Look at This

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on September 1, 1993 @ Film Comment.

One of the great ironies about Vincent and Theo, Robert Altman's stunning, classic film released in 1990, about Vincent Van Gogh and his art-dealer brother Theo, is that you can't see it. At least, the normal consumer can't. You can't rent it at most videostores, and it is difficult if not impossible to buy even at the list price of $109. About the only place to get it is an occasional local library.

I just taught a class on the films of Robert Altman, and my experiences in trying to show me films would make a typical Altman movie.

First of all, to my shame, I showed most of them on videotape. If any director's work should be on the big screen, it's Altman's. Because of economics -- I apologize, Bob -- I could afford only two films on the big screen. I love California Split, which is not on video, so that was one; and Images, which is a great film to teach, was the other.

The 'Scope print of Images was imperfect, but it made me remember how much is lost on pan-and-scan videos; how they are a basic violation of style. The print of California Split was a disaster. I ordered the 'Scope version, but the distributor had to renege because its 'Scope print was damaged. I took a flat version. When more than one character spoke-and overlapping dialogue is an Altman must-all that came over the soundtrack was noise. I knew what the lines of dialogue were, but even I couldn't make them out. The students were lost. The film was ruined.

In the contemporary world, film has been cannibalized by video. We try to make the best of a bad situation, but it's shocking that some of Altman's best films have not been available on video. One has not been able to get Images, California Split, Thieves like Us, and Three Women.

Which brings me to Vincent and Theo, which is as good a film as Altman has ever made; it is his most controlled and most intense. It was one of the best films of 1990, and yet it has had to fight for survival. I didn't realize how much until I went looking for it. Videotownes didn't have it; Blockbusters didn't have it. Finally a former student of mine told me he had rented it from the little Tipp City, Ohio, library. Bless the addled soul who purchased it! One of my two local libraries also had a copy; it was out, but at least they had it, so I put it on hold. When at last I got it, I was enthralled. But the enthrallment came to a choppy halt when the last five minutes developed interference and intermittently went blank. On the classroom player the shaky visuals held up...but the soundtrack was slowed-down and faulty.

I tried to buy a video of Vincent and Theo, but was told it was no longer "in print." I can rent eight copies of Bob Rafelson's Man Trouble at my local Videotowne, but none of Vincent and Theo. The eight copies of Man Trouble remain on Videotowne's shelf untouched. I like Rafelson's work, but I think he would agree that Man Trouble is not among his best films.

In 1990 Altman told Santa Barbara, California's The Independent, "Art is all about creating new audiences .... But nobody has any artistic vision, nobody is trying to get people's attention and saying, 'Hey, look at this!'" Robert Altman is still trying to get people's attention and trying to create new audiences. But the audiences can't even see Vincent and Theo.

Vincent and Theo indelibly captures Altman's vision of the marketplace's annihilation of the artist and the individual. In the Nineties the fact that Altman's own best films are often ignored and rejected by an indifferent marketplace is further proof of his vision.

© 2000-2017 Tony Macklin