When you live in the desert you shouldn't say, "It's a desert out here," because what else would it be, and because deserts aren't really deserted; they're full of wonderful things. But you might find mine a cultural desert, at least if, like me, after weeks of gazing along with your fellow humans in forced passivity at the horror show of history, seeing it strive for some sort of climax in our time and in the process unveil your mistakes and demonstrate that you did everything wrong, that there is no one to blame but yourself for a parade of world catastrophes that seems to emerge directly from your guilt, you develop an urgent need to view a beautiful work of art about a man driven mad by what he sees.
So you decide to watch the new movie "At Eternity's Gate," about Vincent van Gogh, written and directed by the masterful Julian Schnabel. With your laptop on the kitchen table in your Pearblossom shack, bathed in a blast of setting sunlight coming through the window, van Gogh's nuclear fission streaming over the San Gabriel Mountains, you search the theater listings, scanning hundreds of square miles of desert which you find contain too few people who want to see this film to justify the economics of showing it at a multiplex in Lancaster or Palmdale, so you continue to scan and finally locate a showing in Encino- an L.A. suburb sixty miles south- at the Laemlee, an art theater you've been to before (most notably with your telepathic lizard friend- keep reading for more on that), but the schlep has got to be worth it, you think, because it looked like it would be a really cool and rare movie, and that it was.
If I may dwell on the Laemlee for a moment, the audience is an older crowd, especially for some movies, like those about men driven mad by what they see, which strikes me as odd...I mean, that a teenage boy, say, wouldn't be drawn to a movie about a man going mad from what he sees, but might choose instead a movie about a giant robot smashing iconic buildings. Are they not two forms of the same thing?
Anyway, Willem Dafoe was stunning as van Gogh. He's always stunning, but in this case he was stunning because he created an actual Vincent van Gogh, whether or not it was accurate in all respects (the movie opts for the recent theory that van Gogh's death by bullet wound was not self-inflicted), a van Gogh that shimmers off the screen like van Gogh's oils shimmering off the canvas. It was almost too much. How long can you love watching the beauty of a man going mad from what he sees before you start to wonder, is this entertainment, is it therapeutic, or is it about all of us joining together to merge with this Christlike figure and go mad from what we see, in which case I deserve double my senior discount because I don't want to go mad from what I see, I want to survive it, if possible, and not prematurely enter the heaven of exploding suns that must have informed van Gogh's study of theology and love of light.
Of course, you need help to not go mad from what you see. Works of art like "At Eternity's Gate" help, but you also need help from the crass, physical world- what we often call "the real world." What kind of help from the crass world? I personally would like to see an element of political force at our disposal that is not cynical, because, seductive as cynicism can be, it's a dangerous indulgence when you're on the edge the way humankind is.
I should add that by cynicism I mean lying. I'd like to see a political force that states the obvious so we don't have to feel like van Gogh, alone with what we see.
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