Creative struggle proves ripe for drama

The tortured artist cuts a particularly romantic figure. And the idea of a suppressed artistic voice cuts even deeper for those who cherish the right of expression as sacred to a culture’s well-being.

Through eloquent letters to his brother Theo and his disturbingly vivid paintings, Vincent van Gogh might have embodied the ideal of the tortured artist more than any other in history. It’s little wonder that van Gogh’s life has been the subject of several films.

The Dutch postimpressionist, like the real-life subject of Ed Harris’ current feature “Pollock,” battled poverty and manic depression to pursue his art. Similarly, “Before Night Falls” and “Quills,” whose subjects and styles couldn’t be further apart, also deal with the struggling artist. But their protagonists — dissident Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, and notorious writer-pornographer the Marquis de Sade, respectively — take on the added burden of political and moral persecution.

“I find as we move on and away from westerns and gangster movies and cop movies and so forth, that the artist as hero is an interesting idea to explore,” says “Quills” director Philip Kaufman, “and also the idea of people who risk everything for their passions.”

Biopics about artists have proved problematic for filmmakers, however. Scholars have not been kind to those who’ve attempted them. Much has to do with the fervent following their subjects engender, another has to do with bringing the creative process — a highly internal and intangible dynamic — to convincing life.

Painters seem to have popped up onscreen most often, even if the films themselves faced an uphill struggle for acceptance. Along with van Gogh, movies about Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon and, almost simultaneously with Harris’ take on Jackson Pollock, Goya (“Goya in Bordeaux”), have attempted to dramatize the lives of these iconic talents.

But Oscar has warmed to only a few of these biopics. “Moulin Rouge” (1952) earned noms for best pic, for actor Jose Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec and for director John Huston. Perhaps the best-known film about a painter, “Lust for Life” (1956), brought forth a best actor nomination for Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and a supporting actor win for Anthony Quinn as fellow painter Paul Gauguin.

Visualizing the muse

Composers depicted on the bigscreen are more rare (Beethoven, List, Mozart and Salieri, among them), while writers have been portrayed as mostly fictional. “Before Night Falls” helmer Julian Schnabel, a New York painter-turned-director, says director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price came to him for ideas for Scorsese’s contribution to the anthology film “New York Stories” (1989).

“They wanted to make this story about a writer, but they thought a writer wasn’t active enough so they picked a painter,” says Schnabel about the Nick Nolte character in Scorsese’s segment, “Life’s Lessons.” “But the fact is all movies come from words and our imaginations are something that can be lit almost invisibly and immediately.

“Walt Whitman is the best example because all these images are like a flood that comes into your head and you can make them up almost any way you want.”

Schnabel, whose “Before Night Falls” garnered film and actor (for Javier Bardem as Arenas) awards at the Venice Intl. Film Festival, does a canny job of not only bringing Arenas’ 1993 memoir (published three years after the writer’s death) to life cinematically, but manages to meld words, images and music to startling effect in mirroring the man’s creative inspiration.

In one scene, we hear Bardem’s voiceover describing a childhood encounter with his mother in the impoverished Cuban province of Oriente. Although she is in the process of scolding him, the scene at once reveals the sensitivity, humor and heartbreak of Arenas’ writing:

“Standing over me she looked like a huge tree trunk. And if it didn’t hurt so much I’d get down on my knees and ask her to smack me again even harder. Then she became beautiful. How pretty she is in her skirt made out of sack and the blouse she stole from her sister. I wanted to get up and beg her forgiveness. I wanted to say, ‘Mom, how pretty you are today.'”

The poignancy of the scene is underscored by the almost angelic light that illuminates Arenas’ mother (played by Olatz Lopez Garmendia) in this flashback. It isn’t until the end of this scene, distilled from the novel “Singing From the Well,” that we realize Arenas is reading his own work to a group of panelists presiding over a literary contest.

Although Schnabel — via a combination of economic storytelling, artful visuals and subtly emotive music — succeeds admirably in evoking the muse that drove Arenas to write even in the most adverse conditions, he was more interested in exposing the artist’s soul.

“It’s the humanity that attracts you to this movie,” he says. “It’s not just about writing but about the diaspora of writers all over the world who had to leave their own countries; it’s just not about Cuba, it’s about totalitarianism.”

