Burnaway > Film Review > Contemporary Art Kills in Satirical Thriller ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

Contemporary Art Kills in Satirical Thriller ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

Gallerist Josephina (Zawe Ashton) and art critic Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Velvet Buzzsaw, which begins streaming on Netflix on February 1.

Killer sculptures! Devouring paint! Performance art gone homicidal!

The contemporary Los Angeles art world is served up with a heaping helping of cheese in Dan Gilroy’s satirical thriller Velvet Buzzsaw, a made-for-Netflix feature making its debut on the streaming service February 1.

Dressed in a nerdcore white shirt buttoned up to his Adam’s apple and a bespoke black suit, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Morf Vanderwalt, an art critic with the kind of wardrobe and jet-setting lifestyle that will have real art critics making barely enough bank to keep gas in the Nissan chortling in disbelief. With his ability to make or break artists’ careers—“In our world, you are God!” opines blue chip gallerist Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo)—Morf is a well dressed cypher with Clement Greenberg’s power and Matthew Barney’s bohunk biceps, courtesy of Pilates. He’s introduced stalking Art Basel Miami Beach offering koan-like pronouncements—“Visionary! Mesmeric!”—leaving a path of cowed artists and withered gallerists in his wake.

Rhodora (Rene Russo) and Morf (Jack Gyllenhaal) in Velvet Buzzsaw.

A solar system of stock characters flit around Morf’s taste-making orbit: former punk rocker (of the titular band Velvet Buzzsaw, an Easter egg tease that plays out in the film’s denouement) turned zeitgeist-surfing gallerist Rhodora; underpaid museum curator turned cash-flush private art dealer Gretchen (Toni Collette); burned out, painter’s blocked artist Piers (John Malkovich); rising star artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs) and sexy, ambitious gallerina Josephina (Zawe Ashton). The funniest bit in a film largely devoid of yucks has a sycophant gallerist visiting Piers’s studio, crouching low to admire a lump of trash bags and refuse set in the middle of the vast floor.

“It’s not art,” Piers deadpans, quickly pulling the dealer away from his studious contemplation.

The impetus for the destruction of these shallow bores is, natch, looking, that most American of crimes. Josephina discovers a secret Henry Dargeresque cache of paintings in a hermetic neighbor Vitril Dease’s apartment after his death. With their scenes of terrified children, mayhem and malaise, the dystopian, coffee-colored outsider paintings are an instant art world hit, spreading like a disease to buyers and museums around Los Angeles. Centered on images of abuse and violence, the paintings leach blood, infect nearby artworks with their murderous malice and ultimately, kill.

The genesis of Gilroy’s screenplay was a deserted stroll around Beacon, New York’s Dia Art Foundation and the eeriness of contemplating surreal conceptual art solo in a big, white, empty void.

Art dealer Gretchen (Toni Collette) in Velvet Buzzsaw.

But Gilroy is not exactly striking out in a new direction in his skin-crawling aversion to contemporary art (see Nocturnal Animals, The Big Lebowski, L.A. Story, Woody Allen’s oeuvre and any Hollywood film featuring a scene in an art gallery). Art folk have never fared well in film, where their imagined pretense, funny glasses and black clothing is more often a source of levity and eye-rolling. The art scene has tended to do better on the small screen, in clever examinations of the low-stakes and major neuroses of the contemporary art world, such as Amazon’s I Love Dick, which at least recognized art-making, buying and criticism as legitimate occupations. A far better satire for both acknowledging the art world’s gilded absurdities without utterly trashing its prey, Ruben Ostlund’s award-winning The Square walked that fine line between parody, commentary and squirm-inducing reality effect. It used the art world as a way to examine all of our contemporary human foibles and hypocrisies rather than suggesting contemporary art as some special bastion of cluelessness.

Velvet Buzzsaw comes on the heels of Gilroy’s incisively icky 2014 Nightcrawler, about an ambulance chasing videographer who sells grisly car crash and dead body footage to a local news station. In Nightcrawler, looks can also kill, or at least lead to America’s pervasive soul death, consumed by its society of the spectacle. A sociopath with shark eyes and a corpse affect, Jake Gyllenhaal’s creep with a camera was a far more damning evisceration of the American jones for sensation than Velvet Buzzsaw’s slap on the wrist to a tiny cadre of superficial art folk.

Gretchen (Toni Collette) and Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Velvet Buzzsaw.

But Velvet Buzzsaw’s fatal flaw may be that it quickly shifts from satire (these people are already obvious self-parodies when we meet them) into an R.L. Stine Goosebumps plot. How can you haunt people, after all, who have no soul?  

Gilroy so thoroughly guts, eviscerates, and parodies this world that the body count becomes video game abstract, like blowing away nazi zombies. When the greedy jackals of The Wolf of Wall Street and Wall Street get more respect than painters or critics in American society, Gilroy’s disgust feels hollow. For popular audiences the combination of commerce and art somehow invites more disgust than the blatant dollar-grab of the hedge fund—or Hollywood—set. Buying into the cliché that the best artists are the ones who struggle emotionally and financially, Gilroy cuts to the heart of that particular American hypocrisy when it comes to art. “I think the problem when you over-monetize ‘Art,’ it becomes an object rather than something imbued with a spirit, or an idea, or even a soul,” says Gilroy, who strips away the humanity of the contemporary art world in order to offer up the “news” that it has no soul.

Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming on Netflix beginning on February 1.

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