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Lust for Life

No matter how good computer trickery gets — and it's gotten pretty sophisticated — there are just some things that can't be faked. And as cinema has become enveloped in an age that falsely suggests digital reality can be as good as the real thing, it's heartening to return to an era of filmmaking where a director wanted as much realism as he could get his hands on. Take for instance Vincent Minnelli's 1956 Lust for Life: It isn't necessary to know that the majority of the Vincent Van Gogh paintings included are the genuine article — and often many of the paintings are in the background to this biography of the troubled painter. But that they are real, that Van Gogh was the one who painted them, adds to the film's quality in ways that are felt more than understood. A viewer occasionally may be fooled by computer generated imagery, but a trick — no matter how well produced — is simply such. When it comes to things that can be experienced, mere lines of software cannot equal the tangible. Great directors are as aware of the minutia as they are of the big picture; Vincent Minnelli is of their class. With his telling of Van Gogh's life, he assembled the greatest touring show of Van Gogh's artwork ever collected to marry nearly 200 of the master's works to the film. Lust for Life would be worthwhile for that alone. Just the same, it's pleasing to note that it's also one of cinema's best portraits of impassioned artistry.

Kirk Douglas stars as Vincent Van Gogh, who we first meet as he's moving to a poor Belgian mining town to become a priest like his father before him. Fighting with the elder priests, who think a man of the cloth should not sully his clothes by being with the people, he leaves the profession to return to his family in Holland. A botched marriage proposal later, Vincent discovers that the profession he loves most is painting, and with the support of his brother Theo (James Donald), he assumes an artist's life in Paris. At first Vincent finds company with Christine (Pamela Brown), a woman who already has a child, but painting is his overwhelming concern — he spends more of his money on painting supplies than creature comforts, all of which are provided by his brother. When their relationship ends, Vincent moves away and forms a retreat with artist Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn). But being with a fellow painter is both a help and hindrance, as the two approach their vocation from different angles: Vincent has an intense, near-masochistic sensibility to creating his art, which Gaugin only shares in life. After a growing conflict, Gaugin decides to leave the retreat, after which Vincent cuts off his ear. This leads Van Gogh to a mental institution, where seizures occur with greater frequency, leading to his death, by suicide, at the age of thirty-seven.

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Anthony Quinn won an Academy Award for his role in Lust for Life as Paul Gaugin, which is impressive considering his screen-time has been clocked at 12 minutes. And yet, for this small facet of the picture, in it lies one of the great themes of the work. As played by Kirk Douglas (an actor who never mastered restraint), Van Gogh is an emotional wreck who can't stop passive-aggressively destroying his relationships with women and friends. Seeing these two artists try to work together paints a very real portrait of the struggles of creative people — Douglas and Quinn reveal how artists simultaneously need and reject others by the very force of their creativity. Though he would find comfort in the studio system, director Vincente Minnelli was also a passionate director in the classic Hollywood mold; his touch was an invisible but elegant control that never made the director's presence obvious. Lust for Life ranks among his great films, and he even manages to capture Kirk Douglas's finest performance on the screen. Minnelli was best known for his musicals and melodramas, but where some of his other pictures border on camp, this is a deeply felt work. Some see the script as a smuggled statement on homosexuality — in the movie, Van Gogh cuts off his ear because of Gaugin (in reality, he gave the severed ear to a prostitute). Minnelli was a closeted homosexual (he would marry four times), and one senses some of his burden in Van Gogh's struggle, although never in an overt way.

Warner Home Video presents Lust for Life in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The film was shot in a process known as Metrocolor, which has caused many color titles to fade over the years. The transfer is fine here, with the color palette looking good for its age. It's also interesting to note that the film required special lighting to preserve the paintings included, since the normal wattage used for film shoots would ruin the priceless artwork. The surround mix is very front channel centric, but fine. Extras include a commentary by Drew Casper, who covers not only the film and its significance, but places the film and America's interest in Van Gogh in its context. Also included is a theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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