About a hundred years ago Vincent Van Gogh retreated to Arles to paint. He was joined by friend Paul Gauguin with whom he shared lodging and whores. The state of the visual vocabulary was in flux and these two giants were inventing the future. But they had radically different versions. They fought. Vincent lost his mind, an ear and later his life.
A new language was being invented. Both used radical colors, flat perspectives with recognition of the medium. Both painted not what was, but what existed in the space between the subject and the eye. Vincent had this notion of energy in the eye, an honest projection of emotion. He projected himself into the world and painted himself. Gauguin had a rosicrucian notion of abstracting the world. His eye transmuted the world into a symbolic vocabulary which he painted.
As then, so in the 1960's with film, with battles between two camps forging a new language. Brando and Kubrick.
Kubrick had just come off of `Spartacus,' which troubled him deeply. For reasons not of interest here, he was not allowed to make it his art. Disgusted, he started work on a film that would. This one. It had a simple story, and lots of opportunity to place the distance among the major characters in the visual aether.
Brando, meanwhile was at the end of his first and only important burst. It had been ten years since `Streetcar,' which reinvented how actors can fill the narrative space between the action and viewer. He had just run through a few pictures with nitwit directors, who neither understood his revolution, nor challenged him to take the next step.
Kubrick wanted to use his eye as Gauguin's, to transform the world to establish a narrative. Brando filled the Vincent role, wanting to play the character and also play someone playing the character and so fill the narrative space with emotional mechanics. They fought, Kubrick departed. Brando directed, and never did again. But what he did here is an honest attempt to advance his approach.
This is important: you must see this film to judge for yourself how well he does. He never was the same again, and in any case the film didn't connect with audiences. It is my opinion that he and friend Karl do succeed, primarily by reducing everything else to the bare minimum, and imbuing emotion in personal spaces. It works as intended, but doesn't connect with us the audience, so all this great acting goes off into outer space. In maybe another few decades before Brando-like actors (Penn?) might make this magic accessible to the rest of us.
(Since then, a creole language of sorts has developed. These two approaches still sit uneasily in the same film. The closest marriage came in `Taxi Driver,' then `Snake Eyes.')
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