This one is… Ah. This one is frustrating. Brilliant, but frustrating. With a lot of episodes of this show, I really don’t know how Nimoy feels about the rubbish they have him spouting. With this one, it’s very clear that he’s quite passionate about the subject — Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Nimoy, as he explains early in the episode, once played Vincent’s brother, Theo. Through that experience, he became deeply fascinated with Vincent’s life. Later (after filming this episode?) he wrote and starred in a one-man play about Vincent. A filmed version of this play apparently exists, but I gather it’s extremely difficult to find. Nimoy went on to write the play into a book, which was published in the 80s.
My point is, this is clearly a subject dear to Nimoy’s heart, and he really pours himself into the episode. His usually brilliant narration goes well above and beyond it’s normal quality. During the linking scenes where he’s meant to be in France, he’s actually in France, not in some part of Southern California which looks a bit like Paris. He’s far more deeply embedded in the show than usual, walking through the places Vincent worked and lived. When he describes Vincent’s suicide, it’s almost like he’s fighting back tears — and it’s hard not to choke up watching it.
Unfortunately, in spite of its many, many strengths, the episode has a glaring problem. Namely, the structure of the episode is based on Nimoy looking for proof that van Gogh was not a ‘madman’ after all. And this is… yeah. This is weird.
It’s a good documentary. I really want to stress this. I’m no expert on van Gogh, but I’ve seen serious documentaries made by the BBC that aren’t as informative, entertaining or sensitive. But central to it all is Nimoy’s quest to prove that van Gogh wasn’t a ‘madman’ — rather than just, you know, rethinking his prejudices about mental illness. I know there’s no definitive, agreed diagnosis on van Gogh’s condition but — bottom line — the man was mentally ill. No he wasn’t a stage ‘madman’, a movie ‘madman’; but most mentally ill people aren’t that either. Nimoy argues that van Gogh’s work is too brilliant for the artist to be ‘mad’ and… well, just no. There are, were, and will be lots of people with mental illnesses who are talented creatives.
Nimoy’s conclusion is that van Gogh was not a ‘madman’ but an epileptic. I honestly don’t know enough about epilepsy to know is this is likely. But basically arguing that van Gogh’s erratic behaviour was neurological rather than psychological in nature means… what, exactly?
To be fair, in Nimoy’s summing up, he wonders himself about the utility of asking the question ‘what was wrong with van Gogh.’ He concludes that asking the question is more valuable than the answers he found. And also to be fair, Nimoy clearly wasn’t done with van Gogh. The episode looks like it’s about moving van Gogh from one box to another box, but I suspect that Nimoy realised the inadequacy of that as a means of understanding one of history’s truly great artists.
“But I found something that was, in a sense, beyond the search.” Nimoy.
Personal quest: 10/10, Decent documentary: 9/10, Location filming: 10/10, Interesting subject: 10/10, Understanding issues of mental illness: 0/10. 39/50. Distinction.