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 Gogh?

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.

categories DVDs, Cinematical