Hollywood doesn’t often get art right. From The Agony and the Ecstasy, about Michelangelo yelling at the pope, to Lust for Life and its martyrdom of Vincent van Gogh, to Velvet Buzzsaw, which features Jake Gyllenhaal as a mean L.A. critic — a character supposedly based on me — most films about the art world seem to be made by a bunch of dramatizing romantics acting out what they think it is to be an artist. Maybe it’s because being an artist is such an internal, private thing. How do objects interact with one’s times? What is the role of talent, luck, drive, jealousy, and lifestyle? Most movies about artists seem fake to anyone in the art world. It may come as no surprise, then, that the three best movies about the mysteries of the creative process and a life lived in art were all made by the painter Julian Schnabel. Those movies are Before Night Falls, which tells the story of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas; At Eternity’s Gate, the only film about van Gogh worth watching because it’s about making art and not twisted myths about suffering; and, best of all, Basquiat.
This last film is set in New York City in a moment of paradigm shift: between Basquiat waking up in a cardboard box in the Tompkins Square Park of the late 1970s and 1988, the year he overdosed on heroin and died. By then, he was the most famous artist, perhaps, of the late 20th century. Basquiat perfectly captures the actual making of art, the experience of painting in your studio alone after midnight, walking the streets of New York filled with ambition, and having a coven of like-minded artists who stay up late every night with one another, argue till dawn, break up forever and then decide to go to Coney Island the next day. As a wannabe nobody, I was at the packed Mary Boone Basquiat show in 1985. I didn’t know what I was witnessing, only that the terms of being alive were shifting right in front of me.
I used to see Basquiat on his little collapsible bicycle pedaling around downtown, his dreads standing up and out. It was a radiant yet terrifying sight: the look of someone who had set themselves free. I’d walk past the studio, just off the Bowery, that he rented from Warhol and see the lights on all night. The density of New York is a co-star of this film. Schnabel gifts us with a vision of downtown as a modern Montmartre teeming with creativity, madness, hardship, and ambition; with people meeting and sleeping with one another, filled with envy at the lives of others, wanting better apartments, resenting jobs, taking drugs because that is what other people did, and you had to do it too to be part of this great, changing molecule. We see New York as a beautiful monster feeding on you, but also feeding you with everything it has ever fed on. The film becomes a documentary of an age, of a way of knowing the world and being human.
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