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Non-Review Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

Velvet Buzzsaw is a broad and blackly comic exploitation horror story.

Of course, Velvet Buzzsaw has all the trappings of a biting social satire about the shallowness of the art world, the kind of cartoonish takedown that has been a pop culture staple for decades, built on the acknowledgement that the world of commercial art is vapid and that the people who inhabit that world are delusional and self-centred. There’s certainly an elements of that to Velvet Buzzsaw, which populates its cast with the kinds of characters who might be ordered in a box set for that kind of film; the pretentious and insecure critic, the conniving climber, the manipulative dealer, the precious artist.

The art of horror.

However, Velvet Buzzsaw has nothing particularly new or interesting to say about these characters and this world. In fact, the opening half-hour or so that the film spends with these characters in this world is perhaps the weakest part of the film, often feeling like the television edit of a more pointed and acerbic film. There is a sense that writer and director Dan Gilroy understands this. At one point, early in the film, Rhodora Haze surveys a Miami art show with a potential client. “I get the joke,” she admits. “None of this new.” She may as well be talking about the stretch of the film in which she finds herself.

However, as with Nightcrawler, there is a sense that the social commentary is not the central appeal of Velvet Buzzsaw. Instead, again as with Nightcrawler, the appeal of Velvet Buzzsaw is the manner in which Gilroy appends what is a fairly straightforward criticism of hypercapitalism to the framework of a horror movie, to create a compelling and exciting aesthetic. Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t work as an angry takedown of a world that has been well-explored across film and television, but it does work as a delightfully schlocky B-movie about (literally) killer art installations.

Painting the town red. And blue. And yellow.

There is something about Velvet Buzzsaw that plays like a solid and enjoyable episode of The X-Files. Part of this is simply structural, the manner in which Gilroy takes a classic horror story template and sets it inside a particular world. The X-Files was very good at this sort of narrative mixology, with its central conspiracy storyline essentially amounting to Star Wars nestled inside All the President’s Men. More than that, the show had a tendency to take a classic concept and play it out in a novel environment, unleashing monsters in strange surroundings.

Velvet Buzzsaw frequently feels like characters from an arch comedy about the superficiality of modern commercial art have accidentally wandered into a much more lurid horror film. The genre trappings are certainly present. A mysterious old man is found dead, his cupboards stuffed with mysterious (and entrancing) paintings that he ordered destroyed. Digging into the dead man’s history, art critic Morf Vandewalt discovers all the trappings of gothic horror; an abusive family history, some mysterious deaths, a trip to a sanitarium, and a long absence in his personal biography.

The Morf the merrier.

A large part of the thrill of Velvet Buzzsaw comes from watching characters like Morf navigate a genre in which they do not belong and in which they have no grounding. A technician who has been studying the recovered painting offers a grim assessment of the deceased artist. “My primary focus became Dease’s distinctive methodology. I spent three weeks identifying conventions, workflow, classifications. It was almost impossible to delineate between working materials and personal effects.” When Morf presses the point, she elaborates, “I mean, as in, tissue.” Morf hesitates, “… Paper?” She is not talking about paper.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a broadly allegorical horror story, exploring (through metaphor) questions about the market of art and ideas. It’s tempting to over-emphasise how invested the film is in these questions, but the premise of the film asks broad questions about the exploitation of art and the attempts to harness it to market forces. As in any number of classic horrors, most obviously those rooted in the Reagan era like Aliens, the monster at the centre of Velvet Buzzsaw is suggested to be a primal force that is unleashed by the forces of raw capitalism. (It seems natural that this approach would return at this moment.)

Putting on a killer show.

As soon as Dease’s artwork is discovered, his body barely cold and his cat still unfed, the art establishment conspires to exploit his work. Morf sees Dease as an opportunity to leverage his critical voice into something more seemingly important, observing, “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining. I always wanted to do something long form, beyond opinion. Dip my toe into an exploration of origin and essence.” Talking in a painting, he explains, “I’ve never had the vehicle until now.” Rhodora chides him, explaining that his ambitions must be secondary to her “extensive marketting plans.”

Velvet Buzzsaw is full of characters attempting to appropriate and exploit Dease’s work for their own ends. Everything within the art world becomes transactional, a fractured prism of how Gilroy approached the media landscape in Nightcrawler. Morf is a critic, but he is repeatedly framed as just one part of the economic system rather than existing outside of it; his favourable reviews add value to a work, his words can be harnessed as a tool of a larger process. He promises Rhodora that he will write the exhibition brochure. “In return, I want exclusive rights to a book. And several pieces.”

