Unseeable Horror in Velvet Buzzsaw

“If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors.” — Bertolt Brecht [1]

By Madeline Lane-McKinley |

In the opening scene of Velvet Buzzsaw, a prominent art critic moves through a crowded art exhibit in Miami Beach. Avoiding interaction after interaction, dodging all eye contact, the critic encounters a robotic art piece – a homeless superhero named “Hoboman.” Hoboman looks deeply into the critic’s eyes and asks, “Have you ever felt invisible?”

Like the critic’s name, Morf, nothing is subtle in the narrative world of Velvet Buzzsaw. Nothing is subtle, but everything is invisible. This world has little concern for artists – its main characters are critics, dealers, and gallery owners, for whom, as Rhodora Haze (an ex-punk turned gallery owner played by Rene Russo) quips “it’s so much easier to talk about money than art.” Hauntingly, the camera fixates on the remnants of her punk moment, as in her wrist tattoo that reads “No Death No Art 1983” and her neck tattoo with the name of her former band, Velvet Buzzsaw. Rhodora woos a young artist who’d been living on the street six months prior (Damrish, played by Daveed Diggs), trying to split him from his LA-based art collective, while bragging of her own arc from “anarchist to purveyor of good taste.” From the start the film throws us into this white-walled and white-washing hell of sharply cut bangs and eccentric eyeglasses. We see everywhere how ‘art’ operates: top-down, racist, with powerful white women stabbing each other in the back, where “it’s everywhere,” as Morf groans, “the money question.”

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Unlike Rhodora, his close friend (and therein enemy), Morf believes in the authenticity and exceptionalism of art. Self-righteously, if not self-doubtingly, he tells curator Gretchen (Toni Collette) that art is how he “connect[s] with some sort of spirituality and actual present. I assess out of adoration. I further the realm I analyze.” Here and elsewhere, he cannot reconcile, as an arbiter of art’s value, with this falsehood of art’s autonomy. The recognition Morf constantly avoids is that, as Daniel Spaulding describes, “nothing [is] inherently subversive about art’s status under capitalism.” [2] Throughout the film, Morf wanders between insights and confusions, often positioned as the narrative’s conscience, though always uncomfortably. Morf remains forever “trapped in a definitively problematic relation to the production of capitalist value,” which Sarah Brouillette attributes to all art and aesthetic activity in general, refuting the notion of ‘autonomy’ into which the film ultimately retreats. [3]

Soon after he flees from Hoboman, Morf experiences what he calls “a connection to the world in its purest form” in a piece titled “Sphere,” sold for $7 million. A reflective orb with several holes, “Sphere” invites the viewer to gaze into their own image, while placing their hand inside it for a distinct tactile experience behind its mirror. “Sphere” becomes the conceptual centerpiece of Velvet Buzzsaw – the all-seeing totality that cannot be seen into. Its interiority remains utterly mysterious, as when it ultimately bites off the hand of one of its intruders.

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Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” – Karl Marx [4]

The plot of Velvet Buzzsaw is propelled by an invisible entity – a force everywhere yet nowhere, that renders all art murderous. The inciting event comes when Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s employee and Morf’s lover, discovers the incredible paintings of her deceased neighbor, Vetril Dease. Dease’s paintings, as many observe, seem to be alive. More specifically, they’re alive with a sadness and horror that can never be mentioned for anyone in its midst. The images are entrancing, nightmarish, offering an even more captivating mirror than that of “Sphere.”

Seizing the opportunity to launch her career, Josephina decides to ignore Dease’s dying request for his art to be destroyed, and proceeds to represent his work, after lawyers winkingly guide her to claim that she found the art in a dumpster. As the art circulates, the vast corpus of mixed media portraits seem to come to life – the eyes of Dease’s subjects, blackened and sunken, move magnetically, threateningly. Morf describes the work as “visionary… absolutely incredible,” and Rhodora quickly poaches the collection. But as soon as the art goes public, people start dying.

It’s no surprise that some of the artists are the first to go – more specifically, the aspiring ones. Artists are sacrificial figures and little else in this horrorscape. The murdering starts with Josephina’s ex-boyfriend, Ricky, an artist who had just opened a show. Though Ricky died drunk behind the wheel, Morf begins to blame himself for the death after learning that “Ricky was crushed” by Morf’s poor review of the show. Soon after, gallery worker and hopeful artist Bryson is slaughtered by a group of monkeys, who come to life in a painting, hanging over the sink of a gas station bathroom. From here forward, there is no high / low art — just murder.

