Here are the top seven movies on art and artists, my pick of course, although I would have some difficulty where to put Pollock and Frida, as I think I may have been a little tight. They probably belong a lot further up. I do also like ‘Girl with the Pearl Earing’ but I think that is more for Scarlett Johansson. LOL!
1. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Elliot Wilhelm, the author of Videohound’s Guide to World Cinema, calls this film “the product of a brilliant smart-ass.” I am inclined to agree. It is visually stunning in that kind of Merchant-Ivory way, except that it has a slightly off-color look to it, much like director Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; it is beautiful but somehow sinister and has the look of decay about it. It’s hard to pin down. The film is a puzzle of sorts, but you don’t realize until about two-thirds of the way through that you’re watching a mystery. As viewers, we are in much the same boat as the protagonist, an artist played by Anthony Higgins who is hired to draw several commemorative pictures of the estate of a rich woman for her husband, who is more interested in his land and his horses than he is in his wife. We just don’t know what’s going on until it’s too late.
We get an early inkling that this isn’t your standard costume drama fare. Higgins initially refuses to do the drawings, and a series of deftly edited scenes shows us the process by which Janet Suzman, the matriarch of the estate, and her daughter Anne-Louise Lambert convince him to change his mind. He agrees after the proposal of the titular contract; he is to draw twelve pictures, and Suzman is to submit to his sexual desires. The family lawyer, a real sleazeball played by Neil Cunningham, draws up the contract to make it official.
Higgins travels to the estate, from which the patriarch has recently left for a journey to France. He is a meticulous jerk; he insists that people and livestock be moved around at his behest, and he takes his time drawing. He’s a good artist, though, as Suzman reluctantly admits as he ravishes her daily. Meanwhile, there crops up some question as to where the patriarch really is: did he travel to France, or has he been murdered? Higgins scoffs at the idea, until the scheming daughter points out incriminating elements of his very drawings that, collectively, don’t really add up to anything but look like they do. In the meantime, Higgins draws his pictures, insults the impotent German wife of Lambert, played by Hugh Fraser, and unwittingly becomes more and more involved in a murder plot that may or may not be real.
That’s the maddening joy of this film: you don’t really know whether there’s anything sinister going on or not. The way the film looks and feels suggests much more than the “clues” that supposedly implicate Higgins in the murder that may have occurred. As I said, there’s something sinister about the saturated colors, stately pacing, and ever-moving camera that Greenaway uses to bring to life this rotting estate. The thing is, you want there to be something going on, because Higgins is such a perfect ass that you wish he was guilty of something. His dialog is full of subtle and not-so-subtle barbs that imply that he thinks he’s the only worthy person around; the way he abuses Suzman and, later, Lambert is a perfect gauge of his character. In the end, you find yourself rooting for his downfall, for whatever reason the other characters can find.
2. Lust for Life
Despite its somewhat lurid title, “Lust for Life” is a strong and absorbing film biography of nineteenth-century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. While the movie is typically melodramatic, as most biopics are, it is seldom less than engaging.
MGM spared little expense in bringing author Irwin Stone’s popular book to the screen in 1956, hiring the best director (Vincente Minnelli), producer (John Houseman), composer (Miklos Rozsa), and stars (Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn) they could get; filming in CinemaScope, color, and stereo; and going on location in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands for ultimate authenticity.
At first glance, it may seem odd to a modern moviegoer that the studio chose Vincente Minnelli to direct; after all, he is probably best known for his sparkling musicals–“Meet Me in St. Louis,” “An American in Paris,” “The Band Wagon,” “Brigadoon,” “Kismet,” “Gigi.” But we may forget that he also did serious dramas–“Madame Bovary,” “The Clock,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Tea and Sympathy,” “Some Came Running.” Likewise, we may think of Kirk Douglas in his prime as simply a stalwart leading man, the swaggering hero of things like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “The Indian Fighter,” “Ulysses,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “The Vikings,” and “Spartacus.” Again, we may forget his equally effective if less-dashing dramatic roles in “Out of the Past,” “Young Man With a Horn,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Paths of Glory,” “Lonely Are the Brave,” and “Seven Days in May,” to name but a few.
