I saw Bill at the bar Tuesday and told him I was going to see Schnabel’s van Gogh movie the next night. He said he’d come with. I see a lot of movies, but mostly by myself. Despite a setting that could include up to a thousand others, film-watching is usually a solitary activity. Because the pictures on the screen hit each individual viewer differently the movie theater is often not a communal space but more like a private personal one, uneasily shared by many.
I’ve been excited about this one since first hearing about it a year or two ago. I hate Schnabel’s paintings but love his movies; it’s a thing I’ve never been able to reconcile. How can he be so bad at one kind of art and so good at another? That and the mental image of Willem Dafoe as van Gogh made this a movie I wasn’t going to miss. I was so I bought a ticket to see it at the Chicago Film Festival on a night I would be out of town helping Kelly move to Wisconsin.
Artist movies are usually very bad. The reasons are many but the basic problem is that artist often lead solitary undramatic lives. Most of the drama is happening internally in ways which are impossible to show on a movie screen. Van Gogh led a life that has been turned into a cliché of the tormented artist. His art has posthumously been used to sell all manner of tchotchkes and his life is regularly milked for awful museum exhibitions like the one at the Art Institute a couple years back, which included the opportunity to stay at an Airbnb outfitted like the man’s bedroom. Then there’s Kirk Douglas chewing up scenery in Lust For Life and Tim Roth chewing up even more in Vincent & Theo.
Up to now the only narrative film on van Gogh I liked was Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh. Pialat started as a painter so he had the right feel for details of the craft. He also cast an actor who wasn’t trying to do an impersonation. The film gave the man and his moribund pursuit of expression and connection back some of the dignity the speculators and profiteers of his legacy had robbed him of. Dying destitute and forgotten is only a romantic idea to people with very comfortable lives.
Wednesday morning Bill confirmed he was coming so I bought two tickets online. I figured since the movie was opening this night it would be crowded. We had a few drinks at the bar then headed downtown to the theater. We went in and the auditorium was empty. Nobody else wanted to see a movie about van Gogh the day before Thanksgiving in downtown Chicago.
Since it was now a private screening we decided it was ok to talk, but once the film started we didn’t exchange many words. Somehow Schnabel was able to put us in that miserable man’s skin. Through sometimes jarring, blurry, constantly-refocussing camerawork and an utterly committed performance from Dafoe, I could feel every slight, every ecstatic flight, and every blackout as if it was happening to me. But the further it went the more I wondered if anyone not involved in art would want to sit through this thing.
Bill’s a musician and I’m a painter. We’ve both been at it a long time. For most of these many years few people gave a rat’s ass about what either of us did. Lately though, Bill’s been getting some traction. It’s a beautiful thing to see and long overdue. It’s still a grind for him though and he hasn’t forgotten the years of being ignored. On our ride home it was obvious we were both moved by what we’d just seen.
Anyone who’s ever picked up a brush must reckon with the long shadow of the Dutchman who loved yellow and lopped off his ear. From now on, when I think of him he’ll have Dafoe’s face.