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

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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Kelsey Grammer and John Rubinstein in “Frasier”

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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.

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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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TUXEDOS & FUR COATS: Sartorial Status Symbols in “Family Ties” and “Color Me Blood Red”

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The art world is fancy. It’s a place where tens of thousands of dollars can change hands in a single transaction. It is only fitting, then, that the hands making these exchanges should first pass through luxurious sleeves of fox fur.

Such sleeves are on display in a 1982 episode of the television show Family Ties, in which Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) organizes an art auction fundraiser. Sponsoring the event is “one of the biggest art dealers in the Midwest,” Victoria Hurstenburg (Christine Belford). In fact, “the Hurstenburg name is virtually synonymous with fine art and culture.”

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Victoria arrives at the Keaton house wearing a full-length fur coat, a stark contrast to the casual flannels worn by Elyse and Steven. She is there to deliver some paintings for the auction (which she carries unwrapped, under her arm, like a stack of library books), but she abandons them on the kitchen counter when she notices a sculpture by Mallory’s boyfriend Nick. The piece, which prompts obvious distaste from everyone else, impresses Victoria so much that she purchases it from the auction, herself.

When she asks to see the rest of Nick’s sculptures, the show apparently has no budget to build another set for his studio, so he brings everything over to the Keaton household. Victoria arrives wearing another fur coat and a black, sequined evening dress. Using words like “primitive,” “crude” and “bordering on offensive” to describe his work, she actually intends this as praise, because art people are weird. So excited by Nick’s talent (and handsomeness), she offers to “open a few doors” for him, with the promise of causing “a real stir” in the art world.

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True to her word, Victoria curates Nick into an exhibition in town. At the opening, one of the gallery attendants wears, not only a tuxedo, but also a top hat (the height of fancy). Mallory shows up to spy on him and becomes involved in an awkward conversation with one of the guests. A total outsider, she clearly doesn’t know anything about the show she is attending, and ultimately rationalizes her presence by explaining that one of the artists used to be her camp counselor, and then she accidentally knocks over one of the sculptures.

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Earlier instances of the wardrobe cues from art world power players can found in the 1965 splatter film Color Me Blood Red.  In the opening shot, an art dealer named Farnsworth (Scott H. Hall) burns a painting from his gallery while wearing a tuxedo (he wears a tuxedo almost all the time). We eventually learn that he is destroying the evidence left behind by a homicidal painter named Adam Sorg (Gordan Oas-Heim). Though Sorg enjoyed a loyal following in the Sarasota, Florida art scene, one thing stood in his way of earning the respect of the town’s discerning art critic: his unsophisticated use of the color red. So he began murdering people and using their blood as paint.

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The melodrama of the situation corresponds to the film’s cartoonish portrayal of the gallery system, and Farnsworth’s gallery actually resembles to a community theater. There is even a stage at the back of the space and, for a classy touch, a red carpet cuts through the center of the room. Folding chairs are positioned in front of the paintings so patrons can relax as they admire them (and since most of the attendees appear to be over the age of 65, the chairs are put to good use). It’s understandable, though, as anyone would tire from viewing the over-hung show while standing up (there are so many paintings, that some of them sit on the floor, leaning against the wall). As for the art, Sorg’s style is all over the place, ranging from floating monster heads to Mondrian rip-offs, giving the impression that the film’s producers scavenged the canvases from an art school dumpster.

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At Sorg’s big opening, Farnsworth can be found up on the stage (in tuxedo), joined by two large houseplants and the town’s local art critic, Gregorovich (William Harris). The critic sits with  a foot-long cigarette holder and delivers live, onsite critiques of the artwork. He also wears a beret, a typical accessory of intellectual or artsy figures in cinema and television. Sorg, who is always angry and has a reputation as a bad-boy art star, shows up late, with paint on his clothes and wearing sneakers. He also carries a cigarette holder (though it is not as long as Gregorovich’s), and whispers nasty things to his admirers.

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Even though these people live in Florida, the emblematic fur coat is once again paraded about by several of the gallery-goers. This gives us a visual cue to their wealth, but we can also tell that they are interested in the latest trends in contemporary art because they say things like, “It’s quite a thing to own a Sorg painting—he’s most fashionable!” One fur-clad collector, in particular, wants so badly to have one that she seems willing to pay any price. At first scoffing at Farnsworth’s $15,000 quote for a painting of a woman getting stabbed in the face, her good taste quickly wins over and… Sold!

