With apologies to Mr Burns: I don’t know much about art, but I know what hates me…
Netflix’s new horror, Velvet Buzzsaw, is not necessarily a good movie – but there is at least a great half an hour in there, with pizzazz and ideas and a cast to kill for.
It’s the story of a wannabe gallery curator who stumbles over a trove of art by an unknown dead man… art that is undeniably accomplished and surprising, certainly the wannabe’s gateway into the rarefied world of deals and critics and success and glamour, but also -naturally- haunted by the supernatural violence of its dead creator. Heads roll. So do eyes. It’s like The Picture of Dorian Gray, if instead of ageing and decaying the portrait satisfied itself with kicking us in the groin.
The cast provide the glamour: Jake Gyllenhaal, sure sure, but look – there’s Daveed Diggs from Hamilton, he’s ace, and isn’t that Toni Collette? and good grief, John Malkovich and oh my God: Rene Russo! Where the Hell has she been?
So much of the film works that you’re pleased that you watched it. If nothing, absolutely nothing else the final scene is a wonderful punchline that catches you by surprise and tops off the story perfectly. I’m going to spoil that final punchline in my final paragraph… fair warning. And Rene Russo is so good that you wish for a series entirely about her historied and gaudy punk rock star turned art gallery owner and ne’er drink well. Dank violence is lit so brightly that you think you’re watching a sitcom, and even though it never goes as far as you would prefer, it still sends postcards from the places you would like to spend a dirty weekend.
Part of the problem, I think, is that it stokes the fears with which you are already familiar… what if the pictures on your walls could watch you back, and didn’t like you? What if all that bollocks they came out with when you were a child -that some art wasn’t good for you- was actually true? Or what if the more you loved art, the less you were able to love real people?
Of course the film knows that you’re fascinated by these ideas… the people who made the film were freaked by exactly the same things, back when they were you.
Back when I was me, it was Barton Fink – throughout the film, Barton’s neighbour has been John Goodman the over-friendly, sweaty and foolish friend in the next room, and then suddenly the policeman shows Barton that photo of him as a raging and heaving, sociopathic serial killer. It’s a sudden horrifying image. And Les Diaboliques, with the school photo haunted by something peculiar in the window in the background. Why doesn’t anyone else scream in horror when they look at the picture – can’t they see how very much it loathes us? It’s the white noise phenomenon – there is something going on that you can’t appreciate, that you only notice when you replay the tape or look back at the picture for the sixth time… but this is worse because there’s a hand behind it, and the only reason that hand is not gripping a knife is because it’s already holding a paint brush.
Christ, it was there in Ghostbusters 2 – that painting is screaming at you in filthy hatred, you just can’t hear it because it’s painted in oils, not profanities.
Thinking about it all, I remembered M R James’ story The Mezzotint…
Williams had not noticed it before…
It’s the story of the scholar who buys an old print of a mundane country house by night. Except that the next time he looks at the print, it is slightly changed – isn’t that a figure in the bottom left hand corner? And then the next time he looks…
It’s a terrific story, over a hundred years old and still chillingly effective. It has a horrible logic, ratcheting tension and an inevitable cruel resolution: in their wonderful anthology of comic book adaptations, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Leah Moore and John Reppion worked with Fouad Mezher (https://fouadmezher.com/ – that’s his art at the top of this piece: he describes the process of putting together his work, which is stark but full of recognisable character in this illuminating blog – http://fouadmezher.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-mezzotint.html) to create a fantastic retelling of the story, where the repeated image of the mezzotint grows crueller and more inevitable each time the scholars return to it.
Art doesn’t have to be real, but perhaps the best art is nonetheless true – and in these stories those pieces of art intuit something unsettling and threatening in the world that we miss, lodged as we are in the disappointingly probable.
If you think about it, perhaps the best example of this very old story is Frankenstein… the good doctor may have been working with body parts and galvanism instead of oils and pastels, but it’s the same thing in the end: he creates a work of art, wonderful and original and full of life, and it destroys him. That’ll teach you not to pay attention to Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author.
Frankenstein places its classical forebear as Prometheus, of course, but it also steals a little from the legend of Pygmalion – the king who falls in love with a statue who comes to life… That’s a story that’s been bouncing around for a while… that creature you love, where does it come from, originally? Is it natural? Did you create it? Or are you the monster, built by someone else as their obscure object of desire? Did someone else create the statue, to trap you? Is the thing you love ever real, or just the veil you place over a stranger? I know you’ve become accustomed to her face, but aren’t there laws these days about grooming?
