By Jascha Hannover

These are the thoughts of an average filmmaker on the portrayal of artistic genius and artistic work in film. My research for this essay led me to watch many films, many of which I enjoyed. But I found myself increasingly annoyed at the message these films conveyed about the artistic process—that the work involved in creating art is of no interest to the big screen.

Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is broken. Her body has been shattered in a bus accident, a metal rod has pierced her pelvis, and the doctors have barely succeeded in saving her life. She has been bed-bound for weeks, trapped in a full body cast with very little movement. She will probably never walk again. This is the helpless situation Frida finds herself in when her first love Alejandro approaches the sickbed to end the relationship, leaving Mexico City—and Frida—to study in Paris. There are tears, anger—all hope seems lost.
              But then, a turning point in Julie Taymor’s Frida (2002): Frida’s father gives her a drawing pad and a wooden frame, enabling her to paint while lying in bed. Her career as an artist begins with the help of her father’s sketchbook. Cut—a jump in time: Frida, still lying in her bed, is creating a self-portrait with the help of a ceiling mirror. She has already transitioned to brush and canvas. The walls are covered with paintings she has finished over the past days, weeks, months (we have to guess). Frida has apparently already reached a certain level of craftsmanship and found the main theme of her work: processing her own pain through art.  
              This scene is typical of Hollywood in its representation of the artist and her creative process. We don’t see Frida Kahlo learning to paint. The process is shown in a time lapse, starting with the trigger (sketch-book), and cutting straight to the result: the birth of an artist who depicts herself in her work, and finds healing through art. In the next scene we witness a miracle: Frida rises from her wheelchair and can walk again. The film clearly portrays this as a result of her painting. And that is where the story is. Films about artists are not usually interested in the process of creating, but in art as a form of catharsis; the creation is shown as the salvation of a life that would otherwise be miserable.

              In one way or another, this is the theme of almost all American artist biopics: from Frida Kahlo to Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1956), Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (dir. Sidney J. Furie, 1972) Jean Michel-Basquiat in Basquiat (dir. Julian Schnabel, 1996), Jackson Pollock in Pollock (dir. Ed Harris, 2000), Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (dir. James Mangold, 2005), and Ray Charles in Ray (dir. Taylor Hackford, 2004).
              The two recent films about Steve Jobs (we’ll do him a favour here and see him as an artist rather than an entrepreneur) also fit this mould. With the imaginative titles Jobs (dir. Joshua Michael Stern, 2013) and Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle, 2015), each film is structured very differently, and Boyle’s version is much more compelling than its forerunner. Nevertheless, both films are essentially about the same topic: Steve Jobs isolated by his vision and genius; his decisions to leave behind his less brilliant friends; his failures as a family man, only coming into his own in work and creation. Professional success is linked to private failure.
              Sooner or later every filmmaker comes across the adage that you cannot make a film without some kind of conflict. Film dramaturgy needs conflict, which is precisely why artists with dramatic life stories are usually the popular choice. Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Billie Holliday provide far better subjects for a biopic than someone like Frank Zappa, a workaholic and a great entertainer with a ’boring’ private life who never took drugs and was only married once—that’s not a compelling narrative for the big screen.

