Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Velvet Buzzsaw

Spoilers are marked.

This movie is literally a critique of critics who are too pretentious to approve of anything released by Netflix, simply because of the casual, readily-available nature of Netflix automatically denotes them as low art, whether they're well-made or not. And the irony is, this movie is getting exactly the kind of criticism it condemns.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy.

It's about the art world -- much like film art world -- run by the rich and influenced by the pretentious. Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllanhaal) is a critic and one such influencer. His reviews can make or destroy. He makes pretentiousness his signature style. Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) runs an art gallery. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is her assistant. Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) runs another gallery. and Gretchen (Toni Collette) represents collectors who lend their pieces to the galleries. Piers (John Malkovich) and Damrish (Daveed Diggs) are artists. Coco (Natalia Dyer) is a low-level assistant/receptionist, and Bryson (Billy Magnussen) is a technical repair guy.

One day, Josephina goes home to find her neighbor has died suddenly, and that his possessions are to be destroyed per his request. She happens to get a look inside his apartment and find that he was an artist -- and that his eerie work is exceptional. She takes it and hatches a plan with Rhodora to claim ownership and sell and show the work. Morf loves it. Everyone loves it. But the art is possessed with something. It moves; it burns itself; it infects other art and kills, Final Destination-style. It is, perhaps, possessed by the restless spirit of its creator, who wished it to be destroyed, not fawned over and sold for exorbitant prices by people who only care for it as a new, marketable commodity.

Just a couple artists appreciating some art...

On surface-level it is a fairly standard horror flick. Characters do bad things, and die in some kind of harsh justice or retribution exacted by the supernatural entity. Their interactions are mostly to establish what cold, backstabbing thing they're doing. Twists come along in their due time, and there is the natural, expected ebb and flow of drama and mystery. Pacing is exact; cinematography purposeful but not overly-showy or experimental -- it gives moments of simple subtle beauty. Death scenes are practically announced as they open, and then are played out in interesting but not particularly disturbing or overly-gory ways. The overlay of comedy these scenes take diffuses the horror too.

But then, dialogue is brilliantly hilarious, as everyone speaks in an artsy, highbrow way, so much so that I had to become accustomed to the way they spoke in order to understand what they were saying. Fortunately, the opening sequence is used to introduce characters and establish this hyper-language, so that once exposition is given through it, we've hopefully gained an ear for it, and don't get lost in extravagant articulations. This then flows into line delivery, which is every bit as brilliant, especially coming from Gyllanhaal, who continually made me laugh with his exact timing and detailed mannerisms. Meticulous, but relaxed. And Collette was almost equally good with far less time to work with.


Not everyone can be such extremes, but they were all excellent bits of casting, from the simple look that screams "douche" the moment you lay eyes on Jon Dondon (even the name is all you need!), to the subtle blank soullessness of Josephina. And they all have such unexpected moments of hilarity when they embody these caricatures of art world inhabitants. On this surface level, the film is odd, yet plays by the rules. The poking fun at stereotypes and absurdity of modern art has a dark humor flavor; yet the plot plays out by the numbers. You could almost say it doesn't take risks. But its point wasn't to be a risk-taking plot, or to break new ground within the horror tropes it uses, but to make a commentary using the medium, if you will.

See, this movie is very competent, and does exactly what it wanted to do, then it released through Netflix. I've long held the opinion that some critics tend to frown on any Netflix film simply because of its nature, and in the film Rhodora comments that they don't sell eternally viable commodities, but a mere perception. Netflix is a taboo that decreases the value of the art is distributes. In the film, they lie about how many pieces exist because the price rises if there are less. Netflix distributes to all; exclusivity increases value. And the film punishes characters who value the art only by what it's worth instead of what it means to them -- as art.

It deliberately sacrifices creativity to become the thing it is defending. It practically invites shallow criticism. It's kind of brilliant. 

At the end of the film -- mild spoiler here -- these paintings that had been fought and fawned over are being sold on the street for $5 a pop. But the fact remains: if it was good art before, it still is then. A lady and her man come by, are impressed by one, and very willingly fork over the few bucks for it; and you get the impression that they will suffer nothing for having it hang in their house, to appreciate as they walk by, day by day. Because that's what art is for.

As a horror flick, or even as a satire of the art world, this movie can't reach the standard expected of it. It perfectly well made, paced, filmed, and acted; but lacks that new, fresh quality that might denote it as Worthy Art. As a commentary on critical prejudices and defense of film as artful entertainment rather than something to own, boast of, and give prestigious awards to, it transcends itself. No, it's not Worthy Art -- for that is exactly what it despises.

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