Go and do something sensible, like shooting yourself! But don't be an artist!
But thankfully, we do have this vehicle, The Horse's Mouth, to give us a vivid sense of what Guinness could accomplish when given a generous helping of creative control. It's fitting that a film about a painter offers perhaps the fullest expression of Guinness' artistry as an actor (at least, when he confines himself to a single role, unlike his tour de force Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he tackled eight parts in various disguises, some quite briefly.) Guinness not only showed how deeply he could invest himself in a role (taking on the gruff persona and grimy appearance of his character Gulley Jimson for several months of shooting, much to his wife's consternation), he also took his only screen writing credit, successfully adapting what's reputed to be a very complex and nearly "unfilmable" novel by Joyce Cary. At least, Ronald Neame thought it was unfilmable, until Guinness persuaded him to do the project and allow himself to do the screenplay. And given Neame's experience working alongside David Lean on his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, I trust his appreciation for the magnitude of that task. So hats off to Alec for bringing this uniquely enjoyable film to fruition!
Gulley Jimson's story is that of a surly, cantankerous man who's settled upon painting as his primary coping mechanism for life. Lacking badly when it comes to social skills or any kind of a work ethic that involves what most in society consider "productive labor," Jimson has had to resort to selling off his works for what he knows is a pittance of their market value simply because he doesn't have an interest in cultivating the business sense that would be required to earn top dollar. He's too busy spending his time looking for large flat surfaces to slather his paint on, in thick gooey strokes that often rise an inch or more above the surface of his "canvas." We first make his acquaintance as he's being released from jail, where he'd been consigned a short while earlier for making harassing phone calls under assumed identities to wealthy benefactors, asking for money, nicely at first, but resorting to intimidating threats as needed to get his point across. But even these desperate tactics are handled so awkwardly as to provoke more laughs than shivers. Jimson is just a misfit when it comes to human relations, a classic misanthrope who nevertheless has a profound and aesthetically compelling insight into life and the world around him that he struggles to express in his art.
Pestered by a would-be disciple, Nosey, and hovering back and forth between his ex-wife Sara and Coker, a lady friend and barkeep to whom he's in debt for a few pounds, the aging Jimson senses the onset of his physical and creative decline, and seems to be at a critical junction as he sifts through his future options. Even though he lives on the cheap in a decrepit old tugboat and is quite adept as a freeloader, he still needs money, and he recognizes a potential source of cash at his disposal in the form of Hickson, one of his patrons who happens to possess a stash of Jimson's highly valuable early works. Sara also owns one particularly prized painting, a souvenir from the happier days of their marriage that means a lot to her but also appeals to Jimson as a lucrative meal ticket, if he can just talk her into handing it over so they can split the loot. But Sara's not so easily persuaded. The witty exchanges between the characters, poking fun at upper, middle and lower classes with equal agility, and Jimson's antics while trying to connive an angle to get his hands on the precious artifacts keep things moving along quite humorously in the early going.
But aside from those amusements and some laugh-out-loud moments of physical comedy, what stands out in The Horse's Mouth is the sensitive portrayal of an artist's melancholy, even in the midst of creating some vibrant and impressive images, from the spectator's point of view anyway. An influential English painter of the time, John Bratby, was commissioned to do original work for the film, including a massive exterior mural that took six weeks to paint and was quickly destroyed for the sake of the film shortly after its completion. Bratby's paintings are formidable, and work quite well on film, thanks in large part to the highly textured surfaces and bold figures he rendered. The pictures convey both madness and mystery - huge oversized feet, a glowering enraged tiger head, primitive voluptuous nudes - as Jimson meditates on timeless themes - the Fall from Eden, the Raising of Lazarus, the Last Judgment. Appropriately, there's no significant attempt made to explain the works and as is the nature of film, we only get brief (but adequate) shots of the finished paintings (though I'm glad to live in the freeze-frame HDTV era!)
But getting back to the artist's melancholy... It's that sense of never quite being able to capture the essence of one's initial epiphany, that blazing moment of perception that first compels the act of creation, before sheer will and habit drive an artist (in whatever medium) to complete the work after the primary burst begins to fade. The dissatisfaction felt by the creator at his or her own inadequacies when it comes to the execution of the work is only compounded by the inability of our fellow humans to properly appreciate or understand the finished product. The hard-to-bridge gap between sublime and mundane sensibilities is wonderfully captured in this bit of dialogue, which I'll transcribe here. You can watch the scene for yourself in this clip, starting at the five-minute mark:
It's the scene where the transfixed Gulley and the pragmatic Coker are in a luxurious parlor, contemplating a nude portrait of Jimson's ex-wife.
Jimson: Look at my picture, Cokey.Coker: I saw it once.J: You didn't think about it.C: I know that if it was a postcard and some poor chap tried to sell it, he'd get 14 days!J: You're missing a big slice of life, Cokey. Half a minute of revelation's worth a million years of know-nothing.C: Who lives a million years?J: (slight pause) A million people, every twelve months. I'll show you how to look at a picture. Don't look at it, feel it with your eyes. First feel the shapes in the flat, like patterns, and feel it in the round, feel all the smooth and sharp edges, the lights and the shades, the cools and the warms...C: Oh, the jugs look real, I'll give you that.
Like a fine painting, The Horse's Mouth is an object better appreciated the longer it's pondered, or indeed felt, following Gulley's directions above. My first viewing didn't make the lasting impact that the film has now left on me, possibly because I was expecting something a little more screwball-y and raucous after watching this original trailer, that markets the film to an audience that seems a bit repressed and uptight, but probably typical of its times:
Or maybe I was just a bit sleepy and inattentive. Gulley Jimson's gruffness can be a bit off-putting until you get to know him, especially since his problems are mostly self-inflicted. Ronald Neame's direction is straightforward, not too flashy or interested in drawing attention to himself and thus easy to take for granted. As usual, watching the supplemental interview with Neame on the DVD sheds a very helpful light on the story of the production and the interplay between Guinness, Bratby and the other fine actors who played a part in bringing The Horse's Mouth to life. The disc also contains a very wonderful surprise, the first short film of D.A. Pennebaker, who went on to film some amazing documentaries that Criterion has released over the years. It's titled Daybreak Express, included on this disc because Pennebaker had the good fortune of renting his film to the New York art house theater where The Horse's Mouth had its US premiere, as an opening short subject. A brief five-minute tour of New York on a soon-to-be demolished elevated train line set to a Duke Ellington soundtrack, I'll describe it as a forerunner to Koyaanisqatsi, nearly 25 years before that landmark film made its debut. All in all, I recommend a good long look into The Horse's Mouth. I think you'll like what you see there!
Next: Appalachian Spring