An Observation Without Commentary - a review of Velvet Buzzsaw

(or “Ok Fine, I’ll Discuss Blackness in a Film Again Since the Director Won’t” )

I wish this was an essay about the physicality of Jake Gyllenhaal in this movie but 1) what can be said that a good gif set can’t cover? 2) this topic is a bit more pressing. But seriously, watch this and any two of his other films and you’ll see what I mean.

I wish this was an essay about the physicality of Jake Gyllenhaal in this movie but 1) what can be said that a good gif set can’t cover? 2) this topic is a bit more pressing. But seriously, watch this and any two of his other films and you’ll see what I mean.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a fine enough movie. Not perfect and the hype from the visually arresting trailer set expectations too high. It’s a cautionary tale about the consumption and critique of high art, about how too much distance between an artist’s purpose and the consuming masses can be dangerous. The film doesn’t do much with that theme though. The presumably purposeful impenetrable characters are impossible to hold on to, so when the deaths start happening it’s hard to care. The surrealism in the haunted imagery is far too predictable for it to be scary and the film falls short in the end to wrap all of this up in a meaningful way.

But it’s a interesting enough ride on the way there. The dialog is taunt and truly something I want to study. There’s fun to be had in the whiplash-paced transitions from horror to satire. The film could stand at least 20 more minutes of world building to ground everything but what is there creates an immersive mood. We don’t get enough of the “why” but the “what” - the culture, locations and tone - is cemented well enough. Every actor brings their A-game, especially Toni Collette, who we don’t talk about enough in my option. And frankly, I stan a bitchy Jake Gyllenhaal. There, I said it. We’ll get into all these issues later. But the quick and dirty of it is that I would tell you to wait until it got to Netflix to watch it but in this case you don’t have to. Get to it whenever and it won’t be a waste of your afternoon.

No, I’m here to explore the racial dynamics in this movie because I’m black and it’s what I end up writing about when I don’t see mainstream reviewers do it. It’s my cross to bear.  I’m still not sure if I’m just reading into this or if I’m actually picking up what writer director Dan Gilory was putting down. It’s hard to tell what any middle aged white man is thinking when he casts several black characters in an indie movie like this, but I’m going to tell you what I read from it.

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The first pointed moment I noticed was Morf’s infatuation with Josephina. He describes her as he would any gallery installation and from the opening scene we know his words can be clinical and distant. To see him lust after her while saying lines like “Your skin - it's the beautiful cross between almond and saddle brown." is...unsettling. But Jake says them with such unironic passion that we still get caught up in the moment. Also, he immediately afterwards fingers her with such a mighty need in his eyes so, ya know, we get it…

The two form a relationship throughout the film but we get the sense that Josephina could take or leave it. She’s a piece of art he can have but never really own. She has her own purposes and needs. Not unlike the artwork at the center of this film.

Issa theme, y’all.

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Before we can even process what just happened, we move to moment two - the brief reveal that Morf’s current boyfriend is a black man. Our man has a type it seems. It’s not uncommon for people who are in one interracial relationship to be interested in another. What is uncommon is to see that fact depicted in a movie. We don’t explore this part of Morf’s internal workings to know where exactly he lies, if this is a fetish or just a type he’s into (I won’t even wade into whether a race of people can be a”type” to be into). But in a movie that is largely a critique on the culture surrounding high art, the image of an art aficionado surrounding himself with blackness has some very immediate reflections to the way the real world takes in black art as a something to be possessed and sold as often possible.

Here is Jake’s thigh meat. It’s been discussed in great detail already on Twitter

Here is Jake’s thigh meat. It’s been discussed in great detail already on Twitter

Josephina, a gopher desperate to impress her hardass boss art gallery owner Rhodora Haze, breaks into the apartment of her recently deceased neighbor Vetril Dease and steals all of his paintings that he explicitly stated he wanted destroyed. From the moment she shows these pieces to Morf for his professional approval, she is doubted and downplayed. Morf doesn’t believe she discovered them, which is code for not believing she could process the same discerning eye he has. Rhodara barges into her home (colonization?) and immediately tries to cheat her out of what she could make financially off of the art. She’s then guided like a child as to what to say about her findings in order to protect the gallery, not herself. Again the parallels to the consumption of black talent are jumping off.

