Film: Downtown 81, a.k.a. New York Beat Movie (1981, released 2001)
Choosing between movies about Jean-Michelle Basquiat is incredibly difficult because—for the best of us—camp and awe-inspiring historical talent are equally important. Julian Schnabel’s 1996 drama “Basquiat” is delightful because it evinces that Courtney Love was, in the mid-1990’s, charismatic enough to deserve fame, and David Bowie’s petulant Andy Warhol still makes me laugh-snort after watching it a dozen times. Schnabel’s Basquiat is a louche by way of heroin addiction and canny friendships; it’s important to remember that Schnabel and Basquiat were competitors, and the film gave Schnabel a platform to re-write Basquiat’s legacy and make himself (played by Gary Oldman!) seem magnanimous.
“Downtown 81” is a fairytale based on Basquiat’s life, written by Warhol’s Factory member and “TV Party” host Glenn O’Brien and directed by “Interview” magazine photographer Edo Bertoglio in 1980-1981. The movie stars Jean-Michelle as himself, and he is sensitive and beautiful and smooth in all of the ways truly special people with “star power” are; by comparison Jeffrey Wright’s Basquiat in Schnabel’s film resembles the Counting Crow’s Adam Duritz. The plot is sparse and feels a bit like compilation of footage of downtown New York scenesters and culture-shapers, including Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones, Debbie Harry, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ performance is the film’s high point, with design and ecstatic cocaine energy that undoubtedly influenced the Talking Head’s “Stop Making Sense” tour film. There is also the issue of over-dubbing, due to lost audio, which deprives you of Jean-Michelle’s voice and makes all dialog disorienting. It’s a patchwork quilt of a movie, but the artists and musicians are so talented and cool it makes me want to cry and then get to work.
Soundtrack: Suicide’s “Cherie” is used with all of the cinematic weight it deserves. Other soundtrack highlights are Jean-Michelle’s band Gray, Blondie, and the Plastics.
Film: Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947)
Joe is discharged after serving in World War II and leases a room, where he discovers he has psychological insight into himself and others. To pay for the room, he opens it up as a service for neurotics to purchase dreams that will alleviate their suffering or give them drive. Directed by Surrealist painter and Dadaist Hans Richter, “Dreams that Money Can Buy” is primarily made up of seven of Joe’s clients and the dreams he gives them. There’s very little development of a plot, but that’s not important: each of the profoundly stylistically different dreams was written by and/or directed by an artist. Max Ernst, unique Cubist “Tubist” Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, and Richter created dreams that are distinctly their own psychological content and aesthetic. Each dream is fun because they are cool looking and haunting, and because Ernst, Man Ray, Duchamp, and Calder are such monoliths in modern and contemporary art. When a great artist moves outside of their comfort zone, it adds depth to their character in a way another painting or sculpture or whatever they are known for can’t. The feeling of fresh intimacy is exciting.
Soundtrack: A full orchestra, horn heraldry, generous use of xylophone.
Film: How to Draw a Bunny (2002)
Sometimes artistic success—monetary reward or cultural fame—is based on internal isolation and a commitment to building a completely unique body of work. John W. Walter’s documentary ”‘How to Draw a Bunny” explores the eccentricities and intricacy of deceased correspondence artist Ray Johnson through interviews with his friends and acquaintances. Though Johnson was periodically documented on film toward the end of his life being conceptually and verbally brilliant, and was photographed frequently, the bulk of the film is a laundry list of New York City art celebrities reflecting upon their relationships with him. Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude talk as one, piecing together a story about Johnson’s awkwardness selling his works in back and forth parentheticals. Alongside Chuck Close, art dealer Frances Beatty seems like a dorky WASP, but her commitment to Johnson and his estate before and during the documentary process mounts until she is undeniably loveable. Former Warhol Factory archivist Billy Name is especially astute: “That was one of the factors about Ray’s aesthetic, it was always on that level, the revelatory level. He was always where inspiration and revelation were. It’s where people go periodically, or occasionally, or take narcotics to achieve, but he was there all the time.” Without giving too much away, “How to Draw a Bunny” is about trying to bridge a lonely personality through art making, and committing a life to a conceptual art.
Soundtrack: John Cage’s “Sonata XIII.”
Fernand Léger: wikipaintings.org
Otto Dix: wikipaintings.org Basquiat: wikipaintings.org
Julian Schnabel http://www.julianschnabel.com/category/paintings/plate-paintings
Roxanne Lowit http://www.younggalleryphoto.com/photography/lowit/lowit.html
Ray Johnson, “Man O’War”: http://www.artpractical.com/review/polaroids_and_tables_of_content/
Ray Johnson, “Calm Center”: http://radicalart.info/AlgorithmicArt/grid/any/index.html Courtney Love as Big Pink in Basquiat http://www.nogoodforme.com/2011/04/25/style-icon-courtney-love-as-big-pink-in-basquiat/