Van Gogh to Hell
Self Portrait (1889) by Vincent Van GoghWhat if Vincent van Gogh got to come back to life for 100 days a century after his death to "set right the pain he suffered in his former life"? What if he had the aid of a cunning lawyer and the love of a good woman? What if he were played (by Abbott Alexander) as a gay, retarded leprechaun—you know, like Robin Williams? What if I hadn't had the opportunity to see Paul Davids' cinematic masterpiece, Starry Night? Would I be able to set right the pain a century from now? In the course of 100 days?
Starry Night begins promisingly, as singer Don McLean's "Starry Starry Night" lofts over a montage of van Gogh's lovely works. But the Newport Beach Film Festival entry quickly devolves into ludicrously ridiculous farce—imagined by the filmmakers as a sweet "fable." In fact, it's a malicious snicker a minute, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
A "kindly" peasant woman (who instead is too maleficent for words) sits for van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, while he, in his gay, retarded leprechaun kind of way, kvetches, "My time will never come."
"Perhaps," she thunders back in an Eastern European accent that sounds derived from Dracula, "it will! You will become the greatest painter of flowers who ever lived! And one day, the flowers will return the favor!" Then he chugs—in the most atrocious manner, leaving one to wonder whether he was raised by she-wolves —a magic potion.
Flash forward to: the Rose Parade. Wandering drunkenly is van Gogh in a tri-cornered hat. He is struck by a float depicting his own Sunflowers and sent to the hospital, where his Starry Night hangs above his cot.
We are now introduced to "Kathy" —or "Kat-ty," as Vincent constantly crackles her name—played by the poor man's Julianne Moore, Lisa Waltz. "I want to be respected as a woman and an artist, and I want to know love," she whines to a wishing well. Wishes do come true, Kat-ty!
Soon Vincent is stealing his paintings back from billionaire collectors (who hang them in ill-lit halls in houses that—intriguingly—lack security systems) because, you know, he never sold them during his lifetime, so they still belong to him. Ownership and royalty rights for artists—who think they should get a percentage every time one of their works changes hands—are covered often in the talky film, which very much wants to be Dogma but sadly lacks Kevin Smith's ear for, er, anything at all.
But never fear! Sally Kirkland, Art Detective, is on the case! (Kirkland, a former Factory chick, attended the screening, speaking movingly about the role of art in her life. This was all fine and good until everyone actually saw the film. Also attending, oddly, was activist lawyer Daniel Sheehan, best-known for his roles in the Karen Silkwood case and uncovering the October Surprise five years before the government admitted to it and less well-known for his role in Weekly reporter Nick Schou's fabulous Feb. 18 story, "Who Killed Col. James Sabow?"). Kirkland was a Best Actress nominee in 1987 for Anna, so I had somehow assumed she was a good actress. But I didn't know how much passion she could bring to a role: every time the detective started in about art, ranting about how "art terrorists thrive on creating economic chaos," or the penetrating insight that Jack Nicholson as the Joker made art desecration cool, she would almost start crying,in a stunningly unprofessional way. Fabulous! Also, she managed to look both gray and zitty.
Vincent and Kat-ty meet when he saves her from a scary homeless man. He begins attending her art classes and inspiring her with such poeticisms as, "Listen to your canvas crying, and then feed it with the paint, Kat-ty." How could she not fall in love with him, even though he lives on her roof, stalks her, and insists that he is the honest-to-God, dead-a-hundred-years Vincent van Gogh?
Will he be able to convince the vengeful Detective Kirkland—really, she takes this shit personally—and the snooty art world (personified by a critic from the Los Angeles Times who huffs and puffs inarticulately, and much as I may mock the Times, their critics are not in fact stupid) that he is the one and only Vincent van Gogh? Will he and Kat-ty find the cache of paintings he hid in a crypt before his death and use the resulting trillion dollars as a fund for starving artists all over the world? Will Kat-ty keep saying things like, "The Mona Lisa is mysterious! The Mona Lisa is alluring!"? Will it never end?
I loved Starry Night. I did. I also loved scrunching down in my seat and trying not to laugh out loud because I didn't want to hurt Kirkland's feelings. She seems very sensitive, you know. But I was actually offended by the works they chose to show as van Gogh's modern paintings. The producers wisely chose to portray new subjects, ones that would have interested a guy who had died before the Wright Brothers flew. They show him enthralled with motorcycles and downtown LA's smoggy skyline. But the works themselves are unutterably graceless, an early '90s LA mishmash of slobby paint and bad typography. One mostly black canvas has words "Hell's Angels" slashed across it in red paint; it's the kind of painting that remains popular in circles where people graduated from art school by taking a black room and scattering foam packing peanuts on the floor. The paintings are evidence of a hideous talentlessness; van Gogh could actualy paint things and capture their squiggling, mutable essences. If van Gogh could see the crap attributed to him, he would probably kill himself all over again--if, of course, he didn't have to worry about the flowers calling him back.
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