The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ghosts of Artist Past

Sometimes I read movie reviews and wonder how a person gets a job like that. How can they be paid to put words to paper that bash creative ones, or pump-up others to an insane degree? More importantly, why is it that a movie’s success depends on the critics at all? Couldn’t a great movie withstand the hoopla of critic bashing and still perform well? Unfortunately, most of the time they don’t, especially if that movie was not produced in Hollywood. I’m going to introduce to you what I think is a great movie that critics have soundly trashed. There will be some spoilers in here, but knowing parts of the story will not ruin the movie for you. This film is fiction based on truth and I think the human behavior aspect of it is simply priceless.

Goya’s Ghosts (2006) has several elements that made it attractive for me.  First positive element: It is a story told from an artist’s point of view and that’s a natural interest for a mind like mine. I love art … particularly art history.  Granted, Goya is not one of my favorites – I find most of his work repulsive and dark. But, why wouldn’t it be? He lived through the Spanish Inquisition and saw things few humans could stomach, so of course his paintings colourfully depict brutality and nightmarish visions.

Francisco Goya is fascinating in the sense that he is regarded as both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. He was a painter of royalty on the one hand, and a macabre printmaker on the other, whose prints created images depicting, what he called, “...the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.”  They were very dark visions.

The movie does a fabulous job showing the artist working at his craft ... it is played so naturally that you don’t realize what you are seeing. Printmaking, for example, is shown step by step with process explained through doing. The same holds true for oil painting and sketching. As an artist, I appreciate a certain ‘realness’ when art production is shown and I like to understand how things are made. Goya would have painted just as it was played for the movie – it’s a very traditional process that has nothing to do with the modern directive of inner visions or personal emotions. It is always delightful to watch an artist properly work in the context of actual historic processes.

Second positive element: The movie was directed by Milos Forman. A few of my all time favorites where directed by this man and his sense of visual interests and story-thread certainly appeal to me … One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. The People vs. Larry Flynt (a surprisingly good movie). Man in the Moon. Amadeus … Every one of these is a psychological study of human condition and reaction. I did not doubt that Goya’s Ghosts would deliver in that respect as well.

After a few Milos Forman movies I found myself wondering what it was that drove him to concentrate so intently on the psyche of an individual human mind under stressful conditions, and how it relates to others’ minds as they weave and interact through life. Most notable in his history is the truth that his parents died in a concentration camp under Hitler’s regime. Could that be his driving force? Perhaps. Certainly, I’ve never seen another who could so effectively develop a stressed character like Milos can – a character that is intensely portrayed by the subtlest of gestures, the nuances of body language, the inflection of vocal tone. I do not understand how he draws this quality from actors, he just certainly and consistently does it.

Third positive element: The movie was produced and filmed in Spain, not a Hollywood production. Hollywood can tire me sometimes, with their fast paced and visually intense productions – especially with epic historical dramas. I do enjoy costumes and panoramic sets, though sometimes those can overwhelm the story. This tale was about an era that was grungy, harsh, yet beautiful. Having Spaniards tell  me about it would add a bit of authenticity, and I liked the thought of that. It could feel grand without trying so hard and every detail in the backdrop could be just right. I was eager to experience Spain.

Forth positive element: Critics absolutely hated it.  I think it is one of the most dissed films I’ve ever read about in reviews (right up there with Amelia). None complained about the acting, nor the costumes and sets, in fact they liked that stuff. They just expected more and complained that it was undercooked. I don’t know what that means.

Here’s the truth about this film. It’s more accurate, historically, than most any film out there. There were only two glaring errors that I could see: One, the film begins in 1792 with the inquisition examining the “Los Caprichos” etchings. Goya did not create those until 1797. Two, when Goya unveiled the unflattering portrait of Queen Maria Louisa she was deeply offended and huffed out of the room. In reality, she loved the painting so much that she promoted Goya to first court painter. Both of those twists on reality where done to direct the story certain ways and I got through them without complaint. This story wasn’t a biography of Goya’s life and career. It was a study in human behavior and it involves three characters that are figuring out how to survive a time of extreme chaos and turmoil.