In any case, Douglas got one of his best roles in “Lust for Life” and sank his teeth into it, earning an Oscar nomination and winning a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Circle Award in the process. Douglas even bore a striking resemblance to the real-life artist, which, along with the location shooting and a plentitude of van Gogh’s paintings on display, lends the film an added verisimilitude.
The film is also remarkably accurate in its depiction of van Gogh’s short life; well, accurate for a film biography, anyway. It takes up at the point where the artist is trying to decide what to do with himself. Having gone to divinity school but been turned down for a privileged ministerial position, and wanting very much to please his pastor father, van Gogh accepted a post in a poor coal-mining town. There, trying desperately to help his parishioners, he became appalled by the terrible working conditions under which he found the miners laboring. Worse, he found the attitudes of his fellow Christian evangelists hypocritical for their not caring much for the plight of the poor. Van Gogh wanted “to bring something to the world,” but clearly he did not find it in the ministry and so renounced the cloth for the brush, much to his father’s dismay.
The film concentrates mainly on the last decade of the artist’s life, from about 1880 to his death in 1890, the brief period during which van Gogh found his artistic calling, cut off part of his ear, and produced the bulk of his creative output. Ironically, the man never sold a painting until his last year, living off the support of his brother Theo (James Donald), an art dealer in Paris, to keep feed, clothed, and housed; yet today van Gogh is considered one of the greatest of post-Impressionest painters and an important influence on the twentieth-century Expressionist movement.
Minnelli, always the celluloid stylist, attempts to convey in each scene a sense of what van Gogh the artist felt and saw, the director creating color schemes, tones, and lighting effects that reflect the man’s paintings. Combine this technique with Douglas’s raw energy and his passionate, sometimes over-the-top performance, and you get what at the very least makes for a fascinating movie.
Then, too, there is Anthony Quinn as van Gogh’s friend and fellow artist, the temperamental Paul Gauguin. What with Quinn putting in a big, brawling, flamboyant portrayal of an artist every bit as volatile as van Gogh, you’d think that all the parts would be clicking and you’d get a dream of a picture. Yet the movie never quite comes together the way the sum of its parts would suggest.
Perhaps the movie never fully gels because both Douglas and Quinn are much too bigger-than-life in their roles. Perhaps it’s because Minnelli is too concerned with local color, historical accuracy, and Hollywood censorship. Perhaps it’s because Norman Corwin’s adaptation of Irwin Stone’s book is too literal and too literate to come fully alive. Or perhaps it’s because Miklos Rozsa’s musical score, evocative though it may be, is too grandiose and overwrought for its subject matter.
While “Lust for Life” attempts to show us the loneliness and unfulfilled longing of the quintessential tortured artist, the movie never touches the viewer the way it might. It is beautiful to look at, to be sure, and the performances are strongly impassioned; yet in the end we are left with the feeling that we have just experienced another good film biography, not a stirring human drama in the sense of an “Amadeus.” The movie, attractive as it may be, never “breaks through the iron wall” between what is felt and what is expressed, the very wall that van Gogh himself strove to overcome.
Oh, well; “Lust for Life” is still a fairly true account of the artist’s life, and as such continues to entertain and enlighten, even if it doesn’t entirely uplift.
3. The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book is a Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers, Prospero’s Books) mesmerizing visual experience that touches base with spiritual and erotic themes.
Calligraphy is one subject that few movies have used as a theme; but, Greenaway, true to his reputation as a filmmaker with an outrageous streak in him, continues to make outlandish films that have a certain perversity. Here he starts off filming in black-and-white the childhood experiences of Nagiko (Wu), who wonderously listens to the stories being read by her aunt (Yoshida) from a 1,000-year text based on the work of Sei Shonagon, a courtesan. This spellbinding journal of sayings on the subjects of the flesh and literature, makes up “The Pillow Book.” The idea of that book is that the texts of those two subjects (sex & art) should fuse together as one, with there being no difference between literature and beauty in their union. Pillow Book is an individual’s diary of observations and a presentment of an interesting list of things the diarist jots down.
