Individualism in Real Life

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Bethany Hamilton is one of those perfect libertarian heroes. When she wants something, she goes after it. When things go wrong, she looks for a way to make it right. She doesn't whine or complain, even when the thing that goes wrong is the horror of a shark taking off her arm. She relies on herself, her family, and her God.

The movie about Bethany, Soul Surfer, has its predictably maudlin moments, fueled by Marco Beltrami's heavily emotional musical score, but don't let that put you off. If you are looking for a film to demonstrate libertarian principles to your friends, take them to Soul Surfer.

The film is based on the true story of Bethany, a competitive surfer with corporate sponsorship who was on her way to professional status when a huge shark bit off her arm. She returned to competitive surfing within a matter of months, and is now a professional surfer. She also seems to be a really nice girl. I learned that not only from the film, but also from the articles I have read about her.

And the Hamiltons seem to be a model libertarian family. They ignored traditional middle-class expectations in order to follow the dreams they made for themselves. All of them, parents and children alike, live to surf. When Bethany showed a great aptitude for surfing, her parents opted out of the government school system and educated her at home so she could take advantage of daytime surfing. After her injury, they did for her only the things she absolutely could not do for herself, encouraging her quickly to find new ways of managing her "ADLs" (activities of daily living).

The film portrays the Hamiltons (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, parents) as a close-knit family within a close-knit community of surfers who understand the true nature of competition. True competition isn't cutthroat or unfair. In fact, unfettered competition has the power to make every person and every product better. Even Bethany's surfing nemesis, Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores), is portrayed as competitively solid. After she paddles full out toward a wave during a competition instead of kindly slowing down to allow for Bethany's injury, Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) thanks Malina for treating her as an equal and pushing her to be her best. It's a great example of the good that competition can accomplish.

Instead of turning to government support groups to help her deal with her injury, Bethany turns to three free-market sources: family, business, and religion. When she returns to surfing, she rejects the judges' offer to give her a head start paddling past the surf. Instead, her father designs a handle to help her "deck dive" under the waves. When finances are a problem, a news magazine offers to provide her with a prosthetic arm in exchange for a story, and a surfboard manufacturer sponsors her with equipment and clothing. The youth leader at her church (Carrie Underwood) gives her a fuller perspective on her life by taking her on a service mission to Thailand after the tsunami that hit in 2004. There she learns the joy of serving others — a kind of work that earns her psychic benefits rather than monetary rewards. She isn't "giving back"; she is "taking" happiness.

These examples of self-reliance and nongovernmental solutions to problems raise the level of this emotionally predictable film to one that is philosophically satisfying — and well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Soul Surfer," directed by Sean McNamara. Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2011, 106 minutes.



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Atlas at Last

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The John Galt Line has finally pulled out of the station, and is barreling across the country picking up hitchhikers who may be wondering what all the fuss is about. After a spectacular pre-release advertising campaign that included multiple premieres in major cities and pre-purchased ticket sales that encouraged nearly 300 screen owners to give the film a chance, Atlas Shrugged Part 1 opened on April 15 (Tax Day) as the third-grossing film of the weekend (looking only at screen averages, not total sales).

"Mixed" is an understatement when describing the reviews. Professional critics on RottenTomatoes give it a 6% approval rating, perhaps the lowest rating I have ever seen for a film. Meanwhile, audiences gave it an unbelievable 85%.

In fact, the film doesn’t deserve either rating. It belongs somewhere in the low middle.

It is not as good as the 85% would indicate; audiences who saw it on opening weekend are rabid fans, bent on a mission to have everyone in America see the film and learn Ayn Rand's philosophy: free markets, free thinking, and self-reliance.

But it doesn't deserve the godawful 6% usually reserved for low-budget slasher flicks, either. It is not as bad as its low budget and relatively unknown cast of actors and producers would cause one to expect. It is respectable.

The cinematic quality is quite good, especially the outdoor scenes of Colorado and the special effects used to create the train and the bridge. The acting isn't bad, but it isn't great. Often I was painfully aware of Taylor Schilling being painfully aware of where Dagny should place her arm, or how Dagny should turn her head; I never felt that she embodied Dagny. Similarly, the background cast at the Reardens' anniversary party appeared to be made up of friends and family of the cast and crew (someone needed to teach them how NOT to mug for the camera).

For fans of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged Part 1, the brightest compliment for this film is that it stays true to first third of the book. (Parts 2 and 3 are expected to follow.) For fans of filmmaking, however, the biggest problem is that it stays true to the book. The film is dialogue heavy, with very little action.

I’m not a Hollywood film reviewer; but I’m a watcher and a reader. I know that books and films are two different genres, and their stories have to be presented in two different ways. Books are primarily cerebral; films are primarily visual. Books can focus on philosophy and conversation; films must focus on action. Books can take days or weeks to read; films must tell their story in a couple of hours. When adapting a book to film, streamlining is essential. Unfortunately, the words in this film are so dense that the ideas become lost.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1 contains some great quotations, but it is not a film that will convince anyone but the Rand faithful of the supremacy of the free market. It makes the same mistake that most libertarians do when espousing philosophy: it assumes that everyone already sees the problems in the way libertarians do. It does not sufficiently engage the non-business person in seeing the long-term effects for everyone when government intervenes in the market. I can hear my middle-class neighbors and colleagues saying "So what?" when Rearden (Grant Bowler) is forced to sell all but one of his businesses. "How is that going to hurt me?" they might wonder.

Even the conflict between Dagny's pure free-market economics and her brother James's (Matthew Marsden) collusion with government is insufficiently portrayed; Dagny seems to be simply getting around the stockholders when she takes over the John Galt Line. Moreover, she and Rearden can hardly be seen as icons of virtue when they violate a freely made and morally binding contract (his marriage vows) by jumping into bed together. Even more damning is Ellis Wyatt's decision to burn his oil fields rather than let anyone else enjoy the fruits of his labor. My middle-class neighbors would howl with outrage at this decision. In short, I don't see how this film will convince anyone that returning to free-market principles will improve our economy and our way of life. It seems like everyone in the film is cutting moral corners somewhere.

"Not bad" is faint praise for a movie that has been 50 years in the waiting. Unfortunately, business pressures caused it to be rushed through with only five weeks in the writing, and another five weeks in the filming. Business is often an exercise in compromise, and this film's production is a classic example. I think, however, that if The Fountainhead's Howard Roark had been the architect of this film, it would have been burned along with Ellis Wyatt's oil fields. It's good, but not good enough.


Editor's Note: Review of "Atlas Shrugged Part 1" (2011), directed by Paul Johannson. The Strike Productions, 2011, 97 minutes.



