Basquiat: Julian Schnabel's Radiant Child

by Harry Kloman

The life of the young artist Jean Michel Basquiat, who died at age 27 of a heroin overdose in 1988, crossed paths with the life of Andy Warhol, who by the time Basquiat met him had attained the position of art world icon. Their intersection in some ways bolstered Basquiat's career, and probably accounts in part for why artist Julian Schnabel would choose Basquiat as the subject for his debut as a filmmaker.

But the Warhol connection is just a hook in Schnabel's film, which is really quite good on its own terms. It's not a film that tries to examine why Basquiat's work became famous or to justify why it should have. Basquiat is a character study of a lonely creative young man, and at the same time an insider's pointed glimpse at the New York art scene, and especially the people whose money makes it tick.

Jean Michel Basquiat was an anomaly in the art world of the early '80s, which is why some claim he became famous. He was black, the son of a Haitian father and African American mother; he was raised middle-class, but he chose instead to live in crummy apartments and sometimes on the streets, painting graffiti slogans and drawings on walls, hoping someone would discover him, but not having the resources or know-how himself to break into the art world.

Finally, at a party, someone does: The poet Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott), who introduces him to a museum curator (Paul Bartel), another artist (Gary Oldman), some important dealers, and ultimately to Andy Warhol (David Bowie). Fame and fortune follow, although Jean is always insecure, wondering if they only like him because he's black and from the streets.

Is he, as Time magazine claims, "the Eddie Murphy of the art world?" Do the uptown patrons who buy his work do so because they think they're buying "the true voice of the gutter?" Or is his work simply what all art should be: Beauty hanging on a wall, a rare sublimation of human experience touched by the inexplicable hand of creativity.

After a while as a famous artist, Jean begins to feel the misanthropic Warhol is his only friend, and even then he begins to obsess on one writer's claim that Warhol is only using Jean to heighten his own reputation. Yet their friendship seems to blossom, for each is a shy man who can't quite explain his taste and doesn't seem to want to.

Schnabel makes it rather clear that the art world was not Jean's assassin, although it may have supplied him with the resources to buy more bullets. Before he becomes a notable artist, Jean is a loner and a depressive, probably clinically so (his mother was mentally ill), who uses drugs because they inhabit his world and so there's no reason not to use them. Everything that happens to his personality as an artist is a magnification of the things that troubled him before his fame.

Some of the characters in Basquiat are based on real people; some are composites of friends and acquaintances who played a role in Jean's life. The sophisticates who buy Jean's paintings are so transparent and self-absorbed that it almost seems like Schnabel is scoffing at the notion that the work should ever have become famous to begin with. So Basquiat is not a docu-drama, but rather an impression of the artist's life and times, with Schnabel's well-informed (if occasionally heavy) hand guiding our point of view.

The movie's ghostly dreamlike opening scene begins the dark voyage. First we see the child Jean and his mother walking down a long empty corridor; then they're in a vacant art gallery with empty walls, except for Picasso's "Guernica." They stand before the famous painting for a moment, and Jean's mother breaks into a fit of deep soulful crying. A bright light shines over them, and a luminous gold crown appears on Jean's head.

The image of the crown recurs in Basquiat (Jean sometimes uses it to sign his street graffiti). So, too, does another surreal image: From time to time the blue of the sky turns into a blue ocean, with a surfer riding free and easy on the waves.

These metaphors are very well done, and you can interpret them as you like. But I think they're most effective if you just relax with them and regard them as curious journeys into Jean's mind, the place where his pain and artistry reside.

Schnabel doesn't go deeply into any of his ideas; whether he should have is something to consider. Still, he raises plenty of things to think about, and he dramatizes them unusually well for a first-time director who comes to the cinema from so different a visual medium.

In fact, I fear an audience of artists and art-world aficionados will spend more time discussing what's not up there on the screen than what is. There are many wonderful cinematic moments in Basquiat, some of them loud and virtuoso, some of them intimate and small. Schnabel hits more times than he misses, and though his story is episodic, his rhythm is slow enough that you can see situations unfold.

I think the movie's most penetrating scene is one in which a reporter interviews Jean. The man's questions at first seem banal, like why did he paint this image or that, or why are the human figures in his art so underdeveloped. Then the reporter, beautifully played by Christopher Walken, begins asking Jean about his inner life and family history. The shorter and quieter the questions become, the more you see Jean's isolation and fear.

It's a great dramatic moment, one of many from Jeffrey Wright, the Tony-winning New York stage actor who portrays Jean with a palette of strong and wide-ranging emotions. The celebrity cameos are just as good, and even the portrayal of Warhol grows on you once you get past noticing the indisguisable sideways curl of David Bowie's mouth.

Willem Dafoe appears briefly as an electrician/artist who's turning 40 and who's glad he hasn't been discovered yet because his art has had "time to develop." Wincott's Rene Ricard is a flaming flake. And Oldman is refreshingly low-keyed as a fashionable artist who likes spaghetti and has a bright young teen-age daughter.

These character snapshots add a lot to the fabric of Schnabel's drama, which does well at taking us into a challenging and troubled life. Schnabel neither declares Basquiat an artistic genius nor questions the reason for his fame. His desire is more to study his subject tenderly than to praise him surreptitiously. He's made a decent movie that answers a few questions and raises many more, which is, after all, the greatest intrinsic value any work of art can possess.