A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

On Monday I tried out a new restaurant in Westwood. When I came out, I was surprised to see the lights on at the Crest Theatre (it’s been closed for about four years). It was almost 8 p.m., and the movie title was intriguing: “Inside the Mind of Leonardo.” I bought a ticket.

For the younger folks in the crowd, the title is not about the dude whose last name is DiCaprio — but there’s a link between the two. Legend has it that DiCaprio got his first name because his pregnant mother was in an Italian museum looking at a Da Vinci painting when he first kicked. BTW, the actual name given to Da Vinci when christened was “Lionardo,” not “Leonardo.”

The inside of the beautiful retro Crest Theatre is still magic, although the ceiling no longer lights up in a display of a sparkling starry sky. And as an admirer of Da Vinci’s work, I expected the movie to be magic. The anticipation of greatness made the downfall that much more painful.

We are told that tens of thousands of pages of Da Vinci’s notes are kept in a Fort Knox-like vault in Florence (or was it Venice or Milan?), but we really don’t learn anything out of the ordinary. You get zero or little about the backstory behind these drawings in red ink on paper that is growing yellow with time.  Animation is poorly used to attempt to liven these images.

Let me cut to the chase… when I left the theater, I felt cheated. There was so much missing.

The thread to the “story” (if there is one) is that Da Vinci was an obsessed man — and that his main obsession was flight (which I don’t buy). Worse, it gives the viewer the impression that this obsession was just that — an obsession that didn’t amount to much. Well, what about his square parachute? When finally built per his instructions, it worked like a charm. And focusing on only one of his obsessions is like playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on only the white keys. Yes, I agree again and again with the narrator that Da Vinci was an obsessed man — who else would write 41 codexes (essentially well-written and illustrated diaries) in his lifetime (out of which about 30 survive)?

His obsessions (aside from flight) included bridges, machines of war, automatons, math, geometry, painting techniques and sex. And very little is said about that. How can anyone claim to have insight into a man’s mind when one chooses to ignore his thoughts on sex? We do get a tidbit when there’s mention that he was accused of sodomy when he was 24. But that’s it!? The movie never mentions that Da Vinci (1) never married, (2) had no known relationships with women, (3) had no children, (4) raised several young male protégés, and (5) wrote in his notes that male-female sex disgusted him. But wait, that movie has already been done; it’s “Behind the Candelabra.”

When you pretend to provide insight into someone’s mind, brief descriptions of those who mentored him or are known to have influenced his thinking are needed to complete the picture. The movie also talks about his obsession with proportion and mathematical analysis of all sorts of things, yet there’s never mention of Luca Pacioli, the man who taught him math. Machiavelli is known to have been a close acquaintance — and maybe a friend — yet nothing is said about him either.

Everyone agrees — even the film’s narrator, who is the film’s only actor — that Da Vinci was one of the greatest painters of all time, a master of this visual art. Yet little is done to show us what the artist looked like throughout his life. Da Vinci wrote that one’s character is shown on his face. So let’s see what Da Vinci looked like. The audience who buys a ticket for this movie knows that Da Vinci lived over 500 years ago, and that record keeping was not at its best, and that time takes its toll, so it’s OK to draw the audience in by speculating that the David in Verrocchio’s sculpture is actually a handsome 17-year-old Da Vinci. And there are at least six other credible depictions of Da Vinci. So let’s see them.

The narrator, who talks down to us, is this skinny Scottish dude named Peter Capaldi, whose only apparent qualification for this role is that someone in his male lineage was of Italian decent. In a couple of scenes, he sits in old armchairs (rescued from Italian Salvation Army dumps) in a studio that must be in the basement of a dilapidated building about to be demolished. I expected (actually hoped) that at any moment a bulldozer would crush through the wall behind him.

This movie felt like a poor art history lecture. It never drew me in — although I was much interested in the subject matter.

—Ekphrasis Rex, Culture Spot LA

Ekphrasis Rex is the nom de plume of an art aficionado who heads an engineering group specializing in green technology.