Perhaps the best known prodigy in the history of art, the mad musical genius Mozart was captured in Milos Forman’s 1984 film, “Amadeus.” Focusing on the rivalry between the young upstart genius and his rival composer, Antonio Salieri, Forman’s Mozart is not some reserved classical pianist, but a brash, possibly insane composer with energy pouring out of him through his compositions. Through the caustic relationship between the genius Mozart and his fans, critics and rivals, Forman unearths the fundamental dichotomies of the artistic process on what feels like an epic level: Horror and beauty, love and hate, secrets and truths, agony and ecstasy.
“Barton Fink” (1991)
Before turning their eyes inward on the filmmaking process in the upcoming “Hail, Caesar!,” the Coen brothers dove into the dark and borderline psychotic process of writing a screenplay in “Barton Fink.” Celebrated New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is hired to write a screenplay for a studio producer during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Struggling with writer’s block, constant distractions and the typical darkness any Coen brothers character could expect to encounter, Fink must attempt to focus all his time and energy into creating the perfect script. “Barton Fink” confronts the hard truth that even for artistic geniuses, inspiration doesn’t come easy and, in the worst case scenario, doesn’t come at all.
One of the most recognizable artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo was profoundly original in her surrealist paintings and inimitable personal style. “Frida,” starring Salma Hayek as the Mexican master painter, digs into the truth behind Kahlo’s highly publicized personal life and shows the personal inspiration behind the artistic genius. In focusing on Kahlo’s marriage to Diego Rivera, “Frida” reverses the typical narrative of the artistic muse by allowing its female protagonist to draw inspiration from the male love interest. Kahlo’s much-deserved rise to international acclaim, carried powerfully on Hayek’s shoulders, affirms that artistic genius and the process behind it is, and always has been, strong in the women of the world.
While some artists gain fame and notoriety for their gifts during their lifetime, many more struggle in obscurity despite immense talent. Seraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) worked most of her life as a maid and servant to a wealthy family, before being committed to an asylum during her final years. Despite her common appearance, Seraphine created intricate and original primitivist paintings that would only truly be recognized for their beauty years after her death. Moreau’s sensitive, withdrawn performance, in which Seraphine desires only to produce her visions on canvas regardless of who may or may not see it, is painfully beautiful. “Seraphine” captures the story of a truly gifted artistic genius who created not because she sought fame or fortune, but because she had a vision she simply could not keep to herself.
“All That Jazz” (1979)
An autobiographical look into the twilight years of his career, Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” follows choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) as he crafts his latest stage production and finishes his Hollywood film, all while heading down a path of self-destruction at the hands of pill addiction, heavy drinking and meaningless sex. Gideon is at the top of his craft, the productions he creates are daring and bold, but they don’t always come off that way to the people around him. The film’s final scenes, a series of musical numbers taking place in Gideon’s mind while he undergoes surgery, give a free-from imaginative look into how the elements of his real life reassemble and congeal into a captivating artistic vision. By traveling into Gideon’s mind during his most desperate hours, we are granted a raw and surreal glimpse into what the work of an artistic genius could be, if only they were given the chance.
In “Caravaggio,” Derek Jarman adapts the life of the titular late Renaissance painter to the big screen. Caravaggio himself was a violent man prone to vice, and his artistic process included using prostitutes and vagrants as his models. Jarman explores this darkness by focusing on the romantic and professional relationships that tormented Caravaggio during his prolific career. By focusing on the reaction to, rather than the creation of, the painter’s works, his genius is revealed slowly, and his process leaves a relative mystery. Jarman’s film reveals the principal truth that although we may applaud works of creative genius now, at the time of their creation they were often scorned, condemned and dismissed. As an added bonus, “Caravaggio” is probably the only film in which you can watch the same man romance both Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton.
“8 1/2” (1963)
Reaching previously unheard of levels of “meta,” Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” is another semi-autobiographical account of the creation of art. Womanizing auteur Guido Anselmi struggles to complete a film that draws heavily from his life. Juggling his childhood, his family, his friends and the dozens of women he loves, Guido tries desperately to do justice the world he is so inspired by, but struggles to express exactly what he sees in his imagination. To make matters worse, Guido is plagued by the endless onslaught of madcap characters and absolute chaos that comes with making a big-budget film. Although “8 1/2” is very clearly a personal examination of the artistic process, Fellini expands his own narrative to the universal truth that, no matter how you look at it, making art is hard.
“Millennium Actress” (2001)
While talent in the arts is, in part, inborn, rising to legendary status takes time, effort and perseverance. Satoshi Kon’s 2001 film “Millennium Actress” tells the story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, a retired actress who relates her decades-long career to a young documentarian. Chiyoko’s life, based loosel on that of the recently passed Setsuko Hara, spanned from the Golden Age of Japanese cinema to modern day, ranging from historical samurai epics to light romances to sci-fi adventures. Throughout her impressive career as an actress, Chiyoko suffers through personal and professional hardship but remains dedicated to her craft no matter what. “Millennium Actress” reveals a portrait of someone who mastered their craft and suffered for, and because of, her art.
“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985)
To capture the complicated nature of artistic process, director Paul Schrader adapted the life of famed Japanese author Yukio Mishima to the screen by dividing it into four distinct segments. The first three are composed of a mixture of black-and-white scenes from the author’s past and colorful adaptations of his literary works with sumptuous art direction by the inimitable Eiko Ishioka. The final chapter in the film is a real-time reenactment of Mishima’s failed 1970 military uprising which ended with the author committing seppuku. The structure of “Mishima” draws powerful associations between classic works of Japanese literature and the mad genius behind them. A gorgeous and powerful exploration of the connection between the artist and their process of creation, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” ends with a transcendent declaration that the art is all the author is, each work a product of the whole.