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Home / Opinion / LOVING VINCENT: A LABOUR OF LOVE & PAINTER’S PORTRAYAL THROUGH HIS PICTURES

LOVING VINCENT: A LABOUR OF LOVE & PAINTER’S PORTRAYAL THROUGH HIS PICTURES

The title of Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed film ‘Loving Vincent ‘superbly sums up all, as it were, in a nutshell: an exceptional, experimental expression that could only be conceptualized and cine-concretized by mesmerized, spellbound lifelong lovers of both art and personality of Vincent Van Gogh on one hand and of cinematic medium as an art form on the other. Merging of this twin orientation finds expression in outstanding visual treat amalgamating Van Gogh’s art with animation that uses artist’s actual expressive style in oil paintings: BY Sushil Kumar, senior IAS officer.

It is a unique and bold experiment in cine- art expression, aiming to match Van Gogh’s bold brushstrokes and colours – later hailed as novel painting style of post impressionism period that heralded the arrival of modern art.

This new experimental expression creates a new cinematic experience; it is as if one is watching Vincent’s life narrated visually in his own oil paintings, albeit depicted in rapid motion much like ceaseless bursts in his creativity and personal life- gravitating ceaselessly in ceasing of both. In other words, it is like unifying still life captured in his paintings with actual motion that moves the real life or imparting movement to static images immortalized by the artist in his paintings. It’s like infusion of life to lifeless images left as legacy by the legend.

This remarkable reconciling effort, though visually stunning, creates certain un-comfortability in connecting by the cine-goers. We all have heard the famous line stating that an image can say more than a thousand words. We know how easily the mind can get fixated to an image, sometimes even for eternity. But it is inherently incapable of retaining series of successive cinematic images for long, even if shot in extreme slow motion. And it is this difficulty in visual perception and retention that has possibly created difficulties in all round appreciation of this monumental effort mounted by the brave film makers.After all, it may be easy for mind to retain few images for life but ain’t never easy to see sequentially unfolding of over 65000 oil paintings and attempt to retain some . Watching reportedly 65000 frames of actual oil paintings (created by over 125 painters) in continuous motion – virtually in a slideshow format- is indeed an out of world experience but to retain and remember those ends in a bigger challenge.

At one level, Loving Vincent indeed signifies a collection of paintings painted with blinding love and dedication; a labour of love and a unique personal tribute to the genius of Vincent Van Gogh, who took up painting at an advanced age (28 years) and painstakingly painted for a decade leaving a legacy of about 860 oil paintings of which only one was sold in his lifetime. Life is full of ironical saga, more so typified in Van Gogh’s tale where each of his painting costs millions at present and can only occupy pride of place in museums and in millionaire’s mansions.

It is indeed an experimental film, worth experiencing for the sheer joy of undergoing a unique experience. And like every new experiment, the film would leave most movie goers feel shortchanged except for some blind lovers of legend of Van Gogh. Please recall films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Space Jam (1996) that experimented with merging of animation and live action of real life reel characters on screen; former film predates use of advanced computer animation and CGI. The evolution and limited acceptance of such cine style of storytelling took few decades and its glorious moment was universal success of Lord of the Rings which convincingly fused both in same character like Gollum.

Loving Vincent has taken fusing of live action and animation to another level by adding painting in visual depiction. One needs to assess Loving Vincent in this perspective ;it is just a beginning and only time will tell whether static imagery of painting art form can be fused with movie medium showing motion to mimic real life or live action. The earlier effort to fuse live action with animation didn’t succeed.

Though commercially questionable at this stage, its final acceptance will depend on further fine tuning and evolution. We will have to reserve our judgement for the present. The speed of technological transformation is terrifying at present; one can’t rule out breakthroughs to convincingly reconcile painting and picture medium. Nevertheless, one must concede that present effort leaves much to be desired. If the film is seen a work of art for art’s sake, much like painting, the effort is creditworthy. Or one can say, that the attempt is to reconcile the art form of painting with craft of cinema to create a new art altogether. Recall experimental film ‘Film” (written by Samuel Beckett) depicting problems posed by perception through sight alone. One is sure that the experiment would find an eternal place for enquiry in art and cine schools of the world for both cine connoisseurs and students.

Visually and fundamentally , the film is a playful act with image/s fixated to a single/some frame/s , much like a/few famed painting/s framed for viewing ; playful creativity shows images in speedier succession that imparts motion and making mind perceive still life of a/few frame/s come alive , become life like , like in real life.

It’s easier to do this in animation and in live action motion picture as narration can focus on acts and objects that fills partial space on screen and audience can easily concentrate. But there is motion overkill as each frame of Loving Vincent is filled with simultaneous action, big and small, filling the entire screen space. For example, in normal animation or feature film, background material objects remain basically still on screen, whereas in Loving Vincent virtually each square inch of screen space shows some movement or the other.

This simultaneity of showing movement on screen is due to changes, howsoever minor, recorded through changing brushstrokes of each oil paintings used. One could say that there has been a certain overkill of bush strokes both short and wide that keep stoking the screen with continuous movement. This aspect is distinctly visible in depiction of even inanimate objects, be it table, house, utensils which are recorded sans changes in frames of normal film. This recording of movement covers far too much screen space for spectators to simultaneously concentrate upon. It’s as if spectators need to focus their eyes simultaneously on several strands showing some movement or the other. The experience can come across as jarring. After all, human eye can’t keep pace with the speed of action as well as the need to focus simultaneously on so much of screen space; it can do for some seconds or minutes but definitely can’t do for hour/s demanded by the film.

In India, and in the West, books like Lust for Life, by Irving Stone, created the cult and legend of Van Gogh. Most have been fascinated by this enigmatic, failed genius and his aura has remained undiminished. His life events like picking oil paint in mid-twenties, painting passionately and ceaselessly, dying early, turbulent relationships with all and sundry including Paul Gauguin( Somerset Maugham’s book The Moon and the Sixpence fictionalized account about Gauguin is uncanny similar in tale), cutting of ear, apparent suicide, unbelievable tale of brother Theo’s unstinted support etc. His life was archetypically of a tragic character from Shakespearean and Greek tragedies which narrate numerous stories about human effort, will, perseverance, excellence, passion, pursuit of perfection and eventual fall.

Besides the primary predilection to see an experimental film, most viewers must have been motivated to see some elements of Van Gogh’s dramatic life. But may have been disappointed to see film’s treatment of such events in big brush strokes like stern parental upbringing, cutting of ear, giving to a prostitute etc. without much context or clarification. The film totally shuns narrating a linear tale of progression of effort, eventual despair to destruction and life’s irony of imparting fame and immortality after death. Instead, the film ends up exploring the circumstances and reasons for his death, that too in a whodunit format.

In other words, despite knowledge of his life being a linear progression from pure mad man like obsessive pursuit for painting, without putting away brush over a decade, the film seeks to concentrate on last few months of his life. And this turns out to be a disappointment to viewers as least of all one expected to see a Sherlock Holmes style of storytelling of his life.

Going by another interpretation, maybe, we can overlook this part of effort as his life was so full of dramatic events that per force the film makers had to focus on one or two aspects only. Another explanation is once again to be found in ‘Loving Vincent‘syndrome – that is far too much love for the legend. Obsessive love to show the colours of his art led to a virtual over dose in showing over 65000 frames of oil paintings with concomitant consequence of under importance in telling a gripping tale of his life in which drama was aplenty. Filmmakers’ one sided love can be faulted for this gap but one can understand – love does this to us all.

The film fundamentally is fantastic effort to fuse several art mediums – painting, photography, animation, motion pictures, not plain cinematography alone but through images mimicking impressionistic paintings showing full palette of colours on canvas and, of course literature and storytelling.

Normal motion picture primarily reflects reality and closer it is to it, identification of/by audience is more ; but in this experimental film the reflection of reality is individualized to a particular person and whole projection on screen is real reflection of the painter own projection of reality painted on the canvas. It has an advantage of showing cinema in very individualistic style but at the same time runs the risk of identification with limited audience -say of artists, critics, connoisseur’s et al.

Though motion picture usually depicts entire drama of a life time, it’s an eventually an image or two that immortalizes movies in public memory. Recall images of films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca .Perhaps the film makers were too ambitious to aim or imagine that iconic status imparted to iconic paintings of Van Gogh would achieve similar status if the screen is painted with paintings for nearly two hours.

Must commend the incredible effort of capturing 65000 screen images in oil by over hundred painters but the film makers needs to remember that in all art forms anything novel runs the risk of initial ridicule and outright rejection.But am sure its work in progress and would find immediate acceptance in all art schools and would also find appreciation with further technological improvements though earlier efforts of fusing live action and animation weren’t very successful.

One must also remember that depiction of one’s inner mental struggles on screen has been a continuing challenge for cinema. For this reason, depiction of most of Dostoevsky’s characters undergoing inner catharsis on screen has proved difficult. Likewise, visual depiction of inner demons and dilemmas of Van Gogh on screen has been challenging; must remember that even star appeal of Kirk Douglas could not help in making Lust for Life (1956) a commercial success.

Similarly, Loving Vincent film makers face the dual challenge of depicting deeper dilemmas of Van Gogh’s mind on one hand and attempting to tell his tale in an absolutely new experiment of painting picture screens virtually in oil paints- a novelty in depiction of visual reality on cine screen. Not only that, film went a step further – in adopting an investigative whodunit format in unraveling final chapter of Van Gogh’s life , based on events narrated by characters connected with his life.

Film has remained true to Van Gogh colour scheme in predominantly using yellow and blue colours and bold strokes. It beautifully integrates iconic portraits, natural scenic and still life paintings as a background to contextualize characters and times (like the postman, lady playing piano, boat, farm, crows in flight etc.)

