From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Movie Retrospective: Troubled Artists - Basquiat

Eary in the film Basquiat, Michael Wincott as poet/artist/writer Rene Ricard makes the observation that nobody wants to miss being the person who discovers the next Picasso. Artists are so rarely recognized at the time they are working, as the truly successful ones are breaking new ground. It's only after time, when people have had the opportunity to think about what an artist was trying to accomplish, that we can say this person or that person was doing great things artistically. It's also when we start to see the people an artist has influenced, and how new artists try to make a particular style their own.

It's in this mold that director Julian Schnabel tells us the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jean-Michel was a burgeoning young graffiti artist living in a cardboard box in a park in New York City in the 1970's. All over the city, Basquiat would paint his observations about the world, tagging his work with his pseudonym of Samo. Ricard happened upon Basquiat and wrote a piece about him Artforum Magazine. From there, Basquiat shot to the forefront of the art scene, becoming a very successful contemporary of Andy Warhol. However, Jean-Michel's success could not quiet the demons inside of him. He was forever haunted by a mother who had mental problems, and was subsequently institutionalized. And he bore the burden of many great artists: addiction. He died from a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 26.

The film Basquiat was a wonderfully low key film debut for Schnabel. In this film, we get a real insight into what the art scene was like in NY in the early 80's. One of the more noteworthy supporting performances in the film is turned in by David Bowie as Andy Warhol. Bowie actually wore some of Warhol's wigs during the shoot, and it's almost as though the spirit of Warhol seeped into his brain. Wincott also has a really solid turn as Ricard. It's clear that Ricard is tortured by the fact that he will never be as talented an artist as those that he writes about. Even as he takes pride in discovering Jean-Michel, he anguishes over being left behind.

But the real force behind the movie is Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat. Wright, a multiple Tony award winner for Angels in America and Bring in the Noise, Bring in Da Funk, is a real joy as Jean-Michel. He is a truly tortured individual. There are moments where he shows real humanity in his love for his girlfriend Gina Cardinale (played by Claire Forlani). Gina is a fictional creation for the story, but she is symbolic of the conflict in Jean-Michel. There's no doubt that Jean-Michel loves her. But being a very visceral creature, he can not resist the temptations new experiences can bring him, whether it is the high of heroin, or the allure of a strange woman (in this case, a woman he refers to as Big Pink, played by Courtney Love, with whom he has an affair).

There's also at his heart a large measure of self loathing that lurks within Basquiat. There are fears that the same madness that afflicts his mother may lie within himself. And he also conflicted by the blatent hypocrisy that is all around him. Many of the affluent upper class art snobs who simply must have his work as the next "big thing" are the same people who wouldn't look at him twice when he was living in a box in the park, both because of his poverty, and his skin color. There's a very interesting scene in a fancy restaurant late in the film that tells you everything you need to know about Jean-Michel's character. It also makes a sharp commentary about the world he lived in, a world that sadly hasn't grown that much in the almost 20 years since.

This is a wonderful movie to check out for some really great character performances. Wright and Bowie would be worth the price of rental or admission alone, but Forlani is also sold as Gina. Wincott gives a very interesting change of pace from his usual work as criminal heavies. He's a character actor I wish I saw more of. And the man has a really powerful voice. It's something you hear and he has your attention right away.

Tomorrow: Pollack starring Ed Harris.