A different way of looking at Van Gogh. `Wild man' image is played down, his quest for beauty emphasized

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``Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh,'' one of the season's most unusual movies, has its American premi`ere next Wednesday at the enterprising Film Forum in Manhattan. In structure, ``Vincent'' falls between the documentary format and what Hollywood calls a ``biopic.'' In content, it's provocative in its ideas and often dazzling to watch and listen to.

The film's narrative impulse comes from its sound track, which consists primarily of John Hurt's voice as he reads from Van Gogh's letters. The screen, meanwhile, is filled with images relating to Van Gogh's short but intense life - landscapes he loved, places he visited, canvases he painted.

Using these elements, director Paul Cox might have assembled a standard documentary, dryly spelling out the facts of Van Gogh's life. Instead he has chosen a more impressionistic approach. Perhaps this resulted from a feeling of kinship with the artist: Mr. Cox lives and works in Australia, but he was born and raised in the Netherlands, the country of Van Gogh himself. In any case, ``Vincent'' doesn't jump from one event to another like a conventional film. It employs Van Gogh's own words and pictures to evoke his personality - his emotions, his moods, the mental problems that challenged him - in a boldly subjective way.

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Just as important, Cox paints a portrait of the artist that scrupulously avoids the commonly held notion of a wild man filled with insane passions and self-directed violence. The film never mentions the well-known fit of madness that led Van Gogh to mutilate his ear, and it never dwells on his mental difficulties for their own sake. Instead it focuses on his tremendous creativity and devotion to art. One doesn't leave ``Vincent'' pondering his insanity, as deep and tormenting as that surely was. One is more likely to remember a phrase from one of his letters: ``My greatest desire is to make beautiful things ... and I don't want that beauty to come from the material, but from within myself.''

Those words come from the lengthy correspondence between Van Gogh and his brother Theo, whom he obviously loved a great deal. As we listen to them, and others just as penetrating, the camera moves in closely and lovingly on Van Gogh's paintings, letting us savor their smallest details in wide-screen splendor: brushstrokes that conjure up stormy emotions, spots of color and texture that look more like glittering jewels than dabs of oil on a canvas.

The verbal dimension of the film, spoken by Hurt with quiet sensitivity, helps us understand the aspirations that went into creating these pictures. It demonstrates that Van Gogh, like any other great artist, was not ``a man possessed'' who flung down his paint in mad fits of inspiration. As his own words make clear, he was profoundly self-aware as an artist. He was an intellectual who thought deeply and seriously about his work, and how he could accomplish his aims most effectively.

``Vincent'' is not a perfect example of its self-invented genre. When it leaves Van Gogh's canvases for excursions into the world of nature, its images seem purposeless and even trite at times. Also less than convincing are scenes and tableaux that Cox has staged: views of a saloon where Van Gogh hung out, for example, and shots of an actress who silently plays the artist's common-law wife.

The movie seems most alive when it meditates on Van Gogh's actual paintings and drawings, including some early works that have not been accessible before now to the public. Even these portions of the film are likely to fuel heated discussion, since some critics have long debated whether it's proper for films to appropriate great paintings as a main ingredient of their visual content.

There are good reasons for coming down on the negative side of this question. When the camera photographs a small and isolated portion of a canvas, it destroys the unity of the painting as a whole. When the camera travels over the surface of a canvas, it forces the spectator to view the painting in one particular way, chosen from a nearly infinite number of possibilities. When the camera takes an extended time to traverse a canvas, it transforms the painting from an object in space to an experience in time.

Looking at an achievement like ``Vincent'' from a cinematic rather than a painterly viewpoint, however - and responding to its undeniably dramatic beauty - one tends to agree with critics who have embraced the painting-film genre with enthusiasm. And there are respected theoretical arguments on their side. The influential theorist Siegfried Kracauer, for example, lauded cinema for its ability not only to reproduce the surfaces of the physical world, but to reveal dimensions not visible in other ways - as during close-ups which, helped by special lighting techniques, capture details of a painting not appreciated or even suspected before.

Also relevant are the views of Andr'e Bazin, the great French theorist. He wrote that cinema can provide a painting with ``a new form of existence,'' and that the resulting ``aesthetic symbiosis'' is as valid as opera - which is itself a synthesis of theater and music. As for the propriety of singling out small portions of a large canvas, Bazin insisted that ``in pulling the work apart, in breaking up its component parts, in making an assault on its very essence ... the film compels it to deliver up some of its hidden powers.''

Such arguments are compelling, even if they don't invalidate the objections I've mentioned - or the suspicion of some critics (including this one) that filmed paintings are too easily mistaken for ``the real thing'' by spectators who don't fully realize how different an actual Van Gogh is from its on-screen surrogate.

The film makes it clear that Van Gogh, however deliberative in his work, was also touched by something we can only call inspiration, and that he was affected by this in ways that went far beyond his own comprehension. ``Vincent'' celebrates that inspiration - transforming Van Gogh's exalted art into cinema that, at its best moments, seems inspired too.

``Vincent'' was filmed in the Netherlands and France, with cooperation from museums in both countries, in tribute to Van Gogh as the centenary of his death approaches in 1990. He was 37 years old when he committed suicide, and had sold only one of the 1,800 works he had completed. Late last year, his ``Irises'' painting - done in 1889, during his first week in a French asylum - sold for almost $54 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art.

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