The Next Big Thing (2001)

Chris Eigeman in "The Next Big Thing."

Chris Eigeman in “The Next Big Thing”

If you’re an honest, hard-working painter who just can’t break into the art world, it’s probably because you’re a boring person. People want their artists to suffer. The stereotype made famous by Van Gogh, and beaten to death by the media ever since, is the underlying ethos in the premise of P.J. Posner’s goofy 2001 film The Next Big Thing.

Gus Bishop (Chris Eigeman) is a struggling artist who pays the bills doing clerical work of an unspecified nature. His generically pleasant paintings would feel at home in a hospital waiting room, and like most of us who pass such artworks en route to getting our flu shots, the art world doesn’t even notice them.

Things change when a petty thief named Deech Scumble (Jamie Harris) breaks into Gus’s apartment and steals one of his canvases. Deech pawns it off on his landlord with a made-up back-story about the mysterious and reclusive artist, a drug addict and incest survivor named “Geoffrey Buonardi” who also served in Vietnam. The landlord then sells it to his friend’s daughter’s gallery, adding that Buonardi’s family was killed by a tornado that ripped through his trailer park, and literally overnight, the art world is buzzing with intrigue.

Deech entangles Gus in a “get rich quick” scheme to sell more of his paintings under this false identity, convincing him that he doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the art world by himself. “You’re not gay, you’re not a junkie, you don’t paint with your teeth,” Deech says. “You’re a middle-class white kid from New Brunswick, New Jersey—zero sex appeal.”

The scam works, and Deech positions himself as Buonardi’s exclusive representative, handling all of his business transactions with galleries and the press so no one ever sees him (why do people think artists have reps?). It isn’t long before an undercover cop (Mike Starr) tracks them down after being hired by an obsessed collector, but he ends up extorting a cut of the profit from them. The three form an unlikely team, and eventually Buonardi’s work is sought after by the Whitley (yes, Whitley) Museum for its upcoming Biennial.

Chris Eigeman, Jamie Harris and Mike Starr in "The Next Big Thing"

Chris Eigeman, Jamie Harris and Mike Starr in “The Next Big Thing”

We’re meant to be rooting for Gus through all of this – he just wants to make a living from his art, and it seems the only way to do that is by working the system. But there is nothing to like about him because he is so boring (as the plot requires). He is as humorless as his art, neither of which makes for compelling cinema.

Nice palette.

Nice palette.

Having once been rejected by the art world, he is a reluctant “everyman.” Looking in from the outside, he condemns it for its duplicity and pretentiousness, jealous of his own alter-ego, and uses this to justify his crime. After Buonardi’s colossal success, Gus finally gets fed up with his role in a corrupt system and exposes himself as a fraud. By doing so, he also reveals the hypocrisy of the art world that fell for his deception.

Farley Granger and Janet Zarish in "The Next Big Thing"

Farley Granger and Janet Zarish in “The Next Big Thing”

Nearly every art world character in the film is a clown, carrying on melodramatically with an air of silly entitlement. Turtleneck-wearing arts administrators throw around meaningless artspeak in a boardroom– “He’s an anti-positivist!” “He’s a trans-realist!” while catty dealers and collectors trip over themselves trying to get their piece of the glory. The exception is an art critic named Kate Crowley (Connie Britton) whom Gus falls in love with because she writes glowing reviews of his work (and she’s pretty).

Don't forget to rip off Tony Oursler for no reason.

Don’t forget to rip off Tony Oursler for no reason!

The Next Big Thing wants to operate as a cultural commentary (before deciding to become a rom-com in its last act). But it’s too unambiguous in its moral position to hold any real depth or complexity, and the corny performances make light of any serious critique it might offer. One wonders who the audience for such a film might be when all that’s left is a string of obvious gags about an easy target that’s too specialized to attract mainstream interest.

Good grief, what is Damien Loeb doing in this movie?

Good grief. What is Damian Loeb doing in this movie?

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10 THINGS HOLLYWOOD TEACHES US ABOUT THE ART WORLD

  1. Art Dealers are Evil…

    left to right: Steven Berkoff in "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984), Danny Huston in "Boogie Woogie" (2009) and Terence Stamp in "Legal Eagles" (1986)

    left to right: Steven Berkoff in “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984), Danny Huston in “Boogie Woogie” (2009) and Terence Stamp in “Legal Eagles” (1986)

    …and probably named Victor. From the drug-smuggling Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop to the murderous Victor Taft in Legal Eagles to the lecherous Art Spindle in Boogie Woogie, art dealers do not enjoy a favorable reputation on the silver screen. As the ringleaders of a world that remains largely mysterious to most, they also seem to wield great power, often commanding a crew of henchmen to do their dirty work. See Slaves of New York and Family Ties for non-evil art dealers named Victor and Victoria.