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A Surprise Hit

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Last week I attended a screening of Atlas Shrugged, Part I, and was amazed to see that the theater was literally sold out and packed full. I cannot ever recall seeing that before. After all, this is not your usual fluffy romantic farce, comic book superhero movie, or action flick. It is an honest effort to put Ayn Rand’s extremely long novel into movie format.

Producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro are expanding the release from the initial 299 theaters to 425 by this weekend, and as many as 1,000 by the end of April. This is stunning, considering that the marketing plan was considered lame by Hollywood insiders, because it used the internet rather than more traditional venues, such as TV and radio, for running ads.

Not only are ticket sales doing well, but film-related merchandise — including replicas of the bracelet Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) wears in the movie (made out of “Rearden metal”) — are flying off the shelves.

Aglialoro, a businessman who put $10 million of his personal capital into the flick, as well as co-writing and co-producing it, attributes its success in great measure to fortunate timing. I think that in this he is absolutely right. Obama’s leftist regime, with its bash-the-rich and blame-the-businesses rhetoric, massive new regulations, crony capitalism, and redistributionist mindset, has created a ready market for the movie.

Ironically, Obama may prove to be the cause of a whole new wave of Rand mania. That is well worth a chuckle or two, no?




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The News About the News

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When I was a child, we subscribed to two newspapers a day. The Los Angeles Times arrived early in the morning, and the Herald-Examiner plopped onto our doorstep in the late afternoon, usually thrown by my friend Dennis Miller, who had a paper route. (Back then, moms felt safe letting their young boys ride their bikes by themselves every day and knock on doors asking for money once a month.) I always liked the Examiner better, because the photos were a little larger, the stories a little racier, the features a little more entertaining. I didn't realize back then that it was intentional: morning papers contained cold gray news for people in a hurry; evening papers provided lighter fare and racier storytelling for readers who wanted to relax and unwind after a hard day.

With the advent of television news, then cable news, then electronic news, print news has become less and less profitable. Newspapers around the country are cutting back on stories, letting staffers go, and just plan folding up. When documentarian Andrew Rossi received permission to hang out with a video camera at the New York Times offices for a whole year, he didn't know that the demise of print journalism would become the focus of the story; no good documentarian ever knows exactly where the film will end up. But that's where Page One: Inside the New York Times went, and the result is a sometimes lively, sometimes somber, mostly interesting story about the past, present, and future of journalism.

Page One is a bit character heavy in the beginning as it introduces several side stories at once. The character who shines with the most luster is David Carr, the eccentric Monday columnist for the Business section of the Times who focuses primarily on media issues. One of the ironies pointed out in the film is the fact that the Times found it necessary to open a desk in 2008 to cover the demise of the media, and Carr does it in this film with a protective vengeance.

What's cool about Carr is that he lived first, and became a respected journalist second. A self-described cokehead in his youth, he spent some time in jail before becoming a respected writer. He wrote for a number of alternative publications before joining the Times when he was approaching 50. As a result, his voice, both written and spoken, is often unfiltered and unabashed, providing most of the humor in what is often a gray documentary.

But what is killing print journalism? First is the need for profits. Subscription rates will never be able to cover the costs of writing, printing, and delivering the news. Advertising revenue is the true source of support for newspapers, and ad revenue in print media is down everywhere. As a result, coverage is down, and serious coverage is down even more. Who's going to cover city hall when readers only want to know what Lindsay Lohan is up to? And since readership determines advertising rates, more fluff is passing for news these days.

Second is the need for speed. People used to be willing to wait for the scheduled newspapers, with an occasional "Extra" in which to "read all about it" when breaking news called for the editor to "Stop the presses!" Today's tech-savvy consumers, by contrast, are constantly in touch with breaking news, through texting, Twitter, Facebook, and other instant news feeds. They expect to know what's going on, moments after it happens.

On the other hand, the blogosphere's post-now, check-facts-later mentality gives print media the edge in accuracy and credibility. Carr wryly disparages the "caco-phony" of Twitter, even though he grudgingly admits that Twitter is a "wired collective voice" that gives him a sense of what people are talking about. One important scene in the documentary demonstrates a typical 10 a.m. meeting at the Times, where several editors and reporters sit around a table discussing stories currently in progress. There is an air of calm as they take the time to check facts, discuss context, consider reader interest, and check facts again.

Nevertheless, the documentary pulls no punches in reporting on the Times' gross mistakes, including the Jayson Blair scandal and Judith Miller's 2002 articles reporting weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out not to exist. Miller defends herself by saying, "If your sources are wrong, you're going to be wrong." Blair was simply lying. I'm not sure which is worse — being naively hoodwinked or being deliberately devious.

One of the most shocking revelations in the film is the "end of the war" in Iraq that was neatly choreographed by NBC execs to coincide with the 6:30 news. The documentary claims that NBC simply wanted to give viewers a "mission accomplished" closure to the story. So they filmed their reporter accompanying "the final combat troops leaving Iraq" and broadcast it live on the evening news, even though the Pentagon had made no such announcement. It reminded me of the ending of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, when protagonist Guy Montag watches an innocent pedestrian being chased down, caught, and killed in his stead, just to give viewers the satisfaction of "closure" on the evening news.

The film touches on dozens of areas affecting journalism today. All of them are interesting and important, but the film's own cacophony of information prevents it from having a strong central storyline. In a way, this presentation is more real and honest than a neatly tied story with a beginning, middle, and end. Life doesn't always have a climax on page 72. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating film, well worth viewing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Page One: Inside the New York Times," directed by Andrew Rossi. Magnolia Pictures, 88 minutes.



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How to Unblock Your Writing

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Wouldn't it be great to have limitless access to all the cells in your brain? To have a Google feature of sorts that would allow you to immediately call up just the right fact or memory that you need at any given moment, and the ability to synthesize and analyze all that information instantly?

That's what the drug NTZ does for characters in the film Limitless, a mystery-thriller in theaters now. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a sci-fi writer with a contract for a book, but a debilitating writer's block has prevented him from writing a single word. His life is a mess, his apartment is a mess, he's a mess, and his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has just broken up with him because of it.

Then he meets an old friend, Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth) who gives him a tab of NTZ. Within minutes Eddie experiences a rush of insight and intelligence. He can remember books he thumbed through in college, television shows he saw in childhood, and math equations he learned in high school. Within hours he has cleaned his apartment, resolved his back rent, and written 50 scintillating pages of his novel. But the next day, he is back to being the same sloppy Eddie who can't write a single word. More NTZ is in order.

If this story line sounds familiar, it is. Daniel Keyes explored this idea of artificially stimulated intelligence in his "Flowers for Algernon," which was later made into the movie Charlie starring Cliff Robertson. Phenomenon, a John Travolta film, uses the same premise. Even the spy spoof television show "Chuck" uses a similar premise when the title character is able to access information stored in "the intersect," as though his brain were a remote computer. What makes this film stand out, however, is its jazzy musical score, witty script, engaging mystery, and skillful cast, not to mention its unexpected ending.

