If you visit the Louvre or The Art Institute Of Chicago, you will find nothing but wall after wall of black canvases. That’s because before Thomas Kinkade, Painter Of Light™, came on the scene, no one had ever thought to paint light before. All artworks consisted only of pitch-black darkness that reflected the poisoned souls and dissolute minds of the fancy-pants artistes who created them.
Then Kinkade began painting light, and the art world went from blackness and despair to Technicolor kitsch. Kinkade was amply compensated for his innovations. Between the years of 1997 and 2005, he earned more than $53 million. According to Kinkade, as quoted in Susan Orlean’s fascinating 2001 profile in The New Yorker, 10 million people have purchased his products.
There are Thomas Kinkade-branded La-Z-Boys, air fresheners, and umbrellas, plus The Village At Hiddenbrooke, a Thomas Kinkade gated community in Vallejo, California. At one point, there were 350 Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries selling reproductions of the master’s work. Fans could pay to have those paintings “enhanced” by “master highlighters” who altered the reproductions according to the customers’ wishes, though I imagine they drew the line at having random 666s or graffiti reading “Thomas Kinkade rapes children” inserted into the background of cozy tableaus of bubbling brooks and sleepy little villages at sunset.
In other words, Kinkade, who attributes his success to his devout Christian faith—“When I got saved, God became my art agent,” goes one gushing quote—is the McDonald’s of painting, with more than 10 million satisfied customers. He’s less an artist than a brand. In her piece, Orlean wryly notes that Kinkade’s Media Arts Limited was once a publicly traded company. That consequently rendered Kinkade “the only artist to be a small-cap equity issue.” A quarterly report for Media Arts Limited noted how a special visit from the Painter Of Light™ could pump up sales, and it trumpeted “a new retail promotional event involving appearances by Thomas Kinkade at selected Galleries which substantially reduced the decline in same store sales, increased product pull-through, lowered retail inventory, improved accounts receivable and strengthened our cash position.”
Kinkade calls himself the most controversial artist in the world, and arguably, he is both the most loved and hated painter alive. To his millions of adoring fans, he represents the triumph of populism and wholesome family values over elitism and intellectual snobbery, the victory of the heart over the mind. To his detractors, he represents the triumph of sub-mediocrity and the commercialization and homogenization of painting. (I can’t bring myself to describe what Kinkade does as “art.”) Kinkade is far from the first painter to mix commerce and creativity; Salvador Dalí, for example, wasn’t shy about self-promotion, or pimping his services to the highest bidder. But perhaps no other painter has been as shameless or as successful at transforming himself into a corporation as Kinkade. Kinkade’s detractors also dislike him because his work is fucking terrible, a maudlin, sickeningly sentimental vision of a world where everything is as soothing as a warm cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows on a cold December day.
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The Painter Of Light™ is controversial for other reasons as well. (That ™ is no joke, incidentally—Kinkade actually trademarked the phrase “Painter Of Light™,” though generously, not the practice of actually depicting light in paintings.) A damning 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times reveals how Kinkade’s company was forced to pay $860,000 for defrauding the owners of two failed Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries. The article paints a scathing picture of a ruthless, hypocritical businessman accused of purposefully sabotaging a company he co-owned (the aforementioned Media Arts Limited) so he could buy it back in full at a bargain-basement price. (It’s now known as the Thomas Kinkade Company.) It also portrays him as a drinker who becomes a groping, belligerent, heckling, public-urination-happy jerk when intoxicated.
In one of the article’s more hilarious passages, a former vice president of Kinkade’s company recounts his boss pissing on a statue of Winnie The Pooh outside a Disneyland hotel while quipping, “This one’s for you, Walt.” That might seem disrespectful, until you remember the old aphorism “Public ritual territory-marking is the highest form of flattery.” Incidentally, the phrase “public ritual territory-marking” isn’t mine; that’s actually how Kinkade likes to describe his penchant for pissing on things.
