Thursday, January 01, 2015

"Mr. Turner": the issues for a 19th century painter are a lot like those for a 21st century writer


Mr. Turner”, directed and written by Mike Leigh (my age), is a steady and somewhat drawn out period-piece biography of the eccentric nineteenth century British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, or “J.M.W. Turner”.  It’s the second major “independent” movie about painters in theaters this Christmas season.
  
Turner (Timothy Spall) seemed quite well-off and deliberate in his way of doing things, especially as he traveled.  Much of the film concerns has growing attachment to a landlady (Sophia Booth) on the English coast. 
  
The film makes some interesting points about artists that carry over into other areas.  Another painter (John Constable) begs him for a loan and Turner lectures him about staying in his fantasy world rather than painting what sells (or maybe he doesn’t have the talent – a  theme in “Big Eyes”). The painter pesters him again later in the film, sometimes talking with left-wing banter of victimization, and the result is some vandalism of paintings.  It’s pretty easy to imagine how these principles can play out in the modern world of the Internet with writing and other content products on it developed by non-conformist individuals.  Later, shortly before his passing of heart disease (at age 76, a decent life span in those days) a private benefactor wants to buy his work, but Turner wants his work to be given away at his end so that more people will see his work.  That sounds like a major business model controversy for the Internet today.
  
Visually, the film is striking, recreating the life of upper class England in the 1840s, in a low-tech world where concerts were held with candlelight. The film traces how technology is already changing the world, as newly built railroads threaten old-fashioned stagecoach traffic business models. Later, it introduces photography (a different threat, as in the film here Tuesday). There is a scene where a young woman plays some of Beethoven’s Pathetique Piano Sonata #8, on a clavier (without all 88 keys) that sounds a bit out of tune to modern ears.  Then she plays some Purcell.  The chamber music score by Gary Yershon is striking, sometimes resembling Britten a bit, other times echoing the feel of the music of young composers today in New York (like Christopher Cerrone, Timo Andres, Ted Hearne, Nico Muhly), to the point that I wondered whose name I would see in the credits.

I noticed also the markets and the food -- people really ate pigs' heads in those days. 
    
I saw the film New Years Day afternoon at the Angelica Mosaic in Fairfax VA;  the large auditorium was two-thirds full, with many patrons older than usual.  The audience liked this film, and some people applauded. 
  
The official site is here . Sony Pictures Classics distributes in the US, and Sony can use the success right now.  Focus Features International (NBC Universal) and E-1 are involved overseas, along with many production companies in the UK, France and Germany.  It seems like the $50 million “independent” film with major international stars is commonplace now. 
  
Wikipedia attribution link for Stonehenge, which I visited in 1982.  
  
The master film about painters is, of course, Ed Harris as “Pollock” (2000), also from Sony,

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