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To be clear, these cultural conflicts aren’t singular in nature. As everyone clamors for a piece of Dease’s work, there’s a patronizing tone in the way they talk about his poverty stricken and violent backstory. Lip service is paid to his pain but only as much as it deepens their perceived value of his art. They can’t relate and they don’t bother to try. As this is the center point of the film, it is explored far more in depth than the racial parallel but the ending of the movie falls flat in part because this theme isn’t explored far enough. Questions remain about the intent of Dease’s malevolent spirit that haunts these art curators - did Dease always despise this world or was it just the purchasing of his expressed pain that bothered him? Why is the punishment death? How did the evil jump from piece to piece? Was there a turning point after Josephina discovery that could have saved them? I could go on. Keeping it open ended would have been more satisfactory if film had leaned harder into the horror aspects, but with the uninspired cgi and trite scares (save for the one involving the silver ball, which is my favorite) these moments provide few scares and barely any commentary if they are meant to be satire. (I would love to see what Darren Aronofski could have done with these sequences because there is so much potential).

Toni Collette/Gretchen  (who again, is truly out here serving in these roles as of late and we do not talk about that enough) has a scene where she confronts her former coworkers to get them to display the art she’s appraising. Throughout the scene she only addresses the older white man in the room, despite the black female coworker seemingly having as much input and authority as he appears to have. The woman is framed in singular shots, constantly in the corner of the screen which makes her seem smaller.  Her neck strains forward to make sure she’s heard in this argument. We are never given a reason as to why Gretchen keeps her back turned to this woman. In a later scene Gretchen does finally address her but the exchange is just as brief and terse as before. Is it a racial thing, another white person who doesn’t see a black woman as an equal? Is there a relationship between Gretchen and the white man that explains why she’s only addressing him? Is she just being a bitch? All of the above? If this were a film by a black director or a director at least known for exploring these issues, I would extend the benefit of the doubt that this scene is intended to be confusing. Certainly damn near every black woman/ marginalized person has moments like this where they aren’t sure where the tension they are experiencing falls. But nothing in Dan Gilory’s past suggests that’s what happening here and nothing in the text of the film itself gives us any clues.

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Whatever is happening here, my girl is over it.

Whatever is happening here, my girl is over it.

Lastly there is the Rhodara’s pursuit of black up and coming artist Damrish to show in her gallery. The scene is played against another one where Rhodara’s rival pressures established artist Piers in a similar sharkish manner. But there are still flashes of cultural disconnect as Rhodara downplays Damrish’s former homelessness and the artist collective main up of POC that brought him to this moment in his career. This verse is the same as the first.

The issue with all of these scenes of racial complexity is not their existence but that it’s hard to tell whether these moments are intentionally awkward or if it’s the byproduct of the white male gaze. It’s an observation without commentary. Perhaps that’s for the best; maybe Gilroy didn’t want to swerve too far outside of his lane. But the ambiguity is frustrating. If this was pushed just a bit more, if this was a look at fetishation or racial fixation or just their passive attempt to stay ahead of trends in a cutthroat world, we would have had grounded characters with a better story arcs as they learn to let go of these trappings they didn’t know how to humanize.

That is, of course, if there was anything here to read into at all.

For real though, Jake seems to enjoy doing weird indie movies. How cheap do you think I can get him for my next film? If I pitch it to him during Black History Month, you think he’ll do it as a form of reparations?

For real though, Jake seems to enjoy doing weird indie movies. How cheap do you think I can get him for my next film? If I pitch it to him during Black History Month, you think he’ll do it as a form of reparations?

Footnotes

  • I think this the first movie I've seen where a (presumably straight) woman dates both an out bisexual and effeminate man and it's not played as a joke. There’s not much more to add to that, I just thought it was neat.

  • "And this is hard for me to admit as an adherent of the hear and now and a denier of childish belief. But something truly goddamn strange is going on!" that second line lands because that previous line is so perfectly pretentious and long winded. If nothing else, the dialog in this film is just fucking wild and I’m here for it.

  • "THE ADMIRATION I HAD FOR YOUR WORK HAS COMPLETELY EVAPORATED!" Morf shouts heartbroken. Truly, there are so many great lines like this.

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