Films on artists? Most of them are bad. Directors never pay attention to detail, they always make a silly drama of a simple workaday life, they jazz up everything by moving the camera close and far, up and down, sideways, they always underline everything with ponderous music, always from the wrong period, and they illustrate not the artists but their own distorted view.
In a film about Rembrandt, the actor interpreting him sticks the brush into his left hand, then his right, alternately. Was Rembrandt ambidextrous? Then the actor mindlessly lets the hand with the brush wander over the palette, stirring up mounds of different pigment, so carelessly building up muddy heaps and mounds. Usually, inexorably sonorous music, usually written centuries after the art for instance Bach and Vivaldi for 14th-century Giotto wreathes its leaden way in and out of the visual, spoiling its quiet, direct impact.
In Luciano Emmers film on Giotto, Il Dramma di Cristo. Giotto (1994), the first take is of an artists hand with a brush in it. Its bristles are stiff, new and unbent, not beautifully worn down to a slender point as they would have been in the hand of the hardworking painter. Then the camera zooms in on pots of paint the size of chamber pots, while no one in the Middle Ages or later used anything bigger than an eggcup to contain precious colour. (I myself use the tops of marmalade jars.) The camera then works in continuous movement, going up too close on gross detail, then backing far away from it, back and forth inexorably. There is no whole view of the Scrovegni chapel. This little edifice with its lovely accents of lapis lazuli blue then as precious as gold is such a jewel because it is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, it is walls and ceiling, beautiful painting and architecture all in one. Why couldnt they find a camera operator who could show us this, make us see this?
The figure of Caravaggio can always be relied upon to appear as a lascivious young maniac shaking his black locks and dressed in a frilly white shirt like a nightgown open on his hairy chest. Thats how he is shown in Vernissage! 1607, Caravaggio by Stella Leonetti (2002), a film that is supposed to evoke a fancy unveiling party in a Neapolitan church, the unwrapping of a scandalous picture to the eyes of 17th-century society.
However, in Stanley Kubricks film Barry Lyndon (1975) the beautifully pale period paintings in the background, the costumes, hairdos and manners are filmed in such loving, painstaking detail, and with such a veneration for Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence, Fuessli, Hogarth and Longhi, that in the end the story is not about a rake and a crook at all, but about the entire range of 18th-century painting. It is such an exceptional homage that it induces you to seek the original oils as soon as you can.
The film made by the venerable and venerated critic Roberto Longhi on Carpaccio in 1945 is the only one I have seen in a long time that is sensitive to a painter and teaches us something about him. In it the camera is held at an even level in front of the pictures, a little closer than where the ordinary viewer would stand. Then it slides to detail on the further perspectives, to the wealth of Carpaccios subject matter which viewers might not detect or be able to take in on their own. It shows us a sailor swarming up the midden mast of the far sailing vessel, the rowing gondolier bent forward scuffing his toe, the page boy lost in a ballet pose, the relaxed, long fingers of dreaming St Ursula in her morning bedroom, and above all that fluff of white, Carpaccios little pet poodle. This animal is everywhere helping a hermit think in his study, sitting at the foot of a fine lady, growling at an intruding page. And at the end of the film Longhi shows how Manet copied the little animal a few centuries later, putting it next to some beauties on a balcony. This film is instructive and amusing and makes you want to run back immediately to the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice to find all the details you have missed. Instead of ponderous music, meant to add drama where there is none, you have the nice, rhythmical sentences of the civilised voice of the critic himself.
Another good film is about a different period, our own recent 1980s. Here is the thick, funky atmosphere of the graffiti artists of downtown New York, and their prince, young maudit Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat. Downtown 81 by Edo Bertoglio (1981) is a bit like a student movie. Much footage is spent on frantic hopping around, handling instruments and doing drugs in the clubs around St Marks Place, without much focus. However, in this wandering footage you can see dear cute Basquiat at length. The best is when he sprays a wall with his gawky marks. After hes finished he turns around and declares: Hey, I just made my mark on the world! Then he adds with a wry smile: But I guess it has made its mark on me? Better still, after the film the doors to his show in the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome were thrown open and we could see his splendid work for real. After Basquiats untimely death the painter Schnabel also made a film about him, which was liked even by the most critical people. As a young film maker put it: Its well done because Schnabel is an artist himself and he made nothing dramatic, he merely shows Basquiat really enjoying himself making his pictures.
The film about a painter which I prefer to any other was shown in the Monet exhibition in Rome two years ago (Monet, 1925). It is short and black and white. In the film Monet, a bearded old gentleman in a rumpled white suit, stands outdoors before his easel. He sedately looks at the lilies and the water, dips his brush into paint and from time to time makes some marks on the canvas. There is no music. But the quiet, steady working is accompanied by the rustle of leaves and the song of a thrush.