Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

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Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Velvet Buzzsaw”

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is a horror-comedy that takes place entirely within the contemporary art world. It’s an unusual choice, but since Hollywood has already decided that all art world people are utterly unlikable, why should we care when they start getting killed? Every major character in this 2019 Netflix film is guilty of reprehensible behavior of one kind or another (even the archivist!), so you’re likely to have about as much sympathy for them as a certain federal judge did for Mary Boone last week.

First, there’s Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a wannabe art dealer who’s stuck working a thankless job as an assistant at a blue chip gallery in LA. When her reclusive neighbor (named Ventril Dease) suddenly passes away, she discovers he was a prolific painter and has left behind his life’s work, stashed in his apartment. Before his instructions to destroy it can be carried out, Josephina swipes it, hoping to jumpstart her career.

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Zawe Ashton, product placement in “Velvet Buzzsaw”

She shows the work to her friend Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), a moody art critic who uses words like “mesmeric” and whose opinion seems to tip the scale between success and failure for any artist showing in Los Angeles. “I’m ensorcelled,” he gushes, and tells her there’s “massive” market for her pile of paintings.

Once news of her discovery gets out, Josephina’s boss, Rhodora (Rene Russo), immediately strong-arms her into relinquishing Dease’s paintings. Offering her a cut of the sales, the two form a reluctant partnership as the art world collectively goes NUTS for Dease (don’t say it). When we actually see the paintings, themselves, they don’t seem particularly contemporary and basically resemble a cross between 19th century Post-Impressionism and illustrations from a children’s book.

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Jake Gyllenhaal being “ensorcelled”

Unfortunately for everyone involved, a series of mysterious and unexplained deaths casts a shadow on this newfound sensation. Hands reach out of art installations and strangle people, drawings cause automobile accidents, and paintings absorb victims into the picture. Sometimes it’s Dease’s art and other times it isn’t. There’s really no rhyme or reason to any of it, except we’re led to believe that it’s all happening because the artist spent time in a mental institution and painted with blood. We know this is true because sometimes the dried up blood spontaneously liquifies and oozes down the canvas.

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Billy Magnussen pays the price for handling art in “Velvet Buzzsaw”

None of it is scary or suspenseful, and perhaps the film would have worked better purely as a comedy. The art world deserves a good lampooning every once in a while, but viewers might instead look to a film like “Untitled” from 2009. Its critique is just as harsh, but the writers have included some likeable characters we might actually end up empathizing with.

One thing that most art-world-centered plots have in common is the propagation of ridiculous stereotypes. John Malkovich’s character in “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a washed-up abstract artist who makes paintings of drippy blobs, and whose career takes a nosedive after getting sober. If this sounds familiar, you might remember his similar performance in the 2006 film “Art School Confidential,” where he played another washed-up abstract artist who painted only triangles.

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Tom Sturridge and John Malkovich in “Velvet Buzzsaw”

Toni Collette appears as a colluding art dealer who threatens the careers of those standing in her way (she also channels Amy Poehler in a recent Old Navy commercial). Other unsavory types on hand include a bratty rich kid turned gallery owner (Tom Sturridge), a bro-ey art handler who hits on his coworkers and steals (Billy Magnussen) and a tattling gallery assistant who uses gossip for her own career advancement (Natalia Dyer). All it really adds up to is the unambiguous moral revelation that greed is bad and these people should be punished.

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Toni Collette in “Velvet Buzzsaw”

It seems all but impossible for screenwriters to place a storyline in the center of the contemporary art world without presenting it as a caricature. Its impermeability has long served as a valuable narrative tool to alienate the viewer from characters we’re meant to hate. When the business they’re mixed up in seems arbitrary, silly and deceitful, it’s easy to stoke the misgivings of the “My kid could do that” naysayer. But, in turn, perhaps obfuscation is just as precious to art world inductees who fancy themselves as members of an elite class. After all, if you’re not in on the joke, you’re not invited to the after-party.

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Rene Russo speaks truth in “Velvet Buzzsaw”


Frasier: Season 1, Episode 6 – “The Crucible”


You may think you’re an Art World insider, but you might actually just be a sucker. Even if you’re among the over-educated elite, like psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), you’re not immune to the rules of business. And after all, the Art World operates by these rules, too.

Having recently purchased a painting by “one of this country’s premier artists,” Martha Paxton (portrayed by actual interdisciplinary artist Rachel Rosenthal), Frasier plans a cocktail party as an excuse to meet her.