The film begins with the resounding thump of a sledgehammer against a metal door that jars the audience out of its seat. The throbbing musical score (by Paul Leonard-Morgan) drives the story forward, lifting the audience into a feel-good mood.

Eddie's brain on NTZ is simulated artfully for the audience through special camera effects that make Eddie's consciousness seem to speed not just down the road but also through cars, down sidewalks, into buildings, and out of them again at dizzying roller-coaster speeds. When he begins to write, letters appear from his ceiling and drop like rain into his room. Later, when he starts using his newfound skill to make money in the stock market, his ceiling tiles become a ticker tape, composing themselves into the stock symbols that he should buy. Intensified color is also used to portray his intensified awareness; even Cooper's intensely clear blue eyes add to his character's altered sense of reality. These techniques are very effective in creating a sense of what Eddie is experiencing.

The story's suspense is driven by Eddie's shady relationships with a drug dealer (Whitworth), a loan shark (Andrew Howard), a stalker (Tomas Arana), and an investment banker (Robert de Niro).  Eddie cleverly draws on all the memories stored in his brain to thwart the bad guys, but when he unwittingly comes across a dead body, he reacts in the way a normal person would — completely terrified, knocking over a chair as he collapses, then hiding in a corner with a golf club for protection as he calls the police. It's refreshing to see a character react as we probably would, instead of displaying unrealistic aplomb.

Limitless is a surprisingly entertaining film, with its fast pace, skilled cast, creative camera work, and interesting plot. Well worth the price of a ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Limitless," directed by Neil Burger. Many Rivers Productions, 2011, 105 minutes.



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Much More Than Moore

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The hardest part of making a film is not writing the script, hiring the cast, choosing the locations, planning the shots, or editing the footage down to a moving and entertaining feature that tells the story in under two hours. The hardest part of filmmaking is finding the funding. It takes money to make a movie. Lots of money.

Ideally, the consumers (moviegoers) should pay for the product (the movie on the screen). And ultimately, they do, $10 at a time. But filmmakers need money upfront to make the product. Piles and piles of money. This is just Capitalism 101 for libertarians, and it makes me stare in disbelief when Americans glibly criticize the capitalist system for being corrupt and selfish. What could be less selfish than deciding to forego current consumption in order to invest in someone else's dream?

From the earliest days of filmmaking, films have been financed in several ways: using personal funds, either from one's own pocket or that of a rich friend or relative; applying for business loans; studio investment; and selling product placement. In recent years, product placement has become increasingly important as a way to fund the burgeoning cost of producing a movie, where a million dollars can be considered little more than chump change.

Morgan Spurlock, the new darling of the political-agenda documentary, exposes the process of selling embedded advertising in his new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which opens later this month. But, as I said, product placement is nothing new. From the start, radio programs and TV shows were "brought to you by" a particular sponsor; product placement was simply a way of getting the product into the show itself. Today product placement is a multibillion-dollar undertaking. Also called "co-promotion" and "brand partnering," this marriage of convenience provides money for the movie makers and brand recognition for the product. According to the documentary, businesses spent $412 billion last year on product placement ads, from the Coke glasses placed in front of the judges on American Idol, to the Chrysler 300s driven by Jack Bauer on 24 (after Ford withdrew its F-150s), to the kind of phones that Charlie's Angels carry.

The film is informative, intelligent, and laugh-out-loud funny, largely because of Spurlock's dry, self-deprecating humor as he goes about looking for sponsors for his film, which is simply a movie about Spurlock looking for sponsors for his film. Where Michael Moore made his mark in documentaries by humiliating his subjects through ambush journalism, Spurlock is gleefully upfront about what he is doing, treating his subjects with seriocomic respect and appreciation.

We all know we're being had, but he does it so openly that he makes us enjoy being had.

Spurlock doesn't just walk into business meetings unprepared, and beg for money. He does his homework, as good filmmakers (or any salesperson) should. He begins with a psychological evaluation to determine his "Brand Personality," which helps him identify what kinds of products would be a good fit for his film. Not surprisingly, his brand personality is "mindful/playful," so he looks for products whose makers think of themselves as appealing to consumers who are mindful and playful. He arrives at meetings with high quality storyboards and mockups to make his pitch. He listens carefully to the producers and accommodates their concerns. After all, if their needs aren't met, they won't fund the film. They are his consumers as much as the ticket buyers at the multiplex will be.

The film is liberally peppered with products, all of them described, worn, eaten, or presented with Spurlock's respectful glee. We all know we're being had, but he does it so openly that he makes us enjoy being had. Even his attorney is a product placed in the movie; after discussing a contract, Spurlock asks how much the consultation will cost him, and the attorney replies, "I charge $770 an hour. But the bigger question is, how much is it going to cost me to be in your movie?" (I wrote the attorney's name in my notes, but I'm not repeating it here. He hasn't paid Liberty anything to be mentioned in our magazine . . .)

Spurlock likens his movie to a NASCAR racer, and accordingly wears a suit covered in his sponsors' logos for interviews. The official poster shows his naked body tattooed with the logos, with a poster board of the film's title strategically placed across his crotch.  (Nudity sells, but I guess his manhood didn't pay for product placement.)

The film is funny but also informative. Despite Spurlock's gleeful presentation, he offers many serious ideas about product placement in movies and about advertising in general. For example, he discusses the potential loss of artistic control when the sponsoring company wants things done a certain way. This isn't new; Philip Morris reportedly told Lucy and Desi they had to be seen smoking more frequently on "I Love Lucy," the most popular show of the 1950s, and they complied. A filmmaker has to weigh the money against the control, and decide how much to compromise.

Truth in advertising is also discussed. Spurlock visits Sao Paolo, Brazil, where outdoor advertising has been completely banned by a new "Clean City Law." Now store owners rely more heavily on word-of-mouth referrals for new customers, which may indeed be a more honest form of testimonial, but highly inefficient — and inefficiency is generally passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices. In the film, local Brazilians glowingly praise their ability to "see nature" now that the billboards are gone, as Spurlock's cameras pan to the high-rise buildings that overpower the few shrubs and trees in the downtown area and block the view of the sky. Subtle, and effective.

Spurlock also interviews several people to get their opinions of truth in advertising. Ironically, one of the interviewees has bright magenta hair taken from a bottle, another has the unmistakable ridge of breast augmentation, another is wearing a sandwich board advertising a nearby store, while a fourth is pumping gas at the chain that has made a brand-partnering deal with Spurlock. Once again Spurlock is making gentle fun of his subjects, and we laugh gleefully along with him. (But I'm still not willing to reveal the name of the gas station until they pony up with some advertising money for Liberty.)

