Kim Basinger gets in over her head when she becomes romantically involved with a wealthy Wall Street banker (Mickey Rourke) who pushes the limits of her sexual boundaries. When the two of them aren’t doing it in a clock tower or rolling around in food, Basinger’s character, Elizabeth, is an assistant at a trendy SoHo art gallery. In her day-to-day work life (from which she is increasingly distracted), she handles the preparations for an upcoming exhibition by an elderly painter who lives alone in the country.
How the directors of the Spring Street Gallery found the seemingly unknown Mathew Farnsworth (Dwight Weist) isn’t clear, but they are certainly taking a risk by showing his paintings. In one scene, Elizabeth presents a somber canvas to a hard-nosed art collector, slumping in his chair, completely bored. At his side is his pouting Boxer (equally nonplussed) who skeptically tilts his canine head.
The gallery, itself, is believable onscreen, and even features exhibitions by actual artists George Segal and Sarah Charlesworth as the backdrops for some early scenes. Harvey, the gallery’s director (David Margulies), comes across as a warm-hearted penny pincher when he orders hot water with lemon and Sweet’N Low, warning his assistant, “Don’t let ‘em charge you for it.” He explains, “I fast to save money.” His frugality and hands-on involvement with daily gallery operations give us a sense that he is in the business for the right reasons, i.e., his love of art. Harvey’s lack of affluence contrasts with what we usually see in Hollywood’s portrayal of art dealers, who are often presented as lecherous, greedy or even murderous (see Beverly Hills Cop, Legal Eagles, or Boogie Woogie, for example). From the media’s perspective, it seems an art dealer’s poverty is in direct proportion to his benevolence.
On the other hand, Farnsworth is a weirdo, which aligns perfectly with the typical representations of artists in film and television. Three weeks before the opening of his show, the gallery is unable to contact him and they still don’t have all of his paintings. Fortunately, Elizabeth breaks out of her sex-trance long enough to head to the country and track him down. She finds Farnsworth sitting alone outside his secluded cottage, noodling with a dead fish and turning it over in his fingers, like a baby who has never seen one before. Elizabeth asks him if he even remembers he is having a show and he replies, “I remember to eat when I’m hungry and I remember to sleep when I’m tired” (he has only two lines in the entire film).
When Farnsworth’s show finally opens, the “fish out of water” metaphor alluded to earlier comes full circle. While his work is well received, he has nothing to say to the hipsters with mohawks and jelly bracelets buzzing around him. A colleague of Elizabeth’s refers to him as “creepy” and speculates that he might be “sub-literate or preverbal” because of the way he stares at them. As the gallery pulses with downtown decadence (Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones even has a cameo), Farnsworth appears exasperated and beleaguered. The camera then cuts to yet another fish being sliced up and doled out onto hungry party-goers’ plates (Get it?). Elizabeth looks on at his discomfort, sobbing, as if to say, “I’m a fish out of water, too, and I need to end my kinky dom/sub relationship as soon as possible!”
We often think of artists purely as city dwellers, their lives intertwined by necessity with the culture of metropolitan centers. It’s true that in cities, an artist is more likely to find a wider audience, but some decide they are better off without any outside interference. Lee Bontecou famously withdrew from the art world, retreating for decades to rural Pennsylvania in order to work without external pressures. She eventually reemerged into the public eye as the focus of several major shows and retrospectives, and her obscurity certainly amplified our curiosity about her.
The fate of Farnsworth’s career remains a cliffhanger, however. Since he doesn’t appear in the film’s (probably terrible) sequel, Another Nine ½ Weeks (1997), we’ll never know if he learned to swim in the cutthroat New York art world, or if it just chewed him up and spat him out.