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)