By Ray Sawhill
Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” isn’t the tidy package of Culture some audiences may expect, and it isn’t a conventional biopic, either. Instead, it’s a searching look at the intertwined lives and aspirations of Vincent van Gogh and Theo, his art-dealer brother; it’s also a study of the moment in European art when art and its market came apart and the avant-garde was born. It has themes in common with Ingmar Bergman’s films — the slipperiness of identity, the pain of creation — but Altman’s work is looser and freer than Bergman’s. Altman has a sorcerer’s ability to crack open scenes and invite us in to wander through them, and he keeps “Vincent & Theo” bristling with emotions and ideas.
With the help of Julian Mitchell’s script, Altman makes you see the brothers as two sides of one organism, struggling to get by and straining to give rise to a new kind of painting. As Vincent, Tim Roth takes you into the painter’s isolation; by the film’s end, we can see in his eyes that Vincent has no company but his own fervor. Paul Rhys shows that what burns in Vincent burns in Theo, too, wrecking his attempts to be a family man and a suave aesthete.
“I was resisting doing ‘Vincent & Theo,’ and I told one of the people I work with that I just don’t like biographical films about known people,” Altman recalls. “And she said, ‘Then why don’t you do it and make a film out of it that you do like?” The gamble has brought renewed attention to Altman’s work. His poetic 1971 Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was re-released in London this spring to greater acclaim and popular success than it enjoyed on its first run. The American Cinemathèque in Los Angeles just sponsored a weekend retrospective.
One of the most intuitive of filmmakers, Altman keeps on the move, looking for the freedom to try out new ideas. The gods haven’t blessed all his hunches; he has directed his share of fascinating failures (“3 Women”) and outright duds (“A Perfect Couple”). But the features he made in the early ’70s — including “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye,” and “Nashville” — helped define one of the most remarkable eras in filmmaking history. And in the ’80s, he did innovative work in opera, in the theater, and for film and television. “Right now, television is the most fertile field,” he says. “Television people are confused, and that’s what’s healthy for the artist.”
In “Vincent & Theo,” Altman, who has known frustrations in getting his own work seen, takes on a resonant subject. “I’m using Van Gogh to get your attention to tell you about the sweet pain of a man in that condition,” he says, “an artist to whom nobody ever said, ‘That’s nice what you’re doing — I want one of those paintings for my mother’.”
- My appreciation of Altman’s “Nashville.”
- My review of Altman’s “The Player.”
- Some general movie-musing I did, prompted by Altman’s “The Company.”
- I raved about “A Prairie Home Companion,” Altman’s final movie.
- My obituary of Altman. What can I say? He was my favorite filmmaker.
- A look back at Altman’s career from Roger Ebert.
- A fun oral biography of Altman.
- The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery.
©1990 by Newsweek Inc. Reprinted by permission.