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold may not be the greatest documentary ever made, but it is mindful and playful, like its maker. If it comes to your town, don't miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," directed by Morgan Spurlock. Snoot Entertainment/Warrior Poet, 2011, 90 minutes.



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Artists in the Movies: The Ten Best Films

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I’m not sure why I consider artists so fascinating. Perhaps it is the especially acute way they see the world — vision being for me only a weak sensory modality. Perhaps it is the fact that they use more of the right side of the brain than I typically use in my own work. But whatever the reason, apparently I am not alone in my fascination, since movies about artists are fairly numerous in the history of cinema. In this essay I want to review ten of the best such movies ever made.

I will confine myself to artists in the narrow sense of painters, as opposed to creative writers, photographers, or musicians. I will even put aside sculptors, even though that rules out reviewing such interesting films as Camille Claudel (1988), the good if depressing bioflick about the sculptress who worked with and was the mistress of Auguste Rodin.

I will also confine myself to standard movies, as opposed to documentaries. There are many fine documentaries about individual artists and artistic movements. One particularly worth noting is My Kid Could Paint That” (2007), a film that honestly explores the brief career of four-year-old Marla Olmstead, who caused a sensation when her abstract paintings caught the attention of the media and the public, and started selling them for many thousands of dollars each. After an expose on CBS News, the public began to wonder if she had really produced her own work. That is the fascinating question the film investigates, but in the background is another, equally fascinating question — whether abstract art has any intrinsic quality, or whether it is all a matter of the perception of the critics.

But to return. One other restriction I will adopt is to consider feature films only, as opposed to TV series. This causes me some grief, since one of my favorite portrayals of painters on screen will have to be skipped — the delightful three-part BBC miniseries The Impressionists (2006). This series is TV at its finest. It is a historically accurate portrayal of the French impressionist school of painters (Manet, Monet, Renoir, Bazille, Degas, and Cézanne) that is compelling and entertaining story telling. It is structured as a series of memory flashbacks that occur to Claude Monet as he is interviewed late in his life by a journalist about the artistic movement he and his circle created.

In theory, it shouldn’t be any more difficult to produce a decent movie about a painter than about any other subject, but in practice, there are many possible pitfalls.

But what does a good movie about an artist include? Such a film can take many forms. It can be a straight bioflick recounting a person’s life and achievements — as in Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Seraphine. It can explore a controversy, such as the merit of abstract art (Local Color). It can explore some of the ways artists interact with other artists — competition or romantic involvement (Modigliani, Frida, and Lust for Life again). It can examine the interaction between artists and mentors (Local Color), or patrons or art critics (The Agony and the Ecstasy, Girl with a Pearl Earring), or other intellectuals (Little Ashes). It can dramatize relationships between artists and family members (Lust for Life, Moulin Rouge). It can try to meaningfully convey the inspiration for or the process of artistic creation (The Agony and the Ecstasy, Rembrandt, Girl with a Pearl Earring). Finally, it can analyze the personality of an artist (The Moon and Sixpence, Moulin Rouge, Seraphine).

My criteria for ranking these movies are not much different from those I use to judge any other movies: quality of ideas, story, acting, dialogue, and cinematography. In theory, it shouldn’t be any more difficult to produce a decent movie about a painter than about any other subject, but in practice, there are pitfalls that can ensnare you.

In particular, it seems that many directors, in trying to make a movie about art, try to make the movie artsy. One thinks of the disastrously bad film Klimt (2007), an internationally produced bioflick about the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), played by John Malkovich. The flick is tedious and hard to follow, with numerous hallucinatory scenes interspersed in the action. Malkovich gives a listless performance, portraying the artist as bereft of any charm. The result is risible.

I expect art, not artsiness. And I will mention one other thing I look for in movies about painters: if it accords with the story line, I like to see the artist’s work displayed. If a person is supposed to be great about doing something, one naturally wants to see the evidence.

To build suspense, I’ll present the movies that made my top ten in reverse order of my judgments of their importance and quality.

Number ten on the list is The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). This lavishly produced film is based Irving Stone’s best seller of the same title, but actually just focusing on part of the story — Michelangelo (1475–1564, portrayed by Charlton Heston) painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the prodding of his patron, Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). The eminent director Carol Reed directed the movie, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including those for cinematography, art direction, and score. In each of those areas the film is indeed excellent. Especially effective is the scene in which Michelangelo gets his key inspiration for his ceiling mural from observing the beauty of the clouds. The interesting idea explored in the movie is the way in which influence of a patron can help even a highly individual artist elevate the artistic level of his work. The pope insisted that Michelangelo do the job, even though he initially demurred, viewing himself primarily as a sculptor.

Many directors, in trying to make a movie about art, try to make the movie artsy. One thinks of the disastrously bad film Klimt.

The acting in this film isn’t as good as one would expect of the two leads. Heston and Harrison, both recipients of the Oscar for best actor in other movies, seem somehow miscast in their roles. But the movie transcends this weakness; the glory of Michelangelo’s art is on full display in a beautiful color production.

Number nine is Frida (2002), directed by Julie Traynor and starring Selma Hayek (who also coproduced the movie). This is an unvarnished look at the life of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), focusing on the accident that made her a semi-invalid and caused her lifelong pain, and on her tempestuous marriage to the painter Diego Rivera. Rivera was already famous when they met, and her career grew alongside his. His numerous adulterous affairs are not hidden, nor are her affairs with other women (as well as Leon Trotsky). Both Rivera and Kahlo were devout socialists, as the movie emphasizes.

Selma Hayek’s performance is extraordinary — it is obvious she was completely devoted to the project. She convincingly conveys the physical suffering Kahlo endured, along with the mental anguish caused by Rivera’s endless philandering. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Alfred Molina is excellent as Diego Rivera, and Edward Norton gives a nice performance as Nelson Rockefeller (who, ironically, commissioned Rivera to do a mural for him), as does Antonio Banderas (playing the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros). The cinematography is also excellent, and we get to see quite a few of the artist’s paintings. Traynor does a good job of integrating the history of the times with the story line.

Number eight is Local Color (2006). Written and directed by George Gallo, it is a fictionalized account of his friendship with the landscape painter George Cherepov (1909–1987), an artist he met while he was hoping to pursue art, before turning in his twenties to screenwriting and directing. Gallo’s earliest success was writing the screenplay for “Midnight Run.”

