Tuesday, September 08, 2015

VINCENT AND THEO (1990) - Robert Altman

As with any biopic of a famous personage, Altman can't resist but hit a few of the notable high points. Yes, we see Van Gogh slice off his ear. And, yep, we see him painting those well-known sunflowers. But it's only after we've seen him destroy an earlier version in the same sunflower field in a frothing rage. It's refreshing to realize that even geniuses sometimes need second or third drafts.

The creation/art-making scenes in Vincent and Theo play second fiddle to the real meat of the picture, the relationship between the two brothers. They're basically two poles in the art vs. commerce tug-o-war and both of them losing miserably. Yes, Vincent was a "pure" artist, a genius, a romantic. But he was also a freeloader, a people user, a money-grubber obsessed with his own lack of success which played no small part in driving him "mad." Yes, Theo was a reluctant gallery shill of inferior paintings with a bad case of The Syph. But he was also a compassionate believer in true art, his manipulative brother's only viable lifeline. He kept on giving when any reasonable person would have stopped. Watching the two brothers' dual downward spirals makes for a doubly troubling and affecting tragedy, and Tim Roth and Paul Rhys are both equally fantastic in their roles. We all know what happened to Vincent (the ear, the gunshot). But do nearly as many people know that Theo died in asylum, his syphilis finally getting the best of him?

The most harrowing, haunting part of Altman's film is not its end but its beginning. We watch video footage of a Christie's auction in which one of Van Gogh's paintings steadily climbs in worth to a ludicrous multi-million dollar sum. Placed at the head of the movie in grainy, grungy video form, it plays not as a celebration but a disturbing epitaph, an indictment of the business side of art. To be a "success," one must first die tragically. And when success finally comes after the fact, it comes in gross overabundance. To be a pure artist may be beautiful. To be a "famous artist" is to court the obscene.

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