Film

When SoHo Met Hollywood: Revisiting ’90s Films by ’80s Art Stars

On the directing careers of Schnabel, Salle, Sherman, and Longo

(From left) Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, and Dennis Hopper starring in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film, Basquiat. COURTESY MIRAMAX

(From left) Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, and Dennis Hopper starring in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film, Basquiat.

COURTESY MIRAMAX

David Salle begins his Artforum review of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) by comparing the film’s director—Salle’s contemporary, Julian Schnabel—to Orson Welles. Salle, writing shortly after the film’s release, declares Schnabel, “an American painter working in France,” the first to “make good” on Welles’s experiments with techniques that “heighten audience awareness of the special relationship between the teller and the tale that is fundamental to movies.” In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Salle’s buddy Schnabel “successfully fuses an aesthetic descended from Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, on the one hand, and Mikhail Kalatozov and Andrei Tarkovsky, on the other, with a satisfying narrative story.”

At the dawn of the 1980s Schnabel and Salle, with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eric Fischl, and other young artists represented by the Mary Boone Gallery, “made a big echo,” as Salle puts it, “at least along West Broadway.” Boone’s incubator of Neo-Expressionism capitalized on a resurgent interest in the purchasable objet d’art following the conceptual 1970s and a favorable economic climate, giving birth to the first contemporary art market boom. Though the excesses of Reagan’s decade trickled fame and fortune down upon the heads of Schnabel, Salle, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and others, by the mid-1990s Basquiat was dead, the market had crashed, and Salle was already describing himself to Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker as “someone who is no longer current … irrelevant after having been relevant.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood cynicism was failing to attract audiences. In the early 1990s the blockbuster of the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg model that had bankrolled Hollywood for a decade was facing a momentary crisis, while independent films from directors such as David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and Kevin Smith were, surprisingly, filling seats. This resulted in an indie boom not unlike the art market boom of the 1980s, the apex of which was the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994—the same year that Salle told Malcolm he was “irrelevant.”

The brief directing careers in the 1990s of the core group of art stars from the ’80s—Longo, Salle, Schnabel, and Sherman—was a matter of both artistic restlessness and the revitalization of lagging careers in a different, but likeminded industry. (Sherman, it must be noted, avoided the critical backlash that had briefly deflated her male peers, and was at the top of her game when she made her only narrative movie.) Salle was first out of the gate. In 1995, with the financial backing of Martin Scorsese, he directed his first and last feature film. Tellingly, Search and Destroy, an adaptation of the Howard Korder play of the same name, is about a has-been who doesn’t know anything about movies trying to make a movie. His object is money, not art.

Martin Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne) is a down-on-his-luck business type obsessed with the quasi-Nietzschean philosophy of a television self-help guru, Dr. Luther Waxling (Dennis Hopper). After an accountant (Scorsese) informs Martin that he owes the state of Florida $147,956, Martin hatches a scheme to make a film adaptation of Waxling’s novel Daniel Strong. Martin finds a potential backer in Kim Ulander (Christopher Walken), another Waxling acolyte, who describes himself as a “market analyst based in New York,” but might actually be a cocaine dealer.

Martin steals the heart of Waxling’s secretary, Marie (Illeana Douglas), who also happens to be a screenwriter at work on a horror script. In a double-exposed montage reminiscent of the collage aesthetic of Salle’s paintings, Martin and Marie run away to New York, where their eccentric criminal exploits arrive at Hollywood’s favorite destination: murder. In the final moments of Search and Destroy the audience sees a clip from Dead World, the film-within-the-film, written and directed by Marie and produced by Martin. Impressed, Waxling sells Martin the rights to Daniel Strong—but not without a warning: “The intellectuals hated it…it’s basically an adventure story.”