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Real life artist David Hammons appropriated the fur coat as a means of social commentary in 2007. Hammons, himself, contacted an elite gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, L&M Arts, proposing to put on an exhibition. It was an unusual gesture, given his resistance to the commercial gallery system, but he kept the actual concept a secret until the installation. The show, on which Hammons collaborated with his wife Chie, was comprised of six lavishly expensive, full-length fur coats on antique dress forms. The backs of the coats had been burned with a blowtorch or streaked with brightly colored paint. The implication was surely not a celebration of these symbols of decadence. Instead, Hammons shone a harsh light on the glaring divide between wealthy patrons who flaunt tactless displays of affluence, and the strife of the powerless (both in and out of the art world). And despite the gross exaggerations of art world dynamics by the entertainment industry, those clichés come from somewhere, after all.

Slaves of New York (1989)

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Slaves of New York is the movie people watch right before voting to eliminate the arts from public schools. Nearly every art world figure is depicted as a narcissistic, jealous, backstabbing weasel (imagine if Melrose Place were about a bunch of artists living in New York). In fact, the plot seems to have been fashioned after a soap opera, and involves so many love triangles that it’s difficult to keep them straight.

The sole redeemable personality in the film is a hat maker named Eleanor (Bernadette Peters). She is the ego to the id of her art world counterparts, patiently absorbing constant mistreatment by her “famous” painter boyfriend, Stash (Adam Coleman Howard). A bit of an ingénue, she is the only character who doesn’t use others to get ahead, but she eventually gets her big break from a fashion designer played by Steve Buscemi.

Everyone else in Eleanor’s social circle is absolutely tactless. When she goes to a party, for instance, one of the hosts (a sculptor) asks her to ask Stash to ask his gallery to look at his work. It takes him less than a minute after meeting her to ask this, and he does so more than once. Another artist named Marley introduces himself to Eleanor (while she is at work) by taking off his shoes and asking her to check him for athlete’s foot. He then pesters her to pose nude for one of his paintings.

Later, during a meeting with his dealer, Marley brings in some new pieces with names like “Ode to Hero of the Future, No. 5.” He then delivers a monologue about heroism in the times of antiquity, and how there were real guys back then, like him. His dealer, Ginger (Mary Beth Hurt), can be identified by her asymmetrical haircut and chunky designer glasses. Establishing her position of power in the relationship, Ginger picks up the “weakest” of the works Marley has brought to her, and throws it on the floor. “Actually,” she adds, “it’s no good at all.”

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Ginger then instructs him not to forget about his meeting with a big collector, and reminds him that he likes artists with big appetites. The collector, Chuck Day Dolger (John Harkins), is a wealthy, round man who invites artists to his home for brunch, pressuring them to eat copious amounts of food. His exaggerated hospitality is a means for him to perpetuate the “starving artist” myth and establish his importance as the provider. He even teases Marley about the possibility of buying one of his paintings, and then haggles about the prices, scrutinizing his slide sheets over biscuit-filled plates.

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Marley is, himself, a total narcissist who won’t stop talking about his plans to build a chapel in Rome, dedicated to “Christ as a woman.” When his friend Sherman is trying to show him a new painting during a studio visit (at which caviar is eaten), Marley changes the subject and announces that he “might be in the Biennale.” Sherman becomes so jealous, that he threatens to quit painting and then throws himself down on a broken recliner that collapses (there are three scenes in the film in which chairs break when people sit in them). Marley is also sleeping with Sherman’s girlfriend, but then dumps her, after which she asks him to show her slides to his gallery. Practically the only time everyone seems to be getting along is when they play softball together, and even Stash’s art dealer, Victor, is on the team (all art dealers in movies from the ‘80s were named Victor).

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Stash is the story’s most successful artist character, and throws the most temper tantrums. His paintings consist mostly of borrowed imagery from the classic cartoon Popeye, and women in evening gowns can be seen leaning against them at his gallery reception. Collector Chuck Dolger demonstrates what a high roller he is by showing up to the opening in a limo, drinking champagne in the backseat with two female companions. And some of the guests wear leather jackets that get tagged by dudes with big markers (because that happens?).

