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5.0 out of 5 stars Staring at Van Gogh's Ear, July 19, 2011
This review is from: Basquiat (DVD)
Basquiat is a thought provoking film and a very impressive debut by painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel. Schnabel is quite the Renaissance man; he even collaborated with some of the composers for songs on the soundtrack. When the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat refused to allow the use of his paintings, Schnabel painted the reproductions himself. Since Schnabel was a contemporary of Basquiat, also represented by Mary Boone's gallery, there is a character, Albert Milo that is a composite of Schnabel and other painters. Gary Oldham plays Milo, and as one might expect, he comes off a little better than most of the other sycophants who contributed to Basquiat's downfall. In spite of all his accomplishments, though, I think of Julian Schnabel as the guy a drunken Sean Young heckled when he won an award from the Director's Guild.

At first I didn't care for this film so much, but after a second viewing, it really won me over. What put me off was that Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) seemed like an annoying poseur and I had trouble accepting him as an important artist. From one of the earliest scenes, where he goes to a cafe and gets kicked out for pouring syrup on the table and drawing in it, I was not on his side. Also, he was a graffiti artist, and I am not a fan of vandalism. As Basquiat grew more and more famous, he grew more and more insufferable. Finally, though, on the second viewing, I saw the film as more of a fable, and I didn't feel that Schnabel had any particular axe to grind, except to say that Basquiat had some talent but he paid a high price for his fifteen minutes of fame.

The phrase "fifteen minutes of fame" has really taken on a life of its own, and here I feel that it is pertinent to say that Andy Warhol coined this phrase, actually, "In the future, everyone will be World Famous for fifteen minutes." It was on the program notes for one of his art openings. You could see why it would catch on, and now with the tabloids of celebrity gossip, with reality television, Social Networks, and videos that go viral on the Internet, it seems prophetic. Perhaps this contribution to the popular cultural jargon, an expression of its zeitgeist, even overshadows his Art? Or is an extension of his Art, a further reproduction of Campbell Soup cans or Marilyn Monroe in various colors? I don't think the phrase was ever referred to in this film, but Warhol was a constant presence, as Basquiat's mentor and benefactor.

So, taken as a fable--with Basquiat, the man, symbolizing the Artist, wearing the crown briefly, until his fifteen minutes were up and he was discarded--Basquiat, the film, worked for me.

Though there was a strong fable at its core, two other themes emerged: Art in general, and how it is promoted by the gallery system, with fame, Art Critics, and Art Collectors defining and/or distorting its value, and the other theme was dilettantism. Dilettantism? What is that? For me this theme emerged, almost as a side effect due to the fact that a lot of the Artists involved didn't confine themselves to one medium. Schnabel, as I've noted before, was quite the Renaissance man, or you could also say he was quite the dilettante. He is a painter, but he also directs films, and even had a hand in the music. David Bowie is a musician, but he also paints and acts. David Bowie has stated in interviews that he would be bored doing only music. In this film Bowie played Warhol, who also involved himself with music and film. Another actor in the film, Dennis Hopper, was also a photographer. Basquiat is also doing videos and music in addition to painting, though in one scene he is asked if he is Tony Bennet, i.e., a singer who paints in his spare time. Even though Rene Ricard, the Art Critic who first recognized the talent of Basquiat, sneers at dabbling like Tony Bennet, the evidence of the film and the film makers' actual practices would argue otherwise.

Rene Ricard: When I speak nobody believes me, but when I write it down everybody knows it to be true.

Now, back to the subject of Art in general, in the credits it acknowledges that a lot of the film was based on an article written by Rene Ricard called The Radiant Child. Google it and you will find that Ricard has it posted on his blog on Myspace. It is well worth reading in conjunction with the film. Near the beginning of the film Michael Wincott, as Rene Ricard, reads the beginning of his seminal essay in voice over narration:

"Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won't take it. Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell? One. He couldn't give them away. Almost no one could bear his work, even among the most modern of his colleagues."

