Friday, January 12, 2007

Vincent and Theo

dir. Robert Altman

Another pipe dream from Robert Altman. Tim Roth as Vincent van Gogh.

January 10, 2007 - 35mm/
IFC Center

Martin Scorsese’s return to form, The Departed, has finally arrived. After two blundering Oscar-chasing failures, Mr. Scorsese delivers what he does best, blood, action and machismo. Let me draw a parallel between The Departed, and how it signaled a career resurgence for a director, who lately, has been dwindling into insignificance. Robert Altman experienced a career resurgence, a return to form and what he does best in 1992, with The Player. An ensemble movie full of famous stars, filled with the angry wit and satire that made him a famous director, like in M*A*S*H, that movie with Alan Alda, or that movie Nashville, where he makes fun of southern people and country music.

With a little bit of embellishment, the above is more or less the boldly moronic attitude I syphon from movie critics and journalists the nation wide. I hear it regurgitated at parties, at the office and from cinematic pundits all over the interweb. Nevermind that he aforementioned Mr. Scorsese’s previous narrative feature, The Aviator, was released to mountains of acclaim from critics, a domestic gross over 100 million dollars and a slew of awards from various places, including a well-deserved Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio at the Golden Globes. What a monumental failure. Also, in 2005, Mr. Scorsese made an epic documentary about Bob Dylan called No Direction Home. That was also met with universal acclaim. Good to have you back, Marty.

Now, onto Robert Altman and the task at hand. Before the screening of Thieves Like Us, Christian Science Monitor movie critic and former associate of Mr. Altman, Peter Rainer, made reference to Altman’s revitalization that occurred with The Player. He’s not alone with this popular opinion. Yes, Altman became more commercially viable after The Player, but critics, please.

Vincent and Theo is to be regarded as one of the landmarks of Altman’s varied, prolific and always ambitious movie career. Released theatrically in 1990, Vincent and Theo was conceived and made as a four-hour miniseries for the BBC. I have heard rumors and read that there is a 204-minute cut running around somewhere on a Spanish DVD, and I would love to see it, but for the time being I’ll try sticking to discussion of the 138-minute theatrical cut rather than what could be. Briefly, the removing of whatever footage was shot surely only added to the impressiveness of the performances in a shorter cut, adding a depth, reality and history to every word exchanged. Motivation for certain things may be more explicit in a longer cut, though the conviction with which scenes play out is nothing short of remarkable and believable.

An artist biopic unlike any other, Vincent and Theo succeeds because Vincent van Gogh does not. As his painting is not commercially successful, in no way does it propel the narrative. The narrative is propelled by character, action, choice, sickness, disease and love. Vincent may have painted the pictures, but does this make his brother Theo any less valuable? No. For a large portion of the movie Vincent leaves Paris and spends time with another painter, Paul Gauguin (also still famous). Vincent misses his brother Theo dearly, and it is easy to feel his pain. Theo struggles to conquer syphilis and the mental anguish that accompanies the physical ailment. He courts Jo Bonger, played by an unassuming Dutch actress, Johanna ter Steege. Even though we get to observe both Vincent and Theo throughout their separation, a feeling of longing overwhelms. Their fraternity is split, and it’s hard on them both.

Gabriel Yared’s score is the best of the Altman scores and in one sequence of particular virtuosity a lonely Vincent is overcome by a haunting field of sunflowers. He likes the color yellow, you see? Altman sweeps the camera in and out of the flowers, zooming uncontrollably as Yared’s score churns and churns wildly with bassy orchestration. It is exhilarating.

Tim Roth and Paul Rhys play the titular characters, respectively. Roth certainly looks the part, but as he is not afforded the option of mimicry he instead builds this legendary character from the inside out. There is a quiet to both his soul and his on-screen brother’s. They are the artistic complements to Scorsese’s brutish Jake and Joey LaMotta in Raging Bull. Like Raging Bull, Vincent and Theo plays out with a similarly poetic, simple beauty. Vincent’s painting sequences are not gratuitous. They are sparse, varied and powerful, like Jake LaMotta’s boxing matches. While van Gogh painted a whole hell of a lot more than Jake boxed, they certainly shared a passion for self-destruction and mutilation. So there is an Altman/Scorsese comparison out there that makes sense, and it has nothing to do with fictitious creative slumps.

There is no huge ensemble cast and only a few scenes of overlapping dialogue. The subtler more effective Altman touches are very present here. The characters eat in this movie. Their homes need tidying up. The mise-en-scene does not feel created, but lived in. Vincent looks hungry and thirsty. If there is a scene at a dinner table, the characters act with their mouth full. In one particular scene Johanna ter Steege attempts to one-up Julie Christie’s appetite in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There is something enormously refreshing about watching characters eat and watching Theo struggle to clean up his flat when Jo first enters. Also refreshing is Altman’s willingness to have his actor’s speak in whatever accent is comfortable. Rather than worrying about someone speaking English with a French accent properly (which makes no sense), the cast and crew worried about what made these human beings tick and how did they live. It is transporting and comforting, and it would be worth it to spend a couple more hours in that world.

1 comment:

Alexander Barnett said...

Since you are interested in Vincent’s life and work, you might want to look at the Notes section on I am the writer and director of the new independent film on his life.