In the movie, the Gallo figure John Talia Jr. (Trevor Morgan) is thinking about what to do after high school. His father (perfectly played by Ray Liotta) hopes he will get a regular job, but young John wants to be a painter. He manages to gain the friendship of a crusty, profane, but gifted older Russian painter, here called Nicoli Seroff (played brilliantly by Armin Mueller-Stahl). Seroff invites John to spend the summer at his house, much to the worry of John’s father, who is concerned that Seroff is gay and will “take advantage” of his son. After some tension between the two, Seroff finally breaks down and shows John how to paint.

Besides being a nice meditation on the role a mentor can play in an artist’s life, the movie has as a subtext an exploration of two related and important questions about contemporary art: is there great artistic merit in abstract art, and should art divide the elites from the ordinary public? This subtext plays out in the exchanges between the prickly Seroff and a pompous local art critic Curtis Sunday (played exquisitely by Ron Perlman, of Hellboy and Beauty and the Beast). Their dispute culminates in a hilarious scene in which Seroff shows Sunday a painting produced by an emotionally disturbed child with whom Seroff has worked. Seroff shows Sunday the painting without revealing who made it, and asks for Sunday’s opinion about the artist. Sunday then begins to talk earnestly about the virtues of the artist, thinking he must be a contemporary painter. When Seroff tells Sunday the truth, Sunday storms off to the howls of Seroff’s laughter. The movie has excellent cinematography — which gathers interest from the fact that all the oil paintings shown in the film were painted by Gallo himself.

In the film Frida, Diego Rivera's numerous adulterous affairs are not hidden, nor are Kahlo's affairs with other women — as well as with Leon Trotsky.

Number seven on my list will be a surprise. It is The Moon and Sixpence (1942). The movie is a superb adaption of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant short novel of the same name. The story is about a fictional painter, Charles Strickland, and is loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Strickland (well played by the underrated actor George Sanders, who could play the cad well) is a stockbroker who suddenly and unexpectedly leaves his wife and family in midlife to pursue his vision of beauty — his painting. He is followed by a family friend, Geoffrey Wolfe (a character I suspect Maugham based on himself, and beautifully portrayed by Herbert Marshall), who narrates as he tries to make sense of Strickland’s ethical worldview.

What we see is a man who is an egotist to the core, but we realize that this is an egotism driven by a desire to create. A key scene in this regard is the one in which Strickland explains to Wolfe that he doesn’t choose to paint, but he has to paint. Maugham doesn’t make it easy on us by portraying Strickland as also driven to flee civilization — by, for instance, a bad marriage or family. In fact, the title seems to indicate that in the end he himself fails to appreciate Strickland’s choice: it comes from a Cockney phrase about somebody who is so struck by the moon that he steps over sixpence: by focusing on something abstract — such as artistic beauty—one misses out on something that may be more worthwhile, such as rich human relationships.

But what makes this film powerful is its exploration of the idea that a person can be an egoist—even immoral by conventional standards — but still be a creative genius. Indeed, I recommend this film in my ethical theory classes as an example of Nietzsche’s brand of egoism.

Number six is Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), a tale from the historical novel by Tracy Chevalier about the life of Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). It imagines the story of a young woman, Griet, who comes to the Vermeer household as a maid. Griet’s father was a painter, but went blind, forcing her to support herself by working as a domestic servant. The Vermeer household is dominated by his all-too-fecund and extremely jealous (not to say shrewish) wife Catharina, along with her mother Maria Thins.

Griet is fascinated by Vermeer’s work, the colors and composition. Noticing her interest, Vermeer befriends her, letting her mix his paints in the morning. The viewer suspects that this friendship involves a romantic interest, at least on his part. He is careful to keep the friendship from Catharina’s notice. While shopping with the chief maid, Griet meets the butcher’s son Pieter, who is very attracted to her, and we suspect that the feeling is mutual.

As if this incipient romantic triangle weren’t enough excitement for poor Griet, Vermeer’s concupiscent patron Van Ruijven sees her and pushes Vermeer to let her work in his house. Faced with Vermeer’s refusal, Van Ruijven commissions him to paint her, which Vermeer agrees to do. Van Ruijven, obviously, isn’t motivated by art so much as by lust — he even attempts to rape Griet. All this culminates, however, in her becoming the model for Vermeer’s most famous masterpiece, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The earring, which is one of a pair borrowed from Catharina, making her extremely jealous, goes with Griet as she leaves Vermeer’s household, ending her adventure with an interesting memento.

What we see is a man who is an egotist to the core, but we realize that this is an egotism driven by a desire to create.

The art direction is superb. It is executed in colors reminiscent of the painter’s method (dark background with vivid tones in the key objects). Appropriately, the film received Oscar nominations for both best art direction and best cinematography. The acting was almost entirely excellent, with Essie Davis playing a very irascible Catharina, Tom Wilkinson a randy Van Ruijven, Judy Parfitt a practical Maria, and Cillian Murphy a supportive Pieter. Especially outstanding is Scarlett Johannson as a very self-contained Griet. She bears an uncanny resemblance to the girl in the actual painting. The sole disappointment is Colin Firth as Vermeer. He plays the role in a very inexpressive way — more constipated than contemplative, to put it bluntly.

Number five is a film about the life and work of a controversial modern artist, Pollock (2000).

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) was a major figure in the abstract art scene in post-WWII America. He grew up in Arizona and California, was expelled from a couple of high schools in the 1920s, and studied in the early 1930s at the Art Students League of New York. From 1935 to 1943 he did work for the WPA Federal Art Project. During this period, as throughout his life, he was also battling alcoholism.

Receiving favorable notice in the early 1940s, in 1945, he married another abstract artist, Lee Krasner. Using money lent to them by Peggy Guggenheim, they bought what is now called the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs (Long Island), New York. Pollock turned a nearby barn into his studio and started a period of painting that lasted 11 years. It was here he developed his technique of letting paint drip onto the canvas. As he put it, “I continue to get further away from the usual painters’ tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives, and dripping fluid paint or heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.” He would typically have the canvas on the floor and walk around it, dripping or flicking paint.

In 1950, Pollock allowed the photographer Hans Namuth to photograph him at work. In the same year he was the subject of a four-page article in Life, making him a celebrity. During the peak of his popularity (1950–1955), buyers who were pressing him for more paintings, making demands that may have intensified his alcoholism.

He stopped painting in 1956, and his marriage broke up (he was running around with a younger girlfriend, Ruth Kligman). On August 11, 1956, he had an accident while driving drunk that killed both him and a friend of Ruth, and severely injured her. But after his death, Krasner managed his estate and worked to promote his art. She and he are buried side by side in Springs.

Critics have been divided over Pollock’s work. Clement Greenberg praised him as the ultimate phase in the evolution of art, moving from painting full of historical content to pure form. But Craig Brown said that he was astonished that “decorative wallpaper” could gain a place in art history. However one might view Pollock’s work, it has commanded high prices. In 2006, one of his paintings sold for $140 million.

