Friday, December 9, 2016

Lust for Life

The Kirk Douglas Blogathon is an event honoring the life and career of the actor-producer on the centennial of his birth, hosted by Shadows and Satin. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Lust for Life
library rental

When I ran a Google search on the name Vincent van Gogh, I was surprised at the number of recent articles about or related to him. For instance: there's a new book out containing previously-unseen drawings of his that some people say are fakes. Another new book about the 19th-century Dutch painter claims he cut off his ear because his brother Theo was getting married. A third new book claims the Metropolitan Museum of Art's VVG painting is fake too. Plus, there's an upcoming VVG biopic requiring over 60,000 original oil paintings to animate.

Over a century after his death, the strange life and brilliant career of VVG continues to captivate modern art lovers and incite discussion. Despite his talent, the dude had some serious mental issues. He was the original tortured artist. The theories as to why he was the way he was abound: he was bipolar; he was epileptic; he was a mama's boy; etc. It's unlikely we'll ever know the truth.

I studied Impressionistic art in school, but I don't recall how much I learned about VVG specifically. Impressionism was, and is, a big deal because nobody had painted that way before: bright, unnatural colors, broad brushstrokes, abstract shapes. Guys like Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Manet, Matisse and many others were thought to be radicals, but their work has stood the test of time. VVG in particular has become one of the movement's superstars, even if he wasn't seen as such in his lifetime.

I thought it was a good idea to reconnect with the man's work prior to watching Lust for Life, the VVG biopic, so I went to the Museum of Modern Art to look at the Impressionists. I hadn't been there in far too long. It's gotten expensive, for one thing. I can't rely on my student ID anymore. They do still let you in for free on Friday nights, however - and brother, they weren't hurting for business!

MOMA, of course, is one of the principal attractions of New York which should be on every tourist's list of places to visit. As an art student, I never went there as often as I did my beloved Met, but I have memories of the place. I remember liking to sit in the Sculpture Garden. I would've liked to have seen what else was currently playing when I went last Friday, the 2nd, but I didn't have time, so I went straight to the fifth floor...

...and there it was. "Starry Night." It's about the size of your average flatscreen TV, maybe a tad bigger. Like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, the guards won't let you get too close to the famous landscape painting, so the large crowd had to stand at least a yard back. Naturally, everyone was taking pictures with their cell phones. One woman asked me to take a shot of her in front of the painting. I obliged, even though I thought I heard a guard say no selfies were allowed. No one noticed us, though. There were too many people.

What I like about the Impressionists is being able to see the brushstrokes, to see the hand of the artist in an obvious way. It reassures me that a human being created this painting, not a machine or a computer program. These days, there are apps which can emulate the strokes of a human hand pretty well, but nothing beats the actual touch of paint on canvas, guided by a real person.

I like looking closely at a painting, studying the strokes and thinking about why the artist made the choices they did, why they chose this particular color in that particular spot. I've always been more comfortable with a pencil or pen than with a brush, so I find such analysis useful.

I think people respond to "Starry Night" because for a static image, it seems active. The brushstrokes are applied in a way suggestive of motion, a landscape in which the light from the stars has a life of its own, picked up by the wind and carried through the atmosphere, through the trees. It's a more poetic interpretation of nature, even if it's not something one can see with the naked eye.

I saw Lust at Vija's place. (I came there straight from MOMA, which was why I didn't have time to linger.) I don't know if I mentioned it, but she retired from her librarian job this summer, so she has a little more time on her hands lately. As a result, she recently suggested starting an offshoot of our movie club for watching movies on DVD at her apartment in Manhattan.

At first she only floated the idea around to see who was interested, besides me, obviously. Later, when I signed up for this blogathon, I remembered Vija's proposal and I asked her if she was ready, maybe we could start by watching this movie? I knew it would appeal to her since she's a painter, too.

We had an all-new crowd this time. I met Chris at one of Vija's fabulous parties a few years ago. I remember enjoying my conversation with her but not too much else. She came with her pet dog Gigi, a cute little fluffball who got somewhat agitated at the sight of Vija's cat Liam. The cat actually seemed pretty curious about the dog, but in the end Vija locked her pet in the bathroom for the duration of the movie. Gigi, for her part, spent the night in Chris' lap, occasionally getting up to wander the length of the loft.