Visually, everything worked. Natalie Portman was cast as Ines after Milos Forman recognized her likeness to the girl in Goya’s painting “Milkmaid of Bordeaux”. She played a wealthy merchant’s teenage daughter whose portrait was painted by Goya, and who also sat for him as a model for angels in public murals and such. Portman does her part so well one could say she actually plays three roles in the film … pre-Inquisition Ines, post-Inquisition Ines, as well as her grown daughter, Alicia. There is a certain madness that Milos seems to appreciate and showcase, and Portman naturally provides that element to the film. She does hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology (Harvard) so I suppose her mental probing of the character would be the expected thing for her to do. She does seem to delight in the insanity of it all. There are times when you watch and think, man, the girl is completely mad and moments later she comes across sharp and clear, very aware of what is happening in her world. She sort of fades in and out of reality as the story moves along, in a not so obvious way. It’s brilliantly played and rather charming, in a weird kind of way. I ended the film feeling empathetic for the Ines, and loving her for all her madness. It’s funny … I reflected Goya in respect to the girl and found myself thinking about her for days after I watched the movie.

As for Goya, Stellan Skarsgrd looks very much like the painter. What I enjoyed about him was the complete normalcy of the man, both in appearance and in action. He was simply a painter who networked and searched for whatever commissions he could find. He was not a handsome and dashing Spaniard (as Hollywood probably would have cast him), just an average looking fellow who finagled himself through the chaos. He was portrayed as decency incarnated, which is everything I imagined Goya to be.

The third arm of the triad of characters is Lorenzo, played by Javir Baldem. Lorenzo is a person that is easily hard to take, yet as his character developed I began to understand his motives, and I did wrap myself around his persona before the movie was through. I liked Baldem in this role … a lot. He has a nice perspective on his job as an actor, once saying, “I truly believe that what I would like to portray on-screen are human beings, and human beings usually are not as handsome as movie stars.” Again, it’s all about personality studies and this movie was perfectly cast. Just watch the transformation of Lorenzo, from the opening scene to the last ... it is an astonishing journey of a man searching for conscience of faith.

The historical setting for this movie is huge. We experience the rebirth of the Spanish Inquisition, then turmoil at the end of Catholic rule as Napolian’s army invades and conquers Spain, and finally England barrels in and frees the Spanish from French occupation, and the liberated ones bring back Catholic rule in the end. What a waste through war, is what we see, and all things that turn around come around again. Goya’s etchings, which are shown throughout the movie, reflect things he witnessed – both the brutality of war and life in 18th century Spain. What Goya drew and painted is shown on film and whether you realize it or not, his eyes directed Forman in respect to set, just as Forman’s mind directed the psychology of it all. And, throughout that process, the three primary characters are continually finding each other’s orbit as we walk through this truly disturbing part of history.

I wonder what critics are thinking sometimes. Are they more concerned about a movie being enlightening, or cutting-edge, or faster or brighter or louder or more animated than the last one, or … what? What does under-cooked mean, anyway? The movie is almost there? It’s not well exicuted? One theme I caught through all the reviews I read was that every one of them missed the entire point of the film.  This is NOT about Goya or his muse. The title even states that clearly. It’s about ghosts. Not Goya’s ghost.  Goya’s ghosts ... more than one haunting person that belonged to the man. It’s not a history lesson about the ups and downs of the Spanish Inquisition, either, or foriegn occupation or political upheaval at all. A ghost is not events or time or space or subject matter. It’s a haunting person. More than one is haunting people. … and haunting generally indicates a troubled soul ... unable to rest.

