Velvet Buzzsaw caught more than a few viewers sideways with a trailer that promised literally killer art that would’ve made Robert W. Chambers proud. The film itself, however, proved to be minimally interested in being a surreal, showy slasher. While several of the deadly setpieces are creative—an interactive display gone bad, a hungry painting—writer/director Dan Gilroy’s script seems far more interested in assuring the viewer that the art critics and producers who make up the film’s cast deserve their deaths.
Art lashing out at critics is by no means a new concept, ranging from the basically good-humored (Siskel & Ebert getting blown up by Slappy Squirrel) to the tremendously petty (Lady in the Water). Often these portrayals amount to little more than blowing off steam. Velvet Buzzsaw, however, seems to position itself as saying something about the world of criticism.
Situating itself comfortably as satire, a term most often defined as “carte blanche in the event that a story or characters lack narrative cohesion or adherence to actual people,” Velvet Buzzsaw’s victim-monsters are critics and agents. They discuss the art they acquire and exhibit in terms of its popularity, social capital, and economic value. Their galleries and houses are eerily clean, minimalist spaces, the polar opposite of the lively bar-slash-collective to which artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs) escapes.
“It’s been in a crate since ’92,” another character remarks about a painting, driving home the exclusionary, gatekeeping nature of art distributors. At certain moments the movie begins to have a discussion about the exclusionary nature of physical art: the high price of entry, the limited amount of space in accepted galleries and industry conversations that discourage newcomers.
But its only glimpse of lower-class art enthusiasts is a brief mention of a homeless collective who sells art on the street, less character than purity object lesson; and midwestern intern Coco, who is there to bear witness to the illicit depravity of the Big City before running for home. Art is specifically viewed in its role as a commodified product throughout the film, and yet the consumer and their voice is almost wholly absent.
Instead, we are left with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf as our sole insight into the world of criticism. Starting with his name, the film takes intense and often troubling pains to assure us that he is a character with no intrinsic thoughts or ability to contribute: he mirrors other characters’ speech patterns and bodily movements; and his bisexuality is implicitly tied to his lack of firm identity, as he first complains about his boyfriend’s desire for commitment and then immediately begins an affair with art agent Josephina.
He’s a cunningly made strawman, and he allows the film to avoid engaging with deeper questions about reviewer ethics. Because the art and artists in question are already being featured in major New York galleries, with agents and six-figure sales deals, the stakes of the critic/artist power dynamic comes down to little more than the artist’s hurt feelings. Moreover, despite the presence of smart phones and the mention of blogs, the film’s aesthetic feels fixed in the 1980s.
Indie artists online face an intense uphill battle when self-promoting, with the idea of having representation or major distribution a distant dream. In those cases, reviewers have to weigh the power in their hands—their commentary could indeed make the difference in an individual’s career, and it’s important to ask whether a negative review or simple silence is the more ethical choice to take. Particularly with the knowledge that own voices will overwhelmingly be passed over in favor of more normative voices, and negative critical reception from outside the community is far less likely to address a subject with the appropriate nuance.
Velvet Buzzsaw comes closest to addressing this issue when Morf writes a negative review of Josephina’s ex-boyfriend’s show, a decision that eats away at him. It’s the closest the film comes to examining an actual problem, and Morf’s character arc involves him making good by using his platform to publish an investigative report on the murderous art being spread around—even though it will tank his career.
It’s the moment at which the film is at its most potent, recognizing that negative coverage can serve an important purpose. But the film can’t resist having its last dig, as Morf is murdered by a panned sculpture come to life—growling “you can’t be saved” before snapping his neck. Speaking truth to power does not outweigh the sins of causing a minor career setback, it seems (if it is more, we’re never given an indication).
That “truth to power” element also butts awkwardly against the film’s gender politics. Criticism is a useful—and often the only—tool for marginalized voices to speak up about mass-distributed art that is harmful or exclusionary, but the world of Velvet Buzzsaw has only Morf. In fact, none of the film’s women are artists or critics. They are universally agents and curators, middlemen without the capacity to truly understand the supernatural depth of the art they handle. Even Morf is granted a fevered understanding of the curse at work before his demise, but the film’s women by and large die oblivious and screaming.
This is not a story equipped to discuss the fact that the majority of reviewers at highly circulated publications are cis, straight, white, and male, often meaning they review works for wholly different audiences and lived experiences; nor the extra intensity of hate mail and slurs faced by marginalized critics who attempt to discuss mainstream works in ways that acknowledge their biases and exclusions; it has not even considered the reverse power dynamic powerful creators can and have exercised by harnessing harassment against critical voices with much smaller platforms.
If Velvet Buzzsaw has conceived of these issues at all, beyond setting up its rhetorical spring-trap to imply any critic of the work is themselves a Morf-like cipher, I would be surprised. Instead, it is comfortable to snuggle down in the realm of complaints made by very successful artists who perceive works of criticism as little more than needling attempts to bring down greatness rather than existing as part of a larger discussion about art, consumption, and culture.