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The artists are also the only ones who survive this nightmare. Damrish disentangles himself from Rhodora and rejoins his street art collective. The other artist to survive is Piers (John Malkovich), who in many ways had already died long before the story begins. Piers’s most valuable work, as is remarked early into the film, comes from his past of “full blown alcoholism.” Since sobriety, he began to lose traction in the art world. He moans that this world is a “slaughterhouse,” where “ideas come but they kill themselves as soon as they appear.” Like Morf, Piers carries with him a sense of all-knowingness, though he is not exempt from the destruction that ensues in the second act. Moments after encountering Dease’s art for the first time, Piers grabs a drink. Yet as the film’s most polemical voice, Piers is ultimately reborn, after being given the seemingly life-saving advice to go somewhere and wait until he does something “for nobody but yourself.”

Fittingly, the person who gives Piers this advice is Rhodora. At its most cynical, Velvet Buzzsaw is also most unimaginative in its critique of the art world. While anticipating Rhodora’s vampiricism, even in her most altruistic moment, the film posits this false utopian vision of art – that which, made “for nobody but yourself,” can never escape the Narcissus trance of “Sphere.”

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Unable to see into itself, in this sense, Velvet Buzzsaw thinly develops a narrative of causation where there is no need for one. As Morf begins to research Dease’s past, the film re-directs itself as an unreflexive foray into white paranoiac masculinity, telegraphed from the seventies. While hysterical, Morf is nevertheless the film’s voice of reason. Unlike Josephina or Rhodora, Morf eventually figures everything out, even though he is in a state of perpetual uncertainty. If this wasn’t clear enough, it’s heavily underscored when Morf gets his vision checked – out of anxiety that he is seeing things – only to learn that his eyesight has actually improved.

While Morf takes on the qualities of the persecuted, rational subject, Dease becomes both spiritualized and pathologized. Rather than as capital — the black hole the film orbits around — Morf comes to understand the conspiracy as finite, and individuated. The murderous entity is slowly rendered a man with a past, a dangerous genius. Eventually, it would seem, Dease is imagined as an exception, not an encryption.

Following this turn to conspiracy — the “degraded figure of the total logic of late capital,” as Fredric Jameson unforgettably remarks — Velvet Buzzsaw loses its grip on the critique it might have otherwise generated. [5] The film concludes as a revenge fantasy of sorts, steadily turning the bourgeois art world of Los Angeles into a satirical blood bath. The revenge fantasy comes full circle when Morf is eventually murdered by Hoboman. From within, we watch this world, a force of gentrification and dispossession, destroy itself.

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Nowhere is the film’s revenge fantasy more clear — and clearly problematic — than when Josephina is murdered. The only woman of color in the foreground of this ensemble, Josephina is absorbed into the all-white rooms of the film throughout. Yet by the end, her body is taken over by a rainbow of colors, creeping from graffiti-covered canvases hanging in the walls of an empty gallery space, presumably the most recent installment of neighborhood gentrification by the Los Angeles art world. Her death-by-artwashing epitomizes this process of community disenfranchisement that “functions by ignoring the social practices [of] women of color,” as Magally Miranda and Kyle Lane-McKinley have written of the crisis point of the Boyle Heights neighborhood. [6]

At the same time, the revenge narrative forecloses the ambiguities and horrors of the unseeable entity at its center. Art, the film insists, is what we find Piers redemptively enraptured in, dragging a stick in the sand outside Rhodora’s private beach house, as if it were the edge of this hellish world and not the thick of it.

As much as it despises the world of “money,” Velvet Buzzsaw is ultimately confused about capitalism, the unseeable horror of its absent center. Rather than the commodity form, it is a moralistic imaginary of purity and evil that haunts and reanimates art in the film. Like Rhodora from her punk past, the narrative painfully drifts from its initial antagonism, and comes to imagine a supernatural entity through which to reform art – to distill “a connection to the world in its purest form,” rather than kill off this notion along with everything else.

 

Works Cited

dir. Dan Gilroy, Velvet Buzzsaw, Netflix, 2019

[1] Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. London: Methuen, 1964.

[2] Daniel Spaulding, “A Clarification on Art and Value,” Mute, 28 May 2015

[3] Sarah Brouillette, “On Art and ‘Real Subsumption’,” Mediations: A Journal of the Marxist Literary Group, Volume 29 No 6, 2016

[4] Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Chapter X

[5] Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” Nelson, C./Grossberg, L. [ed]. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture University of Illinois Press, 358

[6] Magally Miranda and Kyle Lane-McKinley, “Artwashing, or, Between Social Practice and Social Reproduction,” A Blade of Grass, February 1, 2017

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