All art is dangerous.
The underlying idea of Dan Gilroy‘s art world horror Velvet Buzzsaw is an intriguing one because it forces us to realize how extensive the profiteering branch patterns of one single canvased tree of paint are. There’s the artist seeking notoriety, the gallery owner providing it, the consumers catching a glimpse at exhibits, the pocketbooks of buyers, the curators banking on ticket sales after hopping onto the bandwagon, and the critics supplying exposure in return for clicks. And that’s just the main offshoots which themselves possess more of their own as that artwork becomes an infinitely reproduced commodity whose worth is predicated on something devoid of true tangible merit beyond the subjective. Eventually the piece is so removed from its origins that artistic intent is replaced by public delusion.
It’s a self-fulfilling necessity, though, that cynical minds could call the destruction of creativity. If an artist creates simply to sell his/her work, is the product authentic or merely a means to an end? Maybe an artist like Piers (John Malkovich) was discovered because his alcohol-fueled works spoke to people before he knew they could, but who’s to say that same magic will be reignited now that he’s sober, famous, and desperately searching for a hit? As soon as you get that taste of success, the headspace earning it becomes replaced by something different. People line-up to leverage your appeal and get rich off it without regard for the art or you beyond monetary value. If it ruins you, they’ll simply move on to the next.
What Gilroy gets correct is the ease at which someone with scruples and integrity sells out. You look at Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) for example. She was a creator who ultimately decided to give up her own art and market that of others. So she understands any art worth a damn is that which artists make for themselves—the result of a muse, tragedy, or vision they must breathe life into as a means of catharsis rather than commerce. Rhodora even tells clients this fact despite knowing how doing so might mean their exile from the limelight she profits off. Why? Because honesty cultivates relationships and perhaps their resurrection of genius will eventually be placed at her feet. But that’s her final option. She’ll milk you dry first.
The same goes for the jaded and defeated, aging purveyors who toil for decades watching others cash in before finally deciding to follow suit. Gretchen (Toni Collette) was a buyer for a prestigious if thrifty museum who decides to lend her expertise and connections to a private collector willing to pay more for her ruthlessness. And you can throw renowned critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the mix too once his respected if abrasively delivered holier than thou attitude is compromised by love. It really was joyous to see the looks of disgust he provided upon having those who wished to bribe him (financially, psychologically, and emotionally) treat him like a whore. That he inevitably became one isn’t surprising. It’s simply another boringly obvious choice among many.
It’s this unfortunate reality that Velvet Buzzsaw can never escape: its pedestrian genre mechanics. Gilroy uses the atmosphere of art as an environment in which to murder with impunity rather than a place worthy of the introspection, satire, and purpose it might have otherwise possessed. He wields the allure of a dead man’s paintings that have never seen the light of day over the heads of those with the knowhow and resources to let them take the world by storm. This collection is a temptation they cannot escape because any issues of morality they’ve either learned to ignore or are just now confronting have been removed. You can’t physically exploit the deceased when no next of kin exist. What about the art, though? What about its life?
Now enters a bit of the supernatural courtesy of some macabre painting elements that provide works of art the opportunity to fight back. Bodies begin to fall, the insanity of what appears to be happening is finally given credence, and the art continues its rampage. Sadly there arrives no notion of an endgame or objective. Some characters are given the chance to see the carnage as an eye-opening experience to catalyze an exodus from the deceit gallery life provides and some actually exploit the exploiters (Natalia Dyer‘s Coco is at one point everyone’s assistant) for comic relief at the expense of letting this contrast say something. I guess the art’s integrity is therefore the protagonist, but that interpretation is counter-intuitive to the product (this film) saying so.
Because if Gilroy’s purpose is to say that art bought and sold isn’t as pure as art born from the blood, sweat, and tears of its creator and destroyed by him/her, what is Velvet Buzzsaw? Film at this level of production is built for-profit and Netflix simultaneously serves as agent and gallery space. They also become a private buyer who in the context of the film is somewhat of a heroic figure (who lives and dies on-screen is chosen via spotty mechanics at best when you consider Morf and Zawe Ashton‘s Josephina are forever in the same amount of peril despite the former learning a lesson while the latter doesn’t) refusing to let art get watered down by a free market. Is Netflix thus altruistic and evil both?
I think Gilroy needs some time at Rhodora’s beach house to clear his mind and remember what it is to create with hunger because this isn’t it. A good film is trapped inside this mess of impulse and convolution, though, if only he wasn’t beholden to high concept slasher deaths in lieu of meaning. Because he does have something worth saying here—something that’s hidden beneath a fear to say it at risk of critiquing himself. Gilroy isn’t the enigmatic Dease who’d rather burn his work than let it be manipulated outside of its intent. No, he’s gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) looking for an angle to sell hollow canvases on nothing but the pedigree of the name attached. They can’t all blindly be masterpieces.