Art for my sake

Cinema and the art world have always had an uneasy relationship. Now Julian Schnabel presents his take on the short life of fellow painter Jean-Michel Basquiat
One of the less talked about tendencies of recent American cinema has been the excursions into film-making made by contemporary artists. High-profile American post-modern painters Robert Longo and David Salle have both recently made films: Longo adapted the William Gibson short story Johnny Mnemonic for the cinema, starring Keanu Reeves, and the film bombed; Salle's low-budget thriller Search and Destroy suffered the ignominy of straight-to-video. Few artists have made the transition from contemporary art to mainstream cinema with panache, carrying their preoccupations, intact and undiluted, with them.

The photographer Larry Clarke may be the exception, having succeeded in plumbing his active fascination with teenage lowlife to create the powerful and disturbing Kids. Word has it that another photographer, Cindy Sherman, whose Untitled Film Stills indicate that she already has one foot in cinema, is also working on a film. And now the painter Julian Schnabel has made Basquiat, a bio-pic of his former friend and co-star in the feverish world of the Eighties New York art scene, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Given that Schnabel's most recent media-crossover vanity-venture was an album of rock songs, Every Silver Lining has a Cloud, which consummately failed to shine, the prospect of his cinematic take on Basquiat is hardly appetising.

The art critic Robert Hughes, derisive of the overweening self-promotional tendencies in contemporary American art, described Schnabel as "a roundly self-admiring painter who once went so far as to tell a reporter that Duccio, Giotto and van Gogh were `my peers' ". At this year's Venice Film Festival, where Basquiat premiered, Schnabel lived up to this reputation with almost parodic gusto. Stretched out on a sun lounger by a hotel pool, resplendent in sunglasses and with a towelling robe wrapped around his ample girth, Schnabel held court with the press. A friend described the experience as an encounter with a superannuated personification of Freud's His Majesty the Child. Indeed, comments about the film had to be coaxed from Schnabel, who seemed far happier chronicling his achievements as a painter.

"I made this movie because I knew Jean-Michel, we showed in the same galleries and I was the only painter in America who was in a similar situation," Schnabel explained. "Even though he was black and I'm white, we went through the same kind of stuff about our personal lives, the same kinds of attacks." Gary Oldman plays Schnabel's fictional stand-in, Albert Milo, as a kindly and supportive, pasta-cooking maestro and there's the strong impression that in making a film about Basquiat, Schnabel is attempting a kind of surrogate autobiography. Or, at the very least, the settling of scores that the two had in common. "People like Robert Hughes can't compete with the popularity of film. If a million people knew who Jean-Michel was in the art world and this film is successful, 50 million people will hear the voice that criticises criticism and an artist will get the last word."

Basquiat's short, intense life is the very stuff of an artist's bio-pic. In less than a decade, he went from decorating the New York streets with cryptic graffiti slogans tagged "samo" (short for "same old shit") to being an art-world superstar and Warhol protege. His career foundered on heroin addiction and paranoia and by 1988, at the age of 27, he was dead of an overdose. "There were so many horrible, vulgar, sensationalist things written about his heroin abuse and about him getting lost in the fast lane of art on the 1980s," complains Schnabel. But Schnabel is too much the art-world insider to really dish the dirt, so the film pulls its punches over all the most interesting issues, particularly those that relate to Basquiat's status as a black artist in a predominantly white milieu, and over his friendship with Andy Warhol. Instead, Schnabel opts for a largely sentimental portrayal of the artist as "a little prince" and misunderstood genius.

Even as it falls into many of the romantic-agony cliches that might have been avoided, the film is saved by Jeffrey Wright's magnetic performance as Basquiat. Talking with the actor about his conception of the role, it becomes clear that Wright saw race as being central to the story. "It's very much Julian's take on his life and to that extent it's somewhat romanticised. Julian was going for `the radiant child' side of Basquiat." But it's this tension between the differing agendas of the director and actor that lends Wright's performance its nuanced depth. Wright suggests a residual rage in Basquiat's character that fuels the artist's drug habit and mounting paranoia. This is crystallised in an edgy, telling scene where Basquiat is interviewed by an ingratiatingly racist TV journalist, played by Christopher Walken as a predator wearing a rictus of a smile. It explores the media's desire to consume Basquiat in order to regurgitate him as an exotic exhibit.

"What I had to say about Basquiat had to remain internal," Wright explained. "In actual early footage you see him taking all these blows and there's still a playful quality about him. Later in his life the smile left. I tried to play that in the interview scene - his beginning and end."

Basquiat could be seen as another of Warhol's "superstar satellites" a cousin, two decades belated, of Valerie Solanas, Edie Sedgewick and others who orbited a little too close to King Blank himself. Warhol had the ability to bring out the very worst - as well as the most creative - in those around him, to trigger the barely buried self-destruct mechanisms in his acolytes, and to regard the ensuing carnage with impassivity. Lou Reed and John Cale nicknamed him "Drella" - an amalgam of Dracula and Cinderella, a bloodsucker and belle of the art-world ball - and it's Warhol as Drella who dominates Schnabel's film. While Basquiat and Warhol collaborated on paintings, it's the entry for 3 October, 1984 in The Andy Warhol Diaries that best sums up their ambiguous friendship and that Schnabel's film only hints at: "Jean-Michel called three or four times. He'd been taking smack. Bruno [Bishopfberger, New York art dealer, played by Dennis Hopper in the film] came by and saw a painting that Jean-Michel wasn't finished with yet and said `I want it, I want it' and so he gave him money and took it and I felt funny, because nobody's done that for me in so long. That's the way it used to be." This, in itself, is a mini- narrative of need, for drugs, money and recognition that goes both ways, from Warhol to Basquiat and back again. But it's a symptomatic exchange between master and disciple that neither Schnabel's film, nor the forthcoming Mary Harron film, I Shot Andy Warhol, fully explore.

"Jean-Michel found someone he could be with, and that was Andy," Schnabel says of the relationship. "The critics were saying that Andy's a vampire, that he's using Jean-Michel. When Andy died it broke Jean-Michel's heart. He was dead within a year. The paintings they made together are like a record of their friendship." Basquiat has the tender, too-forgiving feeling of one friend's tribute to another, but it's less a film about the daily oil-on-canvas grind of painting than it is about the vicissitudes of celebrity. The cameo-happy casting that includes a wispily fey David Bowie as Warhol and Courtney Love as art-world groupie "The Big Pink" plays a sly game of celebrity-surrogacy, a kind of recognition-by-proxy for the audience to indulge in. In that sense, the film continues the fascination with fame that marked Warhol's film-making and art alike. But this sits uncomfortably with Schnabel's justification of the movie: "A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I prefer that somebody who knows nothing about Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Julian Schnabel just walks in and sees a movie and cares about the characters. That was my goal."

`Basquiat' plays at the London Film Festival, Sat 23 November, 1.30pm and 6.30pm, at the Odeon West End. For ticket availability, call: 0171- 633 0274