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A Contrived Take on the Struggling Artist in The Time Being

Why are painters such downers in the popular imagination? Is it van Gogh's bloody ear? Soutine's reeking ox carcasses? The abstract expressionists drinking themselves to accelerated graves? In The Time Being, director Nenad Cicin-Sain and co-screenwriter Richard N. Gradstein give us Daniel (Wes Bentley), a depressionist—to coin a movement—who paints black-and-white pictures of rotting fruit. Despite his unappealing subject matter, he complains about poor sales and becomes estranged from his wife, who is fed up with Daniel's moony lassitude. (His roomy studio and their spacious California digs won't win him sympathy from struggling New York City artists.) A mysterious patron, Warner (Frank Langella), summons him to film sunsets and playing children, and Daniel soon realizes that this dying man has an artistic secret. The characters are as leached of tone as the film's chiaroscuro sets and grisaille paintings, although Langella is certainly game, at one point crawling before a canvas in the baggy pants and dirty feet of a Caravaggio figure. Daniel reconciles with the wife and kid and his paintings gain color, but Warner's clichés about artistic struggle—"Artists don't have families," "I'm going to die alone. I'm perfectly willing to pay this price"—leave Daniel's fresh horizon feeling contrived. There is no joy in art's struggle here—just crying. The film's creators could learn from Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth, wherein fiction's most fully human painter, Gulley Jimson, proclaims, "I felt I could paint. As always after a party. Life delights in life. ... Next morning, of course, the canvas looked a bit flat. As always after a party."

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