When Ms. Paxton finally arrives at the soirée, she is wearing a poncho, which she explains she never takes off at parties in order to avoid shaking hands with people. Frasier describes this as “delightfully eccentric,” but the message is clear: artists are hard for other people to relate to. In Ms. Paxton’s case, she’s intentionally aloof—when Frasier’s brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), offers his hand to her, she simply stares at it and smirks.


Rachel Rosenthal and David Hyde Pierce in “Frasier”

She is also bald, which further sets her apart from the other guests. Ms. Rosenthal shaved her head in real life and one can imagine this being a major reason for her being cast. After the party is over, Frasier’s friend Daphne (Jane Leeves) remarks, “I don’t think that woman bathes.” (Because artists are dirty, right, Daphne?)

Frasier clearly adores Ms. Paxton’s painting, “Elegy in Green,” and gushes his praise at her: “The way you insinuate the palette, but never lean on it, you’ve captured the zeitgeist of our generation!” He also refers to her as the “preeminent Neo-Fauvist of the 20th century,” although contemporary artists usually aren’t described in such specific art historical terms.


Rachel Rosenthal in “Frasier”

Frasier’s bubble of pride is quickly burst when Ms. Paxton announces she isn’t the artist who created his prized piece. “I never saw this painting before in my whole life!” she sneers. Humiliation ensues.

Determined to return the fraudulent work, Frasier heads straight to the gallery where he originally purchased it. He’s met by the gallery’s owner, Phillip Hayson (John Rubinstein), and his duo of robotic assistants, wearing all black, of course. Hayson is a real wheeler and dealer, and when Frasier brings up his complaint, Hayson attempts to distract him with white wine and brie, and by superficially agreeing with everything he says. In the end, Hayson refuses to give Frasier his money back, citing a strict “all sales final” policy. In response to Frasier’s protests, he says “Dr. Crane, if you ever find justice in this world, let me know, will ya?”


Kelsey Grammer and John Rubinstein in “Frasier”


Gregory Eugene Travis, Eugenie Bondurant and John Rubinstein in “Frasier”

Frasier’s recourse is pure revenge: he plans to throw a brick through the gallery’s window. Although his brother, Niles, talks him out of it, Niles then carries out the vandalism, himself. As viewers, we are meant to share their catharsis, as we have been trained to hate the Art World as an impenetrable and ungenerous institution.

What’s striking about this rebuke is that Frasier Crane is not the “everyman” we usually see in this position—the regular folk who wouldn’t set foot in an art gallery. He is an insider, exposing the whole thing as a sham from within. And if this is how one of the club’s own members feels, it must truly be indefensible.



Murder, She Wrote: Season 12, Episode 9 – “Deadly Bidding”


Angela Lansbury in “Murder, She Wrote”

The much hated Art World is a popular setting for crime-based TV shows because it provides the opportunity to introduce unlikeable villains and high-value collateral as the target for criminal activity.

Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is bidding at auction on an Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript for the museum where she serves as a committee member. Also at auction is a stolen painting by Edgar Degas, “The Dancing Class,” valued at $15 to $20 million. In order to transfer its ownership undetected, the scammers have had it painted over by a lesser known artist, Angus Neville (Doug Hutchison) with a schlocky abstraction entitled “Arrangement in Gray and Red,” an obvious reference to representational painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.


The stolen Degas


The cover-up

The plan is to auction off Angus’s painting to an accomplice who’s been clued in that the masterwork is concealed underneath. We are told that Degas was the only artist to secure his canvas stretchers with tulip-wood wedges (though I found no information to corroborate this claim) and this becomes important to investigators in identifying the modified canvas as his.


Doug Hutchison as Angus Neville

A grubby scumbag type with greasy hair, Angus wears sunglasses inside and smokes in almost every scene, even tossing a lit cigarette butt onto the gallery floor at one point. He has a side gig of producing art forgeries for the black market, but business must be slow. He doesn’t have “a pot to soak his brushes in” as his latest client puts it, a strange characterization for an artist whose work has already reached the secondary market. Based on what we’re shown of Angus, it’s hard to believe that anyone would trust him with the task of painting over a $20 million painting in such a way that it could later be removed (if that’s even possible).


Craig Richard Nelson as Felix Wester

Moving on to our next art world stereotype, we have art dealer Felix Wester (Craig Richard Nelson), a gangly, fussy man who carries a pet Chihuahua tucked under his arm at all times. He is frequently seen bickering and rolling his eyes, and after Angus is murdered, he brags that prices for his paintings are going to go “through the roof.”


