An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part Three)

Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper in ‘Basquiat’ (1996)

The battle for self-expression and the yearning that artists have, within themselves, to place their thoughts, their feelings — indeed, their very soul and essence — onto sculpture or canvas can be an all-consuming endeavor. How does one convey that which is so deeply felt, that internal longing to break free of one’s physical confines, and perpetuate a moment in time?

That is what transforms the merely good artists into truly great ones. But the quest to achieve that end can only lead to personal sacrifice. Sometimes, the sacrifice can be to one’s mental state; at other times, it can mean giving up one’s corporal ability to create; and still others may have to forgo their very lives for their art.

That is the price, to put it plainly, for artistic immortality.

Basquiat (1996)

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to middle-class comfort. Upon quitting high school, he lived and worked on the Lower East Side — literally, in the streets — during the height and rediscovery of graffiti art and its equally viable cousins, street art and visual art.

His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He was fluent in several languages, including French and Spanish. He rose to fleeting fame and fortune among the glitterati, as his participation in a highly publicized 1980 “Times Square Show” would make known. Yet he experienced a precipitous fall, as well as an early death, at age 27, in 1988 of a drug overdose.

His all-too-limited but event-filled life and career became the subject of the biopic Basquiat (1996). Did you say, “Suffering for his art?” Indeed we did! And Basquiat was a walking, talking textbook example of the suffering artist in form, shape, substance, and style. But did he SUFFER for his art? That’s a good question! According to Art History: The View from the West, Volume Two, “Although he was untrained and wanted to make ‘paintings that look as if they were made by a child,’ Basquiat was a sophisticated artist. He carefully studied the Abstract Expressionists, the late paintings of Picasso, and [the work of] Dubuffet, among others.”

The film that was based on his art and life starred the equally young and charismatic Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, The Hunger Games, Only Lovers Left Alive, and HBO’s Westworld), who gives a remarkable performance as the titular soft-spoken artiste. Wright is soooo good in the role that one quickly forgets that he is acting a part: we get to dislike, and almost hate, his self-destructive behavior as well as his imprudent lifestyle and damaging personal relationships.

A young Jeffrey Wright as the equally youthful Jean-Michel Basquiat in ‘Basquiat’

In fact, thirty years after Basquiat’s death an article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The Enigma of the Man Behind the $110 Million Painting.” The subtitle of the piece posed the question: “Was Basquiat an artist, an art star, or just a celebrity?” We are still struggling with those labels to this day!

Since Basquiat’s untimely passing, the article goes on to state, the price for his works has “climbed steadily upward,” but that few of those “in the know” can explain its worth as art, or what exactly makes his art so valuable. The early fascination with his paintings and the undue praise heaped upon them has been deemed an over-exaggeration; that their childlike scribbling and so-called “primitivism” inaccurately (or unfairly) reflected the true substance and quality of the youth who created them.

Basquiat’s canvases, the author of the article Stephen Metcalf suggests, “were made by a young man, barely out of his teens, who never lost a teenager’s contempt for respectability. Trying to assert art-historical importance on the paintings’ behalf, a critic comes up against their obvious lack of self-importance. Next to their louche irreverence, the language surrounding them has felt clumsy and overwrought from the beginning. What little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. We have had a hard time making these two go together easily. But so did he.”

Love it or loathe it, Metcalf’s harsh but earnest assessment of the artist’s work came many years after Basquiat’s East Village heyday. While providing some retrospective value, apart from this piece we must look closely at the film itself, which was made not eight years after Basquiat’s demise by one who knew him personally: director and co-writer Julian Schnabel. In doing so, we are faced with a decision: whether Basquiat was or was not “the real voice of the gutter,” as one of his many admirers declares; or simply a streetwise black youth who failed to develop his art beyond its nascent state.

Advertisements at the time of the movie’s release hinted that Jean-Michel Basquiat (according to a New Yorker press release) was “this generation’s James Dean.” I’m not so sure that’s an accurate depiction of the man. However, what this semi-fictionalized account seems to do is associate the artist’s fleeting connections to established pros, such as Andy Warhol and his crowd, with his abrupt success.

‘Basquiat’ poster art

In the film, when Warhol dies suddenly after a post-operative procedure to remove his gallbladder, Basquiat’s world starts to fall apart. In truth, let’s say that Basquiat had been doing drugs and freebasing cocaine more-or-less on a routine basis. While living on the edge, Warhol’s passing only pushed Basquiat further over the cliff.

To quote from Metcalf’s perceptive Atlantic article: “after he became famous, Basquiat went, in quick and ghastly succession, from sweet East Village magpie to café-society boor to dead.” The film follows this sad trajectory religiously and to the letter. What it fails to explore, in sum, was Basquiat’s effect on the overall art world; if his peculiar style of street art (one he rejected over time, and also tried to destroy) would result in a school of eager followers.

