Lust for Life: “You Look Too Fast”

blogopenerEach Monday evening during the month of March, TCM celebrates “Art and Artists” by airing 18 movies about painters and sculptors. The most diverse films are those based on fictional artists or paintings, including everything from the horror classic The Mystery of the Wax Museum (March 21, 1:15am EST) to the comedy The Art of Love (March 28, 8:00pm EST). The series also spotlights dramatic biopics based on real-life artists, including tonight’s selection: Lust for Life, El Greco, Rembrandt, and Andrei Rublev.

With a background in art history, I am an unabashed fan of artist biopics, even though most of them are not really about the art. Directed by Alexander Korda in 1936, Rembrandt is an exercise in “good taste” as typified by big-budget British productions of that era. Charles Laughton as Rembrandt is given numerous opportunities to show off his gifts at dramatic recitation in a story that is mostly about enduring personal loss. El Greco, a TCM premiere, is a little-known Italian production with international star Mel Ferrer in the title role. The film posits El Greco as the outsider artist who butts heads with the closed minds of the Inquisition. The contributions of composer Ennio Morricone and set decorator Dante Ferretti, who would later team with Martin Scorsese, make this film worthwhile viewing. Of the four, Andrei Rublev by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is the most unconventional and the most cinematic. Tarkovsky eschewed a linear, cause-and-effect biographical structure in favor of experimental black-and-white imagery and a stripped down narrative in which little is explained but much is felt.

VINCENTE MINNELLI DIRECTS KIRK DOUGLAS.

VINCENTE MINNELLI DIRECTS KIRK DOUGLAS ON LOCATION.

My personal favorite of the entire Art and Artists series is Lust for Life, which kicks off tonight’s selection of biopics. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest colorists, the film is about art on more than one level. From suggesting that creative impulses and emotional isolation go hand in hand to de-romanticizing the artist as bohemian to merging his visual style with the narrative content, Minnelli infuses the film with layers of ideas about what it means to be an artist.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Minnelli thought of himself as an artist. He had begun his career as a window designer and he painted as a hobby, but his true medium of personal expression was the commercial Hollywood film with all of its conventions, storytelling systems, and standard approaches to film techniques. Minnelli understood how to use these conventions and systems as the raw material of his art so that many of his films are both Hollywood entertainment and works of personal expression. Minnelli had explored the emotional isolation and social alienation that comes with being an artist in other films, including The Bad and the Beautiful, about a director who exploits personal relationships to get his films produced, and Some Came Running, about a writer who returns home after the war but can’t find his place among family or friends. Clearly, he identified with Van Gogh, whom he described as an uncompromising artist who sacrificed a “normal” life to meet the demands of creativity. Lust for Life was the only film that Minnelli initiated while at MGM; the famous musicals that he directed had originated with producers Arthur Freed, Pandro Berman, or others. He always listed the film as his favorite, and his working relationship with star Kirk Douglas, who played Van Gogh, as the best of his career.

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KIRK DOUGLAS EMBRACED THE ROLE OF VAN GOGH, GIVING IT AN INTENSITY THAT MINNELLI ENVISIONED FOR THE CHARACTER.

Unlike other artist biopics, Lust for Life doesn’t romanticize Van Gogh’s life. This isn’t a film about a bohemian free-thinker who throws off the constraints of a bourgeois existence, or a rebel outsider who aggravates authority figures with his revolutionary ideas. Minnelli’s Van Gogh suffers because he is an artist; he is tormented, unattractive, and at times unlikable because his drive to create is a compulsion that makes it difficult to assimilate into a community or society. The original source material was Irving Stone’s 1934 novel, but Stone’s interpretation was more romanticized. It featured the symbolic figure of a beautiful young woman who appears to Van Gogh via hallucinations to bring out his inner demons. Minnelli and scriptwriter Norman Corwin dismissed that idea, opting to use the famous correspondence between Van Gogh and his brother Theo as a main resource. However, the letters were copyrighted by Theo’s son, who threatened to sue if the film quoted directly from the letters. Corwin did an excellent job of paraphrasing the exchanges between the brothers.

