The singer, not the song

Basquiat paints a stark portrait of the artist as a young misfit

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a middle-class kid from the suburbs when he first started living in a cardboard box in a New York City park in 1979. Jean wasn't homeless as a result of financial necessity, nor was he mentally unstable. He was, instead, an artist. Using the signature "Samo," he spread graffiti art around the city in virtual anonymity, spray-painting pithy aphorisms on walls and buses like epigrammatic tone poems. Jean's curt, vivid observations and phrases reverberated, in the minds of those who took the time to read them, as a moody view of urban living. He was an exorcist of the unseen demons coursing through the city, a voice for the silent masses whispering his messages--messages that were, paradoxically, as full of optimism as they were of foreboding.

Basquiat, the biographical film about his Roman-candle career, percolates with the same sense of paradox about Jean and art itself. Jean (Jeffrey Wright) is by turns portrayed as history's greatest black artist; the newest post-modernist icon; and a wool puller duping a contemporary society engorged with the idea of "pop art" into foolishly emphasizing it as "art," rather than for the minor "pop" it makes in the landscape of legitimate culture. Was he a charlatan, the lucky beneficiary of a civilization plagued by the fear that it would be blind to his gifts--like the narrow-minded Parisian critics of a century past, the ones known for overlooking the next Van Gogh--or was he a genuine genius?

What the film ends up saying, like it or not, is that Jean-Michel Basquiat was the next Van Gogh, and history repeated itself. The ability to recognize a Van Gogh is only half the battle; it doesn't tell society how to appreciate him. The cliche that has become Don McLean's lyric from "Vincent"--that the world was never meant for one so beautiful--gains renewed freshness.

This sane, probing analysis of the modern art world was written and directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a fast-burning comet on the art scene of the '80s, and a personal friend of Jean. (In the film, Schnabel fictionalizes himself in a character played by Gary Oldman, and the fact that he is unflatteringly portrayed is one of the film's many unexpected pleasures.) What Schnabel has to say about the art community, however, should not be confused with his view of the artist in society. For while the culture that surrounded Jean is brutally dissected by Schnabel's scalpel of words, Jean himself exists irrefutably as a true romantic--a misfit not long for an earth unable to adequately nurture his expansive talent.

Schnabel portrays Jean's creativity by occasionally showing the audience how the world looks through his eyes. When Jean looks above the monstrous New York skyline, he sees not clouds in the air but the waves of an ocean; when he sees a wall, or a diner's menu, or even someone else's painting, he doesn't see individual things--not ends in themselves--but rather means to his end, empty canvases on which to write his biography of the human condition. It could be easy to dislike Jean for his casual disregard for societal norms (is he a rebel or just plain rude?), and in maintaining him as a sympathetic hero is where Basquiat's primary strengths lie.

The conflict between the ways in which we view art, whether as an expression or as a tangible thing, is the ineffable quality about Basquiat that Schnabel meticulously limns. Before Basquiat, graffiti wasn't considered mainstream art because it lacked the two essential elements of serious art: permanence and the artists' ownership of the right of distribution. Graffiti is, by its very nature, an offering from the artist to the community; it can't be copyrighted, reproduced, and sold in a gallery. And if people can't study and deconstruct and criticize it, what value does it serve? In this way, art is not an object to be possessed--a canvas or a statue--but the act of expressing the idea itself. When Jean paints, the thing itself becomes irrelevant except as a manifestation of his intent: an expression of friendship, a symbol of love.

As commonsensical as this theme may appear to a romantic personality, it's one whose irony Schnabel continually hammers home. Painting and doodling are the highest compliments Jean can bestow on something or someone. The sheer act of kindness is the real art that Basquiat creates--an art of such primitive simplicity as to be beyond the conception of his benefactors. Even Jean's girlfriend, Gina (Claire Forlani), becomes furious when he paints on her new dress. In Jean's mind he isn't ruining it, certainly not out of spite or carelessness. Instead, despite whatever Gina might think, he's trying to make it better. Willie Nelson has said about country music that it is defined by the singer, not the song. The same could be said of Basquiat. His life assumed the shape of his art; they were inseparably linked.

In Basquiat, the only person capable of fostering Jean's talent is the kooky maven of pop art, Andy Warhol. The legacy of Warhol has been flexing its muscle this year. Earlier this summer, I Shot Andy Warhol portrayed him as an aloof victim of the art machine he created. As played in Basquiat by David Bowie, Warhol isn't a victim but a special kind of genius--one who spots brilliance in others and still manages to operate under his own rules. Unlike Jared Harris' work in I Shot Andy Warhol, Bowie's performance never catches the screen on fire with the threat of the languid menace of ennui, but he serves his function in the film as mother hen to Jean.

Instead, Basquiat derives its energy from a performance of indelible poignancy by Jeffrey Wright. Wright's physical interpretation invests Jean with an otherworldly aura; he always seems to be looking out to some point a great distance away. He holds his body awkwardly, as if Jean is standing in another plane of consciousness. His puppy-dog eyes and intense passion make him seem dangerous and soft at once, sensitive and completely oblivious to the world.

Schnabel elicits some fine performances from his large, talented cast. Schnabel has never written or directed a movie before, and Basquiat shows some of the evidence of a newcomer. Through a series of scenes, as Jean abandons some of his earliest supporters--expertly played by Benicio Del Toro, Michael Wincott, and Elina Lowensohn--Schnabel feels compelled to include an obligatory "pitching a fit in a restaurant" scene and the "beware who you step on while ascending the ladder of success" speech; Jean's obviously complex relationship with Gina also gets a somewhat cursory treatment near the end. But ultimately these visual cliches and other minor transgressions are forgivable (unlike art, lives don't get to be retouched so that everything fits together neatly), and nothing seriously threatens the woozy brilliance of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a movie of exhaustive intelligence, with a stimulating, well-heeled sense for how to portray the ethos of an artist in the throes of the creative process, even as he himself is being created by it. Last year's marvelous documentary Crumb furrowed similar ground, and Basquiat is its worthy successor. It nearly bursts apart from the force of the abiding sadness, but it never succumbs to tear-jerking. There's a brief moment in the film when Jean is biking through the park, staring up at the beauty of the world through his own wondrous eyes, and you know that Jean is full of the myriad possibilities in life, even as the movie is full of those same possibilities in him. The movie, like the man, is too full of hope and potential and wisdom and truth to let anything ruin that.

Basquiat. Miramax. Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Claire Forlani, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Wincott, Elina Lowensohn. Written and directed by Julian Schnabel. Now showing.

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