In real life, Basquiat could barely draw figures accurately. When he turned to fellow black performers (e.g., jazz artists Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) and black athletes as models, the poignancy of his creations could finally be discerned. To equate or contrast what he freely drew with modern masterpieces (for instance, those of Pablo Picasso) does him a disservice. If anything, Basquiat was a uniquely raw talent, albeit a poorly developed one. Perhaps this very poverty inherent in his abilities became the very thing that made his work so accessible to the average Joe.

Directed and co-written by fellow Brooklynite Mr. Schnabel, who was also a painter and innovator and no stranger to the artistic milieu (he, too, profited handsomely from his work), the movie is replete with familiar faces in supporting roles. Among the talents involved are such bona fide scene-stealers as Gary Oldman as Albert Milo (a Schnabel stand-in), Michael Wincott as René Ricard, a fresh-faced Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s friend Benny Dalmau, Claire Forlani as girlfriend Gina Cardinale, Dennis Hopper as art collector Bruno Bischofberger, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, Courtney Love as “Big Pink,” Tatum O’Neal as Cynthia Kruger, and of course the enigmatic David Bowie (wearing an atrociously ill-fitting wig) in a very individualized, fey take on pop-art specialist Andy Warhol, one of Basquiat’s mentors.

On a personal note, I accidentally ran into Warhol himself many years ago, in Midtown Manhattan, during the early-1980s. I remember his hair as stringy and bleached pure white on top; underneath, it was jet black. And Warhol was very tall and thin, with a pasty visage and spindly legs that seemed never to end. That Bowie captured his other-worldly look and distant, faraway gaze is a tribute to the late multi-talented musician.

Pollock (2000)

Marcia Gay Harden & Ed Harris in ‘Pollock’

Similar in content to Basquiat (that is, the rise and fall of a notable, and perversely original, American artist), this warts-and-all portrait of avant-garde painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) is a worthy film effort by first-time director and long-time screen actor Ed Harris.

The bald-pated Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Snowpiercer, HBO’s Westworld), who also starred as the volatile abstract expressionist, spared little in depicting the alcoholic rages of the gifted but deeply flawed, “clinically neurotic” artist.

Pollock developed a spontaneous style of painting known as “drip-technique,” which was variously described as “volcanic” and “full of fire.” He gained fame and a reasonable amount of notoriety in the 1940s for his brash, impulsive approach to modern art. That he took the art world by storm is an understatement. Today, Pollock is considered by many art historians to be an innovative but ultimately tragic figure.

His equally rocky relationships to family (he was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom abandoned him), and especially to the women in his life — among them, his long-suffering wife Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who copped a Best Supporting Actress Award for her role); and art collector and millionaire socialite Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, Harris’ real-life wife) — were fraught with ups and downs and fueled by his exhaustive drinking bouts and manic-depressive mood swings.

Ed Harris as lookalike painter Jackson Pollock

Too, Pollock’s love-hate relationship with friends and close relations is captured in a particularly raucous Thanksgiving Day gathering, where the artist literally explodes with rage as he overturns the dinner table (with turkey and all the trimmings intact). All of which are exclusively captured by Harris and screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller. Jennifer Connelly played one of his lovers, the artist Ruth Kligman.

Pollock was killed in 1956 in a car crash at age 44 near his Long Island home. The crash also took the life of Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger (actress Sally Murphy).

The resultant Pollock project took up more than 10 years of Harris’ life, who immersed himself in the late artist’s painting style and milieu, even down to smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes much favored by Pollock. “Pollock said several times that he couldn’t separate himself from his art,” Harris indicated to Edward Hellmore of The Guardian. “Not knowing much about modern art when I began to read about him, it was much more his persona — his struggles as a human being — that was interesting to me.”

Significantly, Harris was urged by his own father to research the life of Jackson Pollock, who the elder Harris insisted bore a striking resemblance to his son Ed. Harris agreed wholeheartedly and to which we are all indebted. He devoured all the available material, especially the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White. He even took up painting and mimicked Pollock’s drip technique in a studio he had built in his Malibu home.

Ed Harris (as Jackson Pollock) in ‘Pollock’ (2000, directed by Ed Harris) Photo: Photofest/Sony Pictures Classics

Discovering that he and Pollock had a lot in common — TOO much in common, it turned out, which included the imbibing of spirits — Harris made up his mind to not only act in the film but direct it as well. “It wasn’t intended to be my picture,” Harris mused at the time, “but I was so intimate with the material that I didn’t want to hand it over [to someone else].”

In the movie, Pollock’s “desperate need for approval” overwhelmed him at every point. When he finally achieved recognition, he felt even more isolated and desperate. “It wasn’t what he thought it would be,” Harris stressed. Fame is never what it’s cranked up to be!

