Monday, April 27, 2009

Art in Movies: Incognito; and Mona Lisa Smile

I saw on the small screen two films that took place in the art world this past weekend, a nice bit of film programming from the CW network: John Badham’s Incognito, starring Jason Patric as an art forger and Irene Jacob as an art expert; and Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia Roberts as a college art teacher and Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Julia Stiles as her students. Each film managed to ask some good questions about art--what is it, why is it made, how is it understood and evaluated, and what is its ultimate worth?

The first film, Incognito, was a late 1990s crime thriller with some romance, and the second was a "teacher-who-inspired-me" story with feminist themes and some romance. Love is the universal subject, so those uninterested in the subject of art had something that might engage. Art is such a special subject and as I began to watch Incognito, I thought about how rare it is to hear sustained discussion of art in a popular medium and how hard it must be for a film director to know what tone to take (I wasn't sure that the tone at the beginning of the film wasn't off--but that may have been me just becoming acclimated to the subject, a subject I think about often but do not expect to hear spoken of by many others). I thought that Incognito seemed like an update of the kind of suspense film that Cary Grant used to make (Jason Patric is a good-looking man but he doesn't have the charm or spirit of Cary Grant, or even of Hugh Grant, whose movie Four Wedings and A Funeral was screened as well on Sunday; and there could have been more of, and more to, Irene Jacob). Incognito looked good, it was intelligent, and there was nothing "wrong" with the acting (I look forward to seeing the film again, at some point), but the film lacked that extra something--a bit of spirit and style that can make a competent film into a good film or a good film into a great one.

In Mona Lisa Smile, a film from a few years ago, Julia Roberts supplies the idiosyncratic spirit and style that makes an entrancing film object, a movie star. She understands what a film requires and she gives it. Her performance as the art teacher balanced wanting to be liked in a new place, wanting to do a good job, wanting to be true to rigorous intellectual standards, and also being subject to insecurities and physical attraction. She brings a liberal sensibility to a place that is conservate in old-fashion terms (marriage and bland conformity are respected goals). The circumstances and issues that both films present are the kinds of things that recur in different generations, in different cultures: the battles are won or lost but the war goes on. I think both films handled the issues involving art very intelligently (appropriate care was taken), possibly handling the subject of art better than they handled other matters touched on. Both films have their predictable aspects (in some instances, predictability might be another word for form or logic). I enjoyed both films, and am glad I saw them.