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Basquiat

Starring Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Claire Forlani, Michael Wincott, Parker Posey, Elina Lowensohn and Benicio del Toro
Cameos by Courtney Love, Paul Bartel,
Christopher Walken, and Willem Dafoe
Written and Directed by Julian Schnabel

Basquiat is the filmography of artist Jean Michel Basquiat, described by The New York Times as "the art world's closest equivalent to James Dean." We first see the man as a graffitist, living in a cardboard box in New York's Tompkins Square Park in 1979. He lived his life in a haze of marijuana smoke and white lines of cocaine and died of a heroin overdose August 12, 1988. In the interim, he was befriended by Andy Warhol, dated Madonna and became the first and hottest black skinned artist of his time. [As if you really cared, Cranky had only the vaguest connections to that world. I worked the rock 'n' roll world in those days, got invited to (and attended) gallery openings, but was linked to the art world mainly through the recording career of Laurie Anderson (who is not in this film). Although I found Andy Warhol to be rude and withdrawn, David Bowie's portrayal of the man is cruelly funny. Enough name dropping.]

Basquiat is written and directed by artist Julian Schnabel, who has laced his work with obvious symbolism -- the homeless Basquiat looks to the sky and sees surfers riding the Big Waves above the New York tenements. As the movie progresses and his personal situation improves and then degrades, we see the surfer wipe out and drown. There are also other sequences with snippets of (I assume) silent films cut into the mix. What they were supposed to mean, I couldn't tell you. Schnabel applies the palette of a Modernist to the film, and Modern Art is something that you either "get" or don't. Cranky don't get it.

Perhaps it's because painters stand outside looking in. Schnabel was part of the scene, and vouches for the integrity of the events and characters that are portrayed or synthesized. As such we get a detailed look at the milieu surrounding Basquiat, but not at the painter himself. We have an outstanding performance by David Bowie as the late Andy Warhol, portraying him to be a user of people; childlike and manipulative. That Basquiat managed to "use" Warhol is one of the few glimpses we get into the power of the man.

The synthesized characters, all better realized than the title, include Claire Forlani as Basquiat's "first love" Gina Cardinale, a waitress and failed painter herself; Albert Milo (Gary Oldman), as the previous artist flavor of the month, and Courtney Love as a composite of all the art scene groupies of the time. The supporting and cameo roles are almost more fun than the movie. You'll see Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey, Elina Lowensohn and Paul Bartel as art dealers (Bartel as a museum rep) battling for the right to the work; Michael Wincott as the flamboyant agent (I think) who "discovered" the artist; plus Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe, all of whom are more interesting than Jeffrey Wright's characterization.

You can't fault Wright, a major talent of the New York Stage from his performance in Angels in America. The Basquiat character, as written, drifts through the lives of the supporting characters in the same kind of haze that he apparently lived in. You'll find more background on the website.

Basquiat was one of the few "small" films that we of the eLoft were greatly anticipating. Maybe it's 'cuz we're in New York. When all was said and done, as I walked out of the theater with the rest of the paying audience, Cranky felt just like everyone else around me. They were yawning. So was Cranky.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Basquiat, he would have paid . . .

$2.00

For the Bowie, Walken and Oldman performances.

Click to buy films starring Dennis Hopper
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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.