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March 03, 2006

Vincent and Theo


Robert Altman - 1990
MGM Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In the supplementary featurette to Vincent and Theo, Robert Altman talks briefly about his use of overlapping dialogue. I had to smile when Altman not only cited Howard Hawks, but specifically seeing The Thing, and thinking that "this is how dialogue in film should be". While Vincent and Theo is one of the most somber of Altman films, there are still "Altmanesque" moments. One such scene in near the beginning with Theo van Gogh and one of the gallery owners looking for each other between gallery walls, followed by two simultaneous conversations. While not on the level of M*A*S*H or Nashville, some of the dialogue is spoken in an off handed manner giving the effect that one is eavesdropping on the characters. (One may wish that Altman remembered The Thing with his own excursion into snowbound science fiction, Quintet, a film that might have benefitted from a few laughs and possibly an "intellectual carrot".)

Altman's film was released to coincide with the one-hundred year passing of Vincent van Gogh. At that time, I saw Maurice Pialat's film Van Gogh, but not Altman's. The film opens with footage from an auction at Christie's with one of the sunflower paintings sold for over twenty million pounds. Altman then cuts to footage of van Gogh, while the auctioneer is heard in the background. The obvious point is the irony between van Gogh's failure to sell his artwork while he was alive, and the immense monetary value his artwork has today. By making the film about the artist, Vincent van Gogh, and his art dealer brother, Theo, Altman has tried to say something about the conflict between art as personal expression and its commercial value.

Altman probably saw something of himself in the story of van Gogh. Vincent and Theo came out ten years after Altman's last major Hollywood film, Popeye. Prior to that film, Altman made five idiosyncratic films for 20th Century Fox, beginning with Three Women and concluding with Health which met with varying degrees of critical success. The commercial viability Altman had in the first half of the Seventies had disappeared by the end of the decade. At one point in Vincent and Theo, Theo tells Vincent that there is no market for his work, to which Vincent response that it is Theo job to create the market. One can imagine similar discussions between Altman and studio executives. Vincent and Theo was Altman's last theatrical film before being "re-discovered" with The Player, where Altman had the opportunity to publicly bite the hand that grudgingly fed him.

No film about van Gogh can escape from the shadow of Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life. Altman has a grubbier, more sinewy van Gogh in the form of Tim Roth. Both films fail for similar reasons - an assumption is made that the film viewer is familiar with at least the outlines of van Gogh's life, and that the viewer understands already what makes van Gogh significant as an artist. Altman does a slightly better job in having a character mention the influence of Japanese art on van Gogh, and conveying van Gogh's identification with workers as well as his interest in lower-class people as subjects for art. Altman also improves on presenting the fractious relationship between van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. If one has limited knowledge about art and artists, Vincent and Theo reinforces the idea that the film was made simply because the artist was famous, leaving why he is famous unanswered. By presenting van Gogh as the proto tortured and starving artist while ignoring the meaning of his artwork, Vincent and Theo becomes a film about a person who is famous for being famous, a celebrity biography with claims to higher aspirations.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 3, 2006 08:00 AM


Interesting post, Peter, thank you. I kept hearing Joni Mitchell's "Turbulent Indigo" while reading it. I like your suggestion that Altman might have seen himself in the personage of Van Gogh due to his commercial "failure", even as he himself admitted this failure enabled his creative freedom. One could say the same about Van Gogh, I guess. You intrigue me to see the film, which I've not seen, specifically because of your reference to Altman's attention to the Japanese influences. I remember when I first went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam they were exhibiting Theo's collection of the Japanese masters. As a young man I was profoundly moved by this understanding that art is a continuity of influences, reaching far back into the past and across great terrain to other countries, rebounding back to our own moment and our own place.

Posted by: Maya at March 3, 2006 06:41 PM

Great post, Peter. I'm writing about this film for my second installment of the Altman blog-a-thon, and I think I might cite and respond to certain elements of your review.

Posted by: David Lowery at March 4, 2006 10:34 PM

Peter, perhaps I reveal my art ignorance when I say that I experienced this film precisely from the vantage point of your last two sentences. It's my least favorite Altman film (including Beyond Therapy!) so far. I don't know if a fiction film is really the proper vessel for helping us understand what makes some art "greater" or "more important" than others. My favorite films on artists, Peter Watkins's Edvard Munch and Paul Leduc's Frida, still life almost bend over backwards to avoid Hollywood-style mythologizing, and perhaps Altman ought to have stretched that way too. To me this film felt like a crossbreed of a third-rate Altman film and a conventional TV biopic, which is more deadly than either in its pure form, I think.

Posted by: Brian at March 4, 2006 11:34 PM