Movies about artists — must they suck?

I will always check out any movie that’s about an artist (the cheesy Basquiat biopic directed by an artist (Julian Schnabel) remains one of my faves) but I have never found one that made me want to rush home and draw or taught me much about what it’s like to actually be an artist at work.

Why are movies so awful at capturing how artists work? The creative process is a part of moviemaking so you’d think directors and writers would know it intimately.

Continue reading “Movies about artists — must they suck?”

Chapter One. He adored New York City.

I just want to write this down before the spell breaks.

For years, I loved Woody Allen. But the romance died over the past couple of decades, beginning with Manhattan Murder Mystery, then waning as his films felt increasingly trivial, one-note, slapdash, irrelevant, and crammed with marquee names, ending in a moratorium where even the sight of an ad for his newest movie makes my gorge rise.

But Annie HallBroadway Danny Rose, and Manhattan are some of my favorite movies ever.

Manhattan used to seem to me to be the most romantic movie ever. In retrospect, I’m not sure it’s the story itself — a sordid tale full of Seinfeldianly selfish and immature pseudo-intellectuals. It was probably 30% Mariel Hemingway, 30% Gordon Willis’ cinematography, and 30% New York City at its most iconic and 10% some of Woody’s most hilarious lines (Wally Shawn the homunculus; I can’t keep my eyes on the meter; very few people survive one mother; I can beat up her father, I grow a tumor instead, etc).

Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we’re just people. We’re just human beings, you know? You think you’re God.

Isaac Davis: I… I gotta model myself after someone.

Last night, Jenny took me to Lincoln Center to see the New York Philharmonic play the Gershwin score of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, while the movie played on a screen above.

That sounds like a simple thing and it took a while for the extraordinariness of the experience to sink in to me, so let me spell that out: The New York Philharmonic playing live. In Lincoln Center. On a September evening. Gershwin. My favorite Woody Allen movie. Introduced by Alec Baldwin and Tony Roberts. In a sold-out hall filled with old school New York celebs and characters right out of, well, a Woody Allen film. We sat a row ahead of Michael Moore and, at intermission, hung out with Mort Zuckerman who owns the Daily News.

Too much.

At the time the movie was made, the room we sat in to watch it was called the Avery Fisher Hall, a soaring maple-paneled auditorium with a history of acoustic challenges. A hundred million dollar donation later, it’s been renamed after David Geffen. The orchestra, under the baton of Alan Gilbert, sat watching the movie with the rest of us mere mortals, until a musical cue was needed. Then they burst forth with another tablespoonful of Gershwin, glorious but always leaving us wanting more.

And all those gorgeous black and white images of NYC in the ’70s! The 59th Street Bridge at sunrise. Fireworks over Central Park. The fountains at Lincoln Center. The Russian Tea Room. Elaine’s. On and on. It made me miss New York while sitting in the middle of it.

I don’t think my writing is doing this experience justice. Not only did you have to be there, you had to be a child of the ’70s, a New Yorker, a movie lover, a writer, a nostalgist, a romantic, a man in love with his wife. In short, me.

Inspiration Monday: Charlie, Francis, Frank and a powerful emotion.

Anomalisa: I love everything Charlie Kauffman touches. Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine, Dangerous Mind, and, most of all, Synecdoche, which I have watched over and over till my BluRay skips. His inventions are endlessly fresh, rule breaking, and, despite the inevitable twinge of melancholy about them, inspiring and life-affirming to me.

This week, he dropped the first trailer for his new film which is a stop animation feature. I can’t wait to see the whole thing.

Chef’s Table: Technically speaking, I didn’t discover this Netflix series this week. I rediscovered it, probably for the eight time. If you come to my house for any length of time, I am going to make you sit on my couch and watch at least east one episode of Chef’s Table. It is sumptuously shot and will make your mouth water. But it’s not really about food. It’s about art, personal expression and demons, breaking rules, discovery, and the non verbal. It’s about art. It will inspire you in the kitchen and in the studio.

Frank Stella at the WhitneyI didn’t love most of this show but parts of it were fantastic. His later sculptures in metal and some of the painted surfaces with wild electric colors that vibrate and hum with fluorescent zest.

IMG_4654The most inspiring part was just being in the Whitney. I have three different museum memberships but this is the one I use. The new Whitney is such a great space, manageably-sized and walking distance from my house. That means I have been here three times in the last month or so. I can revisit the works I like and reconsider the ones I passed over. And best of all, I get access on off-hours when the hordes are still penned outside the member’s entrance.

Museum membership does obvious good things like support the arts but, selfishly, it also means permission and encouragement to see art more often and more deeply.

MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO1S.H.A.M.E.: Apparently this is a common phrase in the recovery world but I encountered it for the first time this week. It stands for Should Have Already Mastered Everything. If you are any sort of perfectionist, you will recognize this cudgel the Monkey uses to flail us.

Shame at not always exceeding expectations. Fear at screwing up. Inability to realize that we aren’t meant to be perfect, but human.

S.H.A.M.E. may not qualify as inspiration, but, if I can affix this label to self-destructive demands and make me see them for what they really are, it will be a useful tool indeed.

What have you read, seen, experienced, or thought of recently that could inspire me and others? Please share your discoveries and help fill my well with inspiration.

The Art of the Cinema

In the movies, artists are generally bastards, nuts or addicts. Here are some of my favorites.


The Agony & the Ecstacy: Irving Stone boils down the Sistine Chapel with a liberal amount of artistic license. Good painting scenes. With Charlton Heston (ugh) as Mike B and Rex Harrison as Julius II.

Lust for Life: More Irving Stone. Kirk as Vincent, Tony Quinn as Gauguin, Vincent Minelli at the helm. Beautiful and nutty and the best Vincent biopic.

Bird: Clint Eastwood’s version of Charlie Parker’s life.Good but not as good as:

Round Midnight: Dexter Gordon plays Bird, Lester Young & Bud Powell all rolled into one. It will make you love jazz.

Moulin Rouge: The original: Toulouse-Lautrec and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Basquiat: Julian Schnabel directs this story of fame, drugs and demise. I liked Basquiat a lot more than the film but it’s still worth a gander.

Ed Wood: Proof that one of the most important things an artist needs is belief in himself.

Tucker: Automaker as artist. A sunny metaphor for Coppola’s battle with the Hollywood establishment

Amadeus: Nothing like the scene where Mozart dictates the Reqiuem to Salieri. I could watch this dozens of times. And I have.

Savage Messiah: I loved this movie in college. Ken Russell’s bio of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and his mad affair. Tortured, weird and romantic.

Pollack: Ed Harris’s tribute to Action Jackson but with a little too much drunkness and a little too little painting.

My Left Foot: Danny Day Lewis as Christy Brown, paralyzed poet and painter. Have been meaning to see it for 15 years. Will soon.

Shine: Pianist David Helfgott has a mean dad, a breakdown, and a lot of scenery to chew. Decent but overrated.

Hilary and Jackie: The lives of classical musician sisters, one wild, one straight. I enjoyed it but honestly don’t remember it that clearly.


Rivers and Tides: Simply the best movie I’ve ever seen about the creative process. Documents the work of Andy Goldsworthy the British sculptor. Still in some theatres. Avaialable on DVD in 9/04

Le Mystére Picasso: In 1956, Clouzot filmed Picasso painting on transparent canvases, revising the work as he goes, a chicken becomes a nude becomes a landscape, etc. Mind blowing.

Crumb: portrait of the great underground comix artist and illustrated journal keeper, intense and revealing. See it even if you think you don’t like him.

Wild Wheels: a tribute to art cars (covered with mirrors, grass, plastic fruit, etc) and the people who make them.

28th Instance of June 1914, 10:50 a.m. – McDermott & McGough are a pair of artists who live as if it were PreWWI, their clothes, their home, their plumbing, their manner and their photography. Beautiful and strangely compelling.


Edward Scissorhands: A fairy tale about the artist as outsider. By one of the most creative directors in modern cinema.

The Royal Tennenbaums: The story of a creative family and the least good of the great films of Wes Anderson.

The Moderns: Alan Rudolph’s story of artists in Paris in the 1920s is wildly surreal and romantic and has a wonderful soundtrack.

An American in Paris: A highly realistic story of artistic struggle. Gene Kelly, Minelli, and my fav: Oscar Levant.

Quartet: 4 stories, one of a pianist who studies for years to get a critic’s approval. Also by Maugham.

The Razor’s Edge: Bill Murray (of all people) was in the good version of this story of a WWI vet discovering himself as an artist and a spiritual being.. It was very inspiring to me when I first saw it two decades ago.

The Commitments: Slightly too raucous story of an Irish soul band but a good appreciation of appreciation.

The Hours: Virginia Woolf and all that.

New York Stories: The first part of the trilogy is by Scorcese with Nick Nolte as a larger than life painter who can only work when obsessed with a woman. Some beautiful moments.

The Horse’s Mouth: I loved this book as a kid — it made painting into the most heroic of acts. Alec Guiness plays Gulley, a screw up of a painter, in search of the perfect wall for his mural.

