Velvet Buzzsaw: Putting the Art in Arthouse Horror

I saw Velvet Buzzsaw, Netflix film about haunted paintings and outsider art for a few reasons, foremost among them the fact that my forthcoming novel,A SPECTRAL HUE mines similar territory and shares some tropes.*

The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette and Rene Russo as dealers and critics in the contemporary art world. It starts out as a roman a clef/satire of that scene. Gyllenhaal plays a critic (loosely modeled on Jerry Saltz). Russo is an ex-punk rocker turned arts dealer, a nod to Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Collette plays a cutthroat curator. There’s no small element of camp in the performances and writing of these characters, as they pretentiously prattle on about the arts on display, some of which is shown in the film. (Which includes incomprehensible abstract art, and, most notably, a horrific robotic homeless person).

Russo’s put-upon underling (and Gyllenhaal’s secret affair), played by Zawe Ashton, sets the plot in motion when she discovers a cache of disturbing paintings left by her deceased reclusive neighbor. The discovery of the paintings resembles the discovery of Henry Darger’s work. (Darger’s epic novel and collage-based paintings were found after his death by his landlords). Vetril Dease, the artist, wanted his canvases destroyed, but the culture vultures ignore the directive and a feeding frenzy starts, as the dealers, curators and critics rush to promote the work as the Next Hot Thing.

Henry Darger piece

That’s when the supernatural element comes into play, and Velvet Buzzsaw turns into a moralistic slasher film. The death sequences are inventive, but the actual haunting—its rules and mechanisms—are not explored. There’s an under-developed subplot about Dease’s mental instability and possible murderous activities. All of that takes the backseat to the stylish comeuppances. 

As a ghost/horror story, the movie didn’t work for me. As an over the top jeremiad against the contemporary art scene, the message is muddled. For all that, I’m glad that it was made and the performances were entertaining if a little too cartoonish.

*A SPECTRAL HUE features an art critic and haunted  outsider art work, but goes in a completely different direction and mood. The Outsider art in the novel is partial inspired by the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend.

The Desolation of Hill House

First, some good things about Netflix’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL. I think that it was well-acted, particularly the matriarch Olivia (Carla Gugnino). I liked that they explored and expanded upon Theodora’s sexuality. The subtext, of dysfunctional relationships and mental illness, was spot on. However, I ultimately thought it was disrespectful to the source material.
HHH
The title raised certain expectations. Imagine if I wrote a tv series called WUTHERING HEIGHTS and it was about a modern couple dealing with infertility issues. And Cathy was a frustrated novelist writing a cheap romance novel called “Wuthering Heights.”  And Emily herself was a character, who was a New Age doula. It would make as much sense as this adaptation. The heart of the novel is about Otherness. This was just a family drama with some supernatural elements that used the architecture of the novel–characters named Luke, Eleanor, Hugh and Theodora, a haunted mansion–and ignored the theme and mood.
I especially depised the portrayal of the writer, Stephen. He was supposed to be a hack writer who mined family trauma for filthy lucre. That’s not how writing—especially successful writing—works. If anything, Stephen should have been the one who believed in the ghosts, and the drug addict brother Luke should have been the one who was in denial. To write, you have to believe in that your words and your paper people are real.   Finally, making one of the most chilling paragraphs ever written the start of the hack writer’s exploitative Ghost Adventures-styled book was a low point. (Side Bar: There was a character named Shirley; why couldn’t she have been the stand-in for Ms. Jackson?)
Finally, the nature of the haunting was wrong.  The harried mother trope, at the center of the show, is played out, and subverts the meaning of the original novel, which centered non-traditional female characters (the misfit Eleanor, the bisexual artist Theodora).
If you’re going to tell a different story, why have the baggage of a well-known, classic novel? I actually think the series would have worked better with a separate title. (And if they got rid of that ridiculous writer subplot; Jackson was one of the best writers and to have a shout-out to her as bad writer was a terrible idea). The HILL HOUSE reminds me of how bad the LeGuin/Earthsea adaptations were—they took the plot and some of the ideas, and left behind the atmosphere and subtext.