The same could be said of Salle’s film, whose only intellectual interest resides in Salle’s role as a Hollywood dilettante directing a movie about a Hollywood dilettante. While one can read Salle’s protagonist as a portrait of the artist, he is also the object of Salle’s critique: “That is a fantastic painting,” Martin says of Alex Katz’s Roof (1989), which adorns the wall of Kim’s office. But the audience knows that Martin knows nothing of art. He and Kim are phonies, wannabe gangsters: a sly reference, perhaps, to what the critic Robert Hughes called “the yuppie market,” which bought up Salle and his friends’ paintings in the 1980s. (This character would be explored further in the faux-murderous Patrick Bateman, as played by Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, 2000, upon whose walls hang Longo’s “Men in the Cities.”) When, at the end of Salle’s film, Martin acknowledges that the movie he produced is nobody’s “cup of tea” and Marie is already at work on the sequel, it is as much an indictment of the whims of the art market as it is a critique of Hollywood’s bottom line.

Carol Kane starring as Dorine Douglas in Cindy Sherman’s 1997 film, Office Killer.COURTESY MIRAMAX

Carol Kane starring as Dorine Douglas in Cindy Sherman’s 1997 film, Office Killer.

COURTESY MIRAMAX

Though backed by Hollywood royalty, Search and Destroy was a truly independent project, distributed by October Films. Sherman’s Office Killer (1997) and Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), on the other hand, were Miramax productions. None of these films did terribly well at the box office, but they were all made with relatively small budgets—in Schnabel’s case, self-financed, using his paintings as collateral.

Longo’s contribution to American cinema, however, stands out as a cautionary tale of Hollywood decadence. His leap to the medium of film was less radical than his contemporaries’: by the late 1980s he was directing music videos for the likes of New Order, R.E.M., and Megadeth, pioneering the overdetermined symbolism that would be MTV’s calling card throughout the 1990s. Roger Ebert describes Longo’s feature debut, Johnny Mnemonic (1995), as “one of the great goofy gestures of recent cinema, a movie that doesn’t deserve one nanosecond of serious analysis but has a kind of idiotic grandeur that makes you almost forgive it.”

The film came about when Longo, a cyberpunk fan, contacted William Gibson about collaborating on an adaptation of Gibson’s 1981 short story of the same name. Longo’s idea was to make “an arty 1½-million-dollar movie,” as he told Wired’s Rogier van Bakel. Ultimately, Johnny Mnemonic “became a 30-million-dollar movie,” Longo said, “because we couldn’t get a million and a half.”

Though the ineffably bad performances by Keanu Reeves, as the title character, a “courier” of the future whose memory has been replaced with an 80-gigabyte hard drive; and Ice-T, the face-tattooed leader of a luddite revolutionary cell, certainly contribute to Johnny Mnemonic’s many problems, the blame should rest with Gibson’s convoluted script and Longo’s amateurish direction. The film recouped less than three-quarters of its budget in the domestic market. Neither Longo nor Gibson would go on to make another film.

Like Longo’s film, Sherman’s Office Killer failed financially, grossing less than $40,000. As the title suggests, Office Killer follows a painfully awkward and underappreciated copy editor, Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane), as she murders nearly all of her coworkers at the magazine Constant Consumer, including several reporters (David Thornton, Jeanne Tripplehorn), an IT guy (Michael Imperioli), and the editor-in-chief, an Arianna Huffington caricature (Barbara Sukowa, Longo’s wife). Only Molly Ringwald’s character, a low-level office worker, manages to survive. (The film had the opposite effect on Ringwald’s career: her next two movies were made for television.)

Dorine does not simply murder her coworkers. She collects the corpses in the basement of her mother’s house, where she dresses them up, poses them, and engages them in fantastical role play—not unlike what Sherman does in her photographic work. As Roberta Smith noted in the New York Times, Office Killer was released in conjunction with Sherman’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1997, and the movie itself “is almost a Sherman retrospective.” The noirish mood of the film evokes “Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980”—the work that made Sherman famous, and which was purchased by MoMA in the same year that Office Killer was released.