The movie tracks the history fairly closely, starting in the early 1940s, when Pollock attracted the attention of Krasner and Guggenheim, and moving through his marriage to Krasner, his pinnacle as the center of the abstract art world, and the unraveling of his personal life. Throughout, we see him angry, sullen, and inarticulate, whether drunk or sober.

Ed Harris, who directed the film and played the lead, is fascinating (if depressing) to watch. He plays a generally narcissistic Pollock, with the problem of alcoholism featured prominently. He was nominated for a best actor award for this role. Especially good is Marcia Gay Hardin as Lee Krasner, who won a best actress Oscar for her performance. The main defect of the movie is that it gives us no idea why Pollock was angry and alcoholic. Was it lack of respect for his own work? Did he feel it wasn’t really worthy of the praise it received? We get no clue.

Number four is a piece of classic British cinema, “Rembrandt” (1936), meaning, of course, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), who is generally held to be the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age (an era that included Vermeer, his younger contemporary). Rembrandt achieved great success fairly early in life with his portrait painting, then expanded to self-portraits, paintings about important contemporaries, and paintings of Biblical stories. In the latter, his work was informed by a profound knowledge of the Bible.

But his mature years were characterized by personal tragedy: a first marriage in which three of his four children died young, followed by the death of his wife Saskia. A second relationship with his housekeeper Geertje ended bitterly; and a third, common law, marriage to his greatest love, Hendrickje Stoffels, ended with her death. Finally, Titus, his only child to have reached adulthood, died. Despite his early success, Rembrandt’s later years were characterized by economic hardship, including a bankruptcy in which he was forced to sell his house and most of his paintings. The cause appears to have been his imprudence in investing in collectables, including other artists’ work.

Rembrandt’s painting was more lively and his subjects more varied than was common at the time, when it was common to paint extremely flattering portraits of successful people. One of his pieces proved especially provocative: “The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq,” often called “The Night Watch,”an unconventional rendition of a civic militia, showing its members preparing for action, rather than standing elegantly in a formal line up. Later stories had it that the men who commissioned the piece felt themselves to have been pictured disrespectfully, though these stories appear to be apocryphal.

The main defect of Pollock is that it gives us no idea why he was angry and alcoholic. Was it lack of respect for his own work? Did he feel it wasn’t really worthy of the praise it received? We get no clue.

The movie is fairly faithful to historical reality, except that it doesn’t explore Rembrandt’s financial imprudence, attributing his later poverty to his painting of “The Night Watch as an exercise in truth-telling. The movie shows him painting these middle-class poseurs for what they were, and their outrage then leading to a cessation of high-price commissions from other burghers. The direction is excellent, as one would expect from Alexander Korda, one of the finest directors Britain ever had. The support acting is first rate, especially Elsa Lanchester as Rembrandt’s last wife Hendrickje, Gertrude Lawrence as the scheming housekeeper and lover Geertje, and John Bryning as the son Titus. Charles Laughton’s performance as Rembrandt is masterful. There are great actors, and then there are legends, and he was both. Unlike his loud and dominating performances in such classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mutiny on the Bounty, his role in this film is that of a wise and decent man, devoted to his art and his family, and he makes it even more interesting. The main flaw in the film is that we don’t see much of the artist painting or of his paintings, but that is a comparatively minor flaw in an otherwise great film.

Number three is the great Moulin Rouge (1952), based on the life of Henri Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864–1901). Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family. At an early age he lived in Paris with his mother, and showed promise as an artist. But also early in his life he showed an infirmity. At ages 13 and 14 he broke first one leg than the other, and they both failed to heal properly. As an adult, he had the torso of a man and the legs of a boy, and he was barely 5 feet tall. A lonely and deformed adolescent, he threw himself into art.

He spent most of his adult life in the Montmartre area of Paris, during a time when it was a center of bohemian and artistic life. He moved there in the early 1880s to study art, meeting van Gogh and Emile Bernard at about this time. After his studies ended in 1887, he started exhibiting in Paris and elsewhere (with one exhibition featuring his works along with van Gogh’s).

He focused on painting Paris on the wild side, including portraits of prostitutes and cabaret dancers. In the late 1880s, the famous cabaret Moulin Rouge opened (it is still in Montmartre to this day), and commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to do its posters. These brought him to public attention and notoriety, and won him a reserved table at the cabaret, which also displayed his paintings prominently. Many of his best known paintings are of the entertainers he met there, such as Jane Avril and La Goulue (who created the can-can).

By the 1890s, however, his alcoholism was taking its toll on him, as was, apparently, syphilis (not unknown among artists of the time). He died before his 37th birthday, at his parent’s estate. In a brief 20 years, he had created an enormous amount of art — over seven hundred canvases and five thousand drawings.

The movie, directed (and co-written) by John Huston, was a lavish production fairly true to history. It should not be confused with the grotesque 2001 musical of the same name. The cinematography and art direction are superb, showing us scenes of the Moulin Rouge in particular and Paris in general, as captured by the artist. The film won the Oscar for best art direction and best costume design.

The directing and acting are tremendous. (Huston was nominated for best director, and his film for best picture.) Zsa Zsa Gabor is great as Jane Avril, as are Katherine Kath as La Goulue and Claude Nollier as Toulouse-Lautrec’s mother. And Colette Marchand is perfect as Marie Charlet, the prostitute with whom Toulouse-Lautrec becomes involved. She wa nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress, and won the Golden Globe, for her performance. But most amazing is the work of the lead, Joses Ferrer, who plays both Toulouse-Lautrec père and fils. Playing Toulouse-Lautrec the artist required Ferrer (always a compelling actor) to stand on his knees. His was a bravura performance, making the artist both admirable and pitiable. Ferrer was nominated for an award as best actor, but unfortunately did not win.

If there is one flaw in the film, it is an unneeded sentimentality, well illustrated by the final scene. With Henri on his deathbed, his father cries to him that he finally appreciates his art, while figures from Henri’s memory bid him goodbye. Huston, one of the greatest directors in the history of film, especially adept at coldly realistic film noir (e.g., “The Maltese Falcon”), should have toned this down. My suspicion is that the studio wanted something emotionally “epic,” and Huston obliged.

Number two on my list is a small independent flick, Modigliani (2004). The story explores the art scene in Paris just after WWI, with artists such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera, Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Chaim Soutine, Henri Matisse, Marie Vorobyev-Stebeslka, and Maurice Utrillo living in the Montparnasse district.

