Warning: significant spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw.
“They’re visionary,” art critic Morf Vandewalt enthuses when he first sees a series of paintings by the late outsider artist Ventril Dease in Dan Gilroy’s Netflix movie Velvet Buzzsaw. “Mesmeric… I’m ensorcelled,” he continues. It’s the reaction every artist dreams of: instant, ecstatic, unqualified praise. Forget leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Forget awakening from head trauma and learning you’re a secret super-assassin. When it comes to empowerment fantasies for artists, nothing beats overwhelming critical enthusiasm.
Most critics have talked about Velvet Buzzsaw as simultaneously a satire on the art world and a predictable horror film. It’s certainly both of those things, but it’s also a wish-fulfillment fantasy for artists, critics, and people who love the arts.
The film is set in the Los Angeles art world, which is presented as a heady center of power, money, and sex. Millions of dollars hang on the reviews that Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) posts online. Fans adore him; gallery owners fawn over him; women and men alike want to have sex with him. He’s so important that people even pour their efforts into trying to corrupt or suborn him.
Perhaps there are still a couple of rock star art critics out there with multimillionaires hanging on their reviews and clouds of sycophants buzzing around them. But for the vast majority of working writers, Velvet Buzzsaw is no more an accurate portrayal of a critic’s life than it is an accurate portrayal of magic murder-art. The film laughs at Mort’s bitchy mannerisms and self-importance. (“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity,” he claims, implying that people should be grateful if he takes the time to insult their art.) But any struggling critics watching Velvet Buzzsaw have to feel their heartbeats go up a notch at the sight of Morf’s palatial residence, complete with a hard-bodied significant other and swimming pool. Haunted paintings are one thing, but a wealthy working art critic? That’s an impossible dream.
Those haunted paintings pander to art world aspirations in their own way, though. In the film, artist Ventril Dease was an abused child who was incarcerated for years after murdering his father. Later, he worked as a janitor, while privately churning out a huge number of paintings and drawings. Young, ambitious would-be art dealer Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds his art after his death and puts it on the market against his express wishes. So Dease’s spirit comes back from the grave, animating works of art to kill all those who profit from his work.
Dease is apparently angry that people are seeing and coveting his work, but most other artists, in whatever medium, would die, rather than kill, for the reception he receives. Critical enthusiasm for any art is generally mixed, and even out-of-nowhere success stories generally experience vast backlash simply because they’re popular. Dease goes from complete obscurity to universal acclaim, and he doesn’t even have to do any of the marketing himself. Millions of folks shilling for their Patreons and SoundClouds on Twitter may be watching this film with a longing sigh.
Dease’s art isn’t just emotionally moving, though. It physically moves people as well. His spirit can animate paintings, sculptures, and even tattoos. In one scene, he makes a trashy painting of some monkeys come to life, and they murder one of the no-goodniks who did Dease wrong. His spirit can even inhabit sound art. When Morf tries to listen to an installation audio piece, Dease somehow blocks the programmed whale song, and instead blasts out voices, which excoriate Morf for his shallowness and past sins.
Obviously, nobody wants their art to start guilt-tripping them, much less strangling them with hairy monkey paws. But the vision of art that can grab its audience and make them whimper, scream, or even bleed has a definite visceral appeal. Artists are constantly told that they’re irrelevant. Economists and lawyers dominate politics; scientists and doctors shape the future. Art, by contrast, is entertainment or a distraction. Art is irrelevant, frivolous, useless, and so are artists.
That’s not the case in Velvet Buzzsaw. Not only does everyone in the film care passionately about art, but the art itself exerts an undeniable, unquestionable influence. A mass-murdering art project is, at the very least, an art project that is changing people’s lives.
One of the most memorable sequences in Velvet Buzzsaw involves an installation called “Sphere,” which is a shiny metallic ball with openings for people to explore with their hands. When predatory curator Gretchen (Toni Collette) puts her arm in a Sphere hole on the night before an opening featuring Dease’s purloined artwork, Dease’s spirit inhabits Sphere and cuts off her arm. She bleeds out on the gallery floor. The next day, no one realizes she’s dead; they think her body and her pooled, drying blood are part of the exhibit. A school group is fascinated; kids step in the blood. The publicity just makes the Dease exhibit more of a mammoth success.
On one level, the film is mocking the shallowness and cruelty of the art world, which cares more about money than quality, intention, or inspiration. It’s also a poke at a post-Duchamp art milieu in which consumers often can’t tell the art from the trash. (In another scene, a gallery owner mistakes a literal pile of garbage bags for a brilliant, groundbreaking installation.)
But the Sphere-death scene is also goofy and exhilarating, in part because it positions art as weirdly, unexpectedly relevant. Dease and his haunted Sphere deal out life and death and then inspire kids to play in the aftermath. Art pulls off arms, then moves children to jump in puddles. It’s funny and horrifying, not at an abstract distance, but up close, in a way that slides right into the everyday, so you can’t even tell what’s art and what’s real. Dease’s art gets next to its audience and makes them feel something, whether they want to or not.
As a work of art, Velvet Buzzsaw itself isn’t up to Dease’s magical standards. The film’s ensemble is talented, and the writing is frequently witty. But the characters and plot aren’t distinctive enough to mesmerize viewers the way Dease’s art mesmerizes Morf. That’s not a surprise; for better or worse, art rarely possesses us so fully. Velvet Buzzsaw writer-director Dan Gilroy knows that, but he still imagines a world where art affects people on a profound and often permanent basis. That’s presented as horror, but on some level, it might as well be melancholy hope.