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'Basquiat': The Tortures of Creative Life


"The whole point," Julian Schnabel was quoted recently about his debut film delineating the brief life of fellow New York art star Jean-Michel Basquiat, "was not to have a tourist make this movie." Yet for all the difference Schnabel's expertise has made to "Basquiat," he needn't have bothered.

Though as a writer-director, Schnabel's work is not the total fiasco the debut films of fellow artists David Salle ("Search and Destroy") and Robert Longo ("Johnny Mnemonic") were, it is fascinating to see what a compendium of Troubled Genius movie cliches he has turned out. A paint-by-numbers version of an artist's life, "Basquiat" is amusing for all the wrong reasons, especially at those horrible moments when you realize you're supposed to be taking it seriously.

What's more interesting than the film is seeing how Schnabel, not known for modesty during his 1980s heyday, has treated the New York art scene that spawned him. He manages to aggressively bite the hand that handsomely fed him (witness his use of Tatum O'Neal as a witless patron) while simultaneously squeezing in a particularly brazen piece of self-aggrandizement.

That would be the character of artist Albert Milo, played by Gary Oldman, that Schanbel has clearly based on himself. Besides using his own paintings for Milo's art and casting his parents as Milo's parents and his daughter as Milo's daughter, Schnabel has made Milo into the fount of all wisdom, a savant who runs his life with a serene self-knowledge and control that Basquiat, poor guy, can't even dream about.

In whatever time Schanbel has left over from patting himself on the back for being such a together individual, he tells the story of Basquiat's life in a way that repeats chestnuts of the creative life that have appeared in everything from "Lust for Life" to "Youngblood Hawke."


In the opening, It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City sections, Basquiat is a starving Manhattan graffiti artist who lives in a carton in Tompkins Square Park. Also down on his luck is poet-critic Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott), who favors Civil War regalia and is glimpsed in the same park writing the film's gee-whiz manifesto: "Nobody wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh."

Though he can't afford decent shoes and has no visible means of support, Basquiat floats through life with a "Don't worry, be happy" attitude. He has classic movie experiences like being treated like a dogsbody by snooty gallery owner Mary Boone (Parker Posey), and he acquires the one accessory every young genius must have, the beautiful and selfless woman who loves him for himself.

Here she's a waitress named Gina Cardinale (Claire Forlani), who is devoted to Basquiat even though he has the annoying habit of painting on her best clothes. But Jean-Michel, the impoverished son of an uninvolved Haitian father and an institutionalized Puerto Rican mother, is determined to be rich and famous, and we all know what that means.

Soon enough the efforts of Rene Ricard, who says things like "I know who to hype" and "You are the news and I want the scoop," turn Jean-Michel into the catch of the day in the New York art world and "Basquiat" enters its Caught In the Fame Machine phase.

With more money than he knows what to do with, pursued by groupies (Courtney Love plays a generic example), Basquiat the innocent child has to contend with insipid journalists and opportunistic dealers who call him "the true voice of the ghetto" and don't understand his Nature Boy personality.

Never a stranger to drugs, the artist begins to party so assiduously that Andy Warhol (David Bowie), of all people, feels impelled to warn him about burning the candle at both ends. Even those who don't know Basquiat's sad history will not be hard-pressed to figure out where this epic is headed.

"Basquiat's" only genuine inspiration was casting Jeffrey Wright, who won a Tony for his work in "Angels in America" on the New York stage, as the artist. An actor whose talent is visible even in this standard role, Wright's ability creates more interest in Basquiat's fate than would otherwise exist.

Other than that, "Basquiat" uses ("wastes" would be a better word) well-known actors like Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe in cameos. And Dennis Hopper, playing European dealer Bruno Bischofberger, is reduced to wheezing insider lines such as "I absolutely must have this painting."

Though "Basquiat" makes extensive use of real artifacts (Andy Warhol's wigs! Mary Boone's Chanel suits!) director Schnabel is less adept with real actors, leading to a kind of listless quality that Joel Schumacher for one would never allow.

And despite nods toward serious issues like racism in the art world, "Basquiat" does not seem interested in anything that doesn't advance its director's personal agenda. When Rene Ricard asks, "What is it about art that we give it such importance?," it's just one of many questions this film is too self-involved to bother with.

* MPAA rating: R for drug use and strong language. Times guidelines: Drugs seem omnipresent.



Jeffrey Wright: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Michael Wincott: Rene Ricard

Benicio Del Toro: Benny Dalmau

Claire Forlani: Gina Cardinale

David Bowie: Andy Warhol

Dennis Hopper: Bruno Bischofberger

Gary Oldman: Albert Milo

A Peter Brant Joseph Allen production, released by Miramax Films. Director Julian Schnabel. Producers Jon Kilik, Randy Ostrow, Joni Sighvatsson. Executive producers Peter Brant, Joseph Allen, Michiyo Yoshizaki. Screenplay Julian Schnabel, based on a story by Lech Majewski, story developed by Michael Thomas Holman. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato. Editor Michael Berenbaum. Costumes John Dunn. Music John Cale. Production design Dan Leigh. Art director C.J. Simpson. Set decorator Susan Body. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.

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