  2. Male Artists are Cads

    left to right: Steve Buscemi in "Life Lessons" (1989), Jorma Taccone in "Girls" (2013) and Adam Coleman Howard in "Slaves of New York" (1989)

    left to right: Steve Buscemi in “Life Lessons” (1989), Jorma Taccone in “Girls” (2013) and Adam Coleman Howard in “Slaves of New York” (1989)

    The bad-boy heartbreaker art-star is a favorite archetype of film and television scriptwriters. They’re seen as self-centered and childish and, given the widespread perplexity about what artists do and why it matters, the gratuitous attention they receive from others seems all the more undeserved.

  3. Regular People Hate the Art World

    left to right: Marla Gibbs in "227" (1990), George Dzundza and Chris North in "Law & Order - Prisoner of Love" (1990) and Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" (1988)

    left to right: Marla Gibbs in “227” (1990), George Dzundza and Chris North in “Law & Order – Prisoner of Love” (1990) and Tom Cruise in “Cocktail” (1988)

    Hollywood loves telling stories about ordinary people—the “everyman” we can all relate to. And if there’s one thing normal people don’t get, it’s the art world. Combine the two and the result is real dramatic tension. Whether it’s Mary Jenkins in 227, who briefly dabbles as a contemporary artist; the cops in Law & Order, who scour the seedy depths of New York’s art world to solve a murder; or Tom Cruise’s character in Cocktail, who destroys a cocky artist’s sculpture at his own opening, these anti-intellectual heroes ultimately expose the art world to be a total sham.

  4. The Art World is Fancy

    fancy

    left to right: Christine Belford in “Family Ties – Art Lover” (1982), Hank Stratton and Carol Bruce in “Perfect Strangers – Tux for Two” (1987) and Iris Marshall in “Color Me Blood Red” (1965)

    You’ll be underdressed if you forget to wear your tuxedo or fur coat to that art opening you’re going to. Art is expensive, a status symbol for the rich, so those who can afford it must look the part. You can spot the art world gate-keepers (collectors and dealers) by their luxurious fox furs and diamonds, while the artists will stick to sneakers and perhaps a beret.

  5. Art People Talk Funny

    left to right: Julianne Moore in "The Big Lebowski" (1998), Diane Keaton in "Manhattan" (1979) and Amy Poehler in Old Navy TV commercial (2014)

    left to right: Julianne Moore in “The Big Lebowski” (1998), Diane Keaton in “Manhattan” (1979) and Amy Poehler in Old Navy TV commercial (2014)

    The art world has its own language, and it’s super annoying to the casual bystander. A 2014 commercial for Old Navy jeans casts Amy Poehler as an art dealer who describes the work in her gallery as aggressive, dangerous and stupid. “And that’s why I like it,” she says. Diane Keaton’s character Mary Wilke in the 1979 film Manhattan refers to a minimalist steel sculpture at the MoMA as having a “marvelous kind of negative capability,” while dismissing everything else on display as “bullshit.” Julianne Moore plays an artist in The Big Lebowski (1988) who applies her intellectual “artspeak” vocabulary, not only to her work, but also in the bedroom, describing “coitus” as a sometimes “natural, zesty enterprise.”

  6. Artists are Scumbags

    left to right: Dick Miller in "A Bucket of Blood" (1959), Viggo Mortensen in "A Perfect Murder" (1998) and Jim Broadbent in "Art School Confidential" (2006)

    left to right: Dick Miller in “A Bucket of Blood” (1959), Viggo Mortensen in “A Perfect Murder” (1998) and Jim Broadbent in “Art School Confidential” (2006)

    It’s no surprise when an artist turns out to be a murderer or a thief. As with art dealers, the “otherness” of the art world makes artists the perfect weirdo anti-heroes to root against. Sometimes they’re rugged and alluring, like Viggo Mortenson’s ex-con character in A Perfect Murder. Other times they’re just creepy, like the insane Walter Paisley in A Bucket of Blood, who kills people and turns them into sculptures, or the alcoholic serial killer / failed artist Jimmy in Art School Confidential.

  7. Anything Can be Art

    left to right: Dan Castellaneta in "The Simpsons- Mom & Pop Art" (1999); Janice Kent and Jean Smart in "Designing Women" (1991) and Marla Gibbs, Toukie Smith and Luise Heath in "227" (1990)

    left to right: Dan Castellaneta in “The Simpsons- Mom & Pop Art” (1999); Janice Kent and Jean Smart in “Designing Women” (1991) and Marla Gibbs, Toukie Smith and Luise Heath in “227” (1990)

    Capitalizing on the general assumption that it requires no talent to be a contemporary artist, TV scriptwriters love the readymade. That is, the everyday object turned artwork, made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917. It turns out all you have to do to become an overnight sensation in the art world is leave your purse or a bottle of glass cleaner on a pedestal in an art gallery. Or in Homer Simpson’s case, crash a pile of junk into an art dealer’s car. Yes, indeed, the art world is for suckers who will believe anything is art as long as the right person says it is.

