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‘Velvet Buzzsaw’, a tragically ludicrous satire of the art world

Dylan Amirio

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, February 6, 2019  /  03:49 pm
‘Velvet Buzzsaw’, a tragically ludicrous satire of the art world

Art sense: Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal appear in a key scene in Netflix's 'Velvet Buzzsaw'. (Netflix/-)

Velvet Buzzsaw takes a satirical stab at the pretentious fine arts industry, but is undone by its comical and camp style of horror.

Five years after the critically acclaimed thriller Nightcrawler, director Dan Gilroy has once again collaborated with its leading star, Jake Gyllenhaal, in Velvet Buzzsaw.

The movie satirizes the fine arts industry in a clever way that awakens industry figures to the world outside their self-righteous bubble – even if it takes haunted paintings and gory deaths for them to get it.

The beautifully haunting, dark and visceral paintings of a deceased artist is discovered by down-on-her-luck gallery assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton). Instead of getting rid of them, those wishing to profit from the artist’s oeuvre eats them up rabidly, triggering the backstabbing and sneaky deals that typically happen in the industry.

At the center of everything is charismatic, feared art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), who also becomes entangled in the whole capitalist mess. Their greed slowly leads all those involved to meet their fates, one by one.

Cursed works: Tom Sturridge (right) plays a gallery owner who's desperate to get ahead of his competitors, even if it means dabbling in the dark arts.Cursed works: Tom Sturridge (right) plays a gallery owner who's desperate to get ahead of his competitors, even if it means dabbling in the dark arts. (Netflix/-)

Never has art looked so terrifying since Night Gallery, the TV horror series of 1970s America. The haunted paintings of Velvet Buzzsaw possess an exceptional depth and terror that would fit perfectly in the halls of the Rod Serling anthological series.

But the horror in Velvet Buzzsaw is not one that strikes immediate fear in the hearts of viewers. On the contrary, its horrors and scares border the comical and the camp.

In fact, the comical and sometimes childish horrors that Velvet Buzzsaw depicts reminds me of that delightful '90s TV show, Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Paintings that move and murder? A tattoo that kills? An armless art curator? Humans literally becoming art? These all sound like the ideas you might find in a horror flick for kids – only, you know, with more blood.

Immersion: A colorful end meets Zawe Ashton's character, art assistant Josephina.Immersion: A colorful end meets Zawe Ashton's character, art assistant Josephina. (Netflix/-)

It’s a camp take on the highfalutin fine arts industry, which needs to be injected with some humor and silliness every now and then. 

But the film gives us a look into the different jobs in the industry, from gallery owners to curators, artists, gallery staff and to assistants, and most of all, critics. All have their own balls to juggle in the cutthroat industry. 

“Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” says Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf in one scene, effectively describing the job in one sentence.

In an ideal scenario, critique should be free of interference. But in the art world, this is hard to achieve due to the high stakes at play for all those involved.

Morf is sometimes torn and affected by personal biases or conflicting opinions with his peers and even his partners, producing reviews that he knows is not honest, but had to be done as emotional fulfillment for someone in his life.

In one scene, ruthless but sensible gallery owner and friend, Rhodora Haze (played wonderfully by Rene Russo), sarcastically tells Morf, “you are our god”, to which Morf responds with a smirk.

In a way, it is true. Art critics hold so much power over the industry that they are treated exceptionally well by industry figures, even to the point of brownnosing.

In one scene, a man who tried to impress Morf with a functional robot installation about homelessness is shot down as “unoriginal”. The gallery owner then briefly confronts Morf later (at a funeral, of all places) to tell him that his critique of the piece cost the gallery a sale, to which an already distracted and distraught Morf replies, “I am not your mouthpiece.”

With that quote, Morf also summarizes the basic sense of integrity that critics should abide by, and one that he should probably practice more. 

Price of prestige: Toni Collette excels as art curator Gretchen, here standing in front of a Jeff Koontz-esque installation. Price of prestige: Toni Collette excels as art curator Gretchen, here standing in front of a Jeff Koontz-esque installation. (Netflix/-)

But then again, because Velvet Buzzsaw is an over-the-top satire, Gyllenhaal’s critic is merely an exaggeration of how art critics are seen in real life.

The film also sees a wonderful performance from Daveed Diggs, an actor-singer of the acclaimed musical Hamilton. His character, street artist Damrish, is the antithesis to an industry that cares more about money than true talent and art.

An artist cutting his teeth on the streets, Damrish is averse to the industry and is probably the most down-to-earth and relatable character in Velvet. With his strong ideals born of the streets, he is able to handle the industry vultures better than John Malkovich’s Piers, an artist who has depressingly settled into the rut of creating art solely to satisfy the market. 

So, how important are one’s ideals, and how can one survive with them intact in the art world?

But enough ranting about the industry and the hyperbolic perils of being a critic. I’m sure everyone has their own way of dealing with these issues.

Velvet Buzzsaw is merely an OK horror film. It doesn’t ask to be taken seriously. Even if it did, there’s no way it can be; it’s just too camp.

 

Info Box

Director and writer: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich
Production: Netflix, Dease Pictures Inc.
Running time: 113 minutes