We meet Modigliani as he enters the café Rotonde, stepping from tabletop to tabletop as the patrons applaud.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) was born into a poor Jewish family in Italy. He grew up sickly, contracting tuberculosis when he was 16. He showed interest and talent in art at an early age, and went to art school, first at his hometown of Livorno, then later in Florence and Venice. He was fairly well read, especially in the writings of Nietzsche. He moved to Paris in 1906, settling in Montmartre. Here he met Picasso, and spent a lot of time with Utrillo and Soutine. He also rapidly became an alcoholic and drug addict, especially fond of absinthe and hashish (beloved by many artists then). He adapted rapidly to the Bohemian lifestyle, indulging in numerous affairs and spending many wild nights at local bars. Yet he managed to work a lot, sketching constantly. He was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec and Cezanne but soon developed his own style (including his distinctive figures with very elongated heads). After a brief return home to Italy in 1909 for rest, he returned to Paris, this time moving to Montparnasse. He is said to have had a brief affair with Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova in 1910, and worked in sculpture until the outbreak of WWI. He then focused on painting, among other things painting portraits of any of other artists.

In 1916, he was introduced to a beautiful young art student, Jeanne Hebuterne. They fell in love, and she moved in with him, much to the anger of her parents, who were conservative Catholics, not fond of the fact their daughter was involved with a poor, drunken, struggling Jewish artist.

And struggle they did. While Modigliani sold a fair number of pieces, the prices he got were very low. He often traded paintings for meals just to survive. In January 1920, Modigliani was found by a neighbor delirious, clutching his pregnant wife. He died form tubercular meningitis, no doubt exacerbated by alcoholism, overwork, and poor nourishment.

His funeral attracted a gathering of artists from Paris’ two centers of art (Montmartre and Montparnasse). It was all very Nietzschean: brilliant young man does art his way, defies all slave moral conventions, and dies in poverty. The genius is spurned by hoi polloi too addled by slave morality to appreciate the works of the übermensch. Jeanne died two days later by throwing herself out a window at her parents’ house, killing herself and her unborn child. It was only in 1930 that the family allowed her to be reburied by his side.

The movie takes place in the pivotal year 1919. We meet Modigliani as he enters the café Rotonde, stepping from tabletop to tabletop as the patrons applaud. He winds up at Picasso’s table, where he kisses Picasso. This bravura entry invites us to focus where we should — on the relationship between these two artists, both important in a new era of art. The relationship is complex. On the one hand, they are obviously friends — and friends of a sort that Aristotle would have approved: their friendship is based on appreciation of each other’s intellectual virtue, their art. But there is a darker side to it: they are also rivals, competitors for the crown of king of the new artists.

Modigliani and Jeanne are struggling to pay rent, and Jeanne’s father has sent their little girl away to a convent to be raised. Modigliani sees a chance to get his child back, and provide for Jeanne. He will enter a work in the annual Paris art competition, one that, so far, he and his circle have scorned. Picasso, feeling challenged, enters also, with other members of the circle joining him. Modigliani knows that the competition will be tough, so by force of will he works to produce a masterpiece. This challenges Picasso as well, and we see the artists vying to see who will win.

But the denouement is tragic. Modigliani finishes, and asks Picasso to take his piece to the show. He goes to City Hall to marry Jeanne. After leaving late, he stops at a bar for a drink. And that foolish act leads to an ending whose bittersweet drama I don’t want to spoil.

The acting is excellent throughout. Hippolyte Girardot is notable as Maurice Utrillo, and Elsa Zylberstein is superb as Jeanne. But the best support is given by Omid Djalili as a smoldering, intense Picasso, who succeeds where Modigliani fails, but understands that his success did not result from greater genius. The amazing Andy Garcia gives a fabulous performance as Modigliani.

It was all very Nietzschean: brilliant young man does art his way, defies all slave moral conventions, and dies in poverty. The genius is spurned by hoi polloi too addled by slave morality to appreciate the works of the übermensch.

The critics panned this movie mercilessly, and it has some flaws — most importantly, you cannot appreciate the film without a knowledge of Modigliani’s biography, because it focuses only on his last year. (It also takes some liberties with the facts.) But the film powerfully conveys a unique friendship and rivalry, and explores an artist’s self-destructiveness. Very instructive, though not the makings of a box office bonanza.

And now — drum roll please! — coming in as number one on my list is a classic that holds up well, more than a generation after its making: Lust for Life (1956).

Like The Agony and the Ecstasy, this movie was based on a best-selling novel by Irving Stone. The director was the brilliant Vincente Minnelli. The film tells the tragic story of the life of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), with lavish attention to the man’s magnificent art. It follows the life of van Gogh from his youth, during which he his struggled to find a place as a missionary, to his mature years, during which he struggled to find a place as an artist. (The van Gogh family lineage was full of both artists and ministers.) Van Gogh is usually categorized with Gauguin, Cézanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec as the great post-impressionists.

Van Gogh is played by Kirk Douglas, who was primarily known as an action lead — adept at playing the tough guy outlaw or soldier (helped by his buff physique and chiseled handsome face). This was a casting gamble, but it paid off, with Douglas giving one of the best performances of his career, if not the best performance. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and won the Golden Globe for playing the mentally tormented van Gogh with credibility.

The support acting just doesn’t get any better. Most notable is Anthony Quinn as a young, egoistic, and arrogant Paul Gauguin, who for a brief time was van Gogh’s roommate, but couldn’t handle van Gogh’s emotional intensity and instability. Quinn rightly received an Oscar for best supporting acting. Also excellent is James Donald as van Gogh’s loyal brother Theo.

The story development and dialogue are first rate (the screenwriter Norman Corwin was nominated for an Oscar), as is the art direction (also nominated for an Oscar).

The movie showcases many of van Gogh’s paintings. It also explores the crucial role his brother played in keeping him painting, supporting him financially as well as emotionally. If it were not for Theo van Gogh, the world would likely have never known Vincent. The contrast with Moulin Rouge is stark: Toulouse-Lautrec never got the support of his father until it was too late.

Five films that did not make my list deserve honorable mention. The first must be of a picture I have reviewed for Liberty (October 2009), Seraphine (2009). It is a wonderfully filmed, historically accurate bioflick of the French “Naïve” painter Seraphine Louis (1864–1942). She was discovered by an art critic, flourished for a brief period after World War I, but with the Depression her career ended, and she was eventually confined to an asylum. The relatively unknown actress Yolande Moreau is simply wonderful in the lead role.

The second honorable mention is Convicts 4 (1962), which tells the true story of artist John Resko. Resko was condemned to death after he robbed and unintentionally killed a pawnshop owner while attempting to steal a stuffed toy for a Christmas gift for his daughter. He was given a reprieve shortly before his scheduled execution, and with the help of some fellow inmates adapted to prison life. In prison, he learned to paint, and came to the notice of art critic Carl Calmer, who fought for — and eventually, with the help of the family of the man Resko killed won Resko’s release. Ben Gazzara is outstanding as Resko, and Vincent Price (in real life an art critic and a major art collector) convincing as Calmer.

