene when McCabe enters the pub at the start).

  4. Mike Clelland Says:

    Altman did VINCENT AND THEO, and I have a soft spot for his movies, even the ones that miss the mark.

  5. I have Loving Vincent and the Pialat film on Blu-ray, so this is a good impetus to watch them.

  6. My problem with Minnelli and some came running in two weeks in another town is that I cannot identify with the characters. There are long stretches in these two movies that bore me completely because I’ve lost sympathy from the main character. Can anyone understand what I’m talking about here?

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Regarding Jean d’Arc (aka.”Joan of Arc”) I have just written a length piece about him as he was rather obviously a transgender male. NOT ONE of the films made about Jean have so much as HINTED this.

    Maybe someone might be moved to make a REAL Jean film starring Elliot Page

  8. Vladimir Nabokov said that if you’re going to identify with the characters you’d better be very careful about the books you read – the same thing is true of films, brycealansuderow.

  9. The two Minnelli films have a bunch of characters whose behaviour and attitudes are sometimes moving, sometimes alienating. I don’t think that’s a bug, though. I find it dramatically engaging because I need to watch to the end to get any kind of settled feeling.

    Only the last scene of Some Came Running redeems (or quasi-redeems) the Dean Martin character from misogyny, for instance.

    Edward G Robinson is alternately inspirational and horrible in Two Weeks, and he can almost be both at once.

    Audience identification is a really complex thing, usually presented as simple. And so certainly few filmmakers can depend on achieving it consistently with everyone. In any case, it’s probably something to take up with the writers.

  10. bensondonald Says:

    I recall Jack Lemmon saying he didn’t like to identify too closely with his characters. The image he used was something about being able to see the puppet while pulling the strings.

    Identification isn’t essential for the viewer, either. What usually IS essential is knowing a character’s behavior isn’t totally arbitrary. A villain wants money/power/sex without regard for law or morals. A madman wants to silence a heart he hears under the floorboards. An obsessive wants vengeance and/or some kind of vindication no matter the collateral damage. With good storytelling you don’t have to identify or sympathize in order to follow events and be fascinated — morbidly, perhaps — by the outcome. Hitchcock sometimes makes us sweat for his bad guys, even when we really do identify with his heroes.

    Traditional filmmakers tend to insert a character nominally like the “average viewer” (middle class white American) to whom things are explained and whose reactions track that viewer’s. In literature: Mark Twain gives the slave Jim a life and voice. But he filters them through the first-person narration of Huck Finn, a boy being forced to see and comprehend much as Twain’s readers were.

    For a long time the Hollywood approach has been to filter stories about people of color and other exotics through a bankable white star, playing a character whose perspective and sympathy validates the actual protagonist’s experiences.


    Early in the 20th century, a prankster fashioned a fake withered ear out of tuna, set it in a little display box, and smuggled it into a heavily hyped Van Gogh exhibition. He left it on a table and it upstaged the paintings until the curators noticed it.

  11. Filmmakers have occasionally gotten away with dubiously motivated actions by their characters, but it’s one of the toughest kinds of illogicality to disguise. Tippi going into the attic in The Birds is an example. She hears a sound, and that’s supposed to cover it.

    Tim Burton was baffled when Jack Nicholson asked him why his Joker was climbing the stairs of a clock tower in Batman. The viewer assumes he has a reason which will be made clear, and the filmmaker hopes he’ll forget about it in all the excitement once it turns out not to make sense.

    The success of period movies, science fiction and animated cartoons surely shows that we don’t need protagonists to resemble us, they just need to have goals we can understand. Audience sympathy can be very useful, but isn’t essential. (It’s closer to essential that SOMEBODY in the story deserves our sympathy: the boring young lovers in Sweet Smell of Success are nominally sympathetic, even as we are compelled to be more interested in Sidney Falco).

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Actually we’re more interested in J.J. — whose barely concealed incestuous desire for his sister makes him oddly sympathetic.

  13. I don’t know about sympathetic, but he’s a man with a clearly defined problem, for sure…

  14. David Ehrenstein Says:

    J.J. presents himself to the world as All-Powerful and impervious to attack. But his sister is h “Achilles Heel” That he desire his sister is of course incredibly creepy. But that he desires anyone for any reason is the real surprise. When she finally finds the strength to leave him, he is OVER. There won’t be another column. Sidney by contrast may be getting his “chastisement” at the close but his future prospects are not as dire as JJ’s.He can always go to work for FOX “News.”

  15. Even Sidney has his limits, or likes to imagine he does.

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