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Theme Tuesday - Vincent Van Gogh - Dreams (1990)

In honor of his birthday on March 30th, I will be devoting March to exploring portrayals of the artist Vincent Van Gogh on film.


Only one segment (Crows) of Kurosawa’s films is actually dedicated to Van Gogh, but the admiration that he had for the artist’s bold visual style and compositions is felt throughout this gorgeous film. I think when Kurosawa made his first color film with Dodes’ka-den, he just charged ahead with this new aspect of his artistry and never looked back. Ran and Kagemusha perhaps his most visually bold feasts of colors, but Dreams is truly Kurosawa at his most creatively unfettered. This was his first film in a long time of which he was the only author of the screenplay. While many Kurosawa films feature extremely tight stories with strong performances, this does not feature either of those. It’s almost as if Kurosawa had forsaken those elements in creating this film, which is not at all an insult, since dreams don’t often feature those elements.

As for “Crows,” this is perhaps the most childlike of the dreams, even more so than the one that featured actual children such as “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “Peach Orchard.” Children’s imaginations are often more dreamlike simply because they haven’t been inculcated by years of norms and physics. When the young Japanese artist runs through Van Gogh’s paintings, this is exactly what a child would imagine. Just like in Lust for Life, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield of Crows is featured prominently, but whereas in that movie the painting of Crows was depicted as Van Gogh dealing with his mental illness, it serves as the entry into the dream in this picture instead, and instead of looking into Van Gogh’s psyche we get a glimpse into Kurosawa’s.

A throwaway line when Van Gogh (an admittedly not great Martin Scorsese) says that he cut off his ear because he couldn’t capture it in a self-portrait is not only pure mythology, but it also plays into the belief of how much an artist’s being is incorporated into his or her work. Even if auteur theory is debated even to this day, Kurosawa clearly believed in it. What’s even more fascinating is his humility. This movie was possibly basically because his fanboys wanted to make his work possible. Spielberg would pay for it essentially, and Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic helped pull off the stunning visual effects in the film. Not to mention that Scorsese plays Van Gogh, when really the roles should have been reversed, with Kurosawa himself playing Van Gogh and Scorsese the young artist. There is a great list on Letterboxd, which compiled Kurosawa’s favorite films and his quotes about them, and the best thing about it is just how glowingly he writes about artists who clearly admired him greatly and learned from him. Even if he knew he was extremely accomplished, he knew that art demands change and always trying to see the world in a different way, and this film and all of Kurosawa’s career is a testament to that belief.

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