Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 18, 2020

The Last Vermeer; Born to Be

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

“The Last Vermeer” is based on the actual history of a Dutchman Han van Meegeren, the greatest art swindler who ever lived. If you’ve seen Orson Welles’s “F is for Fake”, you’ll understand why art forgery remains such a compelling theme. Welles’s film deals with Clifford Irving, who penned a Howard Hughes biography out of whole cloth. It also profiles an art forger Elmyr De Hory, who was Irving’s subject in an earlier book. When I reviewed Welles’s movie in 2007, I read Irving’s book for background.

Basically Irving argues, in sympathy with the outlook of his subject, that it was market demand that assured De Hory’s success, just as the publishing industry would salivate a few years later over the prospects of a blockbuster Howard Hughes autobiography. He writes:

Really, it’s just incredible that someone like a Picasso, a living artist—between two cigarettes he makes a little drawing and that is transferred immediately into gold. John Paul Getty is supposed to be the richest man in the world, but in a given year, if he wanted to, Picasso could make more money than Getty. He can make a line and sign his name to it and get cash for it in five seconds by just picking up the telephone. Fantastic! It’s a situation unparalleled in the history of art or commerce. I heard a story from [his henchman] Fernand Legros that he sent one of my Picassos to Picasso for an authentication, and Picasso, who wasn’t quite sure, asked the man who brought it, ‘How much did the dealer pay for it?’ The man mentioned a huge amount, maybe $100,000, and Picasso said, “Well, if he paid that much, it must be real.”

Born in 1889, Han van Meegeren became an artist out of love for the paintings of the Old Dutch masters (Hals, Vermeer, et al). Starting out, he emulated their style without caring whether his work was marketable or not. After they trashed him for being unoriginal, he sought revenge by creating “lost” masterpieces that fooled the critics and earned him millions.

His biggest con was trading a fake Vermeer titled “Christ with the Adulteress” for 173 genuine masterpieces that Herman Göring had stashed away in a salt mine in Austria. When the film begins, a Dutch military officer named Joseph Piller takes van Meegeren into custody on the basis that he had traded away one of Holland’s greatest cultural artifacts. It is only in the course of his interrogation of van Meegeren that he discovers the truth. He swindled the Nazi in order to preserve his country’s most treasured possessions. What gives the film its edge is the artist’s ambivalent character. Was he a one-man Resistance fighter taking great risks in conning the Germans or was he just a con man out for personal gain?

Piller is played by Claes Bang, who has now starred in three films about the “fictitious capital” embodied in the art market. In “Burnt Orange Heresy” that opened in March, he plays a a chain-smoking, pill-popping art critic named James Figueras who tracks down the legendary artist Jerome Debney, who shocked the art world by setting fire to his studio out of weariness with the art world and its critics. Since all his paintings were destroyed, Figueras hopes to persuade Debney to do one last painting so as to cash in on its rarity—and hence its value. In a 2017 film titled “The Square”, Bang played the director of a Swedish museum resembling the Whitney, where the excesses—both financial and artistic—are satirized brilliantly. In one scene, a famous artist clad in pajamas lectures an audience with a pompous and meaningless explanation of his work. The character is based on Julian Schnabel.

As near as I can tell, “The Last Vermeer” opens on November 20th in physical theaters around the country. You can check Fandango for the locations. I would also advise checking the VOD websites (Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, etc.) to see if is available as well. As for the other two films about the art market that the great Claes Bang stars in, you can rent “Burnt Orange Heresy” on Amazon or from AMC. “The Square” is on Amazon for only $2.99, a bargain at twice the price.

Opening today at Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema, “Born to Be” profiles Dr. Jess Ting of Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery (CTMS). Ting, who is also a Julliard trained bass player, was the first doctor to join the department, mostly as a result of being the only one on staff willing to take a chance on performing surgical procedures generally shunned by his colleagues.

After having reviewed at least five films about the transgender community since 2017, this is the first one that hones in on the so-called “transition surgery” that turns a biological man into a woman and vice versa. Almost a cinéma vérité, it follows Ting, a Chinese-American, on his daily rounds meeting with or performing surgery on a number of his patients.

They are a cross-section of the community that is arguably the most despised of all those falling outside the alt-right cocoon of Trumpworld. In passing, Dr. Ting reflects on the tragedy of 44 percent of all such people attempting suicide at one point or another in their lives.

He gains enormous satisfaction out of seeing the smiles on the faces of a biological woman who wakes up in the possession of a quasi-penis capable of an erection or that of a biological woman with a quasi-vagina. Dr. Ting engages easily with his patients and his compassion for them is saintly. Even when a “transition” is complete, the results can be tragic. A transgender woman meets a man on a blind date but is crushed when the man rushes away after discovering the truth. We see Dr. Ting consoling her after she attempts suicide.

Given the unfair dismissal of transgender identity from J.K Rowling and some even on the left, this film is a compelling argument for accepting people on their own terms. Imagine how you would feel if tomorrow you woke up and your body magically became transformed into that of the opposite sex but your mind remained that of your sexual identity at birth, a plot of some comedies. In reality, it would be no joke as the plight of Dr. Ting’s patients make so clear.

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