Director: Vincente Minnelli
Writer: Norman Corwin; Lust for Life by Irving Stone
Cinematography: Russell Harlan and F. A. Young
Producer: John Houseman
by Jon Cvack
Days before seeing this I finished Herman Hesse’s "Goldmund and Narcissus" (1930). It’s the best piece of fiction I’ve read all year, exploring a young and promising student, Goldmund, who enrolls in a monastery where he befriends the equally intelligent Narcissus. When the two abandon campus one night, Goldmund comes across a beautiful Gypsy girl who kisses Goldmund, igniting an uncontrollable desire, soon causing him to abandon the cloister in order to pursue the girl and enter into a life of Apollonian proportions - centered around the pursuit of art, lust, and love. Throughout the story is a comparison of the sacrifices required of a religious monk versus that of being an artist; namely, that both pursuits often require poverty, obedience, and discipline. I had no idea of the similarities between "Goldmund and Narcissus" and Lust for Life before going in, serving as yet another coincidental pairing previously seen in The Major and the Minor followed by Claire’s Knee.
Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor’s Lust for Life follows Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) who possesses a similar commitment to his craft. Like Goldmund, he too wanted to enter the monastery. However, his rebellious persona seems at odds with the church authorities, and before kicking him out, they decide to place him in a poor mining community as one last chance to prove himself. There he discovers a terrifying world full of child labor and unregulated industry that claims lives by the day. Van Gogh is horrified by the conditions, refusing the money provided by the church in order to live a life similar to the community; sleeping on hay in a cold and damp shack and eating watered-down gruel that provides the bare minimum of sustenance. During the time, he begins drawing the conditions he encounters; hoping to capture the essence of the community’s destitution. When the church learns that he’s been giving his little payback to the people, the church finally kicks him out.
He returns home to his wealthy family, hoping to marry his cousin, who rejects him due to his impecunious lifestyle. In protest, Vincent visits his uncle for money and attempts to prove his passion by holding his hand over a flame and destroying his flesh. It doesn’t work and he heads to the nearest bar where he meets a drunk prostitute Christine (Pamela Brown) who nurses his burnt hand and the two later move in with each other; though she too leaves him when his poverty proves too difficult.
Vincent decides to fully immerse himself in his art, requesting that his brother Theo (James Donald) act as his benefactor and agent. So begins a gripping tale of Vincent pursuing his craft at a time when the art world was under a period of rapid change. We watch as dozens of painters attempt to push the craft to its limits; living in poverty; all in the hope of selling that one piece that could launch their careers.
Vincent ends up in Aries where he’d go on to produce some of his most famous work, including "The Cafe Terrace at Night" (1888) and "The Starry Night" (1889); bouncing between cheap apartments; constantly checking in with his brother, always hopeful the next piece will sell. He’s soon joined by fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) and the pair enter into dozens of discussions on craft and purpose. Paul wants to pursue his work with a deliberate and careful approach, working at high intensity for few hours at a time in a comfortable studio while Van Gogh works all hours of the day, giving every ounce of energy he has toward improving his craft.
Van Gogh’s commitment to capturing the essence of the environment he sees; whether workers in the field and the hard labor they experience (which Paul resents; given Van Gogh’s benefactor) or the colors of nature and their embodying the spirit of God. Soon the two come to a loggerhead, mostly rooted in their lack of success and competing philosophies and Paul leaves once again; not wanting to watch Vincent spiral out of control.
Vincent retains his obsessive work habits, culminating in a mental breakdown where he engages in the infamous act of cutting off his ear, utilizing the same offscreen approach as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and creating the film’s most memorable moment. Nearly dying, the event forces Vincent to check himself into a mental institution where he continues to paint. He later returns to Theo, learning that one of his paintings sold for a low sum to another painter; an event presented as insignificant though which the audiences know is the turning point he's been waiting for.
Although he gives up drinking, Vincent’s mind continues to deteriorate, arriving at the equally infamous moment of his suicide, in which he painted his final piece “Wheatfields with Crows” (1890). Moments later, he would shoot himself in the head, leaving his body to be discovered by a local farmer. He would never realize his fame.
In Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse" (1927), there’s an ongoing discussion about timeless artists. Aspiring painter Lily Briscoe refers to Shakespeare and muses on why and how the man has been able to survive over four hundred years after his death; in which other popular writers have reached the mainstream and faded within fractions of that span. I don’t know enough about painting to even speculate on why Van Gogh has achieved immortality, other than that he was able to introduce his work into a world that had yet to see anything like it. As with any artist, it was his ability to immerse himself into this task - of transcending all those came before him - which allows his craft to reach the level it has
Like painting, filmmaking is a craft; and all other things being equal (school, family, and money excluded) only those who are most committed to the craft will succeed. I think about how although I’m frustrated, I might be one of a handful of students from my school to be making a living from directing content, and I’m so far from “filmmaking” there’s no certainty that it could ever happen. Like a need to paint all day, or like any artistic pursuit, filmmaking takes money and those who have both the talent and the funds stand a better chance for success than anyone else. It demands that those without the money are the very best, as with all things being equal, there is no other way to differentiate oneself. You have to be so good that so amount of subsidy would matter.
Such a pursuit demands a love for the craft itself. I doubt I’ll ever chop my ear off, but I understand the obsession; there’s a desire to constantly push oneself, knowing that given the current failure, only improvement can stand chance for success. A film like Van Gogh provides a barometer; testing how much you love what you’re doing and how serious it is. For anyone pursuing a career in the arts or even beyond - perhaps wanting to be the best lawyer or doctor - this is a movie to watch. It’s the kind of biopic that gives you what you want, which is to see Van Gogh’s work and to watch him work - intercutting at the peak of most scenes a still image of the painting he created during that moment. Counter this to a movie like The Theory of Everything (2014), which seemed more interested in opening the most cursory glance at Hawking’s life versus showing us the dedication he had in pursuing his work. Or At Eternity's Gate (2018), which while beautiful, is much more about Van Gogh the person than his achievements and journey. Lust for Life dives deep into the man and his work, providing that special comfort you get when seeing what pains others have gone through.
BELOW: One of the best death scenes from 21st century horror
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