Even Office Killer’s gore is beautiful, bringing to mind Sherman’s “Untitled Horrors” series and reminding the viewer of her indebtedness to cinema. That the film is skillfully shot and its script, with dialogue by Todd Haynes, consistently clever is less significant than the fact that Office Killer seems more like an artist’s statement than a movie. While Search and Destroy can be read as Salle’s expression of dissatisfaction with the art world, Office Killer is Sherman’s playful description of her work and process. As Dorine does away with her officemates, preferring to work alone, so too does Sherman, who turned away from the collaborative art of filmmaking toward the quiet of her own studio: like Longo and Salle’s efforts, Office Killer was Sherman’s first and last attempt as a Hollywood filmmaker.

Keanu Reeves starring in the title role of Robert Longo’s 1995 film, Johnny Mnemonic.COURTESY METRO PICTURES

Keanu Reeves starring in the title role of Robert Longo’s 1995 film, Johnny Mnemonic.

COURTESY METRO PICTURES

Collaboration was a new headache for the artists who trespassed onto film sets, with their catering crews and colonies of electricians. Talking to Marina Abramovic for Interview in 2014, video artist Marco Brambilla discussed the career move he made in 2000, leaving Hollywood after having directed two features: the wildly successful blockbuster Demolition Man (1993), and the post-Clueless Alicia Silverstone vanity project, Excess Baggage (1997). In Hollywood, Brambilla told Abramovic, “it’s very collaborative. … It is hard to make something personal that you feel strongly about.” It was in experimental film that Brambilla found a medium “much more personal and relevant.”

Schnabel alone appears to see the films he’s made as the product of his own, singular vision rather than a team effort. In the catalogue for his 2010 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Schnabel told David Moos, “van Gogh wrote letters, but I don’t really have letters. I had movies. That was my form of writing.”

Though each of Schnabel’s films follows the life of an individual whose voice was once oppressed or muted completely, these subjects are always overshadowed by the persona of the artist himself. Take his first film, Basquiat. In a cast of celebrities portraying real-life figures—Jeffrey Wright as the title character, David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger, Parker Posey as Boone—Gary Oldman plays Albert Milo, one of only a few fictional characters. And yet, when Basquiat is served a spaghetti dinner in Milo’s house, the savvy viewer realizes that Milo’s house is actually Schnabel’s, as are Milo’s paintings, Milo’s children, and everything else down to the bathrobe and pajamas. It becomes clear that Milo is not, in fact, an invention, and that Basquiat is not, in fact, “really about” anyone except for Schnabel. As Wright’s Basquiat wonders at Milo’s paintings and takes an avuncular interest in Milo’s daughter, the viewer feels as though Basquiat has risen from the grave only to applaud his Dr. Frankenstein. Even the Basquiat paintings that appear in Schnabel’s film are Schnabel’s: Basquiat’s family did not extend the rights to use his paintings in the film, so Schnabel painted them himself.

All of Schnabel’s films are either adapted from memoirs (Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas’s became 2000’s Before Night Falls, French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s became The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) or focused on the life of an individual with whom Schnabel has had a close personal relationship. In addition to Basquiat, this includes Schnabel’s “best friend,” Lou Reed (the subject of his 2007 concert film, Berlin), and his former girlfriend Rula Jebreal, who wrote the screenplay for Miral (2010), a film based on her childhood in Jerusalem.

While the signatures of Salle and Longo are washed out in their films—perhaps the result of a collaborative process that buried the mark they had already made on gallery walls—Schnabel’s egotism gives his films a singular flavor. Even when they miss the mark, his films are never generic: it is impossible to forget who it is behind the camera. Orson Welles once said that “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet,” a statement that says as much about its speaker as it does its subject. Despite a weak script that avoids conflict, a lack of visual inventiveness, and poorly developed characters, Basquiat, as a first film, contains the bravado of the plate paintings that made Schnabel’s career, a brashness sorely lacking in the films of his fellow artists who found themselves lost when they had to ask someone else to help them hold the brush.

Andrew Marzoni is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 36 under the title “When SoHo Met Hollywood.”

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.


  • Issues