Home > Art, Film, Reviews > Film Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

Film Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019; Directed by Dan Gilroy)

“All art is dangerous,” a gallery owner warns a prominent art critic. In Dan Gilroy’s art-world dark satire/horror film Velvet Buzzsaw, the in-born danger of art comes to terrifying life as a deadly return-of-the-repressed revenge fantasy against the greedy, status-driven human apparatus of the big-money art industry. This is a realm of ridiculous displays of wealth, avaricious brokers, pretentious opinion-makers, and diffident creators, where the traditional markers of meaning and authenticity in art have been relentlessly commodified and thus drained of power and significance.

This significance was understood to lie in originality, mastery of technique, and power of expression, yes, but also vitally in the emotional and psychological anguish of the problematically idealized tortured artistic genius, who pours his (and it’s still always a man, of course) impossibly grand pain into masterpieces that no mentally healthy creative person could evidently conceive, and no wealthy purchaser would think of paying top dollar for even if they could. We can thank Vincent Van Gogh for this problematic framing, or more broadly a century of psychoanalytic Van Gogh scholarship, or even more broadly the cultural romanticization of bohemian deprivation, debilitating addiction, antisocial abusive behaviour, and mental illness in the mythifying biographies of creative people of note. Velvet Buzzsaw turns this paradigm of valuation of art’s cultural currency on its head, or rather takes it deadly seriously. The profound mental disquiet of a truly disturbed artist quite literally bleeds into his art, turning that art and any other art that crosses its path into fatal weaponry that kills and consumes anyone seeking to profit from its sale.

The dangerous art in question was the hidden life’s work of a mysterious, disquieted recluse named Vetril Dease, who dies in his apartment building and leaves behind a trove of vivid paintings (most of them reminiscent of the twisted modernist realism of Lucian Freud or the psychosexual torment of Francis Bacon, while his biography suggests a figure like Henry Darger). Despite his leaving unambiguous and ominous instructions that all of the paintings be destroyed, Dease’s work is snapped up by building neighbour and art world striver Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works for that warning gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and is sexually involved with Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), the aforementioned influential art critic whose reviews can make or break careers (Gilroy’s script is peppered with note-perfect silly art-world names like these, including Tom Sturridge’s rival art dealer Jon Dondon and a quickly-referenced fictional artist magnificently named Mertilla Splude). The Dease paintings create a sensation and are snapped up for millions, but the obsequious Vanderwalt begins to suspect their dark designs as he researches the artist’s past, as his acquaintances in Los Angeles’ art scene start to perish around him in ornate horror set-pieces, and as his previous dismissive critical pannings of exhibitions and works come back to haunt him.

Velvet Buzzsaw is Gilroy’s anticipated follow-up to the superb and compelling L.A. noir/television-media critique Nightcrawler, from which he retains stars Gyllenhaal (who is hilarious) and Russo (who is formidable and ultimately weirdly moving). It represents a considerable tonal shift to black-comedy/horror (and bounces around tonally during its running time as well), and probably is grounded too deeply in the inside-baseball details of the contemporary art trade to appeal to a wider audience. But fuck all of that, Velvet Buzzsaw (the title refers to Haze’s former rock band whose punk aesthetic her opulent current circles baldly expose and reject) is a visually clever, sharply trangressive delight (albeit a patchily-paced one with too many minor characters and subplots to keep airborne at any one time, like a less-assured Robert Altman film) that comprehensively skewers the bloated corpus of the art world and its shimmeringly ugly transformation at the hands of the monied elite.

Haze, Josephina, and the shallow Dondon are just in it for the money and the status, as is Gretchen (post-modern horror queen Toni Collette), who blows off a thankless curator position at an under-resourced contemporary art museum to become a private art consultant to a deep-pocketed collector. Lower down the ladder are gallery grunts like Bryson (Billy Magnussen), a frustrated artist labouring as an installer, and Coco (Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer), who bounces from one employer to another as they get bumped off in hopes of drawing enough income to avoid having to decamp back home to humble Michigan. Somewhere perhaps even lower in this pyramidical arrangement are the artists themselves, like inspiration-blocked recovering alcoholic Piers (John Malkovich) and former art collective street artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), who are courted by the capital-rich galleries but seek some simpler and more essential creative truths away from the ravenous meat market of the lucrative art trade.

Because at the centre of Velvet Buzzsaw is a suggestion that most celebrated and high-priced contemporary art is not only not dangerous but hardly interesting or engaging and mostly laughably derivative. The art pieces created for the film drive this idea home. In the film’s opening scene at Art Basel in Miami, Vanderwalt is bemusedly dismissive of a piece called Hoboman, consisting of a deteriorating cyborg on crutches wearing a black Lone Ranger mask and tattered Uncle Sam jacket jerking robotically around and uttering imperial-decay phrases like “Once I built a railroad” and “I can’t save you” (the critic and Hoboman will meet again, before the end). An unimpressed Rhodora Haze walks into an installation at her gallery painstakingly re-creating a frozen, mundane moment in the kitchen and living room of an unremarkable suburban family, complete with wax figures of the family (she laments that it seemed “edgier at the Biennale”). Josephina’s ambitious self-rising embrace of artifice is confronted by a magic-realist sterile gallery space hung with wall graffiti that bleeds threateningly towards her, the creeping retribution of urban authenticity.

Other moments emphasize how the highly-intellectualized conceptuality of the post-structuralist breakdown in centrality of meaning has unmoored art from consistent apprehension and recognition. When Jon Dondon visits Piers in his studio, the bottom level where reproductions are made is bustling with the activity of apprentices, but on the bare second level where the blocked artist is supposed to be making new work, the foppish Dondon mistakes a clump of garbage bags for a “remarkable” contemporary piece. A reflective piece called Sphere featuring holes in which observers can insert their arms to experience various unique sensations is exhibited in a museum alongside a clutch of the poisonous Dease paintings; when it claims a victim the night before the big opening, attendees are non-plussed by the dead body and the pools of blood around the sphere, believing them to be part of the exhibit. Even Los Angeles itself is turned into a detached landscape in a series of interstitial long shots by Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit, overlook vistas and overhead views of a cool, impersonal, disconnected lighted grid of urban sprawl like a Mondrian canvas.

Compared to this cerebralized and commodified art, the paintings of Vertil Dease in their agonized, pulsating expressionist honesty are vital, terrible, and dangerously real. It is this unsettling psychological realism and sublime power that is the true threat to the art market’s milieu of surface and capital (the Deases are labelled as “outsider art” when shown, as being outside the art establishment is at once a detriment and an advantage). Velvet Buzzsaw is a layered satirical critique of the art market which does not simplistically trade on juxtapositions of real vs. fake, authentic vs. constructed, original vs. derivative. It ruthlessly lampoons the fluttering contrivance of narcissistic art-world fools, yes, but likewise constructs the supposedly authentic artistic vision represented by Dease’s work as literally murderous in its revelation of a tortured psyche. In Velvet Buzzsaw‘s disconnected, sales-driven world of contemporary art, art that bares the human soul in all of its lurking darkness is indeed extremely dangerous.

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Categories: Art, Film, Reviews
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