Thursday, January 11, 2007

Altmania continues: "Vincent and Theo" (1990)

it's been a long time (if ever) since i copied the entirety of a film-series schedule into my datebook. but given my current Altman fever, the minute i heard about IFC Center's Altman retrospective, i knew i needed to plan my next few weeks around this thing (especially since i pretty much slept on that "Altman in the '70s" thing they did at Film Forum a few years ago). if you're planning on attending any of it (schedule here), maybe i'll see you there.

last night i saw "Vincent and Theo." it wasn't one of my most anticipated unseen Altmans, but i'm interested in anything of his at this point. i didn't love it, but it's a very cool movie with some pretty heavy acting and interesting Altman flourishes.

the title tips you off to how much this movie really comes down to two actors: Tim Roth as Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Rhys (who i've never seen before) as his brother, Theo. the movie is basically about how they have this sort of intertwined madness, a weird symbiotic relationship that serves as a both a supportive and destructive force in each of their lives.

at the crux of the movie is the idea that the two are different but the same: at first you see them arguing about art v. commerce. Vincent is living in squalor--check out Roth's gnarly chompers--and Theo comes to visit him. Theo's working as an art dealer at this hoity-toity gallery in Paris and Vincent keeps harping on him to try to get his paintings shown. throughout the film, Theo is torn between the obligations of selling art and the feeling that his brother's work really does deserve a chance. the brothers exist in different social strata, but they share a quality of madness. Vincent channels it into his art, and later into masochistic behavior, and Theo doesn't really know what to do with it.

the scenes where Theo's passions get the best of him are some of the strongest in the movie. there are several pretty perverse sex scenes where Rhys is just amazing. in one, he and this French woman are smearing paint all over each other and licking it off during foreplay; it's really animalistic and kind of disturbing, but the acting is amazing. in another, he's with the girl he later marries and he's just sort of licking and biting her all over obsessively. some really primal and psycho shit happening.

Vincent acts out in similar ways. there are tons of scenes where he just shrieks suddenly, or paints his face or someone else's, or threatens violence. in a way, the whole "tortured artist" notion becomes a bit tedious after a while; you sort of just keep waiting for the next outburst. but some scenes, like when Vincent goes to the country with the smarmy Paul Gaugin (Wladimir Yordanoff) have an amazing tension. there's one sequence where Gaugin is preparing a salad and making this really pretentious analogy between that process and painting, and Roth just sits there pouring wine in his mouth and letting it dribble out. just totally weird, immature, psychotic behavior, but you almost want to side with him given how offensive Gaugin is.

the film has a wonderful look. there's a lot of dark, squalid interiors and parched outdoor scenes. there's some amazing shots of Roth painting in fields of wheat or sunflowers that really seem authentic. some of the painting scenes themselves can be a bit tedious--such as when Vincent starts hallucinating among the sunflowers and destroys one of his canvases--but Roth does a damn good job with the Herculean task of actually conveying a painter at work. he's got these nice tic-type motions that he does with his mouth. Roth is great at portraying this kind of obsessive, passionate, half-there character; he's perfect for the role.

there's a really interesting sequence at the beginning where Altman is cross-cutting between modern-day footage of Christie's auction house, where a Van Gogh is being sold for many millions of dollars, and shots of Roth staring into space, reclining in his filthy one-room apartment. at first, this struck me as a little heavy-handed, but after seeing the movie, the notion is pretty powerful.

basically, as silly as this sounds, the movie is about the plight of the genius who toils in obscurity, and Altman does a good job of depicting how being ahead of one's time artistically, however romantic that might be, can be as devastating as it is satisfying. it's kind of a trite idea, suffering for your art, but Roth makes you believe that some people really don't have a choice: they have to create in a certain way, even if they destroy themselves in the process.

but anyway, that idea of posthumous recognition is pretty mindblowing. the movie is kind of like Altman saying a big "fuck you" to anyone who's ever sauntered into the MOMA and bought a Van Gogh mug or umbrella. it's like he wants to undermine the whole mechanism that spits on an artist while he or she is alive and then saints them when they're dead. it's a pretty powerful idea, and something we never think about: people we now think of as icons leading these miserable, obscure lives. i can't think of many other examples, though i know there are many. Kafka comes to mind.

anyway, so as with so many Altman films, there's also the question of what makes it an Altman film. there's definitely a lot in the camerawork that screams Altman, like his weird tendency to start shots with these sort of dated-seeming zooms, or this thing where he'll sort of drift over and focus on a seemingly irrelevant action or object at the end of (or even during) a shot. he's always sort of reframing actions here--just like in the bar scene in "California Split" where Gould and Segal are talking and then he pans over to the strippers having an argument.

another Altman thing i noticed here is his relentless way of dealing with unstable characters. he seems to almost relish the sense of weird, creepy claustrophobia, the process of losing your mind, and he'll just fixate on it, without giving his characters any respite. "3 Women" is this way; Shelley Duvall's character just gets continually shit on in the later part of the movie, as does Cynthia Stevenson's character in "The Player" (Griffin's assistant Bonnie Sherow) and Andie McDowell in "Short Cuts." i've heard it said that Altman has no sympathy for his characters and i can see why people say that. his movies can feel very, very mean--with this creepy sense of entropy or atheism or what have you.

there's also another thing i noticed which is his fixation on the evil quality of laughter. like in "Shortcuts," there's this really freaky sequence where Matthew Modine walks out of the room and Julianne Moore and Madeline Stowe are just cackling about him in this really sick, sinister way; there's a similar scene in "The Player," where Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett are laughing hysterically, and pretty cruelly, at Tim Robbins. there was one part in "Vincent and Theo" that was intensely reminiscent of these scenes (or vice versa, since "V and T" came first), when Theo and his wife sort of tumble to the floor in this euphoric laughter after having a nasty argument.

the end of the film--you can probably guess what happens--is pretty devastating. (by this point, Theo is wasting away from syphilis and there's an amazing scene where he walks out of the bathroom and says matter-of-factly to his wife, "I can't pee.") but it's just as sad all the way through; Altman is basically depicting two people who, in modern parlance, just can't deal. they're both just complete messes and their relationships are all disastrous, including the one they have with each other, though it provides them with such comfort. if it sounds like a heavy and somewhat heavy-handed movie, it is. also, it drags quite a bit. but the acting is superb and makes it worthwhile whether or not you have a particular interest in Van Gogh's work.

hoping to catch "Images" and perhaps "That Cold Day in the Park" tomorrow. i'm really psyched all this is going down. double features are two for the price of one!

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