Of Brush and Ego Strokes

Andy Garcia paints a portrait.On his deathbed, Picasso is alleged to have whispered “Modigliani,” the name of the Italian painter with whom he shared a tumultuous friendship in the Paris of the 1920s. Amedeo Modigliani, known chiefly for his sensual, primitive-looking nudes, succumbed to a lethal trifecta of tuberculosis, addiction and poverty 50 years earlier at the age of 35. Much hay is made from Picasso’s apocryphal utterance in director Mick Davis’ new film “Modigliani,” a three hour visual love letter that, like its subject, is both beautiful and flawed — but not fatally so.

Paris between the World Wars has long been a point of fascination for filmmakers and no wonder why — the period is rife with sensual imagery and was a veritable group photo of marquee names. “The Moderns” comes to mind as an early attempt to capture the era as does “Henry and June,” which inspired many a self-styled anachronist to scrawl nonsense into a moleskin notebook and set off an epidemic of soft-core bisexuality among the café set of 1990. The sprawling “Modigliani,” however, yields little of this kind of effect, neither spurring one to paint nor live in some Parisian garret, which, granted, cannot always be expected. However, it may spark an interest in film editing, for somewhere in its bushels of footage lurks a great movie. As it stands, “Modigliani” is a really good film larded by subplots that do little to obscure the fact that, ultimately, the film is a bio-pic.

Like many films of this genre, “Modigliani falters in terms of story – or at least choosing one of the several woven here in a contingency of subplots that never quite come together. The film relies on what can be called the “The Amadeus” model of bio-pics, after the Oscar-winning Milos Forman picture that set the bar for artist biographies. It’s like one of those analogies on IQ tests: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is to Amadeo Modigliani as Pablo Picasso is to Antonio Salieri – except the polarity of the professional envy is reversed. In this film, Picasso, an awesome talent in his own right, is already established and on his way to making a fortune, whereas Modigliani can hardly stop carousing long enough to get out a nude or two. Then he dies.

Ah, but it’s a great death thanks to Andy Garcia who plays the title character. Though the reek of Oscar-bait occasionally wafts in, Garcia deftly depicts the artist’s turmoil over his failures and jealousies (not to mention his sketchy love life). He performance appears effortless and is a joy to watch though sometimes it’s hard to believe that the character could bottom-out so easily. Not that Garcia doesn’t deliver, it’s just that he is one of those actors blessed (or perhaps cursed) with such a likable face that it’s hard to imagine the dude ever having a bad day.

Lauded in the film’s press materials as “Britain’s only Iranian stand-up comedian and actor” Omid Djalili does a superb turn as the arrogant Picasso. In a scene where Modigliani signs up for an art competition and silently challenges Picasso to do likewise from across a cafe, Djalili masterfully conveys intrigue, pomp and dread with a single expression on his apple-cheeked face. The scene sizzles between the actors as Djalili’s haughty Spaniard plucks a grease pencil from Modigliani’s pocket and autographs the sign-up sheet on the wall with his now-priceless signature. This moment is almost enough to recommend the film in and of itself and is testament to director Davis’ ability to generate palpable synergy between his players.

Throughout, some paint-by-numbers flashbacks attempt to hitch some Freudian hoo-ha to Modigliani’s personal travails but results in little more than a projection of his inner child wagging a finger every time he passes a bar. A subplot regarding Modigliani’s illegitimate offspring being shipped off by an anti-Semitic father-in-law seems grafted on, though the aforementioned art competition bolsters the third act with some wonderful drama and director Davis artfully manages not to telegraph who is going to win.

Production designer Giantito Burchiellaro succeeds in making Bucharest, Romania (an inexpensive shooting location) look like post-World War I Paris and cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh’s verite-style camera work adds both verisimilitude and immediacy to the film. And yet, one always feels like the characters are behind glass. Perhaps it’s the briskness with which we meet them or how historic milestone moments are merely glossed. Such luminaries of the era as Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Gertrude Stein have walk-ons but there is little context to frame them so they blur into Davis’ canvass like so many dollops of pigment.

Modigliani’s introduction in the film culminates in a telling moment between him
and Picasso when, after he publicly humiliates his friend and rival, Picasso asks “Why do you hate me so much?” and Modigliani replies “I love you, Pablo, it’s myself I hate.”

Likewise, one may love Modigliani, but merely like the film that bears his name.

Jules and Jim: My Best Friend’s Girl

Perhaps you were smart, listened to your high school guidance counselor and forewent film school for a real education that resulted in a real job in the real world. Now you’ve got some real dough and can partake of the Criterion Collection’s DVD releases, all of which seem to hail from under the banner “Everything you would have seen in film school but were afraid to go.”

