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You couldn’t escape the symbolism and the symmetry Thursday evening in New York at the 25th anniversary screening of Basquiat, the impressionistic 1996 film biography of the late Brooklyn-born Black artist and quintessential ‘80’s downtown figure, directed by the artist Julian Schnabel.
Newly remastered in black-and-white, it was presented as part of the Tribeca Festival with the support of longtime sponsor Chanel. As dusk began to fall in the midtown sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, a crowd of art-world figures, young actresses in the Paris fashion house’s finery and festival regulars all seemed a little surprised to be there and talking about getting their social bearings back, with the prevailing sentiment that it was great but a little weird to be in a crowd of people again, mask-less though vaccine-certified. After all, it had only been two nights before that New York governor Andrew Cuomo had said the Empire State was opened up again in a blaze of fireworks after the state had passed the 70 percent inoculation marker.
For producer Jane Rosenthal, an original founder of the festival with actor Robert De Niro, the sight of New Yorkers emerging after the pandemic couldn’t help but bring to mind the trauma that originally led to the film event’s founding in 2001. “We did the first festival after September 11, in 120 days, and the goal then was to gather, to bring people together and watch movies and be able to bring some joy and try to make a new memory,” she recalled.
Now, coming out of COVID in the 20th anniversary year of the festival, the impetus has been much the same. “We were planning this festival at the height of this pandemic, and we created this outdoor multiplex and that’s been spectacular. But the amazing thing is just the fact that we can see each other in person. Because it’s been really, really a pleasure,” Rosenthal said slowly, trying to stay composed. “There are no words. You don’t realize what can be taken away from you so quickly. It wasn’t just half of our faces, the fact that we couldn’t see people, that we were in isolation. And now here we are opening the Museum of Modern Art.”
Introducing his film before an outdoor screen with skyscrapers ringing the courtyard from above, Schnabel struck a similar theme. “It’s amazing when you realize how precious it is just to be able to go outside and get to see your friends and actually give them a hug,” he said, before turning to the matter at hand. “I think Jean-Michel will be very happy to have a show at the Museum of Modern Art. That didn’t happen yet, but we get to show a movie. I didn’t get to have a show either but I’m still young,” the 69-year-old mused, delighting his friends by adding that he and his wife Louise Kugelberg are expecting a baby. It was kind of old-home week for the artist, who has in the past contributed an original piece of art for the festival presented by Chanel over the years and has been integral to the fashion house’s partnership with Tribeca which focuses on artists supporting other artists.
“Benicio Del Toro [a star of the film] called me today — he just got into town, but he can’t be here — but it was so amazing to work with Benicio, and to be around actors,” Schnabel said, recalling the origins of his first feature film. “There aren’t a lot of directors or actors that come around to painter’s studios. I knew Jean-Michel.” Though he had first been approached by Polish director Lech Majewski who wanted to make a film about Basquiat, Schnabel said he eventually felt Majewski had no real knowledge of the subject matter: “I introduced him to Dennis Hopper who told him about Andy Warhol, and he didn’t listen to anything that Dennis had to say.”
Continued Schnabel, “I thought making movies was for other people. I didn’t have a motion picture camera. But I was the guy who actually was in the caviar shop with Jean-Michel [referring to a pivotal scene where the newly flush artist is handed a jar of caviar by the counterman and asks for the whole tin.] I was the guy who was in the basement watching him paint.”
In black and white, as Schnabel hinted, the colorful art is muted and what comes through is not only the brief tragedy of the groundbreaking artist who seemed to fit in less and less as he wrestled with fame and addiction in actor Jeffrey Wright’s moving portrayal, but also the procession of 1980s art-world denizens somewhat hauntingly played by a roster of 1990s downtown figures from when the movie was made 25 years ago, among them the late David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Hopper as art dealer Bruno Bischofberger as well as a very young and voluble Gary Oldman as a Schnabel-like composite character and the likes of Parker Posey (as gallery owner Mary Boone), Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love and Tatum O’Neal.
The festival’s Rosenthal thinks the film’s revival is particularly timely now. “It’s a time of young artists and it’s a time of new voices and it’s a time of diversity. It very much resonates with what we’ve gone through and will continue to go through until there’s some equal and fair balance,” she said. “Julian is a wonderful artist and a very articulate, specific filmmaker. You listen more to artists sometimes, whether it’s a musician or filmmaker or a piece of art. That’s what we need quite a bit of right now. We need to be able to listen.”
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