Friday, July 30, 2010

Great Movies About Art and Artists

I have been on a bit of an art movie and documentary binge recently. I am on my third viewing of Georgia O'Keeffe (2009) since they posted it on Super Channel recently. A fantastic portrayal of one of the finest female artists of the 20th century. I always appreciate people who march to their own drummer, and Georgia O'Keeffe definitely falls into this category though she would falter when it came to her involvement with Alfred Stieglitz.

Joan Allen was fantastic as Georgia, allowing me to forget that this was an actress's portrayal of a complex woman, it was easy to find yourself believing this was indeed Georgia... And Jeremy Irons portrayal of Alfred Stieglitz, her lover, and narcissistic yet vulnerable and destructive leeching champion was so good that you had the strong urge to smack him ~ yet you sensed the genuine love and admiration that he had for her.

There was a sense that she never really knew just how good she was, she just painted, and was not in awe of the celebrity. There was such a sense of her experiencing and feeling her work and ideas versus consciously thinking them. The cinematography is beautiful and having never had the good fortune to see an O'Keeffe in person, I appreciated the chance to see the magnitude of some of these works by proxy. I am now a fan of the New Mexico landscape as a result of this film.

Pollock with Ed Harris (2000)

By far this is one of my favorites and one of the best biopics out there. Pollock was a man of many demons, most notably alcoholism, but such a genius at his work. There is definitely a 'tortured artist' theme evident in this movie, but Ed Harris goes out on a limb to give us the full picture of the artist and demonstrate the man at his work. This movie is rich in painting scenes and Ed Harris is the consummate perfectionist in recapturing Pollock's passion and approach to the canvas.

Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden) is tenacious as Pollock's lover, friend and champion, literally putting aside her own career to absorb herself in his. This movie is brutal in its honesty, the ending a short, sharp shock. Watch for Amy Madigan as Peggy Guggenheim. If you haven't seen this movie, seriously consider putting it at the top of your list.

Lust For Life with Kirk Douglas (1956)

Hands-down, one of the best features of this movie is the original Vincent Van Gogh works featured in the film. The movie is well-rounded, showing the battle of Vincent's loneliness, agony and passion towards his art, spirituality and the people around him. Van Gogh's mental illness is evident but thankfully not the main feature of the film.

Anthony Quinn plays Paul Gauguin , his friend and nemesis. A great portrayal of this dance of opposites, the cold, almost bullying-in-nature Gauguin against the softer emotional and eager Van Gogh. Theo is played by James Donald, and while the close relationship to what we know is loving and accurate, it was almost eclipsed for me as I was entranced with Gauguin and Van Gogh's short relationship. A great depiction of a man's life and the location shots are not to be missed, particularly the famous 'room' from which Van Gogh went on to produce some of his most noted works. One of my favorite parts inevitably involves "Starry Night". Keep in mind that this movie is from 1956, so it is a stylized drama representative of that time, but otherwise, this movie is vivid and timeless...

Frida with Salma Hayek (2002)

Salma Hayek is brilliant in this movie in her portrayal of Frida Kahlo. This biopic captures the pain, passion and her fiery independence and the art of a woman who was definitely ahead of her time and not to be boxed in by the conventions of her society. That being said, it is painful to watch her walk eyes-wide-open into her marriage with the openly philandering Diego Rivera, yet they cannot be apart and are dependent on each other, and you cannot imagine them with any other. Alfred Molina is fantastic as Deigo and portrays with ease a lovable man that you wish you could hate, yet cannot.

Frida's enormous life-long physical pain as a result of an early trolley accident only heightens the respect you have for her as she was never self-pitying and carried herself with strength and dignity. I found myself frustrated that she would view herself as an amateur whereas Diego emerged as the champion for her work. The dream sequences that bring her inspiration and artwork to life are definitely some of my favorite features of this movie. While I am not aware if the movie actually covers all of her works, it certainly captured the works she is known for. There is such an honesty to Frida's work, and this movie does much to illustrate the complexity and talent of the woman and her genius.

Girl With A Pearl Earring with Colin Firth (2003)

A fictional story woven from the masterpiece of the same name. While the story of the Girl With A Pearl Earring is nothing more than idle speculation and/or fantasy on behalf of the writer, this period piece does much to bring to life a historical portrayal of a brilliant painter during the later 1600's who, with only 16 paintings surviving the centuries, is still viewed as a Master today.

Vermeer's financial dependence, yet evident silent resentment for his arrogant patron brings an interesting conflict to Vermeer's life in this film. He depends on commissions for his families survival and to keep them from having to flee debtors, and to perpetuate the cycle of his art, the commission needed to pursue his life in art is also in a sense, his artistic prison.

Scarlett Johanssen is beautiful in her portrayal of the young and naive maid Griet who seems to intuitively understand the artist and his work better than those who have surrounded him for years. There is an unspoken yet friendly attraction between artist and his would-be model, but something about Vermeer's true intent is left unsaid, and you find yourself aching that it is Griet that must be sacrificed for his silence and selfishness.

This film does much to give you a sense of that period, and the attention to detail and the low light and shadows does much to set the mood and tone of this time in history.

Basquiat with Jeffrey Wright (1996)

This movie is a great snapshot of the chaotic and often over-indulgent NYC art scene during the 1980's. If you could sum up the theme in only so many words, it would be "be careful what you wish for..." . This film offers a hard look at celebrity and the impact on the artist. While I only knew of Basquiat and his work through casual art book and news references, I enjoyed this movie and Basquiat's "work" ( apparently created by a close friend) a great deal. No doubt about it, the guy was creative. David Bowie is so impressive as Andy Warhol, as is Dennis Hopper as Basquiat's art dealer.

