Life is short, and art is long, but sometimes both life and art can be short. That seems to be the thrust of "Basquiat," a biographical look at the young painter who blazed through the New York art world in the '80s but died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. He didn't outlast the decade he dominated.
The movie, directed by painter Julian Schnabel, has a good sense of authenticity (it was shot where it occurred) and is particularly mordant and incisive about the operations of the art world, a subject about which Schnabel obviously has a good deal of knowledge, and not a small amount of cynicism. It's also a formally beautiful movie, full of arresting images and beautifully composed shots and vibrant colors, as one might expect a painter's work to be.
But it's somewhat inert: the movie just plods along, and it doesn't have much in the way of pace or suspense or purpose: one damn thing after another keeps happening.
The other oddity is its definition of "art," highly problematic in these troubled times to begin with, but not advanced by any appreciable degree here. To Schnabel, art simply "is." Is what? Is the product of talent, end of discussion.
As a friend of the authentic Jean Michel Basquiat, the Haitian-American who went from sleeping in boxes to gracing the pages of Time magazine in a year's time, Schnabel, again presumably, knows what he's talking about. His Jean Michel (played by Jeffrey Wright) is so fertile with talent that art simply drips from him. Art is what he does, unconsciously, almost with childish simplicity. (Wright plays Basquiat as a child, too, innocent, unfocused, drifting and wafting along, without goal.)
There's no sense of artistic rigor or intellectual application. There's really not even much sense of instinctive distinction between good and bad. Basquiat never struggles, he never revises, he never rethinks or reconsiders. He just does what pops into his brain without apparent effort or thought, and rises ever higher, seemingly by a number of daffy coincidences.
One is that a prominent but highly eccentric critic is enchanted with him at an early age, and really starts the ball rolling. And -- the subtext of the movie -- as the art world has become as shallow and celebrity-driven as the movie world, once his career is started, there is no stopping it. He's like Matthew McConaughey, on the cover of magazines before his actual talent could even be proved or disproved.
For the record, the critic is played by Michael Wincott in a surprisingly delicate performance. Wincott has made a handsome living these past several years with his gravelly voice and medieval face playing the blackest-hearted of villains, and it's really a nice surprise to see how wide his range is.
There are other passionate amusements: One is David Bowie as Andy Warhol, who by the '80s had become the somewhat baffled eminence grise of the art world. Bowie's Warhol is completely out to lunch: he seems in desperate need of a clue, any clue. But he's also isolated in his celebrity, and he sees in Jean Michel the same isolation; they're so high in the art world ionosphere, they have nobody else to talk to, so they talk to each other, although they have nothing to say and they don't really listen anyway.
The ever provocative Benico Del Toro also appears as one of Basquiat's early friends, who somehow just never gets as purely lucky as does Jean Michel, yet doesn't seem to let it bother him. Then there's Dennis Hopper, surprisingly restrained and amusing, as a big-headed German rich guy who loves to "dabble" in art.
The movie is ever fascinating, and those obsessed with art will love it particularly. But it sometimes feels as weightless as the young man whose odd life it chronicles.
Starring Jeffrey Wright and David Bowie
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Released by Miramax
Sun Score:*** Pub Date: 8/30/96