Kinkade is still huge, but the lawsuits, high-profile failure of many Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries (more than half of which have gone out of business), and allegations of sexual and financial impropriety have sullied his image. So 2007 was perhaps not the best time for Kinkade to produce a fawning semi-autobiographical film about how he became the Painter Of Light™. It was, perhaps, not the best way to grow the Kinkade brand into lucrative ancillary markets like film and DVD.
Kinkade’s star was on the decline commercially in 2007, but that didn’t keep filmmakers from securing an obscenely overqualified cast that included eight-time Oscar nominee Peter O’Toole, Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, comic genius Chris Elliott, and TV icon Edward Asner. Oh, and also The Facts Of Life’s Charlotte Rae, whose performance here serves as a powerful reminder that she’s apparently still alive. In a world where Fireproof, a low-budget independent movie about how Kirk Cameron should stop masturbating to pornography and be less of a dick to his wife, can gross more than $30 million, the theatrical prospects for this similarly Jesus-happy film must have looked fairly solid, especially given its huge built-in fan base and the talent involved. Instead, it received a discreet direct-to-DVD burial in 2008, for reasons that should soon become apparent.
Luxuriating in the same glow of nostalgia as his paintings, Kinkade’s ode to himself, family values, Christmas, his hometown, and beautiful, beautiful light finds his blandly handsome, handsomely bland younger self (Jared Padalecki) returning home to quaint Placerville, California while on break from UC-Berkley, where he undoubtedly flitted from one marijuana-fueled Satanic orgy to the next. Before getting saved, of course.
Safely ensconced in a cozy world of family values, Padalecki is saddened to learn that his saintly mother (Harden) is deep in debt and in danger of losing their beloved cottage unless they’re able to raise $3,000. I think we all know how an enterprising youth can raise that kind of money in a hurry: by winning first prize at a big talent show, alongside a ragtag group of fellow breakdancers. Alas, Cottage takes place in 1977, not 1984, so he’s forced to pursue other options.
Back in God country, Padalecki checks in with his mentor (O’Toole), an irascible painter intent on not going gently into that good night, but rather raging against the dying of the light. Oh, magical light! If you take a shot every time someone mentions light in Christmas Cottage, you will pass out in a drunken stupor long before the film ends.
As the looming specter of death draws near, O’Toole decides to make every word count by communicating solely in life lessons like these:
- “Art isn’t about the artist, it’s about life, life, beauty, love, emotion! Art should be emotion that can topple tyranny!”
- “If there were a God, light would be his hand holding the whole world together!”
- “[Painting a mural of Placerville] is a chance to illuminate where you live, to inspire your neighbors. Do you think because they aren’t sophisticated, they don’t deserve your best art!? A mural can recall the people you love for posterity! It could change the way they see themselves. Art crosses all borders, surpasses all languages! It’s a place where we are one family! And if you are willing, really, to see with your eyes and your heart, one image can change lives. You can introduce men to their souls! You can bring that to this town. You have that power! Give your very best always. Always give the finest your heart has! It’s the only way an artist knows!”
Yes, O’Toole is on some old Tuesdays With Morrie-type shit. In spite of decades of clean living and his reputation as a legendary teetotaler, O’Toole looks sickly and gaunt here. He trembles. He shakes. His skin is nearly translucent. His fragility gives the film a poignancy it doesn’t deserve; O’Toole treats the script’s table scraps like a five-course gourmet dinner, throwing himself into every cornball monologue and big dramatic moment. He begins the film full of piss and vinegar, but by the hilariously overwrought conclusion, he’s full of sunshine and lollipops.
In Placerville, even the town trollop becomes obsessed with Christmas. In this scene, she engages in some Yuletide whoring opposite Chris Elliott, buried under a mop of brown curls and clearly enjoying a laugh at the film’s expense. I love the wistful way Elliott delivers the line, “It’s almost like me and Gene Rayburn are friends.” It’s as if he can’t imagine a grander fate.