The artists Hollywood invents are also often in the tradition of the isolated genius: Nick Nolte as the painter Lionel Dobie in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989); Sean Penn as jazz guitarist Emmet Ray in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999); Woody Allen himself as a writer in his comedy Deconstructing Harry (1997). Allen’s Harry is a sex-obsessed, drunken, but apparently brilliant, egomaniac. He reflects upon his life during a road trip to an awards ceremony (based on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries from 1957). It’s an embarrassing and excruciating journey for everyone involved, but it is not in vain, as Harry returns home with the idea for a new character: “To me, it’s a really interesting character: a guy who can’t function well in life, but can only function in art.” The film wants to sell us this idea as brilliant, and thus its end is happy. But this character Harry creates is a common cliché.
              What annoys me about this portrayal of artists in many American films, is the general message they all seem to convey, namely that being an artist is both a blessing and a curse. ’Blessing’ in the truest sense, as apparently only a select group of ’chosen ones’ can create art. ’Curse,’ because the artist’s vision is met with ignorance and incomprehension in their environment. A hallmark of all of these films is a set of characters who do not understand the artist: journalists asking idiotic questions, less gifted colleagues, gallerists and—worst of them all—the suit-wearing investor. The result is the suggestion that an artist’s existence is incompatible with a normal private life.
              Few filmmakers take this cliché to such extremes as Woody Allen. In Bullets Over Broadway (1997), John Cusack plays the theatre director David Shayne who stages a play on Broadway in the Roaring Twenties. Shayne suffers from lack of inspiration, an egocentric leading lady, the demands of the Mafia boss who is financing his play. His relationship with his partner Helen also suffers under his ego. But then suddenly, everything seems to turn around. Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) is sent by the mafia boss to supervise rehearsals and turns out to be a genius writer, a theatre wunderkind, who slowly but surely takes over the entire production. Thanks to Cheech, the play becomes a great success. Shayne realizes that compared to this genius, he is at best mediocre, and therefore not a true artist. He gives up theatre. After the premiere of the film he runs to Helen and confesses: “There are two things that I am certain of. First of all: I love you. Second: I am not an artist.” This is his salvation. They kiss, decide to get married, and stroll off into the sunset of bourgeois happiness.

              In a bid to accept all 400 applicants to his class at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, Joseph Beuys once said, “Everyone is an artist”. The films above are the antithesis to this belief: art is a vocation here. Maybe this fetishisation of genius only bothers creative professionals of average talent, such as  myself—people who have to work hard to achieve good results. It is precisely this hard work that does not seem to interest most filmmakers. Art is sacred in these films, whereas the reality of artistic working processes is, as we know, very profane.

And creating art takes a long time—getting caught up on technicalities, looking at the ceiling, or out of the window, thinking. The moments in which one actually creates are rare. And so one might be forgiven for thinking that the authentic representation of artistic processes in films is solely an economizing of time. Many directors make do with montages or time-lapse. Director and painter Julian Schnabel works with jump cuts in Basquiat. We begin with a wide shot of Jean-Michel (Jeffrey Wright) in his studio: in front of him, a large empty canvas. Basquiat starts working–scribbles, paints, repaints. Jump cuts signify the passing of time. The canvas starts to fill up, the setting changes, more jump-cuts. Suddenly the whole studio is covered with paintings, just as Basquiat continues work on the same canvas: a whole wall full of masterpieces, produced in about 90 seconds of screen-time.
             The depiction of so-called inspiration, the essence of what we understand as ’genius’, is even trickier to pull off. In Pollock, Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris) is about to begin a painting in the same style as his contemporaries: somewhere between Surrealism and Expressionism, done very well, but not revolutionary. He dips the brush in paint, stretches his arm towards the canvas, but accidentally drips paint onto the floor. Close-up of Pollock; Close-up of the paint drops; Pollock again; Brainwave! Cut: Pollock covers the canvas in splashes of paint. The so-called Drip Paintings, which will make him world-famous, are born. Even if we ignore the art historical question of whether and to what extent Max Ernst or Knud Merrild influenced Pollock’s Drip Paintings, the resolution of this scene in this way is fairly ridiculous. Roger Ebert wrote the following about Pollock: “I don’t know if Ed Harris knows how to paint, but he knows how to look like he’s painting.” This seems to be as close as we get to the process of painting in this film—a minimum of authenticity to lend the the creative process some credibility, while not distracting from the main tale of artistic suffering.

Filmmakers love the interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966). In it, François Truffaut spends a week meticulously questioning Alfred Hitchcock about his techniques, tips, and tricks. The book demonstrates the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, but also that film is a craft that can be taught. In revealing his techniques, Hitchcock invites his readers to try it out for themselves. When a film ignores the work and skill that go into being a successful artist, it reinforces an exclusionary message.
              The lack of interest in the process cannot be excused by shortage of time alone, because there are counterexamples.  Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (2018) about Vincent van Gogh is one of them. This is a film about a painter’s isolation as a result of his genius, which eventually drives him to insanity. What sets it apart from its peers is the fact that many passages demonstrate a focus on the processes of painting: technique, the time-consuming search for new images, and the difficulty of creating original work. The New York Times aptly calls it an ’exquisite portrayal of van Gogh at work.’