  8. Artists Have Rocky Love Lives

    left to right: Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in "High Art" (1998), Daryl Hannah in "Legal Eagles" (1986) and Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster in "Catchfire" (1990)

    left to right: Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in “High Art” (1998), Daryl Hannah in “Legal Eagles” (1986) and Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster in “Catchfire” (1990)

    Creative types are passionate romantics who are full of feeling—but not a lot of sense. It’s their aura of mystery and intrigue that makes them so alluring, until their lovers figure out they are emotionally unstable wrecks. Ally Sheedy plays a  photographer in High Art, who seduces an aspiring magazine editor despite being washed up and drug-addicted (it doesn’t end well). Daryl Hannah makes weird performance art in Legal Eagles and possesses a spacy mystique that Robert Redford can’t resist, until she almost ruins his career as District Attorney. And it’s anyone’s guess what Jodie Foster’s character, Anne Benton, is thinking in Catchfire when she falls in love with her kidnapper, played by Dennis Hopper, who also directed this ridiculous movie.

  9. Art People Hate the Country

    Embeth Davidtz in "Junebug" (2005), Catherine O'Hara in "Beetlejuice" (1988) and Kim Basinger in Nine ½ Weeks" (1986)

    left to right: Embeth Davidtz in “Junebug” (2005), Catherine O’Hara in “Beetlejuice” (1988) and Kim Basinger in “Nine ½ Weeks” (1986)

    You’ll find art people in rural areas if A) they are there against their will, B) they’re just “getting away from it all” or C) they are a reclusive outsider artist (or looking for one).  In both Nine ½ Weeks and Junebug, a fancy art dealer leaves her urban environment in search of a backwoods painter, while in Beetlejuice a cosmopolitan sculptress is reluctantly transplanted to the country by her husband. The clash between city slickers and country folk is almost guaranteed entertainment.

  10. Artists Will Do Anything for Attention

    left to right: Jaime Winstone in "Boogie Woogie" (2009), Cesar Romero in "Batman - Pop Goes the Joker" (1967) and Max Minghella in "Art School Confidential" (2006)

    left to right: Jaime Winstone in “Boogie Woogie” (2009), Cesar Romero in “Batman – Pop Goes the Joker” (1967) and Max Minghella in “Art School Confidential” (2006)

    All artists really want is to be famous, right? That’s the popular assumption, and they’ll do anything to get there. Elaine is a video artist in Boogie Woogie who has no boundaries, documenting her personal life and ultimately a friend’s death — all for shock value. Art School Confidential’s Jerome resorts to stealing the paintings of a serial killer and passing them off as his to make up for his own boring artwork, and the Joker, from the TV series Batman, launches a campaign of vandalism and destruction all in the name of Art.

Art School Confidential (2006)

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“In order to be a great artist, you simply have to be a great artist,” so says Strathmore Institute alumnus, Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott). “There’s nothing to learn, so you’re all wasting your time.” One is likely to agree with him after watching Art School Confidential. Illustrator Daniel Clowes turned his experiences as an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn into a comic book, and later the screenplay on which the film is based. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, the plot delivers a checklist of art world stereotypes with a machine-like efficiency that leaves no one unscathed.

The filmmakers apparently hold a great deal of contempt for the art world at large, offering us zero characters we can really look up to. Everyone in the story seems to have an ulterior motive. Our would-be hero, Jerome (Max Minghella), is a freshman at Strathmore, and we’re meant to sympathize with him as his is classmates dismiss his skilled, but illustrative, drawings. There seems to be no reason behind their capricious tastes for the haphazard and confounding.

Joel David Moore and Max Minghella in “Art School Confidential”

For his part, Max has some questionable motivations of his own. He wants to be “the greatest artist of the 21st century,” not because he thinks he has something to say, but so girls will like him. In an early scene, we learn that Max once dressed up as Picasso for a school project, citing the painter’s success with women as an admirable quality. During the course of the film, Max pours all his efforts into impressing Audrey (Sophia Myles), the model from his figure drawing class. This is presented as a nobler plight than those of his classmates, who are apparently just egomaniacs trying to be as weird as possible.

Most of Strathmore’s teachers are presented as apathetic failures, with the exception of Anjelica Huston, who plays a warm-hearted art history professor. The rest seem more concerned with their careers than with teaching, and one literally spells it out on the chalkboard that he doesn’t care whether or not his students even come to class. Meanwhile, Professor “Sandy” Sandiford (John Malkovich) perpetually tries in vain to revive interest in his minimalist paintings of triangles. “I was one of the first,” he reminisces.

