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‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ and Our Insecure, Inexhaustible Desire to Mock Fine Art

Plus some other random thoughts about Jake Gyllenhaal’s new Netflix horror film

If you didn’t have time over the weekend to see Velvet Buzzsaw, don’t worry: These 20 seconds from an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sum up the film nicely:

In the episode, “Dee Made a Smut Film,” Danny DeVito’s Frank Reynolds pretends to be an art collector, wearing a white wig and calling himself Ongo Gablogian. He is, of course, the height of pretension because that’s the way those art people are. We live in an age in which heightened sensitivity to easy comedic targets has removed a lot of the punching-down that used to be prevalent. But because of their elevated cultural status, artsy types are still fair game, and Velvet Buzzsaw is a whole movie devoted to satirizing them. The movie’s not very good, but its snide attitude toward its characters is especially irksome. I don’t mind when films mock elitists, but I really hate how Velvet Buzzsaw chooses to do it.

Velvet Buzzsaw is the new film from Dan Gilroy, a very clever writer-director who specializes in original stories. He’s worked on franchise stuff like The Bourne Legacy, but as a filmmaker, he’s given us Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq. and now Velvet Buzzsaw — movies with bold ideas and big themes.

With his latest, a loopy satire/horror film, he seems to be investigating the spiritual emptiness of modern life, focusing on a group of dissatisfied, posturing people who all work in fine art in L.A. You’ve got Rhodora (Rene Russo), a chilly gallery owner who used to be in a punk band before she realized that nonconformity was all bullshit anyway. We meet Gretchen (Toni Collette), a conniving curator whose every word is a lie meant to charm or obfuscate. Then there’s Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), a nasty art critic who lives to eviscerate bad work and pontificate in the most flowery way possible about the rare genius he sees. When we first meet Morf, we assume he’s gay because of Gyllenhaal’s flamboyant, borderline-offensive portrayal — he’s effeminate, effete and bitchy, y’know, just how those artsy people are. That we later discover he’s bisexual is almost beside the point: Like just about everybody else in Velvet Buzzsaw, what’s important to understand is that he’s odd, a weirdo, definitely not like you and me.

The line that Gilroy draws between “us” and “them” in Velvet Buzzsaw is a familiar one for those conversant in these kinds of art-world satires. Whether it’s foreign films, ballet, fashion or fine art, we have a knee-jerk need to mock their affectations. And as a consequence, we don’t trust people who love these art forms, assuming they must be putting on airs. (I mean, seriously, nobody really likes opera, right?) Not surprisingly then, the cinematic portrayal of these sorts of people is usually the same. Female characters are almost always cold, heartless bitches — their love of pretentious art has cut them off from their emotional sides — while the male characters are usually gay. And if they’re not gay, they’re probably foreign — or at least trying to act foreign. It’s bad enough that art-world men are total poseurs — they’re swishy and unmanly as well.

As a straight, male film critic who likes museums and foreign-language movies — I’ve never been able to fully access opera — films like Velvet Buzzsaw infuriate me. Look, I’m used to seeing annoying, sniveling critic characters in movies — everything from Ratatouille to The Lady in the Water has featured one — so that doesn’t bother me. (If filmmakers want to see my colleagues and me as snooty know-nothings, that’s their prerogative.) But Velvet Buzzsaw’s takedown of the art world’s vapidity comes across as awfully defensive, even bigoted — a way to encourage the audience that, don’t worry, “we’re” not weird for hating “those” kinds of people and the highfalutin stuff they like.

Just about everyone in Gilroy’s movie is vain, venal and stupid. The artwork we see is all postmodern, which obviously means it’s garbage, nonsensical or so simple that your kid could have painted it. Little of it is supposed to be good — Velvet Buzzsaw takes pains to reassure us that we don’t need to spend any time considering these paintings’ merits or ambitions. Like the self-impressed fools who litter this film, the artwork is nothing but emperors with no clothes. The only work that has any value is that of a mysterious dead man named Dease, who left behind a stack of paintings no one has ever seen. But once those paintings start circulating, they curse those trying to profit off them, resulting in the characters’ disturbing deaths.