For its first half-hour, Christmas Cottage is surprisingly lively and borderline risqué, thanks to O’Toole, Elliott, and Richard Burgi as the protagonist’s hard-drinking, hard-living, half-insane, and ambiguously speed-addled deadbeat dad. In this scene, Burgi gives his two hopelessly bland sons a Texas-sized pile of spank magazines for Christmas. Somehow, I don’t imagine Baby Jesus would approve. When Harden begs her ex-husband to stop being selfish and appear in the big Christmas pageant, he sneers, “Sugar, I don’t owe anyone anything.” Oh, he says that, but will he have a change of heart in time for a heartwarming climax? Yes. Yes he will.
The film’s unexpected doses of naughtiness may be attributable to director Michael Campus, who intriguingly also directed 1976’s The Passover Plot, a revisionist account of Jesus Christ’s life and death based on a controversial bestseller, which posits that Jesus, his brother James, and Judas meticulously planned Jesus’ “death” (he was only supposed to appear to die, but the plot went awry) and “resurrection” in a bid to give the world a Jewish messiah. The film cast future soft-core porn merchant Zalman King as the King Of The Jews. Even more improbably, Campus also directed the seminal 1973 blaxploitation classic The Mack. Campus has only helmed a few movies, but what a fascinatingly eclectic filmography. Given his background, perhaps it’s appropriate that Campus prostituted his gifts for a film about Jesus’ birthday.
Ah, but back to the pap. As Christmas approaches and O’Toole leaps closer to death with each successive scene, the film gives itself over wholeheartedly to schmaltz. And light. The film becomes an extended act of light fetishism, as in this sequence, which features the world’s longest, slowest pan as Padalecki begins to realize that it’s all about the light, man.
This obsession with light is driven home by a monologue where Harden gazes at a choir of beatific children, each holding a candle, and tells her fellow townspeople, “When I look out and I see the faces of these young children in the candlelight, so full of hope, I feel the presence of God right here. They’re like little angels telling us all to fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy. You are the light of the world in a very dark world, and we can all use a little bit of extra light right now.”
Padalecki finally gets around to finishing the mural O’Toole raved about earlier in the film, a garish riot of lights with no apparent source. In this scene, Kinkade illustrates Christ-like humility by signing off on a scene in which all the townspeople gaze in silent, rapturous awe at the brilliance of his mural. Here’s the really awesome part: They’re overjoyed by a mural that makes them look mentally challenged. Apparently the entire town secretly wants to be depicted as having Down Syndrome.
The hero learns a valuable lesson that will serve him well in the years to come: Success comes with pandering shamelessly to the tastes of the public. In the film’s most unintentionally hilarious scene, O’Toole rouses himself from his deathbed and stops having animated, one-sided conversations with his late wife just long enough to show up at the Kinkades’ house and utter the film’s signature line—“Paint the light!” It all but single-handedly hurls Cottage high in the annals of Christmas camp alongside Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.
Having uttered the words that will make our hero one of the richest painters in the world, O’Toole dies, causing Padalecki/Kinkade (who appears as himself at the very end) to reflect understatedly, “He was back where the light burns brighter than we could ever imagine… You showed me the light, a light that has filled my life ever since.” I really wanted the film to end with the narrator saying, “In conclusion: light, light, light, light, light, light, light, light, light.” Instead, the best the film can muster is “In the end, love is the brightest light of all.”
So a ridiculous exercise in self-hagiography boasting a remarkable cast and what may regrettably be one of O’Toole’s final sizable performances never made it to theaters. I’m sure it would nevertheless kill on QVC and the Home Shopping Channel, where Kinkade, like all great artists before him, regularly hawks his wares, including tasteful items like the Thomas Kinkade Fiber Optics Holiday Gathering Tree Skirt, the Thomas Kinkade Cobblestone Christmas Throw And Pillow Set and, of course, the Thomas Kinkade Symbols Of Freedom Wall Hanging.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure