21 October 2005

The best movie about an artist?

Recently, the art life asked its readers to come up with their suggestions for the best movie about an artist. While some of the results were alarming ("Empire Records"?!!), I got thinking about this, as I'm invariably annoyed when movies feature artists as characters. They're always psychopaths and murderers (the original "House of Wax", "Bucket of Blood"), or pretentious wankers, or monstrously egotistical ("New York Stories", "Immortal Beloved"), or borderline insane ("Amadeus", "Lust for Life", "Pollock"), or all of the above.

On the other hand, probably the best movie about an artist I've seen is "La Belle Noiseuse" (1991) by Jacques Rivette. It reflects the artistic process more accurately than any film I can remember by simply allowing the camera to linger over the page in long takes while the artist makes mistakes, rubs out, alters, smudges, gets angry, rummages around in the studio draws in frustration, and finally begins to edge carefully towards something we can recognise as definitive. What's more, Rivette never shows us the final work, but instead allows our imagination to conjur it up from the difficult creative process we've already witnessed.

Now that I think about it, it's great because we witness a creative process rather than a final result, and thus we see an artist's mind literally at work. Oh, and Emmanuelle Beart in the buff doesn't hurt either!

An honourable mention would have to be "Stealing Beauty" (1996), centered around a young girl (Liv Tyler) as she visits relatives in their house in Italy. The uncle, who is actually a minor character, is a sculptor and he announces early on that he will make a bust of his neice, a decision which provokes complex reactions among the other characters. Unlike every other artist we see in movies, he doesn't spend his days anxiously staring at an empty canvas, or chain smoking, or having it off with the servants; he just gets on with it. At different times during the film he potters around and we see the work evolving as the action develops. To him, the girl's sexuality is just another fact to be observed and noted, not something to be exploited.

In a different way, "Le Picasso Mystere" (1956) should be mentioned. This is a short documentary that mainly consists of long shots of a blank screen, on which Picasso paints. Picasso is unseen, and the page fills the frame, so we only see the marks being made, but not the hand at work. The results are hypnotic, as we see a line make its way across the screen, become a face, which fills out and becomes a horse, a horse and rider, a horse and rider in a circus, which becomes something else until the picture is "full" and he simply starts all over again. He never hesitates for a second. It's as if his hand has a will of its own and simply knows what it wants to do. Ever since I saw this film I've never had a moment's hesitation in recognising Picasso's majesty and deeply mysterious power. "The Picasso Mystery" indeed.

Suggestions welcome. I'll post more as I think of them.

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