Gilroy’s potentially intriguing idea is that these intricately staged death scenes are some sort of karmic comeuppance for those who try to benefit from the creativity of others. (The film’s most pompous individuals die in the bloodiest, crudest ways possible.) But there’s also a smugness to the conceit — a notion that people who love high art are just trying to show off their smarts and need to be taken down a peg.

It’s certainly what Gilroy thinks — he said as much last week:

“When you do a thriller and people are getting killed, you have to decide early on: Are they innocent people being killed and you feel bad for them? Or are they people who deserve to die? And I remember, for a week of back-and-forth, I thought, ‘Are they being terrorized, and they’re good people?’ I really explored that, and eventually decided, ‘No, no, no. They deserve to die.’ And then I thought, ‘Okay, this is gonna be funny.’”

You could argue that Velvet Buzzsaw is just harmless fun at the expense of self-absorbed art lovers. But it never reads that way to me. I’ve worked in and around film for some time. And sure, I’ve met lots of pretentious people, but they also deeply love what they do. You have to: The work is too demanding not to.

A film like Velvet Buzzsaw punishes its characters because they don’t love art the “right” way — or because they pretend to love work that isn’t “really” good. Plus, it flatters viewers into thinking we’re more “authentic” than those artsy phonies. The movie peddles a specific brand of anti-elitism I find insulting, even dangerous.

Besides, who’s Gilroy fooling? A well-connected, rich Hollywood filmmaker has more in common with the denizens of Velvet Buzzsaw than the great unwashed masses who’d sneer at postmodern art — or a film that tries to mix bloody horror scenes with art-world satire. Acting like he’s above it all doesn’t absolve Gilroy from his own pretensions. Loving art isn’t a crime. But acting like you’re somehow superior to it ought to be.

Here are three other takeaways from Velvet Buzzsaw.

#1. Let us now take a moment to recall Jake Gyllenhaal’s worst performance.

I don’t think Gyllenhaal is very good in Velvet Buzzsaw, which is a surprise since he’s an actor I usually like. Many people would point to his work in Donnie Darko or Nightcrawler as his high-water marks, but I’d quickly jump in to say that he’s especially great in Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, End of Watch, Jarhead and even Moonlight Mile. He’s an underrated but consistently compelling performer.

But Velvet Buzzsaw exposes a weakness in this Oscar-nominated actor, which is that when he goes broad, he really goes broad. Simply put, he’s not a great ham — even his performance as Nightcrawler’s grinning psychopath is relatively restrained — and if you need more evidence, look no further than his excruciating turn in 2017’s Okja, where he plays Johnny Wilcox, a nutty zoologist/TV personality who’s just one of the many eccentric characters in Bong Joon-ho’s uneven sci-fi film. It’s a truly gonzo performance. It’s also absolutely terrible.

Sadly, it’s hard to find YouTube videos that sum up his awfulness in the film — it appears that Netflix pulls down unauthorized clips — but this fan video at least hints at the insanity that awaits Okja viewers:

When Okja premiered at Cannes that year, people couldn’t stop talking about Gyllenhaal and his, uh, bold choices for the character. Writing for Vulture, Kyle Buchanan summed up a lot of our feelings when he said that the actor “delivers a performance so flamboyant, you can see it from space. I can’t wait for the whiplash in his inevitable lifetime-achievement montages when Gyllenhaal’s sensitive, subtle work in Brokeback Mountain runs right up against a clip of him shrieking, ‘Half-wit degenerate fucktards!’ from Okja.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called it “antic and abrasive,” while yours truly wrote, “Flopping around trying to convey ego and insecurity run amuck, he embarrasses himself.”

Not that Gyllenhaal cared. When presented with some of the more vitriolic reactions to his performance, he just laughed it off. “I love that,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I just really love that when one thing can vacillate between one end of the spectrum and the other. And that was the point of the character. From the very beginning, Bong said to me, ‘We have to hate you and you have to be bad.’ That was the goal and, well, I’d say we reached it. And so some people really love that and some people just think it’s genuinely bad. That’s fine. … A lot of people have complimented me during my career by saying that my performances are subtle. I’m grateful for that. And now some of those same people are saying, ‘I’m sorry, this just too big and over the top.’ So I can’t seem to satisfy anyone — but that’s where I like to be anyways.”