When watching a movie like this, which is really a movie about pshychological evaluation/penetration, I find myelf examining things like being ‘put to the question’. What would I do should that have been me? Whould I say I love pork after all, or that my mother was a monkey? Or would I hold faith so dear that I’d suffer the pain? I must ponder piety, morality, civic duty, and basic survival to find that answer. And even then, I know I would have to live it … to feel the pain for the truth of it all is more than I can imagine.

Grasping this concept is not hard. Goya was an artist who chronicled a time. His paintings and drawings share with us what touched his heart through eyes that saw things few ever see. His ghosts are with us today – on his canvases.  He gave us souls who struggled and suffered and most did not survive. His people. His country. Ines could easily represent his homeland as a victim who never gave up. Lorenzo would be the heart of the country that forever searched for conscience. And Goya is the steady and decent soul.

You must look at this movie from an artist's eye and it will make more sense than any critic can imagine.


courdeleon said...

You always make me want to explore more.
The first place I went was to "Rotten Tomatoes" where all kinds of reviews are listed by all kinds of people. I think you would be pleasantly surprised that even though someone said about 70% or critics panned this movie several reviews there saw what you saw. I bet they had the hearts of a painter:)

Since I don't have that, I might not see what you saw. It may be just too dark for me! But I will put it in my Que on Netflixs:)

Irelock said...

I would bet the reviews the you saw that were leaning decent were from everyday, normal people who like to watch movies. When I trash on critics, I'm smacking at the ones most consider 'the' critics (the ones who do get paid big bucks to do what they do) I've seen stats where more than 90% percent of the those panned the film.

I am glad you explore and learn more about things that I write. That is the point of this thing that I do. I'm hoping by reviewing this film, and explaining a certain way to view it, it will be a much better story for you. There is so much to learn from it, and as dark as that time was, it handles it in a way that is watch-able. Think about those artists eyes as the film moves along, and remember this darkness is human nature, not made up or pretend entertainment. The worst thing we could ever do is close our eyes to what we have done, for then we are destined to repeat it.

Do let me and our followers know what you think of the film ... and thanks again for reading, Courdeleon.

Anonymous said...

This was a good movie, maybe not in the sense of "wow I was so entertained that I want ice cream now!" or something like that. When I was done watching it I thought "Damn, the inquisition really knew how to ruin a life! All because that girl didn't like pork..." I did find myself thinking about that movie for days if not weeks after seeing it. Maybe the critics hated it because it was realistic. Even in it's extremes it seemed so real. I was just amazed that Goya survived the times making the kind of prints he did. oh, this is Goldie, for some reason it's not letting my comment as me.....

Irelock said...

Hi, Goldie ... watching it a second time makes all the difference. What you described above is exactly how I felt after the first sit down with it, the second time was truly a powerful experience. I think that is because I knew what was coming, and I had an idea about what I should focus on. There really is a lot of information in this relatively short story ... I'm actually eager to watch it again, I think there is even more to it than I realize. That's such a Milos Forman thing .... his movies keep me coming back for more.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Great write-up on the Goya movie and his work. Makes me want to see the film and also learn more about the artist. Had you had been my instructor in art college I might have been more interested in the History of Art course I had to take.

Irelock said...

Thanks, Junebug! Goya's work is dark, but once you understand why it's much easier to appreciate. Do see this film ... I know you are a painter and I'm sure this movie will mean more to you than most people.

Art History is very interesting, if you dig beyond the boring stats they teach in college. The human part of all the creators is fascinating and I'll always have stories that speak about that stuff pop up in this blog ... just like this Goya. He's more interesting now, isn't he?

glaciallight said...

Glaciallight here in the searing heat of a Monday evening,just two days away from the summer solstice.

The description of the movie I'd never heard of,"Goya's Ghosts,"is in my book (I have only one) the BEST piece I've read in Critical Round-up .

Before I go on, the front page of yesterday's (7/18/2010)Sunday New York Times,in the lower right hand corner, carried a piece written by Jenna Wortham titled "As More Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out to Reconnect." In the context of how "Goya's Ghosts"is described, it's a very good and timely match.