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John Malkovich in "Art School" Confidential

John Malkovich in “Art School” Confidential”

Strathmore, named for the manufacturer of artists’ materials, is clearly located in New York City but, for some reason, none of the students seem to be aware of the fact that the city is full of high profile galleries. Instead, they spend most of their spare time at a coffee shop called Broadway Bob’s, the place “where everyone gets their first big break.” Broadway Bob (Steve Buscemi, who portrayed bad boy art star Gregory Stark in New York Stories) grants a solo show in his café to whomever earns the highest grade in Strathmore’s end-of-year reviews (because that’s how these things work).

Steve Buscemi and Sophia Myles in "Art School Confidential"

Steve Buscemi and Sophia Myles in “Art School Confidential”

On his way to scoring the next coveted show amidst the coffee grounds is Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a jock who paints cartoony pictures of cars, tanks and baseball players (they were actually painted by Clowes while he was a student at Pratt). Although everyone praises him for his work, Jonah turns out to be an undercover cop who doesn’t even care about being an artist. Enter his fellow law enforcement officers trying to solve a campus murder case (an oddly random subplot) who refer to the art students as “fucking freaks.” It’s the classic scenario of “regular people” who briefly encounter the art world, expose its duplicity and ultimately reject it (see Beverly Hills Cop, Law & Order, and Designing Women, among others).

Matt Keeslar in "Art School Confidential"

Matt Keeslar in “Art School Confidential”

Although the extreme stereotypes in Art School Confidential will strike a chord of truth for anyone who has ever attended an art college, such cautionary tales will hardly deter ambitious young artists from the long, hard path to glory. Endless generations have heard and ignored the warnings of poverty and failure, such as Sandy’s advice to “go to banking school or web site school—anywhere but art school” if you want to make money. Undergraduate tuition and fees at Pratt currently amount to $44,804 per year, but a fine arts degree is not intended to prepare one for the labor force. It’s an exchange of ideas and a chance to outdo the ideas of one’s peers. As with the entertainment industry, society assumes that fame is the ultimate goal of the artist, and that can only be achieved by those who get our attention, however they can, preferably before dying.

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Junebug (2005)

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Embeth Davidtz in “Junebug”

Junebug is the second feature film to be noted on this blog with an art dealer named Madeleine as a main character. And like Madeleine Gray, from (Untitled) of 2009, we like her (most of the time). We might like her more if we were seeing her in her own element—the big city art world—but the dramatic momentum of Junebug is fueled by the friction of cultural clashes. So when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) travels to rural North Carolina with her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) to meet his family, we see her through their eyes—that is, as a weirdo.

Even weirder is the man she is really there to see: a reclusive, self-taught artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor)—Madeleine owns a gallery in Chicago devoted to “outsider” artists like him. Wark’s violent, sexually charged paintings immediately recall the works of Henry Darger. In place of Darger’s scores of massacred children, Wark details sprawling scenes of Civil War era battles, slavery and rebellion, rife with severed heads, half-human snakes and huge penises ejaculating bullets. Since he says he has never personally known an African American (he uses another term), he paints the faces of white people he’s met on top of dark-skinned bodies. Wark sees himself as a collaborator with God, and says his job is “to make the invisible visible.”

File created with CoreGraphics

Embeth Davidtz in “Junebug”

File created with CoreGraphics

Director Phil Morrison allows our eyes to linger for a long while on Wark’s paintings, which were created specifically for the film by Brooklyn artist, Ann Wood. Their presence is more than superficial, carrying thematic weight as the “outsider” motif parallels Madeleine’s situation as an oddity in her current surroundings.

For her part, Madeleine is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about Wark and his work. “I love all the dog heads and computers and all the scrotums,” she gushes. But does she really understand what he’s doing, or who he is as a complete person? Wark’s plea for her to accept Jesus Christ as her savior is simply ignored, and when he reveals his anti-semitism, it gives her pause, but she ultimately lets it slide as long as he signs her gallery contract.

File created with CoreGraphics

Frank Hoyt Taylor in “Junebug”

Charming and worldly (she was born in Japan and raised in Africa), Madeleine is good at what she does and knows what she wants. However, with the exception of Amy Adams’ character, her in-laws treat her with stand-offish skepticism, merely tolerating her and her city-slicker ways. They’re dumbfounded when she greets them with a kiss on each cheek, and her mother-in-law immediately speculates about whether Madeleine looks like she can cook.

Nonetheless, Madeleine seems to really try to fit in (though babies cry when presented to her and group prayer makes her visibly uncomfortable). The rest of the time, her smile beams generously and her love for her husband is so palpable it keeps people up at night. We’re behind her, except when her professional ambitions eclipse her loyalty to family.

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Embeth Davidtz, Ben McKenzie and Amy Adams in “Junebug”

As a director, Morrison is shrewd enough to use stereotypes without making them seem one-dimensional. The art dealer is a stylish, charismatic atheist from a wealthy background who speaks with an accent, while the small town southerners are not well-traveled, but deeply religious and committed to family and tradition. We observe their faults, as well as their virtues, and weigh the simplicity of country living against the complexities of city life. We also question what it really means to be an outsider. It is all in one’s perspective: Madeleine has come from the outside to bring an artist into her world, but one who probably doesn’t even fully understand what is happening to him. One may wonder if Wark really needs people like her in his life, and where the lines are drawn between appreciation, interference and exploitation.

