Monday, December 16, 2013


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was a graffiti artist and painter and one of the darlings of the New York downtown art scene until his death from a drug overdose. A biographical film about the artist might have consisted of scene after scene of lurid behavior and name dropping (Basquiat crossed paths with a young Madonna in the early '80s) mixed with overly literal attempts to trace the roots of Basquiat's art. How fortunate then that the 1996 film Basquiat was directed by Julian Schnabel, a fellow artist and friend of Basquiat and one of the few people (Schnabel's script suggests) who cared for Basquiat without wanting anything from him.

  Basquiat doesn't spend much time on the particulars of the artist's life, though it's clear that Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) was affected by the mental illness of his mother and the coldness of his father (who kicked him out when Basquiat was in high school). Schnabel prefers instead to reflect on the way people use each other, like the way writer Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) and gallery owner Annina Nosei (Elina Lowensohn) look at Basquiat and see not only an artistic prodigy but also the marketing novelty of a young black painter. (Ricard uses a different, more offensive word.) There are wonderful scenes of Basquiat firing back though, both at a potential customer (Tatum O'Neal) and at a journalist (Christopher Walken) who tries to bait him with inflammatory quotes. Basquiat wasn't above marketing himself though, and his attempt to sell art to Andy Warhol (David Bowie) in a restaurant leads to a friendship that both helped Basquiat's career and seemed to center him as much as anything did. I can't tell whether Bowie's performance is either good or bad in an objective sense, and I'm not sure it matters since Schnabel and Bowie wisely choose to let Bowie's natural eccentricity fill in what we think we know about Warhol and don't try to get under his skin. Jeffrey Wright's performance as Basquiat is one of the early markers of a great career. Wright does get under his character's skin, and his to his credit neither he nor Schnabel is afraid to show Basquiat as both a brazen self-promoter with real chops and as a man who never got a chance to come of age emotionally. The rest of the cast fills in well, especially Claire Forlani as a woman who put up with Basquiat until she couldn't, Gary Oldman as a Schnabel stand-in, and Courtney Love in a cameo as a victim of Basquiat's charms. Julian Schnabel has directed Basquiat with great affection, both for the talent of its subject and for the young man who made noise rock and sold postcards downtown to survive before anyone had ever heard of him. In an early scene before Basquiat becomes famous he is warned by a buddy (Benicio del Toro) that fame will mean having to repeat himself artistically. The film ends with the disturbing sense that Basquiat was as much a prisoner of his talent as he was a victim of  his success.

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