Memphis Flyer

DIRECTED BY: Julian Schnabel

REVIEWED: 11-10-97

The critic Robert Hughes once said that the painter Julian Schnabel "is a most eclectic artist; what you see in his paintings is what he was looking at last." If the same holds true for the filmmaker Julian Schnabel, he must have been looking at MTV, Gus Van Sant, and Wagnerian opera when he made Basquiat, his celluloid fable based on the life of fellow '80s art star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Voice-over, montage, hallucinatory images, overblown symbolism, slow-motion, stop-action, and an obtrusive soundtrack that ranges from Tom Waits to Gorecki are just a few of the ingredients former cook Schnabel tosses into the stew.

The cast is an independent-film dream ensemble. Jeffrey Wright is excellent in the title role, wandering aimlessly between naivete and opportunism; his facial expressions run the limited gamut from blank to stoned, but anything more would be overacting. David Bowie does a sharp, graceful turn as Andy Warhol, ably playing the icon as an effeminate oddity. Dennis Hopper portrays the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger as a gently befuddled Daddy Warbucks. Gary Oldman plays the fictional Albert Milo, a superstar painter based on Schnabel himself, with smarmy chic and a benevolence not usually associated with egomaniacs. Claire Forlani, as Basquiat's fictionalized girlfriend Gina, is allowed the only role with any emotional range (and audience sympathy); she plays it with style and charm.

There is an element of sarcastic and simplistic caricature in some of the characters, notably Mary Boone (Parker Posey, too WASPish and frisky, is miscast) and Annina Nosei (gamely played by Elina Lowensohn); these women art dealers, who were in fact more responsible for the '80s art boom than any male art star that they marketed, are dismissed as greedy and grasping harpies. Likewise, adulatory critic Rene Ricard is represented as a jealous young queen by the scenery-gnawing Michael Wincott. One gets the definite sense that Schnabel -- as both director and participating artist -- isn't looking back with fondness or gratitude at the people who formed his ladder rungs.

All the myths and a few facts about Basquiat the painter are included in Basquiat the movie. But, in the final analysis, the film is less about the late "radiant child" -- the son of wealthy Haitian immigrants turned graffitist turned overnight art-world sensation turned doomed junkie -- than about the time and the place and, yes, the director himself. Julian Schnabel is a clumsy and heavy-handed painter with delusions of grandeur; the same qualities somehow translate to film with a human rather than heroic iconography. What would be an excess becomes an irony -- none too subtle, but an irony nonetheless. As a jaded portrait of a jaded time, Basquiat is a minor masterpiece. It is, like Schnabel's paintings, a big clumsy picture, operatic and overstated; unlike his paintings, however, Basquiat's big picture is composed of small passages, many of them graceful melodies, a few of them with perfect pitch.

--Cory Dugan

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