His art has a strange pull.

However, Velvet Buzzsaw presents a premise that allows art to strike back at those who would exploit it. Towards the climax of the film, as the body toll begins to rack up, Morf tries desperately to warn his colleagues that there is a sinister force at work. “I think that any of us who profitted from it are in danger.” Velvet Buzzsaw cleverly reverses the traditional dynamic for maximum horror. Instead of people consuming art, this art repeatedly and literally consumes people. After one character is murdered inside an installation, it is reported, “I guess she got trapped inside it.”

To be fair, the premise of Velvet Buzzsaw does a lot of the thematic heavy lifting. This is a horror movie about living and breathing art that acts upon the world, that affects the perceptions of those people exposed to it, and which has dire consequences. Any number of allegories suggest themselves; the spread of dangerous ideas online, and the ways in which they have a very real impact. When Morf tries to warn Rhodora about the threat, she simply replies, “All art is dangerous, Morf.” A hot young artist finds himself drawn to the artwork, proclaiming, “It’s alive.”

Velvet Buzzsaw never really develops these ideas in any real depth, which isn’t necessarily a problem. Indeed, a lot of the charm of Velvet Buzzsaw lies in how broad it pitches itself and how thoroughly it commits to its exploitation vibe. It’s goofy, outlandish, absurd, and it mostly works. Again, this feels very much like one of the broadly drawn blackly comic X-Files episodes written by the underrated duo of James Wong and Glen Morgan; something like Die Hand Die Verletzt, Home or Never Again. Indeed, a large amount of the thematic material echoes Morgan’s Home Again.

Gilroy seems cognisant of the this comparison, casting recurring X-Files guest star Steven Williams in a small role, offering important exposition to the Morf as the critic begins his inquiries into the life and times of the mysterious (and possibly supernatural) artist. Indeed, the film borrows a few of the stock structural elements from The X-Files, right down to the blackly comic ironic final kill and the classic “the monster is still out there” ambiguous ending. Even if The X-Files wasn’t specifically on Gilroy’s mind as an inspiration, he is clearly aiming for a playful exploitation-driven tone that overlaps with a lot of the show’s appeal.

Shutter down, Morf!

While Gilroy’s characters are as two-dimensional as any of the paintings that they peddle, the script and the cast have fun with these archetypes. Velvet Buzzsaw is elevated by a superlative central performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as art critic Morf Vandewalt. While Morf is shallow and insecure, Gilroy avoids playing too readily into cliché by presenting Morf as one of the more sympathetic characters in the overarching narrative. It helps that Morf gets a number of genuinely hilarious lines.

After hearing that the subject of a bad review died in a car crash, Morf is told, “I heard he was crushed.” Morf responds, almost instinctively, “By the car?” He is corrected, “Your review.” Morf is presented as a heightened parody of a critic, a man for whom nothing is ever right and for whom everything is imperfect. Attending a funeral for a business colleague, Morf decries the “cheesy organ music.” Handed a set of temporary glasses by an optician, he almost reflectively comments, “These are heinous.” This is a man who cannot set foot in his girlfriend’s apartment without complaining about the lighting.

Not the hero we deserve…

Gyllenhaal is clearly having a great time in the role, consciously turning everything in his performance up to eleven. It’s a gloriously over-the-top performance, a role that might easily be dismissed as nothing but a collection of quirks and tics if not for the strange vulnerability that Gyllenhaal employs to underpin the more theatrical flourishes. Morf gets a number of really great lines, but those lines are often impossible to separate from Gyllenhaal’s delivery. On finding a hip young artist loitering in his girlfriend’s kitchen, Morf screams, “The admiration that I had for your work has COMPLETELY evaporated!”

A lot of the basic ideas underpinning Velvet Buzzsaw are familiar to the point of cliché. Very few movie-goers need to be reminded about how capitalism consumes the artistic impulse, and how the culture around art is destructive and petty, let alone to be confronted with the idea that art can survive the (literal) death of the author and take on a life beyond that desired by those who would seek to control it. However, the charm of Velvet Buzzsaw lies in how Gilroy weds these fairly sophomoric philosophical ideas to a cheeky and grizzly horror movie template, to create something surprisingly fun.

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