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Basquiat

WELL, IT’S REALLY not that bad.

That was my gut reaction to a screening of artist Julian Schnabel’s directorial debut. Previous ’80s-artist-becomes-filmmaker vehicles (David Salle’s Search and Destroy, Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic) had been poor precedents at best, and long delays in scheduling the screening had led me and others to speculate that the film’s distributor, Miramax, had gotten cold feet; but I left Basquiat (a flat-footed retitling of Schnabel’s original Build a Fort, Set It on Fire) with a peculiar sense of pleasure and/or relief. The ordinary expectations of schadenfreude had been defeated: Really, it’s not so bad. Or even: I liked it.

The audience at this particular screening seemed to consist mainly of art-world types—I know this because several of us continued on to the same dinner party after the movie—and they all needed to get something off their chest: the equally loved and loathed Schnabel, a man with as large a reputation for being a loudmouth egomaniac as for his esthetic attainment, had managed to pull it off. “I’m so happy for Julian,” one critic expostulated, “I think he’s found his true medium. Finally something’s going right for him.” “Finally?” some of us wondered—Schnabel seemed to have done pretty well with his big messy paintings both during and after the period his movie evokes with intermittent humor and grace. But that’s another matter.

Basquiat begins with an image of a small black child walking hand-in-hand with a well-dressed woman down an eerily, almost sci-fi, blue-lit interior. No, it’s not the Death Star, it’s the Museum of Modern Art, and the pair have gone to see Guernica. Schnabel shoots them from above, as if Guernica were regarding them rather than the other way around. Cut to a shot of the well-dressed woman, presumably the child’s mother, crying. Why does she weep: because the Picasso moves her? Because she foresees her son’s future? Or is it merely because she’s mad, as we learn a few minutes later? We look back at the child, who smiles. He wears a glowing gold crown, presage of a later Basquiat signature; its aura devours the field of vision (a bad, tacky image, I think).

As we watch this montage, the Rene Ricard character (Michael Wincott) reads from the real-life critic’s December 1981 Artforum essay “The Radiant Child,” the publication of which marked an early milestone in Basquiat’s career:

Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it. . . . The idea of unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for sending that myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell? One. He couldn’t give them away. . . . We’re so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for Van Gogh’s neglect.

With its intersection of text and image, this Mad Mother/Guernica scene provides a titillating preamble to Schnabel’s ensuing paean to Romantic myths of creativity and alienation. Jean-Michel really is special; Basquiat’s opening scene is almost beautiful enough to sell this idea. The rest of the movie will try to equal the intensity (borrowed: how many glowing corridors have we walked down in film history?) of this metaphoric (rather than narrative) setup.

The movie chugs along with more or less amiably staggered rhythms. And the cause of the staggering, I think, should not be viewed as a directorial tyro’s relative incompetence in handling the ordinary, easily followed narrative flows we expect from standard Hollywood movies; Basquiat’s A Star Is Born (and burns out) story is easy to follow, even for people unfamiliar with the art world or his role in it. In this aspect the film is pretty much OK. If there are numerous opportunities for slippage on the way, they almost always occur not on the level of storytelling but on the level of metaphor and interpretation.

In the taxi on the way to dinner, for example, one writer argued for a big slip in Basquiat’s casting. Parker Posey (so good in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused) had underplayed the Mary Boone character: “Mary is such a rich character for an actress, and Parker Posey just played her as a kind of bitchy jap in Chanel. A really powerful actress”—a jeune Anjelica Huston in training, I proposed—“could really have torn up the film. I mean Mary is so crazy.” The Parker Posey/Mary Boone issue was not resolved by dinner, where the critic who had been so happy to see Julian finally do well opined, rather perspicaciously I think, that he liked Posey’s subdued characterization of Boone: “An actress chewing up scenery as Mary would have overpowered the movie. For Posey to play her relatively quietly is truer to the reality of the situation. Mary was a player in the story, but more of a peripheral player.”

Back in April, a gossip column in the New York Daily News claimed another putative slip: an item titled “Basquiat: Paint It PG” suggested that in “mainstreaming the movie”—the phrase is Basquiat’s coproducer Jon Kilik’s own—the filmmakers had perhaps been disingenuous about some well-known albeit unpleasant facts of the artist’s life and death. The heroin overdose that killed the painter at 27 is recorded simply at the end as a text panel, white script on a black background, following an oddly triumphant ride Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) takes through the East Village in a friend’s Jeep; even though he’s about to kick, he remains a little dictator of the overabundant imagination. Quoth Kilik, “We tried to make Jean-Michel Basquiat into an upbeat story, so we left out his death from choking on his own vomit.” The movie does seem to soft-pedal the drug angle and yet, while it’s certainly no Trainspotting, it does supply scenes with imagery that suggest Basquiat shooting up, seeing pretty hallucinations, and, if memory serves, one in which he gets sick (a little).

The largest problem with the movie is a predictable one: Schnabel’s self-conscious artiness. Many scenes of rapture or beauty fall flat. In several passages the capital-A Artist looks up from squalid downtown streets (humdrum reality) to regard a sky transformed à la Rimbaud (or à la hallucinogens) into an image of a surfboarder catching some serious waves. The film stock is different; the effect is silly. Suddenly I felt like I’d just been reading P. Adams Sitney, or had masochistically decided to catch a few underground masterpieces in a Stan Brakhage film festival at Anthology Film Archives.

Toward the film’s end, shortly before the protagonist dies (offstage, in the manner of Racinian classical tragedy), Schnabel treats us to a bit of art-house pastiche so clumsy I was tempted to withdraw the goodwill I had hitherto extended to him. A prince, gold crown and all, is seen immured in a medieval tower; peasants till the fields. We seem to have rudely stumbled into a story from Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales via the Taviani Brothers’ rhapsodic filmmaking style. It’s not good. In his filmmaker’s education, maybe Schnabel should stick to the basics for a while longer before going the Jean Cocteau route.

David Rimanelli contributes to Artforum and The New Yorker.