Maybe one of the best retelling of the Pygmalion story isn’t My Fair Lady though… Maybe there’s another version that has done more to inspire a fearful relationship with art and appetite… in Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs, young Severin falls in love with Wanda – beautiful, icy and remote Wanda, his Venus in Furs. He constantly mistakes her for a statue in his dreams: her hair still seems of marble, he observes… and her eyes are cold like stone. She wants to love him, offers him a year with her, to see if their relationship could become a marriage, but he would prefer her to be his mistress forever, than just possibly his wife for a while. He insists she prepare a contract, binding him to her as her slave, and he turns her into something quite different than she was originally. Isn’t that just like an artist?
Of course, his work of art gets away from him and it doesn’t turn out the way he hoped. That’s what makes it a fetish – he imbues someone with expectations that are beyond him and they become a power that exceeds and dominates him. Sacher-Masoch is clever enough to tell the ur-masochistic story with the proper balance between what he wants and what he gets…
Sacher-Masoch is well known to us today, although his novels are not taught in schools and he has been dead for a century, because he gave his name to a perversion. Can any of you say the same?
The Marquis de Sade can, of course.
So, Sade and Sacher-Masoch each wrote novels that turned over their feelings and desires, and it turned out that there weren’t just audiences waiting for them, there were clinical diagnoses. Freud supposed a sadomasochistic personality who came together in the crotch of these two perspectives, but perhaps more interesting is Gilles Deleuze’s essay Coldness and Cruelty, which looks at sadism and masochism as two completely different perspectives… both with the appropriate degree of irony and rebellion… I like this: these two weren’t patients on a couch, complaining about what ailed them… they were artists gaudily writing large the passions that drove them. Sade is the superego who amputated his own ego and becomes able to punish it forever for his eternal satisfaction, fastidiously exploring the tortures he inflicts with fractal precision, while Sacher-Masoch is creating an ego that can perfectly externalise its ideal and suffer its violence as the only way to suborn the law and have his cream and have it whip him too…
So the question is – how many people read these books and were convinced?
There’s something Cronenbergian about art birthing a disease… a viral idea, a glamorous worm that burrows deep and changes behaviour, reshaping the flesh in the image of its desire… Something like the Stendhal Syndrome, where we are turned mad by exposure to too much wonderful art.
Stendhal Syndrome is a thing – Marie-Henri Beyle, who wrote under the name Stendhal described his experiences of an 1817 visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence:
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if only I could forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call “nerves”. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling…
The rationalisation to oppose this idea of infection by art, of course, is that these aspects of our nature were always in orbit, and that novels like Sade’s Justine and Masoch’s Venus In Furs just popularised what was already in our unconscious… but maybe that’s just us putting the tart before the hearse.
How are these viruses spread?
Well, doctor, George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead is justly famous as the sixties horror film of the civil rights movement – the world ends in an orgy of cannibalistic Armageddon and the powers that be still find a way to shoot the black man instead of the flesh-eating zombie, after all, but arguably one of the reasons for the movie’s ubiquity and success lies in the fact that Romero had the worst lawyers… The movie wasn’t properly copyrighted, which has meant that in the fifty years since this amazing and fascinating, this thrillingly original and ferociously intelligent movie has been made, just about anyone has been able to steal their own version, their own edition or homage. Romero famously invented the modern zombie – he came up with the idea of a walking corpse driven to consume the living until its brain is destroyed or it is burnt to ashes, spreading its infection to the living through its bite, but he didn’t own that idea, it got away from him…
As a result, anyone has been able to produce their own zombie story and even now we are living through our own zombie plague: a more appropriate title might have been Half-Century of the Living Dead. Would these fiends be quite so quotidian if Romero had managed to hold on to ownership, or would copyright and licensing fees have thwarted and inoculated us against infection? We’ll never know, of course, but again there is the sense that there was something particular to the art that made it communicable – something in the story, something in the performance… even something in the contract.
I think we try and put the things that scare us in a frame, to keep them still but also so that other people can admire them, and that then we act all surprised when they try and escape and infect the people who see them.