 

“Nine ½ Weeks” (1986)

Kim Basinger in

Kim Basinger in “Nine ½ Weeks”

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.

Kim Basinger in

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.

Works by George Segal in

Works by George Segal in “Nine ½ Weeks”

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.

David Margulies and the work of Sarah Charlesworth Kim in

David Margulies and the work of Sarah Charlesworth in “Nine ½ Weeks”

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).

Kim Basinger and Dwight Weist in

Kim Basinger and Dwight Weist in “Nine ½ Weeks”

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!”

Ron Wood in

Ron Wood in “Nine ½ Weeks”

Dwight Weist, David Margulies and Karen Young in

Dwight Weist, David Margulies and Karen Young in “Nine ½ Weeks”

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.

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“Beetlejuice” (1988)

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Rurbanism is a silly buzzword for what one might call the “urban-rural confluence.” In other words, it’s what happens when city dwellers leave their metropolitan environments for the country and bring their cultural interests with them.

In Tim Burton’s 1988 film “Beetlejuice,” Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones) relocates his eccentric family from New York City to a country house in the fictional town of Winter River, Connecticut, following a nervous breakdown. His artist wife, Delia (Catherine O’Hara), is initially unhappy with the decision. “Charles, I will not stop living and breathing art just because you need to relax!” she protests. But when they discover that the house is haunted, Delia can’t get enough of the supernatural antics (translation: artists are weird and they like weird things).

The ghosts haunting them, the recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland (played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin before he was scary in real life), are the polar opposites of the Deetzes. Mild mannered and humble, all they want is for the intruding urbanites to leave them in peace. Meanwhile, Delia has already begun redecorating the house to remove any trace of their rustic sensibilities as Charles plots ways to profit from the paranormal spectacle (translation: city slickers are greedy and they only care about money).

Helping Delia to transform her drab surroundings is a catty interior designer named Otho (Glenn Shadix). The smirking Otho, who struts about in black suits and kimonos, is here to make sure you know that anyone interested in contemporary aesthetics is an asshole. “You’re lucky the yuppies are buying condos,” he tells Charles, “so you can afford what I’m going to have to do to this place.” What he does involves a lot of faux granite finish, glass block windows and comical yellow slabs that jut out of the house’s façade.


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For her part, Delia seems even more high-strung and fragile out of her comfort zone than her nerve-wracked hubby. While the movers are handling her sculptures, which look like props from a dinosaur’s Halloween party, she barks at them to be careful. From the looks on their faces, it’s clear the men do not recognize the value of her work, and when Delia accidentally gets pinned underneath one of her own pieces, she totally deserves it.


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After they modernize the place, they Deetzes host a dinner party for their nasty city friends, one of whom writes for Art in America. The group hurls insults at one another across the dining room table, but their bickering is ultimately interrupted when they are supernaturally possessed by Adam and Barbara. Spoiling their cool aloofness, the ghosts manipulate them like puppets, forcing them to do the calypso and lip-sync to Harry Belafonte.

 

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The Deetzes and their paranormal cohabitants eventually find a way to coexist, largely facilitated by their daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), who can liaise with the dead because she’s goth. Delia even channels spectral inspiration into her sculpture and lands the cover of Art in America.

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While Winter River, Connecticut, doesn’t actually exist, rurbanism is a very real phenomenon in towns like Hudson, New York. The upstate community, with a population of roughly 6,700 people, has seen a recent influx of New York City galleries opening secondary spaces on its main drag, Warren Street. A couple of blocks away is the future site of the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), a museum space for “long-durational works.” No doubt, if the Deetzes were around, they would be trolling Hudson’s real estate market for haunted houses.

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“Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013) & “High Art” (1998)

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

If you are questioning your sexual identity and need someone to work it out with, an artist is really the way to go. But remember, if and when everything falls apart, it’s your own fault because you’re the one who was so confused in the first place, so do not blame the artist.

