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Case Study: Velvet Buzzsaw

Case Study: Velvet Buzzsaw and “bold” movies

As I go back to previous articles, scanning and looking for ways to improve, I’ve often found a common error that I keep doing due to inexperience or lack of ability: When I don’t like a movie or find it more disappointing than fulfilling, yet I still find its core premise or execution interesting and worth experiencing, I will often call it “bold” and say something like “I didn’t like it, but you might so I don’t know give it a shot?!”. Obviously, I’m paraphrasing but alarmingly not by much, so in this article I want to quantify what I mean when I try to make that point about a movie or a game, while simultaneously giving more insight for previous reviews and figuring out a way to talk about these experiences in a more digestible and entertaining way, without providing a “non-opinion” opinion.

A good case study for this is Velvet Buzzsaw; written and directed by Dan Gilroy and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, I was immediately excited just from the sight of those names. As anyone who has any love for Nightcrawler, the knowledge that the trio of Gilroy, Gyllenhaal, and Russo were making another movie together was like music to my ears. This time, Gilroy takes a deep dive into the world of contemporary art in Los Angeles, where a recently passed painter’s work breaks into the scene with deadly consequences.

What’s interesting about Velvet Buzzsaw is how it’s structured: It’s a high-brow, artistic, meta-narrative, with lots of metaphors, themes, and ambiguous meanings, intertwined with a slasher horror aesthetic and visually impressive use of cinematography and color. Each of the three main characters the movie focuses on (an art critic with an impeccable reputation, a ruthless gallery owner who was formerly an artist herself, and her intern/wanna-be artist) are perfect vehicles for the story to thrive on, as well as for the actors. Most of the actors are great, with Jake Gyllenhaal giving his usual commitment and energy, but it’s Russo who steals the show with one of her best performances. Every character has a “sin” and through each them (their arcs, stories, and interactions with other characters), the main theme is explored through; making/selling/producing art for monetary/personal gain or glory is a lonely, spiteful, and painful road, and the only true way for the artist to survive and the art to flourish is to create art for them and their artistic expressions. A lot of the fun in movies that reference the art world is figuring out if there are any meta elements, where they are and to whom they are addressed towards, and the artist’s viewpoint on the industry and its current state; while that made for an interesting story, the standout feature of Velvet Buzzsaw is the visual look and style. Gilroy and long-time collaborator (and Award-winning) cinematographer Robert Elswit have come dangerously close to matching Nicolas Winding Refn on how beautiful they make their movies look; it’s not just the use of colors, but also creating bizarre and gorgeous-looking shots that add to the mood of the movie while also entertaining a fan who loves to look at awe-inspiring moments.    

All of the above is great, but beyond that is where Velvet Buzzsaw begins to disappoint and fails to match the high standard set. I can’t even begin to comprehend how the slasher horror elements turned out so terrible; every violent scene is not only cheap-looking and laughable, but also feel like separate parts from another movie. I get the reasoning behind them: in a movie with such a well-defined message, having the “sinners” suffer an ironic, gory death should have been satisfying, but in practice it kills the pace of the movie, gives the audience a complete whiplash and destroys any immersion or connection with the characters, in exchange for some cheap thrills that aren’t all that great anyway. Add to this, the unnecessarily complicated nature of the story, some side plots that distract and don’t add all that much to the story, and the lack of any real “momentum” for most of the movie, and what you get is a mix of really good stuff and really bad.

Which brings me to my dilemma and why I chose to use Velvet Buzzsaw as a case study: If I had to give a positive or negative verdict on this movie it would have been a negative one; there are many things to enjoy, but the things that are dislikable are more impactful and with the high bar of expectations I had going in, Velvet Buzzsaw comes up short. Even beyond that, there are so many good movies, TV-shows, games, music coming out, that anything that’s not exceptional is going to have a pretty rough time getting into your schedule; however, Velvet Buzzsaw is an interesting movie. It tries something different, there’s hard work and genuine artistry put into it, it’s intriguing in concept and execution; it is a movie that deserves a chance from interested audiences. It’s the type of weird that could become a cult classic or that movie your pretentious buddy likes and you don’t get why.

In all honesty, this article started out as something completely different: It was going to be the same dilemma, but contextualized in the form of a game where I could only suggest either Velvet Buzzsaw or Spider-man: Far from Home to watch. I wrote and re-wrote that article a few times and never felt quite right, because Spider-man was so much better as a product; it’s more fun, just as poignant and artistic with its message and theme as Velvet Buzzsaw, it also has great cinematography and direction, it even has a better Jake Gyllenhaal performance. That is why I never felt satisfied with that version of the article: It never felt appropriate to conclude with recommending Velvet Buzzsaw, because even though it is a worst movie in most regards, it is by far the more interesting of the two.

That’s not to say you should not watch Spider-man (you should see it, it’s a damn good movie), but it is to say after so many years of consuming entertainment, loving movies, watching and re-watching classics, always wanting to see something that I like and appreciate, dreaming of working in the industry, Velvet Buzzsaw is an experience I haven’t had in a while; something that leaves you unsure of how you feel about it and wanting to figure it out. I was both in love and disappointed by Velvet Buzzsaw, thinking about whether I want to recommend it to people, debating whether a second viewing is necessary before talking about it; when I walked out of the theater after Spider-man ended, me and my buddy said that it was pretty good and wanted to see the next one whereas before we had no interest. When Velvet Buzzsaw ended, I took a month and wrote three articles to figure out how I feel about it and I’m still not entirely confident; it’s one of those movies that needs to do the talking and that needs people to take a chance on it. Read the reviews, see what people think, but if you are still interested in it, you should give it a chance, because (as is explored in the movie) Velvet Buzzsaw was made to satisfy an artistic intent not for glory, reputation, or money. 

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