Lust for Life (1956) Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Lust For Life is a 1950s movie about an artist, or a genius, as they would have definitely branded Vincent van Gogh then. In 1956 Western culture was at a crossroads: youth culture was rearing its unreliable head threatening with rock and roll, questioning the old ways on all levels of society, yet, the portrayal of an artist was still drenched in the masculine cult of the genius (with a long romantic history to back it up). Lust For Life portrayed a rebel of his own time, but the portrayal was not drawing similarities between now and then – the plight of the social misfits – it saw van Gogh almost as if through the eyes of a child.
Also, the film treated its subject, van Gogh, as a child-like innocent creature. As if the artist was never quite aware of his talent, his persona, or anything much around him (except of course when he painted). Life just happened as a chain of events, and their arbitrary connections seemed to throw van Gogh further into insanity. It is too bad that the film's emphasis on events of his life overshadow any imagining of what the artist might have been feeling or going through in his mind. A distance between the main character and the audience thus never goes away, which is always disappointing in movies.
I have rushed excitedly to a few big museums in the world just to catch a glimpse of a "genuine van Gogh" – I love his vision, yet I know very little about the man. Of course I heard about the ear cutting and the mental illness, and the interesting fact that he was never successful and now there's nothing we cannot buy with his painting printed on it. I remember the first time I had a chance in Chicago in 1999 to go see a van Gogh and how sophisticated I thought I was – the others were going to Sealife while I went to see art. Mostly though, my love for van Gogh comes from post cards and the stuff that was written on the other side of the pictures. There's never enough time to stare at a painting in a museum.
Twenty years since the release of Nevermind, Nirvana's mainstream grunge breakthrough album, the tortured, anguished short life of band leader Kurt Cobain comes back into focus. The consummate, non-commercial artist as young man, bringing cultured sounds to the masses. Of course, ultimately Cobain could have done without the attention and the success. He paid the heaviest price for being at the center of a media shit storm. As article after article about the Grunge explosion starts to celebrate 20 years of the quiet/loud dynamic and the rehabilitation of the plaid shirt, am I the only one having a nightmares at the prospect of a Cameron Crowe documentary celebrating 20 years of Pearl Jam? That's a bottom barrel team up if ever I heard of one. Artist Vincent van Gogh wasn't afforded any real attention or fame during his short lifetime. Van Gogh is possibly the quintessential tortured artist, a front runner for Cobain. Eddie Vedder's got a lot to learn before being 4REAL.
There is a stiffness and quaintness to Minnelli's van Gogh bio-pic which is redolent of the times. This is its major flaw. Otherwise, Lust For Life is top quality and a genuinely strange picture posing as a Hollywood star vehicle. There is no real attempt in the film to come to terms with van Gogh's mental problems, which eventually cost him his life. Instead, we get lots of shots of Kirk Douglas (as van Gogh) looking anguished, lost and in pain. This is truly strange cinema. It's as if Minnelli gave Douglas a simple instruction: "Emote!" and left Douglas to get on with it. But the opulence of the direction (everything is in, ahem, broad strokes), the use of color, the sets and production values, all suggest money. Anthony Quinn brings energy to the picture with his portrayal of rebellious painter Gauguin.
Still, despite its shallowness and almost embarrassment with its subjects mental condition, Lust For Life is top draw. Douglas is brilliant, overacting at every turn, it's fun to watch. Minnelli knows how to use color and design: many of the shots do correlate with van Gogh's paintings. Minnelli is a master director, responsible for some of the all time greats movies, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bad And The Beautiful, An American In Paris (in fact, a Martin Scorsese wet dream?) Lust For Life finds all participants on top form and is a classy picture, which deserves rehabilitation.