Basquiat (1996) – Movie Review

After wanting to cleanse my system of schlock like Jack the Reaper and Shadow People I decided to watch Basquiat, a movie directed by Julian Schnabel, about the titular artist who moves from squalor to fame and then dies at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose. I was wary of this film for a number of reasons, mostly because it is a movie about an artist and such films are usually pretty bad, perpetuating bad cliches and stereotypes about the “tortured soul” of the artist and his search for “truth.” They also tend to be uninteresting–focusing on, instead of the art itself, the melodrama and various “scandals” the artist may have experienced. Another reason for my doubt was the fact that Jean Michel Basquiat was simply not a good artist and whose work resembled the scribblings of third-grader trying to imitate Picasso. But I decided to open myself up to the film, after all Basquiat boasts a great cast consisting of Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman and David Bowie as Andy Warhol. And I’ve also been wrong before about movies about artists as Howl was a good flick. So what could go wrong?

Man, was this one boring slog of a film; it manages to be even worse than Jack the Reaper. This movie is what I would call a “shit-film” a term reserved for movies like Dead Poets Society and American History X. I’m of the opinion that while schlock films such as Jack the Reaper are bad they are nowhere near as bad as terrible films that are pretentious. This is because that a film that is wretched yet tries to pass itself off as something deep and relevant is far more insulting and tiresome to watch than something like Plan 9 From Outerspace which never tries to fool or manipulate the audience into thinking it’s something more than what it actually is. And Basquiat belongs in this esteemed category for it tries to pass on dreadful artist cliches as “deep” and apply them to the life of Basquiat as reason for us, the audience, to be compelled by him. But the problem is that Jean Michel Basquiat, played by Jeffrey Wright, is nothing more than a cipher and the audience never gets a deeper understanding of the artist outside of the typical, pain-by-numbers, tropes. He is homeless, he gets famous, he is frustrated and disappointed, he does drugs, he does art, he rides around New York on a bike, and then he dies at the stupidly young age of 27, and that’s it. And yet the film really tries to tell us that this man is interesting, but the way the movie depicts him he’s not; all we get is surface-level emotionality and no reason to be interested in this character. This movie stinks.

The movie starts-off with a trite scene during the opening credits where a young Basquiat and his mother looks at Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. His mother begins weeping but stops and smiles when a crown glows on Basquiat’s head. This scene is made triter when this is revealed to be a dream and Basquiat is older and wakes up in a cardboard box in the park. The problem with this, other than the heavy-handed symbolism, is the fact that this is really the only explanation for Basquiat’s behavior and motives. Yet, his relationship with Picasso (or artistic aspirations) and his relationship with his mother is hardly referenced again. Instead Basquiat does drugs or whatever. There are some scenes that mention his mother and early on he visits his mother who has been committed, but these are very brief and don’t seem to matter. Again, everything is just surface-level. We are merely told things instead of offered ways to understand the character more. Basquiat also mumbles somethings to his best friend Benny (Benicio Del Toro) about fame and there is his reaction on seeing Andy Warhol (who, by the way, is played well and even humorously by David Bowie) as well as some of his aspirations to his girlfriend Gina (Claire Forlani.) But all these attempts are weak in trying to paint Basquiat as being more than a one-dimensional drug addict, artist-poser. We get no reason as to why he does art nor do we are shown the passion he has for it. There are also a couple of voice-overs done by Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) that attempt to comment on the struggle of the artist and society. These voice-overs could have possibly served information as to why Basquiat was the way he was but there’s still a disconnect. At least they offer some reasoning behind Basquiat’s fame, mainly that people want to be the ones to recognize the Van Gogh of their times as well as the attraction to the suffering young artist, even if such observations seem obvious.

