The search for meaning is not a search for truth. I've come to this conclusion (which now seems so obvious) while doing research on Vincente Minnelli's 1956 film, Lust for Life, which purports to chronicle the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Of course, we're now old hats at knowing bio-pics very rarely stick to the unadulterated truth. But in 1956? I can't say what audiences thought then. Lust for Life the film was based on Lust for Life the book, by Irving Stone, which became a bestseller in its second edition. I haven't read the book, but my guess is this is an example of small stones casting wide ripples--the compass is off by one degree, but travel eight thousand miles by that compass and you might find yourself living among "indians," not Indians. See how that works?
Fictionalize the life of one great man and set the entire genre of film biography going in the wrong direction.
Fans approach these films like they would an ancient, unearthed diary. Vincent Van Gogh in SpectraColor! His secrets
revealed! It's just too tempting a scenario for sentimentalists like myself. Admirers and scholars spend years riddling
out the hidden meaning behind paint strokes; they flap their hands and push their glasses up their collective noses and
say "Ah, yes! The dark colors here, in the background--they symbolize his pain, his heartache!" Because art
means so much more when there's an actual living, breathing, tortured soul behind it. And who's more tortured than Van
So, why make a film about a real-life tortured soul, only cut out all the really tortured parts? Why gloss over the whores, the absinthe addiction, the permanent midnight? Van Gogh's mania and suicidal tendencies are well known; his agonies are legendary. The fact is, peering into a fictional man's soul is far less fascinating than fictionalizing a real man's soul. As film historian Dr. Drew Casper explains in the DVD commentary track, Lust for Life was made in a time when "consensus and conformity were valued," yet the American male, returning home from war, was "unsure." Casper wagers that much of the success of the film can be attributed to its making this "dialectic [...] its heartbeat." America needed a portrait of its agony, and Hollywood served up an amputated Starry, Starry Night. The details might be off, but emotionally, it was a perfect fit.
Filming the biography of Van Gogh is slightly easier than, say, making a film about the notoriously elusive Shakespeare. Van Gogh's brother, Theo, saved every letter the tormented red-head sent him, and they're quoted liberally throughout Minnelli's film. Now he's sad and lonely, now he's angry and lonely, now he's sad and angry and lonely. The man simply swooned with emotion. It lends authenticity to the picture, and you really want to believe the rest of it is as honest. There are moments when Kirk Douglas is so Van Gogh and Van Gogh is so annoying you think this couldn't be anything but the truth. Douglas is sweet and moony, his bulky frame and severe eyes in contrast to his character's fragility as he pleads--nay, begs--for his cousin Kay's hand in marriage (one of his many failed attempts to find love). In real life, cousin Kay was cousin Kee Vos. The translation of the Dutch names into palatable English is just one of the myriad white lies Minnelli lets play on the screen as truth.
We can't have Douglas going around speaking Dutch, of course, but so many other details are unnecessarily
precise--the proper pronunciation of Van Gogh, for instance (say it like "vaughn goch")--that you start to
wonder if the fact-checker only came in on alternate Mondays. Take Van Gogh's famous act of mutilation: Minnelli has
Van Gogh chasing his friend Paul Gauguin down a cobblestone path to the red-light district with a straight razor, then
returning to his home to mug anguished faces in a mirror. Van Gogh wanders off camera; we hear a howl of pain and know
the deed is done. Fade to black. When the lights come on, he's laid out, unconscious, swaddled in bloodstained sheets;
a policeman explains the situation to a quietly freaking out Gauguin. But where's the ear? What any good art history
book will tell you, and what Minnelli has left out, is that Van Gogh stumbled down that cobblestoned street not in
pursuit of his friend, but to present the severed bit to one of his favorite whores. Charmed, I'm sure.
Lust for Life dutifully, if not accurately, follows Van Gogh through his failures. His family considers him worthless; he's a blasphemer and a lout. He struggles manically with his art, heaping sketches on every available flat surface until they threaten to bury him. After one too many poverty-stricken montages, you just wish the guy could catch a break. It never comes--at least not as long as he's alive. That's one fact Minnelli can pat himself on the back for getting right. I'm sure he was tempted to throw in a happier ending--which, come to think of it, he did. According to Theo Van Gogh, his brother's last words (after shooting himself in the chest--another tragedy that occurs off camera) were "the sadness will last forever." Yup. That pretty much sums things up for a man whose life's work left him broken, in every sense of the word, through the very end. But that's too moody. What say we change it to, "I want to go home!" prop Kirk Douglas up on a pillow, dress him in a clean shirt, and instruct him to deliver the line with a little more...nobility. Much better.