In compiling a list for visual artists, I looked for films that had points to make about the art world, artists, or made great use of the visual medium that film is. It was a hard list to compile, because there were surprisingly few examples. Most films about artists are boring or inaccurate, or boring and inaccurate. Films about the art world are often clichés. I did not include the charmingly ridiculous How to Steal A Million(1966) because it doesn’t have any real lesson to teach (although it is great fun and Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole are inhumanly stunning together).
My list is eclectic, and in order to give some explanation for my choices, I had to split the list in half, so come back tomorrow for Part II: The TOP 5 of the TOP 10.
10) Semi-Tough, 1977
Michael Ritchie, Director. Starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, Jill Clayburgh.
We’ll start with an easy pick of something light and not too deep in the message area. One thing film does better than any other medium is satire, and Semi-Tough manages to clobber just about everything we decided was sacred in the 70s and told us to ‘get over ourselves’ long before it was fashionable. Although it’s now dated, that’s exactly what makes it fun—something you also want to remember when creating art (not that this comes close).
So, just as a warm-up, I invite you to get some popcorn and maybe even a joint to watch this comic love triangle played out just outside the football field, with send-ups of the new self-improvement Gestalt of the 70s with fads like EST and ROLFING (here called BEAT and PELFING).
…And it would never have made it to this list but for the one line delivered by a young(er) and still sexy Kristofferson (as football player “Shake” Tiller—ridiculous in itself) to Clayburgh as Barbara Jane (BJ) Bookman, the team owner’s daughter, just returned from a journey to Africa to find herself after another hopeless romance, where she spent her time taking pictures she now hates.
Shake: “They’re nice pictures of trees.”
BJ: “But I was trying to take pictures of people and animals.”
Shake: “Don’t think about what you tried to do, just look at what you did.”
Get it? Ah, yes Obi Wan, we are with you.
Watch the Trailer.
9) Pollock, 2000
Ed Harris, Director. Starring Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Tom Bower, Jennifer Connelly.
Biographic films about artists tend to suck for one of two reasons: 1) while an artists’ work is often very engaging, their daily lives are often not (Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe are recent examples). They create drama in their minds or seek it out, and are often self-absorbed to the point where they make very bad movie protagonists, since we lose sight of what we are rooting for; and 2) the films that do make the artist seem interesting often have very little fact to them (Lust for Life featuring Kirk Douglas and his famous dimple as Van Gogh, and Moulin Rouge ,1952, with Jose Ferrar doing a horribly gimpy Toulouse-Lautrec).
Pollock is one of those rare biopic films about artists that manages to tell an engaging story while stepping inside the New York art world and the private life of one of the most famous and troubled artists of the 20th century. He led a turbulent and tormented life while his art was embraced by people with high influence in New York society, like Peggy Guggenheim (Harris’s wife Amy Madigan in a great performance). Pollock was loved, possibly unreasonably, by another artist, Lee Krasner (Harden) who protected him from the world and his own demons as best she could—which she viewed as her highest contribution to art.
Director Harris is able to keep the story balanced while actor Harris unveils a rich portrait of a talented man who had no coping mechanisms for the world that made him into a commodity. The film explores the delicacy of giving yourself over to your art while still preserving yourself within the real world—of drawing a lifeline where you can find your way back. Krasner was often that lifeline, but Pollock often lost touch with her as well. It’s quite a riveting portrait that talks more about art than it does about the artist—whether you believe all the details or not. Harris also appears in a documentary about Pollock, Jackson Pollock, Love and Death on Long Island, which recounts many of the same incidents through interviews with some Lee Krasner and others who knew the artist.
Watch the Pollock Trailer.
And as soon as you see this, make sure to watch #8,
8) Who the $#%@ Is Jackson Pollock (2006)
Documentary. Harry Moses, Director.
Paired with the film above (which you should see first to give you a context), this wacky documentary follows truck driver and trailer park art aficionado, Teri Horton, who buys a $5 painting for her neighbor that turns out to be a possible Jackson Pollock. Soon the whole art world is involved as experts try to verify the authenticity and the price keeps climbing to $25 million. I had a lot more to say about this film in an earlier post, Pollock, Paintcans, and Millions of Dollars. It was definitely a hoot to watch, and really helps you see the difference between the world of creating art and the world of collecting art.
This movie is a MUST for any artist, just to help you gain perspective on how little control you have over the value that is placed on your work.
Trailer not available – official site.
7) Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006
Guillermo Del Toro, Director. Starring Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil and Sergi López.
I have to include this film by Guillermo Del Toro, despite the fact that I had no plans to ever see it again—that was until I watched the trailer again.
It’s not exactly enjoyable, although it is visually evocative and exciting, which is why it won three Academy Awards for best cinematography, makeup and art direction. Like many contemporary fantasy films, this Spanish import crosses over between the reality we know and the reality just below the surface of our consciousness. It’s a very dark story about a young girl in 1944 fascist Spain who avoids the visions of cruelty her step father, a sadistic army officer, perpetrates upon his prisoners by turning to books. Late at night, she is visited by a faun who draws her towards a labyrinth of dark mystical creatures who want to claim her as their princess…and she follows.
The make-up, lighting, and set design are exquisite, and there is a lyrical movement to the film that is well worth seeing.
Watch the Trailer.
6) Avatar, 2009
James Cameron, Director. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver.
Nearly everyone has seen this film, multiple times judging by Cameron’s bank account, but it’s well worth the price of popcorn (although I doubt the home DVD can do it justice). I saw it twice in 3D with my son who also saw the IMAX version and the regular 2D version, and he claims there was no comparison. I’m willing to believe him.
This film would not, as a whole, be considered a creative masterpiece. The acting is adequate, the dialogue a little mundane, the story itself is fairly ordinary and predictable, and the last third of the picture (the obligatory Star Wars type battle scene) goes on for way too long. But I’m not reviewing this film here for its story.
The sheer genius of Avatar is in the new technology Cameron (Director of The Terminator, The Abyss, Aliens, and Titanic) and his crew created that allows them to cross a new line into virtual storytelling. For the first time ever, computer generated scenery and even characters can be played out in real time for the live actors to play against, and even Cameron was able to view them entirely as their fictional characters. Certainly the spectacular use of color and movement to show the world of the Navi—something borne entirely out of Cameron’s imagination—is beyond anything we have seen on the screen before. The main gift this film brings us is that we have now entered a time when anything imagined can be accurately rendered on screen. The need to suspend disbelief has been erased. Avatar is a feast for the senses that takes you on a whole new kind of ride without ever leaving your seat.
If you have not seen it, wait for the next time Avatar goes back to theatres. You might as well make Cameron even richer than he already is. For the huge leaps this film takes, and his creative use of this bold new technology, he certainly deserves it.
Watch the Trailer.
…..tomorrow we count down to my top 5 choices—see if you agree!
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