              Sadly, however, this kind of detailed portrayal of artists is rare in film. The only genre in which work processes are taken seriously are films about criminals. The virtuoso professional robbers in films like Thief (1981) and Heat (1995, both dir. Michael Mann) and Thomas Arslan’s Im Schatten (In The Shadows, 2010) come to mind. The protagonists in both films create a dilemma for the viewer—their actions are immoral, but they are excellent at what they do. And we are fascinated by those characters, as the films show the sophistication of their criminal craftsmanship so meticulously.  
              Other examples are Le Trou (1960) by Jacques Becker and A Man Escaped (1956) by Robert Bresson. Both films show people escaping from captivity. In Le Trou (The Hole), the escape is mainly an act of physical strength: tunnels are dug, walls are broken through. Becker shows these processes in almost unpleasantly long shots. He is interested in the collective physical effort exuded by the escapees. In A Man Escaped, Fontaine (François Leterrier) frees himself from a Gestapo prison in an altogether quieter way: he loosens a wooden plank from the door of his cell using a spoon–a tedious process that Bresson shows for several minutes. Is it a coincidence that three of these films are from Europe?

              But back to Hollywood. My favourite film about the work process is Brian de Palma’s Blow Out (1981). This thriller gloriously combines the narrative of creative craftsmanship with a crime plot: John Travolta plays a sound engineer who accidentally witnesses a political murder while recording sounds in a forest (this is, of course, inspired by the photographer in Antonioni’s Blow Up). De Palma pays tribute to the work of the sound engineer throughout the film. Again and again we see Travolta’s character cutting tapes, unwinding them, re-cutting, and synchronising. These scenes demonstrate a lost craft and gain nostalgic value when contrasted with today’s mostly digital workflows. Right at the beginning of the film we observe Travolta at work for five minutes: first cutting and sorting sounds in his archive, then recording new sounds (wind, owls, leaves) in the forest. No film has the time to show these processes, this is a conscious decision.
              And then there’s Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), a biopic about Edward D. Wood Jr., the supposedly worst film director of all time. This is a film about an artist who fails in art. But Burton has great sympathy for his character, and Wood fails with dignity. This is inspiring to watch because it questions the widely proposed reasoning for any artist’s existence. Each of Wood’s cheap horror films is torn apart by critics, his colleagues mock him, but he continues unabated: a Sisyphus figure shooting B-movies and chasing his dreams. Because of this, he gathers about him a family of like-minded people. They find fulfilment in contributing to his work for its own sake.

              The documentary film allows itself to spend time watching failure and process on a very different (time)scale. The fascination of the peek behind the scenes—into an artist’s studio or workshop—can carry an entire film: personal drama is not a necessity. The slowness, lengthiness and yes, the agony of the creative process is not seen as an obstacle here, but as narrative. There are many beautiful examples: The Mystery of Picasso (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956) Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001) and even El Bulli—Cooking in Process, on the molecular restaurant in Roses, Catalonia (the chef here is an artist, without a doubt). The documentary film Gerhard Richter Painting (2011) is particularly fascinating because it shows him at work. Richter struggles, doubts, paints, overpaints—the title says it all. Corinna Belz’s documentary won the German Film Prize and was a huge public success. Many people with whom I talked about the film were surprised to find that Gerhard Richter was an extraordinary artist, but otherwise ’a normal guy’—until that point, they had believed the same old cliché of the artist as an isolated sociopathic genius.
              The artists in these documentary films are brilliant, but they are also real craftsmen. They make mistakes as we all do. We see that they are human, they are approachable. And this is what makes them ultimately deeply inspiring and encouraging, as far as my own creative process is concerned.

This was an essay by Jascha Hannover which was first published in PRESENT Issue 1
Jascha Hannover is a film maker living and working in Berlin and Cologne.