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”

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227: Season 5, Episode 20: “You Gotta Have Art” (1990)

If contemporary art would just go away, we could all get back to living our normal lives. That’s the prevailing message in this episode of “227,” a situation comedy from the ‘80s and ‘90s, set in Washington, D.C.

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Mary (Marla Gibbs) agrees to help her friend Eva (Toukie Smith) set up for a reception at the art gallery where she works after their regular assistant dies. When they arrive at “Gallery Moderne,” after laughing at the artwork, Mary notices an abstract painting hanging crooked on the wall. She assumes it’s a mistake and tries to straighten it, but she is interrupted when the gallery director, Ms. Richard (Luise Heath), rushes in to stop her. Returning the painting to its correct position, she explains, crazy-eyed, “The lines of passionate resistance must rush towards the impertinence of time at this precise angle.”

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Ms. Richard, whose bodily movements resemble those of a ballet dancer, speaks with an affectation that sounds like a cross between a Boston dialect and an English accent. When Mary compliments her and attempts to shake her hand, Ms. Richard ignores her, rolls her eyes and offers, “We think that this is the perfect environment to create a synergistic rapport between aahrt and the aficionado.”

During the opening, “world famous” art critic Barclay Hayward arrives wearing a monocle and tuxedo. Using a slightly more convincing English accent, he systematically undermines everything in the exhibition with the manner of witty one-liners used by the judges from “American Idol.” The gallery patrons applaud as he jeers, “They should take down the painting and hang the artist,” for example.

He cuts down everything in his path, until he sees a bottle of glass cleaner and a paper towel Mary accidentally left on a pedestal while cleaning up. Mistaking this for a sculpture, he pronounces that it “captures the frustration of the modern housewife,” dropping to his knees in admiration. At first incredulous, Ms. Richard quickly follows suit, pretending it’s her favorite piece (because contemporary art is so crazy that none of us really knows what it is until we are told by someone else). This “ordinary object left on a pedestal and mistaken for art” theme must be a favorite among television scriptwriters, as it showed up a year later on an episode of “Designing Women.”

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Mary tries to deflect this misplaced attention by directing Mr. Hayward to a realistic still life that Eva has painted, but he dismisses it outright. It is decided hastily that Margaret/Marge/Mary (they can’t remember her name) should be given a show immediately because it “will put Washington, D.C. on the map.”

The misunderstanding causes friction between Mary and Eva, but also evokes the long-debated clash of craft vs. concept. It’s a popular dramatic device in Hollywood’s depiction of the art world: the casual viewer can find an easy satisfaction in a well-executed representational painting, while conceptual (and even abstract) art is kept at arm’s length. This prejudice stems from the notion that we should be able to immediately recognize what an artwork is, rather than accepting that something is art because its maker says it is.

The day after the opening, a local arts publication compares Mary to Andy Warhol (though Duchamp is the more obvious reference) and hails her as the “Diva of the Dustpan.” Demonstrating how effortless art can be, Mary throws together some impromptu readymade sculptures at the dinner table with a ketchup bottle and some cornbread. Her family reacts with skepticism, but her subsequent solo exhibition at Gallery Moderne is such a success that she is invited to appear on “The Joan Rivers Show” (naturally).

For Mary’s media blitz, she is joined by Mr. Hayward, and presents a series of new sculptures consisting of a shoe horn, a carton of eggs and some boxes of band-aids. Joan Rivers, who confesses her lack of expertise, asks them why any average housewife couldn’t just pull together a bunch of groceries and be an artist, too. Outraged, Mr. Hayward replies, “I will be the one to decide whether it’s good or bad,” suggesting that it is the critic who defines an artist’s work, not the artist. He then applies clichéd, superfluous artspeak to each of Mary’s pieces (sometimes in rhyme), and proclaims that all of them represent a “subconscious hatred of men.”

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Mary gets fed up with the lines she’s being fed by Hayward, and tells him off once and for all on live TV. The wool pulled from her eyes, she realizes how foolish she was to have followed this false prophet, and it’s a triumph for regular, honest people everywhere.

Even Eva feels vindicated, realizing that conceptual art is a sham and no longer poses a threat to her career as a representational painter. In a final symbolic act, however, Mary’s husband Lester (Hal Williams) throws Eva’s latest gaudy canvas out the front door when he finds it hanging in their bedroom. The moment recalls the closing shot in the 1982 film “Poltergeist,” as the protagonists, having escaped being terrorized by ghosts from their television set, shove the TV in their makeshift hotel room out onto the veranda. Liberated from the cause of their problems, things can now finally get back to normal.

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