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Art Imitating Life Is One Thing; Art Imitating Artists Is Quite Another

The self-directed life of the struggling artist seldom makes for exciting cinema. For one thing, it’s typically not very visual.

For another, the featured characters usually come off as egomaniacs whose desire for “art” sets them apart from - many of them believe above - the mass of ordinary humanity.

A sequence from Philip Kaufman’s “Henry & June” (1990) comes to mind. It involves Henry Miller (Fred Ward) drinking with some of his friends and, essentially, bragging about how clever and important they are.

Or there’s always Fred Zinneman’s “Julia” (1977), which features long scenes of Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) either pecking away at a typewriter or squinting through cigarette smoke at what she’s already written.

Singers and dancers usually fare better because they engage in activities that, if nothing else, are visual. Even given its maudlin treatment, Alfred E. Green’s “The Jolson Story” (1946) at least put Larry Parks on stage (though a little too often in blackface for contemporary audiences). And that certainly beats staring at a piece of typewriter paper or painter’s canvas.

So, even if it does boast its share of flaws, Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol” (see capsule review) does manage to be more than just another overly sensitive study of artistic suffering.

Yeah, there are scenes of radical feminist Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor) grimacing over her pencil-scratched notebooks. But the point of “I Shot Andy Warhol” is not so much what Solanas wrote but how she lived - which was as an obsessed individual perched on society’s edge who, one day, decided to pull out a gun and jump off into the great void.

That interest in the active life of an artist, especially when it involves someone whose questionable emotional health both inspires and tortures them, is what makes Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” (1990) such a great film. Powered by Tim Roth’s riveting performance as Vincent Van Gogh and matched by Paul Rhys’ job as Von Gogh’s brother, Theo, “Vincent & Theo” is as good as any artist’s bio-pic ever made.

It helps, of course, that the real Van Gogh was a truly sad figure. A literal failure throughout his life, he had an excuse for his outlandish behavior: No one else, save Theo, was willing to lead his cheers.

Maybe he knew that someday people would be buying his paintings for $40 million a canvas.

These days, a lot of movies make less of a profit than that.

Antonia’s Line ***

Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with this study of one woman’s life. But as no one gets through life alone, Antonia (Willeke Von Ammelroy) has her story revealed in the way it has touched, and in many cases enriched, the various characters she’s encountered. The film is told in flashback, on the day the 88-year-old Antonia decides she will die, and runs the range of emotions from pain and rage to comedy and forgiveness. Gorris takes a few sidesteps here and there - the magically realistic touches seem to belong to a different movie - but ultimately she stays on track. “Antonia’s Line” is an anthem for those who, like Antonia herself, fail to fit in. Not rated

I Shot Andy Warhol **1/2

As a New York-based writer covering the birth of America’s punk scene, Mary Harron was familiar with the whole of the Big Apple arts world of the late ‘60s. Thus, she boasts the required credentials to make a credible study of famed pop artist Andy Warhol and the woman who shot him, Valerie Solanas. In “I Shot Andy Warhol,” Harron overcomes her limited filmmaking experience to make a film that, if nothing else, is entertaining to watch. Even so, there are problems. One, even while portraying many of the events of Solanas’ life, the woman - brilliant, obsessed, maniacal - herself gets lost. As we follow her progression from psychology student to feminist pamphleteer to crazed, would-be assassin, Harron’s Solanas remains as unstuck in time as Billy Pilgrim. Second, actress Lili Taylor constructs a character who is too one-note, being little more than a selfdestructive jumble of speed rap and nervous gestures, twitches, curses and cigarette smoke. Jared Harris, though, is terrific as a bewigged Warhol who is as childish as he is manipulative. Rated R

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