Martin Scorsese Plays Vincent Van Gogh in a Short, Surreal Film by Akira Kurosawa

The idea of the auteur direc­tor has been a con­tro­ver­sial one at times giv­en the sheer num­ber of peo­ple required at every stage to pro­duce a film. But it hangs togeth­er for me when you look at the films of say, Mar­tin Scors­ese or Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, both direc­tors with very dis­tinc­tive visu­al lan­guages and ways of mov­ing the cam­era. Grant­ed, nei­ther direc­tor would be who he is with­out their crack teams of actors, writ­ers, com­posers, cin­e­matog­ra­phers, etc. But it is part of their genius to con­sis­tent­ly pull those teams togeth­er to real­ize visions that none of the indi­vid­u­als involved could ful­ly see on their own. Though the final prod­uct may be the result of mil­lions of dol­lars and thou­sands of hours of work by hun­dreds of peo­ple, the films of an auteur take shape fore­most in the direc­tors’ mind’s eye (and paint­ings and sto­ry­boards) rather than the writer’s script or pro­duc­er’s con­fer­ence room.

These direc­tors are dri­ven, like painters, to real­ize their visions, and in Kuro­sawa’s case, that dri­ve last­ed right up until the end of his life. (It was his wish to die on set, though an acci­dent that left him unable to walk and put an end to his direct­ing career three years before the end of his life.) A painter him­self, his films have always been col­or­ful and painter­ly, and his final few projects were intense­ly so. One of those last films, 1990’s Dreams, the first of his films for which he alone wrote the screen­play, not only orig­i­nat­ed ful­ly in Kuro­sawa’s mind, but in his uncon­scious. A depar­ture from his typ­i­cal­ly epic nar­ra­tives, the film fol­lows var­i­ous Kuro­sawa sur­ro­gates through eight vignettes, based on eight recur­ring dreams, each one unfold­ing with a sur­re­al log­ic all of its own. In the fifth short episode, “Crows,” Kuro­sawa casts Scors­ese, his fel­low auteur and his equal as a visu­al styl­ist, as Vin­cent Van Gogh.

The cam­era begins in a gallery, mov­ing rest­less­ly before sev­er­al Van Gogh paint­ings and behind an art student—identifiable as a Kuro­sawa stand-in by the flop­py white hat he puts on in the next scene, when he wan­ders into the French coun­try­side of the paint­ings. The fields, bridge, and barns are ren­dered in Van Gogh’s bril­liant col­ors and skewed lines—and the stu­dent jour­neys fur­ther in to meet the artist him­self: Scors­ese in red beard and ban­daged ear. This is the only episode in the film not in Japan­ese; the stu­dent speaks French to a group of women, and Van Gogh speaks Scors­ese’s New York-accent­ed Eng­lish, giv­ing a les­son on “nat­ur­al beau­ty” (the video above adds Span­ish sub­ti­tles). It is not the most con­vinc­ing per­for­mance from Scors­ese, but that hard­ly seems to be the point. This is not so much Scors­ese as Van Gogh, but rather Van Gogh as Scors­ese, and Kuro­sawa dreams him­self as a younger acolyte of his Amer­i­can coun­ter­part.

“Crows,” writes Vin­cent Can­by, is the “least char­ac­ter­is­tic seg­ment ” of Dreams—the oth­ers man­i­fest much more famil­iar, more Japan­ese, scenes and themes. But it is for that rea­son that “Crows” is per­haps the most reveal­ing of Kuro­sawa’s state­ments on his sta­tus as an auteur and his rela­tion­ship with his peers. He approach­es Van Gogh/Scorsese not as a rival or even an equal, but as a stu­dent, filled with ques­tions and a desire to under­stand the artist’s meth­ods and motives. The short seg­ment speaks to the way Kuro­sawa eager­ly learned much from West­ern artists even as he mas­tered his own cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage with dis­tinct­ly Japan­ese sto­ries. In this way, he man­i­fest­ed yet anoth­er qual­i­ty of the auteur: a tru­ly inter­na­tion­al approach to film that tran­scends bar­ri­ers of lan­guage and cul­ture.

You can pur­chase a copy of Kuro­sawa’s com­plete film here.

H/T to one of our read­ers, Regev, for flag­ging this clip for us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Paint­ings of Aki­ra Kuro­sawa

Revis­it Mar­tin Scorsese’s Hand-Drawn Sto­ry­boards for Taxi Dri­ver

Aki­ra Kuro­sawa & Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez Talk About Film­mak­ing (and Nuclear Bombs) in Six Hour Inter­view

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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