by Andrew Baker
I recently found the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child on Netflix. It isn't great, but a good bit of it is pretty interesting. I particularly like the footage that was taken from an interview Tamra Davis, the film's director and a former friend of the artist, had shot with JMB a couple of years before his death. But Davis, like most of the talking heads and old acquaintances she interviewed for the piece, seems too close to its subject to create an honest portrait. Many of them, either for personal or professional reasons, seem too invested in the legend, too anxious to protect the idea of this angelic genius that, at times it feels as though they're not talking about a real person at all. Like he was less of a man and more of a china doll. But the interview with JMB, which Davis uses as the backdrop of the piece, is one of the more intimate portraits of the artist that I've ever seen. He's unguarded, and reveals himself to be a funny and thoughtful, but ultimately insecure...kid. He was 25 when it was shot (he died at 27), but he'd already been rich and famous for four or five years; his career was, for the most part, behind him. The interview really makes for a great foundation on which, I think, a much better film could have been made, but the final product leaves me feeling as though the whole thing is just another in a long line of exploitations of him. Maybe it would have made a difference for me had the film not been so overt in trying to hammer it home for the viewer that he was such an important historical figure. Even in death, it's like they can't just let this guy be the stupid (and yeah, pretty smart) kid that he was.
Anyway, I did like the bits with Julian Schnabel who shows up now and again. That arrogant prick has a habit of making me like him when he's doing just about anything but painting, and it was no different here. Even if they didn't bring it up in the documentary (and they do) it would be nearly impossible to watch the The Radiant Child without thinking of Schnabel's 1996 biopic, which did the double-duty of not only revealing Julian Schnabel as pretty great filmmaker but also introducing the world to Jeffery Wright, who's just pretty great. The pretension of that film is palpable, but I still like it as much as any artist biopic I've ever seen. But I guess that's not saying a lot. Still, it's worth an embed.
In The Radiant Child, Schnabel, who knew JMB but was several years older and more established as an artist, explains the motivation behind his film as an attempt to tell the kid who always seemed so interested in his (Schnabel's) opinion that he truly respected him. I guess that's acceptable. It's kind of sweet in a condescending sort of way. (Oh, Julian! You loveable asshole!) Anyway, at least it's not all about hero worship. It helps that the film is pretty good. I wonder if Milos Forman had a good excuse for Goya's Ghosts. Not good enough, I'm sure.
I understand the impulse behind making these movies, but it so rarely works out for the best, even if it seems, at first, as though it should. Paintings may be visually interesting, but the act of making them, generally, is not, so the dilemma becomes how to force drama into a kind of boring existence. Generally, that's exactly how it feels: forced.
One of the more peculiar artist films I've ever seen, and one of the better ones, decided to go in the opposite direction. It is the 1992 Spanish film: Victor Erice's El Sol del Membrillo. While the title literally translates to "Quince Tree of the Sun," when the film was released in the US it was called Dream of Light.
The film follows the remarkable Antonio Lopez Garcia as he takes on what becomes the Sisyphean task of trying to paint a quince tree in his back garden before the fruit begins to spoil. It contains all of the major trappings of a documentary, but as the American title may allude, as is the case in dreams, the happenings in this film may not be entirely as they seem. Along with Erice, Lopez is given a writing credit, and while the film never quite tips its hand, you soon become aware that, whatever the film is, it definitely isn't a documentary.
It can be a difficult film to watch and, even more so, to describe in an interesting way. There's an awful lot of screen time devoted to the artist's methodical process, full of meticulous (to the point of being idiosyncratic) measurements and cryptic markings, and as you become more conscious of the fact that what you're watching isn't a straightforward documentary, you may begin to resent the film, or the painter, for what you could infer as an incomprehensible self-indulgence. I remember that being my first response. I remember walking away from the film feeling deeply frustrated, but the film stayed with me long after those feelings had faded.
I don't know if I can easily nail down why the film stays with me still. I think it has something to do with the devotion I talked about on Monday. Without going too deeply into the plot, when the film begins, you get the sense that it may be little more than an extended metaphor on the fruits of labor, but somewhere along the way, the dream shifts, and the film turns almost tragic--well, as tragic as film about a guy painting a tree can be. While it's unclear how much, if any, of what the film documents is real, the Antonio Lopez we're presented with by the end of the film is almost a classic antihero.
After a while you begin to realize that he's set himself up for failure, and a pointless failure at that, one that could be averted if he weren't so stubborn. But he continues to plod along uncompromisingly, and near the final act of the film, you feel as though you're Sancho Panza and that you've spent the last hour watching Don Quixote joust with the windmills. You admire him, but at the same time you just want him to stop. It's more or less how I think my wife feels if she ever has the stomach to watch me work. I think of that film and I think of her. And I think of me, and I realize that I'm an idiot.
I don't know how comfortable I feel recommending the film. I couldn't embed a clip with subtitles. YouTube has the whole thing available and split into ten minute sections: The first of which is here. I think it's worth a shot; if you find that it grabs you, just click to the next and the next and the next. The Radiant Child is available to stream on Netflix, so it may also be only a couple of clicks away.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.