Did you ever read House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski? It’s a novel, about a tattoo artist called Johnny Truant who finds an unpublished manuscript written by a blind writer called Zampano about a documentary he could never have actually seen about a house, recorded by a photojournalist called Will Navidson. In the documentary, Navidson, his wife and two small children have just moved into their new home. Unlike Zampano, who is dead, and Johnny, who is a lonely drug addict with no prospects, Navidson’s life is successful and glamorous. Except this one single wall in his new house is a quarter of an inch longer on the inside than it is on the outside of his house. Something is betraying Will, and it is infinitely larger than him. The novel quickly slips and trips into something quite wonderful and strange, but the basic idea is what snags you – the house is bigger on the inside, and shards of its impossible dimensions live on and then grow in unexpected directions – through Zampano, through Johnny, through us. It’s a haunted house story, isn’t it, but also – like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – it’s about what lives in us that makes us susceptible to haunted house stories. The story of the house reminds Johnny of the letters his mother wrote from the mental hospital where she was institutionalised until she died, and the first time I read the book I was living in a bedsit in the middle of London, and at midnight the concrete corridors creaked, as if they were growing when no one was looking.
There is a core scene in House of Leaves where a character describes a five and a half minute film they watched of a camcorder trip through a house that, in one take, turns out to be utterly impossible. Danielewski describes the film so perfectly that you know that you’ve seen this film yourself, and that you’ve also frowned, wound back the film and watched it again, the hairs on your arms prickling with post-Euclidean anxiety. I’ve looked for it on YouTube, but haven’t found exactly the right version yet. There’s something close about the Penrose Steps, though, at the Rochester Institute of Technology…
Even better, though, was that Danielewski’s sister, Anne, also known as Poe, wrote and performed an album called Haunted, which directly tied to her brother’s work while also taking it off into new rooms. Her song Five and a half minute hallway lives in exactly the same world, of course, and Hey pretty is one of Johnny Truant’s terrifying sex fantasies, but the whole album is actually about her real-life grief at the death of her father – it’s a haunted house with at least two stories, two horrors, at once.
Because when it’s midnight bleak and you’re bone alone, it isn’t the living Minotaur you fear to meet in your home…
It looked like the memory you have of your dead mother, seen from your perspective as a child.
But her mouth was full of knives.
The cosmic scale of the horror in House of Leaves reminds me of H P Lovecraft. All those unnaturally unfolding angles, all those unfathomable bleak depths and unforgiving associations. A lot has been written about how Lovecraft never actually described his creatures, his abysmal and epic gods, but instead couched them in coy, contradictory reflections… that just kept them vibrant and relevant, as far as I can tell. It isn’t what it resembles that terrifies you, it’s the staggering gulf between what you can recognise and what it actually is that paralyses, before you can even begin to appreciate the depth of the thing.
Moses saw Heaven, but was not allowed to enter it. Wouldn’t that just drive you mad? That’s the scale Lovecraft works on, and it frames the impossible in such terms that it seems… not plausible, but recognisable. Like Danielewski’s endless corridors it is unfamiliar, but it echoes. We’ve all imagined the unimaginable… a bottomless horror, a haunted house that felt like your school at midnight, populated by angry monkeys armed with broken chisels.. was it good for you?
But it isn’t Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University I want to end with, it’s the University of Utah. Professor Jan Harold Brunvand spent his career exploring and documenting American folklore from there, and part of that work involved popularising the idea of the urban legend. These days these are generally understood as those creepypasta tales of hideous horror, dolled out in fifty-word stories, but Brunvand’s understanding of the urban legend is a lot more illuminating that that.
The idea is that the story isn’t true, but that it is told as if it were true. “This didn’t happen to me, but it happened to the friend of a friend of mine…” Stories too good to be true, which becomes the reason why we want to believe them.
Or, the reason why we are afraid not to believe them.
Right now, news of the Momo Challenge is circulating. This is the story that there is a computer game out there, aimed at children, which incites those children to self-harm and take risks with their and their friends’ safety. Numerous articles and blogposts have been written and discussed, raising our awareness of this very real and very immediate threat to our children.
Except that apparently none of this is true, and there have been no documented instances of children being harmed or encouraged to harm themselves by anything like this.
Something fictional has made the leap into the real world, with the desire to stoke our prejudices, make us afraid and – perhaps – simply to become viral. Stories that want to be told, that want to be real and believed. Don’t forget to subscribe.