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Batman: Season 2, Episodes 91 & 92: “Pop Goes the Joker” & “Flop Goes the Joker” (1967)

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The  storyline of these two episodes begins with the Joker (Cesar Romero) bursting into a gallery opening for “beloved American artist” Oliver Muzzy. Barely looking at the pastoral landscape paintings (and a token Grant Wood knock-off) he declares it all “an outrage” and “an insult to art” and begins spraying everything with paint guns. Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) attempt to apprehend him, but instead of pressing charges, Muzzy praises the Joker’s intervention, exclaiming “I have been trying to paint this modern stuff for years!” Thus the Joker creates for himself a kind of political graffiti artist persona with a superficial Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. “Holy hoaxes!” adds Robin.

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The Joker, whose work is by definition a joke, has apparently fooled the entire local art scene with his stunt, and is invited to compete in the Gotham City International Art Contest. The competition, organized by wealthy young socialite Baby Jane Towser (Diana Ivarson), is like a forecasting of Bravo’s reality TV show Work of Art, though these participants are already “world famous.”

Five artists with names like Jackson Potluck and Leonardo Davinsky (painter of the famous fresco “Midnight Snack”) are given three minutes to complete a painting. Their techniques make use of the obvious Action Painter one-liners as one contestant splashes paint from buckets onto his canvas and another trains his pet monkey to throw paint balls at his.

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Yet another uses his body as a human paint roller, first dipping himself in a wheelbarrow full of paint. The judges describe the results as a “fine example of Neo-realism,” making reference to the Nouveau réalisme movement, characterized by the work of Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman and others. In 1960 Klein staged a piece entitled “Anthropométries de l’Epoque bleue” (Anthropometries of the Blue Period), in which three nude models covered themselves in blue paint and then left their body prints on sheets of paper.

A contestant named Vincent Van Gauche, on the other hand, seems to channel Irish painter and writer Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy and painted with his left foot. While Brown used a brush, Van Gauche applies the paint directly with his feet, and the audience finds it all hilarious.

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The Joker paints nothing, and only gesticulates flamboyantly with a brush in front of his easel. He titles his work “Death of a Mauve Bat” and explains that the bat is dead, and died in 1936 (“a very bad year for bats”). Fooling everyone once again, the panelists decide that the piece is symbolic of the emptiness of modern life (“What else?”) and Baby Jane declares him the winner.

After his victory, the Joker announces he is opening a new school where he will instruct his students personally on “the secrets of modern art.” He makes it clear that his school is for “millionaires only,” shifting the plot into an allegory for the high-cost MFA industry. One difference between this institution and today’s pedigree art programs is that there is no rigorous application process for those wishing to enroll, as long as they are wealthy.

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The Joker later reveals his ulterior motives:  he intends to hold his pupils hostage and demand a pricy ransom from their parents (is this sounding familiar?). Millionaire Bruce Wayne is a student at the school and succeeds in foiling the plan with Robin’s help, but the ever-persuasive Joker yet again manages to talk his way out of any legal consequences (“I’m an artist”).

The Joker, now a bad boy art star, relentlessly spouts clichéd artspeak tropes, such as “out with the old; in with the new” as justification for his non-stop destruction of other people’s property. He is a childish vandal and loyal to no one, destroying Baby Jane’s dining room table, for example, and then fancy-talking his way into being taken seriously as an artist.

This concept that the purveyors of modern abstract art are evil and cannot be trusted is a common theme in the entertainment industry (see Steven Berkoff’s character in Beverly Hills Cop or Terrance Stamp’s role in Legal Eagles). They are often portrayed as possessing great power, and though he is literally a clown and a con man, nearly everyone succumbs to the Joker’s charisma. So eager they are to belong to an elite class of the cultured and contemporary, it is only when he ties up his protégés at gunpoint that they even get upset.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

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Eddie Murphy plays Detroit cop Axel Foley, who sets out for Beverly Hills to investigate the murder of his best friend, Mikey. The hunt leads him to Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), purportedly one of the top art dealers in the United States and owner of the “world famous” Hollis Benton Gallery.

