Fatal Strokes

A Cinematic Portrait Of A Self-Destructive Young Painter Fails To Come To Life.
By Stacey Richter

JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT was described by The New York Times as "the art world's closest equivalent to James Dean." Young, talented and good looking, the painter died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. The film Basquiat, made by his friend and fellow art sensation Julian Schnabel, follows Basquiat's rise from a kid sleeping in a box to a rich, indulged superstar, both recipient and victim of the art world's largess in the 1980s.

Cinema Schnabel tells Basquiat's story with the splashy style of an expressionist painter, jumping from scene to scene with little regard for narrative conventions. He does tell the story more or less chronologically, however, starting with Basquiat's low-rent beginnings as a graffiti artist in Greenwich Village, surrounded by friends, poor but relatively happy. (Schnabel, whose life was also radically changed by fame around the same time, has the luxury of glamorizing the lack of fame.) Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) is wickedly ambitious, and gazes upon the glittery world of SoHo galleries with longing.

Through a blend of guts and sheer luck, Basquiat is "discovered" by art critic Rene Ricard (Micheal Wincott), who hooks him up with all the right people. Almost instantly, Basquiat goes from being a poor, unknown black kid who can't hail a cab to a feted darling of the rich and famous. Basquiat seems to offer up his own corruption as payment for his success, ditching his friends and supporters as he climbs his way up the ladder. He gets rid of his pretty, sensitive girlfriend (Claire Forlani) and his first champion, Ricard, without a backwards glance.

Basquiat continues to take drugs, hang with the famous and paint with uncanny fury and power (his paintings look great even on film). Schnabel is concerned with dissecting the myth of the artist as a volatile, self-destructive outsider who burns himself up with the fire of his talent (the film begins with Ricard describing Van Gogh as the original Crazy Artist). This Schnabel does fairly and doggedly, though without much insight. Basquiat himself believed his art demanded a measure of self-destruction--it's said he admired Jimi Hendrix, who also died of a heroin overdose at 27. Schnabel has the good sense not to embrace this myth (the way last year's Total Eclipse, the story of poets Rimbaud and Verlaine did); neither does he debunk an idea that apparently meant a lot to Basquiat himself--a strategy that, though sensible for a biography, is deadening in a feature film. By adopting an impartial viewpoint, Schnabel detaches the story from the ideas and conflicts that could bring it to life. Basquiat is surely a character in conflict with himself, but that conflict appears distant, as if it were encased in glass.

Basquiat himself is an elusive character, a guy who can only express himself fully through his paintings. There's something childlike and touching to this; in fact, Schnabel illustrates this aspect of Basquiat's personality with a fairy tale about a child in a tower who sends beautiful music out to the countryside but is never rescued from his solitude. (This scene of medieval peasants throwing down their hoes provides a ridiculous moment in an otherwise visually adventurous film.) Basquiat does seem cut off from other people, something exacerbated by the fact that this film covers nine years in about an hour and a half. Secondary characters appear, perform an action, then fall away. The effect is something like reading a diary: Incidental characters wander in and out, but only the narrator seems important.

This sense of detachment, combined with Schnabel's jumpy, time-lapse style, results in a film that almost seems like it could be cut up and rearranged randomly without changing it much. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but in Basquiat it seems to signal a lack of narrative tension. In other words, it gets a little boring. But what Basquiat lacks in tension it makes up for with wonderful, absorbing acting. Jeffrey Wright, a stage actor with a pile of awards under his belt, is amazing as Basquiat--sweet and ruthless at once, wrecking havoc on himself and others with the naive obliviousness of the truly preoccupied. David Bowie does an hysterical impersonation of Andy Warhol (wearing one of Warhol's own wigs), and Benicio Del Toro, as Basquiat's faithful friend Benny, radiates huge amounts of good-natured creepiness.

In some ways Basquiat is more like a painting than a film: It's visually interesting and challenging, but it doesn't do the greatest job of telling a story.

Basquiat is playing at The Loft (795-7777) cinema. TW

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