Just ask the protagonists in these two well-acted films about the sexual awakenings of lesbians portrayed by heterosexual actors. The storylines in “High Art” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” both involve a confused, young woman who falls in love with an older female visual artist. And besides the fact that artists are terrific relationship material, movie directors have plenty of good reasons to cast them opposite an ingénue in the process of self-discovery. Here are a few of them:

  1. As nonconformists, artists make their own rules, giving them a reputation for being “edgy” and often unstable. An individual questioning her own identity may be drawn to this, regarding the artist as sympathetic.
  2. There is something inherently romantic and mysterious about what artists do, which makes them alluring.
  3. An artist’s lover can also become her muse, resulting in the visible byproducts of her affection in the form of paintings, photographs, etc. As viewers, this gives us a more visually interesting experience than seeing a poet reading aloud her love notes, for instance, or a singer / songwriter crooning sentimental ballads. The act of posing for a portrait also plays into one’s vanity and desire to be doted on (see “The Golden Girls”: Season 3, Episode 13). Of course, the muses in both films are traditionally attractive people, and the artwork created in their likenesses demonstrates conventional aesthetic ideals of beauty.
Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in "High Art"

Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in “High Art”

Despite the narrative parallels, the characters and their motivations differ significantly in each plot. First, age factors into how we see Emma (Léa Seydoux) and Lucy (Ally Sheedy) as artists and people. In “Blue,” Emma is still young, just on the verge of a promising painting career. She seems to have things figured out, and comes from a supportive family with hip, progressive parents who drink white wine. Emma knows who she is and what she wants—an attractive quality in anyone.

Léa Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Léa Seydoux in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

In “High Art,” photographer Lucy Berliner, who is significantly older than her new love interest, Syd (Radha Mitchell), has essentially retired as an artist. In fact, it is only when Syd presents an opportunity to be published in the prominent photography magazine she works for that Lucy considers producing work again. It isn’t the potential revival of her career that interests her, however—it is the chance to be closer to Syd. Their connection is palpable, but Syd’s intentions lie somewhere between infatuation and ambition. Bored with her boyfriend and her ineffectiveness at work, she sees Lucy as a chance to get intimately close to greatness. She’s like a teenager who wants to fall in love with a rock star, but Lucy’s stardom peaked a decade ago, and then she self-destructed.

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell in "High Art"

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell in “High Art”

The film’s dark view of Lucy’s life reveals a cultural bias about age. She isn’t even that old, but she’s outgrowing the rebellious scenes of youth once captured in her pictures. Like her regular lover, Greta (Patricia Clarkson), Lucy is a junkie spinning her wheels. She’s also constantly surrounded by a crew of younger hangers-on, who use her apartment as their party headquarters. In this way, she takes on a den-motherly role, though what she offers them seems less than maternal.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), on the other hand, is an outsider to her girlfriend Emma’s art world, and shows little interest in it. For this reason, their connection is perhaps simpler—uncomplicated by professional ambitions. The intensity of their attraction is demonstrated through a series of explicit sex scenes of epic running time (which you probably already know about even if you haven’t seen the film). She appears perplexed by Emma’s career, however, and her only involvement in it is being her muse. Director Abdellatif Kechiche seems to define a patriarchal dynamic between the two of them, and even instructed actress Léa Seydoux to emulate Marlon Brando and James Dean in her portrayal of the presumably masculine characteristics of an artist. Meanwhile, when Adèle isn’t posing nude for portraits, she retires to the kitchen to prepare copious amounts of spaghetti.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

When Emma’s first big art opening comes around, it’s a few years after they’ve split up and Adèle is clearly ill at ease there. We’ve seen many depictions of gallery receptions as cliquish and exclusive, uncomfortable environments for people who don’t usually go to them. But here, the gallery becomes a metaphor for Emma, herself. Adèle finally realizes that she cannot be part of her new life, and she walks out of the gallery, and away from Emma, perhaps for good.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

As a character, Emma’s personal stability and clarity set her apart from most portrayals of artists in the media, and perhaps this illustrates the difference between American and European attitudes toward the arts. Lucy ultimately proves less resilient—a victim of her own bad habits. And Syd, her moon-shaped baby-face looking slightly less innocent, finds her image permanently preserved in Lucy’s oeuvre. From the other side of the lens, she learns that good art doesn’t come easy.

Radha Mitchell in "High Art"

Radha Mitchell in “High Art”

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director living in Schenectady with his wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), who is a painter. Though Caden has enjoyed some acclaim for his work, Adele has no respect for him as an artist and even fantasizes about his dying, freeing her to start over. Having sewn the seeds of doubt in Caden’s mind, Adele goes to Berlin, taking their daughter, Olive, with her. When they leave, Caden gradually starts to die.

They never return, and though she is absent for the remaining three quarters of the film, Adele and her creative success loom over Caden like something he once read about in a book, but never really knew. His health deteriorating (he suffers from pustules, malfunctioning pupils and seizures), he sees an Elle magazine exposé in the doctor’s office waiting room about Adele’s thriving career. “When I look I see. When I see, I paint. It’s that simple,” she says, and, “I’m at a point in my life where I only want to be around joyous, healthy people.” He tries in vain to reach her on the phone, but she can’t hear him and hangs up, saying, “I have to go, I’m sorry. There’s a party—I’m famous!”

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“It’s good to be Adele. Six months ago, Adele Lack was an under-appreciated housewife in Eastern New York. Stuck in a dead-end marriage to a slovenly, ugly-face loser, Adele Lack had big dreams for her and her then four-year-old daughter, Olive. That’s when her paintings got small.”

