Distilling a life’s story down to a single film can be a daunting task — especially when documenting the life of an artist. It’s one thing to create a biopic on a politician, athlete, or historical figure. Their narratives, whether complex or straightforward, are largely independent of aesthetic. Their biopics may be bound by temporal or factual parameters, but these parameters inform the aesthetic, rather than dictate it. A movie about John F. Kennedy would have a complexion different from one on Howard Hughes, but both subjects afford a measure of directorial license. Oliver Stone’s signature would shine through with as much clarity as Martin Scorcese’s.
Artists, on the other hand, present an entirely different case. Here, the director must work not only within historical limits, but within aesthetic ones, as well. This window is narrowed, in large part, because of audience expectations. When we sit down to see a film on Picasso, for example, we go in expecting the work to have a certain constitution. Because we’re already familiar with the artist’s work, we assume that any filmic representation of his life would, on some level, reflect his real-life aesthetic. By this logic, a film on Van Gogh should incorporate the pastoral, a film on Pollock the frenetic, and a film on Dali the fantastical.
These expectations extend to the realm of narrative, as well, thanks to the age-old archetype of “artist as tortured soul.” We expect a certain amount of drama from nearly every work of fiction we encounter, but these demands are only amplified in the case of the artist — someone who, by our preconceptions, has led a life of emotional and interpersonal extremes, of internal strife and external struggle.
The challenge, then, is one of balance. How does a director — himself an artist — put his personal stamp on a film that’s predicated upon someone else’s art? How does she dramatize inherently dramatic source material without veering into the maudlin?
The answers, of course, will invariably hinge upon a director’s given subject, and his or her cinematic sensibilities. But what happens when the line between subject and artist begins to blur; when the director finds himself bleeding into the biography? What happens, is Basquiat.
Basquiat presents an interesting case study on a number of levels. For one, director Julian Schnabel had already risen to the upper echelons of the art world by the time Jean-Michel began turning heads, and both were deeply embedded within the New York art scene of the 1980s. They first met in 1981, and soon fostered a relationship that Schnabel would later describe as both “sweet” and “volatile.” No director can ever be completely removed from his subject, but Schnabel brings a uniquely intimate perspective to this biopic — so intimate, in fact, that the character Albert Milos, played by Gary Oldman, is based on Schnabel himself.
It’s hard to quantify the impact Schnabel’s perspective had on his approach to narrative, though it certainly affects viewer expectations. With Schnabel at the helm, we go into the film in anticipation of a different kind of biopic, one told not from the eyes of a peripheral observer, but from the viewpoint of a true insider. Given that the two knew each other so well, the audience doesn’t really expect an objective rendering, either. All we can hope for is a vision of Basquiat through Schnabel’s lens. In a sense, then, the movie is as much a biopic on Basquiat as it is on Schnabel himself.
The film is also distinct in its temporal proximity to its subject. Basquiat was released in 1996, just eight years after the artist’s fatal heroin overdose. Moviegoers at the time may not have been familiar with his full oeuvre, but his death was still close enough for the Basquiat name to hold cultural cachet. This provided Schnabel with rather substantial liberty as a storyteller. He didn’t need to spend much time excavating Basquiat’s past, building the case for his fame, or even fleshing out the New York art scene. All were still vivid enough for contemporary audiences to remember, allowing Schnabel to sow his creative energies within a tighter patch of space and time.
The director takes full advantage of these redefined parameters, eschewing the chronological, and at times, the narrative convention itself. Schnabel’s work gives us only a brief, stylized glimpse into Basquiat’s early life, during the opening credits. Sprinkled in among the title cards are blue-tinted shots of a young Jean-Michel walking through a gallery with his mother. The child looks into the camera once the credits close, before the scene pans upward, where a radiant crown sits atop his head. No words, no explanation, no context. From here, we’re thrown years into the future, with a shot of an adult Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) sleeping in a cardboard box.
Everything pertaining to the artist’s past is presented within the fabric of the film’s present day. Through conversations and events, we learn of Basquiat’s Haitian origins. We know his mother is in some sort of institution, but that’s about it. Actions unfold within dimly lit studios and lofts, grimy apartments, Lower East Side street corners. Figures like Andy Warhol (David Bowie) drift in and out of the story. Some, like Warhol, play a critical role throughout the film. Others fall by the wayside, sometimes without explanation.
Compared with the methodical architecture behind most linear biopics, Basquiat‘s storyline seems held together by atmosphere, rather than concrete actions. There are events that clearly fuel his meteoric rise, but Schnabel’s Basquiat seems more a product of his environment than his own prerogative. Things happen to him, people act upon him, and fame suddenly materializes out of thin air.
The result is a story predicated less upon plot than it is upon society, and, more subtly, psychology. There’s a distinct aesthetic at work, but it’s an aesthetic of place, rather than person or, in this case, art. (The few Basquiat paintings that appear are actually reproductions; Basquiat’s father refused to allow originals in the film.) Because of this, Wright’s character comes across as helplessly decentralized, despite the fact that he remains the fulcrum upon which the entire plot pivots. As we find out, though, the force that’s manipulating these levers — the engine behind the narrative — is not our protagonist himself, but an amalgam of pressures, each a direct product of time and place.
As these forces gradually exert their influence, both Basquiat and Schnabel’s narrative seem to drift ever deeper into a fugue-like dream state. Recurring images of televised surfers and water skiers flash across the Manhattan sky as Basquiat’s life crumbles around him. Simultaneously, we begin to appreciate the widening gulf between the studio, where Basquiat works with quiet, preternatural deliberation, and an outside world that consumes, chews, and spits out everything in its wake.
In an interview with Charlie Rose shortly after the film’s release, Schnabel affirmed that, despite the critical role that the art world plays in Basquiat, he does not blame society for his demise, though he doesn’t blame the artist, either. As he sees it, Basquiat simply fell between the cracks dividing art from reality, the studio from the streets. “There is this kind of chasm between the artist and society that is very, very large,” Schnabel explained. “One of the reasons for making this film was that it might shorten the distance of this chasm. It demystifies the process of making art.”
And, as he says, only someone with an intimate knowledge of this milieu could have faithfully translated it into the language of cinema: “I just felt like a tourist shouldn’t make this film.”