In this season of the big movie award events, we are listing 9 of the greatest films that teach us about art and the urge to create.
Although artists often work in solitude, we don’t exist in a vacuum. We are in a constant dialogue with the inner and outer world, responding to information and stimulation in order to be part of the greater conversation.
Films can be a valuable source of grist for the mill. Watching, as an art form itself, with impeccable attention paid to images, light and color, or perhaps the stories themselves directly or inadvertently spark ideas, provide encouragement or grant the permission we sometimes seek. Artist biofilms can offer us deeper insight into art history, an artist’s process, or simply offer encouragement and permission to imagine.
Historian and playwright, Howard Zinn, believed that films were an essential way to teach history. These films can help us contextualize, appreciate, and understand the conditions under which these artists lived and worked.
1. The Agony and the Ecstasy
directed by Carol Reed
This classic film, based on Irving Stones’ novel, portrays Michelangelo’s challenges while painting the Sistine Chapel under Pope Julius II, who was eager to leave behind works by which he would be remembered. This film can give us a deep appreciation for Michelangelo’s unflinching determination, his incessant struggles, and his commitment to his vision.
The film is full of great quotes.
Raphael: For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or… a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die. We are harlots always peddling beauty at the doorsteps of the mighty.
Michelangelo: If it comes to that, I won’t be an artist.
Raphael: You’ll always be an artist. You have no choice.
Michelangelo: I’ll tell you what stands between us and the Greeks, two thousand years of human suffering stands between us! Christ on His Cross stands between us. And this difference is what I will express in my paintings. Just as I’ll paint the truth in spite of all the bigots… and hypocrites in Rome! Why do you bring fools to judge my work?
2. Andrei Rublev
directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
This epic Russian drama is about the life of a revered religious icon painter, Andrei Rublev, who lived roughly from the 1360s to 1430. Even though it is in Russian and in black and white this film has achieved international masterpiece status with its convincing portrayal of an artist’s journey.
Andrei Rublev is considered to be one of the greatest medieval Russian painters of Orthodox icons and frescos. This film reveals his heart of piety, purity, heartbreak, and healing as the peace-seeking monastic artist witnesses a brutal battle.
directed by July Taymor
Frida is the biography of beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who uses her personal pain, including a crippling injury, and her turbulent marriage to Diego Rivera as the subject of her emotional surrealistic work. A very entertaining and powerful movie of a turbulent life and the unstoppable hunger to create.
Frida Kahlo: I just want your serious opinion.
Diego Rivera: What do you care about my opinion? If you’re a real painter, you’ll paint because you can’t live without painting. You’ll paint till you die.
4. Mr. Turner
by Mike Leigh
A well-rendered biography of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner which is a pleasure to watch as well but also provides insight into the man and the times he lived in. Especially poignant is Turner’s introduction and the first experience with still photography, a significant event in the history of art.
5. Man on Wire
by James Marsh
Acrobat and performance artist Philippe Petit narrates his daring and illegal, high-wire performance between New York City’s World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974. Called, “the artistic crime of the century,” we get insight into Petit’s artistic and poetic expression which is nothing short of inspirational.
6. Bill Cunningham’s New York
by Richard Press
This fashion photographer’s commitment, vision, and integrity seems itself out of fashion, and yet Cunningham’s impeccable work ethic and taste garnished him respect from all those in his competitive field.
“I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the color. It’s the clothes, not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”
“The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with. The point is that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
7. Faces Places, The Gleaners and I
by Agnes Varda
Agnes Varda’s documentaries are great to remind ourselves what Varda kept intact in her 90 year-long creative life, a lighthearted curiosity for life and art.
Watching her films is a master class in the creative process, as she invites us into her playful journey.
“If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.”
“Memory is like sand in my hand, I keep some and some is going. The beaches are the thread, and it’s true that I’ve been on beaches all my life. I know that if I need the ideal place, it’s the perfect one for me. This has nothing to do with swimming or surfing or sailing. It’s the pleasure of watching the beach, which means watching the sky and the sea, and if you go at a different time, it can be different light and weather, it can be white or it can be flat. I love it when it’s almost flat. It’s so pure that it’s like the beginning of the world. And it allows me, as a metaphor, to believe that I was always on the beach in my mind. And the other metaphor is that there is a poem of Jacques Prévert, you know – ‘Et la mer efface sur le sable / Les pas des amants désunis‘ – And the sea erases from the sand/ The steps of the parted lovers. I always thought of that.”
8. The Girl with the Pearl Earring
by Peter Webber
This adaptation, from fiction author, Tracy Chevalie, is a speculative historical rendering, based on the creation of the painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring” by 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Although little is known about the actual girl in the painting, the film accurately depicts the authentic materials, circumstances, and context for the place and time.
Van Ruijven: Is this Indian yellow? Distilled from the urine of sacred cows feed only on mango leaves? You’ve glazed my wife …in dried piss.
And last but by no means least the stunning…
9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
by Julian Schnabel
Based on the true story of French Elle editor Jean Dominique Baubis’ memoir of the same name. This poignant and heartbreaking film offers the unusual experience of seeing the world through the eyes of a very visually oriented man in the hospital, unable to move or speak, and brilliantly interpreted and directed by artist turned filmmaker, Julian Schnabel. This unforgettable film is as powerful and beautiful as they get.
So get a bowl of popcorn, or some hot chocolate, and have some guilt-free movie watching. You will be learning and sparking new ideas while having a great ride!