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Sam Bradley’s artistic MacGuffins

A selection of curated media lists from our global community
words – sam bradley
location – edinburgh, scotland

There are quite a lot of films about artists: painters, poets, actors, sculptors and composers, both famous and fictional. There are tortured artists, outsider artists, undiscovered artists, artists having breakdowns, artists on holiday in the Lakes by mistake, artists played by Timothy Spall, artists engaged in love affairs or deadly rivalries or chemical exploration – or sometimes all three. 

Most of the time, art is treated as a kind of MacGuffin – an objective to complete or ambition to fulfil by the protagonist, but rarely itself the subject matter. In the following films, art is little more than a subplot – as it is for many of us living our lives away from the silver screen. The paint, film and frames are left to the margins. But subplots can illuminate, and a once-a-year gallery visit or chance exposure to a particular piece can leave as strong an impression as a years’ worth of exhibition openings.


01_Parallel Mothers

The viewer’s attention, naturally, goes to the sheer weight of plot interwoven within this 2021 Pedro Almodóvar number – from love affairs to swapped babies and somewhat questionable parenting – alongside Penelope Cruz’s very tasteful Madrid apartment [not to mention the dream omelette]. The attention of Cruz’s fashion photographer Janis, though, is on the political, rather than the culinary, possibilities of the camera. Throughout the film, she works to locate and uncover a Civil War mass grave – not as detective or reporter, but as an artist hoping to finally heal long-buried wounds. “Until we do that,” she tells a lover, “the war won’t have ended.”

Further reading, on the significance of omelettes in Parallel Mothers


02_Son of Rambow

Starring a young Will Poulter, the genuinely charming Son of Rambow follows two boys living in 1980s Kent, who are brought together by a shared film project and Sylvester Stallone. Isolated Will and bad-lad Lee [Poulter] skive from school authorities and evade Will’s strict Plymouth Brethren community as they shoot their own sequel to First Blood amid a dilapidated power station. But, away from the nostalgia, the film is about forging bonds of solidarity in spite of neglect, greed, bureaucracy and the stifling English suburbs. 


03_Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Gorgeous gorgeous girls all listen to Vivaldi’s Summer. Then again, if you were stuck on a remote peninsula in Brittany for weeks on end with just a piano forte, you’d probably rock to baroque a few times, too. In Celine Sciamma’s 2019 film, the painting at the story’s centre is strictly a means of showing off stroppy single daughter Héloïse to eligible types in Milan. But, as they get closer, the painter Marianne brings Vivaldi to Héloïse in the same way you might tentatively introduce Unknown Pleasures or The Smiths to a teenage girlfriend: Have you ever heard this before? What do you think? In the Four Seasons, the film’s doomed lovers find a moment of true beauty they can share and carry with them into the future. 


04_The Producers

Bialystock and Bloom are the best, worst fraudsters in cinematic and theatrical history. But their bumbling attempt to commit a grand insurance fraud on Broadway leads them to – accidentally – stage a stinging, outrageous satire on the theatre of fascist politics. Pity that it takes prison for them to realise their talent.


05_Stranger than Fiction

Will Ferrell and Marc Forster’s best, least watched work sees taxman Harold live a colourless, regimented and totally artless experience absent of music, literature and the things that make life worth living. That life is demolished [at one point literally, with a wrecking ball] when he discovers he’s a character in a story written by author Emma Thompson. Like a chance encounter with a book or photograph, Harold’s exposure to literary device and plot reshape his understanding of the world – and lead, nicely enough, to a relationship with an anarchist baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.


06_Never Let Me Go

This adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is preoccupied with the politics of the body, medical autonomy and the moral dilemmas that come with these. It’s also an investigation of what makes the lives of its characters – the apparently disposable clones and the common or garden human beings stealing their organs – worthwhile. Art isn’t the answer to that question, as Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield’s lovers hope it might be, when they present their drawings and pictures as proof they have a soul. But it is a means of arriving at a more inclusive, equal-minded answer; albeit one that doesn’t arrive in time for Mulligan and Garfield.


07_Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Ferris is that rare character in a teen movie – a hero you actually want to hang out with. When Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane and pitiable whining sidekick Cameron bail for the day, we’re taken along with them, dancing in the streets and making hell for snooty waiters. Midway through Ferris’s tear through the city, the trio take a calming detour through the Art Institute of Chicago – gawping at Van Goghs and Rothkos. Cameron finds himself struck dumb by a figure he sees in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – a crying child caught at the moment she’s formed a wobbling, oscillating ‘O,’ surrounded by a crowd of fun-loving French aristocrats enjoying life. The sight seems to shake him out of his misery.


08_A Serious Man

Fred Melamed’s rayon-suited romantic conqueror steals the show at first glance, dispensing vinicultural advice and bon mots as he cuckolds Larry, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Stuhlbarg spends most of the film oppressed and compressed between external pressures, constantly reminded of his lack of agency. Strangely enough, it’s another prone character that shows one way out of life’s many dilemmas: Larry’s couch-bound brother, afflicted by a mysterious illness, who spends his time writing impenetrable mathematical formulas that resemble abstract drawings more than equations. And yet, he’s fulfilled, he has purpose – he’s a serious man.


09_Sorry to Bother You

Lakeith Stanfield, as Cassius ‘Cash,’ experiences the highs and lows of late stage capitalism as a telemarketer who uncovers dark secrets at the top of the corporate ladder. Cash ends up on the right side of history, but he’s a reluctant radical, dragged towards class consciousness by his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Detroit. Played by a strutting Tessa Thompson as an experimental and radically minded artist, Detroit’s own practice is shown to be tainted upon contact with the grubby commercial art world. But she finds personal redemption and helps build a mass revolt when she joins an underground protest movement. Her artistic expression finds greater meaning out in the world with the people, rather than contained as an incomprehensible performance piece.



Ewan McGregor plays an illustrator mourning first his mother, and then his father [Christopher Plummer, who won an Oscar for this] in Mike Mills’s second feature film. McGregor’s character navigates grief and newfound love, using his own work as a crutch. Art and work, and even a Jack Russell, aren’t enough to get him all the way through – Beginners rejects both tidy narratives and tidy ideas – but they help along the way.

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