Nagiko’s father (Ogata), whom she idolizes, is a master calligrapher who paints her face with characters to celebrate her birthdays. He tells her: “If God approved of his creation, he will bring the clay model he created to life by signing his name to it.” This seems to tickle the little girl’s fancy so much so that when we next see her as a young woman in Technicolor, we realize that she has developed a fetish for having her skin written on — equating her lovers with how good a calligrapher they are.
After marrying in a traditional Japanese ceremony to someone she knows cannot please her who is forced on her through an arranged marriage by her father’s publisher (Yoshi Oida), she will leave this husband whom she cannot relate with and move to Hong Kong. Once there she will take odd-jobs, until becoming a fashion model and then a writer on flesh. She will not communicate with her father from abroad after witnessing her father’s boss, the publisher, force her father to have anal sex with him, which he does in order to have his books published.
The film concentrates on Nagiko having her lovers write over her nude body, but she is becoming increasingly frustrated in finding the lover who is the perfect combination of lover and calligrapher. Nagiko will meet a young English translator she falls for even though she considers him a scribbler, Jerome (Ewan). To solve her dilemma of being with someone who is not a calligrapher, she writes on Jerome’s skin after he offers her his body.
Jerome crushes Nagiko’s spirit by having a homosexual relationship with the same publisher who destroyed her husband financially, blackmailed her father, and now has soiled the one she loves. Nagiko thought that she could use him to get vengeance on the publisher but when he goes naked before the publisher and the publisher reads The Book of a Lover that she wrote on him, this act makes her jealousy rage and she spurns Jerome.
The plot turns surprising simple as revenge becomes the motive for Nagiko, and this offbeat film will remain interesting mostly through its striking visualizations.
The stunning visualizations range from ones of comedy to ones of sensuality to ones of gross cruelty. An example of comedy would be in The Third Book of Impotence. The male model Nagiko has written her book on is running naked through the crowded streets of Hong Kong.
By writing her own pillow book, that will include thirteen editions, Nagiko will tell her life story. The last one is called The Book of the Dead, and is an example of how pitiless is her retribution.
The fun is in the silliness of the story’s subject matter as juxtaposed against the solemnity of the books being written on skin. In the background there are either somber religious chants or the same pop tune being played over and over. The repeating of the childhood story, the constant flashbacks to Nagiko’s childhood, where she is repeatedly told that the diary being read to her is by a woman who has the same name she has, gives the film a stylish depth and a feeling that something overwhelming is happening.
Greenaway tells a seductive tale by utilizing Nagiko’s predilection for body art to flesh out her character. She is really the only one in the film that we see developing. Her seventh book, The Book of a Seducer, was very similar to a Confucius book. She writes on a man’s bald head, “An itch to read, a scratch to understand.” Her ninth, The Book of Secrets, she has her words written on a man’s tongue. There seems to be a determined effort to be witty, even if the humor is not scaled to what the story is saying.
The result is a startling film with gorgeous photogenic shots, superimpositions, amazing computer graphics, a splash of intriguing gold and red color patterns, but with everything ending up so perverse and lost in a melodramatic intimacy that even the scenes that do mean something still seem to be too absurd to really mean much. But the film did have plenty of fire, hatred, passion, jealousy, and mystery. For those who like to see a film that is both unique and unforgettable: this one’s pure Greenaway.
‘Pollock’ portrait of the artist as a difficult man
By Margaret McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It is common to speculate that Jackson Pollock’s restless, raging genius drove him to the excesses that ultimately killed him.
An active alcoholic for most of his adult life, he died at age 44 in a drunken-driving accident in which a passenger also perished. He cheated on his ferociously loyal wife, abused his friends, alienated admirers and savaged other artists.
He was, as the arresting film Pollock reveals, a difficult and dangerous man. Director and star Ed Harris exposes the artist’s flaws with unstinting honesty (and with painstaking style). Yet in his fierce and melancholy portrait, he suggests that art was not the man’s downfall, but the source of the only salvation he ever found.
The film is drawn from the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith as adapted by screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller. It is peppered with outrageous behavior, as in the case when Pollock relieved himself in the fireplace at the elegant home of arts patron Peggy Guggenheim (played by Mr. Harris’ wife, Amy Madigan).
