Published March 9, 2019
“In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion.”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
The term ‘velvet buzzsaw’ implies something smooth to the touch but that will take your fingers off if you aren’t careful. It’s no surprise then that it is an euphemism for vagina. As the title of Dan Gilroy’s latest movie it provides a perfectly edgy yet superficial title for his story that seems simple enough – the art world parodied via The Ring – but which hides its far more sinister and meta commentary. This is a film that looks inviting, billed as a drawcard for Netflix. However, its exploration of authenticity will hurt those who come to it naively.
This is a movie that appears to be missing the mark with critics and viewers alike, with mediocre reviews across the board. It seems that it is far too confusing for the general masses – nobody knows what to make of it. Let me explain how best to view this movie, then. It is an ironic dance through death. A horror movie can either be straight-faced as in Alien where the beast is unleashed and the death of each character is tragic, or a horror can be farcical as in Final Destination where even Fate has a sense of humour. Velvet Buzzsaw sits somewhere in between as the danse macabre, each death an ironic but serious event. Northtrop Frye describes the danse macabre as ‘the poem of the dying community’ and contrary to what you may think, the community that is dying is not the art world, but society at large.
Once viewed through this lens it all falls into place. Yet many critics are quite confused. The art world, who of course do no specialise in film criticism, if any criticism, may scoff, as in this review at Artsy, where the industry folks can’t get over the details, making criticisms such as:
This knowing namedrop is the first sign that Velvet Buzzsaw is in trouble. The art-world initiates who nod at these sorts of references will likely balk at the film’s cartoonish rendition of their industry; civilians outside the field will just be confused, frantically Googling to keep up.
There are the gross inaccuracies, for one—like the fact that Gretchen, who works for a made-up museum called LAMA, is at Art Basel in Miami Beach, inexplicably selling art on behalf of the institution.
The problem with this line of thought is that Gilroy himself does not focus on the art world. His inspiration, he says, came from the idea of setting a thriller in world of high art, not the other way around. Also, no one cares, nerds. Most people won’t Google anything because they don’t need to. Some criticisms of the movie say it is unrealistic, too optimistic. No one in the real gallery scene cares about art (though if you think they do in Velvet Buzzsaw, we probably watched a different movie) and it defies belief that so many would attend a gallery opening, but again it’s not about art per se. For the purposes of the film your average, non-high couture viewers will gloss over any ‘inaccuracies’ and go with the film so long as the world it presents is believable a priori. For art to be great, after all, it merely needs to imitate nature while remaining a construction.
You would think the painting geeks would get this. But film critics are also putting a foot wrong. Over at Roger Ebert they seem to think Velvet Buzzsaw is too schlocky, too immature. The reviewer implies that Gilroy does not understand his own satire, taking issue with the superficiality and obvious horror genre tropes. The critic thinks too little of his subject. He says at one point, ‘Almost all of the deaths in Velvet Buzzsaw involve characters being absorbed by their art, almost as if Gilroy is saying you can’t be an outsider to true art for very long without getting sucked into it.’ Never mind the poor sentence, this veers wide of the mark. The deaths actually sit firmly in the gothic tradition of the past coming back to haunt us, and so the theme of the movie is completely misunderstood. The movie itself is not about being an outsider to art and being ‘sucked in’ to appreciate it. It is about authenticity and passion, about commercial drive and obsession, in much the same way that Nightcrawler used these themes to eviscerate journalism and our need for the immediate. Above all the movie is about the commercialization of our lives, and the harsh finger of satire points assuredly at us.
Nonetheless fans of Nightcrawler may be disappointed. Where Nightcrawler was a very focused story, Velvet Buzzsaw is far more sprawling. The directorial debut was more straightforward as it zeroed in on Lou Bloom and his antihero victory. Velvet follows more characters and it is hard to pick one as ‘the protagonist’ which will throw many viewers. Morf Vandewalt (played by Gyllenhaal) is ostensibly the locus point, the feared critic from whom all opinion is derived. That said this direction makes sense as satires tend to focus on the community as a whole. You could transfer the story from the art world to the world of publishing and not lose much, except of course the significance of a painting on canvas. Which came first, the cave painting or the campfire story? Galleries are arguably our peak cultural outlet and the movie works so well because the art world merely works as a setting for a story, and a horror story to be precise. It works beautifully because it paints a picture of our hyper capitalist society and how it utterly perverts the people that follow the money. It appears that most reviewers missed this and were unable to follow the message behind the medium.