Chris brought a couple of friends (I'm afraid I don't recall their names) who must have been art lovers too, because they knew quite a bit about VVG and Impressionism in general.

Lust is a Vincente Minnelli pic, shot in CinemaScope. It's based on a historical novel which used the many letters between VVG and his brother Theo as a basis. Kirk Douglas grits his teeth in agony - well, more than usual - throws stuff around, and yells a lot. In other words, it's a typical performance of his! The location shots in France, Belgium and Holland were beautiful. A bunch of color photos of VVG originals were shot and inserted throughout the film.

Anthony Quinn won the Supporting Actor Oscar as Paul Gauguin, VVG's mentor and buddy. The way Douglas played his scenes with Quinn, I kinda got the impression maybe they were more than friends, but Chris disagreed. She was convinced their bickering, odd-couple relationship was the result of VVG's mental instability, which in fairness, did color his interactions with most people in the movie.

Lust wasn't bad overall. It annoyed me, though, that someone other than Douglas narrated the film as VVG. Plus, either Douglas seemed to regenerate the ear he cut off, or the cut wasn't as severe as we've always been led to believe.

Vija had rented the disc from the New York Public Library. It skipped and froze. She didn't have a remote for the DVD player, so I had to fiddle with her player by hand, fast-forwarding and rewinding to find scenes that had been skipped. Eventually Chris suggested cleaning the disc with a tissue, and that worked.

Afterwards, we all had a long talk about the movie, VVG and mental illness in general. Autism was brought up as a possible reason for his issues. I wouldn't know for sure. In the movie, he chops his ear off after a big fight with Gauguin which causes the latter to walk out on him. I brought up the new theory that the ear-chop came after Theo announced his nuptials. That was dismissed as unlikely by Chris' friends who, like I said, really knew their stuff.

Vija provided a six-pack of some Belgian beer in honor of the movie, Belgium being near Holland. No, she wasn't aware of Heineken until I told her. It's okay, though. The beer was fine. I had brought ice cream, but she said she was on a diet. I had to take it home with me. Fortunately, I had a relatively quick train and bus ride, given the late hour, so by the time I arrived home the ice cream wasn't too melted.

Other Kirk Douglas films:


  1. One of the things I enjoy about this movie is the way Minnelli set about capturing the time and place. I think it is a difficult thing to make a film about artists/creators. How long can you watch someone paint or sit at a typewriter or practice the piano?

    Autism as the basis of Vincent's problems is an interesting thought. Gavin is maturing out of awkward and explosive behaviors, but still has a tendency to do himself harm, if not others. He also likes to print and draw with bright colours. H'm.

    Glad you were able to save the ice cream. You have nice friends.

    1. Painting can be an activity worth watching. Ed Harris in POLLOCK made it pretty dynamic, for example. The hard part is making the actor really look like they're painting or drawing. They hardly ever make it look convincing to these eyes.

  2. Awesome post! I really like Lust for Life, and I honestly believe Kirk Douglas deserved a Best Actor Oscar much more than real winner Yul Brynner. His performance was fantastic!

    1. THE KING AND I has always been a sentimental favorite of mine, but yeah, I can see how you can argue for Kirk.

  3. Rich, I love how you described Starry Night – the size, the brush strokes, the impact it has on you in person. You made me feel like I've actually seen it!

    For some reason, I've never seen "Lust for Life" in its entirety & not sure why that is. Now that I've read your thoughtful review, I'm REALLY wondering why that is.

    A movie club sounds like so much fun, especially if it involves beer and ice cream. I might have to start one in my area. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Thank you. This was the first time in a long time I really thought about VVG and Impressionism in general, so expressing how I felt was important to me. I'm glad you liked what I had to say.

  5. Great review. Seeing van Gogh's works up close is indeed an awe-inspiring experience. I too thought it was odd that James Donald was reading the letters as Theo rather than have Kirk Douglas read them.

  6. Yeah, right? I mean, they didn't even sound anywhere close to alike. It threw me out of the film every time there was narration.


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