Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sundance ’19: Velvet Buzzsaw

The oeuvre of late, undiscovered outsider artist Ventril Dease could be considered the Necronomicon of oil paintings. They have a rather odd effect on those who view them. It is even worse for those who try to profit from them. The exploitative sharks of the fine art world are in for some EC Comics-style karma in Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Ventril Dease is dead and nobody really noticed, until it was time to clear out the hundreds of tormented paintings he left behind. Then they came to the attention of his neighbor, Josephine, an aspiring gallerist, who immediately recognizes the collection as a potential blockbuster. Around that time, she conveniently starts sleeping with pompous art critic Morf Vandewalt, who is even more struck by Dease’s twisted vision. Soon, the entire art world is desperate to get their hands on Dease’s work, especially Josephine’s former boss (and Vandewalt’s bestie), Rhodora Haze, who once played in a punk band called “Velvet Buzzsaw” during her wild youth, thereby explaining the cryptic title, as well as her fiercest rival, Ricky Blaine.

Of course, the various grasping players start dropping like flies, under decidedly sinister circumstances. Vandewalt, who negotiated himself gigs as Dease’s official biographer and author of the exhibit catalogue, starts having weird visions worthy of a twisted Dease painting. Although his paranoia is definitely galloping unfettered, the critic is not necessarily wrong when he warns the paintings are exerting a malevolent, uncanny influence on their beholders.

Arguably, Buzzsaw is a contemporary cousin to Roger Corman’s classic Bucket of Blood, chronicling the rise and fall of artist Walter Paisley, whose sculptures look so realistic, because he embeds dead people inside them. Surprisingly, Buzzsaw is nearly as campy. It also has a roughly comparable body count.

It is not exactly what we would have expected from the director and two leads of Nightcrawler, but it is still fun the watch the game, scenery-chewing cast preen about the Miami Beach Art Basel. This is a case of beautiful people absolutely skewering beautiful people of an even more rarified strata.

Of course, when it comes to acidic snark, nobody can top Toni Collette as Gretchen, a spectacularly ruthless museum agent. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Vandewalt is an utterly un-self-aware uber-twit who puts Bertie Wooster to shame. He is a self-important dolt, but he has his principles, which makes him strangely interesting. Rene Russo is flamboyantly charismatic as Haze, the cynical game-player. John Malkovich adds his usual sly élan as Piers, a superstar artist, but this time around, he can’t match Collette’s caustic energy.

Buzzsaw is a minor work of cinema, but it is undeniably fun. Let’s be honest, any film that leads us to invoke Corman’s Bucket of Blood cannot be all bad. Recommended as a goofy, slightly horror-ish distraction after a frustrating day at work, Velvet Buzzsaw screens again this Saturday (2/2) in Park City and Sunday (2/3) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.