Thursday, 20 November 2014

Mr Turner vs Topsy-Turvey: Basquiat Wins

Ken Loach’s Topsy-Turvey is one of my favourite films, and one of the best films made about the creative process: in that film the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. I came away feeling as if I understood more about the theatrical world of the time, the men who created those quirky operas, and with more respect than I previously had for their work.

So I was looking forward to Ken Loach’s Mr Turner. And sure, it’s lovely to look at. The performances from his troupe are surpassing excellent. And Timothy Spall gives the best performance of a man-as-a-pig as you could want, if you wanted such a thing. But by heaven’s it’s lazy.

A ton of research went into it, and it’s all up there on the screen, but little of it is in the story and even less in the character of Turner. In Topsy-Turvey we meet Gilbert and Sullivan as established figures: Sullivan already has his knighthood. Similarly, we meet Turner when he’s already a success. Except for the life of me, I can’t see why. He’s an oaf. A big, fat, ugly oaf with an unconvincing line in insincere flattery. In 1838, when Turner was in his mid-50’s, and a year covered by this film, the King of France, Louis-Philippe presented a gold snuff box to him. Watch the movie, and then try imaging that porker being admitted to the Court of Louis-Phillipe.

A film about a successful artist has to explain to the viewer why the artist was successful, and what form that success took. Loach does this very well in Topsy-Turvey, with some to-the-point scenes with their impresario, and even touching on their investment in the Savoy Hotel. It’s clear that Sullivan was talented, charming and raffish, and so dealt with the press and society, while Gilbert was a dour, detail-freak who dealt with the production. And why do we know they are good? Because Loach shows us...

Loach dodges this completely with Turner. Turner's business partner was his father, and he’s a bent-backed inarticulate, obsequious creep. Customers are shuffled into a dark room, made to wait, then lead into a studio filled with Turner’s paintings arranged to no special effect and lit by natural light through a layer of muslin. I’m pretty sure that’s not how Jay Jopling shifts his Gilbert and George paintings, and I’ll bet that Whistler was a pretty smooth operator. The buyers we see are gullible and not very bright, or aged landed aristocrats of such a seniority that everyone has to stand when they enter the room. And John Ruskin. The Ruskin in the film is such a lightweight little git that I kept thinking there must have been another John Ruskin who was the most influential art critic of the time. If i didn’t know any better, I’d think that Loach was trying to tell us that people who bought Turners then were as artistically insensible as people who buy Hirsts now. But Loach can’t be saying that, because Great Painter.

Great Painter is why it’s odd that not once do we get to see one of Turner’s pictures up close and sensual. You’d think that, on his name alone, Ken Loach could swing some decent rostrum camerawork on the Tate’s collection, let alone on the chance of a movie tie-in. But seemingly no. In Topsy-Turvey we got performances of the songs in the Mikado, but the most we get in Mr Turner is Turner dashing back from some expedition and knocking off the next Famous Painting while being a boor to an increasingly weird housemaid. Loach should have watched Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation to remind himself of how to show art to inspire awe and respect.

And then we see Turner having himself lashed to a mast so he can sail through a storm and catch pneumonia? Where did that come from? He just did it on a whim? Or was I supposed to know that story as well? Episode after episode without the joining thread of character.

Watch it by all means. But if you want to see a commercial movie that’s really about painting and the art scene of its time, and yet still about a person, watch Julien Schnabel’s Basquiat. That’s how it’s done.

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