Playing Fri June 24 at 7:00 at the Museum of Arts & Design [Program & Tix]
After his neo-impressionist paintings had made him a King of the Eighties art world, the ever modest Julian Schnabel (“I am as close to Picasso as you’re going to get in this fucking life”) decided to give this Film thing a try back in 1996.
Tackling an ambitious biopic about his late friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, Schnabel assembled a glittering line-up of art-pop superstars: Jeffery Right (perfect) as the eponymous boywonder of the gallery circuit, Gary Oldman as a thinly veiled version of (ahem) Julian Schnabel, David Bowie as the equally inscrutable Andy Warhol (!), plus Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper, Courtney Love, Parker Posey, amongst others.
Despite all the ego involved, Schnabel’s directorial dabbling was surprisingly likable and accomplished enough to kick off a successful career (despite a few kinks) as a filmmaker.
Painter Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a black graffitist in New York who became famous in 1981 and died seven years later. Art critic Robert Hughes titled his obituary for Basquiat “Requiem for a Featherweight,” and part of what’s so interesting and unexpected about this picture is that it makes fresh observations without refuting that judgment. It’s also quite energetic—there isn’t a boring shot anywhere, and writer-director Schnabel is clearly enjoying himself as he plays with expressionist sound, neo-Eisensteinian edits, and all sorts of other filmic ideas. What emerges may be unfocused as narrative, but it’s lively as filmmaking.
Stella Bruzzi for Sight and Sound (Apr 1997):
Basquiat’s irreverent charisma, his emotional dependency and his willful self-destructiveness are sensitively expressed through Jeffrey Wright’s performance. Particularly distinctive is the repertoire of poses and movements Wright evolves to capture Basquiat’s aloof coquettishness – his floaty, camp shuffling as he walks through New York streets, or his slow, intricate hand gestures. Through Wright’s performance Schnabel also offers here a eulogy to the physicality of Basquiat’s brash artistic talent. We see him obsessively spraying hip-hop haikus on dilapidated walls or (with a cursory nod towards Scorsese’s ‘Life Lessons’ segment of New York Stories) executing his first sprawling painting after being given a studio space by [art dealer Annina] Nosei, splashing vibrant colour onto an unwieldy, loose canvas on the floor to the accompaniment of music by Tom Waits, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie.
This is a bold, often beautiful film, and when the focus is on Basquiat’s visual imagination, Schnabel absents his auteurist self and serves his subject far better. The image one comes away with is of Basquiat towards the end of his life. Already spiralling out of control, he stands astride Benny [Dalmau]’s jeep, triumphantly waving and grinning, dressed in pyjamas and clogs inscribed with the word “Titanic”. Basquiat works best when, as here, Schnabel celebrates his protagonist’s infectious, childish, alienated vibrancy.
David Denby for New York Magazine:
The movie is very spontaneous from scene to scene, with an aura of freedom that is, at times, as fresh as oxygen. Schnabel establishes an easy, often silent rhythm of gesture, insult and play between Basquiat and his friend Benny (Del Toro). Picking up a girl on the street – some girl! It’s Courtney Love – Basquiat just smiles and nods. It’s all so easy, and it all comes crashing down. But despite this, the story is shaped as a parable. As Schnabel tells it, Jean-Michel Basquiat, of middle-class Haitian descent, was no more than free-living but very ambitious 19-year-old when Rene Richard was so struck by a painting hanging in a drug dealer’s house that he immediately took him up. “I understand hype!” screeches Ricard, who eventually wrote about Basquait in Artforum. Richard, as he comes off in the movie, is split down the middle, a true believer in genius who also loves the insane electricity and corruptions of the New York art world.
Schnabel directs the art-world scenes with gusto and wit. the dealers grab as Basquait so fiercely that sharks could teach them manners. Yet the scenes don’t feel like caricature. Bowie and Hopper are very funny together, greedily pawing over some tiny samples of Basquait’s “ignorant art.” These people are so intent on business, they become unconscious comic figures, like the burghers in some seventeenth-century genre painting (they don’t enter a room; they take possession of it).
Schnabel interviewed by the New York Times:
”When Basquiat was interviewed about how he felt being called the enfant terrible of the art world,” Mr. Schnabel recalled, ”he answered, ‘They talk about Julian that way, too.’ People don’t know about what it is to be an artist in society. So many people know Van Gogh as the lunatic who chopped off his ear. He did make some paintings. I wanted Jean-Michel to be known for his work.”
Originally, Mr. Schnabel had given seed money to a Basquiat film, but when an early script misrepresented Warhol, Mr. Schnabel said, he realized that he would have to make the film himself. As a result, Basquiat is the first feature about an American painter written and directed by another artist.
‘The film,” Mr. Schnabel said, ”is narrative. It’s more of what people can understand. To understand painting, you can’t just see it in a book. You have to stand in front of that thing like you’re going to a bullfight. The way it is constructed, ‘Basquiat’ is emotionally dense, like a painting. A movie can be art.”