If the producers had wished to fictionalize the story, they should have done so, and changed the names.

Third honorable mention goes to the television movie Georgia O’Keeffe (2009). Again, since I recently reviewed this movie for Liberty (August 2010), I will be brief. The film gives a nice account of one of the first American artists to win international acclaim, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). It focuses on her most important romantic and professional relationship, the one with Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer and art impresario. O’Keefe (played superlatively by Joan Allen) was hurt by Stieglitz’s philandering, but they remained mutually supportive professionally, even after a painful parting. Jeremy Irons is superb as Stieglitz.

As I noted in my review, at the end of the movie, one is left to wonder why Stieglitz was so callous in his treatment of O’Keeffe (in flouting his adultery, and in one scene bragging about his new paramour’s having his child to O’Keeffe, with whom he had earlier angrily dismissed the idea of having children). Was this merely the blindness of narcissism, or was there an undercurrent of profound envy at his wife’s success as an artist — one greater than his?

Fourth honorable mention is Artemisia (1998), based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656). She was one of the earliest women painters to win widespread acclaim, being the first woman artist accepted into Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno. The film is gorgeously produced, with a first-rate performance by Valentina Cervi as Artemisia and Miki Manojlovic as Agostino Tassi. Its major flaw is its historical inaccuracy, portraying Tassi as Artemisia’s chosen lover, while in fact he was her rapist. If the producers had wished to fictionalize the story, they should have done so, and changed the names. Stretching or selectively omitting history in a bioflick can make sense, but a total inversion of a pivotal event is a major flaw.

Watching a large number of movies about artists over a short period of time can be a recipe for depression.

The fifth film receiving honorable mention is Basquiat (1996), a good movie about the sad life of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), who was one of the earliest African-Americans to become an internationally known artist. He was born in Brooklyn, and despite his aptitude for art and evident intelligence (including fluency in several languages and widespread reading in poetry and history), he dropped out of high school. He survived on the street by selling t-shirts and postcards, and got his earliest notice as a graffiti artist using the moniker “SAMO.” In the late 1970s, he was a member of the band Gray. In the early 1980s his paintings began to attract notice, especially when he became part of Andy Warhol’s circle. In the mid-1980s, he became extremely successful, but also got more caught up in drugs, which led to his early demise from a heroin overdose. Jeffrey Wright is superb as Basquiat, as are David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper as the international art dealer and gallerist Bruno Bischofberger. Also compelling is Gary Oldman as artist Albert Milo, a fictionalized version of the director Julian Schnabel.

Watching a large number of movies about artists over a short period of time can be a recipe for depression, given the amount of tragedy and pain on display. Often this pain was caused by a lack of public and critical recognition or support, leading great painters to experience genuine deprivation and what must have been the torment of self-doubt. Worse, the pain was sometimes self-inflicted or inflicted on others, because of the narcissism or lack of self-control that made such messy lives for so many artists.

But watching these films is intellectually as well as visually rewarding. You see the triumph of creative will over unfavorable conditions and outright opposition — and the beauty that unique individuals have contributed to the world.




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Sorry, I'll Take the Plane

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If a freight train leaves Brewster at 9:25 traveling east at 70 miles an hour, and another train leaves Stanton at 9:45 traveling west at 50 miles an hour on the same track, how long will it take before a 98-minute movie becomes suspenseful?

Unfortunately for the viewers, about an hour.

Unstoppable, a movie about a driverless runaway train barreling toward another train full of schoolchildren, ought to be fraught with tension. Add to the out-of-control train several freight cars full of toxic, combustible chemicals that could contaminate whole towns along the way, and the adrenaline should start gushing.

Oddly, however, the tension never mounts. This film has its moments, but that's part of the problem: they are only moments. If a train traveling 70 miles an hour in one direction passes a train slipping onto a side rail going the other way, just in the nick of time, how long does the moment last? A few seconds. In this movie, trains always manage to pull onto the side rails just in time, leaving the audience with all the excitement of playing a game of Snakes on a cell phone. And since the filmmakers give us almost no backstory about the people whose lives are in danger, we feel no cathartic worry or relief until the last half hour of the film, when we finally learn a few things about Frank (Denzel Washington), the 28-year veteran driving a rescue train, and Will (Chris Pine), the rookie on his first assignment as a conductor. Ultimately this is a film about a rookie becoming a man, and that's a pretty good theme. But it takes too long to get there.

The filmmakers want us to regard their work as a metaphor for the BP disaster, blaming the crisis on corporate greed, but it doesn't quite work. The film's initial crisis is caused by driver error, not cost-cutting: when a bloated, bumbling engineer (Ethan Suplee) jumps off a slowly moving train to switch the rails, it gathers speed and gets away from him.

The crisis seems to become more corporate-driven when the VP of Operations (Kevin Dunn) rejects the local yardmaster's suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. "We aren't going to destroy an entire trainload of cars," he barks, obviously worried more about the bottom line than about avoiding human injuries.

Adding to the sense of corporate greed and insensitivity, the company's owner (Andy Umberger) is reached on the golf course, where he gives instructions and goes back to his game. Oh, these dirty, greedy capitalists! Selfish to the core! It's clearly a reference to BP President Tony Hayward's decision last summer to attend the annual sailing regatta around the Isle of Wight while millions of gallons of crude were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

But isn't it wise and prudent for a company to examine all its options before derailing an expensive asset and possibly releasing toxic elements into the environment, even if that environment is outside the city limits? Doesn't every company have to balance the costs of safety and employee benefits against consumer prices and profits? If costs outweigh profits, the company will simply cease to function. Moreover, one has to wonder why the seasoned VP of Operations would trust the judgment of a young, nubile, strangely glamorous yardmaster Connie (30-year-old Rosario Dawson), whose employee caused the problem in the first place.

The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems — the switching of the rails to change a train's course, the dead man's automatic braking system (unavailable in this case because the same bumbling engineer hasn't taken time to connect the air brakes), the use of external locomotives to slow a runaway train, and even frontage roads that allow access to moving trains. All of this makes the film interesting, if not fascinating.

Denzel Washington worked with director Tony Scott last year on a taut, suspenseful runaway train movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), so they should know how to build suspense: Make us care about the characters. That 2009 film is more about the cat-and-mouse interplay between Washington's character and John Travolta's crazed antagonist than it is about the train, and it works. By contrast, this film feels almost like a made-for-TV documentary reenactment, and it doesn't work.

Watch for Unstoppable in your local television listings. It will be there soon. But it isn't worth the price of a theater ticket when so many better fil

#39;s suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems


Editor's Note: Review of "Unstoppable," directed by Tony Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010, 98 minutes.



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