Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: "Velvet Buzzsaw"

‘But why … you’ve said Lestat shouldn't have made you start with people … Did you mean … Do you mean for you it was an æsthetic choice, not a moral one?’
‘Had you asked me then, I would have told you it was æsthetic, that I wished to understand death in stages. [...] But it was moral. Because all æsthetic decisions are moral, really.’ 
—Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire
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A couple weeks ago, partly on a whim and partly because of its star-studded cast—including Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, and Toni Collette (who in my opinion can do no wrong even in bad stuff)—I gave Velvet Buzzsaw a try. And I gotta say, while uneven in its execution, it is a delightful, clever, seriously weird-ass movie.

The premise and plot are straightforward enough. It is set in the elite art world of Los Angeles, where inter-gallery rivalries, reviewers that can canonize or damn at will, and above all, whatever is the hot new thing, act as god-emperors. Josephina, a Haze Gallery employee, discovers that a recluse named Vetril Dease who lived in an apartment neighboring hers has died, and left behind him a massive trove of paintings—his own work. She quietly steals them and shows them to her gallery’s owner, Rhodora, and a professional art critic and new flame, Morf Vandewalt. Both immediately declare Dease a master, and the Haze Gallery begins to sell the paintings for tens of thousands of dollars, while carefully controlling the number of paintings available in order to inflate their market value.

But as Dease’s work is traded, and as a network of shallow, faithless, and constantly changing relationships swirls around the characters’ successes, some people begin to notice strange things: one man insists that the painted figures slowly move, Vandewalt discovers Dease’s horror-stricken past, and a scientist discovers that part of the paintings’ curious appearance comes from Dease mixing his own blood and flesh with the paint. And then, one by one, the people who have profited from selling Dease’s work begin to die in mysterious, theatrical ways …

Some minor perks: it was nice to see a little bisexual representation in this, with Gyllenhaal playing a bisexual man for the second time (yes Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain is bi, I will fight you on this). Also, the names in this are a preposterous delight. Vetril Dease? Morf Vandewalt? Rhodora Haze? Jon Dondon? HA! There may be significance in some of the names: Morf and Haze suggest a certain surreality, and Vetril Dease is an anagram of 'devil satire,' though apparently Gilroy found that name in a census record.

Hereafter Be Film Criticism/Spoilers
(skip to the closing paragraph if you hate either)

Dease’s spirit is the culprit; or, if you prefer, the paintings are, imbued through his flesh and blood with his own determination that they should be destroyed, and murdering those who work to thwart this purpose along the way. Dondon, a gallery owner, is throttled with his own scarf by a hand emerging from a display; Gretchen, a gossipy, manipulative curator, loses an arm in a malfunctioning interactive sculpture and bleeds to death, and is mistaken the next morning for a part of the piece; Josephina is lured into a mysterious display of graffiti-style paintings whose colors leak out of their frames and consume her, trapping her as a streetside mural; Morf, increasingly guilty over his harsh reviews and recognizing the peril of Dease’s work too late, is trapped by an animated sculpture and killed. Dan Gilroy, the creator and director of the film, embraces the campiness of his narrative machine, citing films like The Ring and Final Destination as inspirations. And the silliness of the violence (and occasionally of the special effects, as with Gretchen’s dismemberment) forms a counterpoint to the frivolity of the victims’ effete, insincere world.

Like many horror films, Velvet Buzzsaw is a pronouncedly moralistic film. Six deaths are shown in total. Two—Josephina, who made the initial discovery and enacted the initial theft, and Gretchen, a greedy Machiavellian of gallery politics—are both represented as having effectively become works of art, and these two are the victims least invested in actually appreciating art for its own sake: on finding out that her lover is abandoning the Haze Gallery to return to his lower-class art collective, Josephina tells him icily, and unwittingly mere minutes before her death, ‘What’s the point of art if no one sees it?’

Josephina’s decline in character is interestingly marked out toward its beginning, by her chance encounter with a man from Parlack (the company that owns the building, he explains); the name evokes the ‘person from Porlock’ who ruined Coleridge’s attempt to recollect his dreamt poem Kubla Khan. In this case, the disturbance is superficially opposite, since it is thanks to the man from Parlack that Josephina finds Dease’s work, yet Parlack and Porlock effect the same thing at a deeper level, namely the separation of their ‘targets’ from immersion in art; for it is, paradoxically, the discovery of Dease that seals Josephina’s fate as a woman who can no longer see art as something to be made for the mere pleasure of creation, and appreciated in those terms, but only as something to be profited from, whether the profit be in money or in prestige.

A slightly different Æsop is represented in the deaths of Morf and Rhodora. Morf, always a rather cruel, flippant critic, consents to Josephina’s request (while the two are romantically involved) to give a bad review to an artist that he actually does like. Rhodora is revealed early on in the film to have been one half of an anarchistic punk band, the eponymous Velvet Buzzsaw, in her younger days; yet when we meet her she is the queen of LA’s most snobbish elite. Both, Morf especially, get some handle on what is going on as the bodies and bizarre occurrences pile up; Morf is genre savvy enough not only to notice that his own haunting by Dease began from the point where he corrupted his integrity as an art critic to satisfy his lover, but to try to deal with the problem by locking away his own pieces by Dease and begging Rhodora to do the same with all the remaining collection. Too little, too late: the sculpture that kills him is one he had given a withering review to at the beginning of the film (before Dease’s work had been discovered by anybody), which he had criticized not for being poor in technique or a fundamentally bad idea, but basically for being something he had seen done before.