Another issue is the unbelievable relationship between Basquiat and Gina. They first meet at the diner Gina works at as a waitress. When Basquiat first sees her there is slow-motion applied (because how else is the audience supposed to know of his attraction?) She inspires Basquiat to be a total dick and dump the maple syrup on his table and start using his fingers to make a painting of her in the puddle. Gina smiles at this even though, what basically happened, was that a creepy homeless man with bad dredlocks just made a mess that she’s going to have to clean-up. As the relationship continues he moves in with her and, probably because he’s stoned out of his mind, decides to paint on her paintings and paint over her dress. She wakes up and is rightfully distressed and angered by this but then Basquiat somehow calms her down and she smiles. Oh Basquiat! And later on, Gina finds Basquiat unconscious from an overdose, and even later starts to suspect Basquiat of cheating on her. There is absolutely no reason why this woman would be with this drug-addled loser. How the hell are we supposed to believe in such a relationship? I mean, yeah, there are people who enter into destructive relationships but we’re given no reason as to why she would stay. Maybe it’s because she’s attracted to someone who is as unique and free-spirited as this guy with stupid hair? Afterwards, when Basquiat is famous and hanging out with his new buddy Andy Warhol, he mistakes another woman for Gina and then decides to meet up with her at a fancy restaurant. Since then they have broken-up. They have a boring conversation about how she’s moved-on and how he further realizes that fame ain’t what it’s all cracked-up to be. We’re obvious supposed to be sympathetic toward Basquiat in this scene yet, from what we saw of their relationship, we simply have no reason to. It also doesn’t help that they’re sitting by a table full of rich guys that are staring and pointing at Basquiat. He is dismayed by this but tells the waiter to put their bill on his tab. He then goes into the bathroom to check out the sores on his face. This scene might even be worse than the first one because it tries to show Basquiat’s downward spiral in such a heavy-handed way as we get his ex-girlfriend, the stereotyped rich guys conveniently placed there for the scene and the sores.

Another way that the audience is failed into caring for Basquiat is when he finds out about Andy’s death. He is affected by this and watches home movies of him and Andy as Tom Waits plays in the background. Do I even need to tell you that this is also heavy-handed? It also doesn’t help the fact that it’s completely unwarranted considering that we barely got anything of Basquiat’s relationship with Andy Warhol other than that they hung-out. Oh, wait, Basquiat did tell Andy Warhol that he was “the only friend that he had.” Ah, so I guess they were friends! I forgot to mention that Andy Warhol, earlier in the film, tells Basquiat that he had two ducks growing-up after he’s reminded by this when watching a guy selling toy ducks. Can you guess what Basquiat was doing before finding out about Warhol’s death? I’ll give you a hint: it’s he was buying two toy ducks from that very same guy. Fuck this movie. I mean the only reason why he bought those ducks was to set-up that faux-symbolism. Ugh.

The best scene in the movie is between Basquiat and an interviewer played by Christopher Walken. This is the closest we get to getting into the thoughts of Basquiat as he describes his crummy paintings and his familial relationships. One might be able to infer from this scene that Basquiat knew that he was a hack and was fully aware that he was being exploited or that he was exploiting the art world. But there’s really know reason present in the movie as to why we should give a fuck about this guy.

I could talk about the end where Basquiat hilariously stumbles around the city as if he has a turd in his pants, and where his friend Benny finds him and Basquiat begins talking about a dumb story that is supposed to be a parallel to his, but I don’t feel like it. I think I’ve given you enough evidence to support my thesis, that Basquiat lies within the exclusive realm of “shit-films” or “shit-movies.” I guess it’s fitting considering that Basquiat was one of the ultimate peddlers of shit-art and an inspiration for countless others to comment on mainstream society’s oppression by sticking a brush between their buttocks. It’s appropriate that a movie about his life be a total turd as well. Because fuck convention.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to make a good movie out of the life of Basquiat despite his being terrible at art. Basquiat had opportunities to make a greater commentary on the artist as well as how society receives art. Director Schnabel could have made this into a satire about the art world. Hell, you could have just made a movie about Basquiat snorting coke and it would have been good if done right. This review went on far longer than I anticipated but there was just so much shittiness in this movie to distill and, I assure, there’s much more, but I don’t think it would be necessary to pour it all here. You get the point. This movie is pointless, offering nothing and wasting a good cast and money that could have been spent on worthier pursuits, like booze. All I wanted was to watch a nice, critically-acclaimed film that would make up for the brain cells lost watching Shadow People, but now I just feel worse about myself thanks to this useless turd. A Warhol-esque ten hour film of a man pleasuring himself would have been a more insightful piece on Jean Michel Basquiat and his art than this dumb, dull slog.