Vincente Minnelli's "Lust for Life" (1956)
In September 18, 1956, after the premiere of Lust for Life, Bosley Crowther wrote beautifully in New York Times, despite greatly sinning by not crediting Vincente Minnelli, THE ARTIST himself:
"... it is gratifying to see that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in the persons of producer John Houseman and a crew of superb technicians, has consciously made the flow of color and the interplay of compositions and hues the most forceful devices for conveying a motion picture comprehension of van Gogh.
In "Lust for Life," (...) color dominates the dramatization—the color of indoor sets and outdoor scenes, the color of beautifully reproduced van Gogh paintings, even the colors of a man's tempestuous moods. These pictorial color continuities, planned like a musical score, have more effect upon the senses than the playing of Kirk Douglas in the leading role."
First time I saw Lust for Life, I said to a friend of mine: "It's the portrait of an artist, by an even better one." I still don't disagree with this.
Just like Van Gogh, Minnelli is an expressionist... All artists are.
There is such grace, and powerful drama. It's the story of a man who can't be happy (or sane) because of some inner conflict he (or we) can't put into words. He can only put them in paintings, and I'm pretty sure Minnelli, in his own way, feels the same. Notice how dark Lust for Life is, especially at points there is no good reason in the plot to be dramatic, but the inner workings of the human psyche work beyond psychology, and beyond explanation.
Vincent says: "Sometimes I work on into the night, hardly conscious of myself anymore, and the pictures come to me as in a dream with a terrible lucidity." and somewhere else: "I work as a miner who knows he's facing disaster."
Is this Minnelli talking to us somehow?
The story of someone who committed suicide, who suffered all his life, and the title is: Lust for Life. I find this a simple proof of how Minnelli's vision goes beyond the common ways of seeing things. As stated twice in the film, death "happens in a bright daylight, the sun flooding everything and in a light of pure gold."
The best moment of Lust for Life, and perhaps one of the highest points in all Hollywood, comes at a very unexpected, seemingly unimportant moment. It's just a pan following Theo's wife, from the window to the door where she'll be greeting Vincent. The decor, the costumes, everything is the exact opposite of what's going on in Vincent's life. It's the antithesis of the whole movie, in some way, included in the movie. She looks at herself in the mirror for a second, to make sure she's perfectly beautiful. Yes she has happiness, but is it real?
Then the camera pans back, the characters move around, etc. It's a choreography of bodies and camera moves impossible to explain in words... The whole shot lasts 2 minutes 56 seconds.
Just like Tag Gallagher says, Lust of Life is a "super masterpiece".
You can read ALL OF Vincent Van Gogh's letters here.
I think he gets it!
I'm not very familiar with Deleuze, which is partly why I have trouble understanding exactly what he's trying to get at. It is sure that he "gets" Minnelli in the sense that he sees a lot of his formal qualities. And the point about "absorption in color" is correct.
But there's something I strongly disagree with Deleuze:
Minnelli may not be as distant as Mizoguchi (for example), but he also has distance from his characters. Sometimes such distance that in "Lust for Life" we feel, at many points, that Vincent is naive and too immersed in his "dream" to recognize the outside world.
I don't think Minnelli is limited in any way by Vincent's "dreams". And saying that his use of space is only an extension of the inner worlds of his characters seems to be an over simplification.
That Deleuze defines a character's "dream" as "dream of others and the past of others" or "the dream of power of an Other" doesn't change the fact that he seems to think that the form revolves around one character. And for Minnelli, this is simply not true.
For example, in "Some Came Running", the movie revolves around many characters, and beyond them. The final camera move cannot be explained by the "dreams" (or "the dreams of others") of any one character.
But I might be missing the point. I really don't know Deleuze well...
I appreciate this segment for the salience with which he describes Minnelli's deployment of color. It's better than many other descriptions I've read, even those by Tag and Fred, in that it events a good vocabulary for Minnelli. "absorbent" is an excellent term.
In some sense, I view criticism as an attempt to find the right language for a given work of art. I like things that seem to 'fit' with the art as I've experienced it, rather than just analyze. This is why I hate a lot of academic writing, even if it is perceptive.
Vincente Minnelli (Chicago. 1903-86). Minnelli was a decorator for department stores and a set designer for Broadway shows before embarking, at age 40, on a film career customarily noted, first, for its remarkable musicals—indeed, Minnelli’s other films are not even mentioned in Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary—and, second, for its surfeit of style and dearth of substance or personality.
The second misjudgment perhaps follows from the first. The Hollywood musical, following its Broadway parentage, was the most restrictive of genres, not only in its subservience to structure, but far more, particularly at Minnelli's home studio, Metro, to middle-class platitudes, cuteness, picturesqueness, and the cult of the pedestrian. It is instructive that the only scene in which Minnelli’s Madame Bovary takes on fire is the neurasthenic waltz where passion bursts social constraint, or that his romantic leads who always succeed are banal beaux and blah belles, while his lonely losers are caustic pugs and ardent gamins of genuine talent and personality (Oscar Levant versus Gene Kelly in An American in Paris  and The Band Wagon ; Van Johnson in Brigadoon ). No matter how sincerely Minnelli believes that only sincerity is necessary to make our dreams come true, the doctrine never inspires him the way it does Murnau in Sunrise (1927), Borzage in Seventh Heaven (1927), McCarey in Love Affair (1939), or Dreyer in Ordet (1955). Transports of ecstasy and yearning in Minnelli’s musicals are squelched by the urbanity of Lerner & Loewe, where rapture takes the form of a sap crooning “It’s Almost like Being in Love.” In Minnelli’s melodramas there is no almost; there is insanity and rage, the word “almost” cannot possibly modify love, and it is precisely urbanity that is being opposed at every second by passions as extreme as possible: witness society’s incapacity to accommodate Van Gogh (Lust for Life ), Tom Lee (Tea and Sympathy  or Dave Hirsh (Some Came Running ).
In the musicals “home” is a paradise that is always gained, as in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) or Brigadoon. In the melodramas “home” is the unfindable place where we belong. When lovers gaze at each other across the screen, the scene is a prelude to a pedestrian embrace in the musicals; but in the melodramas, where the embrace never comes, such scenes are the high points of the pictures: who can forget Van Gogh staring at the minister’s daughter, Deborah Carr staring at Tom Lee, Dave Hirsch confronting Martha Hyer in her bedroom mirror?
I found one part of your article especially inspiring:
"it is precisely urbanity that is being opposed at every second by passions as extreme as possible:"
This, for me, explains not only Minnelli's melodramas, but many others... Like Fred also says, melodramas are usually about "the ways in which society opposes personal freedom."
An important question, I think:
"What is, specifically, the values that are oppressing the individual?"
Every work, and every director, answers, or elaborates on this question in different ways...
As an example, I find the issue of "sanity" in "Lust for Life" very important. Society doesn't know how to deal with, or incorporate, individuals who are not necessarily logical.
And one of the most tragic lines in the whole film, I think, is Theo saying to his brother: "Try to be reasonable, Vincent!"
The issue of "absorption in color" that Edo pointed out is tied very closely to this in "Lust for Life", I think.
Finally, the title of the film itself sides with Vincent, it's him and Gaugin, with their irrational existances, who have a lust for life. Theo's wife, on the other hand, may be happy, but she has no passions...