We never learn who Hollis and Benton are, but the gallery that bears their names resembles a cross between a hotel lobby, a gift shop and a bar (it has a bar). Axel’s childhood friend Jenny is the gallery director and she has a sassy assistant named Serge (Bronson Pinchot). Serge, who has an exaggerated but indiscernible accent, berates his colleague for showing too much chest hair (“it’s not sexy”), and offers clients a cocktail or an espresso with a lemon twist (did I mention this gallery has a bar?).

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Among the art inside the gallery are brightly colored paintings of classical, statuesque figures, surrounded by jagged zig-zags. In the center of the (carpeted!) space is a white dining room table with plaster figurative sculptures à la George Segal seated around it, and dummy heads on rotating plates in front of them. The stairs at the entrance are flanked by random ceramic pots that don’t appear to have anything to do with anything.

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We soon learn that big shot art dealer Victor Maitland is evil, of course, and is responsible for Mikey’s death (as well as being a drug smuggler). He is the epitome of entitlement and corruption, and seethes contempt from his very first appearance. Sitting in his art-filled office (wearing a tie and a bathrobe at the same time), he summons a staff of half a dozen goons to do his dirty work.

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The art in Beverly Hills Cop is equally unfriendly. Most of it looks like stylized mannequins, a misinterpretation of the Assemblage movement, with a dated ’80s look. All of it is portrayed as weird and alien—the bizarre fetish of a wealthy sociopath. Indeed, the abstract paintings on Maitland’s walls seem to carry the same malevolence as his cronies (one of the canvases is even shot during a gunfight).

Foley, who is Maitland’s antithesis, appears skeptical and uneasy of the art he encounters from the beginning. He only warms up to a sculpture of a woman long enough to pinch her breast. This personality clash is common in Hollywood depictions of the art world. The honest, blue-collar man becomes a fish out of water when he sets foot in the gallery (see Tom Cruise’s character in the 1988 film Cocktail, for instance), merely putting up with the artworks as long as the situation requires.

It’s an easy ploy, as contemporary art’s reputation for being opaque and difficult is partly what makes it the commodity of the elite. Claiming to understand it functions as another status symbol. If only someone would make an action film about legislators trying to defund the arts in our schools, ultimately foiled by an adjunct art teacher with a heart of gold…

A Perfect Murder (1998)

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David Shaw (Viggo Mortenson) is a “painter” who is having an affair with Emily Taylor (Gwyneth Paltrow), the wealthy wife of an even wealthier industrialist (Michael Douglas). Shaw is said to be “not half bad with a brush” although his work seems to consist mainly of large format black and white photographs to which he does something expressive, such as splattering them with paint or covering them with brightly colored tape. You may remember this kind of thing from tenth grade—like a teenager searching for something to say, he is simply indulging in what he finds visually pleasing (i.e., pictures of his girlfriend). Going through the motions of what he thinks an artist is supposed to do, he decorates the photos with various art supplies, ultimately adding nothing.

As it turns out, many of the artworks seen in the film are Mortensen’s own, and he has had gallery shows in Santa Monica and New York City, among other places. He is also a poet in real life, which may account for trite phrases such as “altar every soul” (sic) randomly juxtaposed over Shaw’s pictures.

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Unlike Mortensen, the character he portrays appears to have some level of art world recognition. An early scene in the film takes place at the Met Museum during a black-tie gala, where he is conversing with some of the guests. As the camera approaches, a man in a tuxedo is in the middle of saying, “…the bulk of the temple’s hieroglyphics are supplications to the gods of fertility.” For some reason, this rambling prompts the woman next to him to exclaim breathily, “I do believe I know his work!” and then suggests a studio visit. At this point Shaw notices the object of his affection has entered the room and he wanders away, affirming he is a true romantic and values love more than a potential sale or the attention of stuffy socialites.

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Shaw’s studio is in fact a massive live-work space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Though raw and unfinished (the bath tub is in the middle of the floor), it appears to be at least 5,000 square feet. Even in 1998, this kind of real estate would have surely been prohibitively expensive for an artist who shows with “a couple of small galleries” that carry him “when there’s space.” Of course we find out later that (spoiler alert) he is actually a con man who steals from his wealthy lovers and then skips town, because artists are dirty and dishonest and could never make a living the way decent people do.

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