A look at the madly creative: It takes one to know one?


Perhaps no artist fascinates other artists so much as Vincent Van Gogh. The stumpy Dutchman, who saw things no other human ever saw and managed heroically to get the vision on canvas, was by turns self-destructive, arrogant, crazed, self-pitying, manipulative, crass, ambitious and loud. Plus, he cut off an ear, a great career move, though I doubt he knew it at the time.

Not two months ago Akira Kurosawa was lost in ruminations about him in his "Dreams"; and before that, filmmakers as far apart on the spectrum as Paul Cox and Kirk Douglas had wrestled with him and his demons. And now the great American director Robert Altman, having fallen on extremely hard times in his mainstream career, has turned to Vincent for a charge.

not hard to understand why. Altman is something of a madman himself, having briefly been hot when his sensibility coincided with the public's in "M*A*S*H" all those eons ago; since then, he's gone his thornily independent way, his reputation growing as his access to the big studios diminished.

The resulting film, "Vincent & Theo," which opens at the Charles today for a two-week run, is a compelling action painting of a man not unlike Altman himself. Unique from previous screen bios, this one approaches from a genre angle, the genre being "weird brothers." It tracks not just the big Vincent moments -- the hacking of the ear being the prime station of the cross -- but also follows Vincent's tortured, passionate relationship with his younger brother, Theo.

In Altman's version, Vincent is all working-class obsessive, a sullen, haunted little man and Theo, a Parisian art dealer who functioned as his agent and sponsor, is the high-strung arty intellectual, full of theatrics and hysteria. Neither of them is quite selfless and neither of them is very attractive, but both brim with belief in Vincent, and that belief takes them both to the edge of and finally over the fence into madness.

Vincent is played by Tim Roth, a British actor who made an impression in "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & her Lover." Roth gives a major performance. Altman's first glimpse of him is telling and haunt ing: he is lying fully clothed on the bed in his cheap garret, daubed in paint and filth from head to toe, eyes swollen with intensity, mouth locked shut, while poor Theo dances around the room in near-tears.

Theo is played much less successfully by Paul Rhys, also English (the two Dutch brothers are played in full-tilt English accent to separate them from the Frenchmen who talk in conventional movie-French accents). But Rhys' Theo, as estimable as he is in his commitment to his brother's art, is a bit of a cold fish. Vincent's abundant madness is in its way far more appealing than Theo's twitchy aestheticism.

The movie, not a warm document but an entrancing one, is at its best as it watches Vincent interacting with the brilliant yellow landscapes that were to become his hallmark and his signature. Roth brings so much intensity to the artistic process, and to the idea of artist as special being, isolated first by talent and second by neurosis and third by ruthlessness, that the film picks up mythical meanings. Roth is Van Gogh, but he's also every scribbler or dabbler who thought he had something to say and the world damn well ought to stop to listen to it.

'Vincent & Theo'

Starring Tim Roth and Paul Rhys.

Directed by Robert Altman.

Released by Hemdale.

Rated R.


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