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Art on Screen from “Lust for Life” to “I Shot Andy Warhol”

David D’Arcy reviews the rash of films about art and artists now being made in the US

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Crumb (Terry Zwigoff)

Probably the finest documentary film about an artist in the last ten years. The subject is Robert Crumb, the satirical cartoonist who created Zap Comics, the signature San Francisco comics style of the late 1960s. Crumb’s characters tend to be oversized lustful women and fearful men, which may explain why the critic Robert Hughes calls him the Breughel of the late twentieth century. Zwigoff’s film shows that Crumb’s origins are far stranger than his characters’: an amphetamine-addicted mother, a stern father, one reclusive brother whose drawing talent outshines Robert’s, and another brother who sits on nails and strips off women’s clothes. Eight years in the making, Crumb proved to be a commercial success. It could point to further projects, either in documenting the lives of other popular-medium artists or in animating Crumb’s comics for the screen.

Search and Destroy (David Salle)

An adaptation of a fringe stage success in New York by one of the Eighties market boom’s chief beneficiaries. Salle’s directorial debut is full of kaleidoscopic scenes, perhaps intended as experiments with panels of colour. He has often likened his work with paintings and photographs to cinematic editing, but Salle’s producer Martin Scorcese, took the project out of the painter’s hands in the editing room. Critical response was overwhelmingly negative, as was the box office. That initial failure has not prevented Salle from finding another project to direct, an upcoming bio-pic about Jackson Pollock.

Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo)

Directed by a New York painter, this commercial technothriller is anything but an art film. Heart-throb Keanu Reeves stars as an intelligence agent in the early twenty-first century who carries secret information in a microchip embedded in his brain and spends nearly two hours fighting off all those who want to seize the chip. Laden with special effects, this film sought to appeal to the audience that watches music videos (some artists have directed in this medium), but flopped at the box office.

Nico Icon (Susanne Ofteringer)

This is the first of a series of films set in and around the Andy Warhol scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Funded by German television and directed by a young German woman, it examines the Warhol years, observed by way of Nico, the German beauty who sang with the Velvet Underground, the house band of Warhol’s Factory. Nico died later in a bicycle accident on Ibiza. The documentary contains much previously unseen archival footage from those years and interviews with most of the Warhol scene’s survivors. It has proven to be extremely popular with young audiences, an indication of a market for Warhol-inspired movies.

Excess and Punishment (Herbert Vesely)

First released in 1980, this bio-pic about the Viennese mythic rebel/pornographer Egon Schiele who died of influenza at age twenty-eight played recently at New York’s Film Forum with great success, something of a surprise given the negative reviews. The Van Gogh-tinged Schiele mystique that has grown in recent years may have accounted for the film’s appeal. So may the director’s unapologetic use of female nudity wherever possible, which critics pointed out with scorn, inadvertently building a following for the film. The tale of Schiele as Vienna’s persecuted fin de siècle culture hero is set to music by Brian Eno.

Coming soon to a cinema near you

Basquiat (Julian Schnabel)

Billed as a work conceived in homage to Jean Michel Basquiat, the graffitist turned Warhol protegé dead of a heroin overdose in 1988 at age twenty-seven, this fictional biography is also Schnabel’s view of the hype-driven art boom that rewarded Schnabel handsomely and devoured Basquiat. Schnabel launched the project as its screenwriter (and funded at least three ghost-written versions of the script), later deciding to make his debut as director. Since the movie lacked the full cooperation of the dead artist’s estate, the “Basquiats” shown on screen were painted by Schnabel. Those works threaten to swell the growing mass of Basquiat fakes in the marketplace. Some of the film’s cast (including David Bowie in the role of Andy Warhol) were said to have received Schnabel paintings in gratitude for their performances.

I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron)

The early days of Warhol’s Factory seen from the perspective of a minor character. Valerie Solanas, Warhol’s would-be assassin, led a one-person feminist cabal called the Society for Cutting Up Men (S.C.U.M.) and wrote its central text, the Swiftian “S.C.U.M. Manifesto”, which advocated the extermination of all heterosexual males as the first step to achieving a “groovy, swinging world”. Solanas was one of hundreds who drifted to Warhol’s silver-foil-lined studio, where she cajoled the artist to produce her plays. Her attack on Warhol, which nearly killed him, transformed the artist’s career. After 1968, he abandoned most experimentation for the society portraits which made him rich. The film presents a meticulous recreation of the atmosphere in which Warhol’s early work took shape. Lili Taylor’s portrayal of Valerie Solanas (sure to win critical praise) will leave audiences uncertain as to whether Solanas was a visionary satirist or just another psychotic Warhol groupie. The film makes its European premiere at the Cannes Film Festival next month.

Robert Mapplethorpe

At least two films dealing with the life and death from AIDS a decade ago of the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe are now being prepared. One is a screen adaptation of Patricia Morrisroe’s rigorously detailed biography. The other is a script written by Jack Walls, one of Mapplethorpe’s lovers. That scenario, now in the hands of the producers of I Shot Andy Warhol, is due for a rewrite by the pop singer Patti Smith, who lived with the photographer during the early 1970s. Difficulties over the use of Mapplethorpe’s work could complicate matters. So could the Mapplethorpe estate’s effort to prettify the photographer’s biography in order to enhance the value of his work and divert attention from the lurid sadomasochism that emerges from any account of his life. An Italian Mapplethorpe bio-pic is also said to be planned.