Slated for release at the end of this month is Francois Truffaut’s seminal nouvelle vague ode to three-way love Jules and Jim. The name is something of a misnomer since the titular characters comprise only two sides of the fabled love triangle, the hypotenuse of which is the comely Catherine. Played memorably by Jeanne Moreau, the character is a willful and sexy young woman caught between two men and obliged to choose just one — back in the quainter pre-sexual revolution days of 1900 when she apparently felt she had to choose just one. This is, in part, why Jules and Jim plays a bit like a museum piece — these days, the trio would simply bunk down together and start a website.

Originally released in 1962, Moreau’s Catherine is what psychologist Carl Jung would call an “anima projection,” alluring, fascinatingly vague and lethal. That Catherine turns the equilateral triangle obtuse when she marries Jules makes for an interesting complication that is compounded when, many years later (the film covers several decades) she’s reunited with Jim, with whom she falls in love. The end of this film still comes as a shock even after repeat viewings due to the shear audacity with which Catherine addresses the troubled troika’s star-crossed passions (she parks her car in a lake).

Packaged as a two disc set (the new, high-definition digital transfer was supervised by the original director of photography Raoul Coutard) features a raft of interviews and commentaries from seemingly everyone involved with the production except Truffaut who died in 1984. The set is loaded with archival TV footage of interviews with the director and cast as well as recently produced segments featuring Truffaut scholars discussing, well, Truffaut.

Jules and Jim makes a worthy addition to the library and will have you whistling The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” all the way to the video store. Click here to watch it now on Amazon Prime.

Best Friend’s Girl

Three's a crowd.Perhaps you were smart, listened to your high school guidance counselor and forewent film school for a real education that resulted in a real job in the real world. Now you’ve got some real dough and can partake of the Criterion Collection’s DVD releases, all of which seem to hail from under the banner “Everything you would have seen in film school but were afraid to go.”

Slated for release at the end of this month is Francois Truffaut’s seminal nouvelle vague ode to three-way love “Jules and Jim.” The name is something of a misnomer since the titular characters comprise only two sides of the fabled love triangle, the hypotenuse of which is the comely Catherine. Played memorably by Jeanne Moreau, the character is a willful and sexy young woman caught between two men and obliged to choose just one — back in the quainter pre-sexual revolution days of 1900 when she apparently felt she had to choose just one. This is, in part, why “Jules and Jim” plays a bit like a museum piece — these days, the trio would simply bunk down together and start a website.

Originally released in 1962, Moreau’s Catherine is what psychologist Carl Jung would call an “anima projection,” alluring, fascinatingly vague and lethal. That Catherine turns the equilateral triangle obtuse when she marries Jules makes for an interesting complication that is compounded when, many years later (the film covers several decades) she’s reunited with Jim, with whom she falls in love. The end of this film still comes as a shock even after repeat viewings due to the shear audacity with which Catherine addresses the troubled troika’s star-crossed passions (she parks her car in a lake).

Packaged as a two disc set (the new, high-definition digital transfer was supervised by the original director of photography Raoul Coutard) features a raft of interviews and commentaries from seemingly everyone involved with the production except Truffaut who died in 1984. The set is loaded with archival TV footage of interviews with the director and cast as well as recently produced segments featuring Truffaut scholars discussing, well, Truffaut.

Despite the disc’s suggested retail price of $39.95, “Jules and Jim” makes a worthy addition to the library and will have you whistling The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” all the way to the video store.

DaedalusHowell.com 2.0

Given the lackluster state of this page of late, many might have assumed that my blog had gone feral. In fact, it was only hibernating and has finally arisen, hungry and fierce, perhaps even rabid. That ain’t no cappucino froth, that’s pure First Amendment fervor foaming from the maw. As Orwell wrote in 1984, incidentally the year my voice broke, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” or, for that matter, a sexy evening if everyone is as “free” as they say they are.

Albeit, this is my second attempt at such a blog. The first was bogged down (or is that blogged down?) by my incessant need to pen long, brooding screeds rife with arcane references and serving only the highest orders of Self. Sort of like masturbating in a musuem — fun for awhile, but kind of lonely. Moreover, I’ve decided to archive my newspaper work separately from this space, an arduous task that I’ll be attempting over the next few weeks. The result should be a fine archive of Bay Area arts and entertainment journalism — a virtual coffee table book representing the breadth and depth of local artists. While the data is being migrated, the old site can be viewed at http://daedalushowell.com/dhblog

Meanwhile, I’ll concentrate on keeping a more traditional blog — which is to say one can expect quotidian observations of both the pithy and self-promoting variety. It will be better, faster, stronger and more regular — bionic and high in fiber — grinding an axe with one hand and burying the hatchet with the other — and all the while a middle finger raised and reaching for the button.

Tune in tomorrow…