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“Around the hero everything turns into a tragedy,” wrote Nietzsche; “around the demi-god, into a satyr play.” To which the contemporary filmgoer might add, “around Andy Warhol, into a scene movie.” That’s the suggestion of I Shot Andy Warhol and now Basquiat, films as slick, amusing, and blank as the old Factory foreman himself.
Basquiat contains much to annoy friends of graffitist-turned-painter Jean Michel Basquiat and enemies of writer/director Julian Schnabel, the painter (second-hand but not always second-rate) turned recording artist (terrible) and now filmmaker (not so bad). Like Warhol, this self-conscious docudrama has a cipher at its center and depends significantly on its colorful supporting characters to sustain interest. Basquiat, a middle-class Brooklyn native of Haitian/Puerto Rican descent, is presented as an unknowable mystery, a notion which is at best lazy and at worst racist condescension. The film is also exceptionally self-serving: It features a benign, happily adjusted painting superstar called Albert Milo, who is Basquiat’s indulgent pal and an affectionate portrait of the director himself. (Schnabel also cast several of his own children, and his camera contemplates many canvases by “Milo” and Basquiat—painted by Schnabel.) Those who aren’t put off by one egotist celebrating another, however, should find the film a trendy hoot.
Colorful, kinetic, and crammed with music, Basquiat echoes not only Warhol but also such kicky, funny, and glib subculture romps as Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. (Schnabel refrains from depicting the needle, but Basquiat did die of a heroin overdose.) The film shares with Warhol a historically apt soundtrack composer (ex-Velvet John Cale), and with Trainspotting a song (Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”). Placing the viewer in the midst of a heady, happening environment, it makes the money-glutted New York art world of the mid-’80s seem as freewheeling (and as mythic) as the swinging London of A Hard Day’s Night.
The events are exemplary of the place and period: Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) lives in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park and works (indifferently) at various odd jobs. Poet and critic Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) sees one of the 21-year-old graffiti artist’s paintings and decides he’s located a star. Soon everyone from art dealers and curators Bruno Bischofberger, Annina Nosei, Mary Boone, and Henry Geldzahler (Dennis Hopper, Elina Löwensohn, Parker Posey, and Paul Bartel) to art stars Albert Milo and Andy Warhol (Gary Oldman and David Bowie) agrees. Either overwhelmed by the attention or coolly calculating—the film suggests both—Basquiat abandons his old pal Benny (Usual Suspect Benicio Del Toro) and his long-suffering girlfriend, Gina (Claire Forlani, looking much more downtown than in Mallrats). But Basquiat can’t figure out who his true friends are, and has an insatiable appetite or a romantic attraction—the film suggests both—for narcotic self-destruction. Soon Warhol is dead, and Basquiat is just waiting for that final title card that will announce his own demise.
Much better than the previous movies by New York art-world phenoms, Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic and David Salle’s Search and Destroy, Basquiat nonetheless is often awkward. Basically, Schnabel’s in trouble whenever he tries to put his protagonist’s inner life on the screen—a flashback to Basquiat’s mother crying over Guernica, a fairy tale about an imprisoned boy prince, a surfer motif that embodies Basquiat’s desire to escape, perhaps to Hawaii. The film is more believable when it sticks to surfaces, especially since Basquiat apparently followed Warhol in erecting a psychological screen to prevent self-revelation. Wright’s charismatic depiction of Basquiat captures the eternal appeal of the young-tortured-artist shtick, while Bowie’s Warhol, though not literally convincing, incarnates the spirit of the pop icon’s knowing gamesmanship.
If Basquiat’s growing discomfort was evident to his associates, you’d never know it from Schnabel and Wright’s portrait; in this film, he seems to go merely from being a poor brat to a rich one. The director conveys the painter’s shifting mood mostly with music: The film first pulses to the beat of Iggy, Public Image, the Modern Lovers, and the Rolling Stones, then incorporates more jazz, and finally enlists several Tom Waits songs and John Cale’s elegiac reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” a possible alternate title for the film, is heard at the beginning and the end.)
It’s not quite clear why Schnabel wants to see Basquiat’s brief life as a fairy tale; perhaps it’s simply to elude the responsibilities of a historian. As with I Shot Andy Warhol, though, the milieu is more beguiling than the character who escorts the observer into it. Though some of the cameos are merely distracting (take Courtney Love—please), the heady, hothouse atmosphere is the whole point. Such an approach seemed acceptable with Warhol’s borderline heroine, Valerie Solanas, who was never anything more than a footnote. If it’s unfair to Basquiat, Schnabel hardly seems the guy who’d notice.
At the beginning of Manny & Lo, the title characters—two orphaned sisters on the run from their respective foster homes—awake in what they assumed the night before was a forest. In the light of day, it turns out to be the edge of a well-manicured suburban subdivision, where an enraged homeowner demands they get their station wagon off his grass. The two girls subsequently engage in shoplifting, breaking-and-entering, and a spot of kidnapping, but this desecration of the sacred lawn turns out to be just about the most seditious thing writer/director Lisa Krueger can imagine.
For awhile, it seems that Manny & Lo could go either way—blazing forward toward a sustained critique of the alienation of suburban childhood or sneaking backward to a cozy simulation of nuclear-family contentment. In retrospect, though, this congenial film’s options aren’t that open. Of the two sisters, 11-year-old Manny (Scarlett Johansson) is clearly meant to be more sensible and mature than 16-year-old Lo (Aleksa Palladino). (One clue: Lo dances to hardcore punk.) When Manny allows—to the audience in voiceover, not to her hotheaded sister—that she didn’t think her foster family was so bad, it’s clear that she’d be happy to encounter a new surrogate mom.
That’s just what happens, although in a rather convoluted way. Too late to have an abortion, Lo finally admits that she’s pregnant and decides to lay low till after the birth. (The apparent father gets a moment of screen time, which is more than is accorded the girls’ father, who goes unmentioned.) The two sisters abandon their mobile lifestyle, with its occasional stopovers at model homes, for temporary residence at a vacation cabin (in a real forest) they don’t expect to be visited for months. Bored with the house’s selection of commercial videotapes, they decide to view a homemade one, which turns out to document the birth of the cabin-owners’ daughter. Shocked at what she sees, Lo reassesses her ability to deliver the baby without assistance. It’s Manny who selects the potential midwife, a prissy know-it-all who works in a nearby baby-paraphernalia store, always dressed as a nurse.
Of course, Elaine (Mary Kay Place) is just as lonely in her way as Manny and Lo. She resists her captors at first, but her long-frustrated maternal instincts win out, especially when she discovers that Lo is pregnant. Soon, Elaine is hobbling around the kitchen, her legs still tied together, making “balanced meals” for the girls, who have subsisted previously on junk pastries and cold cereal. She insists on calling her new wards by their given names, Amanda and Laurel, but is prepared to go beyond the standards of propriety to defend them. When the cabin’s owner shows up, it’s Elaine who takes care of the problem.
As quietly desperate as Lo is loudly irascible, Place’s Elaine is an odd enough presence to suggest that Manny & Lo won’t submit to a routine happy ending. Eventually, though, Krueger makes everything as tidy as Elaine’s white nurse’s dress, which stays clean for the entire time she’s kept in captivity. Manny and Elaine bond, and together they take care of the troublesome Lo. This cozy resolution suits Manny and Elaine so truly that the film might as well have been named for them. Though it’s Lo’s actions that spark the film, her rebellious spirit is ultimately shortchanged.CP