Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Hidden Gem: Basquiat
Painter turned director Julian Schnabel made an auspicious debut with this 1996 film that announced Jeffrey Wight’s career as a reliable character actor.
Basquiat, as the title implies, retells the life and career of pop/graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat, of course, became one of the most important painters of the latter half of the 20th century. The artist also had a long association with Andy Warhol (played here by David Bowie), and even dated Madonna (they allegedly broke up because she landed on the cover of People, and he felt he was more talented than her) before his sudden death in 1988.
Over the course of the film (and the artist’s career), he struggles in his relationships with women, with a racist art world, and with heroin addiction. Warhol manages to anchor Basquiat’s fragile ego and self-destructive tendencies, though after Warhol’s own death in 1987, the inevitable downward spiral begins.
Both Wright and Bowie give splendid performances here, with the latter channeling Warhol’s aloof disposition and (as revealed in The Andy Warhol Diaries), his own mix of insecurity and calculating penchant for publicity. It probably helps that Warhol and Bowie were friends in real life; the actor even wears one of Warhol’s personal wigs. Wright, similarly, should have snagged an Oscar nomination for his work. For that matter, so should Bowie.
Schnabel’s sense as a visualist shows here, photographing the movie in bright colors akin to the works of Basquiat. He also has an uncanny sense for actors: Christopher Walken, Courtney Love, Tatum O’Neal, Parker Posey, and Gary Oldman all turn up in the film, all in memorable turns.
Much as with The Andy Warhol Diaries, Basquiat pulls back the veil on a man gifted with artistic genius, and the inherent insecurity that talent brings. If a genius brain burns white-hot, how can said genius ever not get burned? No wonder so many artists turn to substance and self-destruction. How else could they get a moment of peace?
We recommend Basquiat for its remarkable performances, and for its astute observations about the mind of a great artist. Jean-Michel Basquiat painted in abstract figures, with bright colors and integrated language and numbers to his work. After seeing this movie, we have some idea as to why.
Streams on Amazon.
Basquiat has great performances, including by Jeffrey Wright, but it’s profoundly ignorant and wrong about key aspects of Basquiat’s life, including his upbringing, his early career, his relationship to other Black and Latinx artists, the hip hop scene, etc. Also, Basquiat reportedly had sex with men, which also doesn’t get explored at all in this film. If you do watch it, also consider several of the very good documentaries about this amazing artist, who lived briefly but blazed quite a trail.
I would add that Warhol latched on to Basquiat under the guise of being a mentor because his own star was fading and he was desperate to keep his 15 minutes going on forever.
Uh, 15 minutes!? What are you talking about?
Warhol was one of the most important artists of the 20th century, with a career that spanned decades. his first gallery show was in 1952 and he was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC three years later. He remained an important and sought after artist until his death, and is still the subject of retrospectives and scholarly work.
Basquiat was a spectacular and prolific painter, but but will never achieve what Warhol did as a result of his untimely death.
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is the largest museum in America dedicated to a single artist. But my favorite Warhol works are elsewhere (Cleveland Museum of Art, for example).
The movie is pretty dull, and he was not a likeable person. A graffiti artist who got lucky.
There are very valid criticisms of that film. Basically it is hagiography, as all Schnabel’s movies seem to be. And how lucky you are to have known him personally (to know whether he was “likeable” or not /s)!
But in saying that he was “graffiti artist who got lucky”, you reveal (unsurprisingly) that you know as little about painting and art history as you do about politics, history, or anything else you choose to opine on, much to the amusement of those who read your posts.
Den: I enjoy reading biographies. He wasn’t universally liked in his heyday either, he had a lot of detractors in the art world when he was active. His personal relationships seemed to suffer because he selfishly took heroin, drank heavily allegedly. From what I read he dumped Madonna because he thought he was more talented than her and got jealous when she was getting recognition.
He didn’t have a very exciting life, just a young guy out on his own painting and playing music, got in with an artistic group and like “quantum” stated Warhol took advantage of him like he did with everyone that he came into contact with.
He was also famously prickly about his work, if people would ask “what’s this about” he’d often reply that if they can’t figure it out then it’s not his problem. But really he painted when he was high and painted quite quickly so he probably didn’t know what they were about either.
As I said in another thread, @SamB, you usually only post to troll. It’s clear you’re deeply unhappy but also you seem to know little about art or Basquiat. He knew quite well what he was painting; he was extraordinarily prolific; his close peers knew how talented he was though the mainstream art world did not at first, and it also mattered that he was Black and Latinx, so they were even less ready to accept or understand what he was doing until he was several years into his career, at which point they latched onto him like harpies; he did have a drug problem, but then so many artists have, so he’s hardly an outlier in that regard; and his work continues not only to have lasting value, but has inspired several generations of artists who followed in his wake in multiple ways.
Kangol2: Unless you knew him personally and was involved in his scene then I’m assuming you only know him through readings and maybe some documentaries. His close friends/girlfriends were wowed by him and claim they felt something extraordinary there but that happens with a lot of friends. They’d hype him up to keep his spirits up, which is fair enough. There were some people who were put off by his race, but that wasn’t the thing that really kept him back. At first he was a little aimless. Painting on pieces of garbage (wood, doors) that he found but he was also in a band Gray with Michael Holman and Vincent Gallo, both of those were more interested in film. Back then the group of “artists” he hung out with were more about doing “everything” rather than specializing in painting or film (Basquiat acted in some small art films too). Eventually his art caught on when people like Debby Harry were buying it off him, but only for a couple hundred bucks per piece. But because he caught the eye of some noteworthy celebrities others started becoming very interested in his work and i believe within a number of months he went from selling pieces for hundreds of dollars, to several thousands. After that he specialized in painting but even at the end of his life he was thinking of doing something else… writing I think.
A lot of people like his work, I don’t think most of his pieces are revolutionary in the ways some people think. It was only later on when he became a “painter” that he started to branch out a bit but to me it seemed more commercial because he new he had to give people what they wanted to buy. In my opinion he lucked into being a painter when he was kinda aimless otherwise, not to say he didn’t inspire others but I wouldn’t hold him up in any great regard. His works will continue to be priced high (too high in my opinion) because of the story around him, and also because he only has a limited amount of good work out there.
Kangol2, take a break from your job of judgmentalism and try, TRY to understand that when people like SamB have opinions… it is THEIR opinion and you become the troll trying to shut down conversations that might help him/her enhance their understanding.
You write as if your opinions are the only valid ones: such an ego! There is more than what is written in your little book. Expand your eduction by listening and trying to understand; that’s education.
@Ronbo, get off your own high horse for a second! I responded to SamB, who usually posts negative responses to everything. I have tried to engage with him and you on here before, for that matter, so I clearly do not think my opinions are the only ones. Pull the pole out of your own tuches before you start going after anyone else.
This movie is not currently available on Amazon.
Basquiat was an untrained, outsider artist whose work was raw, but a bit duplicative. For an untrained artist, his success was phenomenal, clearly aided by Warhol.
The drugs and drink did him in. I have no idea if he was nice or not, but people on drugs and booze rarely are not difficult. I find much of his work to be very interesting, but art is always in the eye of the beholder. Shame he died so young.