Rhodora seems to be within inches of escape. She has every piece of art, by Dease and everyone else, removed from her home and securely stored. But there are two pieces of art that she cannot divest herself of, a pair of tattoos. One is seen briefly on her arm, early in the film, and reads ‘No Death No Art’; but her downfall is the other, which is appropriately on the back of her shoulder, just out of sight. It is her band name, surrounded by a buzzsaw, and when she accidentally recreates a Dease composition, her tattoo becomes animated and tears her apart.

Three characters who are intimately involved with the Dease plot do escape with their lives: Coco (played by Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things fame), Piers, and Damrish. Coco is a young office assistant who is trying to learn the game of rivalry and manipulation that helped make the other characters successful—in practice, angling to be the next Gretchen. But, after being taken on as a personal assistant by three of the victims and finding each of them dead the next morning, she releases a perfectly timed scream of ‘FUCK ME!’ and gives up on LA entirely. The only thing of Dease’s that she takes with her, perhaps unwittingly, is his cat, and as far as we know from the film she is spared: not profiting from his art directly at any point, and generous enough to care for his cat, we might even read it as Dease’s ghost driving her away out of kindness.

Piers and Damrish, two professional artists, escape Dease’s wrath in a different way. They admire his art as art, and in fact it helps inspire Damrish to reject the elite art world and return to the salt-of-the-earth collective that he had been part of before. Piers, who is presented through most of the film as feeling that he’s lost his creativity after getting sober, is captivated by Dease’s paintings, and works hard to rediscover his own artistic passion; and the credits play over Piers on the beach, alone, drawing sweeping curves and loops and shapes with a piece of driftwood, once again creating simply to create and not for some ostensible profit.

The flaw that makes Velvet Buzzsaw good rather than great is closely linked to one of its finest virtues. The script, acting, and cinematography are all exquisite; but because the film is attempting a certain campiness in its horror, it leaves the viewer with a bizarre clash of tones. Ideally the craftsmanship should have contributed to the atmosphere of the striking, yet essentially superficial art world. But the expert execution makes these characters and their concerns feel more profound than they have any right to, and in consequence, the deaths come of as an uneasy mixture of tragic with tragicomic. I think the correct solution here would have been to make the more apparently dignified characters (e.g. Josephina and Gretchen) just a little more over-the-top than they are, to draw the film into the campiness that was Gilroy’s stated aim. The unevenness of tone in the movie as it stands is a serious problem—it either gives the audience whiplash or, more likely, produces a vague sense of distaste that can’t be definitely pinned on any one thing (unless it were the truly goofy special effects used for Gretchen’s dismemberment).

Should You Watch It?

I give Velvet Buzzsaw a firm B+, and it would’ve scraped an A if it had fixed its tone problem. So I’d say that if you have a particular taste for satire, horror, or modern art, you’ll likely enjoy this film. If you’re neutral toward those things, I wouldn’t avoid this movie by any means, but I wouldn’t make a point of seeing it. And finally, if you dislike any of the three but you’re trying to be open-minded, this is not the film by which to give them a second chance: go with a horror-satire like Tucker and Dale vs Evil or a genuine horror classic like The Babadook instead.

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  1. I’m can’t say I’m a fan of horror or Modernism, especially in Lent, but that’s just me.

    1. Prolly not the film for you, then. (Personally, I don't *categorically* dismiss modern art but I am very suspicious and demanding with it, since so much of the modern art I've seen sucks so hard.) Of course, I watched VB for horror reasons rather than art reasons -- but like I said, B+. A person who wants to give horror another shot would be better served by something like "The VVitch" (for supernatural/religious horror), "The Invitation" or "American Horror Story: Cult" (for naturalistic horror), or "The Babadook" (for allegorical/folkloric horror).

    2. Thanks for the suggestions. If I do watch horror, I tend to prefer films with a certain nostalgic patina about them, like “The Omen”, “The Exorcist” “The Ninth Gate” or “American Psycho”. I’ve tried watching the Hellraiser films, but they’re too twisted and gory. Of more (relatively) recent films, the film adaptation of “Doom” was rather good - and of course, “The Walking Dead” series...

    3. I just got around to watching this movie. It was great. Very fun and entertaining. Not scary at all (I don’t like scary). I loved the artworld characters. Reminds me of when I used to go to art expos in high school. I really loved the scene where Rhodora mistook Coco’s name for “Rococo.” That says it all.

      I don’t know if the point that Dease used his own blood to paint is all that clear. To me it seemed like he was a murderer and used the blood of his victims. That’s why it would be so damaging to the sales. If he used his own blood it would be a bit different (I would think).

  2. Hmmm... I dunno. It's been awhile since I've seen Brokeback, but if I recall correctly, Heath Ledger was definitely bi, but I have a hard time seeing Gyllenhall as bi. What do we base this assessment on?

    1. I read both of them as bisexual, because it seems like the most economical explanation of their sex lives to me. I do think that Jack is more likely a Kinsey 4 to Ennis' 3 (or whatever their exact values are); he certainly seems more emotionally open and consciously invested in their relationship than Ennis is. But Jack's confidence in himself, which the movie accents in a few different ways and moments (but above all in the scene where he and his father-in-law have their passive-aggressive fight over the television), suggests to me that he wouldn't have married a woman if he didn't want to. That said, it's been some time since I saw the film, too.