Part of Andy Warhol's genius was his witty skill at daring us not to think he was a genius. Plenty of people took this dare, and it was no skin off his pasty nose--he may well have agreed with them. But if the art world was sufficiently gullible, or frightened of seeming unhip, to lionize Warhol and make him rich, who was he to argue?
This quite sensible attitude appears to have been shared by Jean-Michel Basquiat, title character of Julian Schnabel's debut as a feature filmmaker, Basquiat. For those who don't remember Basquiat--I didn't--he was a Haitian-American graffitist and doodler who became a Warhol crony and the toast of the New York avant-garde art scene (he and Schnabel, also a respected painter, were friends).
Basquiat's brief renown was based, to a considerable extent, not on his painting but on his image. A good-looking, brooding, streetwise type, he tended to inspire comparisons to James Dean and Eddie Murphy more quickly than to Jackson Pollock or Keith Haring or Picasso. Rather shockingly, one character in the film says that he could be the first black American painter to "matter." What about Jacob Lawrence or Henry O. Tanner or Horace Pippin or William E. Braxton or Faith Ringgold, you say? Well, they didn't hang out with Warhol, date Madonna and die young of a heroin overdose.
Basquiat is the third recent movie to chronicle a figure from the Warhol scene--I Shot Andy Warhol dramatized the life of Valerie Solanas, the feminist polemical writer who plugged poor Andy in the '60s, and Nico-Icon, a documentary, concerned Nico, the model, party girl and Velvet Underground vocalist of the '70s. Basquiat completes the triad nicely--it's set in the '80s, late in Warhol's life.
All three films have scenes and performances to recommend them. In the case of Basquiat, Broadway actor Jeffrey Wright makes his movie-star debut in the title role in impressive fashion. His odd, mincing gait--arms limply raised, head cocked at a regal angle, chest outthrust--suggests a delicate, isolated prince. His fast, syncopated speech rhythms and the subtle yet hard-hitting way his face registers emotion hint at intelligence and otherworldly vision. Wright's Basquiat looks like an artist, and if the examples of his work we're shown in the film are in any way representative, then the ability to look like an artist must have been instrumental in his being treated as one.
In the first half of the film, we see this fellow built up as a major find on the basis of the figure he cut rather than the work he produced. When he tells critic Rene Ricard (well-played by Michael Wincott) his name, Ricard drools "Sounds famous already!" As long as this is Schnabel's point, the film is trenchant and funny. There's stinging satirical richness in scenes like the artist's first encounter with Warhol, played with indolent mock enthusiasm by David Bowie. "Want to buy some ignorant art?" Basquiat asks, shoving some scribbled pieces in front of Warhol's face. "Oo, you didn't work very hard on these, did you?" Warhol responds, impressed and fumbling for his wallet.
There are juicy little scenes and fine performances throughout the film. The angular, elegant Parker Posey is amusingly snotty as the art dealer Mary Boone, and Claire Forlani is long sufferance personified as Basquiat's somber girlfriend. Gary Oldman plays another big-shot painter, probably based on Schnabel himself (his family is played by Schnabel's family), and the likes of Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Tatum O'Neal, Paul Bartel, Christopher Walken and Rockets Redglare turn up in effective smaller roles.
Best of all is Benicio del Toro as Basquiat's prefame pal Benny (like Forlani's character, he's a composite), who gives Basquiat an all-too-apt caveat on the price of stardom. When del Toro and Wright converse in their oddball New York patois, it eventually starts to sound like a different language--some sort of jazzy, hip Esperanto.
Basquiat has many such pleasures, and a rolling, freeform pace that invites us to enjoy them. Schnabel even manages the modulation from art-world satire to a more poignant atmosphere as Basquiat becomes less and less immune to the racial stereotyping with which he's saddled. But as the film ambles on, the lack of narrative drive wears it down. Worse, Schnabel starts nudging us a little too hard with the pathos.
Of course it's sad that Basquiat was racially pigeonholed, and of course it's sad that he wrecked his life with drugs. But most minority artists get pigeonholed to some extent, and nothing in the film convinces me that this robbed the world of a genius in this case. Quite the contrary--it was the glamorizing of the "black gutter artist" stereotype which made this man into a star.
As for the drugs, it appears, by the film's own account, that they might have proved his undoing anyway, even if he had never met Warhol or sold a single painting--he was already a user as an unknown. Of course, we don't need to regard Basquiat as a great artist to find his story interesting and touching, but Schnabel's apotheosis seems like a stretch.
I don't mean to be dismissive of Basquiat. It's not a bad picture, despite its flaws. But the cumulative effect of the Warhol Three has left me a little cranky, not toward Andy and gang--Godspeed to them--but toward the filmmakers, for their perpetuation of a reverential attitude toward him. All three of the films creep up to the edge of flat-out ridiculing Warhol's approach to art, but none of them has the nerve to do it--not even to the extent that Warhol did himself.
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Warhol's body of work amounts to a sly, de facto admission that the emperor had no clothes, but none of Warhol's chroniclers seems willing to make this same admission. They're all afraid of the charge of Philistinism. Off in avant-garde heaven, Valerie, Nico, Basquiat and Andy himself are probably sharing a good laugh right now.
--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by Julian Schnabel; with Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennie Hooper, Gary Oldman, Claire Forlani, Michael Wincott, Benicio del Toro, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal, Elina Lowensohn and Parker Posey.