Art to Screen—Vincent Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing
Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Image credit: Luna Cinemas
Vincent van Gogh’s place in art history is undisputed. He is believed to have been one of the greatest painters of all time, owing to his command of colour and his ability to see far more in the vista in front of him than what immediately meets the eye. But van Gogh’s art is not merely to be appreciated through sight (although admittedly that is generally how paintings should be appreciated); van Gogh’s art is meant to be felt. This comes into play when you consider the life of the man behind the paintings—an aspect, which, with Vincent, is almost impossible to overlook.
I attended Cinema Paradiso’s onscreen exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s art on the 18th of April, 2015. Having been to Paradiso only once before, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Art to Screen: Vincent van Gogh had drawn a fair crowd. There had only been a smattering of people when I had attended the live screening of David Tennant’s Richard III. Perhaps it would be wise to leave the question as to whether van Gogh was more influential than Shakespeare unasked. (Oops.)
To describe the screening as a mere exhibition of van Gogh’s works would be misleading, if not downright incorrect. To be fair, when I bought the ticket, I was expecting a tour of sorts through the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, interposed with interviews with the museum’s curators offering up their explanations and interpretations of his artwork. But what I found instead was arguably better than the picture inside my head: a film about the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh, with explanations and interpretations aplenty. (Even so, I did feel slightly cheated of what could have been an inspiring cinematic tour.)
It is a good film, no doubt about it. Halfway between a documentary and a drama, the film explores the story of Vincent van Gogh, following his journey from Amsterdam to London to Arles and back again. It was fantastic to see Vincent’s earlier drawings on show, when he illustrated only to send to his brother Theo to show him what the landscape was like where he was staying. It was a refreshing reinforcement of the fact that Vincent wasn’t always the great painter that we all know and love today. The juxtaposition of an area, say a French countryside, today and Vincent’s drawn interpretation gave an impression of having gone back in time.
Speaking of time travel, the film had an actor portraying van Gogh (“In a documentary? You don’t say.” “Shush.”), painting or otherwise lying down covered in a blanket looking up at the ceiling with a glazed look in his sharp, blue eyes. The fact that I can’t remember nor find his name in any of the online databases is entirely unfortunate. It was almost perfect casting—I say almost perfect, because I still maintain that Tony Curran, who played Vincent van Gogh in Doctor Who’s Vincent and the Doctor, was the perfect van Gogh. Vincent and the Doctor coincidentally was also the first cinematic interpretation of van Gogh that I stumbled across and loved. (I cried at the ending. Find someone who didn’t. Go on, I dare you.) But he did a fantastic job of playing the tortured painter, and he definitely looked the part: with the rougher edges that showed in van Gogh’s self portrait, while Tony Curran had a softer edge to him.
The film in its entirety is a mesh of voiceover narration, interviews, along with the consistently occasional ‘Dear Theo,’ monologue pieces from van Gogh, and shots of cities that Vincent had visted or frequented, in modern day and past retrospectives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all very well shot; although sometimes it makes you wonder if this shot of flowers or that shot of a brick wall was necessary to the narrative. The framing of a few of the interviews also annoyed me; there wasn’t enough headroom, I thought, although that may just be me being nitpicky. At any rate, it’s shot and paced better than a few of the recent films I’ve seen (cough, Battlefield Earth, cough).
Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing is a good film for anyone who has no idea who van Gogh was and wants a bit of enlightenment, or for anyone who wants to recap on what they already know about the painter. I don’t consider myself an expert on van Gogh, but the documentary did rearticulate most of what I already knew about him, although to its credit it did mention a few things I didn’t know—such as the fact that his brother Theo died only six months after Vincent’s death, or that the exquisite ‘The Potato Eaters’ painting was met with little to no admiration by Vincent’s family and peers.
As often as I say it is a good film, perhaps it’s better described as adequate. It adequately sums up van Gogh’s life, adequately expands on the details of his artwork, and adequately offers the viewer an adequate overview of one of the greatest painters who ever lived. Go see it if you want to; it’s definitely not a waste of your time, but personally I like to be emotionally devastated after I come away from watching a film or a short about van Gogh, similar to the sadness I feel whenever I stand before one of his paintings. This film won’t emotionally devastate you, that’s for certain.
But you’ll certainly come away with knowing how to properly pronounce van Gogh’s name. And then you’ll probably revert to calling him however you were calling him before because IT IS THAT DIFFICULT.
As for myself, I’m going to watch Vincent and the Doctor again.
You can catch the next in the Art to Screen films, The Impressionists, at Luna Cinemas from the 30th of May.