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The 'Battle Of The Sexes' And A Van Gogh From Howie

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Loving Vincent takes place a year after the painter died in 1890. The title comes from the way Van Gogh signed the letters he wrote to his brother and others – “your loving Vincent.” The film is rotoscoped, meaning the drawings are done from live action film with live actors. Best of all, the animation is hand-drawn, and it shames the vacant sterility of the computerized work from Pixar and Disney. The many artists work in the style of van Gogh, with his colors and even the look of his brush strokes, and the sight of van Gogh’s painting in motion has real power.

The story though, does not. It’s cast as an investigation by the son of the old postman who became van Gogh’s friend and now asks his son to deliver the last letter van Gogh wrote. It’s to his brother Theo, who has also already died. The young man also wants to find out if van Gogh really shot himself or if he was murdered. He does not believe that a man who wrote that he was feeling good, would kill himself only six weeks later. That’s an ignorant search. Even in 1891 people would know that a human being might slide into suicide faster than that, and now we know at least enough about depression to understand that it can happen in six hours.

So, the movie wastes its story on wrong-headed material, and none of the characters really has anything to say about anything anyway. The picture bogs down in clichés of dialogue and phrases that come off like parodies of conversation. Loving Vincent is a British-Polish coproduction. Poland has a long tradition of great animation, which partly explains the terrific drawing, but the English language version of the film is done in British accents, many of which are sort-of cockney. And that does not encourage you to imagine the south of France.

Now about tennis. It’s a fact that Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in straight sets in their overhyped match in 1973, so I’m not giving anything away. Battle of the Sexes skates entirely on the superficial – the obvious story of the 55-year-old Riggs who was a famous tennis player, gambler and hustler who claimed that no woman could beat him. He beat then-number one-woman player Margaret Court, before he lost to King.

In its unrelenting clichés, Battle of the Sexes makes shamefully facile choices for villains and heroes. But at the end of the film, when King has beaten Riggs badly, there’s a shot of her sitting alone in the women’s locker room at Houston’s Astrodome. She’s crying, her head in her hands. Then comes a shot of Riggs in the men’s locker room, also alone, looking defeated and forlorn.

What is obvious in these two shots, although the movie misses what’s implied, is that the story the film has just told is not the important story of these two people. Yes, the match was a great day for women; yes Riggs at least played the role of a loud-mouthed sexist – these, along with all the other distractions cooked up to promote and later explain what happened. But Battle of the Sexes never touches on what might really have been going on for these two people. Something was at stake personally for the two of them, to drive them to this match, but likely not that King had her first woman lover in the time leading up to the match; and not that Riggs’s marriage had fallen apart. Something deeper drove the 55-year old gamey hustler – who was once good enough to win two U.S. championships and one Wimbledon – to attempt a five-set match against a 29-year-old. And what in King drove her to pulverize an aging goofball? Battle of the Sexes has neither the imagination nor the nerve to look inside its story.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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