Schnabel & Van Gogh: “At Eternity’s Gate”

The tortured artist, romanticized by time and considered by some to be a genius, can actually be a raving lunatic and madman. He opposes the conventional both socially and artistically and dwells in isolation so that his art is his primary focus. He will go where his art takes him, even towards a cascading mountain of madness. His work should be displayed, bought, and revered by both the simple townsfolk and the materialistic bourgeoisie. Why can’t they see what he sees? After all he has been touched by the hand of God and to view his art brings one closer to God. He paints what God presents to him. The mistreatment and the suffering that he endures is unjust. The world was not carved in his image, so he paints it as he thinks it should be. If there was ever a more misunderstood man, born and destined to live outside of his time, it was Vincent van Gogh.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate

Actor Willem Dafoe performs Vincent van Gogh for audiences in At Eternity’s Gate. We’ve seen Van Gogh performed on the screen before, dating back to 1956 when actor Kirk Douglas first portrayed the man in Lust For Life, then in 1990 by Tim Roth in Vincent & Theo, and again in 2010 by Benedict Cumberbatch in Van Gogh: Painted with Words. Vincent van Gogh is an absolute goldmine for actors. A historical figure who suffered from mental instability (despite never being diagnosed with a mental disorder) providing actors with a multi-colored range of eccentric behavior. However, Dafoe’s portrayal of the post-impressionist painter is full of lackluster humility. He presents to us a man that dangerously borders on insanity, yet condones his own irrational behavior and explains it to doctors in the most trivial manner because he genuinely believes that his talent as a painter is the result of God’s blessing. After all, Van Gogh’s cutting off of his own ear is sited as a result of Paul Gauguin leaving after a brief live-in visit with Van Gogh, yet the actual reason for Van Gogh doing such a horrendous act is never historical explained and it cannot be explained because even Vincent van Gogh cannot accurately describe what prompted him to cut off his own ear with a razor. Dafoe portrays the man as conflicted between being governed by both an intense logic and a sublime emotion and in At Eternity’s Gate we’re given the opportunity of witnessing this veteran’s actor’s restrained, yet also unrestrained skill and talent on the screen.

The unstable genius of Vincent van Gogh

But it was not Willem Dafoe’s performance that guided me towards this bio-drama about Vincent van Gogh. It was Brooklyn filmmaker Julian Schnabel. In 2007, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, an independent bio-drama by Schnabel about a paralyzed man, Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffering from “locked-in syndrome” was released. At first I was opposed to seeing the film. “How can anyone adapt that into a movie?” I thought. “A whole film about an inactive man in a wheelchair. It sounds better suited as a book!”. But I was wrong. I watched The Diving Bell & the Butterfly shortly after its Academy Award nominations in 2008 and I was greatly impressed. It remains an inspirational film to me, not only for its humane theme about overcoming a debilitating accident, but also for it’s filmmaking technique. The first hour of direction in The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, as we (the audience) take on the point-of-view of Bauby as he awakens from a coma after suffering a sever stroke, is absolutely amazing and is something that should be readily studied by film students. Schnabel’s direction could be best described as “drama-experimental”. His floating camera, often times taking on the persona of characters, and his unorthodox organization (or what appears as a casual lack of organization) of the image’s composition and framing is unlike any other director’s work. We’re watching Julian Schnabel paint with a film camera. He’s a filmmaker that takes risks and many times he takes those risks while he’s on-set, directing the camera and the actors, rather than while safely applying an aesthetic in the more relaxed atmosphere of the editing room. To turn a motion picture camera on it’s side or upside down, or include unrelated images in a story, or obscure frames so that the content is almost unrecognizable might sound insignificant and commonplace to the average movie-goer, but it requires tremendous courage from a director.

Julian Schnabel’s abstract camera in At Eternity’s Gate

Ten years later, At Eternity’s Gate affords Julian Schnabel the opportunity to further his experimentation as a filmmaker. The chaos of Vincent van Gogh’s mind blends superbly with Schnabel’s innovative camera work and directing. There are moments in the film that I felt that the frenetic aesthetic employed by Schnabel would literally cause the film to break and melt inside the projector. That the strain and stress of Van Gogh’s story and Schnabel’s technique would cause an immediate and unexpected end to the movie. The camera work is chaotic and jarring, yet it simultaneously consists of a precision that only a veteran filmmaker and artist can achieve. I’m particularly fond of the fractured camera lens technique that Schnabel applies, obscuring the bottom half of the frame and creating a refractive optical effect. What do I mean by “refractive optical effect”? Imagine seeing a pencil in water. The pencil will appear as if it were split or uneven, like there are actually two pencils in the water. Schnabel cleverly and creatively uses this effect in At Eternity’s Gate to portray Van Gogh’s unstable mind.

Character’s point-of-view from The Diving Bell & the Butterfly

Just as when a person goes to the museum and looks at a painting, but cannot accurately state what’s unique or why they like a certain painting, I think the same unidentifiable subconscious thoughts drift through the mind of audiences while watching a Julian Schnabel film. His manipulations are hard-hitting, yet subtle. He’s an intuitive filmmaker requiring an intuitive audience. However, it appears that he embraces both a “flow-of-consciousness” and a cogent aesthetic. An astute observer can see it in his work as well as in Vincent van Gogh’s. The frenetic imperfections of Van Gogh’s art is both logical and chaotic, homogeneous to Schnabel’s films. The similarities between the artist and filmmaker are distant, yet as visible and plain as a cloudless sky. Audiences and observers of Julian Schnabel’s and Vincent van Gogh’s work must remain alert or else the meaning of their aesthetic might forever remain inside the subconscious and never achieve the glorious enlightenment that was intended.