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Will the upcoming Warhol biopic be another casualty of art films' tendency to alienate audiences?

The artist's life story will soon be a minor motion picture, but cinema-goers could be disenchanted with such dramatisations

Four years ago an enterprising film producer arrived in Hollywood, having just acquired the film rights to a book on the life of Andy Warhol. The story seemed to have everything to meet the commercial demands of Hollywood. There was a rags to riches tale about the son of immigrants who went to parties with the rich and famous, a recognisable name, and even a dead body. But in his first meeting with a studio executive, the young would-be producer met with incredulity. “Who wants to watch a movie about a queer who painted a soupcan?” the executive demanded.

Andy Warhol not commercial enough? Today, however, things may be changing—not only is the Warhol story going to be made into a film and shown on television, but half a dozen projects about modern or contemporary artists are now either being made or planned.

Arne Glimcher, owner of the important Pace Gallery, has just made his directorial debut with “The Mambo Kings”, an $18 million adaptation of the novel by the Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos—an extravaganza set in a 1950s New York of Latin supper clubs and parties. Julian Schnabel, whose work shows in Glimcher’s gallery, has written a screenplay based on the life of the late graffiti artist and Warhol protégé, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Robert Longo, with several music videos under his belt, is looking for feature films to direct. Another would-be director is the painter David Salle.

Why the migration from SoHo to Southern California? Cynics will automatically suggest that with the market at a low point, the art celebrities of the 1980s will naturally gravitate to the obvious locus of celebrity: Tinseltown. Artists and art businessmen bored with the ease of success in the previous decade might be coming West in search of a greater “challenge”, filmmaking. Also, cash-bloated film and television tycoons formed one important group of new collectors of contemporary art in the Eighties, and since the entertainment business is often the last industry to feel the pinch of a national economic recession, artists may also be retreating to the comfort of their remaining sure sources of income.

Needless to say, Hollywood doesn’t give away presents without asking for something in return. If an artist or dealer gets a “development deal” to prepare projects, the studio executive/collector paying his bills is likely to have special access to the artist’s future works. A Vogue writer recently called Glimcher the “personal shopper” for the agent Michael Ovitz, a collector and head of CAA (Creative Artists Associates). Besides, in a place of militant social-climbing, it doesn’t hurt to be seen poolside with recognisable New York artists.

Still, getting ahead in the movie business may turn out to be harder than selling works by the hundreds in the boom market of the late 1980s. Writing and directing films are skills acquired over time, time invested by few of these artists and dealers. Also, their efforts are invariably seen as vanity projects. That seems to be the general consensus on Arne Glimcher’s “Mambo Kings”, a film with all the pretention and incompetence of a self-confident novice. One critic simply warned Glimcher: “Don’t close the gallery yet”. Glimcher’s power however ensures a preemptive silence from detractors within the art world. “Even if they think it’s a piece of trash”, said one dealer who begged not to be identified, “they’ll all be too afraid to say it”.

The movie business has turned a bit more reticent about the art world since Glimcher’s folly. “The money people will have learned their lesson after the Arne Glimcher flop”, said a journalist now working on a script about another art world story. “Glimcher killed the market for art people to direct”.

One artist who seems not to believe that is Julian Schnabel, screenwriter of the Basquiat-inspired scenario entitled “Build a fort, set it on fire”. Schnabel originally intended to collaborate on the film with the Polish director Lech Majewski, who is said to have interviewed around one hundred Basquiat acquaintances and written the screenplay’s first draft. Now, after at least two more rewrites and little interest from European or American sponsors, a new incarnation of the script is promised, this time with Schnabel proposed as the screenwriter and director. “Another ego trip”, comments a Hollywood insider. “He should just go back and learn to draw”.

Still, there may be more working against that film than Schnabel’s will to direct it. The story, which producer Keith Addis describes as “impressionist and authentic”, is opposed by Basquiat’s father, who administers Basquiat’s estate. Basquiat père was shocked at the depiction of his son’s drug addiction in press accounts of the artist’s death, and the elder Basquiat’s lawyer says the estate may sue to stop the film, invoking laws in at least thirteen American states that enable an estate to stop the showing of a film because of objections to the exploitation of a physical likeness on the screen. Gerard Basquiat has successfully kept a Channel 4 documentary about his son from showing on American television, although the producer of the film “Shooting Stars” removed entire sections that had offended the father.

As the Basquiat project founders, others advance, notably “Warhol”, which its producer says will be financed by the huge cable firm Home Box Office. Stars under consideration for the lead include John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe.

At least two lives of Jackson Pollock are also in the works, as is another script about the collector Joseph Duveen. The journalist Robert Katz had been trying to interest producers in a film adaptation of his extensive account last year in Esquire magazine of the battle between Willem de Kooning and his daughter. Katz lost interest when producers insisted that David Salle be the film’s director. The journalist is currently writing a screen adaptation of his recent book Naked by the Window, an exclusive account of the death of Ana Mendieta (the wife of sculptor Carl André), who fell from a New York balcony. André, accused of pushing her, was acquitted on murder charges in a controversial trial.

Tales of art martyrdom—with the deaths of Warhol, Basquiat and Mendieta following a roadmap sketched by van Gogh—seem to have elicited the greatest interest in Hollywood. After all, the most successful movie about an artist was “Lust for Life”. These also seem to be the stories enticing actors—Madonna, for example, is said to be preparing a screen version of the life of another anguished martyr: the tormented Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

“All the Vermeers in New York” by Jon Jost, a film-maker whose sensibility couldn’t be farther away from Hollywood, examines the folly of seeking to transfer one’s attraction to a work of art toward a real person. A stockbroker looking at Vermeer’s “Portrait of a Young Woman at the Met” suddenly finds himself alongside another woman whose face resembles the painting. Life, predictably, never measures up to art. The film includes one sequence where, à la Peter Greenaway, Jost composes a shot intended to reproduce a painting, in this case the multiple white hues of “Young Woman with a Water Jug”. A sub-plot in “All the Vermeers” offers the anguish of a drug-addicted artist, pressed for cash just when the market is turning downward. His dealer, played by the art dealer Gracie Mansion (who has since closed her gallery), offers a memorable observation: “I’m used to shows that sell out before the wine’s open”.

There are encouraging signs, however. One is a new documentary, by the independent filmmaker Bette Jane Cohen, about the Los Angeles architect John Lautner, a former assistant to Frank Lloyd Wright. Lautner is best known for his pioneering of biomorphic styles, either in roadside, fast-food structures or on hillsides in the western United States. “The spirit in architecture: John Lautner” could have simply been a generic portrait of a cantankerous idealist in the Wright mould. Instead, Cohen’s examination of Lautner’s career balances interviews and archival Wright footage with a close, deliberate scrutiny of space, materials and a stunning landscape on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Lautner built some of his most ambitious projects. Cohen sets a standard toward which any film about architecture should aspire. The Lautner portrait is the first in a series. Another series has just been released on videocassette—the Films of Charles and Ray Eames. The design team made more than eighty-five films, each in some way conceived as an extension of the design process. Subjects range from toy trains, to the construction of a chair, to the abstract beauty of water washing down an asphalt schoolyard. The Films of Charles and Ray Eames—now available from Pyramid Film and Video in Santa Monica, California—are sure to move beyond the small audience which already recognised them as masterpieces.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '