Posts Tagged ‘Andy Warhol’

The Art of Fame

Saturday, December 27th, 2008


Basquiat (1996) 108 minutes

Full disclosure: this is my favorite movie of all time, forever and ever. It is on an elevated plane of cinematic glory that it shares with only two other films: Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann and Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis. To me, Moulin Rouge is about love and postmodernism, Groundhog Day is about laughter and existentialism, and Basquiat is about fame and ambition.

Basquiat is a biopic on the life of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a painter from New York in the 1980s, as told through the direction of his friend and fellow painter Julian Schnabel. Julian Schnabel himself leveraged a relatively large degree of art-world success during the 80’s; he was most famous for his broken plates and bondo paintings and then later for simply being savvy about maintaining his fame. This movie is a testament to Schnabel’s media charisma—it may be the most star-studded directorial debut ever. Moreover, it is an incredibly sensitive and poetic filmic rendering of an intensely difficult topic (art about art; try renting other films about painters to see how miserably they fall short, or for that matter, other films by painters). Julian Schnabel’s next film, Before Night Falls, about the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, proved that his touch with the medium of film was no fluke [his most recent film is the similarly heralded The Diving Bell & the Butterfly].

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a painter of inestimable significance, in one flash of a life bookending the Warholian end of art history as theorized by Arthur C. Danto on one side and presaging the New York productionism that would come to define the 90’s on the other (see Damien Hirst, et al). Embodied within any discussion of his work come the first postmodern intimations of meta-art; Basquiat stands as the figurehead for the first generation of artists who were ironically aware of the machinations of the art world. In short, he was a middle-class raised Brooklyn boy who became famous in an instant for his “graffiti art,” playing upon issues of race, class, commerce and urbanity to wrestle his way into the art history books.


There are many memorable scenes in this movie, and I could talk about it for longer than anyone would have patience. One of them has to do with Benicio Del Toro and the prescription for fame (i.e., four years for fame, six for wealth). Another has to do with Christopher Walken’s eerie and penetrating interview with Basquiat. Or any scene with David Bowie’s preternaturally uncanny portrayal of Andy Warhol. Or when Courtney Love saunters into her cameo appearance to the Rolling Stone’s best song, “Beast of Burden.”

This movie has one of those rare soundtracks that captures the spirit and time of the story exactly (the zeitgeist, if you will), an eclectic mix that offers insights into both the subject (Basquiat was a huge fan of the jazz of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker) and New York in the gritty and urbane 80s. Songs by the Pogues, the Modern Lovers, the Rolling Stones, Joy Division, Grandmaster Flash, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, John Cale, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen all weave their way in and out of the staccato vignette narrative of the movie about a painter whose work was so often described as musical.

But what makes this movie invaluable is that it is the only film I know of that deals with the issues of ambition and fame in a post-Warholian media milieu. In the movie, the visual leitmotif of a surfer riding the waves intermittently cuts in, a lone surfer riding a gigantic wave collaged over the weary brownstones of downtown Manhattan. The analogy of the arc of our lives being compared to a surfer riding a wave may seem a little tired, but it feels fresh and unexpectedly apt when it is collaged over the decidedly unnatural environment of lower New York and the drug-laden art world. If our time here at Yale is something similar, a large rush of information, experience, and opportunities, I guess I should end this paper with something like: so let us enjoy the ride.

(originally written 10/9/2006)

4/21/2006: Photographing Nihilism

Friday, December 26th, 2008

More film notes from the past:


Blowup (1966), 111 minutes

*Palme d’Or (Best Film), Cannes Film Festival
*nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Director and Best Original Screenplay
*National Society of Film Critics Award, Best Film and Best Director

“Blowup daringly suggests that an image without politics isn’t an image at all.” — Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

“Antonioni’s chic study in ambiguity calls into question the notion of photographic truth, and indeed reality itself.” — Thomas Delapa, Boulder Weekly

“Antonioni is the kind of thinker who can say that there are ‘no social or moral judgments in the picture’; he is merely showing us the people who have discarded ‘all discipline,’ for whom freedom means ‘marijuana, sexual perversion, anything,’ and who live in ‘decadence without any visible future.’ I’d hate to be around when he’s making judgements.” –Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“A great film.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

It’s great to read the alternating rave/pan reviews of this Italian neo-realist’s most famous movie, with some critics calling it as important as Citizen Kane while others say that it’s a bunch of pretentious crap. Like everything, it’s probably somewhere in-between. However, next time you find yourself surrounded by a bunch of hipper-than-thou modsters, simply mention that you’ve seen this movie and you’ll get instant Cool Points™ from skinny black pants wearing hipsters and film students from across the globe. It’s like an artsy-fartsy shibboleth.

This was Antonioni’s first film in English, and his first film shot outside of Italy (it was filmed in ’60’s swinging London). It caused a near-riot in its day, both winning all the top critic’s prizes and also garnering the notoriety of being banned in several countries and being officially denounced by various religions. It’s the story of a bored and cynical fashion photographer who may or may not have accidentally photographed a murder. Vanessa Redgrave turns in one of her most memorable performances, managing to hold her own against the nearly unbeatable cinematic phenomenon of two young girls rolling around naked on the ground (ever seen Girls Gone Wild? It’s like visual crack cocaine—probably what David Foster Wallace was writing about when he wrote about a movie that was so captivating it incapacitated its viewers in his novel, Infinite Jest).

But amongst the critics who do not dismiss this movie out of hand, the thing everybody talks about is Antonioni’s exploration of the relationship between image and reality, both through his own directorial decisions and through the story of the main character (the photographer as played by David Hemmings). Bear in mind, this movie came out in 1966, which is within two years of Andy Warhol’s first exhibitions of his Campbell’s soup cans (1964), Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1968), Peter Eisenman’s declaration of a second epistemological shift (1968), and Arthur C. Danto’s declaration of the End of Art History (1964). Most reviews also connect the photographic confusion explored in this film with the Zapruder films of Kennedy’s assassination (1963). In general, the times they were-a-changin’, and this movie was one of the harbingers of a general artistic and intellectual movement that interrogated of the role of machines and technology on our perceptions of the world. No doubt germane as we CAD-draft and Maya model our virtual worlds.