Dan Gilroy's new Netflix film “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a skewering of art world snobbery. Its shallow, impeccably dressed characters clamber over one another and slide knives into every available back in their pursuit of cash and status. They're wealthy, callous and self-absorbed, and it's fun to hate them as they are killed in various inventive and disgusting ways. Eat the elite.
The elite you're eating, though, are a very specific group. The rich and powerful in the real world tend to be wealthy straight white guys. But in the anti-elitist, populist art world, the powerful are frequently conflated with the marginalized and the despised. Prejudice against queer people, or women, or black people, is leveraged against billionaires — and resentment of the ruling class is hatred of billionaires is deflected onto stigmatized people. The result is that in “Velvet Buzzsaw” it's not clear whether you're supposed to hate the rich, or just supposed to hate what happens when certain people rise above their station.
In “Velvet Buzzsaw” it's not clear whether you're supposed to hate the rich, or just supposed to hate what happens when certain people rise above their station.
The movie is set in Los Angeles, where ambitious tastemaker Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is struggling to retain her front-desk position with powerful gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Josephina stumbles onto a collection of amazing paintings and drawings by her dead neighbor, Ventril Dease. The work is universally regarded as stunning, not least by Josephina's boyfriend, the influential critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal). Unfortunately, the dead Dease is not pleased to have his paintings exploited by these wealthy jerks, and he reaches — through art and from beyond the grave — to kill them, one by one.
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Dease was an outsider artist. He spent most of his life in obscurity; incarcerated in a mental institution for the murder of his abusive father. When he was finally released he worked as a janitor. finds work as a janitor. He has been exploited and ignored, like all the marginalized and destitute, and he wants his revenge.
The film brings this point home with gleefully heavy-handed symbolism in the form of an animatronic sculpture called "Hoboman." Hoboman is a robot on crutches and dressed in rags. It turns its head to accost gallery goers with spoken recorded phrases such as "Have you ever felt invisible?" or "Once I built a railroad." Art critic Morf sneers at the project with carefully clipped disdain: "No originality; no courage." The plight of the poor is derivative, sentimental and not worth the dealer's exorbitant price tag. Towards the end of the film, though, Hoboman too gets his own back. Dease's spirit inhabits the robot, which hobbles after a panicked Morf, no longer smug. It's a small, automated class revolution.
The movie targets Morf in part because he's the kind of wealthy, callous jerk who sneers at the casket design at a friend's funeral ("That's my job. I'm selective," he sniffs.) But Morf's also a target of mockery because he's effete and unmanly. He's bisexual, and also, it's suggested, a poor lover — there's a sex scene in which Josefina berates him for failing to satisfy her. He's so besotted with her, he even writes a dishonest review at her behest. He's a spineless wretch, squirming under a woman's thumb.
Morf's not the only example of the elite’s gendered decadence. The art world in “Velvet Buzzsaw” is full of weak men and strong, predatory women. Gallery handyman Bryson (Billy Magnussen) mumbles helplessly about how many famous artists he's met in a futile effort to impress women. Meanwhile, art advisor Gretchen (Toni Collette) wheels and deals with fanged ruthlessness. In her final scene she thrusts her hand deep into the circular opening of an art piece called "Sphere" while smiling lasciviously. The penetration demonstrates her phallic power — and she is hyperbolically punished for it when Dease tears off the offending limb. Women are murdered for being too manly and men for not being manly enough.
Women are murdered for being too manly and men for not being manly enough.
The film's chief villain, though, is Josefina — a young black woman who makes a career out of stealing the work of Dease, an older white man. Josefina is obsessed with money and power and uses lies and her sexual wiles to increase her influence. Dease stalks her through graffiti paint which climbs up her skin. The punishment feels like a rebuke of both her racial identity and her class mobility.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” isn't doing anything new here; depicting marginalized people as powerful elites is thoroughly derivative. 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” encouraged its viewers to sneer and jeer at black people who dared to try to obtain power and influence during Reconstruction. Zack Snyder's “300” (2006) defined evil, decadence and queerness as the Persian king Xerxes. And of course, the image of the wealthy Jewish banker is a staple of anti-Semitic imagery, from Shylock to the present day. It's not an accident that Morf, played by Jewish actor Gyllenhaal, is a recognizably nerdy Jewish stereotype.
This doesn't mean that Gilroy deliberately set out to attack queer people, career women or black people. But art has a life of its own. Prejudice and bigotry have been intertwined with populist anger for generations. Hatred of the rich is too often diverted towards other out-groups — especially those who are seen as threatening the dominance of white straight males.
Great artists, however, can sometimes overcome these invidious tropes. Jordan Peele's film “Get Out” (2017), for example, told a story about a black artist from a perspective that had not been much explored onscreen. In that film, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer, is menaced by a community of white elites who are terrifying because of their bland normality. Sadly “Velvet Buzzsaw,” doesn't have that kind of vision. It draws a picture we've seen before.