Directed by Julian Schnabel
The term ‘Neo-expressionism’ has little currency amongst art historians today. A meaningless moniker, it’s authority as a label for a perceived ‘return to painting’ in the 1980s is gradually eroding. There are two artists for whom the term is most often employed. One is the director of this film, Julian Schnabel, and the other is its protagonist, Jean Michel Basquiat. Apart from its lead, Basquiat presents a vignette of characters who are all surface and no depth. The idea is to emphasise Basquiat’s enigmatic and isolated nature. The result is a cold yet visually compelling film.
Before he was discovered by the New York art world, Basquiat was a known graffiti artist who, along with his friend Al Diaz, daubed humorous and bizarre haikus around the city signed SAMO© (‘Same Old Shit’). At the start of the film we see Basquiat (played by Jeffery Wright) emerge from a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park where he has been sleeping rough, using every opportunity to leave his mark on the surroundings. As he looks up at the New York skyline, he imagines a surfer riding a wave in the sky. This visual metaphor crops up several times throughout the film. It encapsulates Basquiat’s independent and tempestuous nature, whilst also serving as a symbol of his ambition and eventual fate. As his friend Benny (Benicio Del Toro) puts it: ‘for all you know you might just be a flash in the pan man, and let me tell you, you can never tell’.
At a house party, the artist and critic René Ricard (Michael Wincott) is blown away by a painting propped upon a mantelpiece and races after Basquiat in the street. Soon Basquiat is surrounded by the front runners of the New York art scene, including Andy Warhol (David Bowie) and the dealers Mary Boone (Parker Posey) and Bruno Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper). The centre of attention, Basquiat ostracises himself from his friends, including his long-suffering girlfriend Gina (Claire Forlani). We are presented with a familiar and tragic tale of a flourishing career paralleled by a ruinous personal life (Basquiat died of a heroin overdose aged 27 in 1988). Throughout the film Schnabel pokes fun at the myth of the tragic, isolated genius, mostly to ensure that the cliche doesn’t completely cannibalise the film’s narrative. The opening lines of the film are Ricard’s ruminations: ‘Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh boat…The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one’.
Jeffrey Wright is an undervalued actor. Why isn’t he given more lead roles instead of bit parts in big blockbusters (such as Felix Leiter in the latest Bond films)? He remains enigmatic as Basquiat and is the most three dimensional character in the film, employing subtle ticks and idiosyncratic expressions. The remaining star-studded cast is a constant distraction, detracting from the reality of the narrative. On one level the casting works because Schnabel is knowingly critiquing the artifice of the art world, but the cost is that the actors, despite their best efforts, are incapable of making their characters believable. There are cameos by Courtney Love, William Dafoe, Vincent Gallo and Christopher Walken. David Bowie uses Warhol for comic relief, uttering inanities in-between conversation. Having gone through the trouble of wearing Warhol’s actual wigs, it’s a shame that Bowie and Schnabel aren’t able to communicate the essence of the artist’s friendship with Basquiat. Apart from their mutual isolation, we cannot comprehend the extent of their friendship. Bowie, though the king of androgyny, is too masculine for the role. He doesn’t look like Warhol. He looks too alert, too sharp, whilst Warhol was aloof and affected a glazed expression.
Schnabel chose to name Gary Oldman’s character ‘Albert Milo’, even though Oldman is clearly portraying him. Did he fear that his presence would compete with Basquiat’s or was he uncomfortable with being explicitly portrayed on screen? He seems keen to emphasise that Basquiat was a friendly acquaintance, not a close friend. So many people cashed in on their relationship with Basquiat that the Oldman character is probably a sound strategy. Parker Posey plays the art dealer Mary Boone to type. She is poised, focused and ruthless. Posey can turn a seductive smile into a snarl. ‘It’s a very handsome show’, she tells Basquiat, ‘it’s just in the wrong gallery’.
The film’s cinematography is its slickest feature. Schnabel brings the nightclubs and galleries of the film to life, employing contemporary music appropriately and with a metaphorical flourish. Surreal scenes that take us into Basquiat’s mind feel genuinely illuminating, such as when he imagines a future artwork made out of car tyres. Schnabel enjoys using fixed cameras angles accompanied by rapid edits that reveal the development of a work in situ.
I suspect Schnabel knew that a film about Basquiat would be hampered by the baggage of art mythology and the cult of celebrity that surrounded him. He bravely tackles both subjects head-on. It is entirely to his credit that the film maintains a humor and winking knowingness. It’s well worth watching for its visual inventiveness and flair, though those looking for a solid drama will be disappointed by the film’s emotionally flat tone.