Six Vincents

“Now it says here that you used to eat your paints? Can this be true?” Graham Norton asks his guest with a hint of amused disgust as he shuffles through a stack of note cards on his lap.

“No. Not me. That was the real Vincent. I mean, I wouldn’t. But the real Van Gogh did. Often. Because of hunger. Because he was poor,” Martin Scorsese jabbers. “When I played him in Dreams, Kurosawa wanted me to. Eat paints, I mean. But I have a bad gag reflex. So I couldn’t.”

“But isn’t it true, Marty, that Vincent suffered from a host of mental illnesses, including Pica?” Benedict Cumberbatch inquires. “All of my research for my portrayal of him in Painted with Words indicated that mental illness was the explanation for nearly everything Vincent did—in his life and in his paintings.”

“Yes. I do believe I recall seeing that somewhere here in my notes,” Norton replies, shuffling through his cards more furiously.

“I don’t think mental illness had anything to do with his art,” Tim Roth shoots back. “I think he definitely had issues. Loneliness and isolation made him dark, gave him a kind of dark intensity. That’s how I played him in Vincent & Theo. But who wouldn’t have issues? I mean, the poor bastard never sold a painting while he was alive.”

“But the man cut off his own ear,” Norton says shaking his shoulders in disgust. “You don’t call that mental illness?”

“You mean to tell me you never thought about cutting off a body part to impress someone you love?” Roth sneers. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

“Why do we have to associate intensity with anything other than personality?” Willem Dafoe offers thoughtfully. “Why can’t we just accept that he was devoted to his art above all else? The whole point of At Eternity’s Gate was to show that Vincent was perhaps the most human of all human beings.”

“Oh brother.”

“What was that?” Norton asks. “I’m sorry. Who said that? Kirk? Was that you?”

“Goddamn right it was me,” Kirk Douglas growls. “Look, the guy was an artist. Artists live life hard because, like the title says, they have a ‘lust for life.’ End of story. All this psychological crap is a joke. He was an artist living life hard. So you pull your hair, throw a few things around, yell at everyone, and pretend that anything beautiful hurts. That’s it. That’s all there is to playing an artist. Jesus.”

“May I say something?” a soft voice inquires off camera.

“I wish you would,” Norton says, laughing nervously. “I think our guests are about to come to blows. So please, yes, Vincent. The stage is yours.”

“Thank you, Mr. Norton. And thank you to all these fine men who have portrayed me over the many years since my death.”

“Who was the best?” Scorsese interrupts. “I mean, come on. There’s got to be a best. Right? Me? Kirk? Who?”

“That’s a very good question,” Norton says. “We have the man himself here to ask, so why not ask? And perhaps the best is someone who couldn’t be with us tonight. The great Scottish actor Tony Curran, for instance, gave a lovely portrayal of Vincent in an episode of Doctor Who.”

Doctor Who is hardly the Royal Shakespeare,” Cumberbatch sniffs.

“Try standing out as an actor next to Harvey Keitel,” Roth spits out. “You do that, then you can call yourself an actor.”

“What say you, Vincent?” Norton interjects, trying to regain control of the interview.

“It is not for me to say,” Vincent demurs, the shadow of a smile crossing his lips. “However, returning to your original question about my paints and whether or not I ate them, let me just say that yes, it is true.

“Really? That’s incredible,” Norton says, raising his eyebrows beyond what seems humanly possible. “So my notes are correct?”

“Yes. But not for the reasons you all may think,” Vincent says, sweeping his arms wide to indicate that everyone has been wrong. “Mr. Dafoe and Mr. Douglas are perhaps the closest to the truth, but still far away. I was an artist. I still am, though there is no challenge to it any longer. The afterlife has a way of self-correcting, so everything ends up being perfect.”

“He’s right,” Douglas interjects. “I punched that S.O.B. Stanley Kubrick the other day, and he just laughed. He goddamn laughed.”

“Remind me to book you for an upcoming show. I’ve got to hear the rest of that story,” Norton says as he scribbles something on a note card.

“But when I was at the height of my skills,” Vincent continues, “painting was my life. So much so that I was in danger of being consumed by my paintings. So, naturally, I realized that I had to consume them before they consumed me. Everything up to and including The Potato Eaters was painted before I began eating my paints. And, as you all know, there is a distinct lack of color in those paintings. Oh, but once I began to eat my paints, to digest yellow ochre, Prussian blue, emerald green, lead white, et cetera, et cetera, I began to birth my paintings as a mother births her children. I was not a mad man at all, gentlemen. I was a proud mother.”

“So then tell us about the ear,” Norton says coyly. “Was it an act of love?”

“Ah, yes, the question on everyone’s mind. All I can say is this: I suffered all my life from Tinnitus in that ear, an affliction I inherited from my father, God rest his soul. Dr. Gachet prescribed laudanum to silence the ringing, but I found that even the smallest dose dulled my palette and turned my brush into an unwieldy stone in my hand. So I tried to silence the ringing on my own and without medication for the sake of my art. So I suppose it was an act of love after all.”

“That’s beautiful, just beautiful,” Norton says, clapping his hands and encouraging the audience to do the same. “Now I just have one last question, Vincent, if you don’t mind. Why did you take your own life?”

“Thank you for asking, Mr. Norton. I would like to set the record straight on that score once and for all, so let me explain. The paints that I used were the most intense pigments I could find. The brightest yellows, the deepest greens, the richest blues. And, as fate would have it, the darkest black. One particularly windy day, just as a storm was moving over the field I was painting, I reached for a tube of what I believed to be cobalt blue and squeezed a large portion into my mouth. As I pulled the tube from my lips, I realized that I had accidentaly consumed the oxymoronically named ivory black.”

“Oh my,” Norton gasps.

“Yes. My thoughts precisely,” Vincent says, staring off into some unknown void for a moment. “It was as if I had poisoned the well, and I knew that I had to get the darkness out of me. So I took my brush and slashed some crows into the stormy sky with the hope of excising whatever darkness I could feel consuming all the other colors within me. Sadly, it wasn’t enough.”

“What did you do?” Norton nearly whispers from the edge of his chair.

“Well, once, after a pack of wild dogs had chased me away from some beautiful locations I was trying to paint, I began to carry a small pistol with me to scare them off. I thought that if, perhaps, I were to shoot a small hole into my abdomen, the darkness would find its way out and the colors I so loved would flow freely once again. Alas, as I was primarily used to shooting my pistol into the air as a warning, my aim was not true. Or perhaps my aim was too true? I suppose it depends on how one looks at it. Nevertheless, the result was my mortal wound. And, well, here I am.”

“That’s unbelievable,” Norton says as he flops back into his chair.

“A simple error in judgment,” Dafoe sighs. “It doesn’t get any more human than that.”

“I bet that’s a shot you’d like to take again!” Douglas guffaws.

“Or not at all,” Cumberbatch chimes in, laughing.

“Fucking hell, mate,” Roth says shaking his head. “And I thought being cut in half by Liam Neeson was bad.”

“That’s tragic,” Scorsese says as he reaches and pats Vincent’s knee. “But seriously, you still haven’t said who was the best.”

After a moment of contemplation, Vincent stares directly into the camera and says, “The Almighty, I think, is the only judge. For you. For me. For my paintings. For the souls of all of us. The Almighty will be the judge.”

“Goddamn right,” Douglas says like an “Amen” just before they cut to a commercial.

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