Film’s appeal is not likely to be confined to lovers of painting only but would extend to other fine arts and would be appreciated by connoisseurs of culture in general , not only of cinema.It may go down in history as a brave effort in unifying expressions of various art forms – much like unifying theory in physics.

Film is also a déjà-vu revisit of narration motif of classic movie Rashomon wherein an event including death of an individual is recalled by eyewitnesses or other persons based on hearsay. In other words, subjectivity in perception of a fact or an event is a universal human experience. And resultant oral or written subjective expression itself is a major impediment in arriving at objective truth, hinted exhaustively in Rashomon.

Let’s take small example of Van Gogh cutting off his ear and giving to the prostitute; most event points to eccentric nature of Van Gogh but event could even be an outcome of intolerance of what was said by the prostitute; maybe he told her not to utter something and on being unheeded cut off his ear to shock her beyond belief; one doesn’t know what actually was exchanged but the context and characters involved clearly point to different world and world view occupied by both of them. There have been other explanations like Paul Gauguin’s sword cutting off Van Gogh’s ear during an argument. Thus, like Rashomon, Loving Vincent deploys similar strategy of storytelling and similarly ending up at certain pointers and events leading to his death.

So, the film is an interesting integration of three elements: firstly, of visually depicting events as if Van Gogh’s had tarred the motion picture in his oilpaint, secondly of difficulties connected in depiction of truth that is riddled with subjective perception posing problems in perceiving objective truth and thirdly of highly successful film story telling format of an investigator that sustains curiosity if done craftily.

One of possible motivation for making this movie would have stemmed from current generation’s obsession of converting, through Apps, day to day photographic portraiture into classic painting as if done in oil. Its one thing to appreciate and accept one single image of that type but to see sequential images telling a story is altogether a different proposition. In other words, the time for altering pure art of painting into animation and live action for story telling hasn’t yet fully arrived; it took Toy Story several decades after Walt Disney’s innovation at animation to break box office block; people’s love for painting may be carried to cinema in years to come.

The actors’ facial expressions appear distant and fail to create emotional connect usually possible in motion picture. For this reason, though the film is about a real life character whose thoughts and emotions are public knowledge through letters exchanged with his brother Theo, yet possibility of audience’s emotional identification remains remote. At present, one is doubtful whether this style of film making brings people to tears.

The film’s cinematographer has used virtually all usual angles and shots in the book- like long, middle, close ups and has used pan, zooming in and out. However, the final product contains too much movement on screen- not only of persons but of entire life including still life on screen. Overlapping of thousands of actual paintings ends up recording even the smallest brushstroke. Recording of smallest brush stroke infuses movement to objects and subjects on screen, animate or inanimate, posing a challenge to concentrate. For these reasons, one comes out with a feeling whether one actually saw all what was visually depicted or one missed something important. Pictorially though one must say that each frame comes alive, arousing admiration for detailing done so painstakingly by painters and picture maker.

Van Gogh’s story of life is a great drama having plethora of events to learn and identify with but film ends up concentrating on plentiful of possible explanations and postulating hypothesis about his death. This may be an offshoot of current generation’s obsession with propagating conspiracy theories for virtually every event.

One would come back disappointed as hardly an insight can be drawn from his life for one’s own life. In contrast, reading about his life one can end up espousing causes of pursuing one’s passion despite unimaginable difficulties, rewards of self-learning, treading one’s own path etc. In other words, the viewer comes out hardly inspired.

Though real life actors have enacted roles of characters in the film but due to their images being tinged with oil paint causes difficulty in deciphering their true facial expressions and mannerisms. It’s much like what one can say of actor that portrayed Gollum in Lord of the Rings. One can’t distinguish between a real life actor or animated character on canvas. Of course, the sharp nosed actor portraying character of Van Gogh stands out due to his intense gaze even in oil painted screen canvas. Rests of the actors appear really real only on learning later that there were real actors enacting roles of main characters of the film.

Depiction of movement of objects, persons, natural event like rains recorded in oil paint transposed to screen poses genuine problems .Yet, the depiction of facial reflection of water in bowl was wonderfully done and was quite real life like.

While assessing the overall film, one is reminded of title of Patty Smyth’s famous song Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough! Likewise, there is no doubt that the film is a labour of love but sometimes love alone ain’t enough. In fact too much love of Van Gogh’s paintings has led to profusion of paintings which in itself is not much to crib about; its movement in each of those paintings that pose problems in perception and absorption. After all, Van Gogh is remembered through recall of images – frozen and immortalized. All successful cinema is not only showing of sequential successive images but of images, memory and associations that infuse life and drama to a story .Film though sought to depict a real life story of Van Gogh but new style of visual depiction failed to impart realism to a real life tale. Its fine to use big brush strokes on canvas but in cinema one needs to use a combination of strokes to stoke believability to a story.

It would be interesting to see the future- whether all three art forms viz. animation, painting and cinema can be combined to create another art form variant specially when two record movement and one captures stillness ; yet all three originate from recording still images at least at the initial stage.

Wonderful conception but same can’t be said of its reception.

(The views expressed are of the author)

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