However, the story pays as much attention to Pollock’s drive to blast through the conventions of modern art to find a new vocabulary of abstraction. In time — during hard-won periods of sobriety — he made a radical breakthrough that became his signature technique, painting without touching brush to canvas, creating lines by drizzling and spilling pigment.
His work was (and still is, by some) dismissed as mere splatters, an interpretation he rejects explicitly in Pollock. “I don’t use the accident,” he said, “because I deny the accident.”
Mr. Harris dives deep into the this damaged soul and emerges with a gutsy, focused performance that reinforces the star’s reputation for breathtaking clarity and truth.
Marcia Gay Harden matches his level of work in the painful role of Pollock’s wife, artist Lee Krasner.
Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler deserves special mention for pinpointing the excitement of Pollock’s art in the midst of a grubby, muted world.
If ever there were an artist to prove that the art is bigger than the artist, it was Jackson Pollock. Like him, this film embraces pain and chaos and self-loathing and returns beauty.
Artemisia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi) was a rare thing in 17th century Rome: a woman painter. Her father, the great Ozario Gentileschi (visit your local art museum; I would guess that they have at least one of his religious-themed paintings), breaks the unspoken rules against women painting by letting her study with him. She soon outstrips what he can teach her, and he practically bullies the art academy to admit her. Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), a radical, younger artist who does the unimaginable (like painting outdoor scenes outside) is intrigued both artistically and sexually by the impetuous Artemisia, who shows him her drawings of the male nude (it was forbidden at the time for women to draw men nude, but she convinced a local boy to pose for her in exchange for a kiss). The two begin a professional relationship under the supervision of one of Gentileschi’s servant girls, who is supposed to keep him from compromising the integrity of the young girl.
Things get rough when their undeniable attraction leads to a sexual relationship. At first they get away with it, but these things never last, and Gentileschi (played by Michel Serrault) finds out. He has no choice but to bring charges of rape against the other painter because, in the social climate of 17th century Rome, there is no way any respectable man will ever marry Artemisia if it was thought that she willingly lost her virginity before marriage. The problem is, the girl is madly in love with her teacher, and she complicates proceedings by refusing to lie.
The film is based on the life of the real Artemisia Gentileschi, who was among the first known female painters in the Western World. She is probably best known for her varying versions of “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” and art critics say that her work, although it is very much a product of its time, reflects a unique female perspective. The film assures us that she was the first woman painter in history to be commissioned for her work, but this is a typical Western attitude, in that it conveniently forgets the history of any other part of the world except Europe. What about in Japan or China, or maybe Africa or Latin America? It was only a minor flub, though. The film does a pretty good job of both recreating the world of 17th century art and of avoiding too much historical anachronism. You don’t hear the characters uttering late 20th century dialog, which is always an easy pitfall in historical films.
Apparently, the MPAA originally gave this film the dreaded NC-17 rating, but, surprisingly, it was overturned in favor of the R the film deserved. I say surprisingly not because the film deserved an NC-17, but because that board of censors and nipple-counters is not known for reconsidering its decisions. Watching the film, I can’t see a single thing about it that made it deserve an NC-17. It contains no more nudity or sex than your typical suspense thriller in the US. Maybe it’s the foreign language that made it seem more “dangerous” to the conservative mothers and priests on the ratings board.
There’s also the historical problem: this film takes what was almost certainly a rape and turns it into a romance. I’m all for female empowerment, but I think this is sending the wrong message.
6. Camille Claudel
Isabelle Adjani is nominated for a best actress Oscar for her riveting performance in “Camille Claudel,” which single-handedly lifts the film out of the tortured-artist cliches in which it threatens to become mired.
The title character was a famous sculptor in Paris during the end of the 19th century who, according to the film, was so obsessed with mentor/lover Auguste Rodin (Gerard Depardieu) that she gradually went mad while still turning out incredible work — all this while dealing with a mindset that decreed women could not be as accomplished as men in the world of art. “Camille Claudel” is many things, from fairly typical movie biography to critical examination of a particular historical period to portrait of an obsessed woman. In fact, Claudel had two obsessions, her art and Rodin, and they could not be reconciled. As shown here, Rodin was alternately jealous and in awe of her talent, and Claudel eventually became unjustifiably paranoid that he was trying to destroy that talent.
