The last time I saw Julian Schnabel he was wearing what appeared to be pajamas as he and his lady friend left the Sculpture Pavilion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I say “the last time” even though I only saw him one other time, when Rochester’s Ingrid Sischy brought him to the MAG for a lecture. This was during his smashed plate phase.
Schnabel’s “Basquiat” was embarrassing. His “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was beautiful but an awful lot like “Johnny Got His Gun.” His “At Eternity’s Gate” is brilliant. Maybe just because the subject is so. But William Defoe is too. Because the movie was done by a painter I expected a more painterly dialog. Instead we have Van Gogh’s personality, his intense relationship with the world, his social ineptness, his psychological disorders and his glimpses of eternity on full display. Maybe that is what it took to produce such extraordinary art.
There is some choice dialog, probably taken from Van Gogh’s letters. “Paintings have to be painted fast, made in one clear gesture.” There is a scene Of Van Gogh and Gauguin taking a piss and talking about how they have to start a revolution. “The Impressionists are so boring.” And Van Gogh adds “But Monet is pretty good.” But there is a cringe worthy scene near the end of the film where Schnabel’s Van Gogh, comparing himself to Jesus, while talking to a priest, says maybe he paints “for people who are not born yet. Adding “nobody knew Jesus until 40 years after his death.”
Van Gogh essentially had ten years where he continued to get better and astronomically better as a painter. Like a rocket. Schnabel’s depiction of Van Gogh in his coffin (Defoe made up by an undertaker) and surrounded by his paintings was incredibly beautiful.