It is often maddening to watch a film about a painter. Even if the director avoids the ordinary excesses, such as a lugubrious story line or questionable analogies between the life and the art, the viewer is always imprisoned by the camera eye. Just when one is attracted by a detail in the upper right corner, the camera shifts to the lower left.
To his credit, Gene Searchinger -- who wrote, produced, directed, filmed and edited tonight's hour-long documentary "In a Brilliant Light: Vincent van Gogh in Arles" (at 10 on Channel 26) -- sidesteps the usual pitfalls. This is especially remarkable given the subject: The outer manifestations of the inner struggles of Vincent ("Lust for Life") van Gogh's brief existence, particularly the nearly fatal ear-snipping incident after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin, have been dramatized beyond the point of cliche'.
To his even greater credit, Searchinger manages to minimize the inherent limitations of the genre. Oh, there are times when the desire to see something the camera refuses to show will make one squirm with impatience, but Searchinger provides such long, loving, detailed looks at certain key paintings that in the end all is basically forgiven. "In a Brilliant Light" is a properly modest film. It requires patience and a quiet room (and excellent color reception or forget it), but given these, it provides a pleasant, moving, meditative hour with which to start the year.
Had he not become a painter, van Gogh (1853-1890) would still have been an enormously difficult and appealing personality to those who knew him: troubled, eccentric, intelligent, headstrong, intense, independent, loyal, honest, complex, simple. But he did, of course, become a magnificent painter. The trouble is, we know it all so well. We know the paintings to be moving, almost magically intense, but we've seen them reproduced so often. Familiarity has become the enemy of their mystery.
The intention of this film is to deliver the familiar works with something akin to their original freshness. Mainly, it succeeds -- by letting the facts of the life fall naturally in place, by keeping art-historical commentary to a bare-bones minimum, by quoting often the artist's own voice as recorded in his incomparable letters to his brother Theo, by focusing on the actual settings for the paintings and by stressing the art above all.
"The Night Cafe'," for instance, is one of the master's most famous works, a painting he said he made to get even with his landlord. Searchinger dotes on the painting, devoting to it almost a full five minutes, focusing on its acid contrasts of greens and reds, going from complete view to detail time and again, so that we become ever more familiar with the late-night room and its tired inhabitants, and our awareness of the picture's fervid expressiveness is rekindled.
Other paintings are accorded similar, if less comprehensive, treatment -- "The Bedroom," self-portraits, portraits of "The Postmaster Roulin," "Eugene Boch" and "The Arlesienne," quite a few landscapes and still lifes -- and all the while the basic art-historical story is told. We see van Gogh the realist, the daring colorist and the expressionist, often altogether in a single work.
The film was made to accompany the exhibition "Van Gogh in Arles," which closed yesterday after a 10-week run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It stands quite well on its own