In fact, there isn’t much the reviewers understood with this movie (an exception). The plot is fairly simple: after a series of paintings by an unknown artist are discovered, a supernatural force enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art. Despite the setup, there are many complaints that focus on the shift in tone from satire to splatter, yet it is a perfectly set up monster-in-a-bottle story. The scornful and unrelenting mistress of Morf, Josephina (played by Zawe Ashton), wants recognition and she’s going to do anything to get it, including taking advantage of a old man’s dying wish. Some reviewers criticized the use of cliches and yet the film is obviously self-aware and plays up the camp. Yes, it has the trash-as-art trope when curator Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) walks into famous artist Piers’ (John Malkovich) studio and mistakes some waste as art. What the critics miss is the juxtaposition that follows when Jon is shown Piers’ real artwork and is immediately deflated by its mundaneness. Finally, no one seems to have picked up on the fact that it is not Dease enacting the murders. Dease is found dead and wants the art destroyed. What is actually at play is a lurking demon that Dease felt compelled to put into his art. He was literally possessed and poured his soul into his work, hence he wanted it destroyed to end that evil. When Josephina comes along she unleashes this evil on her and all her greedy compatriots.
This is where the true irony comes into the film, and this is easy to comprehend if you get that the movie is not a strict satire of high art culture. Take for example that all the artwork in the film is original, with over a hundred specifically commissioned pieces. The audience is essentially told that this collection is meant to be creepy, horrific and that we should value it in a particular way. This requires a suspension of disbelief, the same you might have when entering a real art gallery. All we know as viewers is that we are meant to be moved by the works of Ventril Dease as the characters are, even if the pieces would not look out of place in a high school art room. The irony is thick like impasto. So too is each of the murders dripping with more sardonicism than they are with blood. Josephina is turned into a work of graffiti, her doom being relegated to an artform she disdains while also signifying her inability to ever change (she never repents). Morf is killed while trying to hide his knowledge, shoving the artwork back into the closet, but it is too late. This is tied to his homosexuality in the film as being a mask that he tries to cover up. But he is also killed by an artwork that represents the American spirit of the past but that Morf dismissed as ‘unoriginal’. Rhodora (Rene Russo), the ringleader of the selling of Dease’s work, also tries last minute to hide her involvement, having all the art in her house removed. But hiding your sin without repentance means nothing. As she sits to meditate the tattoo representative of her youth in a female punk group called ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ spins into life and decapitates her. Each of these three do not renege on their follies and are killed by their past.
Alternatively the three people who survive are the ones who are able to reconcile themselves with their origins. First there is Coco, a young assistant, who decides to call LA quits after witnessing three murders. We see her tempted by the seductive underworld of lying and scheming, but ultimately she resists temptation. The other two survivors are the revered Piers and the new talent Damrish (Daveed Diggs). Where Dease’s art lights up the eyes of most of the characters with dollar signs, there is a poignant scene where these two men stare melancholically at one of the works. Following this Damrish splits with the commercial studio and goes back to his roots, and the movie ends with Piers doodling lines on a beach in a gorgeous, natural work of art which is slowly being erased by the waves. This final scene signifies the importance of art for art’s sake (or living for livings sake). It is probably not insignificant that those who die are effeminate or female, and those who survive are innocent or male.
Does this hint that the title ‘velvet buzzsaw’ does have a deeper meaning? Perhaps it is the touch of women – epitomized as the the consumers, the drivers of demand when Rhodora compares art to the diamond trade – that has commodified our world and made everything about money and position. Where Nightcrawler saw the cruel, cutthroat Lou Bloom embody neoliberalism, in Velvet Buzzsaw the masculine view of art is set side by side with the feminine imperative. It may be the men who are exploited in this film, but they also have the last laugh. They are impervious to critic and curator alike. That includes Gilroy, who must be cackling as the critics hoist themselves on their own petards. Velvet Buzzsaw may be one of the greatest satires of the 21st century so far, and if you don’t think, well, you just don’t get it, man.