At Eternity's Gate

A sentence consisting of one word (“as”), and two names, was all it took to get me to the theater to this movie (without knowing anything else about it)—“Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh.” Though I did also know it was made by Julian Schnabel. It's odd that he went from being a painter I made fun of (not counting how he painted his house, which is awesome) to a filmmaker who I'll automatically buy a ticket for. His movies even made me like him as a painter. I even wish he was my friend, and not only because he'd probably never let me pay for lunch. It might freak me out to have Willem Dafoe as a friend, though, because, on one hand, he seems almost too much like a “regular guy” (he's from Wisconsin, after all)—but also, there's something powerfully disturbing about him—even ordering coffee. This is weirdly at least the third movie where he's kind of played Christ (Last Temptation... and Platoon), but he's in a lot of movies, so I'm always hoping I don't accidentally see him in a shitty superhero action movie, or Meet the Fockers 11. Weirdly, and kind of contradicting what I just said, I long to see him remake every dystopian Charlton Heston movie. He will say a certain line and it will plunge you right into Soylent Green (1973). What if someone wrote a movie for him—not a remake, or a sequel—that takes the very best parts of Soylent Green, the first two Planet of the Apes (1968/1970), and The Omega Man (1971) and gets the combination of low-budget cheesiness and real end-of-the-world paranoiac despair right? I'm throwing that idea out there, for free! Invite me to a press screening!

This movie gave me anxiety, inspired me, bored me, made me think, nauseated me, and made me sad in equal parts. Bravo Julian Schnabel! I didn't laugh much, but I'm really getting kind of anti always-need-to-laugh—and I'm as guilty at that sentiment as anyone. Don't need to laugh at the doctor's office, the dentist, in court, or at church. At a job, yes. Anyway, for one thing, I think this movie made me reconsider Vincent van Gogh, which is no small thing—it's kind of like reconsidering pants. I don't think a movie can be a great way of experiencing a painter's art, but it's at least better than reproductions in a book, or on your computer. I've seen a handful of Van Gogh paintings in person, but some of them I'd already been beyond being able to make the leap from art history class, the Masterpiece game, greeting cards and coffee mugs. There are three or four of his paintings that are just... irretrievable. Fortunately, he painted more. I will make a point (I always do) to see some I've never seen—in a museum, someday, hopefully. The impressive thing this movie did, though, was helped me to see his paintings as weird and ugly and unpleasant—as many of his contemporaries did. It's kind of a miracle that any of his paintings even survived, but then, this clown painting by Mary somebody is surviving in my apartment. But you know, this was before the days of Shurgard storage, and people probably burned Rembrandts for heat. I'm not even sure, now, at this point, if Van Gogh's paintings are any good. He was obviously “mentally ill”—but we all are, to some degree—and does it matter if it was the wormwood or the bad stuff in the paint or heredity? Does it matter if people were better or worse, smarter or dumber, then or now? The truly crazy thing is how much money people pay for art, in general, and that people can still look at it the same way. Or maybe they can't. That's in this movie, as well as score music that is at once beautiful and ear melting, and visual details that enveloped me in warmth and also terrified me, and dialogue sometimes deceptively simple, and sometimes beyond inscrutable, and performances ranging from laughable to seamless to powerful. It was kind of like a Shakey's Buffet in Heaven—thanks Schnabel!

Randy Russell 12.25.18