Got any to add?


How about Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot?

According to IMDB there’s a TV film called:

Pablo Picasso: Réminiscence

Is that the one?

What’s it like?

I love your top two documentaries. I just watched Love is the Devil about Francis Bacon, which I found very fascinating.

Then there’s “Surviving Picasso”, came out a few years ago.

Benny and Joon has some wonderful scenes with Mary Stuart Masterson’s character creating directly on the canvas using her hands as well as drawing with more traditional materials.

‘Camille Claudel’ is a wonderful movie about the life of the sculptor that worked for Rodin and then later became his mistress. Of course its a tragic story , women artists didn’t really have a chance in those days . She ends up being committed by her brother the french poet Paul Claudel . I don’t think she was crazy just filled with a lot of passion for her art . Passion was not something women were allowed to feel in those days.

what about Cavaragio by Derek jarman and there was a great documetary about that mail artist based in NY which I saw at the edinburgh film festival… but I can’t remember his name!

I recently saw Frida with Salma Hayek. Apart from the fact that she is much more gorgeous than the real Frida to look at, I thought the quirkiness of this movie was brilliant. It surprised me.

A friend of mine at work keeps INSISTING that I need to see “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” because of its art theme. Maybe that would be a good one to check into! Thanks for the listings!

As a documentary on the creative process and the techniques and aids used by the some of the great masters I highly recommend David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge – it is available in both video and book. I was absolutely fascinated when the documentary screened here in Australia, it opened many new insights and evolution of the creative process.

i agree with the royal tenenbaums also because wes anderson’s brother did all the great illustrations (the ones that “Richie Tenenbaum” does) and all the “book” illustrations and also does a great job on the rushmore/royal tenenbaums special additions packages.

also : American Splendor about Harvey Pekar (!!!) with a little bit of Crumb (!)

I must also cast a vote for Frida. What a beautiful movie! Each frame is an artistic composition with rich rich color. Also, I’m afraid Bill Murray’s Razor’s Edge, although I’m sure his intentions were good, cannot hold a candle to the book which was simply amazing. The problem with the movie is that the protagonist is just not supposed to be a funny guy! Another movie not to be missed is My Architect which is about Louis Kahn. It’s still playing at some theaters but I’m buying this one when it’s available. This from someone who doesn’t watch the same movie twice.

P.S. –

what about songs about art / artists ?

how about “artemisia” about artemisia genteleschi (sp?)? struggle of women artists. love affair. torture by thumbscrews. pretty decent film.

I loved a documentary on the building of the National Gallery of Art with IM Pei…showing a lot of the work with Henry Moore and Sandy Calder.

All of the work that went into every inch of the place….interesting.

Movies: Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen, starring Sean Penn as brilliant guitarist best moment: when penn bashes his guitar against a tree crying “i made a mistake, i made a mistake”

Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross Billie Holiday. for the music alone and Ross ain’t too bad either ….

Shadowlands, Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins, about C.S Lewis

Fiction: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , James Joyce…those last paragraphs/lines, i weep everytime

Sula, Toni Morrison, the artist without an artform

Oranges are Not The Only Fruit, Jeannette Winterton, evangelical upbringing + lesbian= writer

Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman, a mathematic/scientific poet….vignette dream meditations on Einsteins mind during his patent clerk days toiling on relativity by night.

whoops! guess i added books too….woolf/the hours made me do it!


How to Draw a Bunny – about Ray Johnson, mail artist (2002)

Goya: The movie (1999)

(Also liked Frida and Girl with a Pearl Earring)

“Angels and Insects” includes scenes of a woman who keeps an artistic nature journal … although there are definitely other themes …

I’ll keep thinking …

My Architect – about Louis Kahn, got an Oscar nod this year, and well deserved too.

Rivers and Tides? I dunno. I felt like even more of an outsider to Goldsworthy’s work after seeing that. It would have benefitted from some serious editing.

That’s my $.02

It’s not totally about an artist’s struggle, but A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, film by James Ivory, based on a novel-based-on-her-life by Kaylie Jones (her dad was James Jones, who wrote From Here to Enternity), is about growing up in a bohemian, artistic family.

Also, Un Coeur En Hiver, a French film about a violinist and the man who makes her the violin.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is a wonderful movie. About Glenn Gould.

I’d nominate Pecker by John Waters – quirky, funny and very, very scathingly revealing about the machinations of the art world.

Not to be missed is the PBS special on photographer Ansel Adams; I think it was from the series “the American Experience.” Available from the PBS catalog.