Watch Okja for yourself if you’d like. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

#2. Does Dan Gilroy know how to pronounce “melancholy”?

Gilroy is a smart Oscar-nominated filmmaker who makes interesting movies. But for a few days, it seemed that the dude didn’t know how to say the word “melancholy” correctly:

The context: Gilroy was doing an interview with his Velvet Buzzsaw cast at Sundance for The Hollywood Reporter, and he was gushing about his wife Rene Russo’s underappreciated qualities as an actress. And in the middle of it, he said, “She has a touch of muh-lawn-ca-lee,” which set Gyllenhaal off, rather amusingly.

Gilroy’s slip-up quickly went viral. Unfortunately, apparently it was a bit. The writer-director later explained to The Huffington Post that he isn’t actually an idiot and does know how to say “melancholy.” He just really loves a totally forgotten Will Ferrell animated comedy. “I hate to burst that bubble,” Gilroy said, “but we were, in fact, re-enacting Megamind. … Jake and I are always playing around, so like five minutes before that interview, we’re laughing, and I’m using the word ‘me-LAHNK-ly,’ and Jake’s laughing and making it worse.”

For those who don’t remember, Megamind was a 2010 Dreamworks movie in which Ferrell plays Megamind, a would-be super-genius villain who has a tendency to botch words like “melancholy.”

That character trait was dreamed up by Ferrell while he was voicing Megamind, which the filmmakers decided to turn into a running bit. When Megamind picks up the phone, he answers by saying “Ollo?” He refers to popcorn as “popped corn.” It’s the kind of gag that’s only sorta funny in the moment — but can get really funny when you and your buddy repeat it over and over again. At least that’s the case with Gilroy and Gyllenhaal.

Watch that Hollywood Reporter clip now with that new context, and it’s additionally endearing. Gyllenhaal really commits to his annoyance. Also, Russo’s face throughout the whole thing is great.

That video is better than Velvet Buzzsaw. Shorter, too.

#3. Here’s a Brief History of Female-Led L.A. Punk Bands

Early in Velvet Buzzsaw, we discover where the movie’s name comes from: A rising artist named Damrish (Daveed Diggs) talks to Rhodora about her old punk band, which was called Velvet Buzzsaw. “Well, the name was catchy,” she says. “Yeah, the early stuff was great,” Damrish replies. “Then it became, what? Like self-parody? I mean, after Polly left? Why’d you split up?”

She says in response, “Who remembers through all the booze and pills?”

That’s all we learn about Velvet Buzzsaw, but I started wondering about the milieu in which this fictional band would have emerged. Assuming that Rhodora has always lived in L.A., the city actually had a vibrant punk scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which is when I’m guessing Velvet Buzzsaw made their name. And many of those groups featured female members.

The most famous, of course, is X, who delivered two of the scene’s most vital albums with Los Angeles (1980) and Wild Gift (1981). X had two lead singers, Exene Cervenka and John Doe, who were married for several years and wrote the group’s songs together. Los Angeles is a stark, angry, confused record about the glitzy, hollow city where they lived — it’s one of the great paeans to being an outsider. By comparison, Wild Gift turned inward, chronicling the couple’s complicated relationship with pain and honesty. Combining punk, rockabilly and country, X were never commercially huge but are critically adored, even if it’s depressing that Cervenka has become a big Trump fan.

X is the biggest name from that L.A. scene, but they’re not alone. In 2017, author Stacy Russo (no relation to Rene) published We Were Going to Change the World: Interviews With Women From the 1970s & 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene, which features talks with Cervenka and others, including Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler and L7’s Jennifer Finch. And while rock has largely been a male-driven music, We Were Going to Change the World argues that, at least in the world of L.A. punk, it was a little more inclusive — including in the audience.

“A lot of women just went to shows,” Stacy Russo said in 2018. “It was a big part of their personal history. It impacted their lives.” It impacted hers, too — she grew up in Fullerton and fell under punk’s sway as a teenager in the early 1980s. “How I treat people, what I eat, what I buy, it all really stems from growing up as a young girl in the punk scene,” Russo said. “I vote a certain way because of punk rock.”

In such a scene, Velvet Buzzsaw would have fit right in. And Rhodora’s right: That is a great name for a band. I wonder whatever happened to Polly.