Velvet Buzzsaw: Horror in the Art Business

Toni Collette comes to a gory but artistic end in Velvet Buzzsaw

I love movies about art and artists. There never seem to be enough of them. I know they are often cheesy and the art is fake and the stories are inaccurate or overblown or just plain wrong, but it’s so rare to be able to enter the world of art at a visual level apart from going to galleries or looking at pictures online. Even the good movies can be hard to come by: they often have short releases and disappear completely unless you are old school and collect DVDs.

Mostly they are biopics. A recent unexpected hit was Mr Turner (2015), an interesting attempt to explore the art through the strangeness of the man.

Was Turner really such a sourpuss?

Other titles since 2000 include Frida (2002), Modigliani (2004), El Greco (2007), Shirley (2007), an attempt to bring to literal narrative some of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Probably the most famous movies (and books) are those about Vincent van Gogh, including the recent At Eternity’s Gate, with Daniel Defoe in the role (2018). Haven’t seen it yet, but no doubt will do so soon (and write a review).

Velvet Buzzsaw is something completely different. It is a kind of horror film, a kind of parody, a kind of postmodern fantasy and a trenchant critique of the excesses of today’s art world. A remarkable cast includes Toni Collette styled after a famous (real) museum director, Jake Gyllenhal as the awful but powerful art critic Morf and Rene Russo as the art dealer. It is also a great outing for British actor Zawe Ashton, playing Josephina, the only likeable character in the ménage.

The Variety reviewer calls it “a tarted-up throwback to a certain kind of trashy ‘70s horror movie”. As a dedicated fan of trashy 70s movies, I disagree. While writer-director Dan Gilroy uses some of the tropes and gestures of that genre, he is also offering more than cheap thrills. Just as his creepy and unforgettable film Nightcrawler forced us to focus on what it means to “get the picture” (in that case, video footage of ultra-violent late night events in Los Angeles) Velvet Buzzsaw insists on the bizarre linkage between art, consumption and the ultra-wealthy elites who circulate and control the market in art and who destroy art (and truth) in the process.

Dan Gilroy
Director Dan Gilroy: he doesn’t look happy either.

It is interesting that Gilroy originally wanted to make a film about Weegee, a crime photographer in New York in the 1930s. 

“Weegee”: New York Crime Scene Maestro

Weegee was known as “The Father of Crime Scene Photography” and after being considered a weird outsider for decades he is now being recognized for his major innovations in photography, documentary and journalism. What he has in common with Gilroy is that he shows the kind of horror which everyone wants to see – a desire they can’t admit to. This would have made a fine follow-on from Nightcrawler but the logistics of recreating the era which calls for a brutalist noir approach would have been difficult and the result might have been too much altogether for the contemporary movie audience.

What matters to me in Gilroy’s work to date is that he is exploring the consumption of images, art, photography and the unconscious. He is tracking something about the hidden (or not-so-hidden) truths behind the emergent forces created by contemporary excess-capitalism. Art and media representation collide along a continuum of cruelty and inequality. The viewers want the gore: the super-saturated world of elite wealth and good taste masks a limitless violence against art in its deepest meaning. Although elements of the film jarred somewhat and the idea of a dead artist’s works having a kind of demonic intention is a bit OTT, see the film for its inventive depictions and wonder how much further the art world can go with its exuberant destruction of the concept of value and its embrace of very expensive cheap thrills. For Netflix fans, Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming now (February 2019).