Art is Dangerous

A dead painter wreaks havoc on the L.A. art scene in Netflix’s satirical thriller Velvet Buzzsaw

For some reason, while I was watching the new Netflix movie Velvet Buzzsaw, the opening words of William Carlos Williams’ great poem “To Elsie” suddenly sprang to mind: “The pure products of America go crazy,” Williams writes, later laying down the devastating lines, “as if the earth under our feet were an excrement of some sky / and we degraded prisoners destined to hunger until we eat filth.”

The veiled Marxism of Williams’ poem — a lament about the commodification of simply everything under the sun — carries a deeper spiritual truth: We moderns have become so detached from life that the empty products and false idols we worship will come back to destroy us in an act of millennial revenge.

Certainly there’s an element of vengeance, albeit otherworldly, in Velvet Buzzsaw, a strange and delightful film that is equal parts social satire and B-grade supernatural splatter-fest. On its surface, the movie, which was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, takes the same joy in goosing the Los Angeles art world that Robert Altman’s The Player took in flogging Hollywood. In both films we behold a nasty swirl of snarky, stylish trendsetters whose insider wheedling has emptied art of all content save its financial value.

“It’s so much easier talking about money than art,” says Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), an art dealer whose punk-rock past is receding in the rearview mirror of her own integrity. When her assistant, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), discovers the brilliant and haunting paintings left behind by a deceased tenant in her apartment building, the whole art world of L.A. is overturned: The obscure artist, Vetril Dease, left instructions that his art was to be destroyed upon his death, but that is the last thing Haze and her like — including the mincing art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) and competing dealer Gretchen (Toni Collette) — are going to do.

As the world goes gaga over Dease’s paintings — phantasmal portraits of human misery that look like Edward Hopper run through Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch — each participant in his posthumous exploitation falls victim to a form of haunting, a curse that is hallucinatory at first, but increasingly murderous as things progress. What begins as a scathing spoof on the soulless debauchery and greed of the art world becomes, in the end, a horror thriller, and a not particularly nice one.

Two polar extremes are at work in Velvet Buzzsaw, both having to do with art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as Walter Benjamin termed it: On the one hand, the movie pillories the way art, removed from the process of its immediate creation, becomes an artifact that is rendered more and more meaningless by the forces that appropriate it, be those forces money or fame or status; at the same time, a countervailing — but no less destructive — force seeks to elevate the artist to celebrity, by peeking into every dark cranny of his life.

Velvet Buzzsaw has great fun with all of this. The cinematography of Robert Elswit is gorgeous, kaleidoscopic camp that twists and turns like a funhouse of exploding colors. The cast, of course, is excellent, and the writing is sharp, if at times a bit obvious in its barbs. No doubt it’s a flawed movie — at times, it feels like a crazy tug-of-war between Roger Corman and Guillermo del Toro — but even its faults speak to the depths of its wild ambitions.

At the quiet center of this madness stands John Malkovich as Piers, the embittered alcoholic painter whose own talent has dried up under the insidious pressures of the marketplace. Untouched but not unmoved by the paintings of Dease, Piers struggles the whole film to get back to the source of his creativity. And the casual, liberated beauty of Malkovich’s final scene suggests that, just maybe, any work of art removed from the act of creation is just a dead artifact — a mummified testament to our inability to really and truly exist in the ether of each passing moment.

Perhaps, in the end, museum is just another word for mausoleum.

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