I give this movie credit for expanding my curiosity to new and less conventional forms of art.

Surviving Picasso with Anthony Hopkins (1996)

This film was based on the controversial memoir/book by Fran├žoise Gilot, Picasso's lover, muse and mother to two of his children. I had done some reading over time and watched a number of Picasso documentaries, so this movie (and the book) was not entirely a surprise. Surviving Picasso doesn't so much tell the life of Picasso as much as to give us insight into Gilot's 10 years of observations and life with the private man when the cameras are turned off and the admirers not necessarily at hand. Anthony Hopkins was brilliant as Picasso and it is impossible to imagine another actor playing the part as well as he did.

Picasso's relationship with his friend and rival Henri Matisse (played by Joss Ackland ) was one of the high points of the movie for me. Julianne Moore is amazing as Picasso's troubled former lover and muse, artist and poet Dora Maar.

Picasso's blatant womanizing is difficult to stomach so it is a relief when Fran├žoise finally takes a stand and leaves. Her leaving is absolutely an act of self-preservation, so the title of the movie seems appropriate. If memory serves me correct, Picasso outlived all of his women except for Francoise.

No doubt about it... he was a creative genius and few artists have ever come close to his diverse skills or prolific creativity. Fortunately or unfortunately, he was also aware of that. People in his inner circle paid a dear price to be near him to experience the extraordinary.

Plenty of studio shots and Picasso (Anthony Hopkins) at work on the canvas or creating assemblage art, and many scenes with his lesser known works. It will be only suggestions of his masterpieces (like a shot from above when he was at work on Guernica) due to the producers being unable to secure permission to show his work at the time this movie was made.

Definitely worth the watch if you are interested in seeing a more intimate and very complex portrait of the artist from the eyes of an insider. Watching this movie, it is not hard to see why people were swept away by the hurricane that was a man named Picasso.

Picasso : The Man and His Work (documentary 1986 )

There are two parts to this documentary, I wish they had been combined into one set and possibly re-mastered for release onto DVD for better quality. I have only seen the first one which covers Picasso's life from 1881 through to 1937, detailing his artistic development from the age of 15 right through his blue and pink periods and leaving off with one of his most famous masterpieces, Guernica. I am ordering Part 2 from Amazon as I speak as this post has reminded me that I had always wanted to own both. The first disc only run about 45 minutes so I suspect the second is probably the same.

I get the impression that the director/producer of this documentary might have been a friend as you really get a first hand view and relaxed interview with Picasso involving his home and studio, and innumerable views of his paintings, sculptures and ceramics. Definitely a Picasso extravaganza!

Part Two covers from 1938 and onwards, I will update this post when I finally get my hands on it!

Marc Chagall (directed by Kim Evans)

I wish I owned this, but I actually happened across this gem in a library video section. It was fantastic and aside from a great biography of the artist behind the fantastical paintings, my parting memory of this video is how the camera would linger on different works, allowing us to really see them. Lots of archival footage of Chagall and film depicting him at work...

The only thing better would be to see these gorgeous works in person~ and since that is not possible for many (especially myself) this documentary is certainly a great runner-up.
The movie I want to see but have not~ as of yet...( time to order it from Amazon! )

The Agony and the Ecstasy with Charlton Heston (1965)

This movie is based on Michelangelo's life during the time he painted the Sistine Chapel. I have heard many positive things about the film, enough so to leave me with the desire to view it. Have you seen the movie? Do you have any opinions or details to share?
Interesting movies with a loose art theme:

Benny and Joon with Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson (1993)

Joon is a mentally ill artist and Sam is an illiterate comedic genius and Buster Keaton wanna-be. The movie's theme is one of acceptance and hope and the budding relationship and realistic obstacles faced by two creatives, Sam and Joon. While the movie addresses real issues, Depp and Masterson put the 'fun' into dysfunctional. Not to be missed is Aiden Quinn as the older brother Benny, desperate to be free of his responsibility to Joon, yet unable to let go.

Mona Lisa Smile
with Julia Roberts, Kristen Dunn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal etc

Julia Roberts is the new art professor at the conservative Wellesley College. While there are several other themes including a secondary romance story line, I found the bigger theme to be one about art appreciation and challenging conformity. Near the end of the film > *SPOILER ALERT * (and one of the highlights for me) is when the women all produce their own unique version and vision of Van Gogh's flowers in a vase from what had once been a simple Van Gogh paint-by-number kit. There is some exceptional art by a number of masters to be seen, especially, the immense work by Jackson Pollock in a Boston warehouse, even the close up of this enormous textured work is enough to make you drool~ a must-see for Pollock enthusiasts. ( Try as I might, I cannot find the title of this Pollock piece though there was an acknowledgment to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in the closing credits.)


Alright, there you have it! My marathon post is complete ~ for now. I suspect I have forgotten some other great films, but the length of this post has now gotten out of hand.

These descriptions (and I use that term lightly) are strictly based on my own impressions and opinions formed from watching these films and not necessarily a description of the movie per se. Did you get something different from any of the above films? I would love to hear about it.

Have suggestions for further viewing? Please share them! I am always looking for a great art movie, old or new, to watch. Tortured artist themes abound in many, but then again, I have never known many people, artistic or otherwise, that have passed through life unscathed or without a story to tell.

*Spelling and grammar be damned, this post has already gone on long enough!

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