Because this is my first posted comment, FYI those reading this, I'm one of many artists in residence living at the Curley School, an artists' colony in Ajo,an exceeding small former copper, silver, and gold mining town in southwestern Arizona.

The Curley school is currently going through it very own Inquisition, I think as a result of the sleep deprivation we are all suffering from as one by one, the air conditioning in our leased apartments fails.

Here's the crux of the controversy. About a week ago, the senior potter of this group of artists had his new pottery studio opening without (and I think innocently) informing all those invited that there would be a Roman Catholic blessing of the studio. After the event, one, then two, then several email broadsides were fired, turning the incident into a major moral & political conflagration. After days of watching this grow beyond the bounds of reason,I joined the fray with my own canons on fire:

"I want to make a case, a plea for harmony to stop this senseless brush fire.

But today, each time I touched the keyboard, I found every opening sentence I could think of contained a passionate paraphrase of 'I don't have a dog in this fight. If I did, your dog would already be dead.' I chose to bite my tongue off instead, and did so only after watching '10 Questions for the Dalai Lama' online as a major storm passed over Ajo.

In answering the question 'When is appropriate to stand your ground, to strike an enemy?' the Dalai Lama said essentially (i.e. my words)
'Only when it is done to remove yourself from harm and does not go beyond that.'

Peace, my brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, all.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

- George Santayana

I share this because I - with some concern that in doing so I would be misunderstood - was very brief and intentionally used lurid images like Goya's so as not to be easily dismissed. I relate more now than ever with that part of Goya, and it is because of what you wrote, Olivia.

Thank you.


Irelock said...

Thank you very much, Glaciallight, and welcome to the comment area of my blog. I hope your community finds a solution to your mini-inquisition so art production can, as it should, be the center of the world there. How fascinating a situation!

I look forward to hearing more from you as we move along with my blog.

Anonymous said...

Olivia! I just took out time to read another of your 'Roundup", on Goya. Very interesting. I think you are right, many critics miss the whole point pf a movie, or book, or whatever. Loved the "Green Frog". How wonderful to have met Jim Henson. Such a thoughtful individual, to have urged you to hang on to your dream. It does seem that there are few of those kinds of folks around anymore. You are one of them though! You have encouraged a lot of struggling artists, me being one of them. Occasionaly, I still get very discouraged, but I'm up in my studio early every am., pencil or brush in hand. Kathleen J.

Irelock said...

Thanks, Kathleen J. - you are the best! I'm glad to hear you are in your studio every morning because I know some of the best art around is being produced! Keep rockin' with it, and I'll do my best to give you interesting things to consider through my blog ...

Anonymous said...

You put to words my thoughts that I could never put to words. You are a very good writer, thank-you for taking the time to write these blogs. All character were excellent but I really liked Lorenzo. I think he had the biggest challenge and he made it look easy and natural. I do not mean to underrate Natalie however. I had to be told that all three roles were played by the same person, excellent acting. If all of this happened because of the director Milos, then he is my new favoritist director.

Irelock said...

Thanks, Anonymous ... make a point to watch other Milos films. What you enjoyed about Goya is true for all of his that I've seen. A director is the key to a movie ... he will chose all the important things ... like actors,camera men ... stuff like that. An obvious director who I can easily recognize without even knowing he directed is Speilburg. Think about that when you watch movies and you'll be surprised how quickly you can find favorites, and not so favorites.

Glaciallight said...

I watched Milos Forman's Goya's Ghosts for the first time tonight, the day before this Thanksgiving, and just coincidentally the holiday that falls just before the first exhibit of my composite digital image art work during the annual Ajo Artists Open Studio Tour, November 26th and 27th.

It was both a profound visual and emotional experience.

As Forman presents this engaging story, the reversals of fate, fortune, and faith suffered by Goya, Inez, and Lorenzo can not be anticipated.

This film deserves every bit of the praise it received in your July 17th review, and explains why you wrote with it with such evocative eloquence.