Minnelli knew a great deal about art history. He kept scrapbooks filled with photos of works of art, eras of architecture and design, and styles of furniture, which he used as inspiration for the visual design of his films. He seemed to have a special affinity for the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists. This is evident in the concluding ballet of An American in Paris in which he referenced the styles of several artists from these eras in the set design. The ballet is an ingenious fusion of three art forms—painting, dance, and cinematography—that has never been duplicated.

THE SCENES THAT TAKE PLACE IN HOLLAND ARE DOMINATED BY BLUISH GREENS, WHICH REFLECTED VAN GOGH'S PALETTE DURING THIS PHASE OF HIS LIFE.

THE SCENES THAT TAKE PLACE IN HOLLAND ARE DOMINATED BY BLUISH GREENS, WHICH REFLECTED VAN GOGH’S PALETTE DURING THIS PHASE OF HIS LIFE.

Just as Minnelli (and collaborator Gene Kelly) interpreted the art of Dufy, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others through choreography and camerawork in that ballet, so he was not content to merely follow the chronology of Van Gogh’s life or show his paintings in flat close-ups. Instead, he interpreted the artist’s life through color and depicted the paintings in dynamic ways. Minnelli saw Van Gogh’s life in four stages, so he and his cinematographers, Frederick Young and Russell Harlan, used a different color scheme for each phase. The color scheme reflected Van Gogh’s own work. The coal-mining sequence in which the artist lives and works in the mines of Belgium was dominated by grays and muted browns, because his drawings were all in black, reflecting his mood at the time. The scenes in Holland featured a bluish green because Van Gogh’s paintings included the dark green of the Dutch countryside. In Paris, Van Gogh had come into contact with the Impressionists, so his paintings contained bright reds and blues. Likewise, the Parisian sequence in the film featured reds. While in Arles and St. Remy, his paintings were dominated by yellows with subdued reds and greens; thus, the final section of the film made ample use of the color yellow.

MINNELLI LIKED TO PLACE VAN GOGH IN THE FOREGROUND PAINTING A SCENE SHOWN IN THE BACKGROUND.

MINNELLI LIKED TO PLACE VAN GOGH IN THE FOREGROUND PAINTING A SCENE THAT IS SHOWN IN THE BACKGROUND.

Lust for Life was not only filmed on location in the places that Van Gogh had lived but Minnelli tried to shoot at the same time of year as the artist had painted key works. In certain scenes, Douglas as Van Gogh is positioned in the foreground of the frame working on a painting that duplicates the scene in the mid- and background. Though not a exactly a point of view shot, these scenes offer Van Gogh’s visual perspective, which helps the viewer identify with the character as well as his fervor to express what he sees.

MINNELLI RECREATED THE COMPOSITIONS OF SOME OF VAN GOGH'S FAMOUS PAINTINGS. THIS IS REMINISCENT OF 'BEDROOM IN ARLES.'

MINNELLI RECREATED THE COMPOSITIONS OF SOME OF VAN GOGH’S FAMOUS PAINTINGS. THIS IS REMINISCENT OF ‘BEDROOM IN ARLES.’

ANTHONY QUINN WON AN OSCAR FOR HIS ROLE AS GAUGUIN. HE CLAIMED THAT THE GHOST OF GAUGUIN TALKED TO HIM DURING SHOOTING.

ANTHONY QUINN WON AN OSCAR FOR HIS ROLE AS GAUGUIN. HE CLAIMED THAT THE GHOST OF GAUGUIN TALKED TO HIM DURING SHOOTING.