Adele’s paintings are minuscule portraits, created for the film by Russian-born artist Alex Kanevsky. They are so small that one must wear magnifying glasses to view them, and she ships them in miniature crates that look as if they were made for a dollhouse. It’s a visual joke that counters the heroic, macho scale adopted by many New York painters, and their size can be seen as both a metaphor and a marketing gimmick.

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After Caden receives a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” he goes about staging an impossibly ambitious, autobiographical play. The production, which remains in the works for decades, involves a life-size replica of Manhattan and, quite literally, a cast of thousands. Through his epic undertaking, Caden attempts to achieve artistic truth and relevance, the kind of glory he imagines his wife has left him behind for, all the while facing the inevitability of his own death. (His last name, Cotard, is a reference to Cotard’s syndrome, a rare neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that he or she is dead or does not exist.)

For her part, Adele is not only selfish, but downright cruel. She has kidnapped their daughter and the only direct communication she has attempted with Caden in the past twenty years is an impersonal fax instructing him not to read Olive’s diary. She’s also insufferably pretentious. For instance, the biographical wall text at her Met Museum retrospective reads, “The only art I ever saw was the smear of coal dust on my father’s shirts, but that was enough to stimulate my fascination with the idea of markings on fabric, traces of the real world left to linger as memory.” Spare me!

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Caden does, in fact, read Olive’s diary, which magically continues to write itself over time. Through it, he pieces together a picture of his family’s new life, while yet another magazine article proclaims Olive the “first child in human history with a full body tattoo.” As the line between Caden’s play and his real life slowly fades, he performs the role of Adele’s housekeeper, named Ellen. He scrubs her toilet when she isn’t home and receives patronizing notes from her, addressing him as Ellen (“Good for you with your grant!”). Neither Olive nor Adele seems aware of Caden’s recent achievement and recognition, but it clearly wouldn’t matter to them if they were.

The portrayal of Berlin as an artistic haven connects to an attitude that was popular around the time the film was produced. The “party” in New York was over, so to speak, and priced-out artists were moving to Berlin to make their work. Now the party in Berlin is over, and the new party is in Detroit or something. While Adele and Olive have moved on to greener pastures, Caden’s fixation on New York seems simultaneously quaint and solipsistic—he wallows in it.

As Adele has risen to celebrity status, Caden has been demoted to an outside observer. His experience of her is mediated through her press coverage, her Berlin gallerist who refuses to give out “personal informations” and finally, his daughter, who now speaks only German and lies dying in a hospital from infected tattoos.

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His exclusion from their lives underscores the pain of creative (and sexual) invisibility and the professional (and personal) jealousies that go along with it. Adele’s success seems more desirable to Caden than his own because he is no longer a part of it. Her life in Berlin is full of glamour and sexual freedom (Olive has become a lesbian and her nanny/tattoo artist is her lover). Free from Caden and his suffering, they live the ultimate artistic existence, and are celebrated for it. In their wake, he ultimately becomes his work—an actor in his play—which mirrors his own life and means nothing.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Since the films of the Coen brothers are filled with wild stereotypes, it’s no surprise to find a ridiculous portrayal of an artist among them. Maude, Julianne Moore’s character in “The Big Lebowski,” is first seen instigating a home invasion and physical assault on Jeff  “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), with the help of her two henchmen / studio assistants (she is reclaiming a rug The Dude took from her father which has “sentimental value” for her).

In her next scene, Maude is naked and flying through her studio while suspended from a gantry. She holds a paint brush in each hand, which she uses to splatter paint onto a canvas on the floor below. Judging from the results, which simply look like splashes of paint around a crude figure, there seems to be no reason for this elaborate, acrobatic method, aside from the shock effect of its theatricality in the film, itself.

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When Maude finally speaks, she comes across like a humorless dominatrix with a British accent. She uses strictly formal English, describing sex (“coitus”) as a sometimes “natural, zesty enterprise,” for example. And since she is clearly meant to be a caricature of a feminist artist, the word “vaginal” works its way into her speech 9.4 seconds after she first opens her mouth (I timed it).

Lending insight into the diversity of her artistic practice, Maude arrives at her studio the next day with an assortment of found objects for her assemblage sculptures. In one hand, she carries a sack full of second-hand kitchen utensils, and in the other a bald-headed mannequin (a prop that can be found in almost every artist’s studio depicted onscreen since 1970).

Waiting to greet her is her friend Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), “the video artist,” who laughs constantly to himself like a jackal who’s just played a secret practical joke on everyone. And when Maude receives a phone call from “Sandro about the Biennale,” both Knox and Maude get on the line and cackle uncontrollably to one another while The Dude stands by, feeling helplessly left out. (Translation: The Dude is a regular guy and the Art World is a big joke that regular guys aren’t in on.)