Professor Brunvand has dozens of stories like this. The one that I remember the clearest was Homey the Clown: apparently, and this happened to the friend of a friend of mine, there’s this clown called Homey, like the character from In Living Color, and he hangs around outside schools, encouraging children to get into his van. And these kids are never seen again. This story spread across a number of towns in the early nineties, from New Jersey to Chicago, and all sorts of panic was spread, no matter how often the police insisted that no children had actually been reported missing. Brunvand points out similar stories in the eighties and earlier… way earlier, in fact – it’s basically the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, of course. It cropped up again just a couple of years ago: around Halloween in 2017 there were endless reports of maniacs dressing like clowns and luring children off with them into the woods.
I have panic attacks. I had one just today. I know that I live in a world with gravity and history and probability. I love people and I genuinely believe that I am loved by people. I know and understand just enough to know that I am one of the luckiest humans ever to be alive. But when that mood takes me, and I can still feel its echo right now as I write this, I believe -with absolute, religious certainty- that the exact opposite is true. Everything is damned. I am doomed. The people who matter to me are right to despise me for sins and weaknesses in me that they could not possibly forgive or fathom, and even if they don’t then they are themselves cursed. When I feel this way, I know that this is of course the truth, and that any pretensions of optimism or light are cruel lies.
These days I can’t go seven hours, it seems, without hearing about Fake News. That thing you believe is actually a lie. There are conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories. The people who seem to be telling the most mendacious lies themselves promulgate the idea that the people who doubt them are themselves the biggest liars of all. Websites that parrot any number of rumours or false testimony claim to be the ones most able to discern the actual truth, and have the algorithm to prove it. Political strategy is based around the imminent invention of the hitherto impossible. Plan B has become we invent unobtainium. The Penrose Steps, infinitely recursive, have become the Penrose Traps. We have always been at war with Oceania.
There is nothing new under the sun. Stories have always wanted to be told, and the most successful stories, the ones we love or revere or dread the most, are the ones that are the most convincing. In 1915, the movie The Birth of a Nation told the lie that a crusading army of citizen knights saved fledgling America from the threat of inferior bloodlines and thus a forgotten gang of bedsheet-clad idiot racist thugs were suddenly able to connive their way back into respectability for another few decades. We are very good at creating art that wants to get us.
But there’s a wonderful ending to Velvet Buzzsaw, and as promised I am going to spoil it now.
Rene Russo, the glamorous gallery owner, has come to believe that art has become infected with homicidal malice, and that it wants to reach out and murder her. Distraught, she has her home emptied of all her paintings, statues and photos… she is left quaking in the garden of her sloughed home, all her treasures exiled. Except of course that her garden is beautiful, except that her house is wonderfully designed, perched so as to take advantage of the incredible views, framed through her exceptional windows and so on and so on.
Art isn’t just the thing you buy, it’s the design you bring to your life and your environment – the filter and the frame you automatically and naturally bring with compulsive and impulsive love to the world you live in. Art is the outfit that you put on in the morning, art is the way you wear your hair, art is the theme you hear in your head no matter what you are doing.
We may breed sexually, but I believe we pollinate artistically, and far more frequently. An urban legend is just the joke we tell our friends, the film we enjoyed last night is also the anecdote we tell about that film to the people we want to talk with today, and then the anecdote that they tell us in return. Gossip is beat poetry wrapped around modern mythology.
If art really could be infected with psychopathic violence, as Velvet Buzzsaw tells us, then we wouldn’t stand a chance, because art is everywhere. Pieces of art outnumber us, we’ve seen to that with smiles on our faces.
The best scene in Velvet Buzzsaw is the very last. John Malkovich plays an artist who has lost his inspiration. He is only in the film to raise his eyebrows sardonically and then run off to a beach house to find his mojo. He finds it under the end credits, dancing joyously on a beach, drawing swirling patterns in the sand almost as quickly as the sea washes them away.
Yes, art is carnivorous and will consume us while we think we are consuming it. It will crawl inside us and change us and then inspire us to infect our favourite people with it. But we’re going to create it anyway, because this is a world made for making art – whether it’s a joke that makes us laugh or a movie we would take our children to or a sexual desire we can only express in metaphor under a pseudonym…
We just have to respect it, and maybe not take it too seriously, and make sure we feed it a balanced diet.