Schnabel also discussed the film with Charlie Rose, view here. Say what you will about the man, but he’s always amusing.
Chris Chang for Film Comment (Sep/Oct 1996):
In all seriousness, the cast gets better and better as they move closer to the enigma at the center of the storm, i.e., Jeffrey Wright’s fully empathic Basquiat. Wright skillfully conveys the external business of the artworld’s prodigal son; more important, however, is his portrayal of the inner strife of a mind struggling with a sense of-to use Gertrude Stein’s muchquoted estimation of Oakland-there being no there there. He suddenly has it all, but his facade of giddy assurance is unstable; at any moment it can drop away and expose naked, unforgiving doubt. Wright can perform it on cue and the effect is shattering. What’s more, when it happens, those who are closest are also torn by awe and pity. Basquiat’s inner circle-girlfriend Gina (Claire Forlani), downtown muse Rene (Michael Wincott) and best buddy Benny (Benicio Del Toro)act as a tragic chorus, intoning vague warnings of the coming fall. Basquiat’s friends show quiet desperation as they try to hold on to something that perhaps wasn’t fully there in the first place.
Schnabel knows the New York art scene intimately (his own paintings appear in the movie as the work of a character played by Gary Oldham), and he shows us the agents, the critics, the collectors and the dealers. He knows the acquisitive greed of collectors and dealers, and shows Basquiat drawing in plum sauce in the guest book at Mr. Chow’s and another guest at the table tearing the page from the book (is it framed on somebody’s wall even now?).
Schnabel also has a good ear for the lingo. Racism is not racism, apparently, if it is expressed with the right tone of bored sophistication, and so we hear Basquiat’s admirers saying, “This … is the real voice of the gutter!” At another point he is described as “the pickaninny of the art world.” He hears, “There has never been a black painter who was considered important.” Actually he is a wonderful painter, and the right side of his brain is rarely wrong, as he demonstrates in a remarkable scene with Warhol where he fearlessly takes a brush and applies a large white area to one of Warhol’s Mobil flying horses. Warhol lets him: “I think you may be right about the white.” But there is always madness there. Schnabel remembers that Basquiat often talked about moving to Hawaii, and shows waves and surfers in the sky above Manhattan. He shows Basquiat painting a stack of car tires, and then seeing them transformed into a flowering tree. At the end, he was wearing boatlike wooden shoes on which he had painted “Titanic.” He died Aug. 12, 1988. He was 28 years old.
And don’t forget to revisit Alt Screen’s Matt Conolly’s feature on the acting career of Bowie. Of his Warhol, Connolly writes:
Director Julian Schnabel casting Bowie as Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996) can initially seem at once obvious and muddled. Yes, they share a similar corner of public cultural consciousness: two skinny, memorably-coiffed white men who tweaked sexuality and performance within their respective mediums and developed devoted cults of loyal followers. Plausible, but pretty thin. Then there’s the aforementioned issue of Bowie’s Bowie-ness shining through whatever role he plays. It can work when the role itself is created for him or based upon a character whose own personality lacks particular distinction. But Warhol was nothing if not a personality with particular distinction. Viewed this way, the performance is kind of a mess. Bowie plays him with a look of perennially spaced-out bafflement, pitched somewhere between incomprehension and disgust. He never seems to want to touch anything, clasping his hands against his chest as if in fear of being contaminated by the banality of the world. When he talks, his lips curl involuntarily into an exaggerated sneer that goes beyond mere distaste. It’s like he’s lost control of some of his facial muscles. And then there’s the voice: an aggressively affected monotone, every slightly-off emphases wrapped in layers of quotation marks. Is it a Warholian comment on the very act of speaking? Or is Bowie just doing a strained imitation?
Yet, the more one watches the performance, the more heartrending it becomes. In her overview of Bowie’s acting career in Slate, Jessica Winter deemed Bowie’s turn as Warhol “a lazy, glib anti-impersonation.” (“When did Warhol ever sound like a Valley Girl with acid reflux?” she adds with an eye-roll.) This implies that impersonation was the ultimate goal. Schnabel knows how to cast actors who can inhabit a real-life character with something approaching verisimilitude. Look no further than the casting of Jeffrey Wright in the title role of the self-destructive painter. As with all of his performances, what is inevitably reflected in Bowie’s Warhol is Bowie himself. It’s nothing if not revealing—a sketch of an aging artist, flirting with self-parody, who attempts yet another act of reinvention to stave off the dire possibility of artistic obsolescence. The twitches and mannerisms that Bowie gives to Warhol begin to feel less like ill-judged attempts at imitation and more like a physical manifestation of the anxieties working just Warhol’s (and Bowie’s) inscrutable surface. It’s moving in ways that Bowie probably intended, and also in ways that he probably didn’t.