 Overall, Harris’ film project is the closest we’ve come to fully capturing an artist’s actual working methods and technique. There’s a fascinating scene late in the movie that immortalizes the artist’s surly encounter with filmmaker Hans Namuth (Norbert Weisser), who tries to get Pollock to recreate his style for posterity. Pollock feels inhibited by his presence and is unable to “perform” before the cameras. It’s because of this encounter and Namuth’s resultant “action photo” of Pollock at work (reproduced by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, in 1997, as part of his series “Pictures of Chocolate”) that solidified Pollock’s reputation. 

In the same Art History: A View of the West, Volume Two tome (by University of Kansas Professor of Art History Emerita Marilyn Stokstad), we read that Pollock “experimented with spraying and dripping industrial paints during his studies with [the Mexican muralist David] Siquieros. He was also, according to his wife, a ‘jazz addict’ who would spend hours listening to the explosively improvised bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.” 

In their mutual love of jazz and all things avant-garde, Pollock and Basquiat, although they thrived about thirty years apart, were both very much  of like minds. Another fascinating and somewhat overlooked connection point is the fact that both lead actors, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, appeared together in HBO’s acclaimed sci-fi series Westworld, as the android Bernard Lowe and the mysterious Man in Black, respectively.

Frida (2002)

Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) places his weary head next to that of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) in ‘Frida’

Here is another cinematic biopic (with an appropriate one-word title) in the modern-day trend of presenting celebrated personalities and/or artists from the past as (quote) real people with real-life hang-ups, issues, and other so-called “defects” — to include (among them) bisexuality, alcoholism, slovenliness, and infidelity, along with radically opposing political viewpoints.

Not that any of these defects prevented them from realizing their artistic aims. It’s just that coming as Frida did on the heels of Ed Harris’ Pollock, the life and naïve folk art of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — excellently portrayed on the screen by Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek (of Lebanese descent on her father’s side and a dead ringer for Kahlo); and helmed by veteran opera, theater, and film director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera) — refuses to take wing.

Frida Kahlo & actress Salma Hayek as ‘Frida’ (Photo: Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock)

Produced as well as slaved over by the maverick Ms. Hayek (another bold and fairly historic move on Hollywood’s part) and featuring another of those “all-star” lineup casts, to include the likes of Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, and Roger Rees, the film races along at a breakneck speed in an attempt to cover as much of Frida’s short yet significant artistic and personal life as it possibly can.

Certainly her on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with the womanizing, large-scale mural painter Diego Rivera (a particularly adept Alfred Molina, measurably more handsome than the real-life Rivera was reputed to be), her tryst with notorious Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky (a bespectacled Geoffrey Rush), and her debilitating bus accident and subsequent ill health, are given only as much detail as a two-hour flick can allow.

Meanwhile, Frida sits and paints with her back strapped to a wheelchair. Her paintings and efforts at completing them dissolve, during the course of the picture, into actual scenes depicting major and minor events in her “reel” life.

Painting from life: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

If there is anything going for this fast-and-loose biopic is the fact that Hayek bears an impressive and uncanny resemblance to the real Frida Kahlo. And, yes, the real Frida was a headstrong and driven force of nature — especially where it concerned her art and those numerous self-portraits in differing states of repose and/or native dress. Kahlo created a hugely individual style with little to no connection to Western European ideas or to the prevailing (at the time) Modernist trend.

Of late, the movie has achieved a significant degree of controversy chiefly for its distributor, Miramax, and the man holding the cash bag, Mr. Harvey Weinstein. According to published reports and various accounts, Ms. Hayek had accused Mr. Weinstein of demanding sexual favors from her in order to put up the financing her picture required. One of those demands involved a full-frontal nude sex scene with another woman (the aforementioned Ms. Judd). For his part, Weinstein has denied the accusations, although he only came through with the theatrical release upon the scene being filmed.

Another sex scene, this time involving Ms. Hayek as Frida and Mr. Rush as the nervous Trotsky, was purportedly inserted posthaste into the drama, but as part of the initial screenplay. In this instance, Kahlo’s bisexuality has stood in direct contrast to the alleged facts as they were known to have occurred. That Frida’s art thrived, despite the fact she was a woman invading and partaking in a so-termed “male profession,” stands as a tribute to her tenacity and fierce determination.

In comparison to the mixed heritage of Jean-Michael Basquiat, Frida Kahlo was born “of a German father and a part-indigenous Mexican mother,” which gave her work a distinctive footprint in both cultures. To quote once more from the thoroughly exhaustive and well-documented Art History: A View from the West, Volume Two, “The value of Kahlo’s art, apart from its memorable self-expression, lies in how it investigates and lays bare larger issues of identity.”

Scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal (Ms. Taymor’s real-life husband), the concluding song, “Burn It Blue,” is performed by Brazilian songwriter and singer Caetano Veloso and Mexican-American singer-actress Lila Downs. Edward Norton, who plays a rather low-key Nelson Rockefeller, another art-loving financier who has the dubious honor of having destroyed Diego Rivera’s monumental Rockefeller Center-based mural, also contributed unofficially to the screenplay.

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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