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My Degeneration

Down at Art: Jeffrey Wright portrays tormented painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Blue-chip artist Julian Schnabel enjoys biting the art-world hands that fed him in 'Basquiat'

By Richard von Busack

A GOSSIPING ARTIST CHUM told me that the epoxy Julian Schnabel uses to glue all of that broken crockery to his canvases has a tendency to deteriorate. Supposedly some of Schnabel's ultra-expensive paintings start shedding at 4 in the morning, shocking wealthy collectors out of bed by the smash of a broken dish hitting a marble floor. I suspect Schnabel had that effect in mind from the start when making Basquiat, a moderately entertaining drama about a young and handsome New York painter who--if we're to take this film as truth--was as much the victim of the hyperinflated art market of the 1980s as he was of his own hungry arm.

Basquiat went from a cardboard box in Central Park to a limousine seat next to pop art star Andy Warhol (David Bowie, here imitating Stan Laurel). He even achieved that one thing that all earthlings dream of, dating Madonna--and yet Jean-Michel Basquiat OD'd at age 27, leaving behind many overpraised and overvalued paintings in a style that Raymond Saunders did better. Despite the film's pounding home his genius, all Basquiat had in common with Van Gogh is that they both wore wooden shoes.

But because critical bitchiness had its part in the torture of this young Adonis, it's better to concentrate on the smoother aspects of film. (Incidentally, if we critics can kill people, as Basquiat suggests, why won't Douglas Coupland die?) Jeffrey Wright of the theatrical nonesuch Angels in America gives a sharp and intelligent performance as the artist. If you question the circumstances of Basquiat's plummet--or for that matter how much he had to lose--you never question the intensity that Wright brings to the part of the doomed star. Hopefully, Wright's fame will outdistance Basquiat's. Simmering under the questions of a journalist or taking a leak in the corner, Wright is consistently interesting even when the movie is at its most predictable.

Considering that this is a tale of the New York avant-garde, the movie Basquiat is as familiar as a warm bath. It could just as easily have been about a singer or a movie star, with the same rising up from the depths, the same shirking of friends, the same dramatic (and, frankly, enjoyable) plummet. Show business and the art world converged during the 1980s, and potentially blue-chip artists were scooped up by possessive gallery owners and parceled out to the world. Schnabel, himself a highly blue-chip artist, would seem to know whereof he speaks, and he conveys the enjoyment of biting the hands that fed him. The low comedy of the art world is enjoyable as presented here, exemplified by a variety of parasites on view. Basquiat has his life ruined respectively by Dennis Hopper (as a German art dealer), Paul Bartel (as a fatuous something-or-other from MOMA), Elina Lowensohn and Parker Posey (Dracula's daughter and New York bitch), racist critic Christopher Walken and art tramp Courtney Love.

Schnabel's texturing of the film has its moments, as in the sampling of a video of a distressing French cartoon from the 1920s about the myth of the frogs and the stork--King Stork symbolizing the demon success. During a lyrical stoned bicycle ride accompanied by the Psychedelic Furs' "India," Wright, as the angel-headed hipster artist tuned into the eternal, is most lovable. My favorite scene: a shot of a stuffed toy duck abandoned in an empty street intersection as an impromptu monument to the death of Warhol. But Basquiat's passing is harder to see as tragedy than as the inevitable result of overindulgence. Journalist Cookie Mueller's obituary, included in the press notes, talks about Basquiat succumbing to "the rapture of the deep." Make that the rapture of the shallow and you might be closer to the truth.

Basquiat, directed and written by Julian Schnabel, photographed by Ron Fortunato, and starring Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Benicio Del Toro, Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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