Most of the film is told from Claudel’s point of view, though it occasionally shifts to Rodin’s during the film’s first half — the richer portion of this 2 1/2-hour film. And through her eyes we see the frustration she projects toward a God who would bless her with great talent and then place her in a world that rejects it. We first meet Claudel in the throes of her initial obsession. Her brother is sent out in the middle of the night by their frantic mother to find Camille. Meanwhile, Camille is ripping wet clay from the walls of a ditch at a construction site and stuffing it into a small valise. She races to her studio and as the morning light begins to pour into the room she molds the clay with a passionate fever.
Her initial meetings with Rodin, who first comes to quickly look at her work, then hires her as an apprentice, frustrate Claudel because he doesn’t acknowledge or seem to recognize her talent.
Finally, when, in a fit of frustration, she leaves his employ, Rodin comes to her. They see they are kindred spirits, but it isn’t until later, when she seduces him by modeling for him, that they become lovers.
Some time later, when Claudel strikes out on her own and gains a measure of recognition, she gradually descends into madness. Was that seed of insanity always there? Or is it the result of being unable to have both artistic success and Rodin? That’s never satisfactorily explained, but it does lead to an ironic and very sad denouement.
This is a cursory description of the plot, to be sure, since most of the texture is layered in nuance. The artistic talent of the principal subjects is superficially portrayed, character development being the film’s primary focus.
And that is the key to “Camille Claudel,” with Isabel Adjani simply stunning as she portrays her character’s gradual disintegration. Gerard Depardieu is also excellent, but this is clearly Adjani’s film, and she runs with it.
“Camille Claudel” is rated R for nudity, mostly models posing for the sculptured pieces by Claudel and Rodin, along with a couple of sex scenes, some violence and a single spoken profanity.
Well-acted, visually impressive film with an Oscar-nominated central performance from Hayek.
By all accounts, it has taken Salma Hayek over ten years to get this film produced, during which time she has seen off challenges from both Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. Hayek apparently felt that the Mexican, mono-browed bisexual surrealist painter was the role she was born to play and she fought passionately to get it made.
Her choice of director was also a shrewd one, because Julie Taymor’s visual style ensures the film is never less than sumptuous to look at, even if the script occasionally feels a little flat.
The film is pretty much a straightforward biopic, in the form of flashbacks from Kahlo’s deathbed. It covers the period of her life from the 1920s, when, as a young girl she first met womanising muralist Diego Riviera (Alfred Molina, excellent), through her crippling trolley accident in 1925, to her emergence as an artist and her tempestuous love-life, including marriage to Riviera and affairs with the likes of Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd).
Hayek is excellent as Kahlo, although you occasionally wonder if she isn’t entirely too gorgeous for the role – she somehow even manages to make a full body-cast look sexy. (You can’t, however, say the same for the trademark moustache and monobrow combo).
There’s also great support from Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush and Valeria Golino (as Riviera’s wife), as well as a host of cameos from the likes of Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas (as David Alfaro Siqueiros) and Hayek’s real-life partner Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller. (Norton also did an uncredited last-minute rewrite).
Colour, Noise And A Little Too Much Happiness
The direction is extremely impressive throughout – Taymor (Titus) uses a variety of animation techniques and 3D effects to literally bring the paintings to life. Similarly, the horrific trolley crash sequence is filmed in an unusual way, ending as a riot of colours and noise.
Criticisms of the film have so far focussed on the fact that Frida seems ‘too happy’, implying that Hayek has somehow failed to capture her pain. (Hayek counters that she was more interested in showing her strength). However, one thing is certain – the film isn’t especially deep and you come away from wishing they had delved a bit harder.
That said, there are no shortage of Shallow And Obvious Reasons to see the film – aside from the various nude scenes, the bit where Salma performs a risqué tango with Ashley Judd will almost certainly guarantee it a shelf life on DVD.
In short, this is beautifully shot, well acted and worth seeing, if perhaps, ultimately, a little shallow. Though, never forget, it could have been Madonna in the title role, so thank heaven for small mercies