“The demand has people ready to kill” - quite literally, when you watch Dan Gilroy’s new thriller Velvet Buzzsaw recently produced by Netflix. Set in what is portrayed as the money-hungry, fame-obsessed contemporary art scene of L.A., the film follows several characters in their quest to acquire and exhibit a new, mysterious artist.
Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is portrayed as a condescendingly pretentious social climber, spewing incoherent nonsense every few seconds: “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining. I’ve always wanted to do something long-form, beyond opinion. Dip my toe into an exploration of origin and essence. A metamorphosis of spirit into reality”. Those with any experience or knowledge of the art world will recognize Gyllenhaal’s character as an overly-stereotyped symbol of what many believe contemporary art to be: an inside joke filled with pompous critics and academics pretending to know what the other is on about.
In one of the first scenes of the film, Morf attends Art Basel at Miami Beach, where he sees Sphere, a new work by an artist referred to as ‘Minkin’. Here, he meets Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), an L.A. gallery owner, who explains that the work, literally a huge silver sphere, is “about choice, desire, sex. The whole enchilada”. Maybe this is some sort of jab at the art world for having the enraging ability of being able to label anything as everything or showing us how stupid we all look when we try and hide the fact that we have no idea what a work is about. This is made even clearer when the rival gallerist Jon Dondon visits ‘Piers’, very much representative of the typical contemporary artist. Falling to his knees next to a pile of garbage bags on Piers’ studio floor, Dondon exclaims, “this is remarkable”, to which Piers, completely deadpan, replies, “it’s not art”. It’s not the first time that joke has been heard, but it does provide some smug satisfaction.
The plot turns to Josephina, Rhodora’s assistant, who essentially pillages the work of an old man who died in her apartment building. His name was Vetril Dease and his work astounds each and every person who comes into contact with it. Morf labels them visionary and mesmeric. We learn that Dease refused to showcase his work and specifically requested his paintings be destroyed on the advent of his death. To no one’s surprise, this wish is completely ignored. The works are typically outsider-art, still-lives and portraits with a folksy atmosphere to them. In all honesty, they are quite mediocre, and it becomes all the more puzzling when everyone becomes fixated on the so-called power of the work. Morf discovers that the artist used human blood in his paintings, and what follows is death after death as the characters are killed off one at a time.
In the end, we can assume that Josephina and the rest of the group are being punished for their greed. “You can become rich and famous and successful”, is what Rhodora tells Josephina when she brings the work into the gallery. They become consumed by the art’s success, yet at their own expense.
The movie fails in giving us a real insight into the art world. Admittedly, there is truth to Gilroy’s depiction of L.A.: the art elite is pretentious, and gallerists are greedy. But the stereotypes are often inflated to a degree where it can no longer be taken seriously. If the director intended in to be a thriller, it didn’t totally come across that way; instead, art-lovers can take joy in the overdone characterization and a humorous portrayal of the world of art.