Liberation as oppression

The story takes place before, during and after Castro’s takeover in Cuba. But it’s not long after Arenas has been indoctrinated into the cause that he realizes the so-called liberation of the country made Batista’s dictatorship seem like a holiday.

At one point in the film a literary mentor named Jose Lezama Lima explains to Arenas that artists are escapists, and therefore counter-revolutionary. “You know why?” he says, “because there’s a man (Castro) that cannot govern the terrain called beauty, so he wants to eliminate it. So here we are, 400 years of Cuban culture about to become extinct. And everybody applauds.”

In “Quills,” the Marquis de Sade — despite the sadistic nature of his writing and his violent crimes toward women — is depicted as an underground literary sensation, and a martyr for free speech. Although incarcerated, he manages to whip off such licentious novels as “Justine” that sell like hot cakes on the streets of Paris. Napoleon is appalled, and dispatches Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to silence Sade’s voice, by any means necessary.

Symbiotic tension

Although Kaufman points to the flap between Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and National Endowment of the Arts-funded artist Robert Mapplethorpe as inspiration for Doug Wright’s play on which the film is based (Wright also wrote the screenplay), Kaufman had Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr in mind in his approach to the material.

“Mapplethorpe and Helms were locked in this dance that was sort of symbiotic in a way that the repressor becomes the muse for the artist,” says Kaufman. “But when I read the play, it was during the time of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and for me there were resonances. I didn’t mean to imply by any stretch of the imagination that Clinton was the Marquis de Sade, but the idea that those who would repress freedom of speech oppress not only the Marquis, but the asylum itself — the asylum being a metaphor for society.”

Although Sade is seen as a symbol of freedom (“our future lies in the stroke of your pen!” cries a chambermaid played by Kate Winslet), the filmmakers take some pains to represent the 18th-century figure, warts and all.

When a benign priest, played by Joaquin Phoenix, charges him with wallowing in smut, Sade says his work is a fiction, not a moral treatise: “I write of the eternal truths that bind together all mankind the world over: We eat, we shit, we fuck, we kill and we die.”

Just like Arenas, writing is depicted as so fundamental to Sade’s nature (“I’ve all the demons of hell in my head; my only salvation is to write them down on paper”), he’ll stop at nothing to express himself. When deprived of quill and ink, he uses the wishbone of a chicken and wine before resorting to his own blood and his garments as parchment. In the end, stripped naked and his tongue cut out, he composes with feces on the walls of his cell.

“The minute you tell an artist that he must stop, you inspire him in unforeseen ways,” Kaufman explains. “You could say even that when there was an Iron Curtain, there was a lot more literature coming out of the Soviet Bloc countries than ever before.”

In “Pollock,” Harris plays the abstract expressionist legend as not so much fighting external forces as much as his own inner demons. Based on the Pulitzer -winning book “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” the film portrays the artist as a moody, alcoholic genius who teeters between petrifying insecurity and egotistical braggadocio.

He’s not so much concerned with all the intellectualizing that emanated from the New York art scene in the ’40s and ’50s — when painters like Gorky and de Kooning were redefining modern art and critics like Clement Greenberg were championing their work — but his work pours forth like a force of nature, unencumbered by definitions and pigeonholing.

In one scene, his live-in lover and fellow painter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) attempts to prod Pollock into articulating his approach. Is it cubism, free association, automatism? she presses. “I’m just painting, Lee,” he replies.

“He was very aware of where painting had come from,” says Harris, who worked double duty as the film’s director. “He wasn’t unaware of influences and had worked through a number of them. But he really didn’t like to talk about it. I think he felt theory had little to do with what he was doing.”

If the film depicts a relentlessly dark and volatile personality, its levity comes from scenes of Pollock in the act of creation, whether squeezing oils directly from the tube or splashing latex in his trademark drip style. One particularly exciting sequence involves Pollock intimidated by an 8-foot-by-20-foot canvas commissioned by philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim, staring at it for weeks on end. When he finally does tackle the frame, it’s in a burst of inspiration as exciting as any movie this year. The film’s cinematographer Liza Rinzler says she approached these scenes like shooting sports — they were the film’s “action” sequences.

While hoping to bring a fully realized portrait to the screen, Harris refused to psychoanalyze the painter.

“I think it’s really difficult to get inside an artist’s head, per say,” says Harris, “but I do think you get a feeling of what it was like for him to be the person he was and the artist he was and his struggles, not only with his art, but just with getting up in the morning.”

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