Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Knee-jerk Response to Lust for Life

“Lust for Life” (1956) tells the story of the luckless, introverted artist Vincent Van Gogh whose greatness only seems to grow with each passing year following his death. It tells another story much better, the biography of a powerful, extroverted artist whose legacy seems more overrated and overwrought with each passing year: Kirk Douglas.

I am a big fan of many Kirk Douglas movies, including his debut, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) (still one of his best films and delightfully against type), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) (certainly one of his best films fully in type) and “Paths of Glory” (1957). These films show off the actor just on the verge of excess, the type of performances that are eye-catching, but thankfully bounded and fit into their proper places.

“Lust for Life” is two or three steps further beyond the last vestige of subtlety. Douglas delivers every emotion as big, loud, flashy and full-body. Whether he’s hopping around exalting the majesty of the Arles countryside or sweeping a glass of alcohol from a café table in an anguished outburst of self-loathing, nothing is left to the audience’s imagination. Anthony Quinn, as Paul Gauguin, joins the festive exercise in emotion telegraphy with his own brand of chesty laughter, bar-brawling and generally obnoxious ‘lust for life.’

To be honest, I’m just not much of a fan of the “big emotion” school of acting perpetrated most frequently by iconic white male “stars” with titanic egos and an unquenchable thirst for molten Oscar gold (see John Wayne).

The problems with “Lust for Life” extend beyond just the acting. Vincente Minneli, best known for his Technicolor musicals, handles the dark, brooding artist’s life as if it was a glitzy feel-good melodrama. He goes so far as to turn Van Gogh’s desperate suicide into an uplifting moment of religious transcendence. The colorful, perpetually-sunny sets would at least be partially effective if they weren’t so weighted down with the artificiality of cheap backdrops and the artlessness of conventional Hollywood cinematography. In several particularly pathetic moments, the crew tries to simulate Van Gogh’s swirling, pulsating light sources by bringing the camera out of focus. Audiences had to wait until the 1960’s before it struck anyone that, “You know what? Lens flare can be pretty!”

Credit goes to the film for using the original paintings in several montages and to Kirk Douglas for wanting to tackle the artist’s homosexual tendencies (the Studio’s overruled the decision, but Douglas sneaks in fragments just the same).


Unknown said...

I think you did a good job capturing the pain of watching all the big overacting...and their earnestness about it all. Yikes.

Best of all were the big showy '50s style confrontation scenes, with every line shouted/emoted as if to steal the scene...

I think these guys need a pull on Katie's Oscar chain, which rains down chocolate oscars upon those who try too desperately (or...just are woefully bad) for the real thing.

Mad Dog said...

Have you ever seen the first movie Kirk Douglas did after his stroke? It was one of the most pandering, mediocre vehicles for an actor I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Since you are interested in Vincent’s life and work, you might want to look at the Notes section on I am the writer and director of the new independent film on his life.

FilmWalrus said...

A very exciting project (your feedback absolutely gushes) and some excellent notes about Vincent and your own goals with the movie. I will definitely check out your film if I get the chance. Is it getting a theatrical release or is it only available on DVD?

I have to admit to not knowing a great deal about Vicent's life (I didn't read the book "Lust for Life" is based on), but I think you are right in trying to capture his psychology without essentializing him (or crediting his "madness" as somehow solely responsible for his art).

You've definitely made some film decisions that sound like they would address my complaints about "Lust for Life" such as the subjective camerawork. I only know of "Lady in the Lake" (1946) ever attempting an entirely subjective POV, but if ever there was a case where form should follow function down that path, Van Gogh's biography would seem a tight fit.

Good luck on this and all your future projects. You sound like a director to watch.

FilmWalrus said...

Lust for life pales in comparison to the 1992 Van Gogh. That film manages to fix every complaint I have with Lust for Life. The acting, the location shooting, the psychological dimensions, the lighting, the tone, everything. Highly recommended for those interested in the artist.