Martin Jarvis as Giles Havelock

Then there is Giles, the auctioneer (Martin Jarvis). It turns out he is the one responsible for murdering Angus, admittedly to steal back the twice stolen Degas painting, which Angus stole from the auction house. He says it’s the only thing he could think of to keep the auction house afloat, but that doesn’t do much to win our sympathies.


Jeff Williams as Pete

Lastly, there is Pete (Jeff Williams), the boyfriend of Jessica’s museum colleague and a stark contrast to these three obnoxious art world insiders. An aspiring photographer, Pete is timid about putting his work out there, although his girlfriend tried to show it to Felix, the catty art dealer. He’s the only likeable Art World character of the lot, and he hasn’t even been initiated into its ranks. The message is clear – one is better off staying out of it, lest he become corrupted, himself, or even… murdered!


Beverly Hills, 90210: Season 6 (1995)

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Jennie Garth and Jason Wiles in Beverly Hills, 90210

On a show full of enfants terrible, it takes a lot for one character to sink to the bottom of the likeability scale. And when there’s an artist in the group, it’s not hard to figure out who the outcast will be… that’s right, it’s the artist.

We already know that male artists are cads, but Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles) is also a cocaine addict, who turns his girlfriend into a cocaine addict, and then gets sent to prison (but not before trying to skip town). He also has sex with his art dealer in exchange for her selling his paintings.

Colin's art dealer Claudia Van Eyck (Mary Crosby) tells Kelly like it is.

Colin’s art dealer, Claudia Van Eyck (Mary Crosby), tells Kelly like it is.

Colin is physically indistinguishable from the rest of his So Cal counterparts, aside from the paint smears on his clothes. You might mistake him for a JC Penney model were it not for the hippy-dippy things he says, hoping he doesn’t “forget how fresh strawberries taste” while he’s in prison, for example.

Painter or hunk? Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles)

painter / heart-throb Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles)

From the way the other characters treat him, we are meant to believe that Colin has received substantial acclaim for his work. When his girlfriend’s roommate Clare (Kathleen Arnold) meets him, she regurgitates a quote she has memorized, for some reason, from a review of Colin’s work in Art News: “Colin Robbins’ work attains a formal depth and radiance, yet reflects the tangential nature of living in a fast, media-filled environment.”

For the most part, the paintings are comprised of circles, squares and stripes, painted in different colors and textures. An exception is the time he paints a picture of a cake with a dude in a toga for his girlfriend’s birthday (a painting that oddly ends up later in his gallery show, presumably for sale).

Happy Birthday, Kelly!

Safety Tip: Do not EVER smear toxic oil paint all over your face, or someone else's face, unless you like using turpentine as a skin cleanser!

Safety Tip: Do not EVER smear toxic oil paint all over your face, or someone else’s face, unless you like using turpentine as a skin cleanser!

The script is problematic as it seems to jumble up the logical course of events in an artist’s career. We know that Colin already has gallery representation and has been written about in a major publication, but then he is commissioned to paint a gaudy mural in his friend Valerie’s night club (and it looks exactly like a mural you’d expect to see in a night club). Maybe he should have his next show at the Peach Pit Diner next-door.

Hope they don't spill too much Budweiser on Colin's latest work...

Hope no one spills beer on Colin’s new work…

Colin routinely puts his artwork before the needs of his girlfriend Kelly (Jennie Garth). The assumption that artists are selfish is a familiar trope, as is the cliché that they rely on drugs as a catalyst for creativity. The sensationalized substance abuse by Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Jackson Pollock, among others, reinforces the audience’s predisposition to accept this as the norm. It is even confirmed in Colin’s mind after a collector buys two of his new canvases he painted while high. “You don’t need coke to paint,” his friend Valerie (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) tells him. “No,” he says, “I only need it to paint well.” But when he gets Kelly hooked on coke, as well, he loses our sympathy completely.

“High” art

As an artist (and a New Yorker), Colin is an outsider amongst his friends, but his most significant distinction is that he is the only truly unredeemable character in the season’s storyline. After being sentenced to two years in prison for drug possession and resisting arrest in a high-speed car chase, he then puts his friends who bailed him out in jeopardy by fleeing when he is supposed to turn himself in. It then becomes the plight of the rest of the cast to track him down and bring him to justice, even briefly uniting arch rivals Kelly and Valerie for the cause.

Indeed, Colin is no less than a villain. And, as is to be expected when villains are defeated, a great relief settles in his victims when he is apprehended by the authorities. Such was the relief when I realized I didn’t have to watch any more episodes of this show.

It could have been a brilliant career...

It could have been a brilliant career…


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?


  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 

    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)


“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.


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.


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.”

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Embeth Davidtz in “Junebug”

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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.

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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.


“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”