“Agony and the Ecstacy” also has a wonderful score by Alex North. I often listen to it while I’m working.

Tony Hancock’s comdey ‘The Rebel’ c.1960; an office worker goes off to live the artist’s life in Paris. Although Hancock was the best-loved sitcom star in Britain at the time he had a yearning to do a movie like Jacques Tati’s. Never quite pulled it off, tragically.

How To Draw a Bunny about Ray Johnson is really worth going out of your way to see.

La Belle Noiseuse by Jacques Rivette

Dream of Light by Victor Erice

A couple of months ago I saw back-to-back three films about artists:

Pandaemonium about poet Samuel Coleridge and his friendship with Woodsworth – and descent into drug-addled craziness – a rocknroll account of an interesting fellow.

Passion about composer Percy Grainger, another troubled artist, the story took me by surprise having thought him a “simple” sort of composer. I was very mistaken.

and The Pianist, the haunting Polanski film about Szpilman’s endurance through Nazi terror in Warsaw.

They were all exhausting and heart-wrenching stories. But man oh man, it was a good day.

The Fifth Element!

see – the part where bruce willis is listening to the diva sing – and it keeps cutting back to Leelo fighting the badguys over the stones.

see – there’s this pretty little moment when he believes everything is true. Art shows the way to love shows the way to love saves the universe.

i really need to write about this more coherently someday. 😀

I have to second Stone’s Lust for Life…the movie made me want to find out more about Vincent…I saw it after hearing the song by Don MaClean–Starry Starry Night. (GREAT POET/GREAT SONG…ONE OF MY FAVORITES!!) By the way…I learned how to play it on my tin whistle Danny…how’s the guitar going????

I also have to second The Pianist. The compelling love and urge to play music touched my soul. His identity was more deeply embeded as a pianist, rather than a Jew. I feel my art defines me more than anything else as well.

Thanks everyone…I will have to visit the video store on some of these!!

I haven’t seen this one added, it is fairly obscure. You seem to

be an enthusiastic Van Gogh fan like myself, and you would

definitely enjoy “Vincent and Theo”. It shows a lot of the darker

side of Van G.’s life, such as the time he took in a pregnant

prostitute. The scenes are brilliant and suffused with the yellow

light of “The Night Cafe”.

Directed by Robert Altman, it stars Tim Roth as a quiet, intense,

muttering painter. I love this film and watch it every few months.

Also someone mentioned “Surviving Picasso” and “Camille Claudel”. Camille is devastatingly sad, but casts a lot of light on the relationship between herself and Rodin.

I also would like to mention a great film that stars J. M. Basquiat as himself, “Downtown 81”. It is a musical and poetic romp through the art and post-punk scene of NYC circa 1981. It was recently released after 20 years on a shelf! Great fun film, also with amazing live music scenes and a cameo by Blondie.

A good movie about becoming an artist, against all odds:

“Dog of Flanders”

(the original 1959 version, with David Ladd, Donald Crisp, Monique Ahrens, Theodore Bikel,)

The documentary Speaking in Strings about violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg profiles a very passionate and unorthodox musician.

i don’t have a film to add, though i did enjoy Pollack, but thank you Dan once again, for your unfettering vision. that’s what attracted me to your site initially, you take a stand for all those individuals who allowed themselves to be consumed, perhaps devoured by their passion for visual expression. you are truly a becon on this artists’ path.

‘Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh’: the biography of Vincent using only his paintings, some locations and excerpts from his correspondence.It was powerful movie.


For fictional: “The Legend of 1600.” Beautiful. The duel between the protagonist and Jelly Roll Morton is one of the most amazing scenes on film. Great score by Ennio Morricone (his last, in fact).

henry and june!

Just in case anybody else is still checking out the comments on this post, here’s a hard-to-find but really great doc of an artist: Gabriel Orozco (that’s the name of the film and the artist). To crib from the Miami film fest: “Internationally recognized Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco uses found objects to instigate a dialogue into how meaning can be formed from the arbitrary and the ordinary.” Very inspiring.

i too was so totally mesmerized by Le Mystére Picasso, i think its a really long film, but both times ive seen it i cannot rememeber time. I can only remember at the end kind of waking up and realizing my mouth was open and i had a crusty line of drool leading from the side of my mouth.

How about an angel at my table – both film and book

i too was so totally mesmerized by Le Mystére Picasso, i think its a really long film, but both times ive seen it i cannot rememeber time. I can only remember at the end kind of waking up and realizing my mouth was open and i had a crusty line of drool leading from the side of my mouth.

How about an angel at my table – both film and book