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Maude does soften up long enough to get The Dude into bed, but it’s only because she’s trying to conceive. “What did you think this was all about? Fun and games?” she says. But she doesn’t want a partner, nor does she want the father to be someone she has to see socially or who has “any interest in raising the child, himself.” That’s how self-sufficient Maude is.

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There is a distinctly witchy quality to Maude’s persona—she wears a cape, flies through the air and often appears flanked by two silent men who do her bidding. Intelligent, wealthy and beautiful, she also seems to wield great power, a trait Hollywood normally reserves for its male protagonists. It’s a striking contrast to the vulnerable, dysfunctional portrayals of women artists in films like “Legal Eagles,” “High Art” and “Catchfire.” As with most depictions of artists in the media (male or female), we rarely see one who is just a typical person whose occupation happens to be art-making. It doesn’t make for entertaining storytelling. Instead, we get either a pathetic mess, or in Maude’s case, someone so poised it verges on the supernatural.

Legal Eagles (1986)

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Artists are trouble, especially when they’re Daryl Hannah. And if you are running for District Attorney in your town, you should definitely not get involved with them, or art dealers, or collectors. Look, just steer clear of the whole art world altogether, ok?

Robert Redford’s character, Tom Logan, learns this the hard way in the 1986 film directed by Ivan Reitman. It all starts when he agrees to give legal counsel to Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah), the daughter of celebrated painter Sebastian Deardon, after she attempts to steal one of her father’s pieces. It’s complicated because she’s trying to recover a painting her father dedicated to her just before his murder, which Chelsea witnessed, herself, when she was eight years old.

The man responsible for his death is Victor Taft (Terrance Stamp). He is also the proprietor of an uptown art gallery on West 57th Street in New York City, just in case some readers are still not convinced that all art dealers in movies and television from the 1980s must be named Victor (or Victoria). Needless to say, he’s evil.

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Victor was kind enough to rescue Chelsea from the blaze, along with the canvas her father gave her. Not as fortunate were all of his other unsold works, which were destroyed in the fire. Or were they?

Incidentally, we never actually see Deardon’s paintings, as Reitman makes the choice not to show them (at least not from the front). It’s a shrewd decision, maintaining a sense of reverence through mystery, and more filmmakers should follow this example when it’s appropriate. In “Legal Eagles,” we do get a sense of context for Deardon’s career, understanding how his work is situated in the secondary market, among other artists like Dubuffet, Calder and Picasso—he isn’t quite in their ranks, but he is collected by their collectors.

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The true fate of Deardon’s oeuvre is gradually revealed by Logan and fellow defense attorney Laura Kelly (Debra Winger). As it turns out, Victor Taft was masterminding an insurance fraud scheme, heisting a number of the paintings and stowing them away. 17 years after committing his crimes, he seems to wield an awful lot of power. When Kelly and Logan accuse him of a cover-up, he threatens to singlehandedly dismantle both of their careers, suggesting they will never practice law again (isn’t this guy an art dealer?).

Chelsea, on the other hand, having been so traumatized by the violent episode she witnessed as a child, is now a performance artist. “She’s a what?” asks Logan. He later finds out exactly what that means when he gets a front row seat to one of her multimedia works. After inviting him to her spacious SoHo flat, she casually ignites paper sculptures of a house and a birthday cake and large format portraits of herself, and they combust into a small inferno. It’s like a Laurie Anderson piece with pyrotechnics, complete with spoken word elements and a synthesizer soundtrack. The imagery is all emotionally charged symbolism, harkening back to night of her eighth birthday party, and her father’s imminent death.

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She puts on quite a show but, aside from this being counter-intuitive behavior for someone who almost died in a fire, her work would undoubtedly set off every smoke detector within in a 100-foot range. But Chelsea doesn’t care—she’s an artist. She is at once exotic and a mess, and full of secrets. Men with guns follow her around at night . . . and could she have even killed someone? Her own criminal record has made her a reluctant enfant terrible, but her motives are pure, despite a slew of bad choices, such as seducing her attorney.

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The film’s characterization of Chelsea as an “emotionally disturbed” young woman who never fully grew up evokes a familiar bias toward artists, implying that her work is just a coping mechanism for trauma she experienced. Artists rarely appear well-adjusted in the entertainment industry, nor do they have regular, workaday lives like normal people. What’s more, as an attractive female artist, Chelsea’s character reminds us of the sexism that spans beyond the art world and into the culture at large. It isn’t clear how successful her artistic career is, but it is her looks, not her talent, that prove to be her most effective way of getting what she wants.

As is often the case in the movies, all of the non-art-world characters in “Legal Eagles” ultimately seem to return to some semblance of normalcy. The others end up either dead or, in Chelsea’s case, drifting through the rest of their damaged lives like bohemian space cadets. At least some viewers with future careers in law may possibly find inspiration to become Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts some day.

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