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Where ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ disappoints, ‘The Price of Everything’ fills in gaps

| Thursday, February 14, 2019

Lina Domenella | The Observer

“We don’t sell durable goods, we peddle perception. Thin as a bubble,” says Rene Russo as a money-hungry art dealer in “Velvet Buzzsaw.”

She might as well have been describing the movie itself. Dan Gilroy, who directed the movie for Netflix, had all the ingredients for an acerbic, intellectually engaging horror-comedy in his hands, but he let them slip through his fingers. The resulting, self-indulgent mess boils down to a glitzy montage of images from Los Angeles’ otherworldy fine art scene — champagne bubbling in a pristine glass, crisp white gallery walls, beautiful people in glasses looking terrified — and very little substantive critique.

In the film, Josephine (Zawe Ashton), an aspiring gallerist, discovers that her upstairs neighbor, the inscrutable and troubled Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell), has died, leaving behind troves of unseen art. Ignoring Dease’s wishes for the art to be destroyed, she steals the canvases and, with the collaboration of art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) and gallerist Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), begins to sell the work at enormous prices.

What comes next feels almost too predictable: The unknown artist, Dease, turns out to be a twisted, murderous psychopath; the ill-begotten art turns on its new owners and, mysteriously, kills them off, one-by-one, in darkly ironic — if a bit nonsensical — ways.

As the movie devolves into a revenge-slasher flick, gruesome and oh-so-predictable deaths begin to roll in about every 10 minutes or so like clockwork. The possibility for nuanced critique of a corrupted art world diminishes as the plot creeps forward to its inevitable end. This is all a shame, because the complex and discouraging relationship between money and art is a field ripe for careful study.

One such study already exists: Nathaniel Kahn’s thoughtful — but no less damning — documentary of today’s art market, “The Price of Everything.”

If art geeks are searching for a corrective after a disappointing viewing of “Velvet Buzzsaw,” this is their antidote. In the documentary, Kahn interviews an impressive bunch of contemporary artists working today, including Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Marilyn Minter, Gerard Richter and Jeff Koons; reporters, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jerry Saltz; and famed art collector Stefan Edlis.

As Kahn lays bare the inner machinations of the art world — how a painting is made, valued, sold, purchased and re-purchased at higher prices — the documentary cuts to the heart of the absurdity of the way art is appraised and valued much more effectively than Gilroy’s horror-thriller.

Some of Kahn’s interviewees bear striking resemblances to the fictional characters in Gilroy’s film, although his real-life subjects are much more interesting and impressive than their fictionalized counterparts. Rene Russo’s character Rhodora Haze, who owns and operates a gallery for contemporary art in Gilroy’s film, has the same trenchant sense for a good sale as Amy Cappellazzo, the charismatic real-life vice president of the Fine Arts division of Sotheby’s.

In “Velvet Buzzsaw,” Piers (John Malkovich), a crotchety, aging artist, struggles to produce new works and maintain footing in the competitive art world after going sober. In Kahn’s documentary, we find a similar narrative in the life and work of Larry Poons, an artist who surged in popularity in the 1960s but then disappeared to relative obscurity, only to witness a resurgence of interest in his work around the time the documentary was being produced. Both men, fictional and real, experienced the rollercoaster of value and devaluation of the contemporary art market, which places extraordinary pressure on artists to churn out newer and better works in an endlessly competitive cycle.

Yet in both cases, real life surpasses fiction. Unlike the sketch of an artist we receive in Piers, Larry Poons comes across in interviews as sharp, funny and endearing — his story forms the heart of the documentary. As he paints in his countryside studio, surrounded by thick globs of paint and a small mountain of half-empty paint cans, he works with a calm intensity that uplifts and inspires, even in the midst of such a depressing film.

“My only defense against fate is color,” Poons says — a striking reminder that, in contrast to an art world full of superfluous wealth, his work stems a simple necessity to create. Contrast this with “Velvet Buzzsaw,” where we never see an artist so much as pick up a brush or a can of paint. Nestled within these scenes, and Kahn’s directorial vision, Poons’ words plant a seed of redemption.

Title: “Velvet Buzzsaw”

Released: Jan. 31, 2019

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Zawe Ashton, Rene Russo

Director: Dan Gilroy

Genre: Horror-comedy

If you like: “Nightcrawler,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Suspiria”

Shamrocks: 2 out of 5


Title: “The Price of Everything”

Released: Oct. 19, 2018

Director: Nathaniel Kahn

Genre: Documentary

If you like: Contemporary art, money, art history

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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