Thursday, May 15, 2008

Van Gogh's "Iron Wall"

Hey guys,

Below are highlights of a recent TriggerStreet script review of mine, which was for a story about a great painter. The script brought to mind a film that I'm sure many of you have not seen, called Lust for Life, a great, great film on so many levels.

There are parallels that can be made between writers today and Van Gogh's personal aspiration to break through his own "iron wall." We all have them. And I believe that all aspiring writers must labor just as intensely to break through their own unique iron walls.

Anyway, you'll see. Hope you enjoy it.



Van Gogh’s “Iron Wall”

Ya know, I'm trying to recall the last few films I've seen about great painters. Umm, it would probably be Girl with a Pearl Earring, Frida, and Pollock, I believe. All had their strengths.

But my heart will always belong to
Lust for Life, the Vincent Van Gogh biop with Kirk Douglas, arguably one of the greatest movies about a painter in cinema history. You mentioned Van Gogh a few times in your spec. Listen, if you're going to see Lust for Life, don't watch it instantly on Netflix. Rent the DVD, see it in widescreen on a big TV and soak in all of its glorious and sumptuous visuals. That film never fails to move me. It's downright SPOOKY how much Kirk Douglas actually looked like Van Gogh. The whole project fascinated me. It was a passion project for Vincent Minnelli, the director, who later regarded this as the toughest challenge in his career. It was cool how Minnelli used color as both psychological and artistic expressions of his protag. Structurally, the film concentrated on four phases of the artist's life: the black-and-white drawings from the mining district of the Boringe, the Dutch drawings and paintings of rural labor in the Hague, the impressionist landscapes of Paris, and the portraits and nature paintings of Southern France. And so, Minnelli asked his cinematographers to create different color schemes for each of the four phases of Van Gogh's career: the coal-mining scenes were dominated by grays, the Dutch sequences by bluish greens, the Parisian episodes by bright reds, and the concluding session, Minnelli’s favorite, were in sunny yellows.

With respect to the writers, no one thought this story could be told successfully. Minelli first turned to Robert Ardrey (Madame Bovary) and then Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) who both declined to write the film because they thought the story was too internal and emotional to be effective as big screen entertainment. Plus, it's kind of a downer when a character cuts off his own ear. Minelli then turned to Norman Corwin (The Blue Veil) and he was the natural choice. He was the studio's fastest and most prolific writer, and he found a way to carry a through-line throughout those four phases of Van Gogh's life by centering on his ever-evolving relationship with his brother, Theo.

Corwin got an Oscar nom for that script.

In any case, there are two reasons why I share Lust for Life.

1) I thought of two lines from that film. First, Van Gogh takes his black-and-white drawings to his cousin artist, Anton Mauve. Mauve asks him, "What kind of an artist do you want to be?" Van Gogh replies, "I want to create things that touch people. I want to move them so they say 'he feels deeply and tenderly.'" Mauve responds, "It's fine, fine. But before you can move people, you first have to learn your business. It needs skill as well as heart." The second line is when his brother, Theo, offers to let Van Gogh live with him in Paris. Van Gogh says, "If I'm to be anything as a painter, I have to break through the iron wall between what I feel and what I can express." I thought of these lines, because this is where you're still at, as a writer, I think. Lots of potential for greatness but still in need of more experience so that you can communicate with crystal clarity to your audience what you feel in your heart through story. There's a sometimes surprising disconnect to aspiring writers between what they feel when they write a script and how effectively those feelings are being communicated. It takes a lot of practice and lots of scripts before you get a sense of how well you are effectively moving your readers.

2) The second reason is because this film has in spades the one element that this script lacks - conflict. On the one hand, I should praise you for working in subtleties and subtext within your scenes. You clearly understand how little gestures have big implications in film. On the other hand, everything was so subtle, it was to the detriment of conflict. In every single scene in Lust for Life, there was a clearly identifiable conflict. We were always watching a scene because something was wrong. Or someone was trying to right a wrong. Or we were being shown something that was going to go wrong. Norman Corwin reveled in emotional conflicts in ways that were so very moving, and I'd like to see you delve right into all that conflict. Lust also had an overall conflict that carried through all of the little conflicts in each scene, that is, Van Gogh's pursuit to break through his own perceived "iron wall" of his art, which he never felt he attained. In the end, he tore up a painting and screamed, "It's impossible! Impossible!"


Anonymous said...

Lust For Life is lovely. Not even Kirk Douglas could knock me out of that film. I suppose it could be because his typically portentous manner of acting was matched by the vibrancy of Minelli's nervy visual design.

Try to see "Van Gogh", directed by Maurice Pialat. It's not the usual bio-pic in that we get the last two months of Van Gogh's life. It crackles with compressed urgency. Pialat, before he became an auteur, was a painter. He also had his share of demons, and possessed an irascible personality to boot. It's good stuff.

James said...

Want to take bets on any future Van Gogh film/biopics making Vincent gay?

Seems to be the trend of our modern revisionist history and it is such a very easy out for such a complex individual.

One of the big pluses of LUST FOR LIFE, is that it illustrates the relationship with Cezanne and Van Gogh, as well as Van Gogh's need for love and acceptance, without stooping to a simple arbitrary and revisionist conclusion.

Van Gogh is one of those projects that I'd eventually like to do. The depth and complexity of character is so ripe with real genuine conflict.

Kurt Raether said...

Thank you so much for turning me on to Lust for Life. What a gem.

Mystery Man said...

Jim - Thanks for that recommendation! I hadn't seen that one, but I've added it to my netflix queue!

James - You really feel a sense of exhilaration when you see those vibrant colors and close shots of the paintings, don't you? And you're absolutely right about the depth and complexity of the protag.

Kurt - So glad you liked it!


crossword said...

Hey MM - as usual I'm late to the party but I couldn't resist adding a word or two for the sake of completeness. :)

LUST is indeed an amazing film and I only hope that our continuing to bring this up again and again will bring it to the attention of the young'ns.

It is worth mentioning that it almost did not get made. In fact, over the course of MGM's ten year rights, they almost let it lapse until around nine months, when everyone had to scramble and then write (!) and produce the damn thing.

Producer John Houseman (a particular fav. of mine) wrote about his experiences in his second autobiographical book "Front & Center" (covering his years 1942-1955).

It sounded like nobody thought it would be of interest to anyone, though Alexander Korda's "Rembrandt" (1936) and then John Huston's "Moulin Rouge" (1952) fictional account of Toulouse-Lautrec probably inspired the eventual greenlighting.

You'll love this, MM... one of the many difficult production problems the picture faced was that the best color films at the time (given Van Gough's paintings) would be AGFA color-film... however, AGFA were quitting the motion-picture business under stiff and monopolistic competition from Eastman Kodak... so MGM bought up every remaining inch they could find, close to one-quarter million feet of last-of-its-kind celluloid. They then had to setup a special lab in Houston, TX to process it.

Today, it would be impossible (I'm sure) to beg, borrow and plead for all the hundreds of Van Gough painting owners around the world and allow their babies to be used to make a film, however temporary.

It was tough back even back then. Out of the question now.

Can you imagine how breathtaking it would be to see that original film print?

Mystery Man said...

Len - God, that IS really amazing. Color is what makes that film, too, isn't it? It's so moving. I do recall SOME of those details you mentioned, particularly the part about the original paintings, which is SO astounding. I always go in for a closer look when they make their appearances. This also explains some of the extreme close-ups of the paintings. Who can blame the filmmakers, ya know? I don't remember how I know this. I have not read that producer's book, which I will certainly do.

You get a gold star for best comment of the year.


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