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Directed by Julian Schnabel

We’re in the land of the romantic myth of the tortured, misunderstood and doomed artistic genius, with Julian Schnabel’s cinematic portrait of his friend and fellow-artist, Jean-Michel Basquait. This is made clear from the beginning, when the character of art critic Rene Richard quotes from his own 1981 Artforum article, ‘The Radiant Child’, to the effect that since the death of Van Gogh, having sold only one painting in his lifetime, it is the duty and responsibility of every critic to promote every artist of worth, so that they don’t starve in garrets in the traditionally prescribed, appropriately authentic manner. So, while they both conformed to the romantic image in dying young, Van Gogh did so in obscurity and penury, while Basquait had achieved fame and wealth. But, it is implied that ‘too much, too soon’ is probably just as destructive as ‘too little, too late’. It has been suggested that Basquait was as much a product of hype and promotion and keeping the right company as he was a genuine talent, and this criticism is met head on in this film, where it is seen as contributing to Basquait’s increasing sense of self-doubt despite his success, which fuelled the self-destructive behaviour which led to his early death.




The story starts in 1979, with the nineteen year old Basquait (Geffrey Wright) in his early incarnation as graffiti artist Samo, sleeping rough on the New York streets. The son of Haitian emigrants, he plays in bands and starts doing art. Determined to hit the big time as an artist, he hawks his work around town, notably in a scene where he tackles Andy Warhol (David Bowie) and art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper) in a classy restaurant. His rise is swift and sudden, as he becomes a fully-fledged member of the flamboyant avant garde Factory set. However, along with recognition come nagging doubts that he is being pigeon-holed as the first great American ‘black artist’, rather than being accepted for who he is himself, or for what value his work has in itself. This is captured nicely in a scene in which he is interviewed by an aggressive journalist (Christopher Walken), where he is asked, ‘Are you a black artist?’ and replies, ‘I use lots of colours, not just black.’ It is the loneliness and isolation which he has in common with Warhol which undoubtedly cements the closeness of their relationship, which begins as that of neophyte to elder statesman, but matures into one of mutual admiration and respect. And it is bereavement at Warhol’s death which is the last straw, the final contributory factor to Basquait’s own death of a heroin overdose in 1986, at the age of twenty-seven.
This is the most sympathetic screen portrait of Warhol so far, in contradistinction to Crispin Glover’s cameo in The Doors, where Oliver Stone set up a facile opposition between the supposedly pure essence of innocence of the west coast band and the debauched decadence and depravity of the New York circle, and to Jared Harris’ interpretation in I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron’s sympathetic portrayal of the madwoman whose chief claim to fame (as the title suggests) is plugging (in both senses of the word) the vulnerable pop artist. Bowie is not as good an actor as Harris, but the character is opened out and developed more here, and when an early friend tells Basquait that Warhol is using him, he replies, ‘He’s the only one who doesn’t need to use me.’ It is implied that Warhol was one of the few who cared enough to try to get Basquait off drugs.
Written and directed with a keen eye and sure hand by Schnabel, there are some lovely recurring images, like that of a surfer in the deep blue sea (Basquait riding the crest of a wave, perhaps?). Wright is outstanding in the lead role, and as well as Hopper, Bowie and Walken, there are fine performances from Gary Oldman as a Schnabel figure, and Parker Posey as Basquait’s first serious amatory attachment, Gina. The soundtrack also presses all the right buttons, featuring The Pogues, PIL, Jonathan Richman, The Stones, Iggy Pop and John Cale, among others. Only Courtney Love seems extraneous and type-cast, as a ligging art groupie, although her role inadvertently makes one think of similarities between the lives and deaths of Basquait and Kurt Cobain.
So, Jean-Michel Basquait as latter day Van Gogh, or media manipulator and media manipulee (in both senses of these phrases)? Given that it is only eleven years since his death, and that he was only actively producing for seven, there has not really been enough time for his work to have stood the test of. Although hailed, rather reductively, as ‘the true voice of the gutter’ by one art dealer in this movie, it later transpires that he was the son of an accountant, with a solid middle-class up-bringing. But if luck is where talent meets opportunity, then he was probably luckier than most, in having the innate talent to take advantage of opportunity when it knocked, even if the opportunity was self-created. You make your own luck.

First published in Film Ireland









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