At times, Minnelli depicted the paintings in an intimate way that would draw the viewer into the canvas. He panned across the paintings or tracked into key details so that the brush strokes were visible. This was accomplished by photographing the paintings onto eight-by-ten-inch plates in the camera department of the studio. Large transparencies were made from the plates. When the transparencies were lit from behind, the brush strokes and marks showed up clearly. Yellow was a key color for Van Gogh, especially at the end of his life. It was also Minnelli’s favorite. He felt that Eastman Color, which MGM used for their color films, would not render the different shades of yellow with the necessary subtlety. It was too bright, or “straight from the candy box” as he noted. He convinced MGM to allow him to use the discarded Ansco Color, which was difficult to find. MGM purchased the last remaining inventory of Ansco film stock, which had to be processed at a special lab.

My favorite scenes in Lust for Life are those in which Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin live and paint together in the south of France. Anthony Quinn earned his Academy Award as the lusty, larger-than-life Gauguin who is at odds with Van Gogh’s sensitive personality and fevered painting style. He barks at his less-confident companion, “You paint too fast,” to which Van Gogh responds, “You look too fast.” It’s easy to look too fast at Lust for Life, assuming it is just another Hollywood biopic. But, look closer, because there is more to it: The film is really about one artist expressing himself through the life story of another.

8 Responses Lust for Life: “You Look Too Fast”
Posted By Lisa W. : March 14, 2016 11:26 pm

Oh, I loved this film before I ever could understand how well-crafted and artful it is. It makes perfect sense that Minelli would know about art history, in the way that he uses color and composition so intentionally and masterfully.
Thank you for reminding me that my kids need to see this! This will be a great film for viewing and discussion after we visit the exhibit of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, currently hanging at the Art Institute!

Posted By adolphus roofenstein : March 15, 2016 1:01 am

Yes, what a unique, masterful, admirable & heartfelt attempt to capture the highs & lows of a life in the creative arts …

Oh, and a source for fashion tips also … In my never-ending quest to win friends & influence people, I never realized that all I needed to make my best impression & put my best foot forward was … that sheepskin vest!!! (Or should I rethink that? Hmmmm…)

Now, if I can only manage to stay up all night somehow, I can finally watch Andrei Rublev !!!

Posted By Gamera2000 : March 15, 2016 1:24 am

Lust for Life and Andrei Rublev are two of my favorite films on artists. Both were the result of two powerful visual filmmakers carefully using there artistry to explore the work of artists in another visual medium. It is interesting that both films end with a montage of the other works of Van Gogh and Rublev.

I also can help but note the tremendous score for Lust for Life by Miklos Rozsa. It is a great example of the collaboration of a composer and director.

Posted By robbushblog : March 15, 2016 1:50 pm

This got me thinking about watching MR. TURNER, which I never got around to watching before. What did you think of that movie, Susan?

Posted By Susan Doll : March 15, 2016 3:41 pm

Rob: Mr. Turner is a good movie with a chewing-scenery performance by the lead actor (and I mean that in a good way). But, I am not a fan of the director. His style is to look at the dark side of human nature and then almost look down on his characters because they are that way. I didn’t like the way Turner’s faults were depicted like perversions, though I understand the idea was to de-romanticize the image of artists in general. I would recommend it but just be aware that Loach’s depiction of Turner is an interpretation, not necessarily how he was.

Posted By swac44 : March 15, 2016 4:34 pm

Sad to say, I’ve never seen Lust for Life, despite my fondness for Van Gogh’s story, and Minnelli’s direction (Kirk I have to take on a film-by-film basis). Reading this piece made me want to have it on blu-ray, to better appreciate its use of colour in full detail.

I’d love to compare it to another Van Gogh film, which I have seen and greatly admire, Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, which also focuses on the relationship between the artist and his brother, with a fine Tim Roth performance to its credit.

Posted By Paul Dionne : March 27, 2016 4:29 pm

@Susan, quick note: Mr. Turner was written and directed by Mike Leigh, not Ken Loach, if that’s who you were thinking of.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 27, 2016 6:43 pm

Paul: Thanks for the correction. I was absolutely thinking of Mike Leigh. I am not a fan of Leigh’s but I am of Loach’s, including his latest Jimmy’s Hall. I feel bad that I mis-wrote the name.

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