BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Lech Majewski’s footnote.

THE Film Society’s Lech Majewski programme ends with a film that Majewski didn’t end up doing a huge amount on. Majewski created the story idea, a biopic about wasted talent, but the project was driven by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Schnabel would have some idea about the successful 80s Neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat – Schnabel was a successful 80s Neo-expressionist painter himself. There are differences of opinion whether the two artists were friends, however, there is no doubt that Basquiat did urinate in Schnabel’s stairwell. But while Schabel’s personal investment might have driven the project (he sold his artwork to initially finance the film), his involvement also divests the film of its more interesting roots. Instead Basquiat is a tame, rushed portrayal of a seminal contemporary artist.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died at the age of 27 of a drug overdose, leaving behind a career that started with his iconic graffiti signature SAMO plastered over New York buildings and ended with figures such as Andy Warhol hanging around him in museum exhibitions. However as audiences move away from the time where Basquiat’s art was truly contemporary, the story of Basquiat becomes more and more obscure to those outside of the art world. Those looking for a sort of explanation of the artist, a depiction of a flawed genius, or picture of a self-destructive libertine are offered little by the narrative. There seems to be an assumption that he is already so well known that little needs to be illuminated. Basquiat’s life story is instead summed up by the film’s narrative arc as being driven by lost love (as opposed to say, his dysfunctional background, or even his art). Basquiat is portrayed as a dispassionate, passive victim, and the character is largely not given his voice by the film. Schnabel also writes himself into the film, problematically and superfluously, through the Gary Oldman character. In effect, it was hard to figure out what aspect of Basquiat Schnabel was trying to show, or whether we really ought to care.

That said, the film is, as you’d expect, visually impressive. Schnabel’s got a great take on editing and shot construction, and this create the film’s propulsive energy. He also elicits solid performances from his all-star cast (particularly fun is David Bowie’s take on Andy Warhol, complete with Warhol’s actual wigs). But while the film steers clear of many of the clichés that artist biopics indulge in, Basquiat lacks any real sort of emotional engagement. In the end, it was as if the film painted Basquiat with an airbrush.