Should artists be the only ones to make films about other artists?
Julian Schnabel thinks so, and Amanda Parris is looking back at his debut film to understand whether it's true
"An artist should be the one to make films about artists because he simply does a better job."
Those were the bold words of renowned painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel at the Zurich Film Festival earlier this year, where his latest film, Vincent van Gogh biopic At Eternity's Gate, was screening. And as it opens in Canadian cinemas this weekend (to Oscar buzz for leading man Willem Dafoe, no less), I wanted to consider Schnabel's aforementioned statement. Is he right? Are visual artists the best filmmakers when it comes to telling the story of another visual artist on the big screen? To answer this question, I thought it would be a good time to return to Schnabel's debut film, where he first put this theory to the test.
Released in the summer of 1996 (somehow now over 22 years ago), Basquiat documents the rapid rise and tragic fall of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Featuring a celebrity-studded cast, a standout soundtrack and Hollywood's first major introduction to the charismatic screen presence of Jeffrey Wright, it was the first feature film about a visual artist that was made by another visual artist. But was Schnabel the best person to tell the story?
On paper, there are many reasons to argue that Schnabel should be the right candidate. Not only is he a fellow painter, his own career trajectory ran parallel to Basquiat. They both rose in the ranks of the New York downtown art scene. They frequented the same galleries, worked with the same dealers and ran in the same circles. In theory, these connective threads should have provided a layer of intimacy to the story — a particular insight and understanding that few other filmmakers would find.
There are moments. When Basquiat crashes a lunch between Andy Warhol (hilariously played by David Bowie) and art dealer Bruce Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper) we get a sneak peek into Basquiat's audacity, hustle and charm. The two diners go from shooing him away to haggling over the small postcards of his art. Throughout the film we see Basquiat's work traded for drugs, sold for $10 and later for $2000 and then at the height of his fame even stolen off the streets. Given that today his paintings are sold at auctions for over $100 million, these snippets are fascinating — if somewhat fleeting — observations about the fluidity of value in the art world.
A sequence of Basquiat painting alone in a studio space captures an artist gracefully moving around a giant canvas on the floor with a quiet focus. John Coltrane and Miles Davis' "Flamenco Sketches" plays in the background as Basquiat's otherwise restless energy finds its outlet. Schnabel juxtaposes this meditative state with the noisy disruption of the market-driven art world when dealer Annina Nosei (played by Elina Löwensohn) barges into the studio with some potential buyers, declaring with dramatic flair: "This is the true voice of the gutter!"
Choosing to focus less on the underground art scenes that molded and shaped Basquiat's early beginnings, Schnabel spends much of the film in the glossy, gallery driven art world that he knows well, and his opinion of the people who populate it is clear. As one critic observed, "Schnabel used Basquiat to settle old scores." The dealers, buyers and critics in the downtown New York art scene are painted as gallery-hopping socialites whose vampiric tendencies eventually suck the magic out of Basquiat. However, the portrayals of Bischofberger, Nosei, Mary Boone (Parker Posey) and the interviewer (Christopher Walken) are robbed of substance by a weakly conceived script. Sketched as one-note caricatures who have little motivation and minimal depth, their threat to Basquiat is intellectually understood rather than viscerally felt.
Jeffrey Wright's Basquiat is infused with an eccentric yet charismatic energy. He has a rhythmic gait, a gentle stammer and an idiosyncratic charm. Yet despite all of this, he seems like the passenger in a car someone else is driving. Basquiat was exploited — this is a fact I am not attempting to deny. But a tale of exploitation that robs him of agency seems dangerously incomplete. Rather than the ambitious and persistent painter who makes calculated and sometimes cutthroat decisions to ascend the rungs of the art world ladder, Basquiat in the film is portrayed as a drug-addled dreamer who bends whichever way the wind is blowing.
In Schnabel's re-imagining, Basquiat lives in an overwhelmingly white world and has little to no relationship with Black history, Black communities or Black culture. Omitted from the film are his connections to the early days of hip hop and friendship with hip hop renaissance man Fab 5 Freddy. Beyond a passing nod to his love for "Bird," there is little to no mention of his fascination with Black jazz musicians or Black male boxers. His Haitian and Puerto Rican ancestry are barely noted. As his fame rises, there are moments in the film where Basquiat is confronted with racist encounters, but there is no deep dive into how he translated those experiences and larger social issues into his art.
A New York Times article on Jeffrey Wright published soon after the film's release describes a working relationship between the actor and Schnabel that seems fraught with tension. The two men disagreed on the fundamental direction of the character: Wright wanted to illustrate Basquiat's rage as a young Black creative in the overwhelmingly white art world. Schnabel was more interested in "capturing the sweetness of the 'radiant child,' the sobriquet given the artist by critic Rene Ricard."
In the film, Basquiat spends a number of scenes describing his dreams of moving to Maui, fantasies of fame and stories his mother told him. He stares into the sky and sees a surfer riding the waves. He gets high and visualizes the art he can make on a pile of tires. Some of these scenes are the most visually compelling moments in the film. But in Schnabel's depiction, the character has been reduced to a common trope in the artistic biopic: the genius too romantic and too beautiful for this world who is destined for tragedy. In the words of Jeffrey Wright: "Some of the danger is lost...and some of the anger is toned down. I think in some ways Julian romanticized Basquiat's life, and maybe that's all our culture can take right now."
The film also includes a fictional character named Albert Milo, based on Julian Schnabel himself. Played by Gary Oldman, Milo is another genius artist but one who knows how to handle his success and fame. Milo orders gallerists around, pulls out his artwork at the dinner table and dishes words of advice without invitation. While only Basquiat's father appears at his exhibit, both Milo's parents (played by Schnabel's mother and father) are in attendance. Milo's daughter (played by Schnabel's daughter) is an insightful critic of his work (Schnabel's paintings). And Milo is so well-balanced, he has enough spare time to make pasta for a friend. Milo is the one who tells Basquiat to lay off the drugs. Milo is the one who prophesies that Basquiat's audience has yet to be born. Schnabel's decision to create a fictional version of himself who acts as the perfect contrast and friend to the tragic character of Basquiat is bewildering in its narcissism.
A few years ago, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch explained why he's never watched the film: "I knew Jean-Michel and he was not friends with Julian...I refused to talk to Schnabel about Jean-Michel when he was making the film...Jean-Michel was not a fan of Schnabel as a person back then. And I would not betray him in that way."
It would seem to me that based on the film Basquiat, an artist is actually not necessarily the best person to tell the story of another artist. The best person is the storyteller truly interested in the full, complicated and compelling life of the artist. Perhaps over two decades after his first attempt, Schnabel has now learned this lesson.