“Velvet Buzzsaw,” the new artworld satire and /horror film, seems the film for the moment, given how nutty, if not quite murderous, the art world seems, at times. I have not seen it yet, so I can’t pass judgment, even if the online and print chatter so far has been mixed.
As the topic of art-world films has come up, however, I thought I would recommend a few films worth watching, films that I have chosen to see more than once. I do not make this statement lightly, as I consider many films worth watching once, but not twice or more. And some films are interesting in some ways—the subject or plot, especially if reality-based, and even the special effects—but annoying in others, e.g., glacially slow pacing, painfully bad dialogue or acting, and nonsensical storylines. I am sure that many of you watch, as I do, prepared to Fast Forward, in the immortal words of the Colonel Sanders character in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. There aren’t enough good satires on the art world, alas, so I am including some biopics and documentaries. Some of these are available online.
—Untitled (2009), a spritely, buoyant satire of the New York art scene, manages to be both wryly amusing about the vagaries of artistic and commercial survival, about The Work We Have Chosen (to quote Hyman Roth in Goidfather 2), and, curiously, warm-hearted about its cast of artistic characters, including artists, gallerists, and collectors, perhaps because its writer/director, Jonathan Parker, had previously been active in the contemporary music scene. I had the good fortune to attend its premiere in San Francisco in an art audience that loved the jokes, especially its sendups of the more twee variety of conceptual art.
Best artists-only nonfiction-based dramas:
—Final Portrait, director Stanley Tucci’s valentine to the so-called existentialist sculptor/painter Alberto Giacometti, traces the laborious making (and Sisyphean unmaking) of a portrait of an American critic James Lord, whose book detailing the ordeal-by-sitting was the basis of the screenplay. Art civilians may find the film as tedious as watching paint dry, as one innocent film critic complained, but art cognoscenti will find Geoffrey Rush’s comic-anguish turn close to perfect, and the film’s recreation of the famous dusty Avenue Hipployte-Flandrin studio is remarkable, and even museum-worthy on its own. I reviewed the movie for VAS (use search box); it’s also reprinted at https://artopticon.us (scroll down to April 2018).
—Edvard Munch is Peter Watkins’ 1974 portrait of the Norwegian Expressionist artist as a young man adrift in the fin-de-siècle bohemian circles of Christiania (Oslo). This sober examination will be slow going, indeed, for many viewers, and depressing to some, with its flashbacks to scene of family trauma that were depicted in now-famous paintings, but it’s a fascinating look at how the free-love counterculture made (and maybe unmade, partially) the young, sensitive “doomed” painter—who went on to live an improbably long and productive life.
—Vincent: The life and Death of Van Gogh (1987), written and directed by Paul Cox, takes (if I remember aright) a first-person-camera look at the life of the Dutch visionary, with a voiceover narration taken from the artist’s letters to his supportive art-dealer brother, Theo, read by the actor John Hurt, whose gravel-and-velvet voice seems just right. (The camera-as-protagonist idea has been used before, to my knowledge: once in a Dick Powell noir, and once at the beguiling beginning of Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Also check out Andy Serkis’s spooky-mad Vincent—almost horror-movie-worthy— in Simon Schama’s series, The Power of Art. (Alan Corduner’s Mark Rothko in that series is also a bravura performance.)
Best general-audience documentaries:
—The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) by Christina Clausen makes terrific use of videotaped footage of the young graffiti artist, entrepreneur and gay activist, finding his way in New York in his teens and twenties, before the scourge of AIDS. I found it extremely touching, and its use of found footage extraordinary; if only large VHS cameras had been around to record, say the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and The Ecstasy, however, still serves us —as does that other masscult biopic, Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh.
—Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006) is a six-hour, A-to-Z documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series by Ric Burns on the bewigged icon of affectless cool and prophet of media-based art. The artist’s ascent from small-town Pennsylvania to a career in commercial illustration and later to the heights of New York’s art world is fascinating, even if it was the filmmaker Emile de’Antonio who persuaded the artist to paint Coke bottles and other consumer products of desire in a flat, uninflected style, not in juicy, romantic Abstract Expressionese.
—The Cool School (2008), Morgan Neville’s enthralling look at the origins of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene in the 1960s, focusing on the radical Ferus Gallery, and featuring interviews with many of the artists, critics, and dealers, including Edward Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Walter Hopps, and Irving Blum, with his limos, yachts, and eye-candy escorts.
I am certain that I have unintentionally omitted some good movies, even some I may have watched twice (but not three times). Ed Harris as Pollock, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, Timothy Spall as Turner come to mind for Honorable Mentions. And then there are the fictional artists: Alec Guinness’s and Robert Newton’s obsessed eccentrics in The Horse’s Mouth and Odd Man Out, respectively. Art is long, and life is short.