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.