The essay goes on to give a brilliant analysis and survey of current Artists such as Basquiat and their place in the scheme of things. At one point Ricard says "When you first see a new picture you are very careful because you may be staring at van Gogh's ear."

You might think that the film, Basquiat, treats Rene Ricard harshly, as he is seen as being desperate to cling to Basquiat as his career takes off and leaves him behind, but if you read the essay you will see that the whole film honors and acknowledges his words. It is a total validation of his essay. Michael Wincott's performance as Rene Ricard was really a scene-stealer. With his gruff voice and intensity he reminded me a lot of Eric Roberts, Julia's ne'er do well brother. This is a compliment, in case you didn't notice. The fact that Rene came off as a drama queen was no doubt because he was a drama queen. If the Gucci 'alyona' high heel platform over-the-knee boot fits, lace it up.

[Basquiat is nailing one of his pieces to the wall]
Rene: Child, you got no respect at all... nobody taught you how to mount paintings? You know me, when it comes to a mounting, the rougher the better.

David Bowie was also excellent as Andy Warhol. In spite of his celebrity as Ziggy Stardust, Rock Star, he melted into the role of Andy, an Artist that he had met and admired. Bowie has even written a song called "Andy Warhol." One of the things that led a certain authenticity to his performance was that he used the actual wigs owned by Andy Warhol. Other performances of note were small but pivotal roles by Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Hopper, Paul Bartel, Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal, and Parker Posey. Posey posed as gallery owner Mary Boone. If you've never seen Parker Posey in The House of Yes do yourself a favor and watch it right NOW!

Andy Warhol: I don't like beer.

Jeffrey Wright gives a great performance as Jean-Michel Basquiat, but I was really knocked out by the supporting cast. Besides the above mentioned, Benicio Del Toro was great as Basquiat's buddy, Benny Maldau, Gary Oldman, a man who can do justice to roles as diverse as Sid Vicious and Beethoven, gave another great performance as Milo, an Artist that no doubt represented Director Julian Schnabel himself, and finally Claire Forlani was fantastic as Basquiat's girlfriend, Gina. She was also great in a little film called Boys and Girls, a film that never found its audience because it was a little too thoughtful for the usual audience of co-star Freddie Prinze, Jr. (Freddie Prinze, Jr. was also good in this one, though it pains me to say it).

The Electrician: I'll be forty in July, and I'm glad I never got recognition. It gives me time to develop.

There is a quasi-documentary that is good to compare and contrast with this movie called Exit Through the Gift Shop. It follows Graffiti Artist Banksy, and also examines the theme of how the gallery system assigns value to Art, and how Graffiti Art is entering the mainstream. Banksy's Art is a lot like Andy Warhol's, but instead of lithographs it is done with stencils and spray cans. The documentary also documents an Art Show for an Artist called Mr. Brainwash. Don't want to get into this tangent right now, but there are some interesting parallels to explore. Both Basquiat and Banksy began as Graffiti taggers.

This was Julian Schnabel's first outing as a film director, and it is very impressive. A lot of the choices and use of images are refreshing and painterly. Some unusual music choices also prevailed, with mixed results. For instance, in the beginning it uses a song by The Pogues, "Fairytale in New York." The mood is right but somehow jarring. Was this chosen for its title, a way of saying that we are about to see a fairy tale or a fable in New York? If so, that is a bit heavy handed. All in all, though, I would say that the choices Schnabel made as a director were very artistic. The Bottom Line is that Basquiat is a very good film, whether viewed as a Fable, as Art Criticism, or just as Art. It even works as a movie.

Rene Ricard: We're no longer collecting art; we're buying people.

Lou Reed's Berlin (2007)
Boys and Girls (2000)
W. (2008)
The Doors (1991)
Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Sid & Nancy (1986)
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The House of Yes (1997)

[Basquiat's first agent on his paintings]
Annina Nosei: This is the true voice of the gutter.
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