May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
April 30, 2009
Shortly after seeing In a Dream, I watched Basquiat for the first time. Very different films, but both about artists.
As part of one of my other jobs, I coordinate a monthly film series, which we split between “movies you missed the first time around” (we’ve shown films like Chop Shop, Shotgun Stories, and most recently, Wit) and films about artists – most recently In the Realms of the Unreal, about folk artist Henry Darger, and this month we’ll be showing Matthew Barney: No Restraint.
So all this watching of films about artists and working with artists has made think about the way artists are portrayed in films. In a discussion group I lead at work, we recently talked about an article from The New Republic called “Love the Art, Hate the Artist”. In it, Javier Marias says:
The truth is that artists are usually seen as megalomaniacs and, very often, as loudmouths, who suffer greatly and cut off their ears, or pretend to be suffering and drag themselves histrionically through the mud. They are people who take themselves very seriously and are, by and large, vain, ambitious and rather on the stingy side.
With predictable frequency, they slide into some form of addiction (alcohol, drugs, gambling), which leads them to inflict the most bizarre and harmful behavior on their loved ones. They find it equally difficult to cope with either success or failure and require unhealthily large doses of attention. With apparent determination, they get themselves into inadvisable situations and set off along gratuitously self-destructive paths. They strive at all times to be brilliant and deep, which is tiring for them and tiresome in the extreme for those around them, as well as for the reader or viewer. They also take pride in being enigmatic, which is a dreadful bore; plus, they’re obsessed with their work, which is all that really exists for them.
And it’s true, at least for many films about artists – and not undeservedly. After all, these films are based on real people. Basquiat is a prime example: barely likeable, Jean-Michel wanders around arrogant and detached from even those he loves, with the only goal of becoming famous. He gradually alienates or simply leaves all the people who helped him become who he was. In a Dream‘s Isaac Zagar starts out far more likeable, but he wrecks that himself halfway through.
I started naming other films that portray artists of various stripes: Frida, In the Bedroom, Almost Famous, Adaptation, I’m Not There, Amadeus, Factory Girl, Immortal Beloved, Mr. Holland’s Opus, even Bleu, and many more. There are dozens more I haven’t seen but a fair sampling reveals that onscreen artists are generally woefully self-absorbed, and often a little crazy – or a lot. It’s not that this is unearned by the people in these films, but that there aren’t a lot of biopics about artists who changed the world and weren’t a little crazy.
The irony in all of this is that most filmmakers would call themselves artists, and yet it seems to me that there are very few films made about filmmakers as artists. (I can only think of one off the top of my head – last year’s What Just Happened, which was pithy and felt a bit guilty, and, though affectionate, definitely did not portray directors in a good light.)
One possible explanation is that Western culture, in general, is enamored of the idea of artist-as-tortured-genius – a sort of special type of human who simply doesn’t conform to the general guidelines of civility and responsibility that govern mere mortals. Borrowing from romantic notions perpetuated by Rousseau and, later, Baudelaire, we want the artist to embody something about ourselves we wish we could express: a detachment from society, a devil may-care attitude toward society, and some kind of immortality gained through originality and creativity.
A second explanation is simply that well-behaved people are less interesting to watch. The cheerful composer who is faithful to his wife and is a great father and breadwinner is just not terribly fascinating to us. Conventionality seldom sells tickets.
So now I want to find a filmmaker who’s managed to take an artist of any discipline whose fascination lies not in his or her degeneracy but in the way they lived their life – for the good of their family, the people around them, or even just the general good of the world – and has made it into a good story. I want to expand my own horizons. I want to have resources for the artists with whom I work to see healthy art-making portrayed.
Audience participation time: Why do you think there are so many of these kinds of artists in the movies? What films can you think of that portray an artist in a positive light?
Alissa Wilkinson teaches at the King’s College in New York City and edits Comment. She and her husband Tom like the brunch at Dizzy’s in Brooklyn best.