Jackson Pollock (David Salle)

Fresh from a critical and box-office failure in Search and Destroy, David Salle has been named as the likely director for an adaptation of the abstract expressionist’s life based on “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” written by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The screenwriter, Barbara Turner (author most recently of Georgia), has used the biographers’ extensive documentation but rejected their thesis that Pollock was gay. The project is set for shooting later this year and stars the actor Ed Harris in the title role. Initial financing came from James Trezza, the art dealer who acquired the rights to the Pollock biography. Pollock stories have been proposed for the screen for decades. One script written for the Wooster Group of New York focused on Pollock’s relationship with his mistress and was to feature the actor William Dafoe in the lead. Another, based on the journalism of Robert Katz, would have looked at the “roaring Fifties” of abstract expressionism through the perspective of Willem de Kooning. Barbra Streisand’s project to direct Robert de Niro as Pollock and play the role of Lee Krasner is now on hold.

Office Killer (Cindy Sherman)

Cindy Sherman’s career has been built on the creation of still photographs inspired by works of art, popular images, and historical moments, all of which turn out to be Sherman’s self-portraits. Many of these pictures replicate film publicity photographs. Sherman’s film, being shot this spring, is a horror movie about a serial killer on a magazine staff loose in a Manhattan office building. The photographer is not listed among cast members, although audiences may be watching for a Hitchcock-style cameo.

Picasso

On the heels of Surviving Picasso, another Picasso-inspired project may be in the works: a screen adaptation of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a stage comedy written by the actor Steve Martin. Set in Paris at the early part of the century, the play is structured around a bar-room encounter between Picasso and Einstein, and the ensuing talk of art and science in the modern world. A deus ex machina by another central twentieth-century figure, Elvis Presley, resolves the story. Since November, audiences have filled the Manhattan theatre where the play has run, fuelling speculation on a future film deal. Critics have viewed the play far less favourably than the audience has. Martin, known for his comic roles (most recently Sgt Bilko), is an art collector and a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The art world may have found box-office appeal for the first time since the days of Lust for Life, a 1956 melodrama based on the life of Vincent van Gogh. Not only are an unprecedented number of films about artists being made, but artists themselves are getting behind the camera to make some of these movies. And these films are not simply art movies, but commercial endeavours designed to make money. That may explain why they have involved such debut directors as Julian Schnabel and David Salle, two of the best-rewarded artists of the 1980s. Stories that have either already been completed for the screen or are in the process of being filmed treat such subjects as Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock, Picasso and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Why are so many of these films appearing now? As producers and directors scramble for new scripts, the last forty years of drama in the lives of artists have been largely untouched. “The business is so bankrupt in terms of ideas that they look at artists’ lives and say, ‘I can make a movie out of this’”, said one producer. During the Eighties, as the price of paintings rose, some of the artists who made them became celebrities in the broader public with genuine star appeal. Artists were wealthy, their lives often ended early and violently (Basquiat, Pollock, Mapplethorpe), and their careers intersected with dramatic moments in politics and fashion. The recent films have little to do with the creation of works of art and more with personalities and the intrigues of art and money.

“You can’t film the creative process, it’s entirely internal”, says Mary Harron, director of the forthcoming I Shot Andy Warhol, “and it always comes off as Lust for Life, overwrought and pretentious”.

This trend does have a precedent, in the very movies Harron dismisses. Already in the 1930s and with greater frequency after World War II, artists’ lives were the raw mulch from which psychological drama came forth. The Agony and the Ecstasy, the 1965 Michelangelo story directed by Carol Reed and starring Charlton Heston, remains the prototype for the tale of the headstrong, troubled genius who defies all odds to realise his vision. (The film was also hugely profitable.)

The new films about artists are much smaller efforts, most costing just a few million dollars to make, if not less. The exception to this rule is Surviving Picasso, the most recent project of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory about Picasso during the war years.

Low budgets mean that these films stand a better chance of making money if they find an audience. Some of them have already begun to turn a profit. One is Crumb, a documentary about Robert Crumb, the satirical comic-book artist, which was released in 1995 to critical acclaim. But these projects also face obstacles. In the case of Surviving Picasso and Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, the estates of the artists in question have denied the filmmakers the rights to show actual works of art or even reproductions in their films. For other projects, investors have simply been wary of committing the funds necessary to what may be too much of an art-world inside story.

Such is the case so far with Naked by the Window, a book by Robert Katz about the alleged killing of the painter Ana Mendieta by her lover, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was accused of hurling Mendieta off the terrace of a New York high-rise. The trial, which acquitted Andre, was an O.J. Simpson saga ten years before that courtroom drama. Yet, despite interest among directors and some producers (and the prospect at one time that Madonna sought the role of Mendieta), Katz’s project still lacks financing.

Another project which may never see the light of day is a biographical drama about Jackson Pollock, which was to have starred Robert de Niro under the direction of Barbra Streisand, who would have also played the role of Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner. Delays in advancing that project have not kept other Pollock scripts out of the marketplace, however.

Some film producers are already sceptical about the trend. “It’s just the flavour of the month”, according to Bingham Ray of October Films, a New York distributor known for releasing innovative films in the American market, and who distributed Search and Destroy. The market remains a small one, says Ray: “Most of the world out there doesn’t know who David Salle is and doesn’t care”.

Yet one fertile area in the art world for filmmakers to exploit these days is the intersection—beginning with Warhol—of the visual arts with pop music and fashion. Here visual possibilities offer more to the filmmaker and film-goer than the complex inner life of an abstract painter. Gender ambiguities (transvestism, homosexuality, bisexuality) that were central to Warhol’s Bohemia and to Robert Mapplethorpe’s career are now also matters of popular taste, especially for young film-goers who may know nothing about those artists’ works but nonetheless form a huge chunk of the audience.

No one is more surprised at the success of these new movies and of such revived Warhol films as The Velvet Underground than veterans of the Warhol Factory. “This movie was just made to be wallpaper for the band”, one of them recalled with amusement.